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About NiktoBarada

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    Pittsburgh, PA
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    Science, science fiction.

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    Tongue Twister

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  1. Weeks later, Caveat and Shady are sorting through his mail. "You're SURE these three tax bills are for three different taxes, right ?" Caveat asked his wife while levitating several sheets of paper in his orange aura, "It looks like I'm paying the same bill three times ! Which would be a pretty good scam, if it weren't so blatant." "Unfortunately, yes they are three different bills." she replied, "There is only so much grift the government can get away with before someone takes notice." "True - with so many marks, the odds that one will note something is off is very high." he replied, "I suppose you've noticed those two ponies trying to covertly watch the store ?" "Yes." Shady sighed glumly. "I think our TT may be in over her head at whatever she's doing now." Caveat thought for a moment. "Well, she's a very resourceful mare. If she were in trouble, she'd notice long before it was inescapable. I haven't received any mail from her lately; have you ?" Shady shook her head. "Best to assume she's safe then." he stated, "After all, she spends months at a time in the jungles of Tenochtitlan or even more remote and dangerous locales doing field research. Dealing with the perils of civilization should be a vacation, relatively speaking." Shady Dealer mused for a moment before heading for the door. "That doesn't mean we can't help her by taking some of the heat off." Meanwhile, across the street, two unicorn stallions were sitting at a bistro, trying to hide behind newspapers. "How long do we have to watch these two ?" one asked the other, "It's been weeks, and nothing of note has happened !" "That doesn't matter." the other replied, "The boss says to watch the shop, we watch the shop until we observe something of note, or we get recalled." They heard a chair being pulled beside them, and somepony sitting down at their table. It was Shady Dealer. Who flagged down a waiter and ordered a coffee with honey in it. On their tab. "We don't know who you are, but this table is private ! Buzz off !" one of the unicorns stated. "You've been watching my husband's store for almost two weeks, and you don't know who I am ? Shameful !" she replied with a smirk. The other unicorn glared at her for a moment before relenting once he accepted their cover had been blown. "What do you want Shady ?" "I'm just wondering why you're watching Caveat's shop." The unicorns had a quick discussion with each other. "Were you visited by an earth pony and a unicorn a few weeks ago, claiming to be from an antiquites fraud bureau ?" "Yes. Figured out pretty quickly they weren't real. They work for one of your rivals ?" "Yes. What did they want to know ?" "If we'd brought anything back from Tenochtitlan, and where Tongue Twister is." "What did you tell them ?" "The truth - we didn't bring anything back from that horrible vault ! And that we don't know where TT is at the moment !" "Did your daughter 'TT' find anything of note and bring it back ?" "I don't know !" Shady exclaimed, "She and some meathead were still in the vault when me and Caveat headed for home. They might've found something. Or not. I don't know." The two agents mulled it over a bit. "Have you seen those two fake antiquities assayers again ?" "No. They were rather insistent on finding TT, so I'd guess they're looking elsewhere for her." "Any idea where that might be ?" Shady sighed, weighing whether or not to trust these two. "Las Pegasus, most likely. The last I heard, she took a job out there." The two unicorn stallions conferred for a moment before getting up to leave. "You've been very helpful Shady Dealer." "Does that mean you'll stop watching the shop ?" she asked. "That would be my guess." one of the unicorns replied, "We're trying to keep tabs on criminal organizations; the fact that one was snooping around here caught our attention. If they've moved on, then we should as well."
  2. Tongue Twister winged her way through the skies near White Tail Woods, enjoying the relative peace up in the skies, away from all the quarrelling ponies. She knew there was an apocalyptic 'battle to end ALL battles !!' about to take place in the heartland of Equestria, but figured Harmony's Chosen - The Mane Six - would handle things. Again. As they always do. "Let's see - how often do we have an apocalypse anyway ?" she mused to herself, "The return of Nightmare Moon. The return of Discord, and the Changeling Invasion (Take 1). Return of the Crystal Empire and King Sombra. Tirek. The Changeling Invasion (Take 2). The Pony of Shadows. The Storm King. Cozy Glow's attempt to be the Empress of Friendship that nearly ended all Equestrian magic. And now the Terrible Trio. That's at least ten that I know of within my lifetime !" She let that sink in for a moment before shuddering. She heard an unusual sound, then she noticed something going on the the forest below her. The prelude to a magical battle between that dark grey stallion and the pale mare perhaps ? She mused about what to do about it. She wasn't too keen in getting between battling wizards (VERY bad for one's health), but with most (if not all) of the Forces of Good gathered for battle elsewhere, the rest of Equestria was wide open ! Now would be a great time for somepony to do quite a bit of crime, since no one was watching ! Or available to stop them ! "Well, I suppose I should take a closer look..." she decided as she slowly descended,"I can always pull back and get appropriate help later if the situation goes sideways." She noticed the trees were twisted - blighted with Dark Magic. And those dark crystals sprouting from the earth here and there were familiar. As was the stallion now down below.
  3. An unknowable amount of time later inside Tongue Twister's mindscape ... "How long have I been meditating ?" she asked Yin and Yang. "How are we supposed to know ?" Yin replies, "Yang and myself are but manifestations of YOUR impulses ! We only know what you know." "And you are aware that you're talking to yourself, right ?" Yang inquired of TT. "Of course !" TT replied, "There is no one else here for me to talk to ! And even if there were, they wouldn't." "True enough." the ever cheerful Yang replied with a heavy sigh, "But we have learned much. You can tell what an organization is truly like by being at its mercy, and by the way it treats the least of its members." "We've been at STAR's 'mercy' for, well, however long I've been in this cell !" TT stated, "And I'M the least of the organization's members ! And I'm treated as less than an afterthought !" She thought for a moment. "Are we ever SURE I'm a member of STAR ? Did I actually get that recruitment letter, or was that just a memory cobbled together from bits and pieces of too many adventure novels ?" Yin and Yang looked to each other. "Yes, you did get that recruitment letter." Yang stated. "And that meeting with Black Ice - aka Ice Storm ?" "Yes. That happened." Yin replied. "And that threat that memory of the meeting will be stripped from the applicant's minds if they chose not to join ?" "That also happened." Yang replied. TT mulled that over for a moment. "So, I joined an organization that I cannot resign from ? THAT'S a red flag big enough to cover all of Canterlot !" "Afraid so." Yin stated, "Unless she was only referring to the recruitment. No one ever inquired as to whether members COULD resign without having their minds scrambled." "Well, if the Higher Ups are willing to use memory erasure to ensure secrecy, it is best to assume they can use those *$%%$ memory spells any time they want, for any reason they like." TT snarled. Yin and Yang glanced to each other. "Most likely true. Better safe than sorry." "How sure are we of ANY of this ?" Tongue Twister had to ask. "As certain as a mare whose memories have been mangled many times can be." Yin stated with a half-hearted shrug. "Hmm. We'll go with standard protocol then." TT replied, "Assume my memories are valid until evidence to the contrary is presented. I know it's arbitrary, but it's the best I can do." "Why are we thinking about resigning from STAR ?" Yang asked, "I know things are slow right now, but this is the first organization that looks like it might be able to get the job done !" "Ponder with me for a moment." Yin stated as she draped an ink-black wing over Tongue Twister's back, "Can you see yourself doing this 'job' with STAR ten years from now ? Five years from now ? Even ONE year from now ?" For any creatures that could sense the Mindscape, Tongue Twister's anguished scream could be heard half way across Equestria. "I DIDN'T HITCH MY WAGON TO A STAR !" she fretted, "I HITCHED IT TO A TREE STUMP ! I - was better off before ! Better to be a nothing on MY terms than somepony else's ! My value and worth will NOT shackled to somepony ELSE'S whims !" With that, Yin and Yang blurred into swirling mists that momentarily formed the ancient symbol of balance before fusing with Tongue Twister's self-image, and she awoke from her meditative trance. The guards had taken her saddlebags from her - but they'd simply left them on a table on the other side of the room instead of locking them away elsewhere. TT put a hoof to her lips and whistled, awakening her pet rats Ace and Deuces. "Bring me the long shiny !" she called to them. They went back into the saddlebags to rummage for what she wanted - a lockpick. True, she was nowhere near as good at picking locks as her cousin Lockpick, but she didn't need to be. She wrote a quick note, and left it on the table. She'd arrived at the entrance, as was about to take off when the two unicorns that had taken her to the cell noticed her, and asked WHY she was free. "Insufficient relevance." TT stated as she flapped her wings a few times to warm up, "I'm - just not worth the effort to prosecute ! Later dudes !" They watched her fly off for a few moments before one asked "Is 'insufficient relevance' an actual legal term ?" The other unicorn shrugged. "It must be. How else could she be out ?"
  4. Scene : just outside Canterlot Community Center a few days later "So, this is where you run your after school program from ?" Shady Dealer asked Double Dealer as they walked through the doors. "Yes. I noticed that school lets out after three, but the workday ends at five, or even later." DD replied, "So some colts and fillies needed somewhere safe to be until their parents can get them." "That's - actually a good idea." Shady replied, "So, how much do you charge to watch the little ones for a few hours ?" "It's a VOLUNTEER job ! I don't charge for acts of simple decency !" Double Dealer sneered in disgust, "Honestly now Shady, why do you have to be so mercenary about everything ?" "Mercenary ?! Do you have any idea of how many good ideas I've seen fail because those in charge thought they were too pure and virtuous to even think about money ?" Shady replied tersely, "There is nothing inherently wrong, dirty or evil about minding the cashflow ! Ponies that act like there is really annoy me !" They glared at each other for a few moments before Shady broke the tension with a sigh. "Sorry. Let's table this for another day. You asked me to help, and I agreed to do so. So, you said you've got some pegasi youngsters that could use some air time ?" "Ah, yes." Double Dealer replied as they entered a very large room set up as a gymnasium with over two dozen fillies and colts playing in groups scattered about, "They should be in here somewhere. Misty Sonnet ? Autumn Heart ?" Shady tried to take it all in. "How many foals are in this program ?" "Twenty seven." DD replied between calling out those two names again, "Seventeen unicorns, eight Earth ponies and two pegasi." Shady did some quick math, factoring in insurance, room rentals, taxes, and miscellaneous expenses that little ones tend to accrue. "You must be spending over thirteen hundred bits a month on this !" "Fifteen hundred twenty two, to be exact." Double Dealer replied. "What ? How are you planning to keep this program going if you're spending that kind of money ?" "Something always comes through in the end." Shady momentarily forgot how to walk from the shock, before scowling and rolling her eyes. "Oh great - she'll happily stroll into the poor house with a smile on her face just to show off how virtuous she is !" After calling one more time, two pegasus foals arrived. The filly Misty Sonnet, with a palest pink coat, white mane and tail. Like the sky at dawn. She looked to be nearly a teenager, with a Cutie Mark of a quill in a circle made of clouds. Her little brother Autumn Heart had deep reddish orange coat, gold mane and tail. Like the sky at late sunset, and too young to have a mark yet. "So, what do I do with them DD ?" Shady inquired, "Some high altitude flying ? Playing at the park ?" "Well, yes. Those will do nicely !" Double Dealer answered, "Whatever you used to do with your filly Tongue Twister when she was much younger. Just be sure to be back here in three hours so their parents can pick them up." Meanwhile, in the Chairstallion's office of a secret criminal organization : "Ah. Agents Smash and Grab. I presume you have good news about your latest mission ?" "Yes and no." the unicorn Agent Grab replied, "We watched Caveat and Shady for a week, but they don't have anything from the site. We think their daughter might have it." The Chairstallion glared down at them. "And where is she now ?" "Her parents tried to give us the runaround, but we got her address !" Agent Smash stated, "Her last paycheck was sent to a post office box in Las Pegasus." Their boss thought for a moment. "That suggests that she lives a few miles or so away from the post office, in a secret location; an egghead like her wouldn't move halfway across Equestria unless she had somewhere to live before the move. It would be rather unusual for her to have just a PO box. Therefore, you two will go to Las Pegasus and ferret out where she is, and determine if she has the item. This is to be PURE recon; do not take any overt action unless you clear it with me first ! Understood ?" "Yes Sir !" they replied in unison before they turned to leave. Back in Canterlot, up on a cloud, Misty Sonnet was facing the breeze with her wings outspread to catch even the slightest gust and a look of pure, unadulterated joy on her face. "Don't get up here very often, do you ?" Shady asked. "No ! When we're at school we're not allowed to go above one story without Adult Pegaus Supervision !" Misty replied with a pout, "And there weren't any adult pegasi volunteers until now ! And during the weekends mom and dad take us on 'educational' trips ! And most of that stuff is on the ground ! I've never even seen much of the neighborhood from up here, and we live here ! I think that's the community center over there. And the market square over there. But what's that big circular thing over there ?" Shady looks over the edge (after telling Autumn Heart to NOT see how far that string of drool could stretch before it dripped). "Ah. That's the new buckball stadium." Autumn squeaks, then starts bouncing around. Shady looks to Misty. "He really likes playing buckball." Shady watched the little colt bounce about on the cloud for a few moments. "Autumn Heart ? Please settle down ! It's a really bad idea to bounce around on a cloud like that." "Why ?" Misty Sonnet asked, "Daddy said this is a foundation type cloud. It doesn't hold rain or snow or anything !" Shady scraped the cloud with her hoof to get a sense of what type it was. Misty was right. "Well, that's true. But if you agitate any kind of cloud enough, it might zap the closest object with a bolt of lightning." "But we're hundreds of hooves up !" Misty whined, "We're closer to him than anything else ! .... wait a minute ... !" Elsewhere in Equestria, another agency is on the move : "Ma'am ? I have the intel you requested." the unremarkable unicorn stated to his earth pony mare boss as he levitated over two very stuffed folders. "Any idea why our foes are interested in these two ?" she asked. "No solid leads as of yet ma'am." "Hmmm. Perhaps a recruitment drive ?" she replied as she read the first file. "According to this, Shady Dealer was a minor cog in the underworld's machine a few decades ago. Mathematical talent, used for bookmaking, 'creative' accounting, gambling, and money laundering through her card cheating skills in the casinos. But nothing of note since she got married and had a filly decades ago. And her husband, Caveat Emptor the curio merchant ? Multiple charges of grift, sale of property of questionable origin and dubious provenance and quality, and ... 'counterfeit tea' ? What in Equestria is that ?" "Do you recall a few years ago, when somepony leaked what Princess Celestia's favorite brand of tea was ma'am ?" She shuddered. "Yes. First there was a run on the product, then the prices went out of control for the few remaining crates. Almost had to call in the guard to deal with rioting." "Well, a few days before things went south, tea packed in boxes that closely resembled Celestia's favorite hit the market. The estimated profit margin on them was about five thousand percent." "That much ? Was it actually tea or sawdust ?" "Turned out it was about thirty percent bargain basement tea, mixed with sawdust filler ma'am." "And he wasn't arrested on any of these charges ?" "Correct. Insufficient evidence ma'am." The director mare sighed. It was always the same : 'knowing' somepony is guilty and proving it in a court of law are often two very different things. "Hmm. These two must be up to something if they're being watched by a criminal organization. But what are they up to ... ? Get a few more agents and keep an eye on Caveat Emptor and Shady Dealer. I need to know why another organization is watching them." The unicorn agent gave a quick salute and trotted away. Meanwhile, in Caveat Emptor's Discount Emporium, Caveat was haggling with a couple of unicorns over a set of commemorative plates. "Why, exactly, is 'Wonderbolts' spelled with a 'V' instead of a 'W' ?" the stallion asked. "Well, different languages pronounce letters in different ways." Caveat began, "In the Germaneic tongues, Ws are pronounced as Vs. 'Wunderbar' is written with a W, but spoken with a V, as 'vunderbar'." "Ooo ! These are imported plates then ?" the mare inquired a bit too excitedly. "Uh, sure. Let's go with that." Caveat replied a bit shiftily, "I can sell you the complete set for the low, low price of fifty bits." "Fifty bits ?!" the stallion exclaimed, "I refuse to pay over twenty !" "Well, the price is negotiable ..." Caveat replied with a glint in his eyes. A few minutes later, the unicorn couple happily walked away with the complete set of plates, paying just fifteen bits. Caveat was quite happy with the deal, given the fact that he could get TWO complete series of those knock offs for five bits. True, the paints dissolved in water and the 'fine china' was actually cheap plaster, but since the marks THOUGHT the plates were valuable, they would do everything they could to keep the plates dry and untouched ! A quick glance at the clock reminded him that it was time to close up for the day, so he used a quick spell to dim the lights three times before calling out "The shop is closing in five minutes ! Please bring any purchases to the front counter !" After a few ponies left the premises (they were merely browsing), Caveat was just about to lock the doors when a hushed cough caught his attention. He turned to find a cloaked unicorn stallion holding a dusty bell jar up with his telekinesis. "Ah, I see you found something from the Specialty Collections." Caveat stated as the customer placed the jar on the counter. Caveat levitated a cloth to clean off the bell jar in order to see just WHAT was being purchased. "Ah, the Alicorn Amulet." Caveat stated when he saw the silver medallion with ruby red eye looking to the right, "I'm not sure how that got in my inventory, but I cannot in good conscience sell it to you for any price !" The customer dropped a large coin purse very full of bits on the counter. "But what do I know ? I am but a humble curio merchant !" Caveat stated happily, "Enjoy your purchase !" Once the stallion left, Caveat locked the door, made triply sure there was nopony else in the shop, and then started to count up the day's take before putting it in the safe under the counter. "FIFTEEN HUNDRED BITS for an Alicorn Amulet !" Caveat mused to himself as he levitated the bits into the safe. And then levitated out one of seventeen identical "Alikorn Amulets." A quick polish to activate a weak form of the 'Want It, Need It' spell (to give it that expected dark aura of incredible power that it didn't actually have) and it was ready to be put back in the bell jar. After casting a minor cantrip, the cloth he used to clean the jar with instead put dust ON the jar, making it look like it hadn't been touched in years. Caveat smiled at his hoofwork. "It is little touches like this that really SELL it !" he mused to himself before chuckling at his own bad joke. Somewhere else : a pegasus stallion is reporting to his boss (agency #2) that TT hasn't returned to Las Pegasus yet. His boss (codenamed 'The Maestro' - because 'Puppet Master' sounded too blatantly evil) figures she's up to something, since she used to be the agency's best agent. "'Used to be' ? What happened ? She turn evil ?" the agent inquired. "No - WORSE ! She didn't like all the so-called 'pointless' secrecy ! Didn't see the point in it, and actually thought we should work out in the open ! How stupid is that ?!" The Maestro replied, "We can only keep Equestria safe if we are untouchable and above ALL laws !" The agent thought for a moment. "Then why is she still alive ? Wouldn't it make more sense to eliminate such a potential threat ?" The Maestro merely smirked. "To the primitive, less advanced and less experienced minds, yes. But she knows things that could be of use to us. Consider, for a moment, Cozy Glow. A mere pegasus filly nearly destroyed all magic in Equestria ! The only reason she was able to do so was because she knew exactly what to do. Knowledge is power. And Tongue Twister's ability to read nearly all languages means she has access to much knowledge. To things no one but US were meant to know. Most of which has been overlooked or forgotten by nearly everypony else. Couple that with the fact that the only pony better at social invisibility would be Wallflower Blush, and you have somepony that can go almost anywhere, learn anything, and probably not get caught ! Or even noticed ! So The Higher Ups decided years ago that Equestria is safer if *I* control what she does or does not remember. As a mere civilian, she of course lacks the morality and strength of character to not abuse the knowledge she's acquired. And I, of course, have the nigh infallible judgement and authority to decide what is best for her. And all of Equestria." "Is ripping memories out of her head safe, sir ?" the agent asked, "Memory spells are rather tricky and exacting to do properly." The Maestro thought for a moment. "I've been zapping her for years. There have been no side effects worthy of MY notice. Therefore, the spells are completely safe." "If you say so, sir." the agent replied with a sigh, "So, what are your orders ? "Make sure that we get whatever she retrieved from Tenochtitlan !"
  5. I've been essentially doing an RP with JUST my character all by herself for over a year; just needed some NPCs (her parents, etc) so she isn't talking to herself/herselves too much. So your idea of having your own characters interact with each other to investigate what they're like doesn't seem that off to me. Good way to improve the skill of writing RPs without trying to force your character into someone else's story (or worry about having your character altered to fit someone else's whims).
  6. While sitting in her cell, to pass the time Tongue Twister decided to practice those advanced meditation techniques she learned in Neighpal. Sitting on her haunches, she took a few deep, measured breaths as her wings rose, then interlaced the feathers, tenting them before her. Within moments, she was safely within her own mind. "Well, THIS is a, well, 'interesting' development." stated the ever positive Yang, "I didn't even know they had a cell to put troublemakers in." "STAR is a MILITARY organization !" the negative Yin replied with an eyeroll, "So of COURSE they'd have someplace to put her ! Even if it was a closet held shut with a chair. Which would be one humiliating oubliette." "But Yin, a closet or a cell can't be an oubliette." Yang stated, "An oubliette is a dungeon where the only entrance is a door in the ceiling." Yin sighed. "The word 'oubliette' comes from old Prench 'oubliere' - to forget. It's where they put prisoners they had no further use for. What happens if they forget she's here ?" "I'm sure the stench of my rotting corpse would alert them to the fact that I was in here. Eventually." Tongue Twister stated. Yin's left eye twitched. "I am a representation of your negativity - and you're bumming me out !" "Reality can sometimes be darker than anything you can imagine." Tongue Twister replied with a shrug and a grin. "I'm pretty sure things aren't going to turn out that badly." Yang interrupted, "Even evil military regimes had rules about how to treat prisoners. Which you are, technically. You are guilty of assaulting a 'superior' officer, probably dereliction of duty and insubordination at the least." "True enough. I had valid reasons; the only real question is whether the higher ups think my reasons are valid. And if Polar decided to make up some more charges to accuse me of." "Oh, right. HIM !" both Yin and Yang replied. After an unknowable amount of time in the mindscape, Yang broke the silence by asking if there was a way out of the cell. Just in case, of course ! "Well, this is a very new building." TT noted, "So there is zero chance a previous prisoner dug an escape tunnel." "But sometimes failsafes are built in." Yin continued, "You know, just in case a prisoner trapped a guard in here, the guard could use a hidden switch to open the door and get out." TT thought that over for a bit. "Well, that would be a good idea - IF they were willing to risk the small chance a prisoner could find the switch. They may not need such a thing, given enough base security - there's always another guard checking in. And a thorough search could take an hour or more. And there is no guarantee I'd find a switch even if there was one !" "Isn't the hidden switch routine a bit from old movies ?" Yang had to ask her anti-twin. "We have anything else to do with our time ?" Yin replied, which elicted a shrug and a sigh from Tongue Twister. Then after a few moments of thought, TT continued "We really should figure out what to do afterwards. All cases, both best," looking to Yang, "and worst." smiling at Yin. Thus did Tongue Twister remain in her meditative trance ...
  7. Short walk to a circular room. The spells preserving the murals were still active - the colors were as strong and bold as they were when they were first painted ! The reds ! The blues ! The golden yellows ! It was - GLORIOUS ! (normally the yellow pigments fade to a dingy grey very quickly, so rare to actually see them). Levitating in the center within a glowing field on a circular dais in the middle of the room was a sectioned, cubic box. TT was overjoyed that she was the first pony in probably millennia to see these wonders. "Who needs gaudy gold or jewels or trinkets when I HAVE THIS ? I NEED to come back here with the proper equipment !" she mused, practically drooling, "I'll need high quality cameras. And film ! Lots and lots of film ! And notebooks and measuring tools and every tool I can stuff in my packs ! Hmm - I'll have to come here alone, because I really don't want to risk dying because the pony I came with failed the Challenge of the Inner Darkness !" PV ruins it for her by whining "So what, exactly, is in here ?" After glaring at him for a few moments, she answered. "The mural on the left describes the protections on the box, and tells how to open it safely. The mural on the right describes the rituals needed to safely use what's in the box. The mural running along the diameter of the room sets the context; the mural running from the ceiling down to the middle is the story of what is in the box. Along the bottom half of the wall is the standard mural of an army of ponies watching you." she stated, "When you give artists a LOT of blank canvas, they really go all out to cover every square inch of it." She gathered her thoughts for a bit. "The story : one of the first spirits created everything that is, but got bored because there was nothing new. He tried creating mindless animated dolls (ie, mortals) as worshippers for his amusement, but since they could only do what he animated them to do, they eventually became boring. Then another spirit granted them the Blessings of Chaos ! The good news was the constructs could think for themselves and do unpredictable things, which made them interesting to watch. The bad news was the constructs could think for themselves and do unpredictable things, like NOT do what he wanted them to." Tongue Twister continued, pointing at a group of hieroglyphs. Continuing on, "This annoyed him greatly. So he tried all he could get away with without incurring the wrath of the other spirits to force the mortals to obey him once again. Apparently, even gods preferred to not break their toys. Well, at least they did." Then her mood and tone became dark "But no one likes being treated as just a toy for some other pony's amusement, so the mortals studied primal magic to see if they could find a way to forge their own destinies for a change. They succeeded beyond all sense, hope and reason. They developed the Ultimate Equalizer : the Soul of the Endless Night. A polished gemstone about the size of an apple, impossibly dark in color but full of stars if one peered into it deep enough. It could absorb any amount of magic, stripping entire worlds, entire DIMENSIONS of mana. And the more it absorbed, the more adept it became at absorbing mana. Eventually, even gods could be drained of their powers. Once it absorbed all magic, it would absorb the energy of molecular bonds, causing all things around it to disintegrate. Eventually, the only thing left in the universe would be the Endless Night. It would then consume itself, turn inside out and birth a whole new universe. Starting all of creation from zero ! It could literally reset the universe. And, according to various myths, it's been used anywhere from one to twenty seven times already." PV was looking freaked out, and asked if it was in the box; TT merely laughed and pointed out that this vault was about 0.01% of the security the SoTEL would require. "How old is that story ?" Polar Vortex inquired. "Extremely old." TT replied, "About three or more thousand years old. The SoTEL was a legend the early Quetzalcoatlans claimed another, older culture told about their progenitor's legends about the folly of THEIR progenitors." Polar Vortex thought for a bit before waving at the mural "So, all of that is a story about a story about a story about a story ?" "Pretty much." Polar groused. "Is there any evidence that this Endless Night thing actually existed ?" "No, not really." Polar's eye twitched a bit, before he rubbed his forehead with a hoof. "You eggheads are infuriating ! Why didn't you tell me the IMPORTANT stuff first ?" "Because it is all important." she replied with a shrug, "You need context in order to correctly interpret ancient hieroglyphs." She was going to continue before she noticed something. "Something's off here." "Oh, what now ?" "In the few existing depictions of the SoTEL, it is always the darkest black they could manage. At one site, the artist had dug a deep shaft behind a perfectly transparent gem in an attempt to convey the sheer anti-light qualities of the SoTEL. But this one is a glowing purple gem !" She thought a moment before rolling her eyes and sighing. She then walked forward and pressed on the glowing gem. A secret door opposite the one they came in opened into a room with a circle drawn on the floor with glowing runes and a notch, and a shelf with some shards on it. One of which was faintly glowing. Tongue Twister's face lit up with a Pinkie Pie level grin. "I don't believe it ! A still functioning teleportal !"; Polar merely looked at her. "It's a quick way to get from here to somewhere else !" she replied to his unasked question, "What would be the point of walking all the way back outside through the disabled traps ?" "So, how does it work ?" "Quite simply !" she replied giddily, "You stand in the circle, stick one of those power crystals into the notch and voop ! You're somewhere else !" "So it's a one-way trip then ?" he replied, deep in thought. "Of course ! Way more secure that way. Also why it has an external power source like those crystals." "Hmm. Does the power crystal transport with the pony, or stay here ?" Polar Vortex asked, getting an idea. "If I had to guess, the crystal disintegrates after it powers the arcane circle." TT replied, "No point leaving a door open or a key behind if you don't have to. Besides, if it didn't turn to dust, there'd be one in the notch from the last pony that used it." "Excellent point. So, what's in the box then ?" "The mural from the ceiling downward relates that, when anypony creates something, there is ALWAYS bits and pieces and scraps left over. What is in the box is a small bit of the Primal Clay the first spirit used to create All That Is. The Essence of Creation itself. Well, not really." TT smirked, "But that story is the easiest way to explain what it is, and the ponies that built this vault really liked colorful metaphors. This alchemical clay can be shaped into the semblance of any living thing and then, by following the indicated rituals, can be given life and become an actual living thing." "So you could create a unstoppable monster to destroy your enemies ?" TT quirked an eyebrow at him, then sighed before massaging her forehead with her hoof. "Yes, one COULD create an unstoppable monster if one were a blithering idiot ! The major problem with unstoppable monsters is stopping them once the 'job' is done. Nigh invincible creations turning on their masters and reducing kingdoms to dust are a rather common myth." Polar Vortex thought for a bit. "I think it would be best if I brought that clay back to STAR." he finally announced, "I'm pretty sure any hooves but ours are the wrong hooves ! And speaking of hooves, what's with the three-legged pony on the mural right there ?" "That's part of the listing of rituals that can be done." TT replied as she took a closer look, "Judging by the outfit, that pony was a king injured in battle. The priests made another leg out of the Primal Clay, did the rituals, and attached it to him. Going by their expressions of sheer glee, the clay limb perfectly replaced what had been lost; it was like he'd never been injured at all." "So, you're saying it could replace - a unicorn's horn ?" Polar inquired with a rather sleazy grin. "Easily. If there's enough clay to do the job." Tongue Twister replied absently, just noticing that there were a few hieroglyphs she'd never seen before, "And before you ask, there is nothing written here that says how much clay is in the box." "Is there a way to make more of that stuff ?" Polar asked. "No. A secret like that would have been passed down from master to apprentice via teaching. It would never have been written down." she replied as she pulled out her notebook to take some notes, "That ensures no pony can steal the formula, but unfortunately means it can be lost to time." She was so busy writing down the rituals and discerning the meaning of those few new hieroglyphs that she didn't notice what Polar Vortex was up to. Her focus was broken by the sound of a multi-ton stone door dropping into place, sealing the room ! Then she noticed that the box was no longer on the dais. She turned just in time to see Polar Vortex jam the last glowing crystal shard into the mystic circle's notch. There was a flash of purple light, and he was gone, the crystal turning to dust as his afterimage faded. A sound like plaster crumbling caught her attention. Six guardian goyles smashed through the mural that had been concealing the nooks they'd been lurking in for thousands of years. Tongue Twister leapt for the teleportal room and slammed the door shut to buy a few moments of time, her VERY colorful swearing in five languages swallowed by the earth .... Polar Vortex returned to the STAR base, and regaled his superiors with a tale of personal glory and derring-do. He claimed that Tongue Twister had planned to sell the Primal Clay to the highest bidder, but his vigilance uncovered what she was up to and put a stop to it. It was unfortunate that she died in that vault, but he was certain there were many ponies that could do her job far better than she ever could. She WAS just a civilian after all. Two weeks later, Polar Vortex was in the training room when a shadow passed over head. He didn't even have time to look up before he was hit with a Pegasus Stomp - a dark grey pegasus had dropped from ceiling height and landed all four hooves on top of his head at the full speed flight and gravity could generate, driving him muzzle first into the floor ! "Great Celestia ! Isn't that Tongue Twister beating up Polar Vortex ?" a blue unicorn exclaimed. "Yes." a pale grey unicorn replied. "I thought she was dead !" "Apparently not." the pale grey unicorn replied as he powered up his telekinesis, "Best take her to the brig before she dislocates another one of Polar Vortex's legs !" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WRiPItZaue4 - Derpy demonstrating VMN technique, and Pegasus Stomp
  8. "So what do all those pictures mean ?" Polar Vortex asked. "I don't know." "I thought you could read ancient languages." "I can." TT replied, "But these are icons, not glyphs. They represent ideas, not sounds or words. And without some context, I can't guarantee any interpretation I make is valid." "Well, this isn't much of a challenge !" Polar Vortex announced as he launched into the air towards the door. And, as soon as he touched the door, the walls on both sides slammed together like a giant clapping his hands to squash an irritating insect. Stunned, Polar Vortex fell into the slime, but soon struggled out. "This stuff is worse than snot !" he stated as he flung the slime off in an attempt to get clean. "Did you honestly think it would be that simple ?" TT asked over her shoulder as she continued examining the walls, looking for some kind of clue. She could hear him hacking and sneezing; probably trying to get that stuff out of his lungs. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained." his voice replied. "But venturing without a plan can get you killed in here !" she answered. "I didn't say that." Polar Vortex stated, causing Tongue Twister to turn to face him. All the slime he'd scraped off had pooled together and formed itself into something vaguely pony-shaped. Which soon shaped itself into an off-white pegasus stallion. A slovenly, unkempt duplicate of Polar Vortex ! "Like, welcome to the Challenge of the Inner Darkness dude and dudette !" 'he' stated with a lazy wave of his foreleg, "All ya gotta do to proceed is, like, face your inner darkness ! If you succeed, you can, like, continue on. If you fail ..." He raised his wings, and the slime from the pit rose. It was full of bones in various stages of decomposition. "... your lives are, like, forfeit. Or whatever !" he continued, lowering his wings which lowered the slime back into the pit. "I'll deal with you, you slime-based mockery !" Polar Vortex shouted before he shot into the air, before diving down with a perfect flying stomp - - a stomp his duplicate evaded with a lazy roll to the left before itching its nose. Polar Vortex continued his assault with every attack combination he knew. Which were all lazily evaded or blocked by the duplicate. "He's you, remember ?" TT yelled at Polar as he launched yet another assault on his duplicate, "Everything you know, he knows. Thus, he knows what attacks you'll use, and how to counter and evade them !" "Not if I randomize my attacks !" Polar replied as he started throwing combinations that made no sense. It worked, more or less - his duplicate had to actually put some effort into evading and blocking the attacks. But the darn thing was grinning the whole time. TT soon realized why - being a magical construct, the duplicate had infinite endurance, while Polar Vortex did not. So eventually Polar Vortex would exhaust himself, leaving himself defenseless against any counterstrikes. "You can't win this way Polar !" TT yelled at him again. "Well, how else am I going to defeat this thing ?" he snarked back. Tongue Twister sighed. "The challenge is to FACE your inner darkness ! He didn't say you had to win the fight ! Or even fight at all !" The duplicate Polar looked irritated for a moment. "Well, if we aren't supposed to fight, then why are there, like, weapons all over the place, huh ?" TT smiled at him. "It's an old con artist's trick ! You give the mark's thinking a gentle nudge in the wrong direction ! Usually, a direction which ensures that you win !" Polar Vortex seemed like he was actually catching on for a moment - until his duplicate spoke up : "Since there are, like, two of you here, BOTH of you must face your own inner darknesses ! If one fails, BOTH die !" "What ?! My life is in HER hooves ?!" Polar Vortex asked, stunned by that revelation. "Them's the rules dude !" the duplicate stated, "But, then again, does anyone actually, like, win a slap fight ?" Polar Vortex snorted, "Oh yeah ! That's right ! She doesn't have any combat training ! She's just a disposable civilian !" "Or, like, maybe she has a different type of combat in mind !" the duplicate replied when he could breathe through its laughter, "A contest to, like, see who speaks gooder Ancient Ponish or something !" Which set Polar Vortex off into gales of laughter. TT glared at both of them, her left eye twitching. "All right ! THAT'S IT ! You two chucklenuggets brought this on yourselves !" she exclaimed as she walked over to the pit and plunged her foreleg shoulder deep into it. With a mighty pull, she backed up, pulling something out of the slime pit. With a shrug and a shake, the slime solidified into a gigantic pegasus mare easily two heads taller than Tongue Twister, with a corpse white coat and dark grey socks, eyes like green flames in inky blackness, a stripe of spiked bone between her eyes and along her brows like a crown, and a mouthful of shark like teeth ! "WHAT IN TARTARUS IS THAT ?!" both Polar Vortexes stammered. "This would be a copy of Zagzig. The Horror Within. Aspect of Wrath. Pretty much my inner darkness !" TT replied with a smile. "I thought you were insane, but DANG !!" Polar Vortex murmered. "Dude, you are, like, totally bucked !" the duplicate stated to Polar, "Completely, utterly bucked ! She's, like, no match for that thing !" "Hey ! She is not a 'thing' !" TT replied, "She is a representation of honestly felt emotions that 'civilized' ponies say we shouldn't express ! And has just as much right to exist as anyone ! Personally, I find the idea that the inner darkness is something to be feared, controlled or destroyed to be utterly ridiculous !" "Heh ?" both Polar Vortexes reply. "I made peace with my inner darkness ages ago !" TT replied with a dismissive wave before turning to Zagzig and asking "So, what now ? Do we have to do something ?" "Not at all !" replied ZZ as she waved a wing, directing the slime to burn a new symbol on the wall - a pair of grey ponies, both standing with hooves touching. "Oh ! I get it now !" Tongue Twister exclaimed, "The standing pony is the one that came in. The one on the ground is the side that was defeated. The slash represents defeat by combat. Hmm - it looks like you've seen all combinations. Over there is a good pony that defeated their dark side. And that one represents a good pony that LOST to their dark side. Oh feather mites ! I just realized - MY LIFE IN THE HOOVES OF THAT IDIOT OVER THERE !" she exclaimed, pointing to Polar Vortex, "If he fails his test, I die too !" "Yeah. Sorry about that !" Zagzig replied sheepishly, before she and Tongue Twister got into a deep conversation about the fickleness of existence. Polar Vortex was getting angrier by the moment - he hated being ignored. "Like, can you imagine being treated like you don't matter, like, every day of your life ?" the duplicate Polar Vortex stated to his template, "No wonder she's, like, moody !" Polar Vortex replied by striking his duplicate upside the head with all the force he could muster. The stunned duplicate could not evade or block the following attacks, and was soon knocked unconscious back into the slime pool from whence it came. "That was cold !" Zagzig and Tongue Twister stated in unison. "You civilians have it so nice and easy !" Polar shouted in reply, "You're soft, and have no idea of what the REAL world is like ! Out here, outside your ivory towers, it's conquer or BE conquered ! Enslave, or BE enslaved ! Win, or die ! And you said that I couldn't win ! Shows how much YOU know ! So, are you going to let us continue or not ?!" he yelled to Zagzig. Zagzig glared at him, before waving a wing to direct the slime to draw a new symbol : a standing black pony, towering over a grey pony with a red slash through it. "Watch that one closely." she whispered to TT before turning for the slime, "And do NOT turn your back on him !" TT merely nodded before asking "Are we getting close to whatever treasure this vault is protecting ?" "This was the last challenge." Zagzig replied as she stepped into the slime, "The exit from this room leads to the vault, and the treasure." "Well, it's about time !" groused Polar Vortex as he came up beside Tongue Twister. Once Zagzig melted back into the slime, the entire pool rose up and divided before solidifying into greenish glass. Tiles on the floor rose to form a stairwell, leading to a circular door on the back wall on the bottom of the pit.
  9. Polar Vortex and Tongue Twister walked down the hallway, echoes from the shallow water they were stepping in the only sound. "You think this water might turn into acid or ice to trap us here ?" Polar Vortex asked. "No. From the looks of it, this corridor was supposed to be dry." TT replied, pointing to the walls. "Notice the murals ? They're faded, and half consumed with mildew and grime. The ponies that built this place would never allow that on purpose." Polar Vortex had to squint a bit, but there were indeed paintings on the walls. Most of the color was gone, and mildew grew from the floor almost up to eye level. Ahead, in the faint glow of TT's light crystal was the end of the corridor - a blank wall with a single sconce holding a crystal. Once they came within a yard of it, the crystal activated, providing almost as much light as her illumination stone. Now with more light to see by, TT and Polar noted there were antechambers to the left and right. The open chamber on the left had gold tiles on the floor and an ocean scene on the wall, while the chamber on the right had obsidian tiles and a mural of the Guardian of Dreams - but with an evil smirk instead of her usual dreamy smile. They stepped into the gold tile room on the left. Its back wall opened up into a much larger room filled with gold coins up to a pony's barrel ! Like an expensive ocean, the coins were in waves that washed over the five gold statues in the room. Judging by the size, they were all of native Tenochtitlan ponies. One statue was of a stallion swimming in coins up to his neck; another was doing the backstroke. One had a broad grin and as many coins as could be swept up between his forelegs; two others were filling each other's saddlebags with coins. All were extremely detailed works of art. "Those aren't statues, are they ?" Polar Vortex asked. TT shook her head no before they backed away. Slowly, and carefully. They went over to the right antechamber. Its back wall was a beaded curtain with nothing but darkness visible behind it. The other wall was decorated with a scene showing town life - merchants and musicians, nobles and commoners, dogs and foals running about happily. Upon closer examination, something was slightly off. It took TT a few moments to realize what - the pony's expressions reminded her of her mother's last family reunion : everyone appeared sinister and plotting something. Even the foals and dogs. It didn't quite fit with the Guardian of Dreams' usual peaceful and kind motif. "Looks like somepony got here before us." Polar Vortex interrupted her musings, pointing to a message written in chalk on a wall. She noticed the missive was Prench. "Wow ! He made it this far ! I'm impressed !" "Who made it this far ?" "My dad bought a trunk from a young couple awhile ago." TT started, "It belonged to her grandfather. When dad opened it to see if there was anything actually valuable inside, he found a 1st edition Prench copy of 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to Equestria'. It was in really bad shape, but there were notes written in many different languages in the borders. Turns out they were vectors to THIS very vault ! That's why my parents were in here in the first place." Polar Vortex looked at her askance. "Well, that would explain why two civilians were in an ancient vault in the middle of nowhere. There aren't any spas or casinos within miles for them to wander in from. So what does the message say ?" She glanced back at the message. "It says 'Beware your dreams come true.' Hmph! Well, that certainly ISN'T creepy or foreboding !" she snarked, "But it does fit in with the rest of the 'not quite right' vibe I'm getting from this mural !" Tongue Twister cocked her head to the side slightly, examining the mural while trying to piece their few hints together. Unfortunately, they fit together into something horrible. Polar Vortex was rather surprised when he heard her growl, and watched her back away from the room, ears flattened to her head, and her expression a mix of terror and rage. "What is wrong with you ?" "THAT ..... is the Lotus Eater !" she exclaimed, "One of the Three Mindtwisting Horrors ! An Alpha Zero Class threat ! Not to be messed with !" "An 'Alpha Zero Class threat' ? What are you talking about ?" "I DON'T KNOW !" she yelled in reply, backed up against the door and not taking her eyes of the Dream Room, "My memories have been erased and altered so many times I'm not even sure my name is Tongue Twister any more !" Polar Vortex blinked a few times. "Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhkay. So, whoever you are, any ideas about how to proceed safely from here ?" "Which monster's jaws do we leap into ? I - I don't know !" TT replied, eyes tightly closed as she started to pace. "This is a vault. There IS a safe way through." she muttered to herself to give herself a focus to fight off her fear and rage, "The builders left hints so that somepony could retrieve whatever is in here, even if it was years or generations later. They couldn't risk writing down the path, for the unworthy could steal it. Nor could they rely on memory or stories, for they could be forgotten or the last pony to hear the story dies before he could tell it. So far, the hints have been written on the walls. I can READ ancient languages, so I have the advantage over most adrenaline junky 'adventurers' and grave robbers !" She ran her hoof through her short mane, looking around for some clue. Something written on the walls not overgrown with mold. In the moving light from her illuminating crystal, she thought she noticed some odd shadows on the back of the door. She took off her headband and handed it to Polar Vortex. "Hold this up higher and steady." she told him, "So the light comes from where one of natives with a torch would be making it." He did as she asked; TT watched the shadows shift as the light went higher. "Hold right there !" she stated, looking at the shadows. There was a message carved into the stone, formed by the shadows only when illuminated from the right angle. "So, what do those squiggles say ?" he asked. "An old aphorism : 'the fool presses ahead to hollow glory while the wisepony strides on by.' " He looked at her expectantly. TT smiled broadly at him. "You were wondering which room hides the safe route through ? The answer is : NEITHER OF THEM ! This pair of traps was meant to distract and destroy the ambitious. Those that don't know when to quit. Those that will continue to press ahead despite all dangers, certain they can overcome any obstacle if they just keep trying." Polar's ears lowered in disgust. "So it uses a pony's determination against them ? That's sick !" "No, that's disturbingly competent trap design." she replied as she wrote some notes. "Why are you taking notes ?!" "Because that is what REAL scholars do !" He was thankfully quiet for a few moments. "It's going to be rather hard to walk past these traps - if you haven't noticed, there is a wall directly in front of us !" "Yes. So there is." TT replied before she pulled down on the sconce holding the illumination crystal. Nothing happened. Pushing up on it, pushing it left or right, and trying to rotate it left or right did nothing either. "Anypony in this vault would have their own source of light. So this one is redundant." she mused as she took the crystal out of its holder. There was a loud, muffled 'click', and the wall opened like a pair of doors into a very short hallway.
  10. About an hour later - after checking his shop to make sure everything was still there - Caveat returned home. Where Shady Dealer was writing equations on a chalkboard. A LOT of equations. Equations using math so advanced it didn't even use numbers anymore. "Uhm, honey ? What are you doing ?" he asked. "Trying to figure out how much trouble our daughter is in." she replied without even looking away from the board. "There are equations for that sort of thing ?" "There are equations for everything !" Shady replied, "You just need the right data." She then sighed heavily before stating "And I have more than enough." He noticed she had her wings held tight against her body and her tail was partly tucked under; she was distressed. He gave her a hug and kissed her just beneath her left ear. "So, how bad is it ?" Shady collected her thoughts for moment. "Well, in order to simplify the equations, I assumed there were only two kinds of actors - 'good' and 'evil'. Good groups are working for the good of themselves and Equestria, while evil groups are only out for themselves. Meaning that they will be sabotaging each other, while good groups usually don't harm other good groups. The upshot of all those interactions is that good groups are larger but fewer in number, with more resources and tend to last longer, while evil groups are far more numerous but volatile, in a constant state of depletion/replacement. The evil groups are in a constant state of 'all against all'. As long as all evil groups have roughly equal resources, there can never be a winner amongst them." Caveat thought for a moment. "So they'd each be looking for a Big Score. Something to give themselves an edge over everyone else." "Exactly !" Shady replied, "And once one group takes an interest in something, all other groups will follow suit. Either to get the Advantage for themselves, or level the field by denying the Advantage to others. Even the 'good' groups follow that logic." Caveat could follow her logic, and didn't like where it was going. "So, how bad are things going to get ?" "There is a ninety eight percent chance that AT LEAST TWO covert groups interested in her !" Shady exclaimed, "Seventy two percent chance it's two evil groups, twenty seven percent chance of one good/one evil, bit less of one percent chance of two good groups." "Hmmm. Those are winnable scenarios." Caveat stated, "She can either ally herself with a 'good' group, or just turn the two following her against each other." "THIS ISN'T SOME ABSTRACT GAME CAVEAT !" Shady yelled at him, "This is OUR DAUGHTER'S LIFE !" "You think I don't know that ?!" he replied, "She's not a helpless little filly ! She was never helpless. She inherited my stubborness, your silver tongue, and relentless drive and sneakiness from both of us ! I almost feel sorry for the fools plotting to use her. Heh ! Almost !" he finished with a big grin and a chuckle.
  11. "Well, it IS the treasure this vault was meant to protect !" Polar Vortex shouted back. Tongue Twister sighed as she dropped slightly and hovered over the pit. "No, it isn't. It's just a minor item meant to fool intruders into thinking they've found the valuables and not searching more thoroughly." The giant leeches sensed her body heat and headed straight for her. Having almost no intelligence, they activated the pit's triggers and fell right in. "So, you mean the REAL valuables are hidden somewhere else ?" "Of course. The level of lethality we've seen so far is way in excess of the material value of that ceremonial necklace. Which means there's a secret door somewhere in here we haven't found yet." "What about those two doors over there ?" Polar Vortex stated with a wing motion. Tongue Twister went over and looked at them each carefully. She pulled a feather out of her wing and used it to probe around the crack around the doors. "These aren't doors." she stated with a smirk, "They're just carvings on the wall meant to look like doors." "But they have handles and locks !" "Mere distractions." TT replied as she carefully stood beside the door and depressed the handle - and a pit opened in front of the door, where she would've been standing. "These locks don't actually do anything - they're just meant to waste a thief's time." she stated as she carefully used a feather like a lockpick - half a dozen spikes shot from the wall ! If she'd been standing where a thief would've been, two spikes would've gone through her head. Another pair through her neck. The last pair through her chest. A few seconds later, the pit opened up and the spikes retracted. "Hmm - a trap that cleans up after itself. Truly state of the art !" she stated before writing down her observations in her notebook, "And you'll note that they worked perfectly. So no more assuming the traps won't work !" "Now where to start looking for the secret door ?" she mused to herself before noticing a discoloration on the floor in front of the alcove where that necklace used to be. "See that ? It's water damage." TT explained to Polar Vortex, "The bane of all underground sites. No matter how well built or sealed, eventually water leaks in and ruins everything. There must be a passageway behind this 'wall'." She tried the usual technique of pushing on the walls and ledges to see if anything moved. But nothing did. Then she noticed the pegs that once held the necklace could move slightly. "Could you put that necklace back Polar Vortex ? I think it has to be in place for the triggers to work." He shrugged, but grudgingly put it back. Then a simple push on the shelf's back wall caused the wall to swivel open. TT peered into the darkness, and noted that the hallway curved to the left. They headed into the narrow hallway, splashing in the shallow water on the floor the whole time. "I hope the rest of this vault isn't flooded." she stated, "Otherwise we're going to have to bring in a team with the proper equipment to complete the job." After what she thought was a few loops, they came upon an actual door at the end of the hallway. She examined the door, and noted a single glyph inscribed upon it - a rounded off square with nothing inside. "So, does that mean there's nothing to worry about beyond this point ?" Polar Vortex asked. "Most certainly not !" stated TT, "Ancient Quetzalcoatlan used symbols to represent phonemes and syllables inside a square shape. There is usually a gap in the border to indicate where the next syllable is - they didn't write left to right as we do, but in a continuous line that could go back and forth, up and down, or even in spirals if the writer wanted to. The 'empty square' is o'hm' - it represents the unknowable. The mysterious. In other words - MAGIC. Whatever defenses are beyond this door are based on magic."
  12. "Well, THAT was a horrid little adventure ! " Shady Dealer exclaimed as she and her husband Caveat Emptor entered their home in Canterlot, "But that stopover in the Crystal Empire was sort of fun ! Those rooms in the hotel were sweEEEet ! I've never seen a tub that big made of pure crystal before. At least not in a room we could afford." "Well, it IS the Crystal Empire dearest." Caveat replied with a chuckle, "Pretty much everything there is made of crystal. Even the Royal Gardens. And sometimes the ponies." "Yeah. We really need to spend a week or two there." Shady replied before getting a sweet smile, "Our thirty fifth anniversary is coming up in a few months ..." Caveat smiled. "I'll start making the arrangements." he stated before planting a gentle kiss behind her left ear. Their tender moment was interrupted by a knock on the door. "Now who could that be ?" Caveat asked Shady as he headed to the door and opened it. Two stallions in grey suits were standing there - an Earth pony and a unicorn. "Greetings Caveat Emptor. Shady Dealer." the unicorn stated with a nod to each, "My associate and I are from the Royal Equestrian Artifact Fraud and Recovery Agency. It is our understanding that you two have recently returned from an impromptu expedition to Tenochtitlan." "Yes. We have. How did you know about that ?" Shady inquired while subtly twitching her right ear forward twice - a signal to her husband : 'they are trying to scam us'. He merely grinned in reply. "It is our job to know everything." the earth pony agent stated, "Especially when the safety of Equestria is involved. Now what, if anything, did you find there ?" "Nothing but a whole lot of trouble." Caveat replied with a sigh, "It was some sort of ancient vault full of death traps. Old, decrepit death traps, but death traps nonetheless. We didn't get very far in before our luck ran out and we got caught in a pit trap." "Yeah. And if we didn't know a way to call our daughter for help, we could've died there !" Shady stated, "Wait - WE COULD HAVE DIED THERE ?!?!" she squeaked then grabbed Caveat with her wings, "If you hadn't used that Remote Presence spell, no one would have known where we were ! No one would realize we were missing for weeks, if not months ! We couldn't die quickly from the spikes, but we would have starved to death in a pit in a vault in the middle of nowhere !" "Now calm down dearest !" Caveat replied while giving her a hug, "Focusing on horrible things that COULD have happened will only make you miserable." "So, you didn't find anything ? Or bring anything back ?" the unicorn agent asked. Caveat glared at him. "No. We didn't find anything to bring back. We didn't even see anything remotely valuable." "I see. Now, your daughter. Why did you call her ? Is she a professional adventurer ?" Shady's rage flared up, but she quickly hid it. She didn't want her only child involved in any more trouble. "No. She's a linguist. She studies languages. The only examples of the older ones are in ancient tombs and vaults, so she has experience dealing with their hazards." "Could she have retrieved something from the vault then ?" the earth pony agent asked. "We have no idea !" Shady replied, "She was still back in that horrible place when we left !" "Now, how could we get in contact with her ?" the unicorn agent asked, "We just need to ask her some questions. Make sure there are no loose ends, or pending threats." Shady and Caveat looked to each other. "We're not really sure how you'd contact her via regular means." Caveat stated as he scratched his ear, "She used to work for the Manehattan Museum of Natural History, but they downsized her." "She was looking into jobs elsewhere - Baltimare, Fillydelphia, the Crystal Empire - but hasn't told us where she relocated to yet." Shady continued, "We've been waiting for weeks to hear something definite from her." "She rescued you two from an ancient vault." the unicorn agent stated, "So you've had contact with her recently ! She didn't tell you where she was working ?" "It didn't come up at the time !" Shady snarled at him, "She was too busy rescuing us to make small talk ! And I didn't think of asking where she was working ! It didn't seem too important ! I'm sure we'll get a letter from her explaining everything in a few days." The two agents mulled it over. "Thank you for your time. We will be in touch if we require anything further of you." the unicorn agent stated as they headed for the door and left. After a few minutes to make sure they were really gone, Shady asked her husband "Do you think they bought it ?" "Probably not." he replied, "But it will take them a day or two to check their sources to figure that out." "Oh great ! Even though we bought her some time, we sent some organization with dubious motives after OUR ONLY FOAL !!" Shady stammered. Caveat mused for a moment. "She is not without resources or wit, dearest. She said she was in a 'Scenario 12 B'. Since she is part of an organization trying to remain hidden, they will deal with anyone asking questions about their agents or employees." "But what if that gets her in more trouble ?" "Then we will give her whatever help we can !" he replied, "Perhaps you should give your relatives and old 'business acquaintances' back in Las Pegasus a head's up to look for trouble. I'll see if I can call in some favors in case they're needed." Road on the way out of Canterlot "You do know they were lying to us, right ?" the earth pony, Agent Smash, asked his accomplice. "Of course." Agent Grab replied, "They were both very good at it. Probably from being married for so long. But we do know they didn't get anything from the vault." "Which means their daughter might. Where do we start tracking her down ?" Agent Grab thought for a moment. "They claimed she used to work for the Manehattan Museum. Perhaps some inquiries there may pay off - they'd need to know where to send any last paychecks or paperwork. Or she spoke with other workers." Smash smiled. "So we're not wasting time looking in Baltimare, Fillydellphia or the Crystal Empire then ?" Grab scoffed. "Of course not ! They were just tossing out cities at random as diversions to waste our time."
  13. After a few more turns of the corridor (which mirrored the ones on the way in - Tongue Twister checked !), they came to another room like the first : a long triangle with the points rounded, representing a snake's head. "Wait. They gave the snake TWO heads ?" Polar Vortex inquired. "Yes. Makes it twice as dangerous." TT replied, "Attack one head, the other bites you; attack the body, and BOTH heads bite you !" "These primitive ponies were disturbed and outright weird." Tongue Twister gave him a glare that would freeze a forest fire solid. "No. They valued different things than you do, and expressed their ideas differently. That does NOT make them 'disturbed' or 'outright weird' !" "Well, if they were so great, how come they aren't around any more ?" Polar Vortex asked with a smug grin, rendering her stunned by his sheer ignorance. "Funny how these so-called smart ponies always go silent when confronted with True Logic !!!!!!" Polar Vortex mused to himself when she still hadn't recovered after three seconds. She finally managed to focus through her rage to reply. "The hypothesis with the greatest consensus is that they were done in by climate change. They created artificial islands and farmed them heavily, getting seven harvests a year. Then the rivers dried up. Less food led to more stress led to civil wars. What caused the drought is still under investigation. No amount of magical or tech greatness can help when there isn't enough food and everyone is fighting for scraps. Do you 'think' Equestria would hold together for long if food production dropped to ten percent ?" "We'd last longer than these ponies did, that's for sure !" he replied as he started down the exit, "We'd probably solve the problem quickly and easily, because we're better !" Rather than get into an argument with a blockhead, TT looked for signs that her parents came this way. And soon found one - two sets of hoofprints in the dust leading up to a door. The door opened into a large room, longer than it was wide, and very high. The walls were covered with circles of various sizes, all with a line through them, turned at random angles. On the far wall was an alcove with what looked like a gold necklace resting on a shelf, and a closed door to each side of it. The middle third of the floor was taken up by a massive eight by eight grid of tiles with Quetzalcoatlan numbers on them. TT did a quick check, and there was no discernable pattern to them. Equal numbers of odd and even numbers, ranging from one to nineteen with many repeats, but no repeats within a given row. "Sweet Celestia ! A MATH puzzle !" Polar stated with more than a hint of terror in his voice, "And there are no hints painted on the walls this time ! Just lots and lots of circles with lines through the middle of them !" "Then it's a good thing we're not here to solve the puzzle, isn't it ?" she replied as she took to the air for a better look. Her parent's hoofprints stayed in the left wall border, but only went halfway across the tiled area, then simply disappeared. They'd never reached the other side of the room. "MOM ! DAD ! YOU IN HERE ?" she shouted. "TT ? Is that you ?" "We're down here !" came her parent's muffled voices from under the floor. Remaining in the air, she depressed one of the tiles at random, triggering the pit trap. As expected, the whole tiled area opened like a pair of doors hinged at the front and back. Tongue Twister flapped extra hard and fast to keep from being pulled down into the pit by the vacuum the swinging doors had generated. Moments later, a dark grey blur streaked out of the pit and hovered near the ceiling. It was an older pegasus mare, with a dark stormcloud grey coat and a mane of straight black hair, woven into braids with strands of palest gray (usually kept immaculate, but currently frazzled). Her red vest and skirt were smeared with millennia old dust. Tongue Twister's mother, Shady Dealer, obviously did NOT have a good day ! "FREE AT LAST !" Shady cried out in sheer joy as she zoomed around the room, refusing to touch down. So TT flew up to intercept her with an embrace. "This place is HORRIBLE !" Shady exclaimed, "I want to go home !" "Yes. I know. That's probably best for everyone mom." TT replied. "Uhm, I'm still down here." a voice from the pit stated. Shady and TT looked at each other, then dived as one into the pit to retrieve TT's father, a heavy set tan unicorn with white socks, and a light brown mane and tail - Caveat Emptor. Once they put him safely on the floor (well away from the trap door), he cleaned his glasses, put them back on and asked "So, you got any snacks ? Some fresh water ? It was rather unhealthy down there !" Tongue Twister merely smiled at him and started hoofing over the many bags of dried fruits and bottles of water she'd brought for just this occassion. Then, with an echoing groan and a screech, the trapdoors slowly closed. "Daddy, where did you get all these dirt prints all over you ?" she asked after she noted them and tried using her wings to dust them off - they were shaped sort of like long, serrated triangles the color of rust. When she took a closer look at some of the dust on her wings, she noted that it WAS rust. "Probably down in that pit. There were hundreds of piles of dust down there !" he replied. TT mused for a bit, then carefully went to the edge of the trap, and carefully depressed one of the triggers. The trap opened again, and she peered inside. As her father had stated, there were many triangular piles of dust scattered all over the floor. And what looked three small tunnels on each wall. She jotted down a few notes. "Uhm, Daddy ? Those piles of rust used to be spikes !" she stated, "They were meant to impale and slash anyone that fell in the pit. The serrations worked like barbs on a fish hook, keeping the victim pinned to the floor. I suspect those tunnels lead to the outside, and allow small carnivores and scavengers to get into the pit to eat whatever was bleeding down there. This trap can dish out some well thought-out carnage ! That's - rather excessive for even a vault of this period. If they had used their standard bronze instead of iron, or even obsidian or flint for the spikes, you and mom would be dead !" When she turned back to them, Caveat had a blatantly fake smile on his face, and Shady looked horrified and twitchy. "Well, I think we've had enough adventure for the decade !" he finally stated as he hugged his wife, "I really think we should go home now ! Before our luck runs out !" "Oh, yes ! Of course ! Right this way ! Sorry !" TT replied as she trotted up to them, "Just go back the way you came in. All the traps are defunct. I'll be there to help you repack the mini-zep in just a few moments." Her parents looked at her with concern, but headed out. TT walked over to Polar Vortex, deep in thought. She really didn't want to be poking around in an ancient deathtrap, but given the level of security so far, whatever was in here might be dangerous. Better that she and STAR find it and deal with it now, before anypony else gets any funny ideas. "It should take just a few minutes for me to escort them back to the min-zep and get them safely on their way home, and return. Until then - DON'T. TOUCH. ANYTHING !" she punctuated with an accusing hoof and leaned in virtually nose to nose, "So far, all of the traps we've found have been defunct. But that doesn't mean all of them will be. And there may even be more traps in this room we haven't activated yet. If that pit trap is any hint as to what level of peril we're facing in here, I'd suggest being really, REALLY careful about collecting things and poking around !" With that, she turned on her heels and started out. Polar Vortex glared at her. He was HER superior officer ! He does NOT take orders from subordinates ! Scene : a few minutes later, out by the mini-zep. "Okay dear, we've been understanding so far, but WHAT IS GOING ON ?!" Shady Dealer asked, "Why did you move to Las Pegasus ? Why haven't you sent us any letters ? And who was the jarhead back there ?" "I - kind of have a new job now." TT answered quietly, looking everywhere but at her mom. "It's not something dangerous again, is it ?" Caveat pressed. "I'm in a Scenario Twelve B !" TT stammered as she flapped her wings as a nervous gesture. Caveat facehoofed while Shady looked confused. "Are you going to be needing any help to get out ?" Caveat asked as he gave her a quick hug. "No. I can handle it." TT replied, "One good thing about being a 'mere civilian' is that I'm easy to overlook." Caveat sighed. "Well, be sure to let us know if you need anything. Anything at all." "I know." Tongue Twister replied. "Sooooo - any idea of the easiest way to go home ?" Shady asked as she finished up loading a few things into the mini-zep, "We took the most direct route." "Yeah. From here, just head fifteen degrees south of true east. Keep the ice fields of the Frozen North miles but in sight to your left. After about an hour or two you'll see the Crystal Spires - gateway to the Crystal Empire. You can take a train back home. You should get there a bit after lunch." TT replied. After a few more good byes, Caveat stepped into the mini zeppelin and took off as Shady flew alongside. Tongue Twister watched them for a few moments before heading back into the Quetzalcoatlan vault. "What by Celestia's blessed pinions is a 'Scenario Twelve B' ?!" Shady Dealer asked her husband. "From the sourcebook of Ogres and Oubliettes." he replied, "They have an assortment of starting scenes for the game when running moderate to high level characters. They're modular and random, so the GMs can generate many different scenarios - one from column A, then one from column B, and so on. In a Scenario Twelve B, the characters join a vast and powerful but mysterious organization with unknown motives. They have to find out what is going on, and deal with the situation." "That's why she hasn't told us anything." Shady glumly deduced, "The less we know, the better off everypony will be." When Tongue Twister got back into the vault, Polar Vortex was staying near the ceiling, avoiding the now very wet floor, and doing his best to evade half a dozen giant leeches (each the length and thickness of the average pony's leg !) TT noticed an empty spot on the shelf where a gold necklace used to be. "You just HAD to grab the jewelry, didn't you ?" she yelled up at him after rolling her eyes.
  14. Scene : Caveat Emptor's shop in Canterlot, two hours after they left. A cobalt blue glow surrounds the door knob and the keyhole. A few moments later, the lock was picked. Two stallions slip inside - an Earth pony Agent Smash, and the unicorn Agent Grab. "Why are we searching this curio merchant's shop ?" Smash asked. "He recently purchased an old trunk from that old codger's granddaughter. He may have hidden a clue in there amongst the junk." "Who ? The curio merchant ?" Grab sighed. "No you dolt ! The old codger ! He found something about fifty years ago, and we really need to know what it was. It could be a valuable asset." "Well, good luck finding anything in here !" Smash replied as he wandered into the store, "Curio merchants rarely organize their shelves. They've noticed that the more effort a pony puts into finding something, the more likely they are to buy it. Looks like this one took that idea to an extreme." Grab noticed a pile of books on the bench. Every one of them a linguistics text. A good sign. "Hey Grab ! I found something ya should look at !" The unicorn walked into the backroom. One desk was covered with notes, and the blackboard on the wall had a list of page numbers and a list of many simple phrases in many different languages. "So, does this mean they found something ?" Grab smiled. "Most definitely ! Found his notes, AND deciphered them !" "That would explain why they left using a mini-zep instead of the train." Smash noted, "They needed to get someplace the trains don't run." Grab noticed there was an open atlas on the table, with a red circle marked on a spot on the northern edge of Tenochtitlan. "Well Agent Smash, this is our lucky day ! We know where they went, and I can probably determine the route they took there - so we know where to intercept them when they come back !" "So we follow standard protocol then ?" Smash inquired, "Let them retrieve the dingus, then steal it from them at the last minute ?" "Of course. But first, we update the Director with what we've found. We might have to keep an eye on the daughter as well." "Who ? The merchant's filly ? Whatever for ?" "They may have clued her in. She is their foal after all. Makes her a potential loose end." He then looked around furtively, then continued in hushed tones "And I suspect she could be Agent Kilroy." Smash quirked at eyebrow at his fellow agent. "Agent Kilroy ? The nigh mythological bogey* that has hobbled every agency's artifact acquisition missions for years ? The spook* rumored to know more about ancient magics than the Alicorn Quartet ? THAT Agent Kilroy ?" "Yes. Who better to conceal artifacts than somepony who deals with them for a living ?" "If she worked for any known organization, we'd know about it." Smash replied with a sigh. "True - but what if she works for an UNKNOWN organization ? Or a newly formed one we haven't had a chance to infiltrate or take over yet ?" "If she's been keeping dangerous artifacts from everypony for years, she couldn't be part of a NEWLY formed organization, now could she ?" Smash stated as he headed for the door, "And do ya seriously believe that any organization could hide their existence for long ? We do have agents everywhere ya know." * bogey : an unidentified agent or organization * spook : slang for an intelligence operative
  15. Six hours into her flight, Tongue Twister took a quick snack break atop a cloud drifting in the right direction. Coupled with a few minutes rest, some dried fruit and a bottle of water can work wonders for one's morale (and energy reserves). "You keep vermin in your saddlebags ?" Polar Vortex asked. Tongue Twister turned her head to glare at him, the cloud she was sitting on darkening and starting to grumble with thunder. "Ace and Deuces are PETS ! Not VERMIN !" "They're rats. So by definition they are vermin." "They're DOMESTICATED rats ! They're centuries - hundreds of generations - removed from their feral ancestors !" the cloud now giving flashes of light from lightning. "They're still rats." he replied, "Why would anyone want them as pets ?" "Because they're smarter than dogs, but far more portable !" TT replied while shouting over the thunder from the cloud she was resting on, "Why am I wasting my time with you ? I don't have to explain myself to anyone !" She launched herself into the air with a kick to the cloud, releasing a lightning bolt towards Polar Vortex. "Some mares are just too sensitive !" he noted to himself as he effortless evaded TT's bolt. Four hours later, swinging around the end of the Webwing mountain range. "So what, exactly, are you looking for ?" Polar Vortex asked. "An archaeological site, like a temple, or some other stone constructions." TT stated over her shoulder while scanning the ground below, "Or a deflated mini-zeppelin." "You mean like that one over there ?" She looked to her left, and there on the ground was large wicker box stuffed full of what looked like silver grey silk. She landed to take a closer look. "Well, this is dad's old mini-zep alright !" she stated to Polar Vortex as he landed, "He hasn't used this thing since I was a filly !" "Weren't those recalled a few years ago because they weren't safe to be in ?" "They were only dangerous because they cut corners to mass produce them !" TT replied, "Just replace the skeletal rods and a few other parts, and they're just as good as the high end models ! At a fraction of the price .... which is why daddy bought the thing in the first place." "So he and your mother must be around here somewhere." Polar noted as he looked around, "But I don't see any ancient ruins. Or modern ruins. Or anything that even looks out of place." "Well, maybe we just need a higher vantage point !" TT stated as she flapped straight upward into the sky, slowly circling as she caught the morning thermals. Then she noted what looked like a very deep well, partially covered with a large circular capstone, a few dozen yards from the mini-zep. She smiled, figuring that her mom probably did what she was doing now. She signalled to Polar Vortex, hovering straight over the site until he came over. "Are those hieroglyphics on that stone cover ?" he asked. "Yes. Very badly eroded ones." TT answered, "They look early Quetzalcoatlan, but I can't be sure. These are in really bad shape !" "Rather odd entrance to a temple." Polar noted as he looked down the shaft into the darkness, "I would've thought it would be a big, showy structure above ground." "Well not all ancient structures are like those mentioned in Daring Do books !" TT growled before heading down the shaft, carefully using the deep hoofholds the original builders carved into the sides of the shaft. She noted that they were dusty and slightly crumbly from age, but there were two other series of cleared holds on the way down - most likely the ones her parents used earlier. "A virtually untouched early Quetzalcoatlan site ?! These things are rarer than eleven leaved clovers !" she thought to herself, trying hard NOT to squeal in delight. Polar Vortex headed down, then noticed there was light coming from the bottom of the entry shaft. "A light crystal with a long wire wrapped around it, stuck into a headband ?" he inquired about the odd headgear T-Twister was wearing. "We need light, and this keeps all hooves free !" she answered, looking at the bare walls of the room they were in as she scribbled down some notes. The room was shaped like a long triangle with the points rounded, and a single opening in the center of the smallest wall. There were two sets of hoofprints leading through it. There was a short corridor forward, which turned to the right for a few yards. Which then turned into a much longer corridor going left. Then into an even longer corridor going right again ! "This isn't much of a maze." Polar Vortex noted as he looked down the corridor - it was so long he could barely see the wall at the far end. "This isn't a maze. The builders crafted this corridor into the shape of a serpent." TT replied gleefully, "In their mythology, snakes had the power to go back and forth between the worlds of the living and the afterlife. The early Quetzal masons would never think of building any kind of underground structure without honoring the Serpent King in some way." "Interesting." Polar deadpanned, "Oh look - a mural of some snarling old stallion surrounded by weapons on the wall, and a tile floor. With various animal symbols on the tiles. Just like in Daring Do !" TT was scribbling notes as fast as she could, making note of the artwork, the shape of the corridors, barely noting that Polar Vortex had trotted forward. "Wait a minute ! That temple Daring was in for her book was dedicated to the Spirit of Peace. The glyph of the first syllable of his name was a rat. Thus the safe way through was the 'Path of Peace'. The rat tiles. But this mural is of the Spirit of War ! The glyph for the first syllable of his name is a jaguar !" "POLAR VORTEX ! WAIT !!" But TT's warning was just too late - he stepped on a rat tile, and poisoned darts shot from the walls to the left, right AND from behind them ! Or at least that's what was supposed to happen - the darts fell out of the walls and clattered harmlessly to the floor. Polar blinked a few times. "Well. That was ... convenient." "This vault must be MUCH older than I thought." TT stated, "Nopony's been in here to keep the traps properly maintained for centuries !" "Vault ? I thought this was a temple or a tomb." "Nope. If this were a temple, it would be above ground so everypony could get in. The walls would be covered with illustrations of their religion's stories. The traps would be meant to scare or contain, not harm. If this were a tomb, it would be the final resting place of somepony important. The walls would be covered with illustrations of all the great things they did, and a few prayers to the gods for good measure. The traps would start to become more harmful. THIS is a vault." TT finished as she waved her hoof at the walls, "Nopony is supposed to be down here. Which is why most of the walls are bare. And the traps are probably lethal." A smile slowly formed on Polar Vortex's muzzle. "Then there must be something valuable down here !" TT sighed. "WHY does it always have to be about money ?!" "Yes, there might be something valuable down here. That, or something very dangerous." A few yards down the corridor they passed another mural - this one of the Spirit of Peace. Polar Vortex carefully stepped on the rat tiles - and no darts fired. Tongue Twister merely hovered a few inches in the air, avoiding the pressure plates altogether. But she did notice piles of darts near the walls, meaning her parents must have come this way. Another few yards along they found another mural, of a mare with her eyes closed and a serene smile on her face, and floating in a bubble at an angle. "The Guardian of Dreams." TT stated, "Her symbol is the moth." Polar Vortex noted some tiles had moth symbols carved into them, then stepped back startled when he noticed there was a different mural on the opposite wall. This one looked like a shifting mass of shadows, eyes and teeth ! "That would be the Guardian of Dreams when somepony dared to offend the gods. No one escapes She Of The Countless Eyes." "Yeah. I much prefer Princess Luna as the guardian of dreams."
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