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The north had a charm of its own to Daedalus. Maretonia’s seaside geography near warm currents meant he rarely saw snow at home, though travels throughout Equestria had rapidly dispossessed him of that deprivation. Being near the Crystal Empire capital of Crystal Spire had given him nearly enough snow for the rest of his life. But the airship had rapidly cleared the frozen wastes and passed the alpine forest of Leota. The Spring heaths grew green and the forests tall, every bit of flora and fauna in full display. But above the tree line, snow still capped the peaks of the mountaintops of the Webwings. Were it at any other time, it would have been a fine vacation. But as life was wont to do, vacation was curtailed with work. The Keepers never slept and while Daedalus had found his stipend more than adequate to spend on his downtime, he had found such time lacking as of late, especially with his recent commitments to EPIC and the investigation of WRAITH. So Daedalus trotted along the bank of the Corusca River, following it toward its headwaters. The airship had dropped him off at one of the last known secure clearings in Leota before they entered changeling territory. He was to follow the river until it intersected with the Webwing Mountains, then begin his search. An airship had crashed somewhere in the area several days ago, an artifact bound for the Canterlot vaults in its hold. Though he was given little in the way of official literature, he was certain there was something important on board. After all, he was not alone on this trek. Twilight Sparkle had not been satisfied with sending him on assignment by himself, instead electing to accompany him herself. Whether she could or would fill him in was still up for debate. Though the sun still shone, one last bit of winter chill lingered in the air, forcing Daedalus to keep his cloak and cowl pulled close around his body for warmth. He paused for a moment to look upriver. “We’ve got a few hours of daylight left before we’ll have to make camp for the night. I’d like to see if we can make it a few more kilometers upstream. Do you still have hike left in you, Princess?”
Evening had fallen. The last dying rays of the sun filtered through the great trees of the Leota, casting strange shadows upon the dusty paths that criss-crossed the forest floor. Undergrowth was thin from the large, lush canopy overhead. To Daedalus, that was perfectly fine. He would prefer not to have to use a machete to carve his way through a jungle just to reach his destination. Compared to the Brackenweald in Unyasi, this was a leisurely evening stroll. The ground became rockier and more broken, rising into foothills and eventually sheer mountainside. The trees fell away as forest soil gave way to sheer rock faces and massive boulders the size of houses. Daedalus continued his journey, slowly scaling the rock face by following ancient stone steps carved into the cliffsides with crude tools. Finally he arrived. Barely visible from the valley floor, the Forge-Cavern now gaped before him. The strange glow of arcane tools and magical furnaces lit the cave in an eerie shimmer akin to being underwater beneath the pale moon. Speaking of which, it was nearly time. Sunset would be soon, and it would be best to deliver the plans before the moon had risen. Trotting up to the cavern entrance, Daedalus rapped gently with a hoof upon a reinforcing metal girder. “Anypony home?”
Pathfinder didn't think much of dark and dank caves anymore. She practically lived in them! They had a high percentage of adventure-based shenanigans relating to treasure and spooky ghost ponies. The only problem with dark and dank caves is that there were other times where they were just empty and gross and it was fine and cool if a cave was gross because it was full of bugs that hampered an adventurer during an adventure, but other times the bugs were just nuisances and boring and if there was no adventure tied the cave then it was a waste of time. A very royal pain in the flank when occasionally the bugs were huge but that could quickly turn into a fight for survival and that was the sort of thing that provided good adventure fuel. All in all, dark and dank caves ranked below ruins, temples, lost cities or mysterious tunnels but just ahead of abandoned warehouses and missing rooms in the adventure-ranking of places to find adventure in! They were also super common. You could find dark and dank caves anywhere in the world but this place took the cake. The Leota forest was commonly thought of just as the forest around Tartarus, but that was pretty dumb. There was a lot more to it than that. There was the section around Tartarus but after a short patch of open ground the forest really opened up. She had seen one of the ancient sites of the battles with discord, narrowly avoided Gelding Grotto, had tangled with some Ursa Majors near the cavern of their species! Kelpie Keep kept no more secrets an the oubliette bored her. Timber wolves howled in frustration and the obelisk stopped churning after she had retrieved the gem of mystery. An ancient watchtower had been used as her camp more than a few times and to some, she had crossed off most of the cool location. And to a certain extent they were right. If you were totally stupid and didn't know any better, you might have thought that the Leota was all tapped out. But Pathfinder was the exact opposite of totally stupid! She was totally smart! Smart as whip with the cutting force of one. Nopony could tell her she was wrong because she was right, and old maps only bolstered that reality. The Leota was deeper and scarier than any modern map would indicate, the scale of which was matched only by the Everfree. It was rumored that all sorts of nasties made their home there, not least of all was Changelings. Silly stupid dumb changelings having silly stupid dumb changeling fun in their caves and their cities, being all silly like. They creeped out a lot of ponies but not Pathfinder. What was scary about a changeling? So what if they changed form! She wasn't a dumby. If somepony showed up, Pathy would assume they were changelings and then kick butt. DURR. MY MARE IS NOT AN ADVENTURER. DUH. But...that was in Equestria. This was in the Leota, away from prying eyes and one of the most likely places they were going to have nested. That alone made the map she found in the watchtower interesting enough, but they would be there for a while. She had stuff to find. It was therefore only months later when something else hit her over the head that it all come together. The marble column that did the job knocked her past last week but it also did something cool. Hidden in it was a map and scroll hidden into the columns, details of an artifact that was being hidden by a pro-Discordian cult that had resisted the two sisters long after Discord had been defeated. Located deep, deep in the Leota where some ponies dared to live when Discord ruled, it was supposed to be a relic of great power. Sidenote- Relics of great power tended to be sorta boring in the long run as nothing compared to the Elements. What was once considered incredibly powerful wa snow little more than a trinket, and most were inert. But this had historical value. Throughout time, there had been eight artifacts created by Discord and given to his most loyal subjects. For all of his chaotic evil, Discord did understand the basics of rewarding your help. While most of Equestria existed in a state of madness and chaos, those who helped him did very well- mansions, land that was normal, slaves and artifacts of power. Six of the eight had been discovered, and the Eye of Beholding was somewhere in the Leota according to the scroll. And that was all she needed ---------------------- Pathfinder had found the probable or at least most likely location to contain the artifact. It had been just a few days but her trip had been uneventful. A few animals gave her the stinkeye but she had been unharmed. It was boring. She had expected hordes of monsters and changelings and the possibility of peace bored her to tears and beyond. But she found the cave and immediately dived in it and it was special. There were already thousands of really huge caves in the Leota, but she had never really scratched the surface of them. After all, she sorta had an idea of where she was going. This was where the artifact was supposed to be and judging just from the entrance it would be a while. The entrance hall seemingly oozed and stood ten ponies tall and thirty ponies wide, with dozens of tunnels in every direction. She took one and this was repeated- a large room with tunnels leading out. One after another Pathfinder pushed on, heedless of the danger. The walls seemingly pulsed and there was evidence of recent habitation, but Pathfinder had come to expect disappointment from the Leota. What was interesting were the rooms. Many of them had the same general construction but seemed more...personalized. Some had old marble structures maintained well enough to act as chokepoints, others had holes in the wall with boxes stacked behind them. One even had only one entrance in and one entrance out and had three dozen tiny holes in the wall! Each one different, each one with a purpose. It felt like she was walking through storefronts, checkpoints, and apartments. You only found those in... Cities. But where were the inhabitants? It didn't take a genius to figure out that these weren't ponies, but a lot of this reminded her of Diamond Dog construction. She had dealt with those mutts long enough to know the difference between the skilled hooves of a workpony and the clumsy claw of a fool dog, and none of this had the grace of a pony city. At the same time though, the dogs were never in such large numbers and they hated sharing space with one another. Too much sense of identity to allow that. She supposed that narrowed it down to... Changelings. And the answer to where they were was soon to be answered as she stepped out of what appeared to be some sort of storefront into a mammoth cavern that showed all of the finery that could be expected from their kind. It oozed off of the walls as thousands upon thousands of insect wings and hooves clambered over one another to push and push down a huge sunken path in the dead center of this city. Where to? Why was every ling in this city in one spot moving in one direction...? Pathfinder ducked behind a rock the moment she entered, her body as low as she could go. She had guessed lucky enough- she had a good vantage point and whatever was going on, the masses seemed preoccupied, even excited, about something that was happening down below. She squinted her adventurer's eyes and her heart stopped and eyes lit up with excitement all at once. Could it be? Was it she? There was a good reason they had all gathered down below! She didn't dare speak but her back hooves lightly tossed in the air gently. This was going to be the best adventure ever! She was going to liberate a relic and pull one over on Queen Chrysalis all at the same time! Awesome!