I've been trying to find out how I got to Equestria and why I woke up in a hospital in Canterlot. My progress however is continually being halted. When I was discharged, I was attacked by a robed pony from a gang called the Black Daggers. I managed to kill their leader, but the others slipped away from me. I hoped that the captain of the guard, Loyal Crescent, could help me but he just exploited me to run a few errands for him. I wish only to find a way to return to my wife and daughter. Hopefully Mrs Pie, who originally brought me to the hospital, can be of some help. There is just one thing I have to take care of first before visiting her at the castle.
CHAPTER 2 PART 1: THE GOBLIN ARMY
"Are you coming with?" Lars asked and lifted the trapdoor.
"You go alone," the guard replied with a chuckle. "I think I can trust you enough not to run away."
Down the ladder awaited the sewers he had visited once before. He winced as he put his bare feet on the cold floor. The ponies living there looked at him in surprise and remained silently observant except for one mare. She got up on her hooves and approached Lars, stammering as she looked him up and down.
"O-o-outlander! We had not expected to see you again!" the dark purple pegasus said.
"Hello, Carnelian Tiara," Lars said and strode past her with long steps towards their camp. The other ponies remained seated and whispered.
"So what brings you back among Canterlot's poor?" Carnelian asked sarcastically. She went past him and sat down on a bedroll. Lars remained standing and looked at her seriously.
"Why are you all down here?" he asked firmly, his eyes boring into hers and his arms crossing across his chest.
The whispering ceased. Carnelian folded her ears back, but quickly gathered herself. "I thought I explained it to you this morning. We are protesting Celestia's reign, not through violence or words, but by disenfranchising ourselves."
"You're being ridiculous," he rebuked and looked out at them. "I have been here not even a week, and I can already tell this place is much better than what I came from. You have plenty of opportunities, all you need to do is ask. So once again, what are you all doing down here?"
An elderly unicorn mare with a dark purple coat and thinning mint green hair got up on her hooves. "After my husband died, I simply couldn't maintain the shop any longer. I had nowhere to go or anything to do, so I came here."
From a pocket in his deep purple suit, Lars took a clinking leather pouch and tossed it down among them. The string came undone and a few hundred bit coins spilled out. The poor opened their eyes in stark surprise.
"I am sorry to hear that, but surely there's an old folks home that can take care of you? Or a stipend? And what about the rest of you? Regardless of what drove you down here, please take a few coins." Lars walked around the campfire with his arms in the air, pointing at the beggars at random. They avoided his gaze, but their eyes were hungry for the treasure he had brought them. One of them even licked her lips greedily. With no pony moving a muscle, Lars instead bowed down and grabbed one of the coins. He held it out before the old mare and continued. "If you're too prideful to ask for handouts, then steal it from me."
"Disregarding how you got a hold of this much wealth," Carnelian said angrily and jabbed him in the chest, pushing him back. "Why are you simply giving it away?"
"I have no need of this much. I'm a simple soldier and I would never be able to spend it all."
The old mare snatched the coin with her magic, biting into it and shaking it. When she was satisfied, she took another few coins and made her way up the ladder. By her example, the other ponies proceeded to take a few coins for themselves as well until only Carnelian and four newly minted coins were left. Tears trickled down her cheeks.
"I started this society because I was alone," she explained sobbing. "And now thanks to you, I'll be all alone again."
"Don't you have any family?" Lars asked and stroked her magenta mane.
"No! I don't have anyone!" She slapped his hand off and turned her back on him. "I came to Canterlot because I thought it would be different, but it's all just the same no matter where I go."
"Everyone has someone," Lars said consolingly and came up next to her.
"I only have a cousin in Ponyville and she would never accept a vagrant like me."
"You won't know until you try. Come on, it's got to be better than living in a sewer," he said and put a hand on her back.
"It's so easy for you, isn't it?" she shouted and went back to the camp. Hesitantly, she took the last couple of coins and went up the ladder as well. Lars shook his head and took the empty pouch with him back up.
The guard pony waited for him in the shadows of the wall and approached him as soon as his dirty blonde hair emerged from the hole.
"It's the strangest thing, outlander. Ten beggars just came out of the sewers with numerous hundred bit coins in their mouths," the guard said in mild surprise, his light purple eyes gleaming in the sun.
"I think it's about time we got to the castle?" Lars interjected with a sheepish smile and looked up at the spires close by. The guard chortled and Lars couldn't suppress a faint laugh himself either.
They had walked for a while when the guard turned his head towards him. "What's it like where you come from? If you don't mind me asking."
"Well, where to begin?" Lars asked to himself and scratched his cheek. "I come from a city called Prima. Might as well be a whole country – or a continent. It's a little too peaceful to my tastes so that's why I became a soldier."
"Then how did you end up here? I can't recall having ever heard of humans before."
"Now that is one question I can't answer," he said and looked up to the sky, a strange light shining from them. "But Prima City initiated a space project to see if we could colonise space where I was the chief of security. The only way I could have gotten from there to here would be the emergency pod. But that would necessitate an emergency, and that's what's really bothering me."
They wandered into a residential neighbourhood with small homes closely squeezed together. The ponies wandering these streets weren't wearing any clothes, but their mane styles and how their coats shone suggested some form of wealth.
"Colonising space..." The guard trailed off with a strained puzzled look on his face. Lars could almost hear the gears turning inside his head. "How could such a feat ever be accomplished?"
"Lots and lots of money, I assure you. I just wish I could remember what happened or find a way home."
"You have family waiting for you, yes?"
Lars nodded and opened his mouth to speak, but a loud bang interrupted him. He recoiled with hands over his head as a ponyhole cover crashed down into the cobbled road. A long-fingered hand emerged along with a pungent odour of sweat. A green bipedal creature grunted as it escaped the sewers. All around them, ponyhole covers were sent heavenward and more of the creatures lurked up from the depths. Their small hands clutched bucklers and clubs, their bodies covered in burlap and strips of leather.
"Goblins," the guard said incredulously and grabbed the sword strapped to his waist.
Lars followed suit and took the claymore strapped to his back like a knapsack. The creatures were savage and lacked any refined fighting style. They easily fell to his sword even as it was his first time using it. The more the two of them killed however, the more came up from the sewers. The goblins scampered around disorderly and swung their clubs over head. They tried to protect themselves, but their weapons and shields were brittle and broke after taking only a few hits.
After a while, the creatures had lost too many of their own and decided to flee. They left their dead and in most cases their equipment as well in their eagerness to get back down. The guard pony sheathed his sword again and fell to his knees, panting and sweating.
"Are you all right?" Lars asked and went to the pony's side, but he simply waved him off.
"Just had the wind knocked out of me," the guard replied with a strained smile. His armour was heavily dented and his coat covered in green blood. "Please, we need to follow them. I've never seen goblins attack the city so blatantly before."
"Don't worry about it, I'll do it alone," Lars said gravely.
"ALONE he says, but does he know what he will find down there? They'll kill you. Please, at least wait for reinforcement!"
"I'll be fine," Lars said and thumped his nose. "My suit may not be metal, but it's stronger than yours. You stay here and rest."
The guard tried to stop him, but pain in his side grounded him. Lars strode towards one of the ponyholes. Frightened ponies followed him with their eyes out of doorways and window cracks as disappeared into Canterlot's underground. The wooden ladder was mushy and green from algae but just barely held his weight all the way down to the cool stone.
The sewers were old and a cave in nearly blocked the ladder as well, but it was still being used. Water seeped through the rocks and trickled along a groove in the floor. Lars hurried along, enticed by the sound of footfalls ahead. The tunnel came to large room where it deposited its water inside a large grate in the middle. Other tunnels did the same and his eyes darted from possibility to possibility. Lars would have been lost were it not for the goblins, catching a glimpse of them just as they rounded a corner.
The goblins could squeeze through much smaller openings than he. When they crept through additional cave ins, Lars just had to widen the holes and when they crawled through fences, he had to open the heavy iron doors. He often treaded water as well and banged into wooden crates left carelessly around, but still he could not catch up with them.
The road gave way to natural caves carved by tiny hands. He was once again visiting forgotten parts of Old Canterlot. Walls and floors peeked out from under layers of stone and dirt. Torches had been placed only sparingly and cast the room in semidarkness. The goblins were just ahead of him, spitting incomprehensible insults at him whenever he got close enough to them.
One of them broke off from the group, swinging its club overhead with frenzy. Lars grabbed his sword from his back and brought it down right into the goblin's skull. Its leather cap was no protection and with a sickening crunch, the goblin toppled backwards, dead.
The narrow tunnels gave way to large natural caverns. The goblins sat in large indentations around small fires and cooking spits. They grabbed their clubs and charged him, but he parried with his sword and sliced them up.
He crossed the stamped dirt and came to another long tunnel, in the middle of which sat two unicorns. They looked most surprised to see a human all the way down here, all the more at not having seen a human before. They chose to flee and scampered down the tunnel. He gave chase, but a deep growl ahead stopped him.
A very large goblin charged up the tunnel towards him. It carried no weapons in its hands, but its arms were muscular and its nails sharps. It wore only a loincloth, a right pauldron and a helmet.
"Oh bugger," Lars said and clutched his sword tightly in both hands.
The goblin lumbered towards him with a huge fist raised above its head. He raised the sword above him and slashed at the goblin, but it grabbed the edge with its right hand and then swiped at him with the left. Lars was knocked off his feet and into the cave wall. The goblin quickly took advantage of the situation and grabbed him tightly. It smiled maliciously as it began to squeeze tightly.
It released him before it could finish the job. The world was swirling around him, but he noticed an arrow protruding from its shoulder. It grunted in pain as guards streamed down the tunnel. The goblin lost interest in Lars and pounded along the ground. More arrows pelted it before a guard overpowered it with a spear to the face.
"Thanks. You saved me in the nick of time," Lars said and smiled as he got up again.
"Think nothing of it, outlander. I can't imagine what stirred these goblins to attack, and in broad daylight even," a guard replied and helped him up on his feet.
"I may be of some assistance in answering that. Two unicorns just fled down the tunnel and they were not happy to see me." He pointed in the direction.
"Ponies? Training goblins? Now I've heard everything," the guard and gave a spiteful laugh until heavy feet could be heard trampling. "Speaking of Discord." The guard lowered his spear again and pointed it into the darkness. Another large goblin lumbered towards them, bigger than the last and even more savage-looking. Lars lifted his sword, but the guard cut in front of him.
"You run after those unicorns. We shall take care of this one."
Behind him, two earth ponies reared to use their front hoofs to draw the string of their bows, and an additional three readied their swords. Lars nodded and ran ahead. The goblin tried to grab him, but he slid between its feet. It turned to chase him, but got second thoughts with arrows in its back.
The tunnel ended in a crude little home carved into the rock, modestly decorated with wooden furniture. The two unicorns flinched at the sight him and knocked over chairs as they got up from the table. They clutched each other and backed up against the slanting walls, but there was nowhere for them to go. Lars had the claymore lowered at ground level and went no further into the room than halfway.
"Please don't hurt us," they both begged and fell to the ground.
"Relax, I just want to know what you are doing down here," Lars asked and sheathed his sword completely. He raised his hands as a sign of faith and the two unicorns relaxed their shoulders.
The oldest one had a coat of raspberries and cautiously looked up at up Lars through his hoofs. "We were training the goblins, outlander."
"Training them? Why would want to you train them?" Lars said almost chuckling.
The two ponies traded nervous glances. The younger pony had a coat of indigo and looked strong from hard work. "He would kill us if we told you," he whispered.
Lars gave an exasperated sigh and grabbed his brow. "Loyal Crescent put you up to this, didn't he?"
"Y-yes, how did you know?" the older one stammered nervously.
"Look, Loyal Crescent will deny any involvement in this so just tell the guards that you were captured and the goblins forced you to work for them."
"Thank you so much," the younger one said and threw himself to the ground before Lars. "We told him that goblins couldn't be controlled and they would be useless for securing the tunnels and caves under the city."
The older unicorn was otherwise inclined and hobbled towards Lars with an interested gleam in his eyes. "My grandson and I study the fine science of biology and never in my whole life have I ever seen anything like you. If you would satisfy an old stallion's curiosity, may I ask you a few questions?"
"I have an appointment up at the castle I would rather like to keep," Lars said and pointed towards the entrance, but the old unicorn simply shook his head.
"Some other time then! But don't be too long," the old stallion said.
"Aren't you at all afraid of me though?" he asked and looked at them in turn. "When I first saw talking ponies, I nearly jumped out of my good skin."
"There are many sentient races in Equestria," the younger one said and grabbed Lars hand. "You grow accustomed to it pretty fast."
"But do tell us," the older one said and grabbed Lars cheeks. "Are you the only one here or were you a part of a larger group? We'd like to have a few more individuals to study, preferably of diverse gender and age."
Lars relaxed in his shoulders and nearly slumped to the floor. "I..." he said and swallowed a lump in his throat. "I'm the only one here. My daughter and my wife and my friends... I don't know where they are or how I'm supposed to reach them."
The older one released him with a sympathetic smile. "If you had a way of coming here, there will most assuredly be a way back as well."
"I hope so, I really do."
Lars cracked his back and waved goodbye to the two unicorns. He passed the corpses of two huge goblins and crawled up into the sunlight once more. Nurse ponies with heart-emblazoned caps tended to the few injured. One of them approached him as soon as he broke through to the outside.
"Are you hurt?" he asked, but before Lars could reply, the nurse pressed against his ribcage. "Hmm. Nothing broken, just a little bruised. You'll be sore for a while, so don't overdo it."
The nurse left him again. He looked at the spot before clutching it in pain. The uniform was intact, but the material was frayed and dirty. Lars looked around to see his friend, but none of the guard ponies paid any attention to him.
"Hard to recognise me without the armour?"
Lars turned to see a purple unicorn with a slick, light grey mane. His sides were bandaged and slightly crimson.
"You're...?" Lars asked, to which the strong unicorn nodded.
"I think I can trust you, Mr Leland, a privilege I don't allow often. The name's Butterscotch Delight, baker in my free time." Butterscotch extended a hoof. Lars shook it and nodded. "Come on, I still have to get you to the castle."
CHAPTER 2 PART 2: THE POD
Lars had seen a lot of grand things in his own city and time, but the interior of Castle Canterlot simply took his breath away. The entrance room was enormous and the ceiling far away. Red carpets slithered across the floors out to side corridors and up stairs. By a table next to the entrance sat an elderly unicorn with a shawl draped across her light purple coat and her aging pink mane tied into a bun. So fixed on the interior was his eyes that he didn't notice her.
"I'm glad to see you're okay," the old pony said with a smile and adjusted her glasses.
Lars turned around and stared at her for a moment, cocking his head in wonder. He tried to place her somewhere, but his face was as blank as his memory. Realisation then dawned on him and he pointed a shaking finger at her. "Y-you're the pony that brought me to the hospital," he said with certainty. She nodded her head.
"I wasn't sure when I pulled you out of that pod whether to bring you to a vet or a hospital. I'm still not sure I made the right choice," she chuckled and folded her hooves on the table. "You call yourself a human?"
"Yes, ma'am. My name is Lars Leland," he said and stood rigid. "You pulled me out of a pod?"
"Call me Granny Pie," she said. "Yes, I was taking my usual walk in the caves beneath the cities. A few days ago I noticed a part I had never seen before and there you were, sleeping peacefully."
"What were you doing down there? Aren't you afraid of the goblins?"
"Good heavens no," she said with a gleam to her eyes and to her crooked smile. "Those little pests can't stand the sound of my singing. And I've even been honoured several times in my younger days for my voice."
"Please." Lars slammed his hands down on the wooden desk, making Granny Pie recoil. "I must find that pod. It could tell me everything I need to know."
"All right, all right," she said and then cleared her throat. "But first things first, Mr Leland. On behalf of Princess Celestia, I bid you welcome to Equestria as the ambassador of your race. A room has been provided for you in the castle. In addition, fifteen thousand bits will be at your disposal for the duration of your stay here."
"Fifteen thousand?" he exclaimed, making an entering unicorn couple give him a funny look. "I appreciate the offer but I... I'm just a humble soldier, not a man of politics."
"I didn't tell you to spend it all in one go," she reproached at his outburst, but quickly reverted to a smile. "Now, Mr Leland, would you like me to escort you to your chambers?"
"I really need to find that pod. I wouldn't get any rest before," Lars said with a sense of urgency. Granny Pie sighed.
"Very well, but we need to be careful down there. The goblins have been on edge lately."
"Yes, I wonder why," Lars mused. "And that's why I need to go alone. It wouldn't be sane to bring an old mare with me."
"Who're you calling old?" Granny Pie said and jumped down from her seat. "I tell you, my son only just had his second foal. And how will you find that pod of yours without me to help you, hmm? The tunnels under the castle are far more expansive than you could imagine."
"You could give me a map or describe the way for me. I got top marks in tracking in the days," he stated, but Granny Pie quickly cut in.
"There aren't any maps of the sewers, least of all of the caves. You would be wandering for days before finding the exit again."
"I get the picture," he said and raised his arms to calm her down. "Just... let me do the combat, okay?"
She nodded and quickly took the lead. She escorted him from the entrance hall through doorways and stairs and small corridors until they reached a basement storeroom. A trapdoor not unlike ones he had previously encountered stood here, hidden between crates and sacks. The subsequent ladder carried them down to another part of the city sewers, where a thin film of water ran in a wide groove.
"It's so peaceful down here," she said and looked around her. "You can just barely hear the babbling of the water."
"I thought it would smell worse too," Lars added.
They walked at a leisurely pace set by Granny Pie. She took her time to enjoy the surroundings, despite Lars' impatience. With nothing to do, he began to nervously caress the hilt of his sword.
These tunnels were regularly maintained and water ran quietly next to them. The walls and surfaces were clean of moist and still brilliantly red. They walked for a long while, Lars continuously scanning the surroundings for any signs of danger. Their only encounter along the way was rats scurrying around on tiny feet. The sewers didn't stay straight for very long before abruptly shooting up or turning 180 degrees. Many rooms contained grates in the floor with several branches.
Granny Pie always knew where to go and didn't stop until they reached a hole on their right. The bricks had been smashed and pulled with great force, some tossed far away and all of them spread across the floor and even into the water. Granny Pie stepped into the hole and they continued ahead through carved caves. Lars often had to stoop to remain unharmed from the low-hanging ceiling. The room they ended up in, however, had plenty of space and was a lot smoother.
"It's just up there," she said and pointed to a dirt mound. Torch light streamed out of an opening on top. Something had caught Lars' attention though. "Are you still with me, Mr Leland?"
"Ah, yes, sorry," he said and followed her again. He stole a last glimpse over his shoulder. "Is that... a steel door?" he pondered.
"Oh... goodness," Granny Pie said from inside the next room, to which Lars hurried up.
"What's wrong?" he asked nervously and came up next to her, but stopped up as speechlessly at her.
His pod was there all right, encapsulated in a large silver bubble whose hatch stood open. Around it however was gathered five ponies in brown-yellow robes. They stared back at them, but threw themselves to the ground upon seeing Lars.
"He's here," one of them said. "Our saviour is finally here."
"May I ask what this is about?" Lars asked confused and went inside.
"You have come from the skies, just like our prophet said you would," another said.
"And now you must kill Celestia so that we may have our future back!"
"What? What are you on about?" Lars asked, unable to keep back his laughter.
"A saviour will come from the skies and give us back that which Celestia stole from us," a white-haired unicorn said dramatically. "Technology..." he added in a whisper.
"Seems like you've got some new friends," Granny Pie said and sniggered.
"Why would you think I would want to help you with all of that, if I even could?" he asked rationally.
"We do not question the words of Swirl the Smart," a brown-haired one said. "Before his death, he always said that a saviour would –"
"Yes, I get the point," Lars said irritated and rubbed his temple. "Would you all just leave me alone?"
"Most certainly, respected saviour, of course," they all chimed, but made no moves to leave.
He was not about to argue with these ponies and instead stepped inside his pod. It was round on the outside, but square inside. The protective bubble was nothing more than an advanced eggshell protecting the vital, inner cryochamber. The hatch was opened on it as well, and excess gasses had escaped to make the floor icy cold. It was almost unbearable with his bare feet, but he would not stay long.
His hand felt the soft interior of the bed, lifting the mattress to check the underside. He went down on all fours and scoured the floor, but there was not much surface to investigate. He exited the pod again and looked at the only six entities that had been in there before him.
"Did any of you take something from this pod?" he asked firmly. He was getting annoyed with how answers kept eluding him, and it became apparent in his tone.
"No, most honoured one, we haven't even dared to go inside," the five robed ponies all said.
"What are you looking for?" Granny Pie asked and walked up to him.
"It's this little green button thing," Lars explained irritably, showing with his fingers just how small it was. "It's vital that I get it back."
"Well maybe you dropped it while I dragged you out of here?"
"No, we would have seen it on the way. ARGH, I'll never find out what happened!" he said and scratched his head frantically.
"How about we go back now? I'll talk with the Princess, and you get some rest. And a shower wouldn't hurt either."
"Sounds good. I'm positively beat."
"Most honoured one, you can't leave us yet!" one of the ponies said, jumping to grab Lars' leg. "We have waited all of our lives for your coming. We beg of you, guide us!"
Lars looked down at the pony with most sympathetic eyes. "I remember young recruits like you, worshipping their superiors like gods. I was one of them myself. But my name is Lars Leland and there is nothing special about me. Please, back off." His tone was insistent without being harsh.
The robed pony got up on her feet while the others ambled closer. There was a gleam of madness in their eyes. Lars pushed Granny Pie behind him and drew his sword.
"Don't do something we're all going to regret," he said firmly, holding the claymore tightly in his fists.
"You have to be the saviour! It can only be you that he told us would come!" They giggled maniacally as they moved like a unified tide of malice. Lars had to swallow a lump but remained steadfast with a secure grip on his weapon.
"No sudden moves," he whispered to Granny Pie. "Just back away slowly."
"You got a plan?" she whispered back at him calmly.
"No. But I don't want anyone unarmed to get hurt."
He backed away from them, drawing them closer to the entrance. They followed him in a paced tempo, certain of their superiority. They walked side by side, closer and closer towards Lars. He stopped just outside the room and pointed the claymore straight at them. Before they could realise what he intended to do, he swung his sword wildly overhead. The claymore sparkled as its edge cut into the rock and soil. The whole place trembled, barely giving him time to tread back before the roof gave in and sealed the chamber off.
"We should let the guards know of this. They probably don't have long before their air runs out."
CHAPTER 2 PART 3: THE RING ON THE SKELETON
There was a knock on the door, making Lars shift in his bed.
"Are you decent?"
He only moaned as he got up on his feet. Granny Pie entered with a tray of warm soup in her mouth, placing it on a desk. Drowsily, Lars said down and took the spoon.
"Oh my, you look tired. Haven't you slept well?" Granny asked and sat down on his bed. Lars allowed the soup to clear his head before answering.
"How long has my pod been down there?"
"I can't say. You being alive, I can't imagine it being long."
"No," he said quietly and clutched the spoon so his knuckles whitened. "I-I thought I had dropped from the sky, and perhaps I really have, but when? That pod could have sustained my life for centuries, if not millennia. Just how long have I been asleep?" His breathing was erratic and his eyes lost, but Granny patted his arm.
"I don't have any answers for you, dearie." Granny gave him a smile. "No one knows how old the tunnels under Canterlot really are. There are even crystal mines in places."
"This just keeps confusing me more and more," he said and leant back in his chair, shielding his eyes with palms.
"I don't think there are any answers for you to find in Equestria. Why don't you just settle down here? Is Equestria not good enough for you?"
"Granny, you don't understand," Lars said angrily and pushed the chair back so it toppled over. "I have to get back to my family."
She simply looked up at him with worried eyes. Lars stamped around the room until his eyes fell on the opposite wall. A pitch-black spear had been put up behind the desk. Mysterious gilded letters had been inscribed on the silvery metal. "Whoa... what's the deal with that thing?"
"The Princess didn't know you had a weapon, so she had a spear brought to you from the royal treasure chamber."
"I thought this was a gift from her," Lars said and looked to the bedpost where his claymore hung in its scabbard.
"I've never seen a sword like that before. It's unlike any that the guard uses."
"Really?" Lars asked in surprise and righted the chair again. "But that must mean –" He didn't finish the sentence and instead sat down with his soup, smiling.
"Maybe the Princess can help you, though. She's the wisest of all ponies."
"Did you talk with her? Can I see her soon?"
"She wants to see you as soon as you are done here."
He nearly choked on his soup. "What? As in now?" he managed to cough as he pounded his chest.
Granny Pie nodded so Lars grabbed the bowl and poured the rest down his gullet. He quickly straightened his corn blonde hair, strapped the sword around his waist and went out of his door. He came to an abrupt end just outside; staring down at the city below him bathed in the waning sun's light.
"Not sure where to go?" Granny Pie asked and chuckled. "Come, I'll show you the way."
His room was at the top of a spire at the other end of the castle complex. The mountains were visible behind and the forests somewhere below. They went down the spiralling stairs, crossed a large garden and then a grand plaza before entering the lobby. A grey unicorn guard was waiting for them and approached them as soon as they stepped inside.
"Oh no. If this is Loyal Crescent again..." Lars noted at the gilded armour.
"Don't worry, dearie. That one is from Celestia's own ranks."
"Mr Leland, we require your assistance," the guard said in a deep voice.
"The Princess is expecting me," Lars said and hardened his voice as well.
"Your meeting has been postponed. This is not a matter that can wait."
Lars looked first at Granny, who merely shrugged, and then back up at the guard. "Well what is it?"
"We discovered a heavy steel door when we excavated your pod. We are hearing moaning from behind it, and fear there may be more trapped."
"So what does this have to do with me?" Lars asked and crossed his arms.
"There is no keyhole and the door is too heavy to move. We thought you might know more as it is only a few paces from your pod."
Lars lowered his gaze. "I don't see how that door could be related to me in any way, but I'll give it a shot."
"Do you want me to escort you?" Granny Pie asked.
"No, I think I know the way by now. I'm more worried about my safety with goblins and fanatics."
"Don't worry, outlander, there are guards stationed in the chamber."
The guard went back to his place by the staircase up to the throne room. Lars looked longingly up at the gilded double doors, knowing that the Princess and his audition had to wait.
"I had been looking forward to this," he said with a touch of melancholy.
"Then you'd better be going," Granny Pie said. "The sooner you get this done, the sooner you can come back here."
She followed him to the basement using the same route as before, through the halls of the castle and down stairs. The hatch was where it had been previously and that was where he waved goodbye to her. She draped her shawl closer around her shoulders as a chill wind escaped the hole.
His bare feet touched down on the cold stone again. He saw for his inner eye the way and made sure to stick with it all throughout the sewers. It took him less time to cover the distance now that he could set the pace for himself. He quickly found the hole in the wall and the chamber inside. The mysterious door he had noticed last time was completely unearthed, its metallic surface dull from grime. Two white pegasuses stood on either side but paid him no mind.
Lars put his ear to the door. There were some sort of sounds behind it, but it wasn't moans. More like whispers that made the hair stand on his arms. He dusted off more of the wall next to the door, uncovering a metallic plate.
"Impossible," he mused. "There's no way this technology could possibly be here."
He placed a hand on the large plate. A green light engulfed his digits and gave a satisfied ding. A soothing female voice escaped the door.
"Good morning, Lars Leland."
He watched impatiently as the heavy steel door slid open, but had to recoil from the widening crack.
"Oh god, what IS that smell?" he asked with a hand covering his nose. Even the guards were moved by the odour, a sickly green colour painting their faces.
Lars gave it a few moments before poking his head inside. The light of torches penetrated the darkness and revealed a consultation room.
"Smells like a... like a..." he tried to say, but opening his mouth brought him closer to throwing up.
"Like a mausoleum," the left guard said perturbed.
"I would say mass grave, but let's go with that," Lars said and went all the way inside.
The first room was devoid of life. Further inside was a conference room. It seemed empty at first as the light was slow to ignite, but he learned otherwise as his eyes got used to the gloom. Skeletal remains were seated around an oblong table, adorned with thick strands of cobweb and dust of ages. The bones rattled ominously as he passed them, but he could see no movement.
"Strange," he muttered and turned towards one of the chairs. He strained his eyes to see, but the light from the tunnel was lost in the room before. "Weird. These skeletons look almost human... nah. Impossible." He stretched out a hand to touch the skull, but stopped himself. "Too morbid," he concluded and laughed nervously.
Once his back was turned, the rattling continued followed by a hiss. He turned his head slowly but saw nothing. "Probably just animals," he mused. He had almost reached the door on the other end when a low hum of generators could be heard. The light kicked in with full power and nearly blinded him. He could see the chairs properly and were all empty.
"What in the name of –"
The skeletons were walking towards him, some still dressed in tattered rags and others with strands of hair on their head. There was no doubt about it now. The skeletons were human remain. Lars hesitated, his head reeling with the consequences of this. He grabbed the doorway for support, a million thoughts racing through his head.
The skeletons came closer, reaching out for his throat with their bony fingers. He shook his head to clear it and reached behind his back. The hilt of the claymore entered his grasp. He yanked it free of his sheath and sunk it deep into the skull of the one nearest. It disintegrated back into a pile of bones.
"Who are you?" he asked but they gave him no answer. "Where are you from?" he asked again as they drew nearer. Still no answer. He attacked them as quickly as they came for him around the table. The sword met little resistance as it cleaved his foes. One by one, the skeletons disappeared in a cloud of dust and scraps of clothing.
"How is this possible?" He knelt down next to one of the piles. Almost all of the bones had been broken by time. Once the magic holding them together was broken, they returned to this state. "Don't tell me that Equestria is..." The sentence was too absurd for him to finish, yet what other explanation could there be? He got up again, wiping his brow. He could feel the bone meal mixing with his sweat to form small clumps of lint.
From the conference room he came to a laboratory of some sort. One side of the room was dedicated to blocky machines and the other for counters. He peeked into various side rooms and saw only more skeletons, all of them having died suddenly and still sitting in position. These did not come to life so Lars left them alone.
There was nothing else for him to do, so he retraced his steps. He had almost crossed the lab when he heard a familiar hiss behind him. He spun around quickly with his weapon already in hand. A skeleton had appeared, dressed in the same kind of deep purple one piece that wore. It had retained its black metal boots though.
"You wanna do this? Let's do this!" Lars said and raised his sword. The skeleton drew its own weapon resembling a red bulb horn. It squeezed the round end like twisting an egg timer.
Lars put his sword away and jumped behind a counter. The next second, a series of loud cracks made glass and wood rain down over him. The undead guard's boots made almost no sounds as it approached him. It peered over the counter edge and fired, but Lars was not there anymore. He had sneaked around the table and now stood behind the skeleton. He swung the sword as hard as he could, but bony fingers wrapped around the blade.
The black, empty sockets turned to gaze at him. The hairs on his arms stood up and all colour drained from his face. He tried to wrest the claymore free, but the skeleton had too good a grip. It finally tossed Lars across the room and then pointed the mysterious gun at him. He struggled to get on his feet quickly, but a yellow light was already escaping the nozzle.
The skeleton suddenly toppled over, firing the gun haphazardly. A guard with a spear had appeared and stood coldly over the fallen skeleton.
"Get away from it!" Lars yelled and readied his sword. Instead, the guard reared and with both front hooves drove the spear into the skeleton's back. It didn't even manage to crinkle the uniform. The skeleton flipped on its stomach and pointed the gun at the guard. It fired several small pellets with the sound of a firecracker. The guard leapt to avoid them, but one crept through his armour. Blood dyed his white coat red as he fell to the floor with a groan.
Lars again swung at the skeleton. It dismissed him with a backhanded slap. He fell to the ground and quickly crawled behind another counter. The guard retreated with him as well while the skeleton tossed its head from side to side to see where everyone had gone.
"This fabric is virtually indestructible," Lars said and pulled on his suit. "Our only chance is to hit the skull, but that monster is the skeleton of a security guard like myself. It will be difficult to overpower him."
"I'll assist you however I can," the guard said with a pant. His face was paling and there was no end to his blood loss.
"Just stay behind cover. There's no way you can be of help to me with that shoulder."
The skeleton towered over them again with its gun aimed at them. Lars reacted instinctively and kicked at it. The hand came loose and flew across the room, still clutching the gun. Lars had the claymore ready above his head and brought it down. The skeleton blocked with its left arm and gut punched him with the stump of the right.
He reeled backwards into a low-hanging cupboard. The painful experience left him dazed for a moment, just enough time for the skeleton to reequip both hand and gun. Just as it was ready to shoot Lars, a spear whizzed through the air and snatched the skull from its neck. The deadly instrument lodged itself in the wall and pulverised the skull.
The skeleton crumbled into dust just as the skeletons before them, its suit folding down over the boots. A ring skipped across the floor before coming to a rest by Lars' bare toes.
A second guard entered the room with a stern face. "Are you all right, Mr Leland?" he asked.
"Yeah I'm fine. It's your partner that needs attention," he said and rubbed his head. His eyes then fell on the ring at his feet. He picked it up, studied it for a moment before putting it into a pocket.
"You're bleeding on your cheek," the guard stated as he went past Lars toward the injured guards. Lars stroked his face and found the guard was right. "You should get that checked. No telling what you could catch down here."
"I'll be fine. I must have cut myself one of those times when that thing tossed me around," he said and noticed his black claymore had a fine layer of red on its edge.
"So what exactly happened here?" the second guard asked. Lars sheathed his claymore and made for the exit.
"I have seen much magic in my own world, but never a place this badly cursed by dark arts. You have to seal this entire area off, you understand? No one can ever come down here," Lars said steadfast.
The guard nodded, so Lars went to investigate the heap of clothes. He picked up the boots and poured out the dust inside them, but dropped them quickly again. "Such small feet," he noted disappointedly and hung his shoulders. He shuffled outside again, but perked up the further he got away from the chamber. He was rubbing his hands and smiling by the time he returned to the surface. Granny Pie was waiting for him in the entrance hall and beckoned him to crouch.
"Look at you beaming like that. Did something happen down there?" she asked as she ruffled his dirty blonde hair to get all the dust out.
"Yeah. I can't explain it, but there are all kinds of human technology beneath Equestria's soil. Maybe if I can find the right treasure trove, I can get home to my own time and space."
"I'm glad to hear that," Granny Pie said motherly and released him with a smile, "but the Princess is still waiting for you."
"Right," he said and looked up at the enticing doors. The stairs were marbled with a red rug hugging the steps. The first floor was equally adorned with guards, none of them looking at him. They opened the doors for him and retracted their spears.
The throne room was as cavernous as most other rooms with guards lining the walls. At the very end stood a golden throne with water running out of the sides and into a pool surrounding it. Upon it sat Celestia, serenely observing him as he confidently strode up along the red carpet. He went down on one knee before her and bowed his head low.
"I am Princess Celestia, ruler of Equestria. I hope your accommodations have been to your likings and that you will accept my sincerest apologies," the Princess said, her hair waving from an unfelt wind. "I am currently busy preparing for this year's Summer Sun Celebration."
"Oh, uhm... that's quite all right, Your Majesty. That sounds more important than a poor soldier." He clutched his chest and bowed his head.
"Do not humble yourself needlessly, Lars Leland: Summer Sun Celebration is a solstice festival and it means a lot to my ponies. Rise." He looked up at her surprised, but she merely smiled serenely down at him. "I already know who you are and I also know what you have been doing for my guard captain. He thinks I don't know about the whispers in Canterlot, but what kind of Princess would I be if I remained deaf to their pleas? If Crescent Heartstrings asks for something again, why don't you humour him for me."
Lars had a nervous tic before replying. "With all due respect, Your Majesty, Loyal Crescent is a dodgy stallion. I suspect him of several ties with shady deals."
She was silent for a long moment with closed eyes. A ghost of grief passed her face before replying again. "I don't act on rumours alone, certainly not regarding my most trusted guard. His services are invaluable and Canterlot would be nothing without his firm hoof."
"Y-yes Your Majesty," Lars replied and bowed his.
"If I may call you Lars Leland, you can just call me Celestia as well. Now tell me, for what reason have you come to Equestria?"
"I have none, You... Celestia. From what little I can gather, it seems I came here in an escape pod a long time ago. Why I would need to abandon my spaceship still eludes me."
"Come," Celestia said. Lars retarded for a moment before complying. He approached the Princess warily, but she simply chortled at him. "There is no need to be afraid."
"S-sorry. We don't have royalty where I come from so I'm a little unaccustomed."
"It's okay. Relax and empty your head of thoughts," she said serenely and bowed her head. Her horn tapped his crown and began to glow.
He was bathed in a comforting light for a while. When the Princess released him, he staggered backwards and nearly fell down the stairs.
"Do you remember now?" she asked. He shook his head.
"No, but I feel oddly refreshed. Like a tiredness I didn't even know has been lifted." He looked at his hands like noticing them for the first time.
"Whenever you feel like you can't go on, focus on your most treasured memory. You will find renewed strength. Enjoy your stay here, Lars Leland, and try not to get yourself into any more trouble."
"Thank you," he said and bowed his upper body. "I don't want to sound rude, but I'll be trying to find a way to go home."
"Home is where the heart is, after all. Is there anything I might do to help?"
"Well," Lars stated hesitantly and reached into his pockets. The guards shuffled with their spears at the motion, but Lars held up the ring for them to see. Celestia took it from his hands with her magic and levitated it before her eyes.
"What is this?" she asked transfixed on the object and twirled it in midair.
"A teleportation device, your majesty. A small unit like that will only have a few fixed coordinates imprinted in, but with it I could have gone somewhere useful. It's broken though, but there might be others out there. Perhaps you know of other places with human technology?"
Celestia shook her head shortly and dropped the ring down next to her. "None that I can think of. Do you mind if I hold on to this?"
"No, sure. It's not like it will be of any use to me anyway."
"Summer Sun Celebration is tomorrow," she said with a smile. "I will assign Mrs Pie to escort you, if you will accept my cordial invitation."
"Might as well. Long life to you," Lars said and straightened his legs. He put his closed fist under his chin and then stretched it out in salute, bowed and returned. "Why do I get the feeling something bad's bound to happen?" he muttered as a chill shivered down his spine.