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E ric 'Boston' Schneider stealthily advanced through the bracken. He and his companions had successfully avoided the various man-traps that dotted the trail, and managed to evade, for the most part, the small but fearsome dinosaurs that frequented this peninsular. Locating his objective, he parted the foliage at the cliff's edge and peered through binoculars. Yes! There, the great triangular doorway set into the opposite wall of the canyon, flanked by two huge stone horses. And guarding the way… He frowned. He could see movement in the shadows: fragments of pastel colour; small bulky figures of improbable proportion. He looked down at the ancient map again and read the small notation beside the location of the portal:
Latin wasn't his strong point: he was happier with C++, but… let's see now… Praecaveo would be "Beware": that was fairly standard. Mea: my? And Minimus was easy: "small" or "insignificant". But what was Mannus? He looked through the binoculars again as his companion and current employer pushed through the bracken beside him. Ah, there! The sun was a little higher now, driving back the deep shadow of the gorge, exposing… Oh, no…
Eric rolled over on his back and groaned. My Little Ponies. Why did it have to be My Little Ponies?
His companion took the binoculars from his unresisting fingers and took a look herself. "Shetlands," she said. "Very dangerous." She grinned. "You go first."
"Ladies first?" he suggested hopefully.
"Doctor Schneider," said the exotic creature beside him. "You had doubts as to whether I qualified as a 'lady' before you led me to that god-forsaken theme park. If I didn't rate the term then, I sure as Hell don't now. That's why we're here, remember? eeeeHAAAW!!! AAAGH! I hate it when that happens!"
Eric rolled back onto his side and regarded Miss Cara Loft. Her adventuring career had left its mark on her - specifically one adventure. An injudicious sampling from the magic spring-water of fabled Pleasure Island had transformed her temporarily into a she-ass. Whereas Eric had controlled his own transformation by using the Vessel of Gipetto and had thus had the means to make a full return to humanity, Ms Loft's reverse transformation had not been quite as thorough… Her once alabaster skin was now lightly dusted with short black fur. A long ass's tail snaked from her customised shorts, and she still had a tall pair of donkey ears. There were other alterations: a certain length of face and a hint of muzzle-ness about the face; a slightly fully rump than she might once have sported; a slightly odd way of walking as if the proportions of her legs was slightly out. Her black tresses, once sported in a long, plaited ponytail, now formed a bristly Mohican ridge. Eric thought the alterations were rather cute and a great improvement. The involuntary brays that plagued her speech when she got excited were also cause for great amusement, although wild Shetlands would not have torn that admission from him…
Speaking of which…
"What do you suggest?" he asked hopefully. There were at least twenty of the diminutive equines that he could see, their coats dyed in pastel colours and their quarters decorated with Shetland battle-glyphs: cherries, ice-cream cones, and fluffy clouds for the most part.
"I suggest you come up with a plan."
"I knew you were going to say that." Morosely, he slapped his flat cap back on stalked back to where Prophet was guarding their supplies. "Shetlands. I hate those guys…"
The current quest was a simple one: Cara didn't share Eric's equine ideals. She wanted to be fully human again. Cosmetic surgery hadn't worked: anything surgically removed grew back in a few hours. She had poured a great deal of money into research - all to no avail. An evening of grousing on the 'phone to Eric (mostly along the lines of, "This is all your fault.") had ended abruptly when Eric, privy to the Sphinx's Great Library of Equestria, had commented casually, "Oh, you need the Brush of Epona." Since then he'd had ample time to thank the Powers that the conversation had been on the phone: there had been several seconds of silence punctuated by heavy breathing, then in a dangerously quiet voice, "How long, precisely, have you known that?"
"Oh, several months."
"I see. And do you know how much money I have spent on fruitless research into this matter?"
"Uh, not precisely…"
"Two and a half million pounds!!! EeeeeeeHAW!!!!"
When she calmed down (only a couple of weeks) she had enlisted his help to travel to the long lost Temple of Epona, the Celtic horse-goddess.
When they reached camp, Prophet, Eric's naturally equine partner in crime (naturally equine and naturally criminal) was leaning against a packing case and looking nonchalant - never a trustworthy sign.
"Didn't anyone ever tell you not to buy a horse that whistles?" Cara asked. She wasn't fond of Prophet. By contrast, Prophet was very fond of her, though he'd so far only managed to snatch one small mouthful.
"I don't think they meant Tennessee Stud." Eric went over to the crates and began rummaging through them. He halted suddenly and looked at the gory remains behind them. "Prophet," he said reproachfully. "Have you been eating 'raptors again?"
Pinky-Pie saw the outlanders first and licked her lips in anticipation. Then she looked again and saw that of the three strangers, one was fully equine and the other two were at least partially so. The end result might be the same but she was required to go through the tedious ceremony of passage first. She signalled Rainbow-Prancer. "Go tell Dream-Cloud he can expect visitors in the near future. Tell him if the trapdoor sticks again, it'll be him who nourishes the Vampire Slugs."
"Hearing and obeying," Rainbow answered, vanishing with alacrity. Pinky-Pie was not the most patient Captain he had ever known.
Pinky-Pie sighed and formed up her squad. She advanced on the outlanders and folded her forelegs in a neat curtsie.
"Well, what do you know," Cara murmured in Eric's ear. "They look friendly, and they're not carrying arms."
Prophet gave her a Look and Eric sighed. "Cara, Shetlands always look friendly, and the only arms they ever carry are the bloodied ones that used to be attached to their enemies' shoulders."
The puce individual who had curtsied now straightened and said in a thick dialect, "Hi there! Who are you? I'm Pinky-Pie!" (I grant you stay of execution so that you may formerly identify yourselves. I am She Who Reduces Infidels To Small Bloody Shreds). Her voice was a high descant with a slight but cute lisp.
"Um, hi," Eric offered. "I am Doctor Eric Schneider."
"Oh! The man that collects magic horsey things! They talked about you at school!" (The eminent specialist in equine relics? I heard of your exploits while studying for my PhD in advanced weapons technology at MIT)
"And this is my associate, Prophet…"
Prophet made a small rumbling noise deep in his chest, which Pinky-Pie correctly understood as Touch my Human and this Infidel will show YOU some bloody shreds. She gave a nod of respect to him.
"…And finally Miss Cara Loft, the famous adventurer."
"I love your cute ears!" (Nice ass) "Have you come here to play?" (I assume you are here to be tested for your worthiness to approach the Altar of the Goddess?)
"Um…" Eric hesitated. "Yes?"
"Next time someone asks you if want to play, you say 'No'," growled Cara in Eric's ear. Amid much shrill, gleeful whinnying, the threesome had been herded into the temple to a portal where a thick iron door stood open to admit them. Beyond was a dim corridor lined with thick stone blocks. It was a pretty standard setup and none of them was very surprised when the door slammed shut behind them. It would open again if they returned with what they sought.
Eric took down a burning torch from an iron sconce on the wall.
"I have a torch," Cara said.
"This is fine."
"It's dynamo-powered. Ultra-bright LEDs."
Eric sighed. "I know, but this is tradition. Besides, it's not even that dark."
This was true: Shafts in the roof admitted sunlight at regular intervals, making rectangular pools of light on the dusty floor. Eric dug out his map and frowned at it. Cara started forward.
"Stop!" Eric raised a hand to stop her. "Stay out of the light."
Cara froze on the edge of the first square of sunlight. "Oh! You mean it's one of those cunning traps that fires spikes or something when you interrupt the beam…"
"Um, no, I'm trying to read the map and you're blocking the light."
Eric studied the map for a minute. "Hmm. There would appear to be three tests for the supplicant."
"Oh, there's a surprise," Cara said sarcastically. "Why is it never two or four? Three tests then. Go on."
"The first is the Footsteps of Epona. Ahem. Tread in the footsteps of Epona if you would follow your Goddess."
"What does that mean?"
"Well, let's head along and find out."
Cautiously they made their way along the corridor. Although he was ninety-nine percent sure, Eric waved his hat through the sunlight, but no banks of spears appeared, and the ground was, thus far, reassuringly solid.
Around a bend the corridor opened into a large chamber. It was largely featureless, but on the opposite side of the room was a closed door on which was depicted in relief a horse from behind. Before this was an ornate woven rug, and in the stone floor before that, two 'U' shaped indentations on the floor, about a foot-and-a-half apart.
"Aha!" Cara cried. "Tread in the footsteps! One… Two!"
"Wait!" shouted Eric at the same time as Prophet gave a neigh of alarm. A huge shutter of stone came crashing down, blocking off the corridor they had just left. Then the ceiling began to descend.
"What when wrong?" demanded Cara, looking around wildly. "HeeeeHAW! Damn!"
"How many legs has a horse got?" Eric snapped at her.
"Four?" faltered Cara. "Oh…"
Eric swept the rug aside to reveal two more hoof-shaped indentations. "Prophet?"
The bay shouldered Cara Loft aside and placed each of his four hooves in the indentations. There was a satisfying Chonk! and the ceiling halted in its downward movement and then began to rise swiftly, taking the stone shutter with it. A serious of smaller clicks followed and the door before them swung open.
Cara hung back now, and in a meeker voice asked, "Um, what's next?"
"Er, the Leap of Faith. Let your hooves take flight in your pursuit of your Goddess."
"That sounds ominous."
"I hope you like heights."
The corridor continued beyond the door, or at least, the walls and ceiling did. The floor had been omitted though, leaving a pit about fifteen feet wide.
"Can you manage that?" Eric asked Prophet.
The bay made a confident rumble. Trotting to the side of the chamber they'd entered by, he surged forward suddenly, and launched himself gracefully across the yawning darkness. A moment later he had landed safely on the far side and turned to watch the others.
"You could have carried us!" Cara complained.
"And taken your head of on the ceiling?" Eric suggested.
"I knew that."
"There's a bar across the ceiling halfway across," Eric pointed out. "I think we're supposed to make use of that."
"You brought some rope?"
"Not exactly." Eric produced his trusty schooling whip.
"Oh, you're kidding me! That's never going to hold our weight!"
"Trust me. I've had this whip a long time," Eric said defensively.
"I am not swinging across on that," Cara said firmly.
"Well, if you're sure…" Eric moved to the lip of the pit, gauged the distance, and gave a deft flick of the whip. The cord caught the bar first time and wound around several times: he tugged it tight against itself and gave a tug. It seemed firm. Gripping the shaft of the whip, he leant back and then swung.
The traverse seemed to take several seconds longer than it should have done - long enough for that picnic-table episode with Lance to play before his eyes again. This was beneficial - the drop held no horrors compared to that embarrassment. Then Prophet was there with a helpful pair of teeth.
"Thanks," Eric said. "I think. Ow. You know, you could have gripped my sleeve, or something like that?" He surveyed the neat set of teeth marks in his hand.
Prophet gave an eloquent snort that said very obviously, Well, yes, I suppose I could have done but that just wouldn't have been in character.
"Are you okay?" Cara called, actually sounding mildly concerned. "That looked really painful."
If I ignore the lacerated flesh, the sensation is exquisite. "I'm fine," he called. "Your turn." He swung the whip handle to her.
She caught it, and tugged at it. "I don't know…" The whip abruptly came untied. Cara yelped a four letter obscenity and brayed loudly. "No way!"
"You didn't keep the tension on it," Eric said. "It'll be fine. What's the worse that can happen?"
"I plummet to my death and you keep the half a million deposit I paid you," she answered sourly.
"You see? Not so bad from where I'm standing," he agreed amicably.
She snarled. "Yeah, the other side. That's not funny, Schneider."
He turned away. "Ah well, I understand. And besides, you look kind of cute like that, Donkey-girl."
"EeeeeHAW!!! WHAT DID YOU CALL ME?"
Before Eric could turn back to face her there was a swish, a crack, another swish, and the muzzle of one of Cara Loft's self-loading automatic pistols was pressed against his temples. "Don't ever call me… eeeeeHAW... Donkey-girl again," she hissed through gritted teeth.
"Hi, Cara. Glad you could join us."
"One day you're going to be too clever, Boston Schneider, and I hope I'm there with a pocket camcorder." She put the gun away.
He rubbed his forehead where the gun had left an imprint. This hurt his hand where Prophet's teeth had left an imprint. "Ow."
Again the corridor turned a bend and opened into a large chamber. A large opening in the ceiling bathed the place in sunlight - Eric wondered how that was done. By his calculations, there were deep underground and it was long passed noon. It had also been overcast when they'd entered. He shrugged and looked around. Two things immediately grabbed the attention. The first was the stone pedestal on which their objective lay… no, it wasn't lying: it was hovering a few inches above the stone surface, rotating slowly. A brush, designed to fit in the palm, of solid gold. Relief images of horses surrounded it. The bristles were of some unidentified iridescent fibre that seemed to fade in and out of reality as the brush turned.
The second thing that caught the attention was the rank of stone horses surrounding the pedestal to form a ring about thirty feet across. All of them faced the pedestal, and all of them bore the same ominous feature: though the mouth and eyes were simply carved details, the flared nostrils of every statue were small, dark holes. Each statue had its ears laid back. In fact every one looked distinctly hostile.
"Unfriendly," Eric commented. "Looks like you when I've glanced at another horse," he said to Prophet. The bay snorted and snapped in his direction.
Eric looked at the map again and read the final inscription. Damn this Latin!
"What does it say?" Cara asked, her eyes locked on the golden artefact.
"The Regard of the Goddess. Only when her many aspects regard you with favour shall you gain the symbol of your Goddess. Hmm. Let's see now…" Eric carefully approached the nearest statue. He was wary of the fact that, whilst perfectly safe from this statue, he wasn't about to swear that one of the statues on the opposite side of the ring wasn't pointing straight at him. Treading carefully in case there was some kind of pressure-switch in the floor, he made a sudden leap and scrambled onto the back of the statue. Cara caught her breath but nothing appeared to happen.
Eric carefully ran his hands up the sides of the horse's neck and then touched the ears. There was movement there! They appeared to be hinged at the base. Carefully, gritting his teeth, he raised the ears until they reach the zenith, where, with a click, they latched. He leaned out to the side and regarded his handiwork. Yes! The horse now looked alert rather than hostile: ears pricked high.
"Got it," he said. "Raise the ears on every statue. Go!"
Working swiftly, the three of them raised the ears of each and every statue. Eric double checked and then made his way stealthily toward the pedestal. As he neared it, he could hear a faint, metallic chiming from the artefact; almost musical in nature.
He drew a deep breath as he reached the pedestal. This was it. He stood before the artefact, arms either side of it, and flexed his fingers. He swallowed nervously. Across the room, Cara was unconsciously echoing his movements, caught in the moment. Prophet yawned.
Taking no chances, Eric took his time, then grabbed the hovering object and threw himself to the floor. Poison-tipped death failed to fill the air. He counted to five, and cautiously raised his head. He stood, looking around, and a grin spread across his face. "Hey, that wasn't so bad!"
A heavy grinding sound caused three heads and two pairs of ears to turn quickly. It was the sort of sound that might be made by heavy stone blocks grinding together, or maybe a giant boulder being released. Or it might have been a statue of a horse coming to life. Or indeed, several of them. A veritable herd in fact.
"No fair!" Eric protested. "We solved the puzzle!"
Prophet whinnied for attention and urgently flagged his tail up and down. It took a moment to sink in and then Eric groaned.
"What?" Cara demanded, drawing one gun as she nervously backed away from the increasingly animated statues. "What did we miss?"
"The tails! We should have risen the tails as well as the ears. They were all clamped down flat: stress position."
Twenty stone horses, all as large as Prophet turned to look at the interlopers. The previously inert eyes now began to glow with a dull blue light, and the ears, pair by pair, began to flatten again. Twenty stone forehooves raked the ground as one with a sound like a Buick misjudging a turn around a concrete building.
"Um, run," Eric said, turning to find both companions had already done just that. Prophet cleared the pit trap as easily as he had previously, and Cara showed none of her previous trepidation as she snagged the bar with the schooling whip she still held and swung across. The cord slipped as she swung and came undone, but she landed safely on the far side.
"Throw me the whip!" yelled Eric.
"Throw me the Brush!" returned Cara. "No time to argue! EeeeeHAW!!! Throw me the Brush: I'll throw you the whip!"
There really was no time to argue: Eric carefully threw the artefact into her waiting hands. He half expected Cara to abandon him at this point, but just as she was about to drop the whip, Prophet made a noise like Ahem! in her left ear. She flinched, offered Eric a sheepish smile and threw him the whip.
None too soon, as stone hooves echoed on the floor behind him, Eric caught the bar with the whip and leapt across, piling into Cara and Prophet. "RUN!"
They pelted down across the room with the hoof-prints as the first of the stone horses jumped effortlessly across the pit. As Prophet and Cara exited rapidly, Eric leapt hop-scotch fashion onto two of the prints and then flung himself forward as the stone shutter fell. He almost lost his hat as it fell from his head, but there are certain conventions to be observed in these situations, and in the last split-second before the door hit the ground, he snatched it to safety.
He wasn't sure whether the ceiling trap would harm the stone horses, but the stone shutter had at least brought them a breathing space. He caught up with Cara and Prophet as they burst out into the temple-main. All three skidded to a halt in front of the assembled might of the Mea Mannus Minimus.
"You did it!" (I see you were successful) shrilled Pinky-Pie. "Cool!" (Congratulations).
Eric waited nervously for the massed Shetlands to attack, but to his amazement, every animal suddenly bent its forelegs and bent its head to the ground. He turned to see Cara holding the brush aloft.
"Well, well, well," she said. "At last. Now to be rid of these cursed ears, and this stupid mane and tail! Uh, how do you use it, exactly?"
"It's a brush," Eric said. "How do you think you use it? Are you sure you want to use it right now though?"
"Why? I thought you said it would remove my curse."
"Oh, it will," Eric assured her. "I'm just not certain if that will be the only effect. We should research it a bit first…"
"I'll take the chance," Cara said, and so saying, lifted the brush and ran it across her Mohican-like mane.
The effect was immediate. At once her ears began to shorten, and her spiky hair relaxed into a silken flow of black hair.
"YES!" exulted Cara Loft.
But the changes didn't halt there.
"NO!" cried Cara Loft.
Her ears shortened, but not all the way. Her ass's tail darkened and bushed into something much horsier. Then her body began to barrel, and her legs altered proportion, as hands and feet became neat, black hooves. Epona's Brush bounced to the floor. She grew, so rapidly that her clothing almost exploded off her. In the space of ten seconds, where Cara Loft had stood on two more-or-less human legs, there now stood a finely formed black mare, with the delicate features of a thoroughbred. Prophet gave a whinny of appreciation.
In a voice which had altered not one jot, Cara said, "If you so much as think 'I told you so,' Schneider, you'll be as much a gelding as your companion before you reach the third syllable."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Eric said hastily, sidling around Prophet so that the horse was between him and Cara. He didn't think his chances of reaching one of her discarded guns was very good. He did manage to hook one foot around Epona's Brush however, and quickly appropriated it.
"Oh, you're so pretty!" (A great improvement) Pinky-Pie exclaimed. "What shall we play now?" (What are your orders, o new High Priestess?)
"I'm your new High Priestess?" Cara blurted, evidently startled to understand the pink Shetland now. "Well, now… How about a nice game of Kill the Infidels?"
"Our favourite game!" (No translation required) Pinky-Pie's eyes glinted crimson.
Eric and Prophet shrank together. "Uh, looks like this might be it, pal," Eric murmured. Prophet rumbled a nervous agreement. They prepared to make whatever futile, desperate defence might be possible.
Distraction arrived in the nick of time, as the door to the Shrine suddenly rang with a heavy blow. A second blow buckled it and a third smashed it from its hinges. Massive stone figures emerged from the billowing dust: massive angry stone figures. Chaos ensued as My Little Pony met Your Massive Horse.
Almost before the wrecked door had hit the ground, Eric was astride Prophet's back, and Prophet was gouging grooves in the stone floor as he attempted to commence a full gallop from a standing start without all that time-consuming acceleration business in between. It was a very respectable attempt, and the two were gone from the temple before Cara managed to assert control over the situation. "Get them!" she neighed. "Bring them back here… alive if you must!"
It was not altogether an unfamiliar situation for Boston Schneider. The chasing horde of pastel-coloured Shetlands and thundering granite guardians was almost like an accolade, and he was not at all fazed when they burst through a pack of wandering Velociraptors. The bipedal lizards screamed in outrage and joined the melee. Eric managed to disable one with some clever use of the schooling whip. Prophet seized another with glee, savagely biting through its neck and then using brute strength to use the dead dinosaur as a flair to attack another. Somewhat dismayed at this ferocity, the remaining 'raptors milled about in confusion before joining the main body of the chase. Prophet kept on going, the mangled body of his victim still bouncing from his jaws.
"We're going to have words about that," Eric told him severely. "You know you aren't supposed to snack when we're out on a ride. But just for now let's keep going."
Familiar as he was with this style of exit, Eric always had an escape plan. In this particular case, the escape plan was happily up to his elbows in grease as he tweaked the engine of his silver Mazda pickup. For Bob, the exercise was one of pure enjoyment - little could be added to the tender care already lavished upon the powerful three-litre engine. Finishing up, he was now wiping away a smidgeon of excess grease with a lovingly applied rag.
Bob looked around, frowning. He was sure he'd just heard…
"Bob! Start the engine, Bob!"
That sounded like Eric's voice. And behind it… was that thunder? An earthquake?
Bob closed the pickup's hood and peered in the direction of the sound. Ah! There he was, cresting that hill, riding Prophet. Bob waved. The guy seemed to be in a bit of a hurry.
"Bob! Start the engine, NOW!!!"
What was that following him? A huge cloud of dust, within which a large number of creatures were pounding along. Many of them looked like equines of some description though there were some very improbable colours in there. And were those dinosaurs with them? Yes, perhaps it was time to start the engine.
The Mazda awoke with a throaty purr. Long used to bailing Eric our of situations like this, he knew exactly how to handle the situation. As Prophet galloped nearer, Bob began driving, allowing the thoroughbred to come along side. Eric deftly transferred to the pickup and insinuated himself through the passenger side window, leaving Prophet free to hurl himself into the specially padded bed behind.
"Drive!" panted Eric, looking behind them.
Bob needed no second urging: it looked like quite a grim crew on his friends' heels. They had no chance against the Mazda though, and Eric gave a sigh of relief as their troubles were left behind them.
"So did you get it?" Bob enquired.
Eric sighed happily and produced the gleaming Artefact.
"What about Cara? Don't tell me you lost her?"
"Only deliberately. She got what she wished for and didn't appreciate it very much." He filled Bob in on Cara's transformation.
"Hmm. I guess you could say she gave you the brush-off, hm?"
Eric groaned. Bob grinned. "Bad hair day?"
"Bob, don't start. It's been a hard day. I hate Shetlands, Bob. I hate 'em!"
"Come on, show a little backbone, will ya?"
Prophet made a sound like Ptui! and four feet of velociraptor spinal column landed in Bob's lap.
"Uh, that wasn't quite what I meant…"
As the Mazda continued to increase the distance between them and the Temple of Epona, Eric leaned back and pulled his cap down over his eyes. All in all things hadn't worked out too badly, he decided. Back to civilisation now. Then it might be time for a wash and Brush-up.