Celestia's Sun was rising smoothly in the East, casting its warm glow over the desolate mountain ruins. What had once been a sprawling complex of pristine ivory and gleaming gold was now crumbled, dusty, tarnished.
A chill wind blew through the courtyard where Rainbow Dash was facing down the mysterious Pony-in-Black. Dressed as he was, his back to the sunrise, he was an inky spot swimming in Dash's vision. Both ponies were balanced on their hind legs, each gripping a delicate-but-deadly rapier. The rainbow-maned pegasus was confident in her skills, but the Pony-in-Black was an unknown quantity. She would have to feel him out first.
Dash began with a simple feint, testing the Pony-in-Black's blade with her own. He responded as expected, parrying the initial move and turning his head from the casual swipe that followed. The two ponies circled each other slowly, then the Pony-in-Black mimed the move back at Dash. She smirked. This would be fun.
Maintaining a polite distance, the two traded blows. High, then low; overhoofed and under. Dash began to put on the pressure, trying to push the Pony-in-Black into the uneven terrain of a fallen wall. But despite keeping his eyes locked on the pegasus, the masked stallion seemed to have no trouble navigating backwards up the uneven slope.
"Think you're smart, using Bronyetti's Defense against me?" the rainbow-maned mare teased.
"I thought it fitting, considering the rocky terrain," replied the Pony-in-Black.
"No kidding. Bet you think I'm gonna attack with Croupo Ferro."
"I kid you not. But I find that Tuigpaard cancels out Croupo Ferro, don't you?"
Dash answered with a fierce horizontal slash to the chest. The Pony-in-Black did a back flip off the fallen wall, landing with grace back on the level courtyard.
"Unless the enemy has studied her Ariegeois!" Dash leapt over the masked stallion's head, executing a flawless somersault-with-a-twist and landing on his opposite side. "Which I have!"
The Pony-in-Black bowed in respect, then the two resumed fencing. Now it was the stallion who cranked up the pressure, pushing Dash backwards towards the cliff.
"You really know your stuff!" admired the pegasus.
"Oh, it's all in the wrist. You want to give a little twist when you run somepony through, so the blade doesn't catch on any of the sticky bits inside," the Pony-in-Black elaborated. Seeing the mare's face blanch, he gave a little chuckle, though it wasn't mean-spirited. "Surely, you've killed a pony before?"
"Of course I have!" Dash countered hotly. "Well, one or two. And don't call me Shirley! The name's Rainbow Dash and I'm gonna show you why."
"I am a pegasus, after all!" Dash spread her wings and took to the air, ignoring what she thought was a disappointed frown on the stallion's face. "Blink and you'll miss it!"
Rainbow Dash wound herself up and took off at full-speed, leaving a streak of prismatic color in her wake. She circled the Pony-in-Black like a whirlwind, darting in and out with lightning fast flicks of her rapier. To his credit, the stallion did not panic or even get the least bit winded, dancing out of the way of her blade and parrying when necessary.
Growing frustrated, Dash overcommitted to a lunge and the Pony-in-Black seized the opportunity. He encircled the pegasus' blade with his own and knocked it from her grip. She stopped cold, blinked at the masked stallion, then glanced to where her sword had landed, stuck point-first in the dirt some fifteen feet away.
The Pony-in-Black smirked and tilted his head, graciously allowing Dash to withdraw and recover her sword.
"Who are you?" she asked with genuine curiosity.
"Nopony of consequence," the stallion replied.
"C'mon, you gotta tell me."
"Get used to disappointment."
Her opponent gave a salute, raising his own blade before his face, then charged. He was on her in a flash, causing Dash to quail and beat a hasty retreat. Her wings flapped with fervor, but she could not safely ascend with the Pony-in-Black doggedly crowding her stance.
Now the Pony-in-Black was just toying with Dash. His rapier was moving faster than she could keep up. It whipped around her, making the mare's eyes spin. He swiped at her rainbow-hued mane and in a wild instant, Dash feared he had lopped off an ear, but a quick check confirmed it was still attached.
That momentary distraction was all the stallion needed. He disarmed the pegasus once more and a firm touch of his blade to her neck forced Dash to her knees. She was beaten. Humiliated. Again.
"Kill me quickly," she pleaded, tears rising in her eyes.
The mysterious masked pony circled around behind her, his sword never leaving its mark, but the fatal slash did not come. "I would as soon destroy a stained-glass window as an artist like yourself. However, since I can't have you following me, either..."
Rainbow Dash felt the sharp knock of the pommel of her opponent's sword on her skull and she promptly blacked out.
"Please understand, I hold you in the highest respect," apologized the Pony-in-Black. He sheathed his rapier and soon melted into the shadows of the ruin, following the trail of the pegasus' confederates.
The caverns inside the mountain were deep and extensive. The natural formations of water, limestone, and assorted other minerals created a breathtaking gallery of multi-hued cliffs and pillars that Big Macintosh simply had no time to enjoy.
The weight of Princess Rarity draped across his broad back only reminded the giant stallion what further unpleasantness lay ahead. She was silent now, perhaps coming to terms with her impending fate.
And speaking of unpleasantness ahead, Trixie was hurriedly picking her way through the stalagmites, following a magical thread of light that she had laid previously. The glittering trail disappeared as they advanced, seeming to be sucked back into the unicorn's glowing horn.
The echo of galloping hooves followed them into the caverns and Trixie spun around, catching sight of a black-clad stallion searching for a path of his own into the earth's depths.
"Inconceivable!" Trixie gaped. Even without a trail, it would not be long before the Pony-in-Black gained on the brigands. "Mactintosh, give her to me. You stay here!"
The blue unicorn roughly tugged Rarity off Big Mac's back by the ropes, then prompted the princess to hobble on with a prod of her hoof.
"What do I do?" asked Macintosh, confused.
Trixie affixed her withering glare upon him. "Finish him. Finish him your way!"
"Oh, good. My way. Thank you, Trixie," the big red stallion drawled, rolling his eyes sarcastically. "Which way is my way?"
"Get behind one of the stalagmites," she snapped. "In a few minutes, the Pony-in-Black will have picked up our trail and come running right through here. The minute he's close enough, kick over the stalagmite and crush him under the rocks!"
"My way's not very sportin'-like," Mac observed.
Resigned to his duty, the giant identified a suitably-sized pillar of the mineral deposits to hide his massive frame, and ducked behind it. Sure enough, it wasn't long before the Pony-in-Black had divined the hoof marks of his quarry and followed them right up to Macintosh's hiding place.
The mysterious masked pony was paying close attention to the trail and failed to immediately notice the shadow that was crossing his path. He looked up, too late, and the falling stalagmite struck... the cavern floor just in from of him. He whirled around, rapier drawn, to see a giant red stallion step out from behind the crushed lump of limestone.
"I did that on purpose," Big Macintosh explained. "I didn't hafta miss."
"I believe you," the Pony-in-Black declared. "So, what happens now?"
"We face each other as Celestia intended. Or not intended, 'cause She didn't much approve of fightin' and such. Aww hay, you know what I mean. No tricks or weapons. Just you an' me havin' a tussle."
"You mean, I'll put down my sword and you'll stop kicking over monoliths, and we'll try to kill each other like civilized ponies?"
"I could kill you now," Mac pointed out, leaning on another towering column.
"Frankly, I think the odds are slightly in your favor at hoof-fighting," the Pony-in-Black noted, although he set down his rapier all the same.
"It ain't my fault for being the biggest and the strongest. I dun even exercise."
The two stallions faced each other down and the difference between them was quite apparent, Big Mac being more than double the mysterious masked pony's size.
Determined not to seem intimidated, the Pony-in-Black grit his teeth and charged, colliding with Mac's broad chest. The larger stallion smiled benevolently. With apparently no counterattack incoming, the Pony-in-Black seized the initiative and gave as mighty a heave as he could managed, but the mountain of muscle barely budged. He tried a leg lock on Mac's forelimbs. He even tried tickling under Mac's chin, but got no reaction.
"Are you just fiddling around with me, or what?" the Pony-in-Black demanded.
"I'll be honest: I ain't too keen on this killin' thang. I'm kinda hopin' you'll just give up and leave."
"I'm afraid I can't do that."
The giant stallion sighed and reached out for his opponent, but the Pony-in-Black wasn't going to wait around. He tucked into a roll between Big Mac's legs and came out behind him.
"Golly, you're quick as a jackalope, ain't ya?"
"And a good thing, too."
"Why do you wear a mask? Go bobbin' for apples in a barrel of lye or somethin'?"
"No, it's just that they're terribly comfortable." Although they chatted amicably enough, Macintosh was now swiping at the Pony-in-Black with dinner plate-sized hooves. The masked pony ducked and dodged, as any single blow could have crushed his skull. "I think everypony will be wearing them in the future," he continued, waiting for an opportunity.
It came when Macintosh turned to deliver a shattering kick. His hooves crushed the limestone wall to dust and missed the Pony-in-Black completely, who had leapt over it. He sat on the big red stallion's back, seized the wooden yoke Mac still wore, and jerked up on it with as much strength as his smaller frame could muster.
Macintosh's eyes bulged and he stumbled. "Hey!" he choked out. "That's--cheatin'!"
"Pirate's aren't known for playing fair," the Pony-in-Black countered, straining to keep his grip.
"That--how--ya beat--Ms. Dash?" the larger stallion growled, anger now coming through in his voice. He planted his hooves and tried to buck the black-clad pony off his back, but that only made the yoke press deeper into his throat. "Ya--trick her? Stab her--in--the back?"
"Is that a great concern of yours?" the Pony-in-Black asked, bracing himself as Macintosh now attempted to scrape him off on the walls.
"Ms. Dash--is a--good--pony," Mac gasped, his vision swimming. He fell to his knees, but kept crawling, unwilling to give up. "She's--nice--to me. She--deserves--better..."
The red giant finally crumpled to the cavern floor, his breath gone. The Pony-in-Black released his hold and pushed his fallen foe into a more natural lying position. He pressed an ear to the broad chest and was relieved to hear the great bellows within drawing in air again, if slowly.
"I do not envy you the headache you will have when you awake. But in the meantime, rest well and rest assured that your lady friend will be no more worse for wear than yourself. May you be reunited in less harrowing times," he offered.
Two challenges now conquered, the Pony-in-Black retrieved his sword and pressed on into the cavern.