Fluttershy's screams were the loudest. In the rustic brown heart of Ponyville, she and her closest pony friends squirmed and struggled as an azure beam of snowy breath billowed over their five bodies, binding their limbs with frozen shackles. As the icy fetters fused their hooves together, they collectively whimpered through chattering teeth.
Applejack was mortified. Rarity was near fainting. Even Pinkie Pie's bright face registered a pale flash of panic as giant, glossy claws deposited the equine damsels into the center of a grassy park two blocks away from town hall. Twilight Sparkle, in particular, was especially livid over the embarrassing ordeal.
"Let us go this instant!" she shouted, frowning up towards the source of an ominous shadow that loomed over all five of the frigidly restricted mares. "This isn't some pocket of the Everfree wilderness where you can ensnare your prey at whim! This is Ponyville, and we're in the heart of Princess Celestia's kingdom!"
"Oh, it won't be Ponyville for long, my little pony, or 'civilized' for that matter!" A giant frost dragon stood tall and proud, his blue face grinning with a wide crescent of milky-white teeth. "Soon this entire valley will be my feeding ground!" He planted a scaled hand on his chest. "For I am Coldazar the Terrible, and you puny little horsies shall serve as the first meal as I dine on this weak and pitiful continent! Mwaa haa haa!"
"Twilight!" Rarity exclaimed, struggling with her binds. "You’re especially gifted in magic! For heaven's sake, do something!"
"Nnnngh... I-I can't...!" Twilight Sparkle was grunting, tensing and untensing as rivulets of sweat formed along her lavender face. "Dragon sorcery is a mystery to me!" She hung her head in shame. "All of my spells are useless!"
"Well, reckon somepony oughta do somethin' and do it quick!" Applejack exclaimed.
"I don't wanna be a Pinksicle!" Pinkie Pie sobbed, her tears freezing into ice cubes from Coldazar's breath before touching the verdant ground. "I don't wanna!"
"Oh, what shall we do?!" Fluttershy was weeping. "Somepony! Please! Save us! Save us all!"
"Yes. Yesssss..." Coldazar leaned in, grinning, his pale nostrils fuming with arctic vapors. "Let me hear your helpless pleas for salvation!" He licked his white lips with a purple tongue and drooled. " It shall be a most scrumptious seasoning to today's healthy serving of pony meat!"
High above, a raspy voice heroically bellowed, "Oh, I don't think so, buddy!"
Blinking, the giant snow beast swiveled about and squinted towards the bright sky. "Buh?!"
A cyan figure descended through the blinding sunlight. Carving a windy path through the ocean-blue sky, a devilishly grinning pegasus dove earthward. Her descent split the dragon's ears with a high-pitched whistle, followed by her four mighty hooves slamming righteously into the square of his scaled forehead.
"Ooof!" Coldazar grunted as he fell back and slammed through a red warehouse, spilling debris across half of Ponyville with a resounding explosion.
"Rainbow Dash!" Applejack gasped.
"Oh, thank goodness!" Fluttershy grinned in spite of her tears.
"Finally!" Rarity added in a melodious voice. "Our dependable friend and beloved heroine is here!"
"You ponies got that right!" Rainbow Dash struck a pose from where she hovered above Coldazar's flailing form. "Awesomeness has arrived!" With a luscious toss of her prismatic mane, she spread her wings in the glittering afternoon glow and bravely bellowed across the golden rooftops of the village. "Sorry I'm late, girls! Apparently it's 'Kick a Cold Dragon's Tail Day' today, and I was the last pony invited!"
"You!" Coldazar the Terrible frowned as he finally clamored back onto his clawed feet. "I thought I had frozen all of the ponies in town!"
"That's where your wrong, bucko!" She raised two hooves up towards him with a threatening glare. "I'm going to make you wish you stayed in whatever ugly iceberg you crawled out of!"
"No! Rainbow Dash! Don't risk it!" Twilight Sparkle exclaimed, panting for breath as she fiddled with her tightly frozen hoof-cuffs. "His magic is too strong for anypony! Even Princess Celestia herself!"
"Well, I guess we're just going to have to find out if that’s true or not!" Rainbow Dash spat on the ground, cracked the joints in her neck, and hovered at such an angle that the light gave ominous shadows to her features. "How about it, fridge face?! Nobody—and I mean nobody threatens my friends and gets away with it! You ready to have your teeth kicked down your throat, rainbow style?"
"Oh, this should be very amusing. Very amusing indeed!" Coldazar summoned a huge breath of magical frost in his gargantuan lungs. "Come and meet your doom, you insipid insect!"
"Oh Rainbow Dash!" Fluttershy pleaded tearfully. "Please be careful!"
"Tell that to this creep!" Rainbow Dash twirled about, flapped her wings with a burst of air, and rocketed towards him in a spectral streak of fury. "Let's do this!"
Coldazar the Terrible stretched his jaw wide and vomited a blindingly bright plume of freezing magic skyward. Rainbow Dash soared straight towards it, screaming, dropping her hooves with the force of a dozen frictiously burning anvils directed straight at the dragon’s leering—
"This is it, Doctor Do!"
Daring Do blinked. She looked up from the book in her grasp. Across the loudly buzzing gondola, the pilot was glancing over his shoulder with his hooves at the zeppelin's controls.
"Julio's island compound is directly beneath us! It's now or never!"
Grumbling, Daring Do slapped the book shut, slid it into a saddlebag, and flung the canvas pack over her figure. Snatching her pith helmet off a nearby wooden crate, she trudged across the swaying compartment and approached a gray metal cargo door.
"Call me 'Daring!'" she exclaimed above the roaring engines of the dirigible’s side propellers. She hoisted the door open with a grunt, exposing the interior of the lofty aircraft to the tropical sunlight and high, whipping winds. "I don't want to be called 'Doctor' when I'm in the field!"
"Heh heh... Whatever you say, lady!" The pilot exclaimed, slowing the zeppelin to a steady crawl. "Odds are, Julio's guards aren't blind. Everyone on the island who can look up to the skies must know you're coming!"
"Well, I gotta retrieve the Ky Crystal one way or another!" She strapped the helmet to her head and approached the open door. A grand ocean stretched below with a crescent-shaped island lying in the dead center. "Julio’s made his intentions clear to the world. Time is of the essence, and the safety of Manehattan depends on me!"
"You sure that wing of yours has mended from your trip to the jungle last month?!"
"It's healed well enough! I can glide my way down to the island, no problem!" She called back, "You just make sure to pick me up at the rendezvous point in thirty-six hours!"
"You got it! Have a nice trip Doct—er... I mean Daring!"
"Yeah, whatever." Holding her breath, Daring plunged straight out the gondola of the swaying zeppelin. She fell towards the heart of the island. Black plumes erupted loudly all around her. Daring gritted her teeth and pivoted left and right, doing her best to avoid the flak and shrapnel as the island compound's massive cannons took aim at her vulnerable body. After a solid minute of plummeting, she reached the treeline and glided evenly over the sunlit palms. She landed on a rocky outcropping. Without wasting a breath, she galloped into the thick of the tropical forest, hiding amidst the shadows of the underbrush.
For several minutes—minutes that morphed into cumbersome hours—she huddled in the deepest pockets of the island. Insects buzzed and snakes slithered around her, but she didn't dare move too swiftly. She had worse things to worry about.
As expected, the source of her trouble showed their ugly faces. Several thick muscled gazelles—the upper elite of Julio's armed guard—trotted up the steep hills. With snarling dogs on leashes, they scoured the high grass and treeline, looking everywhere for a sign of the infiltrating pegasus who had landed in their midst. They came so close to Daring on multiple occasions that the brave adventurer could smell the chemicals of Julio's laboratories on their antlers.
However, the sun began setting. Frustrated, the hunting party of gazelles had no choice but to retire as darkness fell. Daring Do used this to her advantage, climbing higher atop the mountainous outcroppings in the center of the tiny island. She had a plan to stick to, and there was no affording any deviation. Finding a dank cave, she stripped of her saddlebag, gathered some dry branches, and started a campfire.
For several minutes, she mentally went over the plans for the next day. Before the sun rose the following morning, she had to sneak downhill and infiltrate the edge of Julio's compound. Once within a stone's throw of the buildings, she had a slim window of ten minutes to enter them, for that was precisely when the automatic security system was going to experience a regularly timed weekly reboot.
There was no sleeping to be had that night, or else Daring Do would risk not waking up to perform the infiltration or—even worse—make it to the rendezvous point for the pilot to pick her up the next evening.
So, to occupy the time, she could only think of one thing. She pulled a book out, a novel with very colorful binding. The title on it read Rainbow Dash and the Frost Dragon's Challenge, and the sight of it brought something to Daring Do that hadn't graced her face in days: a smile.
Curling up to the campfire, Daring Do took a deep breath, opened up to the page where she was at last, and began scanning the page with eager eyes.
Shouting a raspy scream, Rainbow Dash's body slammed across Coldazar's scaled cheek.
Coldazar spat frozen blood, then winced once more as Rainbow Dash suddenly blurred from another direction and smacked him in the snout again. In a madly looping fashion, the speedster hero of Ponyville repeatedly flew and soared past the giant dragon's cranium, smacking and pummeling him from all angles. Her shackled friends—still overwhelmed by constricting cold—nevertheless filled the air with happy shouts and warm cheer.
Rainbow Dash grinned, spun around, and prepared for another flyby. However, Coldazar was ready for her this time, and he intercepted her dive with a savage fist to her body. Grunting, Rainbow Dash bounced off and flew through a building. After a few seconds, she soared back out a fresh hole, gripping a kitchen sink in her hooves. She rocketed towards the drake's skull and flung the basin against his headcrests.
"Looks like you're all washed out!" she uttered with her violent delivery.
"Aaaugh!" he shouted, frowned, then vomited two spheres of ice. Gripping them in his wrists, he swung the translucent bludgeons at her zipping figure.
Rainbow Dash twirled, flipped, side-strafed, and zig-zagged in the bright air above Ponyville. She managed to avoid every swing, all except one. One of Coldazar's pearlescent clubs shattered upon its savage contact, spilling snow and ice shards all over the ground. Rainbow Dash landed hard, smashing through a stagecoach and rolling over in the brown dirt, groaning.
"Enough already!" Coldazar the Terrible hissed at her, glaring with marble-white eyecrests. "We could do this all day, or for eternity as far as I'm concerned! Quite frankly, I have much better things to do with my time!"
"Oh yeah?" Rainbow Dash shook the cobwebs loose, hopped up, and snarled at him. "How about freeing my friends?"
"I would only consider doing such a thing if you actually managed to prove that you were better than me, pegasus!" he said with a wicked sneer.
"Fine! Then let's finish this!" She grabbed a mailbox, hoisted it out of the ground, and twirled it between two hooves like a staff. "I'll prove how lame you are, directly through your skull!"
"I have an even better idea!" He said, smiling, his ivory teeth glinting in the amber sunlight. "You are renown in Equestria for your speed, are you not?"
"Does Twist crap in the woods?!"
"Well, let's make a wager over your friends shall we?!" Coldazar gestured towards Twilight Sparkle and the others as they huddled together, locked within their icicle restraints. "I, Coldazar the Terrible, hereby challenge you to a race, from here to the crest of Everfree Falls and back! The first racer to return to this very spot wins!"
"And just what do you hope to get out of this, punk?!"
"You, of course," he said, licking his lips. "Down my throat, along with your friends..."
"Hmmm..." Rainbow Dash scratched her chin, her ruby eyes squinting in thought. "Sounds very, very risky." She grinned brightly. "I'll do it! But on one condition!" Her pupils morphed into sharp, crimson daggers. "If I win, you not only spare my friends, but you go away and never show your lousy butt in Ponyville ever again!"
"It's a deal!" Coldazar the Terrible exclaimed before breaking into delicious cackles.
"No! Don't do it, Rainbow Dash!" Twilight pleaded.
"Don't you get it, sugarcube?!" Applejack added. "He's fixin to rope you into one of his tricks!"
"It's a chance I gotta take..." Rainbow Dash said through gritting teeth. "Cuz I can't leave you guys hanging, and this bozo needs a mare to show him who's boss!"
"Then let us proceed!" Coldazar swiveled about, faced the Everfree Forest, and stretched his wings out wide. "Or are you too cowardly to stand up to your boasts?"
"I'm no coward!" Rainbow Dash flew down and planted her hooves into the ground beside him. "And when this is all said and done, you're gonna want to sell those wings of yours for a one-way ticket out of Equestria!"
"We shall certainly see." Coldazar's muscles tensed as he readied his massive blue body to spring forward. "On my mark, little pony! Ready? Get set! Go—!"
A loud alarm was going off outside the cave.
Daring Do flinched, immediately closing the book and sliding it into her saddlebag. Trotting out to the mouth of the rocky enclosure, she gazed out upon the night-drenched lengths of the island.
The wailing siren was blaring, and it most definitely was emanating from Julio's compound. Daring figured that it must have been some stray, wild animal that triggered their alarm systems. However, there was no telling for sure, and with Julio's guards being knowledgeable of her hidden presence on the island, it was safe to assume that security had been beefed up by an exponential rate since she arrived. Daring realized that if she wanted to get safely into the buildings where Julio was housing the Ky Crystal, she had to make good time.
So, with a sigh, she stamped out the fire, slid on her saddlebag, and slapped her trademark pith helmet onto her dull gray mane. Fast as lightning, she dashed out of the cave and slid downhill. Her midnight jog took her through dense foliage, sticky spider webs, and cumbersome layers and layers of thorny bushes. She contemplated using her wings, but at least one of them was still too sore to be of much use. Besides, she had to keep a low profile, and she didn't have a high altitude zeppelin to help her dodge the trigger-happy cannons that lined the island compound.
After an hour of careful creeping, she approached the chain-link fence that formed the perimeter of Julio's nefarious headquarters. She saw several searchlights beaming across the arid grass and dry palm trees between her and her destination. Beyond the fence, gazelle guards marched with their canine companions. It was about as thick of a crowd as Daring expected, with no less than half a dozen figures occupying any quadrant of the fenced land at any given time.
Daring studied their movement carefully. Her genius mind determined a pattern, and she lethargically counted the sluggish minutes until the predicted opportunity arrived. When it did, she made like the wind, gliding forward and squatting before the fence. Pulling a pair of wire cutters from the saddlebag, she made herself a tiny hole low to the ground and slid agilely through. Daring had mere seconds to scurry forward, avoiding the security system's bright white searchlights by inches. Reaching the central concrete building, she flattened her body up against it, panting for breath in the humid tropical sea air.
More minutes passed, and Daring shuffled sideways towards a door that rested near the air conditioning units bunched at the rear of the building. She craned her neck and listened for a deep buzzing sound. The security to the door was still switched on. Eventually, the buzzing faded, and Daring immediately yanked on the handle. The lock caught, and the door refused to budge. Grumbling under breath, she knelt down, pulled a needle out from a hidden cleft of her pith helmet, and used it with her teeth to pick the lock. She barely managed to trip the tumblers before the system switched back on. Opening the door, she jumped in and closed it tightly shut behind her just as the buzzing resumed. The security had switched back on, but she didn't have to worry about it. She was inside.
And then Daring took one look at the room she had entered and froze dead in place. The chamber was not—as she had gathered from careful study of the schematics—a storage space for various scientific equipment. The place was brimming with bright green eyes and effluent plumes of emerald smoke. Several wooden bodies shifted around, hissing in deep, guttural, canine breaths.
Daring Do realized that she had stumbled upon a laboratory, and surrounding her on all sides was the crux of Julio's infamous experiments: demonically enchanted timberwolves. The quadruped golems of feral hate narrowed their gaze on her, flexed their gnarled muscles, and dove in one violent accord.
Daring realized it was high time she exercised her aching wings. She jumped high and soared above the leaping monsters. Wooden claws and fangs lashed at her. The chamber echoed with howls and barks. Daring flew bravely over the bedlam until she was certain her flapping appendages would rip from their sockets. Landing on the other side of the wooden pack, she panted for breath and bolted straight towards a door on the far side of the infernal laboratory. She could hear the pattering of oaken paw pads behind her. The panting breaths of the demonic creatures filled her nostrils with a foul stench. Grunting, she hurled herself towards the door, flung it open, and slammed it tightly behind her.
The multiple canines pounded and headbutted the door in their magical frenzy. She stood safely on the other side of the hinged barrier, catching her breath and reveling the moment when the noises finally died down. Wiping sweat from her brow, Daring spun around... and faced nothing but wall. She blinked, for the room she was in was no more than four by six feet large. The brave adventurer had sealed herself off inside a broom closet.
Daring Do groaned. As frustrated as she was, there was no venturing back into the laboratory full of rabid timberwolves; not yet, at least. She still had a good two dozen hours before she needed to rendezvous with her ride. It would have helped her to catch her breath and plan a next course of action.
For Daring, that meant at least one opportune thing. Shuffling over towards a bucket, she turned the thing upside down, plopped down on it like a chair, and reached into her saddlebag for Rainbow Dash and the Frost Dragon's Challenge. As scant whimpers and clawing noises lingered outside, she calmly resumed reading, her heart beating with excitement.
"Go!" Coldazar had shouted, his frosted breath bellowing across the rustic brown buildings of Ponyville. The air around him exploded from the sheer force of his mighty wings flapping. Forming a frosted stream of sapphire blue particles, the dragon bulleted eastward towards the green canopy of the Everfree Forest.
In a thunderous little burst of her own, Rainbow's petite body accelerated alongside the massive frost wyrm. Grinning wickedly nonstop, she very easily sliced her way through the sun-kissed winds of her home, willing every muscle of her lithe body to outrace this ostentatious invader from the infernal wilderness.
Coldazar saw how easily she was keeping up with his draconian pace, and he frowned. Flapping his wings harder, he blew the straws off of Ponyvillean rooftops. His massive girth distorted the air, causing fruit carts and market stands to fly apart in the abandoned streets below. The two fliers zoomed past the windmill, causing the wooden blades to spin blazingly fast as the pair of racers roared over the grassy plains to the east of town and the thick woodlands beyond.
Rainbow Dash breathed evenly, her cyan coat forming sweatdrops that all too quickly flew off her body and evaporated from the heated pocket of friction directly behind her. It took a great deal of concentration and strain, but she was starting to inch her way ahead of her opponent.
Coldazar saw it. Frowning, he swerved to the side and knocked Rainbow Dash off-kilter.
"Augh!" Rainbow Dash's voice cracked as she barreled sideways. Before she could regain her balance, a large pale hand caught her in an iron grip. Gasping, she felt herself being shoved down, down, down into the violently blurring treeline of the Everfree Forest. "H-hey!" she shouted, hissing up at the large blue drake. "No fair! You're cheating!"
"How can I cheat if no one clearly defined the rules in the first place?!" He laughed, and that laugh turned into a maniacal cackle. As the two figures approached the frothy edge of the majestic Everfree Falls ahead, it was becoming rather obvious that only one of them was going to survive long enough to reach the halfway point.
Rainbow Dash struggled, shook, and cursed under her breath as she felt herself being forced further into the sea of branches and leaves and twigs below her. She coughed and sputtered, her face full of shattering splinters and bark. Looking ahead, she winced to see a giant, petrified piece of oak lying in the way. In Coldazar's merciless grip, she cruised straight towards it like a cruise missile—
Hours later, Daring Do paused. She looked up at the door to the tiny closet.
All was silent.
Her nostrils flared. Pocketing the novel away, she stood up and trotted towards the door. Stretching her limbs, she very gently gripped the handle and opened the door, peering nervously out into Julio’s laboratory.
At least two dozen timberwolves peered back, panting and growling.
She slapped the door immediately shut. Rolling her eyes, Daring began pacing around the room. She rubbed her skull under her pith helmet, pondering the situation. As she trotted in circles, she felt a cool, artificial breeze periodically blowing at her dull gray mane. Looking up, she blinked at the sight of an air conditioning vent.
Without delay, she hopped up and knocked the metal grate of the vent away with a flung hoof. A tiny, aluminum passageway was exposed in the ceiling. With a grunt, she jumped again and climbed into the vent. For several minutes, Daring Do crawled her way through the thin metal chute. When she came out the other end, she was a sweaty and flustered mess. It was with an admitted modicum of frustration that she kicked the exit grate loose and hopped out into the awaiting chamber, regardless of where in the compound she supposed she was.
To Daring's blinking surprise, it was a luxurious office, and Julio himself was seated across a marble desk from her. The obese gazelle spun about, a wide pane of windows exposing the sunrise over a glittering ocean behind him.
"Well, well, well... Doctor Do," Julio hummed, a grin forming across his viciously scarred features. One antler was decidedly more bent than the other atop his head. With a sneer, he stood up from the chair and scoffed at her. "How nice of you to drop on by."
"Don't call me Doctor," Daring said with a frown. "I am—"
"In the field, yes, I know all about your idiosyncratic ways, Daring. You must fancy yourself quite an expert at stealing others' property!"
"The Ky Crystal does not belong to you!" Daring said with a glare. "It belongs in the capable hooves of ponies who know best how to treat its priceless antiquity!"
"Such as those who comprise the Manehattan Historical Society, for whom you are an avid scholar and supporter!" Julio produced a dry chuckle. "Spare me the lecture, you insipid tourist! Everything on this island belongs to me, and you're the last pony I'm going to give my greatest treasure yet to!"
"Enough talk!" Daring frowned. "Where is the heart of the Ancient Ky Kingdom?"
"You mean this?" Julio grinned wickedly and lifted a glowing golden shard in his grasp. "If you want it so badly, why not try to take it from me? I warn you, though; I have mastered its power. Not only can this gorgeous thing channel the unbridled magic of a dead civilization, but it can power my alchemy labs for another decade! At last, I have enough power to raise an entire army of rampaging Timberwolves!"
Daring Do sighed long and hard. As Julio continued monologuing, she felt the weight of a thick book in her saddlebag. She began to fidget.
"With them, I shall march over the fragile fields of this planet and make the whole of Equestria crumble under my despotic cloven hoof and—!"
"Look, Julio, can we just get this over with?"
Julio blinked, his brow furrowing. "I beg your pardon?"
"I mean it." Daring gave her bag a lonesome little shake once more. "I've got things to do. Let's just... I dunno... fight and stuff."
Julio squinted at her. Eventually, he shrugged. "Very well. Eloquence is for the faint of heart." Immediately after uttering that, his eyes widened psychotically and he cackled through a hideous array of stained teeth. "Die, you sanctimonious waste of glue and estrogen! Mwahahahaha!" He thrusted the Ky Crystal straight forward, shooting a branching river of lightning bolts across the shiny, marble interior of his office.
Daring ducked breathlessly. She cartwheeled to the side to dodge an electrical blast and rolled to the other side to avoid another. With blurred motions, she ducked and leapt and slid to avoid the bright blue swaths of burning fury. At one point she ran up a wall, kicked off, and glided across the room to escape three shocking beams in a row. Landing on the desk, Daring applied all her weight to the far edge. As a result, the other end of the marble table lifted up, effectively uppercutting the fat gazelle in the chin.
"Ooof!" Julio spat blood and a tooth or two. He fell back, dropping the Ky Crystal completely.
By that point, Daring was pouncing on him, snatching the crystal in her teeth and giving it a good shove against his sternum.
"Gaaaaaah!" Julio's eyes twitched and his entire body convulsed from the merciless currents of electricity surging directly through him. When Daring finally relinquished the pressure, he sat with bolts of blue light dancing briefly between his bent antlers. His eyes blinked a few times, and he whimpered, "Come to think of it, timberwolves suck." And he collapsed with an unconscious thud.
Daring's nostrils flared as she exhaled with relief. Just then, the door behind her burst open and a solid line of guards took aim with crossbows. "Shoot the adorable adventure pony! She's got the master’s crystal!"
Daring spun circles, looking everywhere for an exit. She finally settled for the windows. In a mindless gallop, she sped straight towards the sheet of glass, leapt, and hurled her athletic body mightily towards it.
Her skull made contact, and she bounce off.
"Ooof!" She landed on the marble floor of the office, spitting the crystal loose and hissing, "Sonuvaburton!"
"Fire!" A solid line of crossbow arrows converged on her.
Gasping, she rolled her aching body to the side. Thankfully, the metal bolts accomplished what her soft cranium couldn't, and a giant hole shattered open in the window. Relieved, she snatched the Ky Crystal up in her gray tail-hairs, flung the artifact under her hat, and dove out the miraculous exit. The gazelle guards had no chance in Tartarus of hitting her now; she glided easily past the water-pounded bluffs that lined the outer edge of the building and descended towards the furthest edge of the island.
Stretching her wing muscles expertly the whole way, Daring eventually landed three peaceful minutes later. Well out of range of both the guards and cannons of the defeated Julio's headquarters, she galloped along the surf's edge until she reached the wide, sandy stretch of beach that was her pre-planned rendezvous point.
Once there, she grinned softly, not because she was safe, nor because she had the crystal, but because she had plenty of time to spare, and she knew exactly how she was going to spend it.
Sitting in the cooling shadow of a bent palm tree, she shoved a coconut or two aside, opened the book, and used the much-valued Ky Crystal as a mere bookmark. In a warm breath, the pegasus picked up where she was last.
The large oak tree was just seconds away from smashing Rainbow Dash to a bloody pulp. She struggled in vain to wrench her way out of Coldazar's iron grip, but to no avail. Death was hurdling violently towards her.
Looking every which way, her scarlet eyes caught a sharp branch sticking precariously out from a half-dead tree that had been struck by lightning sometime earlier in its life. With a flash of pearly-white teeth, Rainbow Dash stretched her muzzle out and caught the sharp natural pole in her jaws. In an agile twist of her neck muscles, Rainbow stabbed the sharp end of the bludgeon deep into Coldazar's sapphire-blue wrist.
"Aaaugh!" the flying drake cried out like a whelpling and let go of Rainbow Dash. As he slowed, the ocean-blue pegasus took advantage of it by surging ahead with a burst of wingpower. She landed all four hooves on his nose, bucked off his nostrils, and soared ahead from the daredevilish boost.
"Woooo-Yeah!" Rainbow Dash victoriously chanted as she blurred over the roaring body of Everfree Falls. Her forelimb stuck out, caught a tree branch in the crook of her hoof, and flung her body back in the direction from which she came. She surged past the dumbfounded frost wyrm. "Better catch up, Klutzazar! Or do you actually enjoy eating my dust?!"
Frowning, the drake flew around the waterfall, planted all of his feet against an exposed piece of mountain, and sprung himself after her. He soared after her prismatically flailing tail, but it was obvious by then that she had pushed a great deal of distance between the two. As he chased her along the return route to Ponyville, he spat into his clawed hands and produced a lance made out of frozen blue ice.
"Oh pegasus...?!" He cooed.
She barely had the opportunity to look back at him.
Regardless, Coldazar was already throwing the frozen spear at her witht full force. "Let's see how well your dear friends can divide their love among halves of you!"
Rainbow Dash gasped, her face filling up with the sight of the ice lance's razor-sharp body.
It was the burning sunset of a Tuesday afternoon when Daring Do finally returned to central Manehattan. After a cumbersome debriefing at the airport, she stepped into a waiting stagecoach limousine being pulled by ponies funded by the Historical Society. In swift fashion, they drew her across town and to the base of the Empire Stallion building. One of the chauffeurs opened the door to the stagecoach, and Daring Do—thoroughly scraped, smelly, and sweat stained from a busy week of tropical adventure—stepped out. She was immediately blinded by several heavy flashes.
"Daring Do! Daring Do!" Multiple photographers swarmed the edge of a metal barricade lining the entrance to the grand building's library. They weren't alone; flocks of ponies—both young and old—filled the sidewalks to the brim, numbering in the hundreds. They all called out to her, reached for her, and whistled at her.
"You're so awesome, Daring!"
"Can I have your autograph?!"
"What did you nab this time?! Huh?!"
"This city's so happy to have you, Daring!"
"Uhhh... Hi, everypony..." Daring waved limply at them. With a gulp, she nervously pressed on, sweating under the heavy stare of so many rabid fans. "I can't stick around. I gotta get the Ky Crystal to the head administrator. You can read about everything in my written journals later this month!"
"The Ky Crystal?!"
"Oh, how exciting!"
"You rock, Daring Do!"
"Daring! Daring! Can I have your children, Daring?!"
She did a double-take at the last comment, smirking awkwardly with a raised eyebrow. A stallion in shades and a dark suit walked over to whisper in her ear. She nodded and broke into a brisk canter, entering the lobby and taking the elevator up to the thirtieth floor, far far away from the madness and public adulation.
Upstairs, a frail group of elderly ponies was waiting in well-pressed outfits. They smiled and took turns elegantly shaking her hoof and congratulating her on a job well done.
"You have no idea how much this means to us, Doctor Do," a gray-maned mare said with a wrinkled smile. "Historians have been trying to track down the Ky Crystal for decades. In the hooves of that mad gazelle, the thing would surely have lost all its priceless, magical lustre. Now, thanks to you, the past can be preserved in a museum."
"Hey..." Daring shrugged, removing her pith helmet and smoothing back her frazzled mane from hours upon hours of jet lag. "I love history as much as you do, Marecus." She graciously hoofed the bright golden crystal over to the elder pony scholar. "I just wished everyone else did."
"We could use more pegasi like you in this world, Doctor. We truly are blessed. You must be proud of yourself."
"I'm happy with my life, Professor. You needn't worry about me."
Marecus gave Daring a curious yet humored look. "And what made you think I suspected you weren't, my dear?"
Daring's mouth lingered. She blinked, her eyes dull and tired. "I... uhm... I'm really exhausted. I need to freshen up before heading home. The street below is full of crazed ponies. Uhm..." She blushed slightly. "You know how it is."
"No, I don't know. But I imagine it's all you ever deal with." Marecus chuckled, holding the Ky Crystal in one hoof and patting Daring's soft shoulder with the other. "What I wouldn't give to be as young and popular as you are. Adventure? Fame? Heroism? You're living the good life, Doctor."
Daring took a deep breath and remarked breathily through a limp smile, "I just really, really need that shower, Marecus."
The gray elder pointed across the luxurious office. "You know the way. Help yourself."
Daring Do did just that. There was a restroom waiting exclusively for her, complete with a walk-in shower and a monogrammed locker full of personal belongings. After a long, luxurious rinse, she stepped out, dried up, and opened the locker. She got dressed in a prim and proper white blouse, complete with a red bow tie. Standing before the room's mirror, she spent several minutes brushing her mane straight before folding it up into a tight bun. Finally, a pair of glasses was planted on the crest of her muzzle. She blinked and squinted several times, observing her suddenly boring reflection. With a deep breath, she shouldered her saddlebag and made an exit.
Minutes later, she stepped out of a side door at the street level of the Empire Stallion building. She proceeded with caution, one dainty hoofstep after another. She looked at the crowd, but they weren't looking back at her. The surging mass of ponies was still affixed to the skyscraper's central lobby, chanting out "Daring Do! Daring Do!" over and over again.
With a slight smirk, Doctor Do walked to the edge of the nearby intersection and waved a frail hoof. "Taxi—" Her voice cracked, and she cleared her throat before speaking in a higher pitch. "Hello? Taxi!"
A pony-drawn stagecoach stopped along the side of the Manehattan streetcorner. She opened the door, climbed in, and spoke to the chauffeur through the passenger compartment's open window. "Fifth and Madisonoats, please. And... uh... take your sweet time. I've got spare bits."
The stallion whinnied his affirmative and pulled the coach forward in a slow lurch. Inside, Doctor Do slumped against the seat cushions, relishing in the roar of the crowd dwindling with each second that passed by. She rested her eyes shut and fiddled briefly with her blouse's collar before simply leaning back, breathing slowly.
After two or three minutes, her eyes fluttered open. Yet again, a soft smile breached her lips. She reached into her saddlebag and pulled out a cherished book. Adjusting her glasses, she absorbed herself in the open pages as the sounds and melody of nighttime Manehattan dripped in through the windows on either side of her.
Rainbow Dash ducked the ice spear at the last second. The conjured weapon grazed her side, ripping several feathers and ocean blue coat hairs off. "Unngh!" she exclaimed with a cracking voice before hissing from the pain.
"Haah haah haah!" Coldazar the Terrible easily rocketed past her, thundering a clear path towards the center of Ponyville and a villainous victory. "I do so enjoy the thought of devouring you, my little pony!" He sneered back at her, licking his serrated teeth with a plump, purple tongue. "Yes, I do believe you shall be my dessert, after I have dined on every inch of your precious friends!"
Grimacing, Rainbow Dash's cheeks took on a burning color as she reached her front limbs forward. "I'll give you something to choke on, creep!" Before falling out of range, she latched furiously onto the tip of his massive tail.
"Aaaugh!" He lurched slightly, then frowned back at her. "Let go! Do you hear me?!"
"Oh, I hear you alright!" Rainbow Dash clawed her way up his spiny blue back and clutched his left ear. Grinning, she whispered into the deep, wax-laden canal beneath the scales. "But what are you going to hear after I do this?"
"Win!" She flung herself forward, pushed her body to the limit, and broke through the sound barrier with a victorious scream. "In your frozen face, lamesicle!"
A spectral shockwave cascaded towards every horizon, and the center of the sonic rainboom was Coldazar's cranium. He let loose an anguished groan, clutching his skull as his body spun, spiraled, and plowed limply into the east district of Ponyville, plowing over shops and apartments in a showering display of urban debris.
Meanwhile, Rainbow Dash proceeded—undaunted—towards the park in central Ponyville. When her colorfully streaking body crossed the invisible finishing line, the village exploded with cheer. Several rejoicing ponies crept out of their various hiding places to heap praise upon the hoof-pumping pegasus hovering in the golden light of the sunset above them.
Coldazar the Terrible was a great deal less jubilant. He stood up, hissing in pain as he batted the sides of his ears. His pale eyes blinked several times, and a sheen of horror covered his alabaster features. "I... I cannot hear a single thing! Curse you, pegasus! What have you done to me?"
"Given you something to think about!" Rainbow folded her forelimbs and raspberried towards him. "Now take your crying home to your momma and never come back! Maybe once your hearing returns, you'll learn how not to be a total loser! Maybe you’ll figure out how to bathe by then too!"
Whether or not the dragon heard Rainbow's words, it made little difference. The menacing drake had melted into a sobbing, inconsolable mess. On drooping wings, Coldazar flew north towards the distant, snow-capped mountains. As he made his lackluster exit, the bright blue taint of his magical curse faded from the village. With splashes of warm moisture, the icy binds around Twilight Sparkle and the other mares disappeared. They immediately jumped to their hooves, giggling, hugging each other, and cheering.
"Yaaay! Rainbow Dash! Let's hear it for the best pony in all of Equestria!"
"Oh jeez..." Rainbow Dash's cheeks flushed as she scratched the back of her neck and waved an errant hoof towards the adoring crowd below. "It was the least I could do..."
"Come on, girls! Say it with me! Hip hip! Hooray! Hip hip! Hooray! Hip hip—"
The door open quietly, and Doctor Do shuffled inside. She closed the entrance to the apartment and wandered across the dark interior. Eventually, her hoof found a light-switch in the middle of a broad wall and flipped it. She squinted across the familiar sight of her sparsely furnished home. Laminated wooden floors stretched between broad windows overlooking the glittering skyline of Manehattan. The high ceilings echoed with nothing, save for the sparse rustle of her soft breaths.
She walked slowly into the kitchen, her hooves making little scraping noises. She hung her saddlebag on a chair and proceeded to check on the mail that a neighbor had left for her over the course of the last two weeks. She shuffled through various white envelopes: bills and advertisements and scholarly invites and periodicals. All of the return addresses were those of businesses; not a single pony's name graced her eyes, none but her own.
Daring bit her lip. She carried the envelopes across the apartment. It was a good fifteen seconds before she made it to the far end of the empty interior. Standing by her desk, she placed the letters down and... simply lingered there. Her eyes scanned the broad wooden wall stretching above and beyond her desk. It was the only part of the apartment not empty, for it was covered from floor to roof with plaques, distinguished certificates, trophies, and awards: all praising her for an adventurous life's work in archaeology. Again, the names were only those of societies and organizations, or the very few familiar letters that comprised her own title.
With a deep breath, Daring slowly pivoted about and made for the bedroom at the far end of the place. There was a sterile smell to her home. She never invested in fragrances or perfumes; she never had a reason to.
An hour later, she was in the kitchen, preparing a light salad. The chopping of her metal knife as she sliced up tomatoes was like a gunshot in the solemn hovel. When she finally sat down before the table to eat from the bowl of greenery, the chair's legs scraped against the floor and resembled thunder. It was actually more startling when the noise ended, for the silence fell to replace it with the gravity of a million bags of invisible concrete.
All that remained was the ticking of a clock, miles away, perched above Daring's desk. She sat there, paralyzed, listening to the spaces between the clicking sounds, as if waiting for a semblance of warmth or meaning to announce itself to her. Nothing did.
Daring grasped a fork in the crook of her hoof, stabbed into the bowl, and raised a few leaves of lettuce to her open jaw. She paused, frozen in place. She lowered the bite and glanced at the far corners of the dimly lit apartment. The night hung indifferently beyond the windows, colder than the spaces between the distant clock ticks, and yet somehow just as breathtaking. Through a tired glance, even the stars looked jaded above the rooftops of the Manehattan skyscrapers.
After another sigh, Daring dropped the fork altogether. She ran a hoof over her mane, pulling the pin out and letting the bun hang loose, just so she could fiddle with the long locks of it in a foalish manner. She gulped something down her throat, and her eyes began to moisten. So, in swift fashion, she decided to occupy them instead.
Reaching into the saddlebag hanging off the chair, she pulled the book out, took a deep breath, and ate from its words instead of from the salad.
"And just where do you think you are off to, Rainbow Dash?" Rarity exclaimed.
"C'mere, sugarcube!" Applejack was already flinging her lasso. The yellow rope latched onto the pegasus' multicolored tail and yanked her down with one swift jolt.
"Whoah!" Rainbow's voice cracked as she forcefully pulled to earth level. Immediately, a bunch of bright and colorful mares pounced on her. She gasped, then chuckled and rolled her eyes as she found herself in the unbreakable embrace of all her friends. "Okay! Okay! I get it! You're welcome. Yeesh."
"You're so super awesome, Dashie!" Pinkie Pie said, nuzzling her dearly with a fuzzy, fuschia cheek. "I'm throwing you the most awesome party of awesome awesomeness ever!"
"And I am fashioning a whole new line of dashing sportswear in your honor!" Rarity added, reaching in to cuddle the winged heroine with very little moderation. "Oh, listen to me! I am so beside myself in elation and it's all because of you! Oh ho ho!"
"You are so very precious to us, Rainbow," Fluttershy said gently with a blushing smile. "Thank you for giving us something to live for."
"Yeah..." Applejack winked, her freckles lit up in the toasty sunset. "Reckon we owe you somethin' fierce, darlin'."
"We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you and your amazing loyalty, Rainbow Dash," Twilight finally added, taking her turn to lean in and hug the pegasus dearly. She sniffled and teared up slightly as she added, "We love you so much. We all do. I don't care if you think it's sappy. You need to know this..."
"Awwww..." Rainbow Dash chuckled breathily, engulfed in the warmth and adoration of her dearest of friends. "Yeah, well... I think you guys are swell too."
"Hug pile on the Dashie!"
"Heh heh heh..."
Rainbow Dash took several deep breaths. For the briefest of moments, she shut her eyes and simply sat there, adrift in their loving embrace, awash in their grateful voices...
Daring Do reached the last page, and her breath left her. Clad in a light robe, her petite self reclined in the center of her queen sized bed. Candles danced dimly on the dresser table beside her, bathing the final words of the novel in a warm color, just like the prismatic images trailing to dust in the hallways of her mind.
When she closed the novel, the slapping noise of its binding was louder than any sob she could ever afford to muster. And yet, she smiled—wholesomely and dearly—as she turned the book over so that she could grace the colorful cover once more, daring herself to begin the book again for what had to have been the hundredth time.
Outside, night hung in a cold hush of dying stars, threatening to wash the smile from her face. She wasn't about to let that happen.
Leaning over, she blew the candles out and then slid under the covers. Daring hugged the book to her chest and curled into a fetal position. Her eyes clenched shut, clinging desperately to the strobe of the dying candlelight against her eyelids, hoping it would illuminate the images in her mind: the smiling faces and the bright eyes, all serenaded by a chorus of happy and loving voices that engulfed her. Somewhere beyond it all, she reached deeply and tickled the warm thought of so many colorful pony friends, dreaming that it was them holding her close and not the tears rolling down her face as she gently cried herself to sleep.