Daring thought she could glide against the howling winds with relative ease. She was wrong.
Less than thirty minutes into her glide, the whistling air above the plains proved too tempestuous to handle. She gritted her teeth and beat her wings harder and harder until they felt like tearing off. At last, she resorted to descending until she was about ten feet off the top of the hilly mounds of grass. There, she found that she could skim the landscape at a slow yet unchallenged speed.
However, this made the flight a great deal more stressful than she had anticipated. The landscape wasn't simply a flat plateau of fields, but rather a bumpy array of windswept hills. It was as if Daring was crossing an emerald sea of rolling green waves. She almost expected a creature to leap spontaneously out of the earth and land beneath her in a splash of weeds and dirt.
Nevertheless, the adventurer maintained her low altitude, scaling each rise and fall in the verdant topography. There was something hypnotic about the manner in which the emerald blades danced in the endless breezes. To her left and right, she saw tremendous gusts, outlined by serpentine swaths of bent grass winding before and behind her.
She found herself so entranced by the wind-swept vegetation that she realized she had suddenly lost her bearings. So, with a muted groan, Daring lowered herself to land atop the crest of a hill. She sank through the tall grass; her hooves didn't land quite where she had expected them too. Gasping, she found herself drowning in the tall green blades. They went up to her neck, brushing and scratching and tickling her legs and flank.
Shuddering, Daring trotted forward a bit, beating back the grass, weeds, and wind that never ceased to pelt her. To her joy, she found a cluster of compact dirt where the grass only grew up to her fetlocks. There, she plopped down on her haunches, resting while she pulled her compass out from her green shirt's pocket. Unclasping the thing, she watched as the rose rotated to a stop.
She was facing east-northeast; the mare hadn't flown far off her intended trajectory. She smiled and slapped the item shut, only to hear a loud bang echoing across the heavens. With a gasp, Daring clutched the compass to her chest, staring breathlessly upwards.
Gray clouds had coalesced overhead. They were thickest in the north, boiling and flickering with distant flashes of lightning. As Daring watched, she was serenaded by another roll of thunder, softer this time, giving a bass reverberation to the endless field of grassy hills. When the thunder cleared, Daring's ears were assaulted once again with perpetual whistling. The winds did not cease for one second, and this produced a high-pitched whine that sang high above the rustle of grass blades brushing up against one another.
With a sigh, Daring pocketed the compass and sat still for a few minutes. She took even breaths, drinking in the copper taint lowering through the billowing air. As the sky grew darker, she could feel her coat hairs tingling with static electricity. With each roll of thunder, there was no telling when and where the next bolt of lightning would strike. It was immeasurably dangerous to keep traveling forward, especially by wing.
Daring Do leapt forward and flew without hesitation.
An hour passed. The winds whistled with a vengeance, but Daring had grown numb to it. She flew as low as she could afford to over the hills, her hooves and muzzle occasionally being slapped by precocious blades of grass. She kept her ruby eyes trained forward, hoping without end that there'd be a change in the landscape beyond the next hilltop... or the next... or the next one after that.
Alas, with each rolling piece of earth that she passed, there came another breath of disappointment, accompanied by a violent gust of wind as she tried to skirt past the top of a gale-blasted knoll. It seemed to the mare that the turbulence was increasing. She gnashed her teeth and tried angling her wings to better slice through the cyclonic forces, but she found herself being thrusted faster and harder towards the earth.
After an hour and a half, she finally gave in, landing in an awkward skid across the western face of a grassy bend. Daring clung to the earth for a few seconds, struggling to catch her breath, trying not to be blown off her hooves by layers upon layers of punishing bursts of air. Lightning flashed, and she felt the thunderous vibrations rolling through the springy earth beneath her.
Gritting her teeth, Daring looked up. The clouds were nearly black at this point; they cast an ominous shadow over her and the swaying vegetation. A part of her contemplated jumping off the ground and soaring straight up. If she pierced the clouds with her pegasus body, then perhaps she might be able to fly at a high altitude unfettered by howling winds. However, for the life of her, she couldn't expect to fly twenty feet in a straight line, much less hundreds of yards. Her ears hurt from the constant whistling that pierced them. She drooped the fuzzy lobes back and gazed straight at the earth beneath her, as if praying for a break in the wind so that she could continue her journey.
It was then that she noticed something, a contrasting sight that broke through the emerald canvas of the landscape that was drowning her. Crawling across one particular blade of high grass was a golden speck, like a star that had fallen into her midst. Daring blinked, squinting her eyes. It was too windy to even bother trying to pull her eyeglasses out of their case. She mentally cursed her own farsightedness.
Nevertheless, the image eventually came into focus. It was a golden beetle, and it crawled and crawled until it reached the very tip of the swaying blade of grass upon which it was perched. Once it ran out of a surface to scale, it opened its shell and spread its wings from underneath.
Daring winced, already expecting the inevitable.
Alas, the beetle took off, soaring into the air above... and it did not get knocked over by the wind.
Daring gasped, watching quizzically.
The golden beetle became a yellow speck, winding its way erratically into the air, climbing higher and higher towards the dark clouds, until eventually bending right and heading in an eastward glide.
The pegasus blinked, for she sensed several more golden dots in her peripheral vision. She stood up straight, watching breathlessly as multiple clusters of golden beetles ascended from the sea of grass. They all took off in one accord, forming a platinum stream as they wound their way through the air and headed east after the first beetle.
With her brow furrowed, Daring rubbed her chin. She reached back with her teeth and plucked a golden feather loose from her wings. The mare winced at the brief spike a pain; a pegasus would never quite get used to that. Still, she tilted her muzzle up, timed the moment right, and spat the feather into the air.
She watched in mute wonder as the soft golden sliver spun in the air, rotated, then shot skyward in a dramatic arc. To her amazement, it followed the path that the beetles had made, taking a winding course eastward, as if navigating an invisible tunnel through the merciless winds.
Daring Do bit her lip. Pivoting about, she took a deep breath, flexed her wings like the beetles before her, and shot skyward. She regretted it immediately; her body spun like an orange bowling pin in the air. Thunder and lightning rolled around her, and it took all her energy to resist the urge to scream. Then, just as quickly as the flailing happened, the wind died.
She knew better, though. After all, she still heard the whistling howl in her ears. It just so happened that, where she was, the gale was almost nonexistent. She evened her body almost instantly, pivoting eastward and staring at the rolling horizon.
A thin stream of golden objects flitted ahead of her, worming their way with a chaotic pattern, easily breaching a niche within the valley's atmosphere: a pocket.
Daring smirked. With one thrust of her wings, she glided down the invisible tunnel. She easily caught up with her feather, the beetles, and even more golden swarms ahead of them. Soon she was flying with the insects, easily threading her way across the swaying grasslands that suddenly felt like they were miles and miles beneath her.
Without warning, the beetles surged upwards. She surged with them, scaling an invisible roller coaster that then followed the golden stream in a downward spiral. Lighting flashed around them, but they were untouchable, like golden orbs glinting in a cosmic void. Together, the pony and insects navigated a translucent tornado, streaking towards the ground with unchallenged grace. As bizarre as the air pattern was, it allowed the mare to cross more ground in far less time than her last two hours of flight combined.
Daring almost giggled to herself, if it wasn't for the sight of something looming ahead. The whistling in the air was suddenly accompanied by a clattering sound, like wooden limbs skittering across an oaken bosom. The adventurer squinted to see a drop in the hilly landscape. There was a tiny valley just ahead, and seven objects stretched dozens of feet high into the air. Six of them were wooden wind fans, their blades facing eastward as they rotated with loud rattling cadence. In the center of the fans, placed equidistantly from every single one of them, was a tall metal pole with a golden globe positioned at the top. The pole's base had a grass-covered mound for a foundation; otherwise the seven towers stuck out like sore hooves amidst the otherwise natural environment.
So busy was Daring in studying this sight that she almost didn't realize that she was hurtling directly towards it. That could only mean one thing: the beetles were hurtling towards it as well.
As she approached the valley, she coiled her wings towards her sides and dove out of the pocket of air. Her body broke free, and the wind beat her as punishment, but somehow it wasn't nearly as bad as the hilltops west of that location. When she landed, lightning flashed, illuminating the splintery surfaces of the wooden towers that supported the fans rotating above her. Her eyes traveled up the gnarled frames, observing the tall vertical axles that spun into the earth in direct relation to the blades' rotation above. The air was a mixture of whistling and grinding noises, and she spent a great deal of time pacing from one tower to the next, observing each with mutual interest.
At some point, Daring's gaze traveled skyward again. In the next flash of lightning, she saw the airborne beetles, only it was no longer just one stream of them. As she squinted, she made out not two... not three... but six separate swarms of insects floating towards the center of the valley. What was more, they came from completely opposite directions. If she stood in the center of the field, she could have sworn that they came from the same angles where the fan towers were positioned from the central pole.
The mare watched with awe as each golden beetle met in the center, swarming around the metal globe positioned high above her. One by one, they landed, perching on the sphere's reflective surface. A flash of lightning illuminated the glossy shells closing over their wings. Soon, there were so many of them clustered around the globe that it gave the thing a new golden polish. She couldn't tell anymore where the pole's metal ended and the insects' shiny exoskeletons began.
Daring stared fixedly at the perched beetles for the better part of five minutes. It was almost as if they were positioned there for a reason, waiting for some divine purpose. As thunder rolled, Daring gazed thoughtfully at the fans around them. All six sets of blades were pointed east, rotating against the continuous winds that pelted them from that end of the rolling plains. A thought crossed her mind, and she clenched her jaw in determination.
Pushing her pith helmet firmer atop her head so that it clung tight, the mare beat her wings and soared straight up. Immediately, the wind broke her trajectory, but she compensated by flying north, cutting across the currents, then breaking into a counterclockwise spin. This next part was going to be hard, but the mare wasn't about to back down. Gritting her teeth, she flapped her wings harder and harder, rotating her spin until she blurred around the pole in the center of the field at a steady distance.
Lightning flashed in Daring's peripheral vision, but she maintained her focus on the rotating fans below her. With each pass she made around the pole, she dipped lower and lower, until her wingtips were barely brushing past the spinning, rattling wooden blades. Soon, she was soaring past each of the six fans, gliding faster and faster until she passed one every five seconds... every four seconds... every three.
The whistle to the winds intensified. She swore that the thunder and lightning increased as well. Soon, however, Daring had to hone her thoughts on one thing and one thing alone: the fans as they surged beneath her cyclonic flight, violently nipping at her flesh and tail.
To her labored delight, she was making success; the fans were slowly rotating towards the center of the field, urged on by her tornadic movements in close proximity to them. As the fans faced the globe of beetles—one by one—they rattled into place with a rustic clicking sound, so that they were forced to face the pole indefinitely. Once each of the six fans locked in place, their blades spun faster and faster, fighting the wind with a loud whizzing sound.
Breathless, Daring flew down and perched—more like slumped—on the ground below. She looked up, panting, and watched as the fans' blades spun and spun to the breaking point. There was a flash of lightning... then another and another. The air became deafening with thunder as the bright branches surged closer. Then, there was a moment of silence, until...
With a mind-splitting crack, one blindingly thick bolt of lightning zapped the pole in the center of the facing fans. All of the beetles were incinerated instantly.
Daring gasped, falling back onto her flank and shivering. She watched as the ashes of burnt golden shells fell down the height of the metal pole in a perfect ring. Their descent was somehow immune to the winds, and when they landed, they formed a glowing halo of sorts. Daring watched in shock as the halo flickered, brimming with electrical energy. After a final flash, the ring turned dark, forming a deep, dark impression in the soil. Then the whole ground shook, for the mound of earth that acted as the pole's foundation was suddenly lifting from the niche that the burnt ring had formed.
In the span of a minute, the earthen cylinder had stretched a full fifteen feet above Daring, revealing a hollow interior with a winding staircase leading down into dank darkness. Once the rumbling had stopped, the pegasus now had a descending wooden path beckoning to her.
Daring gulped. She looked up at the dark clouds, her ears whistling to the bleeding point. She had definitely had her fill of this valley. So, without any further hesitation, she trotted forward and gingerly strolled down the rickety wooden steps. The platform creaked and groaned beneath her, forcing her to slow her trot even more as the shadows consumed her from below.
At last, the whistling noise decreased, though it was not completely gone. Daring assumed that her ears would be ringing from the sensation for another few hours. As it became unbearably dark, she opened her pocket and breathed into the enchanted glowstone. Her pale spotlight illuminated walls of craggy earth, with exposed weeds and grass roots dangling on all sides of her as she continued her trek down the winding, winding staircase. The flimsy wooden boards that formed the steps below greatly resembled the fan blades that had spun rattlingly on the surface, Daring thought. A cold chill ran through her body as she contemplated the pattern to this sojourn.
At last, Daring reached the staircase's bottom. A floor of compact soil embraced her, and it was as cold as granite to the touch. Breathing evenly, Daring trotted away from the base of the stairs and shown her light around. Through the pitch black darkness, her pale blue glow illuminated dozens upon dozens of tight, narrow tunnels.
She raised an eyebrow, slowly spinning about to shine the light in the opposite direction. The other end of the underground compartment revealed the same sight: dozens of dark tunnels stood like looming orifices. The entire chamber was a ring of entrances leading to even blacker destinations.
A sigh escaped her lips. She paced for a bit, pondering her situation, when she felt something brushing against her ears. The whistling returned, and then was gone again. Shuffling to a stop, Daring pivoted about. She gazed towards a certain cluster of tunnels. As she tilted her muzzle left and right, she became faintly aware of a gentle breeze, as if air was rushing down one of the many chambers. Cautiously, she approached a trio of dark tunnels, feeling the air rushing from their general vicinity. Still, she couldn't tell which entrance was the one producing the subterranean wind.
At last, she pivoted her right side towards the tunnels and stretched her wing out. She eyed the very tips of her feathers as she waved the wing slowly from the left to the right and back again. She determined that the feathery strands danced the most when she waved them before a tunnel to the far right.
With an ambitious smirk, she coiled her wing back to her side and trotted firmly down the corridor in question. The claustrophobic tunnel swallowed the little pony, and soon Daring’s glowing shard illuminated pale walls of dusty earth on either side of her. Every now and then, curtains of grainy sediment rained down on her gray mane. She grimaced, but kept marching, undaunted.
Soon, she was rewarded with a stronger gust of air. The wind was growing harder and harder, piercing her ears much like the gales above ground had for the past three hours. What was more, the rushing air wasn't alone. Daring became aware of flickering light at the end of the long, dark corridor. Eventually, she didn't even need the enchanted rock to guide her path, for she was greeted with amber torchlight.
At last, Daring trotted into a small chamber where an array of fans stood, aiming down her and the tunnel where she came from. What powered them to rotate—and with such swiftness—she couldn't even begin to guess. She was more intrigued by the bright torches flanking the round room, as well as the thin crevices built into the ceiling and beset with cobwebs. The floor and walls here were made of dense black stone, and she saw what looked to be a long dark corridor at the opposite end of the compartment, entreating her.
She didn't dare leave the room—not yet. She approached the fans as they moved with otherwordly animation. Her ears were attracted by a grating clicking noise that all four of them made. The mare walked behind the fans, staring at their mechanical parts with great interest. She saw a series of wooden gears rattling over curved levers. These levers were attached to a pulley system that was affixed to chains dangling deep into a hole in the floor. As the fans kept spinning, their wooden gears kept brushing past the levers, scraping against them loudly. The chains remained utterly motionless. Daring Do squinted at the sight, for if the fans were to spin in the opposite way...
With renewed energy, she bounded across the room and stood once more before the fans with her flank to the corridor from whence she came. She set her hooves apart, tightening her muscles and stretching her wings out. With a deep breath, she bowed low towards the fans and began flapping her wings faster and faster and faster and faster and...
The pegasus produced a mighty wind. It took much effort, but the air being beat by her wings pushed against the fans, finally ceasing their rotation. Slowly, with a creaking noise, the blades began spinning in the opposite direction. As they did so, the little wooden gears pushed against the tiny levers instead of just brushing past them. This activated the pulley system that gradually drew the lengths of chains straight up, filling the air with a rusted creaking noise.
Daring Do gritted her teeth. Curtains of sweat ran down her tan face as she blurred her wings faster and faster. She was rewarded with the sound of rattling chains for her efforts. Slowly, through the power of sheer endurance, she forced the fans' pulley system to hoist something up from the depths of the chamber. A large wooden box rose from the hole in the center of the stone floor. As Daring flapped her wings a few more times, she gasped to see a niche within the box. Something rectangular rested inside, bound in leather.
Instantly, the mare dotted forward. In the absence of her flapping wings, the fans spun back to their natural rotation. The chains went slack, and the box plunged back into the hole.
But Daring was quicker than lightning. She darted up to the box, reached her hooves in, and snatched the item out before the container could plunge back into the depths, taking her forelimbs in the process. She fell onto the floor, a sweating and heaving mess, her ears aching from the distant sound of the box crashing loudly somewhere below the room's stone foundation. The chains clattered, dangled, and drifted to a stop. All was once again silent, save for the rattling of fans and the flicker of torchlight.
It took Daring several minutes to compose herself. Her wings ached and her head throbbed from all the constant exercise. At last, she sat up and looked at the item in her grasp. It was a book, and its leather cover was as old as ever, with painted images fading off the worn brown surface. The title escaped her studying eyes, aside from a few bold words that read: “...the Whipping Winds.” Without wasting another second, Daring opened the book up. Dust flew through the torchlight as she flipped through the pages. She came upon the center of the tome, her eyes squinting.
She couldn't read the tiny words without her glasses; she wasn't even going to bother. Using the crook of her hoof, she gathered a thick cluster of paper leaves... then ripped them straight out of the tome, ruining the book entirely.
The fans clattered, rattled, then puttered to a stop. The torchlights flickered less, then dimmed to a dull amber glow. Even the whistling in Daring's fuzzy ears had stopped.
She dwelled on none of these things. Dropping the shredded book with a thud, she sat on her haunches and pulled her eyeglass case out. Opening the clamshell container, the "Professor Do – Neigh York Institute for History and Archaeology" inscription glistening in the firelight, she tilted the thing about until she was gazing at her reflection yet again. With quivering lips, she leaned in, focusing on the image in the mirror. She tilted the container left and right, running a hoof through her bangs. But before she could see anything, a cold drop of water splattered across the glass, refracting her image into a dozen gray blobs.
Daring Do blinked in confusion, only to hear a drop of water rattling off the lid of her pith helmet. She gazed up, then regretted it, for two more drops splattered across her face. She trotted backwards, rubbing her muzzle dry and squinting at the ceiling.
A trickle of water fell through the crevices in the stone. The cobwebs melted away as the trickles turned into steady currents. Suddenly, with unrelenting volume, several thick curtains of liquid were spewing out of every hole above her.
Daring's face grimaced. As she backed up, she heard plodding sounds. She looked down and gasped to see a thin curtain of water rolling up to her fetlocks with alarming speed. In a blur, she spun and ran towards the thin tunnel from whence she came.
A roaring sound greeted her—like thunder, only this time louder and angrier. A veritable mudslide vomited out of the tunnel, knocking Daring Do to her haunches. Slimy water pushed her across the chamber, shoving her back into the fans, shattering them to wooden bits. She tried standing up, but a second deluge of grime and sludge pelted her figure. The mare was soon finding it hard to stand. The torchlight dimmed as the fire was gradually extinguished by the rising floodwaters. The entire subterranean place shook and quaked, as if an entire ocean was bearing down on her location.
Gritting her teeth, Daring Do flapped her wings and shot out of the rising currents before she could be submerged. She shot down the only exit available: a deep dark corridor leading away from the claustrophobic chamber. As she barreled down the passageway, she sliced into utter darkness, which made her blind to the unrelenting fountain of water slamming into her from the opposite direction.
The pegasus did a literal backflip. She plunged into a nightmarish world of black bubbles and even blacker currents. She kicked against the waters and shot up—only to strike the floor instead. Panicking, she spun around, and kicked off the stone. Before her lungs could burst, her muzzle hit dry air. She gasped for breath, all the while being carried somewhere along the subterranean rapids. She tried to move, to leap, to fly out of the stream, but her face barely moved an inch before her nose scraped against a ceiling from beyond the blackness.
Daring whimpered. Before she could think, another wave of water sloshed over her. She flailed in the fathoms, spinning head over tail. The currents grew faster, carrying her down the blacker than black intestines of stone, shipping her drowning body to some unfathomable destination that was colder than ice.
Colder than death.