by shortskirtsandexplosions

And the Sweltering Swamp

        There were no colors, but there were voices, laughing, giggling, chortling voices. Through the numbing silence, they beckoned, like six stars beyond a black velvet veil. And at the same time, they scampered away, their bodies zipping like foals' hooves across the hot tarp of a trampoline. Daring Do tried chasing after them, but every single step sent her bouncing, so that she floundered and rolled across the elastic darkness like a fish out of water.

        For the moment she felt that if she moved her hooves faster, she might catch up to their friendly voices. When that proved fruitless, she tried flapping her wings for added speed. Suddenly, a sheet of rocky dirt brushed across her flank. The pegasus' ruby eyes opened in a flash, and she found herself sliding sideways towards the edge of the swamp's pond.

        With a grunt, Daring stopped flapping her wings. She was rewarded with a wicked pratfall into a dancing bed of cattails. Her mouth spat out dirt and seedlings while mosquitoes flitt overhead, buzzing with a million tiny laughs.

        She sat up, blinking blearily. On numb hooves, the mare spun, gazing at the flimsy lean-to that had soaked up most of the rainfall overnight. Beneath it lay her green shirt, tossed aside like a spoiled infant's blanket.

        Daring Do sighed. She rubbed a tan hoof over her eyes. She saw stars beneath the lids, and just like in her dreams, those stars took on shapes, each of them smiling. She wanted to gouge her sockets to pulp.

        Instead, she trotted back to her shelter in the middle of the grassy island and started collecting her belongings. After slipping her shirt back on and pointing herself east, she resumed her trot, her tail swishing left and right to fight back errant insects.

        It was morning. Daring couldn't tell from the sunlight; the branches above blocked out almost all of the sky. However, she could judge from the heat that it was daytime, and it was not a good heat. It was a devastatingly stifling, humid, energy-sapping heat. With each step she took, she felt as if she was dripping her way through a moist sauna. Frightening bursts of the previous day's memories ricocheted through her mind, and with every other breath she had to convince herself that she wasn't drowning.

        On several occasions, she contemplated flying straight up and continuing her trek through the air, above the foliage. However, for the life of her, Daring couldn't find a single spot where she was certain she could navigate the spaces in between the branches. Instead, she stayed on her hooves, navigating the swamp-laden islands slowly, careful not to overexert herself. At the rate at which she was perspiring, she figured it was only a matter of time before she stood the risk of dehydration.

        The more she dwelled upon it, the more she realized that she was poorly equipped for the elements of the swamp, or any of the landscapes beyond for that matter. So, putting her journey on hold, she took the opportunity to collect some much-important things. Using a veteran's knowledge of botany, she found and collected plants and herbs she knew would be of aid to her in case of a gross injury. She found a few stalks of grass she knew were edible, several mushrooms she knew were poisonous, and several ropes of vine she knew nothing about. Gathering a bunch of lily pads, she used the fibrous materials from the vines to twist around the green leaves like string. Within the folds of the leaves, she stuffed all of the natural items she found. She strung these packets over each side of her flanks like miniature saddlebags, then continued on with her sojourn.

        She thought the swamp was loud at night. The crickets and cicadas had given her no moment of rest from sundown to sunrise. She couldn't have been more wrong about her assumptions.

        In the daytime, the bog was a veritable arena of noise. The trees buzzed with crawling, nameless little horrors. Things squirmed on either side of the mare's steps, causing the reeds and bushes to clatter like tambourines. Objects darted up and down in the ponds' surfaces, some larger than others, some with shadows that added a bass reverberation to the whole scene and made Daring keep a fair distance from the water's edge with trembling hooves.

        As far as she could tell, most if not all of the pockets of water around here were shallower than a foal's front lawn swimming pool. Just beyond her glittering reflection was the same mare with the same red eyes and the same monochromatic mane. She found herself staring at one or two riverbanks for a little bit longer than she needed to. At last, she felt the shifting weight of the eyeglass container in her front pocket, and she forced herself to continue trotting with a sigh.

        A few of the ponds, however, weren't entirely shallow. As a matter of fact, the blackness beneath their rippling surfaces absorbed any attempt Daring made to glance at her reflection. These were the boggy basins that she kept her distance from. The rain had long come and gone, and whatever glimpse she got from the sky above the branches suggested a bright and clear day. Still, she couldn't help but hear a nerve-wracking thunder beyond the foundation of that muddy, muddy place. She wasn't about to take any chances with anything.

        Daring pressed on. She judged—as well as she could with all the trees in the way—that the swamp was more or less situated on an even plane. There were little to no dips in the topography, and though she had to meander left and right to avoid wading through the slimy ponds, there was no lake so huge that it broke the visible tree line for more than twenty feet across. Everything was dense—almost impossibly so.

        Sniffling, Daring glanced down. The ground beneath her was grassy, but it wasn't exactly lengthy or springy vegetation. Much rather, a great deal of the earth lay exposed, yielding rich black soil. The clusters of dirt were overwrought with emerald granules of algae, which is what Daring blamed for the pungent smell that constantly tickled her nostrils.

        Grumbling slightly, the pegasus climbed over exposed tree roots and waving bushes. She winced and stumbled to a stop at one point, finding several burs had clung to her fetlocks. It took a good twenty minutes of annoyance and fumbling to remove the starry seeds. After the task was done, Daring paused to stare up at the branching mess above her.

        The leaves waved in a wind above the trees. The spreading branches kept any breeze from coming all the way down. Though it was nice to have a perpetual shade, Daring couldn't help but feel as though she was being deliberately baked by nature. She fidgeted, rubbing her chin and neck as rivulets of sweat ran down her muzzle. After a last glance at her compass, she stood back up, pivoted herself about, and set hoof to walk again.

        She froze, however, upon seeing a peculiar brown sight about forty yards ahead of her. Between two trees, nestled amidst a cluster of fronds, several pale branches rested against each other in a geometric pattern. Slowly, pensively, Daring shuffled towards it. As the object came into focus, she realized that it was actual architecture, a shack of some sort.

        Her hoofsteps hurried before she even noticed them. Soon, she was galloping towards the structure. She came to a stop, leaning forward with a squinting expression. The framework to the shack was loose and flimsy, to say the least. She could almost press half of her hoof through the spaces between the horizontal rungs of wooden slats. Still, she was at a loss to find a door. Trotting around the structure, she found herself walking the circumference of about thirty feet before she at last found the entrance. It was partially collapsed, with a leather flap dangling awkwardly off a rickety frame.

        Ducking in, Daring gazed into the doubly-shadowed domain. The buzzing of insects was louder in here, and the place smelled of rust and decay. She saw a cot lying in the corner, and beside it a thick oaken trunk. Against the opposite wall there stood a case with several shelves.

        Daring immediately flew towards it. Her hooves danced and fumbled across the shelves in desperation. At last, she sighed. There were no books to be found.

        Adjusting her pith helmet, the sweat-soaked mare turned around. She blinked at the cot; the bed was too dilapidated to use comfortably, but that made it no less enticing. Instead, the adventurer shuffled over towards the brown oaken trunk and squatted down. She brought two hooves up and struggled with the latch. It took some effort, but she was able to unclasp the rusted thing. Lifting the trunk open with a loud creak, she was greeted by a cloud of dust, as well as a few flitting moths. The mare coughed and sputtered, waving the insects away with a tan hoof. She then squinted into the contents of the trunk.

        In the dim swampy haze, she saw a tattered woolen blanket inside the container, along with something bundled in black burlap, a green bottle, a steel hammer, and a tiny metal object. She reached in and grabbed the metal case first. She turned it over in her hooves, blinking inquisitively. As her eyes focused on the object, she chuckled at her own stupidity and flicked the thing open: it was a lighter. Reaching into the trunk again she grabbed the bottle and looked it over. The words on the water-soaked label were faded, but she could make out what looked to be the illustration of burning flames. She popped the cap off the bottle's end and took a sniff, grimacing, confirming her suspicions. Next, she reached past the hammer and lifted the burlap bundle, unrolling the fabric. To her undeniable luck, she found a thick torch with a bulbous end made up of fibrous strands, dryer than bone.

        After lightly juggling these many things in her grasp, she took one last lonesome look into the trunk. A shred of paper glinted in the scattered light. Daring's heart skipped a beat, and she yanked at the leaflet instantly. To her sighing dismay, it was just a single sheet of paper with nothing attached to it.

        Still, there was something scrawled across the brown surface. No matter how hard she squinted, the pegasus couldn't tell what it was. So, for a good reason this time, she reached into her pocket and pulled out her container. She removed the glasses and planted them on the fuzzy bridge of her nose.

        Able to see clearly, she read a line of hoofwriting that... wasn't quite so perfect. Nevertheless, in broken cursive, she was just barely able to discern: "Burn them from the weakest to the strongest."

        Daring Do's brow furrowed. She lowered the glasses and tapped them to her chin in thought. Exhaling wearily, she pocketed the glasses away and stood up, gazing at her new acquisitions. After a moment of reflection, she walked out of the mostly barren wooden shack and stood outside. There, she took the bottle and doused the end of the torch with its pungent contents. Using the lighter, she ignited the fuel, and now she had a burning beacon in her possession.

        Clasping it in her teeth, the pegasus continued trotting eastward. As she did so, she couldn't help but notice a glittering path laid obscurely before her. Tiny, polished rocks had been laid carefully in the muck and mud. If it weren't for the bright torch in her mouth, Daring realized she never would have picked up on the stones' reflective surfaces.

        Taking this as something meaningful, she purposefully followed the line of shimmering objects. It took her down a remarkably beaten path, one that threaded through soft grass and soil, avoiding tree limbs and splotches of loose pebbles. Whoever or whatever had been there before must have purposed this path... purposed it for her, or else somepony like her.

        She didn't realize it at first, but the path was descending. She looked to her left and right and realized that the trees and mounds of dirt were rising up, as if she was crawling into a ravine of sorts. The mare couldn't remember the last time she had seen a pond or a reservoir or even a single trickle of moisture. Everything was becoming drier, duller, deader.

        Soon, the reflective clusters of polished stone ended altogether, giving way to what looked to be a solid plate of granite.

        Curious, Daring brushed aside a curtain of low-hanging vines. She nearly dropped the torch from her mouth in a gasp. A courtyard loomed before her, perfectly square, with tall marble posts erected at each end, plastered all over in living and dying sheets of green algae.

        At first, Daring was reticent to trot forward. She looked down to see a geometrically intricate array of tile plates. The adventurer and tile plates were sworn enemies. Through force of habit, she picked up one of the shiny, polished stones from the dirt path and tossed it hard onto the granite floor. The rock was brittle, and it shattered, its tiny pieces scattering like melted snow across the wide swath of unnatural floor.

        Nothing happened; not even a single creaking noise.

        Daring exhaled with relief. Slowly, she shuffled forward, glancing left and right across the courtyard. Leaves and seedlings lay scattered across the ancient platform like debris across a frozen pool. As if afraid the surface could actually break, Daring kept her hoofsteps soft and slow. She trotted until she was in the center and stared up, squinting.

        She thought that the courtyard would afford a break in the trees, but she was wrong. A throng of tall trunks flanked the granite square on all sides, and their branches almost deliberately stretched over the space, acting as a sort of natural gazebo ceiling. But what struck her most curiously was something that was hardly natural: an object hung about twenty feet directly above her. It swayed in a humid breeze, its contents ensnared in a veritable iron maiden of wooden reeds and roots and twigs. When Daring squinted harder, she could have sworn she saw something smooth inside; something leathery.

        Her ears twitched excitedly under her pith helmet. Looking around, Daring spotted a soft patch of dark earth besides the east edge of the courtyard. Dashing over, she lowered her muzzle and planted the dull end of the torch deep into the pliable soil. Once it was firmly secured, she stretched her wings and blurred up to the dangling object.

        The cluster of wood literally formed a cage in midair, and it was suspended by a series of thick green vines dangling from an intersection of branches high above. As Daring hovered next to the object, she studied the vines carefully, determining that they stretched up into the lofty branches. She was less interested in the method of suspension than she was in what actually lingered inside the thick container of wood.

        Clasping the thing with her hooves, she rotated and twisted it around as best as she was able to. Through the tiny spaces of the roots, she saw the unmistakable gloss of paper sheets and the worn edge of a book's burgundy cover. The pegasus gnashed her teeth. She tugged on the "cage." It refused to budge. She tugged and tugged and tugged on it some more. The air filled with a creaking noise, and the wooden cluster dangled about, but there was no giving in to her pull. Stifling a groan, Daring flew up and resorted to an animalistic gesture, chewing and gnawing at the support vines in angry futility. Spitting the detestable taste of algae out, she hovered backwards and folded her forelimbs, glaring daggers at the offensive thing.

        Slowly, as her wits recollected, she gazed up at the vines and followed them into the tree branches. She realized that the intertwining fibers that held the object up actually split into four complete directions once they reached the canopy. Gazing back down, Daring watched as the vines traveled the length of four different trees before roping off and wrapping around the four separate granite columns positioned around each end of the courtyard. Somewhere beneath the columns, the vines were ultimately anchored into the ground, their gnarled bodies harder than rock.

        Daring rubbed her chin. Slowly levitating back towards the ground, she landed lightly on her hooves and paced in a circle, wracking her brain. After a moment, she paused, then glanced up at the granite posts. She trotted towards one of them, gazing all along its stony surface.

        There were multiple engravings along the height of the construction, and all of them depicted one thing: snakes.

        Curious, Daring trotted over to the next corner and its respective column. Once more, there were engravings along the post, but it was of something else entirely: dragonflies. She studied the last two towers and found images of frogs and mosquitoes respectfully. Sitting down, she meditated on this, then remembered a phrase recently burned into her brain, imperative, eight words long.

        She gave the posts one last look, observing how the vines looked dry and brittle as they ran up the various engravings of swamp creatures. Then, in a lively breath, she galloped over to her torch and picked it up. She paced in a circle, trotting past the snakes and dragonflies and frogs and mosquitoes. Then, remembering the words, she trotted over towards the post with the images of mosquitoes and raised the burning torch towards the length of vine surrounding it.

        Right there, Daring Do paused. Her hooves squirmed beneath her. Narrowing her eyes, the mare leaned back, blinked, then glanced at the other three posts. Her nostrils flared, careful not to inhale too much of the burning fuel's fumes. At last, she spun around completely, trotted away from the mosquitoes, and set fire to the vine surrounding the post with dragonflies instead. The flame traveled halfway up the granite column, but did not go any further.

        Daring wasn't done; in swift order, she trotted over and burned the vines around the post with frogs and then the tower with snakes. Last of all, she returned to the column with the mosquitoes and set fire to its vines too.

        As soon as the vines around the mosquito engravings caught fire, the rest of the towers' vegetation burst with bright puffs of smoke, as if all in one accord. Daring jolted, sticking her torch back down into the soil as she gazed breathlessly up at the inflamed twine. Before her eyes, the fire traveled up the natural rope, wormed its way brightly into the trees, then converged in the center above the hanging cage. With another flash, the cable of intertwining vines ignited, sending a wave of flame shooting down the length of suspension like a bottle rocket. When the fire met the cage, the top of it ignited, and the whole thing burst open like a flower, dropping the book with the intensity of an anvil.

        Holding back a shriek, Daring took wing, shooting madly for the book. She caught it in midair and landed in a tumble, her back resting up against one of the granite posts. As soon as she inhaled, she released a foalish giggle, hugging the book to her chest with amorous triumph. The moment she looked down at it, however, her smile left her. A pair of ruby eyes twitched involuntarily.

        The book was latched shut. A rusted bolt held the burgundy leather binder closed, and it looked like it hadn't been unlocked in ages.

        Daring bit on her lips. She pulled and tugged and fought to pry the tome open. It refused her every might. Growling, she smacked and punched the latch with her forelimb. A yelp of pain escaped the mare's hoof as she nearly broke blood with one hoof-strike too many. At last, she slumped back, emitting a long, soul-felt groan. Her lips locked into a perpetual frown. Sighing, she eventually stood up, trucked the book into one of her green-leafed "bags," and considered trotting back to the shack to see if there was some sharp tool lying around that she may have missed.

        As soon as she picked up the torch, however, she heard a rustling sound from overhead. Curious, the mare looked straight up.

        The burnt vine that had suspended the cage was swaying... but there was no wind.

        Daring raised an eyebrow, squinting through the flickering tongues of her torch's flame.

        Before her eyes, a line of bright orange flowers blossomed at the top of the dangling vine. They died within seconds after they magically grew, and Daring noticed the same thing happening just inches beneath them. In a straight line, flowers bloomed and withered to dust: a week's worth of growth transpiring in a single breath. Once the wave of life and death reached the end of the vine, its stubby ends spread apart, growing longer, greener, fuller. The air rustled even more as the vine came to life, twisted about itself, and suddenly grew so fast that it shot like a spear straight into the granite courtyard just besides Daring.

        The pegasus flew back as a wave of noise and energy flew across the echoing swamp. She landed on her haunches, scrambling to pick up her torch as she scooted breathlessly away from the phenomenon.

        The vine's burnt end wriggled and waved overhead like a serpent. At last, it snapped clean from the tree branches above, allowing its otherworldly body to worm maliciously down into the fresh hole the thing had made in the center of the granite slabs. Once it disappeared, all was quiet, but not for long. The stony floor shook and rumbled beneath Daring. She gasped as she saw weeds and grass blades and pools of algae seeping up through every seam and crevice. Then, with the cacophonous fury of a dozen cannon shots, the entire courtyard exploded with gnarled wooden vines, limbs, and thorns—and all of them flinging murderously towards Daring's airborne body.