Daring heard a shrieking voice, and it took her the space of three icy seconds to realize that it was the sound of her own screams catching up to her. A breath later, everything became the whiplashing whir of sharp green thorns lunging straight towards the mare from three directions at once. In the last shred of wind that she could afford, she spread her wings and spiraled upright, gliding across the sweltering swamp. Thorns scraped and branches scratched at her hooftips, but she successfully outflew the murderous vegetation. A loud snap echoed through the air.
Wheezing for spare oxygen, Daring forced herself to land. She stumbled, spun around, and clutched the book tighter in the leafed satchel hanging off her flank. With a quivering expression, she backtrotted from the writhing mess of vines, brambles, and grass roots.
In the center of the clearing—where the courtyard had been reduced to a shattered mess—one single worm with bright green bark thrashed and writhed about, surrounded by a razor sharp array of natural weaponry.
Gulping, Daring slumped onto her haunches, studying the scene from a safe distance. Slowly, the vines and thorns turned brown and went limp, as if whatever otherworldly power that had empowered them was now succumbing to natural release. With her wings drooped on either side of her, the mare bowed her head and bore a relieved smile.
As the last of the vines decayed to wrinkled black skin, the emerald rope in the middle spun, straightened, and drilled straight into the ground. It disappeared under the granite rubble, casting the swamp into buzzing silence.
Daring looked up. After a blink or two, she raised an eyebrow.
With a thunderous smash, the living vine shot out of the ground once more, this time at at a thirty degree angle sailing straight for Daring's fuzzy forehead.
The pegasus emitted a yelp and ducked low, covering her pith helmet. The vine shot over her, however, and drilled into the gnarled trunk of a spreading tree.
Daring Do turned and glanced quizzically over her shoulder.
She watched as the last length of the emerald rope disappeared beneath the structure's brown surface. All was silent yet again, until an immense groaning noise rumbled through the earth. Daring witnessed the tree become alive, twisting its entire body about like a spongy mushroom. One of its branches bloomed flowers in a dazing pattern; a swath of pale petals ran from the trunk to the wooden tips as the tree limb became a giant claw and lunged for the little pony.
Daring rolled to the side. A crater formed where her body had just been. Loose bark and lotus blossoms showered her figure as her hooves scraped and scampered for even hoofing. In a bursting breath, she was off, galloping west and up the steep ravine that had brought her to the ruins to begin with.
As the pegasus sped at a full sprint, she heard a shattering sound. Against her better judgement, she looked back past her flouncing tail. The living vine soared out of the lopsided tree, and it was busy jumping in and out of tall branches looming on either side of the fleeing pony, chasing after her like a sea serpent skimming the surface of a pond. With each jump the malicious vine made, it turned the trees alive, each of them flinging and smashing and slashing at the carrier of the leather-bound book.
Daring gnashed her teeth as she leapt from side to side, ducking and dodging the violent branches. She tried leaping over a fallen log, but instantly regretted it. The vine leapt into the trunk, forcing it to grow roots and lift straight up like a beam atop a tripod.
The adventurer took the blow with a high-pitched grunt. She toppled away from the blast like a tan domino. She heard snapping sounds, and flapped her wings before she could fall backwards into a gnarled thornbush. The cluster of brambles coiled, then shot a lash of barbed tentacles upwards at the pegasus. She dodged the serrated strings and flew straight up, panting, shredding her way towards the sunlight peaking through the treetops.
In Daring's peripheral vision, something green and slender darted up past her. The mare's heart skipped a beat, for she could already see the canopy above blocking out the sky, like thick arteries about to burst with venom. Following a spray of loose bark, four branches flew straight down, their twigs slicing sharply through the air.
Daring twirled to the left and glided to the right. The third branch grazed her, spilling warm blood in the air. Before Daring could shriek, the fourth branch of twigs encircled her like a python. She wheezed, struggling for breath, but found her ribs getting more and more constricted. Hissing for breath, she flung her mouth down to a shirt pocket and pulled loose the lighter she had pilfered from the shack earlier. Grasping the item in her teeth, she grinded its hoofpiece against the tree branch holding her until it produced sparks. She aimed the resulting flame against a cluster of dry limbs, and the vegetation caught fire immediately. A windy burst of air came from beneath the possessed tree like a shriek. Daring watched as a second branch reached over to snuff out the flames. With her last breath, she tossed the lighter into the limb's "palm." The tree blindly crunched the tool in its grip, spilling the remaining fuel over the fire. A bright burst of orange flame consumed the upper cluster of branches, and the thing let go of Daring entirely.
The pegasus fell like a sack of potatoes, splashing upside down into a deep pond at the tree's roots. She spun, flailed, and pony-paddled until she was even with the surface. After much splashing, she pulled herself ashore, gasped for breath, and broke into a limp canter.
She could hear the air slicing apart with a whipping noise. This time, she caught sight of the worm leaping down from the burning trees and sailing into the soil immediately beneath her. With a gasp, Daring watched as the grass beneath her hooves came alive. Flowers retracted and hardened into blades while weeds became suffocating nooses.
Breaking into a desperate gallop, she outran the very floor of the swamp trying to kill her. Tall grass reached for her throat. Razor-tipped reeds shot up like spears. Flytraps bloomed and spat acid at her fetlocks.
Daring hopped and skipped over every attack, ultimately choosing to charge down a length of shallow pond water. She heard the gnarled sound of grass and bushes curdling on either side of her, trying to outrace the mare across the swamp.
Once she made her way to a sandy island made of loose pebbles and twigs, she skidded to a stop. At her breath's limit, she ripped the book out from her homemade satchel and struggled desperately to open the rusted lock. All around her, the swamp groaned and hissed angrily. No matter how hard she fiddled with the lock, the ancient thing would not budge. She grunted in frustration and even resorted to slamming the book several times against the moist floor beneath her. No success.
An enormous tearing sound rang throughout the humid forest.
Frowning, Daring spun to look. Slowly, her face stretched and her ears drooped as a gargantuan shadow overcame her.
The living vine was leaping speedily from tree to tree, and in its animated wake, ropes upon ropes of wooden tubes connected between the massive trunks like bamboo. With a hideous salvo of crunches, three.. four... five... over eight trees conjoined like giant blobs, forming a cohesive quadruped figure with thorns for a coat and serrated branches for claws. A timberwolf, a construct of malevolent nature, roared violently into the air, shaking the remaining canopy and sending a vaporous blast of angry energy blowing at Daring's mane.
Biting her lip, the mare spun, spread her wings, and flew straight through the swamp. The pond exploded behind her, sending slime and muck sailing for hundreds of feet as the enormous tree-creature bounded in full pursuit. Daring veered from side to side, threading her way between inert trees and branches as the air filled with panicked insects and fleeing water fowl.
All she could hear behind her were explosions. She glanced back and saw—in one blink—a wave of pure chaos rolling after her, shoving massive trunks and mounds of earth aside like a giant dog's nose carving through a sandbox. In fitful breaths, she glanced up, but there was still no break in the canopy, plus she kept seeing darting glimpses of the green vine that was spawning this evil animation.
Daring's thoughts overwhelmed her for one second too long, and she bumped clumsily into the side of a tree. The blow sent her falling, skidding across a shallow pond. She grunted, floundered, hopped up to her hooves, and took off in a burst. Milliseconds later, the ground behind her exploded from the timberwolf’s lunging paw. The abomination shrieked, spitting sap and amber as it flung its other limb at the fleeing pony.
Daring dodged the blow, but the tree immediately beside her wasn't quite as lucky. The resulting explosion of bark caught her off-balance, and she fell again, this time collapsing before a beaten path lined with reflective stones.
She gasped before she could even think about it. Looking up, her twitching eyes saw the row of carefully-laid stones. They led directly towards the shack where she had acquired her tools to begin with.
The air behind her roared. She kicked off the ground and bounded forward in time to avoid a row full of wooden teeth. Plowing its splintery muzzle into the ground, the timberwolf bore a deep trench after her.
Daring ran, jumped, and dove straight into the shack. She barely landed on the cot in the far corner when the entire body of the structure tilted forty-five degrees. The muzzle of the wooden beast was stuck in the doorway, and yet its maw snapped and hissed and bit at the pony's sprawled limbs.
With firm grunts and kicks of her rear legs, Daring held the mouth of the creature back. Sweating profusely, she gripped the book with one forelimb and reached into the large wooden trunk with the other. Fishing around, she eventually felt the shape of the steel hammer she had left there during her first visit.
As soon as she gripped the thing in the crook of her hoof, the room spun. Daring yelped, feeling the cot fly out from underneath her as the whole shack lifted high into the air by the timberwolf’s writhing snout. Gravity spun loops in her stomach, and she dangled precariously, watching as the trunk and bookcase fell towards the flimsy entrance, only to be immediately crunched to mulch by the ravenous monster's mouth.
The creature howled and wriggled, struggling to untangle the pony from her grip, like a dumb puppy wanting to get a treat loose from the bottom of a cardboard box.
Hooking her lower limbs around the rungs of the wooden shack's walls, Daring gripped the hammer in her mouth and repeatedly slammed over the rusted trapper keeper of the infernal tome. The world danced around her. Hot breath and sap clung to her coat hairs. The massive wooden paws of the creature flew up and pressed against opposite ends of the shack, pushing inward. A chorus of crunching noises kissed Daring's ears. She felt her body pelted with splinters of wood as she hammered and hammered away at the book's latch, grunting with each desperate effort.
Just as the wall she was clinging to started to buckle and break, the book snapped open with a rustle of pages. Daring gasped for joy—then lost her grip. With a shriek, she twirled across the shack and plunged into the creature's maw. At the last second, she flung her hooves out, anchoring herself at the lashing mouth of the creature. Its teeth slashed and swung at her. Sweating, Daring looked left... then right. She saw the book balancing precariously on the monster's lips, about to teeter and fall into the swamp below.
Freeing one hoof, Daring grasped the book. She lost balance, flailed, then screamed. With a final lunge, she threw the weight of her body into the book's grip, slashing the pages across one of the timberwolf’s many teeth. In a single blink, half of the tome's contents were shredded.
The creature froze. The leaves lining its face stiffened, forming frost and icicles.
Daring blinked in breathless confusion, then winced as an overwhelming wave of frost bathed her figure. She fell back... and so did the shack, rolling loose from the creature's stiff jaws like a head from a guillotine.
When the building landed, it immediately went into a slide, gliding down a steep bank of snow. Daring collapsed hard with a grunt, rolling until she was propped up against the rear wall of the shack. Everything was grinding and vibrating around her. She sat up, wincing into a nail-bitingly cold wind. Her ruby eyes widened to see a bright blue sky with pale snow clouds hanging high above.
Just then, the building hit a bump and launched into thin air. Daring went weightless, and as she flew in the belly of the midair shack, she saw an immense mountainside looming below, sloping steeply into a breathtaking valley of pure powdery snow. The shack landed again, and so did Daring—though she was ready for it this time, spacing her hooves evenly apart like a foal might mount a sled. It was a sled. She stifled a prolonged shriek as the shack shifted left, shifted right, threw up a spray of sleet, then barreled straight towards an exposed cone of rock.
The shack struck, and it exploded. In a spray of wooden beams, swamp algae, and rope vines, the rickety building collapsed across the mountainside, throwing Daring Do loose so that she slid another twenty yards across the silk-slick snow. When she came to a stop, she lay there, panting for breath, bathed in the sunlight reflecting off the bright white hilltops surrounding her.
It took several minutes, but she eventually found the strength to sit up. She did so, shivering, for it was cold enough to see her own breath. The pegasus could have sworn she saw frozen droplets of swamp water clinging to her eyelashes.
Rubbing her body with her forelimbs, she sat on her haunches and looked behind her.
A line of dead wooden planks and tree branches stretched up the mountainside like the remnants of a horrific zeppelin crash. A howling wind dipped low, tickling the hairs on the ends of her ears before numbing them. Limply, Daring Do stood up and trotted back up the steep hill—an effort in and of itself. At last, she returned to the bulk of the crash. She gazed down at the remnants of the swamp's shack, at the many pieces of the timberwolf that had been torn off in the climactic struggled.
Bending down, Daring fished her hoof through the snow, muttering something unintelligible beneath her breath. She pulled a shiny object out, examining it closely, realizing it was the steel hammer. With a sigh, she pocketed it into one of the twin satchels made of green leaves and lily pads. Fishing some more, she finally caught a sight of burgundy. With a gasp, she yanked the item loose, beholding the ancient book in her grasp.
Daring paid no attention to the cover, instead examining the contents within. To her breathless approval, most if not every single leaf of paper had been shredded to bits.
Gulping, overcome by a wave of nervousness, the pegasus reached into her pocket. With shivering hooves, she fumbled to produce the eyeglass case. At last, she opened it, and immediately was stabbed with white light reflecting off the snowcaps around her. With a grunt, she tilted the container at an angle, then took a far more careful look at the mirror within. As her vision refocused from the sun's glare, her jaw dropped. The edges of her eyes moistened.
Her mane was gray, her every bang a monochromatic hue... except for one strand down the center...
A strand that was green... as green as grass.
Daring's lips began to quiver. She inhaled sharply, biting down on a tan hoof as her whole body quivered. Her cheeks bunched up in a bittersweet grin, and a tear rolled down her face as she rotated the case around. On every turn, she reexamined her hair, and on every flash of reflective light, it was still gray... and green.
Daring whimpered. That whimper turned into chortle and that chortle turned into a giggle, long and merry, foalish and whimsical. She tossed the container, her wings, and herself—falling down, sliding down the white frost and kicking up snow with hysterical laughter. She made snow angels and rolled about, hugging herself as the rapture took its course.
At last, when the euphoria had come and gone in waves, she sat up, staring down the face of the mountain with a bold smile. The hillside sloped into a soft valley, complete with babbling brooks of frozen ice and the hint of tundra clinging to exposed rock. Then, beyond the ivory plain, jagged and majestic, were rows upon rows of mountains, epic in scale, inviting in their grandeur.
And yet not a single one of those peaks dared to carve the sky like Miss Do's heart did.