by shortskirtsandexplosions

And the Monumental Mountains

        The rippling currents stopped briefly, just long enough for Daring Do's reflection to solidify across the surface. Her tan face leaned in, ruby eyes bright and blinking. She tilted the brim of her pith helmet up to glance at the singular streak of green in her mane hair, and the mare's lips curved again.

        Daring stood, perched beside a break in the ice where a partially frozen river trickled down a mountain pass. Throwing a look back at her tail, she flicked the hairs and spun around until her flank faced the stream. She squinted at the reflection this time. A green streak showed with each shake in the frosted winds. When she cast her naked eyes upon the tail itself, she saw only monochromatic strands. She looked one last time into the stream's surface, and the green flicker looked back.

        Exhaling slowly, Daring turned around completely from the river. She took a few crunching trots forward in the snow, then paused to glance at her compass. Once she determined where east was, she pocketed the device, spread her wings, and took to the air in a bounding leap.

        Her feathers strained briefly, for Daring was considerably heavier than the last time she flew. This, of course, was from all of the extra materials that she had bundled up across each flank with loops of fibrous brown twine. Not long after the wooden shack had crashed upon the mountaintop, she scooped up all of the branches, beams, and scraps of tools she could find. This included the steel hammer, which she had to counterbalance with a thick bundle of splintery tubes that once formed the doorframe to the swamp hut she had taken refuge in.

        However, no weight in the world had the potential of holding her down. A wave of energy throttled through her veins, making each flap of her wings easier than the last as she carved her way east through the blistering winds. Even the cold air was of little discomfort to her. As a matter of fact, it was invigorating. She hovered over the mountaintops in an almost casual fashion, veering north and south in gentle arcs to avoid the taller, more jagged peaks.

        The world was enormous; Daring knew this because no matter how far or how high she flew, she still couldn't see enough of it. Suddenly, the horizon had become a jagged mural of massive, triangular rocks glued to a pearl-blue sky. For the first hour alone, Daring must have flown past three separate mountain ranges at full feathered speed, and over each rolling ridge of sundered granite there stood yet another promontory in waiting... and then another and another. It was as though some cosmic muzzle had bitten loose a chunk of the continent, and there the pegasus flew, skimming over the shattered threads of it.

        Everything was beautifully crisp, beautifully bright, beautifully empty. Not a single bird or hint of intelligent movement did Daring observe in her travels. Every now and then, she thought she spotted something darting across the desolation, ultimately to realize that it was her shadow. On top of that, the constant glint of the reflective snow played tricks on her. The sun was gliding towards the broken horizon to her rear, and it brought an amber glisten to everything. Before long, the world caught fire from the platinum sigh of the dying day. If she squinted real hard, it looked almost as if she was gliding over frozen gold.

        The repetitious topography could have taken its toll on Daring's psyche, but she didn't allow it. As the sun grew low to the edge of the world, so did she, playfully skimming at a hair's breath over the peaks that undulated like marble tidal waves beneath her. It became a game in a way, with Daring diving below the sun's angled shadow and darting back up to once again taste in that heavenly kiss of light that grew sparser and sparser into the early evening. Soon, it would be dark, and that held dangerous prospects in a place so high and frigid.

        Daring didn't fear; she only flew. At last, the sun sank in the west, and the golden glow of daytime dissolved with it. All was shadow and more shadow, and Daring swiftly realized that she ran the risk of running into risks. With the warm colors of sunlight gone, all she could see to discern the mountains were bold shards of darkness cutting across the stars. It occurred to her that she could very easily ascend to a higher level. Above her, the pegasus spotted frosty clouds, drifting like gray silhouettes before the forming nebulae of night. She chose not to continue her journey up there, though. It wasn't because she was tired; she was simply bored by the darkness.

        The pegasus found a niche in the crook of two converging mountains. There, she grinded together some of her scavenged sticks and started a campfire. The flames didn't ward off all the chill of the altitude, but she didn't mind. Daring knew she couldn't sleep right away, comfort or no comfort. She sat upon the bosom of the world, gazing straight up at the cosmos, marveling in mute wonderment at the degree to which she could unabashedly observe the universe's spectral paintbrush.

        That high up, in the middle of absolute desolation, with absolutely zero pollution to tarnish the sky, Daring felt as though she was looking straight through a lens to witness the dawn of time. Bold swaths of milky white stardust ran across the stellar globe, and pinstreaks of gold and red comets burned their way across the tranquil masterpiece. It was the slowest, laziest, and most charming light show the mare had ever been bequeathed. She leaned her chin against her forelimbs and surrendered to gravity, though her eyes remained rolled up, locked on the glittering spectacle that hovered over her like thousands upon millions of candles.

        When Daring fell asleep, it was like rolling downhill, with a warm world of fragrant breaths waiting to cradle her below. She felt like she was being carried somewhere, and when she arrived upon that destination, it was upon the crest of dawn, with the stabbing light of morning dissolving soft shapes that bobbed in the ether, soft shapes that had nuzzled her and cherished her, like lost loves amidst the spreading ocean of her subconscious. She awoke to a smile and a tear, and she rubbed them both off her muzzle as she got up, stretched her legs, and gathered her things for another long day of flight.

        She knew that she would be flying for a while. As soon as she took off, she saw a hazy gray horizon devouring the sunlight in the east. She thought at first that it was simply cloudy mists, and she was partially right. Regardless, confusion sunk in, so she ascended swiftly, scaling the cold and colder atmosphere as she sought to fly high enough to gauge the landscape beyond the grayness. Soon enough, she realized that the grayness was the landscape. The adventurer was sailing directly towards an indescribably tall plateau, ripe with towering mountains that made the jagged peaks from the previous day's flight look like crumpled bed sheets.

        As Daring Do glided her way towards the veritable wall of dense rock, several rows of rugged earth rose up like gigantic stagecoach tracks beneath her. She glanced down to see that she was flying parallel to indescribably long canyons. Their steepness was nearly impossible to measure; she judged that a pebble dropped at this point would take at least two minutes to reach the top of the ravines and another minute and a half to finish its plunge to the unfathomable bottoms.

        Daring wondered, this high above the frosted mists, if there was life hidden away in those chasms—if anything or anyone there could look up and spot her, to see where she was going. Perhaps, then, somepony would be in the position to tell her.

        Half a day of this speedy flight passed, and still the mountains kept rising, jabbing and slicing at the air until they skimmed past her peripheral vision in rugged clusters. For the first time in hours, Daring started to feel a lingering ache of concern. To compensate for the increasingly elevated topography, she had ascended higher and higher. At last, she flew at such an extreme altitude that she refused to blink, for fear that the frost clinging to her eyelashes might fuse her lids together. Daring rubbed the surface of her muzzle constantly, trying to ward off a deep numbness that only then she was starting to wake up to.

        Daring was a pony of great athletic prowess and endurance, but even she had her limits. The day's journey was starting to take its toll on her. She could feel it in her wings, like throbbing currents of electric shock running into her feather tips and shooting violently back. She cursed her foolishness for not having taken a break sooner, for now that she was looking around for a place to land, she saw little to no piece of the rising plateau that could offer a hoof-hold.

        Nevertheless, she chose a particular spot: a space of rock about ten by twenty feet that miraculously caught a piece of the sunlight peeking down through the impossibly tall summit east of there. When she landed, it was as if a mattress of rubbery bedsprings had collapsed beneath the pegasus in the form of her legs. She collapsed to her tan chest, only to feel her lungs evacuating in a sharp gasp. The stone surface of the mountain was colder than death, and Daring almost bit through her tongue from the anguishing chills rolling up and down her spine.

        In spite of her sensations, she did her best to remain calm, something she was well gifted with. Slowly, she stood up, basking in the rays of light streaming from the morning sun above. She brought a hoof up to one of her shirt pockets, feeling the eyeglass case rattling within. Somehow, that alone was enough to bring the feeling back into her extremities.

        Daring once more flexed her feathery appendages. This time, when she flew, it was in short bursts, navigating her way from one jutting rock cleft to another. The cold from the clouds sapped her of strength, but not of resolve. She didn't have the energy to start gliding high above the plateau again, but she had no need to. With nimble leaps, she scaled the craggy cliffs with relative ease, making almost as much progress on hoof as she did by wing.

        The simplicity of the task, however, dissolved throughout the course of her ascent. By the time the sun had risen to its lofty, noonday position, Daring Do was having to make more and more progressively crazy leaps to reach her desired locations. At last, after two or three quick breaks, she stopped leaping altogether. Breathing hotly onto her hooves, she rubbed them against each other, gave the things a good stretch, then proceeded to claw her way patiently up the steeper and steeper mountain face.

        This was when Daring's body truly started to ache. She didn't think it was possible, but she sweated openly in the freezing temperatures, all the while clambering her way up the rough granite wall like an insect skittering slowly across a shattered mirror. Every time she breathed, clouds of vapor rolled against the stone in front of her, glistening across a thin layer of permafrost. She saw kaleidoscopic reflections off the dangling flakes of snow, like microscopic flashes of gray and green and more gray. Undaunted, she kept climbing, one hoof swinging before the other, pulling her body and her belongings and her breaths upwards in persistent, trembling jerks.

        A thin layer of powdery snow was collecting along her ears. She flicked her fuzzy lobes, curious what was rolling the sheets of frost over her body. Looking over her shoulder, she was both shocked and overjoyed to see a thick ceiling of mist looming directly above her. The shock came from just how high she was. The joy came from just how much height she had already traveled. Urged on by a sudden burst of charisma, she climbed faster and faster, clawing her way speedily up the jagged wall until the tips of her hooves bled.

        It may have been another hour, perhaps two, but Daring eventually pierced her way through to a strikingly warm world. She realized that it was sunlight permeating the grayness; she had emerged from beyond the cloudline. Looking for the first solid cliff face, Daring scrambled eagerly towards it. Once her hooves met even ground, she threw herself sideways upon the ledge and lay there, panting for breath. A thin reserve was all that was granted her, and the pony took careful meditation to pace her inhales and exhales so as to receive the right amount of oxygen.

        When she at last had enough strength to sit, she did so, peering immediately west. The resulting sight mesmerized Daring; she had to struggle not to let her breath be taken away. There was no sight of the world beyond the clouds—not remotely, at least. The horizon hid beneath a swirling curtain of mist, and only the most immediate mountain peaks were bold enough to pierce the haze, like gravestones standing stubbornly in the wake of a dismal fog. The very top of this cloudy bed glowed from the playful touch of the melting sunset. She couldn't tell if the sun was passing, already set, or if the world's atmospheric ceiling was merely projecting a refracted illusion of what had warmed Daring during the last two days of flight.

        Whatever the case, it warmed her now, even if it was retreating, casting cold daggers of shadow across her squinting brow while skimming beyond oblivion's lease. Soon, it would be night, and the beauty of the previous evening would be lost to her—Daring knew—for half of the sky was utterly devoured by this alien slab of stone to which she pathetically clung. Nevertheless, like a dust mite rounding an anvil, she turned around and faithfully resumed her climb. The effluent haze of starlight was starting to blossom overhead, and she knew it was only a matter of time before she froze at this height. It came down to her having to choose practically any cliff within reach that was solid enough for her to lie down flat.

        Luckily, another hour into this nocturnal ascent, she found a spot with a deep crevice carved into its side. It wasn't exactly a cave, but it did provide a modicum of shelter from the elements. Choosing practicality over luxury, Daring swiftly made camp, then not-so-swiftly started upon making a fire. It was too dark to see what she was doing, and her hooves were like limp noodles doing phantom dances in front of her bleary eyes. Thinking fast, she breathed on her enchanted crystal, and the glowstone in her pocket actually gave her enough heat to accomplish her task without too much mishap. A few minutes later, at the cost of her last few bundle of twigs, she managed to get another fire going. She sat between the blaze and a curved slab of stone, curling herself against the toasty heat radiating from the flames. Soon, she took no notice of the howling winds from beyond the edge of the plateau. The girth of the mountain behind her must have absorbed the bulk of the cold breezes, and she wasn't about to complain.

        She wasn't about to sleep either. Daring lay her head upon her forelimbs in a slump, her eyes plastered to a thin curtain of snow draped across the rock face as it was lit by the golden tongues of dancing flame. Her mind spun in circles, trying to chase down the warm breaths that she had sensed in her sleep the evening before. With darting eyes amongst the powdery swirls, Daring's mind dared itself to drift out across invisible waves, beckoning whatever wharf the phantoms of her dreams took refuge in, hiding from her, almost playful in their incorporeal evasiveness.

        Without realizing it, Daring had grabbed the first of several burnt sticks from the edge of the campfire. Holding the singed thing in the crook of her hoof, she brushed swaths of snow left and right, before pausing, contemplating, then slowly drawing lines across the crunchy surface, forming shapes, patterns, imprints of things more distant to her than the frozen stars above. When at last she was done, and her hoof was as tired as the rest of her shivering body, she squinted frightfully at the sudden mosaic of symbols. Like ivory silhouettes, they glistened in the firelight: a diamond, a decoration, an insect, a fruit, a star, and—at last—a thundercloud. The last image in particular forced Daring's heart rate to quicken with each pounding second, so that she felt like her throbbing eyes were being stabbed by a flash of merciless lightning.

        Fear consumed confusion and anger consumed fear. Daring didn't realize she was snarling until she was halfway through swinging the stick left and right, shredding the symbols within the snowy bed to dust. The cliff face before her cleared to empty stone, and the clean slate brought brief solace to her, though it was swiftly devoured by an inexplicable curtain of melancholy drawing over the pony like a funeral shroud.

        She heaved and shuddered, afraid of what her heart and mind were giving birth to. Before she could find out, she curled closer to the fire, drew the pith helmet over her tearing eyes, and surrendered to both darkness and exhaustion.

        If she slept that night, Daring certainly didn't feel it. Morning came like a mace to the skull, and the weary adventurer sat up with a groaning wince, cracking loose miles of stiff joints out of her back and leg muscles. The shadow of the rising sun fell over the west end of the plateau like an onyx cape, making the dawn even colder than nightfall. As Daring Do prepared for the rest of the ascent, she nearly dropped her belongings three times, on account of the shivers.

        At last, though, she recuperated, and resumed her ascent to the summit. With the penumbra of sunlight pulsing ahead of her from beyond the peaks, she could see the lengths she had yet to travel, the extent of the mountain she was blind to the evening before, and it was all horribly daunting. Nevertheless, she persisted, shifting the weight of the homemade satchels on her flanks, trying to keep a pace that was both strong and steady.

        As the sun rose, gradually glaring down at her from above the mountain's steep edge, she became aware of a rising hiss, like hundreds of howling coyotes churning and stirring beneath her. She paused, hanging off a jutting rock, and glanced down. Her ruby eyes had to focus, but after a few moments she discovered that the clouds were scaling up the mountain beneath her. What was more, they were empowered by a horrible blizzard that scraped and chipped away at the rock face. At the rate at which the storm was rising after her, it would be less than an hour after she herself was consumed.

        This sparked a state of panic in Daring's heart. Glancing up, she determined that she had at least another two hundred meters left to go. That high up, her wing muscles were numb, and her feathers were starting to congeal with a fine coat of frost. Still, if she didn't throw caution to that very wind, there was no telling how swiftly she would end up surrendering to the inclement weather climbing after her, threatening to blow the skin off her joints.

        So, with the pin prick sting of the blizzard's frosty approach at her fetlocks, Daring clung to the rock and began flapping her wings hard, warming the muscles and shaking much of the moisture loose. It was a great deal more taxing than she had anticipated, and she couldn't escape the phantom sensation of her appendages threatening to rip off and leave her flightless with each successive motion.

        This went on for minutes, and already she could sense the blizzard's winds whistling past her ears. She had stayed in place for too long, and there was no telling how soon the tempest would consume her. So, with a leap of faith, she kicked off the rock face, lunged into thin air, and flapped her wings even harder.

        She fell.

        With a shriek, Daring Do angled her body and spread her feathers wide. With a jolt, her body caught air, bobbed, then levitated slowly upwards. It was a grueling task, and she felt as if she was ripping muscles apart with each passing second. Fighting the pain, she ascended, skimming the flat face of the steep plateau. The mountain's edge loomed within one hundred and fifty meters... one hundred and twenty... one hundred...

        Daring didn't realize she was sobbing until she felt the tears being plastered to her face in frosty streams. She grunted and squealed for added reserve, ripping past the torture as the glorious edge of the cliff loomed within a hoofball's punt, a stone's throw, a lunge of the hoof.

        Gasping, Daring flung both forelimbs forward. She grasped the edge of the mountain... and slipped. Breathless, she hovered loosely in the whipping winds, twisted her whole body, and thrusted forward again. She gripped the cliff face, pulled hard, and rolled the rest of her body up and over like a wet blanket.

        Twirling, she splayed herself across the top of the plateau, facing skyward as she panted with mixed relief and agony. The air screamed from below, where she had been clinging to the mountain like a roach on a brick wall. She could only imagine how violently she would have been swept to her death had she stayed down there. And yet, as she spent the minutes trying to recover in the thin atmosphere, she heard another whistling noise.

        Wearily, Daring sat up, gazing eastward. The summit was flat, but that was a rough estimate at best. She couldn't see beyond three hundred feet of the snow-laden plateau, for a dense gray cloud hung over the impossibly high mesa. It was then that she realized that there were two blizzards to contend with, one behind her, climbing rapidly up the mountain face, and another dead-east, looming, waiting to consume her fragile figure.

        Daring was alone with the elements on that lofty pedestal in the sky. In either direction, it was certain death. So she stood up, flexed her muscles, and chose one.

        Trotting firmly east, Daring squinted into the thickening gray air. She folded her ears back, for the wind’s howl was starting to grow intolerable. After a full minute of charging into biting snow flurries, she bowed her head and thrust her shoulder forward. The next hour of trotting became a grinding ritual, with Daring slowly creeping into the sleet and swirls, her hooves crunching through a fragile stream of frozen river water, one that cracked and formed glossy spiderweb fractures beneath her hooves with each lurching step.

        At some point, the wind relented, only to start up again, this time spinning from all angles. Daring found herself in a veritable cyclone of tornadic snow. She assumed that it was from the west blizzard finally creeping up the side of the mountain and colliding with the maelstrom that she was currently navigating.

        Daring gritted her teeth to keep them from chattering. Her shoulders shook as she stumbled and shoved against the merciless gusts. She was aware of how much the gales were shoving her left and ride, veering her off course. Just what was her course?

        The adventurer wasn't sure of anything anymore. For all she knew, she could have trotted a full circle while trying to pierce her way across this deathly cloud of cold. To stave off her fear, she hunkered down in the middle of the blizzard, reached for her shirt, and pulled out the compass.

        The mare's hooves were too numb. She dropped the compass with a clatter to the stone floor. Cursing under her breath, Daring lunged forward to pick it back up.

        The wind was beating her to it, shoving the compass across the rock face with a scraping slide. Daring fumbled and dashed and galloped after it, almost tripping once or twice as more gusts blew at her flanks. She widened her eyes to keep visual contact on the elusive tool as it rolled, rattled, and finally came to a stop against a slender black shadow in front of her.

        Daring clumsily collided with the object. Her lungs emptied with a pained grunt as she slumped down what turned out to be a metal pole of sorts. Falling on her haunches, Daring rubbed her upper body with her forelimbs, gazing up at the structure in shock.

        It looked to be a cluster of pipes, constructed out of shiny brass. Several porous holes punctured the smooth surface, seemingly impervious to the cyclonic elements. The entire thing stood about twenty feet tall, and Daring looked down to see that the pipes easily pierced the rocky floor, rooted in something unperceivably deep below the roof of the mesa.

        What was more, there was a valve resting directly in front of her, about two feet wide. Daring blinked, gazing up at the swirling gray mists, then back at the alien structure in question. Reaching forward, she gripped both edges of the valve and attempted twisting it left. However, the thing was bound tight; it would not budge. After several frustrated attempts, she fell back on her haunches, shivering in the howling wind. Just then, the pegasus brightened. She reached into her satchel of things and produced the steel hammer. Wedging the object between the spokes of the valve, she threw all of her strength into the tool itself, using it like a lever as she forced the valve to turn.

        With a deep, resonating squeak, the dial eventually rotated, becoming easier and easier to spin as Daring put her back into it. About ten seconds into the task, the mare heard a high-pitched noise piercing the air, driving back the cacophonous howl of the blizzard. Suddenly, with a burst of heat, a plume of steam billowed out from the many-many holes in the vertical pipes. She stepped back, panting, startled. The pegasus watched as whiter than white mists rippled out of the metal tubes, slicing the blizzard down the center and exposing the deep blue sky of the upper atmosphere.

        To her undeniable joy, the air grew warmer. Whatever heat empowered the steam pipe, it transformed the top of the plateau from a nightmarish freeze to an autumnal chill and eventually to a comfortable coolness. If Daring was in another place and time, she could have sworn it was a warm spring afternoon.

        The reach of this heat wasn't limitless, though. The mare watched with curiosity as a veritable circle was carved out of the blizzard, beating the gray mess back by a radius of about one hundred feet. Twirling around to gauge the clear landscape, Daring caught sight of another glinting object. A brand new shaft of brass pipes emerged from the ground just on the edge of the heated steam's reach, as if they were purposefully placed there to appear on the crux of the hazy weather.

        Picking up her compass, Daring determined that the pipes were located due east. Briskly, with the steel hammer held in her teeth, the pegasus galloped over to the chilly edge of the warm air pocket. She found a valve attached to the structure, much like the pipes before it, and she slipped the tool into the rungs of it, giving it a good twist.

        The warmth brought renewed energy to her muscles, so it was with little effort that she twisted the valve loose this time. Yet again, there was a burst of steam, hissing through the air with the unmitigated passion of a coal-powered sauna. The air tingled like a summer's day after a rain shower, and as Daring glanced east, another series of pipes appeared.

        Daring rushed to the structure and repeated the process, as well as with the pipes after that, and the next two structures. Eventually, she had carved a straight line of conjoined circles across the mountain, ripping the entire blizzard apart and turning the roof of the plateau into a luxurious steam bath. At last, she stumbled upon a remarkably large cluster of pipes, about three times as tall and four times as wide as the previous array of brass obelisks that she had approached. There was something else different about these: they had several horizontal tubes affixed to them, leading towards some dark shadow that rested just beyond the curtain of undulating snow flurries to the east. The longer Daring squinted at the structure, the more she started to discern shapes beyond the mists, like rising columns and slanted roofs.

        Undeniably curious, the mare twisted what turned out to be a trio of valves this time, starting with the smallest and ending with the largest. The air practically sang with the whistling steam, and she heard deep reverberations of bass noise echoing through the tubes that ran forward from her. The air cleared as the horizontal pipes emitted bursts of steam at every dozen meters. The grayness spread open before her like a receding tide, and she gawked at a huge chunk of ice looming like a mountain atop the mountain.

        Within this translucent glacier, she saw marble pillars and granite platforms. An actual building lay frozen atop the attic of the world, encapsulated completely in ice like a ship within a bottle. As blazing hot steam from the mysterious heart of the mountain channeled into the glacier, Daring watched in awe as the enormous chunk of ice began to crack and dissolve. The air filled with a rushing sound, like river rapids were being spawned on either side of her. Daring felt the surface of the mesa vibrating, and she saw a thin curtain of icy water rushing towards her. The current was thin and harmless, at least from her angle. When she craned her neck, she could see that the north and south ends of the temple were looming above vicious drops, and veritable waterfalls were being born on either side.

        The glacier was melting, and in swift order too. Daring watched as the icy tomb imploded slowly, being reduced to flowing liquid that splashed thinly across every square inch of the sun-kissed summit. Casually, the mare strolled forward, her hooves plodding and splashing through the tingly streams. The sensation brought as much mirth to her heart as it did mystery, for it was not unlike trotting barehoof across a wet sidewalk on a summer's day.

        Daring looked down, and her reflection smiled back across the rippling puddles. A streak of green dangled beneath her pith helmet, and she looked up, breathing with renewed vigor as she followed the thunder of distant waterfalls and slowly trotted up the soaked granite steps and through the miraculously exposed temple gates.