Daring Do felt as though she was taking a relaxing shower, or perhaps a steam bath. The mare's nostrils flared, drinking in the warm misty air and bringing a tranquil smile to her face. She trotted evenly, her hoofsteps plodding through puddles, making wet echoes across the spacious hollow of the lofty temple entrance.
On either side of her, thick round columns stood tall and pale, drenched in continuously melting ice water. The pegasus peered through the splashing liquid in an attempt to study the composition of the vertical pillars. The cylinders were ridged, notched in well over twenty places around the side, like ancient pegasus architecture. The beams appeared to be constructed out of some sort of dense marble, or a polished granite of sorts. The stone material was glossy, smooth, with the color of shiny blue eggshells.
Glancing down, Daring studied the floor, noticing finely crafted mosaics of geometric circles and octagons. This elaborate collection of shapes—all bathed in dark blues and greens and silvers—stretched for as far as she could see, weaving in and around the rows upon rows of marble columns. The entire temple was flat, almost a solid plane of granite, with a horizontal space of about thirty feet from floor to ceiling.
She tried staring at the temple's far end, but all she could make out was a pale silver glow: the hint of a snow-swept world lingering beyond the rows upon rows of drenched, glittering columns. She guessed that the distance between the entrance and the far end of the open temple was something along the lines of five... maybe ten hoofball fields. There was no real way to tell for certain. Besides, the constant streams of water trickling over the walls and floors of the place were playing tricks with her eyes, refracting both light and shadow.
Daring Do paused to drink in the moment; not literally. With melted water still bathing every surface of the place, the air inside was thick with moisture. It was very humid: cool, but humid. She feared catching ill if she stayed in one place for too long. Not only that, but there was an entire temple to navigate, one that had actually been excavated from a thick glacier. Some hidden, natural gland inside Daring's skull started clicking, and she went off in a seemingly random direction to explore.
The adventurer trotted to her right, heading south, as she determined was the case from a swift glance at her compass. Trotting in a singular direction, she looked left and right. All of the columns looked the same to her. There was no telling how old they were, for the coating of ice that had previously entombed them left the architecture looking untouched and immaculate. When she gazed down at her hooves, she was amazed to see that the geometric patterns in the floor continued nonstop, showcasing the same elaborate detail as the designs on the marble platform did several hundreds of feet back where she first entered the building.
For a moment, she was yet again distracted by the green reflection in the center of her mane, peaking out from under her pith helmet. Before her mind could drift, Daring heard the loud rushing of water. The pony's heart skipped a beat, but then she remembered something she had seen earlier, and she slowed her canter to a cautious trot. She was approaching the edge of the temple, just looming above the southern cliff of the plateau. Here, the water puddles had formed a babbling brook and then a penultimate cluster of bubbling rapids, gushing over the edge of the marble floor as they dumped the entire temple's load of melted liquid into the misty depths below.
Daring peered her head, but she couldn't see well enough from where she stood. After a moment, she decided to stretch her wings, testing if they were still sore from her previous efforts to scale the mountain face. She judged that she was safe, and then she flapped her wings so that she hovered directly over the roaring waterfall. Gazing straight down, she marveled at the sheer plunge that the melted glacier's water was taking. It was as if some giant cleaver had sliced a deep, deep cut in the surface of the world, and the temple had the misfortune of being built on the supreme edge of it. There were nearly a hundred waterfalls total, each formed by the marble pillars dividing the trickling water into dozens upon dozens of separate streams. Daring hovered leisurely past all of them, her ears twitching from the clouds of mist continuously tickling her lobes.
It was hard to believe that, just minutes ago, this entire mountain summit was colder than a polar ice cap. Daring glanced south of where she flew, beyond the mountain, and saw a thick wall of gray clouds lingering just beyond the reach of the steam pipes' scalding jets. The high altitude blizzards ripped and tore at the invisible halo of heat, and Daring feared that the pipes' emissions wouldn't be enough to hold the natural elements back forever.
So, with a tilt to her wings, Daring flew back into the temple, threading her way through the pale columns. Once she was about twenty rows in, she coiled her wings to her sides and touched down.
To her shock, her hooves didn't splash into any puddles this time. She looked down to see that she had landed on a dry stretch of marble floor. No doubt the liquid had finally trickled away, joining the violent cascades of water along the north and south edges of the temple. With the moisture gone, she could better concentrate on the texture of the floor beneath her hooves. There appeared to be tiny partitions—minute holes that were somehow etched into the marble surface with near-microscopic precision. It occurred to her that the holes could possibly have been drains of some sort, which explained why the floor dried so swiftly. Perhaps the water had filtered down there as well as they did along the sides of the unfrozen domain.
Rubbing her chin in thought, Daring struck upon an idea. She plopped down on her haunches and reached back for her tail. Pulling the gray strands around, she pulled a few flimsy hairs away from the rest and held them straight out, dangling directly above the tiny-tiny holes. She noticed that the hairs danced upwards, swaying towards the ceiling whenever they were waved above the partitions.
The pegasus narrowed her ruby eyes. Reaching into her shirt's pocket, she pulled out her eyeglass container. Ignoring the mirror for the time being, she lifted her bifocals and planted them over her fuzzy nose. With her vision restored, she squatted low on all fours and studied the notches more closely.
The holes were spaced about five centimeters apart. Some of them ran along the paths of the swirling circles and octagon motifs etched into the floor. The holes were most densely packed—however—in solid lines that ran in between the columns stretching from the floor to the ceiling of the place.
Daring rubbed her chin some more, following the lines between the pale columns. She performed this meticulous study, crawling low like a spotless leopard on the prowl, for perhaps a few minutes longer than she actually needed to. It was somewhere in the middle of this process that she noticed yet another pattern. Her glasses had fogged up from tiny breaths of steam billowing from the holes, so she sat up, removed her bifocals, and rubbed them dry as she squinted hard at the floor at a much broader angle.
She noticed that there was a subtle difference in colorization, most evident in the circular shapes that stretched before her. At first, she thought that the shapes were all uniform. Such a presumption was merely an effect of the water current distorting her vision. Now that she looked at the circles, it became clear to her that they were sporting three different colors. For instance, the circles immediately beneath and around her were blue. But then there were some circles that were yellow. Then, beyond two rows of columns, she swore she saw green spheres in addition.
The variation between these three colors was seemingly randomized. Daring trotted around for the better part of half an hour, and she couldn't discern a predictable pattern. All she knew was that the color of the circles changed specifically from one row of columns to another. One part of the floor may have been green, but then just beyond a pair of pale pillars, the circles immediately turned blue, and the ones after the next row of columns were yellow, and then either green or blue again.
Daring couldn't explain why she was so adamant about finding a meaning behind this; all she knew was that it gave her a terrible headache. She wouldn't have to focus on it for that much longer, however, for as she passed yet another row of columns, she noticed a small shadowy structure poking up out of the floor about ten spaces down.
The mare's heart skipped a beat; her hooves scraped to a stop. Daring spun and squinted towards the east end of the spacious temple. Something stood two-thirds of the way across the remaining length of the interior, its body making a perfect black silhouette against the gray mists that lingered beyond the far edge of the building.
Without delay, Daring swiftly trotted over to the structure. Her lips pursed as she came to a scuffling stop in front of it and sat down.
There stood before her a podium made out of polished brass, not unlike the conjoined tubes of piping hot air that she had seen erected before the temple entrance. The structure was hollow, and she could hear the faint sound of hissing steam jetting up from a deep dark chute built into the central frame of the thing. Bravely—or perhaps stupidly—she leaned forward and peered down the body of the chute. Everything was dark; everything echoed. She slapped her hoof against the lid of the chute once, and she heard constant reverberations dancing up and down its metallic core over the space of a minute.
Clenching her jaw, Daring stepped back from the device. She saw a shiny object poking out at about forty-five degrees from the podium, and it made her perform a comical double-take. It was quite obviously a lever, and its handle lingered just a sneeze from Daring's muzzle, beckoning her.
The mare tilted back the brim of her pith helmet without thinking. After a nervous gulp, she rubbed her hooves together, squinted one eye, and nervously reached out to grasp the lever in the crook of her right forelimb.
At last, she pulled the handle, filling the air with the crackle of cold, metallic joints. She instantly winced, shrinking away from the podium, as if fearful that some horrible explosion would be her reward for such blatant fiddling.
However, nothing out of the ordinary happened, save for the innocuous venting of steam from the podium's lower joints. As the lever slowly clicked backwards by about ninety degrees, a hiss of misty air roared out of the hollow chute. Then, something emerged at the top of the black brass structure. Daring watched with twitching eyes as a large metal box slid up from the depths like a golden slice of bread popping out of a toaster.
The box was a rectangular solid, yellow in color, and about half the size of Daring's upper body. It rested on the top of the podium now like a tin wafer, and Daring could see that the thing was hollow. Its surface was porous, comprised of dozens upon hundreds of tiny little holes, like the end of a stallion's electric beard trimmer. As she leaned forward to examine it closer, she could see through the outer layer and spot an inner layer: a metallic blue shell that was just as full of holes as the frame outside of it.
Daring Do arched an eyebrow in confusion, her lips mouthing three blatantly frustrated words. Rotating her pith helmet around, she nevertheless reached forward and lifted the large metal box off its foundation. She almost wished that she hadn't; it was far heavier than the little pony had anticipated. She fell on her haunches with a high-pitched grunt, clumsily hugging the hulking container to her chest. The box was actually quite hot, not to the point of burning, but still uncomfortably so. She sweated like a marathon runner every second that she spent gripping it. Standing up, she stretched her tan wings towards the floor, using them as extra legs as she fumbled with the object in her forelimbs.
However, before she could examine the artifact anymore, she became aware of a whistling noise. Blinking, she craned her neck, looking over the translucent body of the yellow box.
The podium was sinking into the floor, slowly, with a dull bass menace. As it did so, a fine mist poured out of the tiny-tiny holes etched into the floor's circular mosaic.
Daring blinked, then looked straight down. She felt her hooves warming up, and she wished to know why. As the heat turned into a scalding burn, that curiosity swiftly morphed into alarm. With a wincing expression, she flapped her wings, carrying the heavy container in between two forelimbs as she lifted towards the ceiling. Even though her hooves were no longer making contact, she felt unbearably hot. The coat hairs along the surface of her limbs started curling. In a panic, she flew towards a pair of pillars, making for the far end of the temple.
Just milliseconds before she could soar her way through the nearest columns, however, a solid white of nightmarishly hot steam blew up in her face, jetting violently out of the floor. Gasping, Daring hovered to a stop, the yellow metal container dangling in her grip like a massive pendulum. She looked up at the ceiling; there was no space for her to fly over the scalding hot jets of air. From the degree to which her wing tips were molting from just hovering next to the phenomenon, she didn't want to want to risk darting on through.
In the meantime, Daring's ears were being deafened by waves of concussive air bursts. Sweating profusely from the heat, Daring spun around, seeing that the jets of burning mists surrounded her on all sides—save for just one. Between two columns, at least twenty feet away, there stretched a space of tile flooring that wasn't emitting boiling steam.
She flew there in a bullet's blink. Once on the other side, she was blessed with a curtain of cool air, sandwiched albeit precarious between twin rows of burning gray mists. Slumping down to the floor, Daring leaned against the massive metal container, panting for breath. Slicking her wet bangs back beneath her helmet, she threw a glance over her shoulder.
Three successive clusters of tile floor were emitting deathly-hot steam, like a solid line of boiling cauldrons. The mare judged that their temperature and force were enough to rip the pegasus' skin off her bones if she levitated above the vents for more than five seconds. She squinted from where she sat, noticing a common pattern to the tile panels where the small holes were gushing their blistering contents.
All of the marble panels were yellow.
Daring's lips pursed. She glanced at the golden container in her grasp, then back at the matching yellow vents. After a few seconds, she looked down to see that the safe cluster of tile beneath her was covered in green and blue circles.
Warm air whistled behind her. Daring gasped, spinning around to look. A cloud of billowing white steam was coalescing in the center of one section of yellow tile. Tornadic streams of boiling hot mist streamed into the bulbous, egg-shaped frame. Then, as if empowered by some malevolent heart hidden deep in the temple, the mist took the form of a pale gray blade and flew after her.
Daring felt as if her tail hairs were catching fire. Without hesitation, she darted forward, flying down an invisible trench of cold air, clinging the yellow metal container to her chest. As the cloud of burning mists flew after her, she made for a pair of marble pillars. Yet again, when she was inches from piercing her way beyond the columns' invisible line, a gust of hot steam formed a deadly wall in front of her. She stopped in mid-air, panting. Glancing down, she saw that the floor of the temple just beyond the gust of steam was colored yellow.
The air billowed behind her. Before Daring could be roasted alive by the pursuing cloud of steam, she jerked to the side, dove, and skidded across the blue and green floor tiles. Sweating, she looked up and witnessed the gust of gray air being absorbed into the burning chamber beyond. To her dumbfounded shock, the cloud hovered in place, grew larger as it was fed more steam from the temple's malicious depths, and then shot at her again, this time coming in the opposite direction.
Gritting her teeth, Daring kicked off the floor and spun away from the bullet of compressed air. It grazed past the pegasus, and she held up the large yellow container in a last ditch effort to shield her airborne body. Tiny gusts of steam nevertheless threaded their way through the metal box's miniature holes, and it turned a small length of Daring's belly red. She fell with a grunt this time, wincing as she delicately clutched the patch of raw skin.
Looking up and around, she gasped to see a dark object about two steam-baths away. From the size and shape of it, the thing looked to be another podium, much like the one that she had retrieved the yellow box from earlier.
Air whistled behind Daring again. She knew that the steam vents were firing another "volley" at her. Jumping back onto her hooves, she ran, galloped, and took off, gliding with the artifact down a twisting and turning maze of cool air. The steam vents turned into burning walls on either side of her as she navigated a serpentine path of blue and green tiles, whizzing past any pairs of harmless white pillars she could find. All the while, the steamy corridors fired the death cloud at her body like missiles of pure mist. She had to dart up and down between the floor and ceiling to avoid the closer and closer shots.
At last, after making a ridiculously curved detour, Daring found the path of safely-colored tiles that would bring her to the podium. She landed, slid, and skidded to a stop in front of it. The spot was a dead end, surrounded on three sides by venting gusts of steam. Clenching her teeth, Daring studied the podium for a clue, an answer, or any kind of mechanical solution to her predicament. All she saw was a series of clasps—like a docking station. She glanced at the yellow box in her grasp and realized that the porous container's frame was exactly the same size. Without thinking twice, she raised the container up onto the podium and slid it between the brass metal prongs.
With a hiss of cool air, the clasps became alive, snapping into place along the bottom end of the golden container. The podium echoed with a mechanical ratcheting sound.
Daring spun around, her ruby eyes twitching. She saw the missile of burning white mist flying straight towards her, shooting down a narrow trench of venting steam as it zeroed in on her helpless position.
Just then, a gust of cold wind flew out of the podium's chute. With a clap of noise, the yellow container fell apart, exposing a smaller metal box within. This one was also full of tiny holes, but it was smaller and made of blue metal.
Swiftly, Daring plucked it off the podium. As the brass platform sank into the floor, she glanced closely at the blue box. Through its porous holes, she could have sworn she spotted another layer of metal, this time green. And beyond that—
The temple around Daring roared. She spun around once again.
A line of mists shot up between two pillars, just a spit's reach away. It absorbed the incoming missile of white steam, stopping it just seconds before it would have reduced Daring to a smoking husk.
The mare didn't have time to rejoice, however, for the air immediately surrounding her was heating up by ten degrees per second. She looked down to see that every circle of holes was blue. Grunting, she hugged the box to her chest and swiftly dove beyond the nearest pair of columns, rolling away in time to escape an explosion of blue steam that spewed from floor to ceiling.
She jumped up into a hover, spinning around in a circle to gauge her situation. All of the yellow-colored tiles were powering down, and in place of hot vents there instead gathered puddles of condensed liquid.
Two roars of thunder echoed behind her. Daring glanced past her flapping wings and spotted—not one—but two clouds of dense air being summoned by the temple's vents. In a burst of air, both flew at her like vengeful falcons, slicing violently at her tan feathers.
Daring glided forward, ducking the air-powered projectiles and nearly colliding with the soaked surface of the floor. She had to pull hard to her left to fly out of range of the blue tiles' jetting streams. The maze had completely changed now, and she was having to fly zig-zags in a desperate bid to chart a new course, all the while juking and jiving to dodge the random return of both steaming missiles.
Her vision fogged from moisture and sweat. Rubbing her wet face with a forelimb, she feverishly looked all around for her next goal. While ducking another swing of the missiles, she spotted a dark shape towards the far end of the temple. She recalled a junction leading towards that section of the building a few turns back. Cursing under her breath, Daring spun around, kicked off the floor, nearly slipped on the puddles, and backtracked along the clear corridors of yellow and blue tiles. A swipe of the steam missiles nearly burned her pith helmet off. She clutched it in one hoof and held the blue box in another as she made half-a-dozen more turns, at last coming upon the next podium.
The two missiles were waiting for her. They flew at her in a converging "X" pattern, threatening to melt her wings to ribbons.
Daring backflipped, spun upside down, kicked her hooves off the temple ceiling, and propelled herself forward so as to barely escape the criss-crossing gusts of hot air. She had to reach out a hoof and clasp onto the edge of the podium, anchoring herself in place before flying into the murderous jets beyond. With two hooves, she slapped the blue container into place, rapping her hooves impatiently against the wet tile floor as she waited for the podium's metal clasps to do their task. She heard the whining noise of the returning missiles, and her lips produced a high-pitched whimper to match.
Just as the air heated up, the blue container fell apart, and an even smaller box of green metal popped out like toasted bread. Daring grabbed it, flipped over the podium, and slid forward across the green tile before they had a chance to explode right behind her.
The resulting thunder curled the fuzz on the end of her earlobes. She slid into a patch of blue tile and took off just as the holes in the floor stopped venting. Drifting backwards across the moist corridor, she hugged the box to her chest and looked closely at it. Through the metal's porous surface, something bound and leathery hid inside. She gave the green container a shake, and she heard the rustling of paper—
The air screamed like a train whistle. Daring looked straight ahead.
Over the burning patches of green tile, three missiles coalesced this time. They flew through one another like synchronized dancers, split once again into three gray lances, and they shot at her little body from random angles.
Daring gnashed her teeth. She dove, ducked, and forward-flipped to avoid the bursts of cloudy projectiles. In so doing, she nearly flew muzzle-first into a column of venting steam. Flapping her wings cautiously, she backed up, twirled to avoid another stream of intersecting clouds, then tore off in a brave new direction.
Glancing through her peripheral vision, she made out the image of a final podium, looming just before the bright, sun-lit edge of the lofty temple. The structure was incalculably far away; Daring couldn't even see any clear paths on account of all the spewing geysers between her and her goal.
The air screamed again. Yelling for added courage, Daring flapped her wings harder, outflying and dodging the cloud bursts as she rounded a copious amount of snake-like ravines. They seemed to wind farther and deeper than ever, throwing the pegasus for literal loops.
At last, following a pair of sharp turns, she felt as though she was making headway. However, to her chagrin, she realized that it was yet another neck in a forever-meandering maze. She could barely see through the misty barricades, but there had to have been another ten minutes of hellish flight left before her path would feasibly take her to the podium. For a moment, she lingered in the middle of the corridor, brooding over how close she'd be to the structure if she could just fly straight across the burning mess.
Just then, both of her ears rang from opposite directions. She looked left and right, grimacing at the realization that the burning clouds were now soaring at her from both sides at once. Within seconds, she would be sandwiched between scalding gusts of air.
She looked straight ahead. Within a stone's throw—through the burning mists—was her goal. Gritting her teeth, Daring decided to do the impossible. With a wet plop, she dropped the metal green box onto the floor. She unbuttoned her shirt, stripped it off, and wrapped it around her bare front hooves. The air danced with cacophonous noise as the two clouds flew in from either side, but Daring wasn't looking at them. Instead, she backed up, took a breath, then charged straight forward. Then, with a savage leap, she landed on the metal box and allowed her body's weight and momentum to propel it forward.
Just as the container carried her into the mists, she held her breath and performed a hoof-stand. Her body went vertical, squeezing into a space of air as tight as the box beneath her could afford. In such an absurd position, she nevertheless slid through the venting gusts, clearing the burning green tile, and emerging safely on the other side. She fell like a sack of potatoes, covered from head to tail in drenching moisture, and though her green shirt was singed in spots from where the steam had blown through the porous box, her hooves and flesh were in one piece.
Daring ended her slide with a jolt, bumping backwards into the podium. She sat up, wincing, and watched in awe as the two clouds crashed into each other from across the wall of steam. The third one joined the quivering blob, and soon the whole cluster of steam was boiling into a larger and larger sphere of hot mists, rumbling with otherworldly thunder.
Daring hopped up, spun around, and slapped the green box onto the podium. She shuffled around it, putting the container between her and the humongous cloud of steam. As the clasps took the box and disassembled it, a leather-bound book at last fell into her hooves. She looked at it, breathless, and froze upon seeing a legible title, somehow preserved after countless eons of ice and darkness within the heart of the mountain.
"Daring Do and the Tempestuous Temple."
The whole building roared, surrounding her with gusts of piping hot air. Daring looked up.
The clouds rocketed towards her fragile figure.
She clenched her eyes shut and lifted the book out, opening it directly towards the incoming burst of steam. The pages dissolved instantly, and yet the pegasus herself did not melt. Instead, every gust of steam, every blast of hot air, every wave of burning mist cycled into the book, as if the tome was somehow absorbing it. And just when it couldn't get any fuller, the brown leather binding exploded with a burst of dark sand.
Daring Do was thrown backwards instantly. The steam walls lining the edge of the temple had disappeared, so that she was thrown clear off the building's side and into a pale amber sky. To her breathless shock, she landed in something almost immediately. Instead of snow, it was a landslide of shifting desert sands that caught her. She rolled and tumbled down the warm dune, joined by her sweat-stained shirt and a spinning pith helmet. Her satchel of twigs and natural tools was nowhere to be found, presumably blown to the apathetic winds. As she came to a sliding stop, the world around her shook with sporadic salvos, and she opened her eyes just long enough to see chunks of marble and temple columns flying over her head, like shards tossed from an unimaginably large explosion. The building pieces landed far away, making deep craters in a smooth horizon of vast brown sand.
Then, blissfully so, all was silent. Daring heard nothing but the sound of her own wheezing breaths. Slowly—achingly—she sat up, brushing the fresh sand out of her mane and ear lobes. It took her twice as long to summon the strength to stand. The first thing she did was reach over to pick up her shirt. With a disgusted expression, she whipped and tossed the thing in the wind, trying to shake loose all the desert grit. She succeeded, but her eyeglass case fell out.
Taking the moment to first slip on and button up her shirt, Daring eventually bent down and picked up the container. It fell open as she lifted it, and the mare froze upon seeing her reflection. Slowly, she tilted the container's mirror in one direction and cocked her head in the other. Her ruby eyes narrowed on the reflection of her bangs. The green streak was still there, only now it was joined by two more bands of color—one on each side, blue and yellow respectfully.
After a blink, Daring's lips slowly curved into a soft smile. She slapped the container shut, and its snapping sound was like delicious thunder. Trotting across the dune, she picked up her white hat, shook it clean, and slapped it over her head with a proud breath.
Pivoting east, Daring squinted into a bright beam of light. An orange sun rose over the otherworldly outline of a mile-tall mountain. Several other peaks rose in the distance, some just as slender, some more so. An impossibly jagged desert horizon stretched before her, its angled surfaces playing painterly tricks with the reflective beams of light coursing through the dry atmosphere.
Daring trotted over the soft earth until she stood besides a singular chunk of marble column that had been tossed loose from the temple. As she squinted, she could have sworn she saw structures submerged in the plains of sand, like ships lost at sea. She saw the broken segments of archways, of jagged stone structures drowned by orange dunes. Then, towards the northeast, she spotted enormous circular objects, hundreds of feet in diameter, their sun-kissed surfaces rusted to match the amber haze of the dead and desolate landscape enshrouding them.
They were gigantic cog-wheels; there was simply no other way Daring could describe them. Their geometrically perfect teeth hung with shadows, dark with decay, and even more of these herculean objects dotted the rolling landscape of dead earth in random craters as far as the pegasus could see. And beyond it all, like the claws of a gigantic palm within which the whole desert was poured, a forest of mountainous spikes loomed, their titanic bodies carving the sunlight into eerie shadows that swept over the vastness like black spectres.
Daring Do gazed at all of this mystery and desolation, and she smiled. A leathery object lingered in her peripheral vision. She looked to the right, spotting the frayed remains of the book she had just destroyed in the temple. It lay folded shut, its cover indiscernible, its title lost to everyone and everything.
Everything but Daring.
With a renewed breath, the adventurer tilted her hat forward, shaded her smirking muzzle, and trotted into the valley below.