by shortskirtsandexplosions

And the Madness Machine

        Daring's hooves touched down before she expected them to. The pitch-black platform swayed beneath her, and for a moment she feared that the panel would teeter off into the darkness entirely. Then, as the mare regained her balance, she simply realized that the floor was undulating from the motions of countless mechanisms creaking all around her. Daring's ears rang with clicking levers, rattling chains, rotating gears, and whirling pulleys.

        Breathing on her pocketed shard, she brought a fresh charge to the glowstone, and its pale light glistened off rows upon rows of twirling black bodies. A forest of metal clockwork loomed all around her, the rusted organs of which continuously clattered without slowing down for one measly second.

        With a calm disposition, the adventurer aimed her glowing rock straight down. The metal floor was essentially a grate, and through its porous surface she could see several more metal platforms—nearly a dozen total—looming for hundreds of meters below her, all filled to the brim with moving metal parts.

        Tilting her chest the opposite way, Daring shone the light straight up. Likewise, she spotted numerous platforms stretched out above her through the slitted holes in the ceiling. Every single floor of the rotating machine was populated by impossibly intricate arrays of factory work. What powered the apparatuses, the mare was at a loss to guess, and yet they spun and rattled on, forming layers of cacophonous clutter between where the pegasus stood and where the black domed ceiling of sand hung above the rotating machine tower.

        With a placid breath, Daring cracked the joints in her nimble limbs, then trotted forward. She kept her pace slow and cautious, aiming her glowstone left and right, not knowing when an errant machine part might decide to whip out and pummel her from the shadows. A bouncing spotlight of loomed ahead of her, carving a moon-pale path through the onyx mess. She kept her trek as straight as possible, heading to what she judged to be the central vertical stalk of the mammoth machine.

        During her sojourn towards the tower's spine, the factory parts grew closer and closer together, packed more densely the further that the mare pierced the center of the circular platform. Her light caught images of blurring conveyor belts, with black metal pendulums swinging low and heavy above them with the force to decapitate elephants. She glanced to the right to see massive cylinders pistoning up and down, with jagged gears grinding against each other in the distance. Looking to the left, Daring illuminated an array of chains rattling up and down a series of holes positioned within the surface of several platforms above and below.

        Taking a sharp turn to the left, Daring flapped her wings and soared towards the chains. Pulling up, she threaded her way through the holes where the metal links ran, ascending two floors, four floors, six. Layers of metal factory work swished past her windblown ears in staccato bursts as she scaled the body of the tower.

        At last, she stumbled upon an elaborate pulley system suspended from the ceiling of the topmost floor. Here, the ceiling was solid as stone, save for a few thin seams through which Daring could spot the blacker-than-black surface of the sand dome above.

        She touched down, only to find her hooves landing on a moving conveyor belt. The pony's heart skipped a beat, and she ducked in time to avoid a swinging pendulum. Rolling to the side, she collapsed with more or less grace on a solid floor, catching her breath. She shone her light in a circular swath, illuminating her nearest surroundings. The platform was far more densely populated with randomly rotating machinery here; if she wasn't careful, a single step would lead her into a bloody, pulverising fate. Grinding gears and undulating levers loomed on either side of her with a sort of cold, clandestine hunger. The mare's heart beat a little bit faster; she got the paranoid sensation that, if she didn't watch herself, a swinging metal limb from the machine would deliberately stab her from the shadows.

        However, the more she shone her light on the various apparatuses, the more they clicked and clanked on with utter indifference. A divine purpose seemingly empowered the forsaken tools. Though Daring was at a loss to determine the nature of that purpose, she judged that it had absolutely nothing to do with her. If she died or suffered an injury in this infernal place, she would only have herself to blame.

        Once more, the explorer turned until she faced the vertical axis of the rotating machine. The path towards the central stalk was far more difficult to reach on this floor, on account of all the factory pieces densely blocking her path. She decided to navigate through them anyways, approaching the heart of the immense contraption with as much caution as curiosity.

        As she trotted over the metal platform, she became aware of a hissing noise. Daring spread her wings, allowing her feathers to kiss the air. There certainly wasn't any steam billowing out from any metal crevice. The pony hadn't seen a single pipe since she landed on those darkened panels.

        Slowing her canter even further, Daring shone the light around, searching for the source of the hissing. At last, she discovered it, though she was at a loss to explain it.

        At the front end of a long conveyor belt, a nozzle in the ceiling was affixed to a series of gears and pulleys. The machine parts caused the nozzle to open and shut like an aperture. Each time it did so, a black blob of sand shifted down like ink-black rain, making a tiny rattling noise—more like a hissing noise—as it did so. Daring stood still for a while, mesmerized by the clumps of onyx sand being deposited continuously upon the speedy belt of tight canvas that then blurred past her.

        Curious, Daring decided for the moment to abandon her trek towards the machine's center altogether. Instead, she focused her energies on studying the complex assemblage taking place before her. On swift hooves, she followed the separate piles of sand along the conveyor belt. She watched as they dropped down through a hole in the floor, depositing themselves upon a lower platform where another conveyor belt carried them—slowly—towards an array of spinning metal arms. At the end of these arms were round clamps, like black crescent moons, and they rotated in a timely fashion to sweep the blobs of dirt into tighter piles. Watching and following the movement through the grated floor above, Daring witnessed as the belt next took the piles towards a series of suspended metal stamps. With stomping motions, these metal frames forced the sand piles into compact little cylinders. The pegasus couldn't proceed any further, due to a pile of apparatuses positioned on the floor in front of her, but her glowing light caught the faint image of further machine limbs picking up and depositing the cylinders of tightly packed sand towards other parts of the tower below.

        Scratching her brow beneath her pith helmet, Daring looked up and shone her light on the floor around her. Squinting into the rusted lengths of the platform, the mare realized that there were numerous other spots along the panel where similar conveyor belts were performing this massive task of depositing, reshaping, and redistributing cylinders of sand throughout the body of the machine, like cells being funneled through the tower's invisible bloodstream. All of the gritty material came from the dome above, and Daring couldn't help but wonder if ever there was an end to all of the hissing trickles of night-black sediment.

        No longer distracted, Daring made for the center of the tower again. As she did so, she narrowed her eyes, for she thought she saw something glistening ahead. Experimentally, she slid her glowstone down into the depths of her shirt pocket and clasped the thing shut altogether. Indeed, the clattering factory world did not turn pitch-black; there was a light source ahead, cold and blue, like liquid lighting.

        Using the light as a beacon, Daring slowly navigated her way through the rattling mess. She had to hop over thrusting pistons, duck a mess of jagged gears, and side-step criss-crossing chainlinks before she even got close to her destination. Once within spitting distance of the light, she realized that the entire vertical stalk that made up the spine of the tower was just as porous as the platforms below her. The slits in the round metal cylinder were lengthy, but still too thin for the little pony to slip her tan hooves in.

        She stepped up to the metal grate and tried looking through it. What she saw nearly blinded her. Daring flinched as beams of bright blue light flickered immediately in front of her, then dissipated. As her eyes struggled to regain focus, she gazed down the body of the stalk. From her angle, she could almost see the entirety of the tower's height. The hollow neck of the machine plunged straight down for nearly two dozen stories, and something incredibly bright was shooting up and down the central vertical space, animated with otherworldly kineticism, like a bright bouncing electron from beyond.

        Daring pursed her lips. There was something in the center of the electrical anomaly, something that had shape, like a solid nucleus of sorts. She waited there at the top of the tower, watching with squinting vision as the thing bounced up and down the stalk no less than six times. By the seventh occasion it streaked by her vision, she was almost certain she got a good look at the energy source of the surging mess.

        It was a book.

        Daring immediately gripped the metal spine, giving it a shake. She wished that she didn't; a violent shock coursed through her as soon as the glowing tome bounced its way back up to the top of the tower. She jolted back, grunting, waving her aching hooves. Sitting back on her haunches, the pony folded her forelimbs in a foalish pout. After several moments of deep thought, she allowed her eyes to wander.

        The floor immediately surrounding the spine of the machine was completely barren of machinery. Curious, the pegasus got up and trotted slowly around the central cylinder. Her search was ultimately rewarded: on the opposite end, a lever stood, propped up against the body of the massive machine's spine. A brief smile crossed Daring's lips. She trotted forward and gripped the handle of the lever with two hooves.

        Suddenly, however, she froze. Her smile left her. Biting her lip in a pensive manner, she looked over her shoulder at the grinding gears and swinging levers. She glanced over her other shoulder, gazing at the conveyor belts and squeaking cogwork. After a few seconds, she sighed long and hard, then clenched her eyes shut as she anxiously gave the lever a pull.

        Metal scraped against metal. There was a clanking noise, a rattling, and then silence.

        Slowly, Daring squinted one ruby eye open, then the other. She blinked, and yet still nothing happened. She couldn't decided whether to groan in frustration or sigh with relief.

        Ultimately, she didn't have to do either. With an explosive jolt, the stalk before her shook. She watched with nervous anticipation as something lowered from a rusted opening at the top of the cylinder. Through the metal slits of the stalk, Daring spied a bifurcated claw sliding down. At first, she was confused, but then she watched as the glowing book bounced straight up. As soon as the cold blue tome met the prongs of the claw, it stopped completely with a splash of electrical sparks. Several pale beams spat out of the grated spine of the tower, nearly roasting Daring alive. She flinched, crouching down low as forked lightning vomited outward at multiple angle, singing the metal factory work around her and filling the air with the smell of burning rust.

        In spite of the unwarranted lightshow, the pegasus maintained calm. She squinted at the sparkling sight in front of her. Hissing fountains of black sand trickled down around the spine as the claw continued to slide down the thing's hollow neck. Its movement was gradual, unwavering, and it continued to carry the bright book trapped in its prongs down, down, down the stalk, until it descended beyond the surface of the topmost floor altogether.

        Daring gasped. Spinning around, she breathed into her glowstone and illuminated a galloping path towards the outer layers of the platform. After a bit of frantic searching, she once again found the vertical lengths of twirling chain that pierced the multiple floors through which she had first ascended. Dropping down, she looked towards the tower's heart. It was a little hard to tell through all of the moving machinery, but she spotted the glowing book in its descent, situated two stories below her.

        Swiftly, twirling with the grace of an acrobat, Daring leveled out on a platform full of cyclonically arranged conveyor belts. She flew over phalanxes of densely packed columns of sand being shipped left and right, making her way towards the center of the tower. Once there, she pressed herself up against the grate, watching as the claw continued slowly to carry the glowing book down. The mare was powerless to reach in and grab the tome, and she wasn't sure her flesh would survive contact with it even if she could. Nevertheless, her eyes followed the descending path the hook was taking. She guessed that, in a matter of minutes, the claw could bring the sparkling book to the very base of the tower. Perhaps somewhere down there, situated around the infernal machine's very foundation, she might find a way to access the item, Daring thought.

        So, turning around, Daring mentally sketched an innocent flight plan that would take her down to the very base of the tower. It was with a foalish shriek that she answered the monstrous bolt of lightning suddenly booming past her. Throwing herself down onto a moving platform, she covered her helmeted head and shivered. The air crackled with electrical energy, making her tan coat hairs stand on end. When the thunder cleared, and her blood stopped rushing through her pained ears, she looked up beyond the brim of her hat to see a stream of blue energy shooting from the spine of the machine and straight out into the black ether beyond.

        The dark world beneath the sand dome lit up with pale luminescence. A tall spike of bone-white granite caught ablaze, pulsating like a ghostly supernova within the depths of space. Piercing the veil of her own shock, Daring realized that the structure was merely one of the three pale obelisks that her glowstone had empowered to lift the opaque sands around the animated machine to begin with.

        Standing up, her panting breaths evening out, Daring stared at the glowing monolith from afar. Its haunting shine permeated the platforms of machinery, casting shadows from their many, many moving parts. Then, as if in answer to the exchange of electrical energy, two things happened.

        Firstly, the wind picked up. The fuzz of Daring's earlobes felt a curious tickle, and her spleen swayed suddenly as if she was riding a stagecoach downhill. At last, when she spotted the pale obelisk speeding swiftly to the left, she understood what was going on: the rotation of the machine tower was accelerating.

        Secondly, a crackle of energy filled the air. The pegasus wondered if the stalk was about to shoot another beam out into the blackness, but somehow this was less explosive, more subtle. Still, the sensation felt highly uncomfortable, and Daring sensed bolts of static electricity jumping between her hooves and the conveyor belts beneath her. The adventurer's tongue burned, as if sparks were dancing from tooth to tooth inside her mouth.

        Grimacing, she backed up, only to bump into one of the tightly packed cylinders of sand. The static shock she received from such contact nearly made her heart stop. She jumped off the conveyor belt and spun around, rubbing her aching flank. Just then, Daring froze, her every joint stiff as icicles.

        The cylinder of sand was vibrating, shaking, then splitting down the center. At last, it shattered completely, and yet the clumps of black sediment did not fall straight down into a pile atop the conveyor belt. Instead, the onyx dust hovered, as if suspended in a frozen sneeze. Then, it reformed, but not taking on the shape of a cylinder. The thing sprouted a head, a tail, and four limbs. With the hissing shift of dark sand, a powdery pony came to life, rotating its head around in the pale glow until it faced Daring with malevolent intent.

        The mare backtrotted from this sight, her mouth hanging in shock. Her ears twitched from hissing sounds on either side. Daring glanced left and right. To her horror, two more cylinders of sand were morphing into equine shape. Then she spotted four more... and eight more... sixteen. Every clump of sand on every conveyor belt on every platform was morphing, their metamorphosis empowered by the same energy that was presently spinning the structure until it was getting difficult to stand upright.

        So Daring didn't. With a flap of her wings, she hovered straight up. Two ponies made of black sand lurched about, rattled like jars full of pebbles, and leapt at her.

        With a gasp, she flew over their pouncing bodies. Four more jumped at her flank, and she had to spin about to avoid them. With another flap of her wings, she hovered until her head was nearly hitting the ceiling. Below her, an entire army of sand ponies gazed up. After a few seconds, their necks and legs shrunk, becoming thinner. At first, Daring couldn't understand why, until the sedimentary equines sprouted wings.

        The mare cursed quietly under her breath.

        They all bolted up at her at once, bursting like a solid sandstorm of hooves, jaws, and angry wings. Daring shot past them, or at least as well as she could afford to. One or two pairs of forelimbs grabbed her rear fetlocks, encircling the mare's limbs like viscous slime. She grunted and bucked the ponies off, dashing them into clouds of exploding sand. Several more bodies blazed through the mess, tackling her flanks. Spinning about, Daring threw them off and accelerated towards the edge of the spinning platform.

        Beneath her, more and more sandy cylinders hatched atop the conveyor belts, morphing into mindless drones. Daring ignored them, focusing all effort on speeding towards the edge of the platform lingering before her like an ink black horizon. Just as she reached the outer side of the twirling floor, the pale glowing obelisk surged left into view again. It spouted lightning across the hollow black vacuum that made up the world beneath the dome. Bright bolts of blue electricity ripped their way towards Daring's wings.

        The adventurer gasped, plunging instantly. She crashed into the metal floor, bounced, and rolled off the edge. Swinging a hoof out, she caught metal grating and anchored herself at the last second. Her body flailed awkwardly off the very precipice of the floor, propelled by the speedy clockwise motion. She watched in horror as the tongues of lightning lashed barely a dozen feet below the ends of her dangling hooves. The pursuing sand ponies were less lucky, and several of them plunged into the blackness beyond her, where their bodies burned into vulcanized glass from the otherworldly blue bolts.

        Daring gritted her teeth. There was no way she could fly out into that maelstrom and survive. So, with a grunt, she spun her body about and climbed her way back along the platform, facing the center of the spinning machine. She didn't like what she saw: a battalion of stomping sand cretins surged violently towards her. Glancing down, she spotted the distant blue speck of the energized book being carried down the spine several floors below.

        With a flap of her wings, Daring leapt over the charging bodies, glided over the conveyor belts, and searched desperately for a hole in the revolving floor that would lead her down to the base of the tower. Between the rotating shadows and the malevolent figures of sand, it was getting increasingly difficult to make anything out. At last, she saw a length of blurring chain, at the bottom of which was a cavity leading straight down the many-many metal stories.

        Daring pulled up, dodged the flying swipes of several sand ponies, and plunged straight through the aperture. She blurred successfully down three whole platforms before something yanked at her tail. Gasping, she looked back to see that two creatures were biting onto her monochromatic hairs with gravel jaws. She tried shaking them loose, but the effort threw her off balance, so that she slammed into the next floor instead of threading through the hole.

        Grunting, Daring crashed and slid across a space of rusted metal. She stopped somewhere between two large rattling gearboxes. Sitting up and shaking her head, Daring realized that she was blind. The mare spun around, panting, until she noticed that her glowstone had landed in the niche of a rotating lever array. Waiting until she could reach through the spinning metal bars without one of them dismembering her limbs, she snatched the enchanted rock up and breathed into it. As soon as she did, the shapes of half-a-dozen ponies loomed within the penumbra of the strobing light, and all of them pouncing towards her.

        Shrieking, Daring kicked and bucked at the floor, sliding out of reach of the leaping fiends. Two of them plowed into her chest, and she had to spin, thrashing, to knock them loose. Flapping her wings, she shot straight past a swinging pendulum, breathing in relief as it smashed three ponies to cloudy bits.

        Flinging her feathers to the point of bleeding, she surged ahead. Daring didn't care that she was flying away from the cavity that she could have descended; for the time being she needed to shake off these ponies and she needed to shake them off now. On onyx wings, they pursued her, their bodies collectively filling the electrified air with a menacing hiss of loose dust and grit.

        Daring couldn't afford to look back at them. She kept her eyes locked ahead, and that was a haunting endeavor at best, with each shadow that lingered beyond the edges of her spotlight promising one body or another waiting to leap out at her. Instead, she found herself having to navigate far greater dangers, weaving left and right to avoid sharp rusted levers or pulverizing pistons jutting in and out of her flight path.

        When at last she found another cavity leading down, she had to squeeze through the teeth of two enormous cogwheels. She didn't realize how closely her pursuers were tailing her until she felt her body pelted from bits of shattered sand on either side of her plunge. There was very little time to celebrate, for no less than five seconds after descending to the next platform, a second burst of thunder exploded against her eardrums, accompanied by a flash of brilliant blue light.

        Daring winced in pain, spinning loops through the air of the platform before slamming into the grimy surface of a huge, vertically rotating gear. She tried kicking off of it, but failed, feeling as if she was glued to the thing by sheer centripedal force. The reason for this became evident as soon as the thunder and lightning cleared, and Daring realized that another beam of electrical energy had surged out from the machine's stalk and impacted the second of the three pale obelisks beyond. The world outside the tower sparkled even brighter with violent blue beams, and the machine all around Daring accelerated, spinning even faster.

        The blood beneath the surface of Daring's face bubbled. Wincing from every strained sinew, she somehow manage to unpeel herself from the surface of the large gear. She wished she hadn't, for suddenly she felt herself plunging across the spinning platform, being flung towards the edge like a loose cannonball rolling across the deck of a careening ship. She solved her predicament by no longer thinking that up was up and down was down. Angling her wings, she spun herself sideways, making the spine of the machine her center of gravity. Thus, Daring found herself threading through a blazing canyon of dangerously moving machine parts. Looking all about, she spotted the distant glow of the descending book, and she used that as her reference guide for what was actually "down."

        She had barely gotten her bearings when the sand army was once more upon her, charging through the thunderous air like black falcons seeping from metal intestines. Daring held her breath and rocketed forward. The tower's floors rolled beneath her like a tiny globe, with metal chasms full of death machines lurching beneath a spinning sky of undulating sparks and blue plasma. She looked to her left—towards the ground—and saw the claw carrying the book from beyond several densely grated floors. She looked for a cavity, finally finding one from a spotlight cast by an errant splash of lightning. Jerking left, she spun through the spaces, an angry train of winged sand fiends barreling after her six.

        Several of them caught up, flying abreast of her. They slammed into the pegasus from both sides, attempting to sandwich the hapless mare. She grunted and struggled, ultimately sagging in her flight, so that she plunged helplessly towards the spinning stalk below her. Two more sand ponies grabbed ahold of her hooves, clawing and biting at her tan coat. She wrestled with the four creatures, all the while blazing down a rusted trench of deadly, moving parts.

        Her ruby eyes reflected the image of a massively swinging lever. She pushed a pony out at forelimb's length so that it took the brunt of the blow. The creature dissolved to loose powder, freeing the mare of some weight. Daring twirled uncontrollably, thrown off balance by the other three sand monsters still clinging to her. Veering to the side, she made contact with the ceiling. With a burst of muscle power, she shoved two of the ponies’ bodies against it. She watched as the blurring metal surfaces chipped and filed away at them, ripping them to cushions of lifeless dust. Finally, it was just Daring and one other bogey, but the creature was already getting the best of her. Gripping her from behind, the sand pony kicked against the spinning platform and flung the mare like a melon from a black catapult.

        Daring spun through the madness. She lost all sense of gravity, and she was terrified of something randomly grinding her to a pulp. Ten seconds into this dizzying free-fall, she finally made contact with something. Her body rattled—with a savage vibration running down from her skull to her hooves. When the stars stopped dancing beneath her eyelids, she blinked to see that she was sprawled out across a spinning gear, somewhere near the central stalk.

        As soon as she tried getting up, three ponies pounced on her. With a stifled grunt, she slid back, and her head hit solid metal so hard that her pith helmet rattled off. Gasping, Daring found her skull being shoved violently into the space between two massive cog-teeth. She couldn't move from the weight of all the creatures pressed on top of her. She was at a loss to understand what they were doing, until she heard a loud grinding noise. A second gear was rotating perpendicular to the cog she was lying against, and in a matter of seconds one of its hulking teeth would be puncturing the space in which her cranium was being forced to dangle. Her brain matter would soon be a puddle, a paltry red stain against the rotating machine of madness.

        Daring Do struggled and fought, but the attackers would not budge. As a matter of fact, more of them caught up, forming a tight huddle around her and waiting for the large gears to do their bloody work. Lightning flashed from beyond, illuminating the proximity of the looming cog tooth. But the flicker illuminated something else: Daring's pith helmet lay just inches from her rear legs.

        Panting, eyes darting about in desperation, Daring kicked and thrashed her leg towards the helmet. She couldn't make it budge through the forest of heavy pony limbs. Nevertheless, she writhed and hissed, trying to scoop the disc-like article in her lower fetlocks. At last, she took a deep breath, flexed her lower muscles, and flicked her tail at the thing. She succeeded in knocking the helmet towards her. The hat slid across metal, ping-pong'd off a sandy hoof or two, and ended just half an inch from the mare's mouth.

        Daring bit onto it, tilted her neck up, and used the knifing brim of the hat as if it was a ring blade. In savage swaths, she rendered the dull heads of the foremost ponies to dust. Their bodies imploded, and those behind them leapt to take their place, but Daring was ready. She bucked them off, then successfully kicked another line of advancing creatures. Once she had space to breathe, she kipped up and rolled out of the crushing space between massive cogs just seconds before her cranium would have been turned to mush.

        The remaining ponies tried tackling her, but suddenly they were flying away. Daring was as confused as she was breathless, and then she found herself plunging along with them. A third bolt of lightning was surging past her the whole while, branching from the machine stalk to the last obelisk beneath the dome. Impossibly, the tower was spinning even faster, accelerating to the breaking point. She and every equine thing situated on the twirling floors were being flung towards the anomalous furnace of lightning outside.

        In desperation, Daring lashed out, grabbing a length of dangling chain. The thing had snapped loose from whatever pulley system had previously empowered it, and now it twirled outward in a manner befitting a windsock, with her puny body clinging to the far end like a Hearth's Warming ornament, suspended heartlessly before the hungry tongues of lightning that crackled beyond.

        Daring ached as she kept gripping to the flimsy metal links. The tower groaned and groaned louder. With loud cracks of brittle metal, she witnessed several factory parts giving into the centripetal punishment, ripping clean off their foundations with showers of loose bolts and bright sparks. The pegasus gasped and spun her body left and right to avoid clumps of metal machinery flinging past her like black missiles. The huge shards flew into the electrical array and soon started floating and spinning in opposite motion to the cyclonic tower, empowered like magnetic meteorites whose very presence spelled doom for the entire wobbling structure.

        Squinting, Daring Do's head turned towards the source of a massive groaning sound. She spotted a cluster of humongous gears ahead of her, rattling on their axes, threatening to break at any second. As the tower rotated even faster, they finally buckled. Two cogs soared past her like enormous buzz saws. Daring was too busy awaiting the fate of the largest gear to bother counting her blessings. At last, it too broke, and its hulking teeth caused it to "walk" down the length of the metal platform to her left, shredding several holes through it. When the cog reached her, it snapped the chain she was hanging from as if it was tinfoil.

        Daring was momentarily airborne. In deft-defying flare, she lunged forward, kicked off the teeth of the gear as it grinded past her, and tossed herself towards one of the many holes the cog had gouged into the factory floor. There, she clung to the jagged niche, her body struggling to climb against the centripetal force that constantly yearned to fling the mare's body into the electrical storm behind her.

        Somewhere through the strain, rust, and tears, Daring spotted a flicker of light. She looked to the left, the whipping winds stretching her facial muscles to the breaking point. She saw the hook with the tome in its claws, and its glowing path was almost reaching the bottom of the machine.

        A surge of adrenaline ran through Daring's arteries. Angling her wings in courageous fashion, she skittered through the niche, coiled her lower muscles, and sprang forward. She surged slightly in the air, but nevertheless made it to the panel on the far side. Spotting an open cavity up ahead, halfway towards the central stalk, she climbed and pulled and tugged her way towards it, fighting sheer inertia with every hoof step.

        Her "ascent" took her over and around chunks of metal and the dangling framework of rickety conveyor belts. Many structures tore loose and flew past her, several of them almost seconds after her hooves had utilized them as platforms. Deep cracks started to form in the grated metal, running rusty rivulets past her as pieces of the platform started peeling and breaking off one by one. She was running out of space to grab a hoofhold, but finally made it to the niche. Here, she discovered only three floors left between her and her destination. They were barely intact.

        Preparing for a massive leap, Daring stretched her every muscle. The metal beneath her began dissolving just as she jumped forward. She shot through the niche, glided through the second platform, and barely latched onto the framework of the last. The glowing book was within smelling distance, and the hook carrying it down the central shaft was just then grinding to a halt. From where Daring dangled, she saw several metal hatches located at the base of the spinning machine's spine, situated above a flimsy, circular platform that was the only thing in the universe that wasn't currently spinning. As the hook's claws settled to a stop, a buzzing sound emanated through the hatches situated around the glowing book.

        Daring prepared for the final leap, hoping to time it well from her spinning platform. She heard a groaning sound directly above her. Against her better judgement, she turned and looked behind.

        All of the remaining sand ponies were sailing at her as one gelatinous blob of dust. They ignored the spinning metal platforms, instead choosing to file their way through the remaining grates, conjoining as one serpentine tentacle of sand. With a surge of onyx mass, they all launched themselves at Daring's flank.

        She stifled a yelp, spun to face forward, and risked everything with a single, random leap. She spun, spiraled, and miraculously fell through half-a-dozen rotating pieces, collapsing safely across the steadfast circular platform at the base of the tower. As her world stopped spinning, her mind took up the slack, throwing her senses into nauseating dizziness. She recovered just in time to hear the buzzing of the hatches ending. With a combined hiss, all of them opened. The book stopped glowing, its sparks instead charging up the body of the machine's stalk, lighting the whole thing up like a holiday tree.

        Daring reached in and grabbed the book. She pulled it out, and her ruby eyes twitched to read the cover: "Daring Do and the Madness Machine." She flung the covers open, bit onto a chunk of pages, and ripped them straight out. The pages flew into the air like loose feathers, only to be consumed by the tidal wave of sand surging homicidally towards the pony's body.

        With a yelp, the pegasus bit another chunk of the pages loose, tossed the book aside, then dove into the only place she could to avoid the fountain of sand: straight into the hollow stalk of the machine's spine. The black dust splashed all around her, piling on more and more densely in some desperate attempt to spill in through the gaps in the stalk and drown the pony in sediment. With nowhere else to go, the pony climbed up, feeling the torrential winds of the machine's crackling levels flying apart all around her. She knocked aside the dormant claw, galloped, then flew straight up.

        The hollow tube echoed deafeningly as she rocketed up the axis. Gazing down, she saw the fountain of sand rising up, hurdling like volcanic ash, clambering to envelope her. She flapped her wings with as much space as the stalk could afford. Meanwhile, the three obelisks from beyond strobed brighter and brighter. The rusted metal was flying into the magnetized storm. The dome collapsed, causing walls of chaos to close in around the mare. When Daring finally flew her way to the summit of the stalk, she was blinded by the imploding world. Nevertheless, she pressed her shoulder and pushed on through. For several suffocating seconds, it felt like swimming upstream.

        At last, with an explosion of gray light, she emerged from the top of the black dome, soaring straight up.

        Only, she was soaring straight down. The pony gasped to find herself plummeting towards the spiked building tops of over a hundred towering skyscrapers, all of which formed the dense downtown heart of a sprawling city. Daring yanked her wings to the side, spiraling about just in time to avoid smashing into the edge of a glass building top. In a corkscrew fashion, she circled the spire, easing herself down to street level.

        Several explosions echoed overhead like gun bursts. Daring looked up in time to see a vomitous fountain of sand and metal factory parts falling from a fixed point in the sky, as if a closing portal was spewing out the skeletonized remnants of the machine that had almost claimed her. Waves of sand pelted multiple skyscrapers, shattering the glass and sending bright, reflective shards pelting the avenues below like giant knives. On top of that, huge rusted gears and cogwork also spilled everywhere, smashing buildings to dust and even causing an entire twenty-story skyscraper to implode. Waves of metal and debris surged everywhere in a gray curtain. Soon, Daring found herself having to fly straight down a lengthy street, weaving her way past overturned stagecoaches and crumpled chariots left abandoned along the sidewalks.

        At last, she skidded to a stop, collapsing upon a rickety wooden bench besides a dilapidated bus stop. She lay there, panting, watching as the debris clouds settled, along with the cloudy dust storm that swam somewhere northeast, pushed along by a wayward wind.

        After several minutes, Daring finally gained control of her breaths. She repositioned herself, sitting atop the bench on folded limbs. Her sweat had dried by the time she removed her pith helmet to straighten her gray bangs. Pausing, she glanced at the edge of her mane just beyond the visual frame of her eyesight. Hesitant at first, she reached into her pocket and pulled out the eyeglass container. As she did so, she grimaced, for the left lens of her glasses had cracked from all the turbulence.

        Sighing, Daring Do looked at the reflection. She almost vomited from the instant dizzy spell she suffered. There was no reflection to be seen—nothing but a bold, blue blur. She clasped the clamshell container shut before she could collapse from nausea. Shaking her head, she squinted curiously at the outside of the case. Her heart froze.

        Her name was there, and yet it wasn't. She couldn't see her title or her doctorate. For that matter, despite how hard she squinted her eyes, she couldn't make out anything save for a middle name, and it read: "Danger."

        More than once, Daring mouthed that word, clicking the feel of it against the tip of her tongue. Confusion formed hard lines across her tan face. Pocketing the eyeglass container away, she turned around and looked about the city block.

        The place was abandoned. There was no movement in the street; not even a single bird or a rolling piece of garbage. The entire maretropolis was abandoned, and judging from the grime and decay, Daring suspected that it had been for a long time. Even without the cataclysmic impact of the spewing portal, the surrounding buildings had seen their fair share of wear and tear. She spotted several skyscrapers with entire sheets of windows cracked down the center, or with fractures forming along their glossy entrances.

        The building closest to her, Daring noticed, was relatively intact, or at least its front entrance was. Stepping off the bench, limping a little from strained muscles, she nevertheless walked up to the front line of windows, observing the reflection there that the eyeglass container somehow refused to afford her. The sky was overcast, wrought with perpetual gray clouds, and as Daring trotted within breathing distance of the shiny windows, she could see how it affected her visage, adding a mute tone to her tan coat.

        She stripped of her helmet again, tossing her mane into the desolate winds blowing through the cold street. As the hairs settled, she focused on them. Breathlessly, she noticed two new colors added to the mix. Aside from the green streak in the center and the yellow and blue bangs that bordered it, she saw a strip of orange and a strip of indigo. As a matter of fact, the only parts of her reflection still gray and lifeless were the outer fringes of her mane and tail. Her mouth hung open in wonder, and her eyes traveled down to her coat.

        It was then that she noticed something in greater detail. Her coat wasn't tan, but it wasn't gray either. The dull sky wasn't responsible for this cold sheen. As a matter of fact, upon closer inspection, Daring could have sworn her reflection's coat was blue as the ocean.

        A confused look swam over Daring's face. She knew this, because her expression was all that she focused on at this point. She looked more intently, leaning in, realizing that there was a strange glint, almost a sparkle to her ruby eyes.

        Just then, those ruby eyes blinked, and a devilish smirk came to life beneath them.

        Daring did a double-take, her blood freezing cold.

        The reflection took off on flapping wings, turned to the side, and flew up the length of the glossy building side.

        Standing alone, Daring gasped. Witless, she flapped her wings, perhaps a little too late, and she darted up into the desolate sky, skimming the edge of the skyscraper in desperate pursuit of the glossy phantom. One by one, both disappeared around the building's rigid corner, lost like ghosts amongst the urban grayness.