by shortskirtsandexplosions

And the Silent Streets

        Daring's eyes were tearing; she tried chalking it up to the biting winds high above the city. In jagged loops, she darted around the tallest skyscraper, encircling it like a tan electron. All the while, the mare's eyes were locked on a darting sight shooting along the glossy window panes several meters ahead of her. It darted like a blue streak amidst the reflected gray clouds, accelerating madly across the building's surface in a mute attempt to elude the adventurer.

        The thing's velocity shifted dramatically, almost playfully. Every half-a-minute, when Daring would get within a sneeze's distance of the reflection's colorful tail, the image would twirl around, its forelimbs rested behind its head like it was reclining in mid-glide. A tongue would stick out, followed by a ruby-eyed wink, and then the figure would burst forward as a primastic lightning bolt, accelerating beyond the crest of Daring's strained eyesight.

        Daring gnashed her teeth and beat her wings even harder. She spun around the building an uncountable number of times, feeling the left side of her body aching from the constant spin, putting pressure almost exclusively on one wing alone. As sweat ran through her shirt and her fur, she found that her path had spiraled up to the very top of the skyscraper. A solid ring of concrete cornerstones laced the topmost level of the building. The windows ended on the forty-fifth floor; there was no reflective surface left to go.

        Undaunted, the glossy blue blur shot skyward, its body dancing like a mirage with each shutter-fast seam of joint window panes warbling by. As the reflection reached the summit, it twirled, and a pair of blue wings surrounded the entire image like a foggy cocoon. In a blink, the reflection was gone.

        Daring gasped. She hovered to a stop, blinking awkwardly at the skyscraper before her. She floated directly up to one of the many windows, nervously planting a trembling hoof against the cool glass. There was no reflection to be had; Daring's panting breaths couldn't even fog the shiny surface.

        Just then, the pony heard something that made her right ear twitch, something like the distant groan of settling steel reinforcements. Daring flashed a glance to her right, gasping. She saw the reflection again, only this time a city block away from her, hovering "backstrokes" across an entire face of window panes. Its ruby eyes locked on Daring's own from afar. Tossing another wink, the reflection twirled acrobatically and shot off with a toss of its five-colored.

        Daring spun about, planted her hooves against the nearest window, and cracked the surface slightly as she kicked off in a mighty boost. She shot towards the building across the way like a tan cannonball.

        The reflection glided away, flying to the right and disappearing off the edge of the building's tight corner. Daring drifted past the skyscraper, looking down the crossroads of towering structures in the middle of the abandoned maretropolis. Through the corner of her eyes, she saw the blue blur rocketing northward, gliding from one shiny buildingfront to another, bobbing and weaving around balconies, fire escapes, and other structures that blockaded the otherwise steady, vertical sea of reflective sheets.

        Daring cut a straight path down the middle. From where the mare soared directly over the empty streets below, she looked to her left. At matching speed, the figure swam up and down exterior elevators, flew loops around hotel ledges, and threaded its way through a dazzling array of suspended billboards.

        With a jerk to her wings, Daring swerved left, hoping to cause a dent in the windows just an inch ahead of the reflection, effectively stopping its tracks. As soon as she approached the buildingfronts, however, the figure immediately darted down, disappearing into the concrete and asphalt of the sea before it.

        Daring’s face gaped.  The pony was too confused to allow herself to decelerate from the shock of that moment. At the sound of windows rattling, she glanced to her right. The reflection was darting straight up from the street, pausing to backflip within a rectangular set of windows, its bright blue wings full and straight as it sported a devilish smirk.

        Twirling about, Daring flew straight at it. The figure tossed its bright mane, spun like a dancer, and shotted around the building's north side. Daring flew over the intersection, banked right, and shot east, discovering that the figure was gliding two blocks ahead of her, dipping and climbing as if in a game to avoid the darker backdrops of clouds rolling across the sun-lit glass.

        Not long after, Daring caught up. The reflection must have sensed this, for its figure was diving up and down, taking merry, meandering paths around the surfaces of a city court building, a town hall, a subway station, and even the domed top to a banking consortium's lavish lobby.

        All the while, Daring matched the equine blur's movements, soaring after it with utmost finesse, so that soon both figures were seemingly mimicking each other, performing an anxious yet tantalizing tango through the heart of the urbanscape, with the gray clouds as their wind and the glistening windows as their sea.

        Soon, however, the mysterious blur kicked off the surface of its reflection, disappearing almost entirely. Confused and breathless, Daring looked straight ahead. She saw that she was flying straight towards a broad building with its epic array of windows reflecting the bright, western sky. The figure, her target, was enormous, about eight stories tall at that present moment. Its ruby eyes winked thunderously at Daring as it smirked, gave a salute, and hovered casually in place.

        Gritting her teeth in anger, Daring increased her velocity until the blood beneath her facial muscles boiled. The figure ahead of her simply shrank, its size decreasing at a rate equal to the adventurer's swift approach. By the time Daring was within punching distance of the glass, the reflection backflipped, cartwheeled in mid-air, and seemingly disappeared through a single window pane situated above a balcony, replete with mildew and long-dried plants.

        With a grunt, Daring kicked the window open. Its hinges squeaked loudly as Daring touched down inside a dank hallway ripe with dust and scattered bits of paper. A cold wind blew in through the open balcony, kicking at the mare's helmet hair as she slowly trotted into a long hallway, squinting to make out the very end of it.

        A hot white aura loomed from the far end. Bands of light shifted and swayed at a distance, as if a shadow was darting briefly across the source, trying its damnedest not to be sene. Daring galloped straight ahead, running towards the light. Her hooves kicked up tattered shreds of forsaken files and documents. Framed plaques and posters rattled on either side of her. At last, she made it to the far end of the hallway, where a brightly-lit window loomed. There was the faint hint of a smirking face, then a blue shadow, then feathers and feathers and nothing.

        Daring burst through, practically headbutting the pane open. As she did so, she inadvertently knocked over two large ceramic pots. The containers fell over the balcony's edge. As they did so, countless months' worth of rainwater was tossed out into the city like translucent vomit. Through the thin, refracting bands, Daring saw a single blue figure being projected a thousand times. Then, with a hiss of wind, the water fell all the way down to street level, making a distant splash, like the death rattle of a phantom, or a feathered prankster's foalish giggle.

        Daring stared down at the street dumbly, chewing on her lip in confusion. She heard that ghostly giggle again, only this time it was accompanied by the rattle of broken shards. She looked up, then towards the left. North of where she hovered, an apartment building loomed, its southern face wracked with weather damage. As Daring watched, a pane or two hung loosely, only to fall as a blue figure "trotted" across them, its hooves planted tightly against the glossy surface as if from the other side. After kicking a sheet or two of glass down towards the abandoned streets, the figure paused, then looked straight down past its forelimbs, facing directly at Daring. The figure grinned, its expression framed by a lion's mane of colored hairs as it stuck its tongue out, making an adorably ugly face.

        In a burst, Daring threw herself towards the apartment. The figure backflipped off the pane, shifted gravity from within the glass, and flew straight up into the dull metal of the apartment's roof.

        Daring ascended, hoping to scale the building and close the distance between her and the reflection on the other side. Instead, the mare flew directly into the mouth of the unexpected. Assaulted with the smell of musk and mildew, the pegasus skidded to a stop, gasping at her surroundings.

        She stood at the front entrance to a rooftop greenhouse, its walls and ceiling covered with precariously hanging sheets of transparent glass. The air tingled, like miniscule bells in the distance, or the trickle of snowflakes against a brass sheet. Beyond that, the world was dead silent, aside from the haunting inhale of a ghost from deep within the greenhouse, threatening to burst at a moment's sneeze.

        Daring bit her lip. She turned to look at the streets between looming skyscrapers behind her. All was still; all was silent. With a determined scowl, the pony looked ahead, flexed her limbs, and trotted forward.

        She brushed past overturned pots filled with petrified flowers and withered plants. The skeletonous vinework of brown ferns, thornbare rosebushes, and jaded azaleas rested on shelf after shelf, many of them dangling in a lazy wind that occasionally breathed through that hollow, hollow place. Every now and then, a jolting crunch would reverberate off the transparent house's framework. Daring froze, only to realize that her hoof had shattered a fallen shard of glass. Sighing, she proceeded once more, slowly this time.

        Her ruby eyes squinted left and right. Daring saw loops of partially unraveled hoses, their green rubber bodies cracked along the joints like decaying intestines. Water dribbled off the edge of the roof's bent frame; the explorer judged that it must have been from occasional rain showers. However, the air was so dry and thin that she couldn't imagine a single fluff from the thick silver clouds overhead ever releasing their moisture. It was as though somepony had drawn a sepulcher-gray tarp over the entire maretropolis.

        With a sigh, Daring shuffled to a stop. She adjusted the shirt around her upper body and gazed at the nearest shelf. Lying on the corner, leaning slightly ajar, was a watering can, and it was full to the brim with moisture. Daring stared at the glass-smooth surface of the liquid. She gazed for what must have been a full, lonesome minute, and still no reflection would show.

        Her nostrils flared. She brought her left hoof up and waved it between herself and the watering can. Nothing happened. Curious, Daring reached into her pocket and pulled out her glowstone. Breathing into it, she enchanted the object so that it shimmered once again with a bright blue pulse. Though this wasn't the interior of a dome of black sand, the shard still radiated with intense brilliance within the heart of that greenhouse.

        What's more, Daring could actually see the glint of the shard against the liquid surface within the can. She waved the object in and out of view, allowing the illumination to dominate the puddle with a silver sheen, then disappear, then brighten again. It looked to her as if a ghost was waving the bright beacon around in an invisible hoof; the liquid reflected Daring's glowstone, but not Daring herself.

        Tonguing the inside of her mouth in thought, Daring gave the can one long look, then reluctantly pocketed the object away. Something shimmered with dramatic color in the corner of her eyes. Daring flashed the can a look, and a blue face atop the surface of the water looked back. The reflection giggled mutely, then spun in a bucking motion.

        The water within the can launched out and soaked Daring's muzzle all over. The pegasus gasped, sputtered, then snarled in anger. She yanked the watering can up off the shelf and gave it a vigorous sake. Ten seconds later, her grip of the container went limp. Daring blushed at the foolishness of the gesture.

        Just then, directly above, there was a cracking sound.

        Daring looked up. Another mare looked down, bright and blue against the gray miasma beyond the top of the greenhouse. The reflection saluted, then spun until its hooves—and not its flank—was facing the adventurer below. The image took a big leap, flipping, and landing with a heavy thud. The heavy sheet of glass instantly sailed down at Daring, carrying the mischievous reflection twirling along with it.

        With a stifled shriek, Daring dove forward. The plate of glass exploded just inches behind her, showering her with hail of tiny white shards. She crouched there, hyperventilating, gazing all around the greenhouse. Less than half-a-second later, the panes above rattled. Daring glanced skyward, just in time to catch the tail end of a blue reflection galloping across two sheets of glass and kicking them off their frames.

        She slithered forward a little too late. Only through the grace of a metal tray full of dead flowers did she find any shelter from the rain of translucent shards. The greenhouse clattered all around her. Everywhere Daring looked, hailstones of exploding glass swarmed like mosquitoes. She was afraid of breathing through her mouth, for fear she might inhale sharp slivers down her trachea.

        The tray sheltering the pony bore wheels, Daring noticed. Thinking fast, she grabbed the front legs of the thing in her forelimbs and pushed off the ground with her rear hooves. Slowly, like a battalion of shield-bearers creeping their way through a shower of arrows, Daring crawled towards the closest exit from the greenhouse. She heard a groaning noise, loud enough to ache against her eardrums. She braved a look up.

        Of the last few flimsy glass sheets that were left, Daring could make out the blue reflection spinning across them, orbiting the center of the room faster and faster. As if channeling an intense cyclone from the inside out, the image morphed into a literal blur, and the entire building buckled from the sheer magnitude of the revolutions. The frame was starting to cave in, like an imploding sardine can.

        Daring still had several feet to cross. She decided to brave it in a single leap. Launching herself forward, she glided for as long as her wings could carry her, then galloped the rest of the way, heroically braving a cascade of glass and metal. When the building collapsed immediately behind her, Daring was thankful she had feathers, because the sheer concussive blast of the implosion flung her straight out into the looming grayness.

        It took a little bit of finesse, but Daring swiftly uprighted herself. She spun around, hovering in place, watching breathlessly as smoke and dust settled from the glass-strewn rooftop.

        As for the blue blur, it appeared, then disappeared again, flying bright streaks from building to building, drifting completely past Daring in wide swaths of multi-colored bands.

        Gritting her teeth, Daring flexed her wings to soar after the image... but she stopped. Her muscles went slack, and she descended a few stories, sighing heavily. With a bored expression, she watched as the image flitted about in erratic orbit, with the glossy buildingfaces as its perpetual arena.

        Exhaustion overcame Daring, as did ennui. She floated down to the street's surface, allowing her feathers to relax as she coiled her wings tightly to her side. Her pulse slowed to a comfortable rate as she trotted leisurely through the streets of the maretropolis, sidestepping left and right to avoid heaps of junk or abandoned vehicles.

        The only damage to the streets that Daring could see was the result of urban decay. Storefront awnings hung in tatters, battered by the wind. Sidewalks were occasionally littered with the broken metal and glass of buildingfaces peeling away. Signs and street lamps had bent under time and weight, and there was the pungent smell of rust lingering in the air.

        All in all, there was no sign of concrete scarring or broken edifices that might suggest that a battle of some sort had happened there, or that some other malevolent force had purposefully driven everypony out of the city altogether. When Daring saw stagecoaches, they were mostly parked to the side, as if they had been carefully and politely placed there, almost like some calm evacuation had gone underway.

        As Daring fixated on these sights, she became aware of a body trotting several feet to her left. She glanced aside; about twenty yards away, at street level, the blue figure trotted evenly with her, appearing from one store front or another. Daring could make out the queer look of confusion across the reflection's face, even from that distance.

        Turning her shoulders against the image, Daring instead looked to her right. She saw the faded patio of an abandoned cafe. No matter how long she stared at it, her stomach didn't grumble. Even as she looked at the artistically sketched images of smoking hot mugs of espresso, her mouth didn't water, not once. The city wasn't the only thing that was empty; her body was still completely devoid of both hunger and thirst. All Daring wanted was progression, and this place was doing everything it could—or at least everything the blue figure could—to prevent that.

        As if on cue, the reflection appeared once again, this time trotting across windows that stood tantalizingly close to where Daring rambled past a partially shattered post office.

        Nostrils flaring, Daring looked away from the figure, even as it hopped and flipped and jumped in a dramatic fashion. At one point, the figure resorted to "banging" on the glass from the far side, causing the windows to rattle. Stifling a growl, Daring trotted deep into a thick intersection made from two six-lane streets. She stood where it was the furthest distance possible from any buildingfaces and reached into her shirt pocket. Pulling out her compass, she endeavored to gather her bearings, hoping to find east again.

        It was then that Daring heard something that didn't belong to a phantom imbecile rattling window panes in indignation. Blinking, the pegasus looked up. Down one of the streets, several streetlamps were dangling bright red banners. They flickered lonesomely in the wind, as did many large canvas flags hanging from successive flagpoles stretched across the building faces about ten stories up. The air rippled with the many colors stretching and dancing in the wind, and all of them bore a single image, painted in orange and black against crimson fabric.

        It was the image of the Sun, brimming with solar flares and long bands of gold. Every building and sidewalk panel was shadowed by the multitude of banners, all bearing this one image. Curious, Daring's gaze followed the path of wind-blown fabric. They stretched over the city street as far as she could see, almost as if they were leading somewhere.

        With a furrowed brow, Daring glanced at her compass, then back at the street full of flags. The bannered path ran northwest. Pocketing the compass away, Daring broke into a canter. Impatient, the explorer lifted off and flew, this time invigorated by the sudden puzzle unraveling before her. If the reflection was still tailing her, she paid it no mind.

        After a few minutes and at least six city blocks of flight, Daring came upon a courtyard positioned tightly within the the junction of two criss-crossing avenues. The streets curved into a circular roundabout, and it was in the center of this that a statue stood before her.

        Curious, Daring touched down, gazing intently at the edifice. Before her rested a marble dome, almost like the top half of a sphere that had been sunk in the asphalt. Positioned to the left side of this sphere was the granite statue of an earth pony. The equine mounted the edge of the dome like a filly perched upon a turtle shell. What was more, it held a large bastard sword in its grasp: a very real sword, with a sheen to its razor sharp edges that was just as brilliant if not more so than the building faces surrounding the courtyard. The sword was presently being "stabbed" into the left side of the marble dome, as if the earth pony was so intent on settling that little piece of real estate that it had signed its name with a blade.

        Daring's eyes ran up and down the immaculate steel. She trotted forward and—more out of mirth than out of necessity—gave the hilt of the sword a good shake. Nothing happened; the sword didn't budge. Exhaling hard, Daring dropped back down to all four hooves and stared lethargically at the statue. At one moment, her eyes brushed past the sword's hilt, and she caught something familiar. The pommel had a round piece planted at the end of it, and upon its circular surface was the emblem of a golden sun.

        Daring rubbed her chin in thought. She looked back down at the marble dome. Apart from where the earth pony statue was stabbing the sphere, there were two other slits, each about as wide as the one sword's width. Turning around, Daring looked southeast, the direction from which she came. She saw the same orange-on-red banners depicting a solar crest. She then turned due east, and a breath escaped her.

        The city street ran towards the darkening horizon, and not only was it lined with wind-blown flag, but every banner bore the image of a silver crescent moon. Giving the dome and its statue one last look, Daring took off and flew briskly down the long trench of buildingfaces, gliding east past banner after banner of wrinkled lunar emblems.

        The grayness in the sky dulled to a stone colored malaise just when Daring's flight reached another courtyard with another statue. She flew down and hovered in place above the structure. It depicted a pegasus with another steel sword, this time positioned on the right side of a marble dome, stabbing it just like its earth pony sibling had far west of that location. The left and topmost portions of the sphere had slits, and all of them empty. The pommel on the sword stabbing the right side of the dome bore the image of a crescent moon, and its silver edges reflected the hint of a burning sunset peaking through the looming skyscrapers.

        Wasting very little time, Daring twirled around. It wasn't until she was looking southwest that she saw a long street marked by a new series of flags, this time bearing a dark circle full of twinkling constellations. Holding her breath, Daring flew swiftly down the canyon of buildings. Their shadows grew darker around her as the sun set on this peculiar, gray world.

        At last, she came upon a third statue. This time, the dome was being mounted on top. A stone unicorn stabbed the bulk of a heavy steel bastard sword into the topmost slit of the structure. When Daring flew up to the steel blade, a blue face with colorful bangs glanced out, trying to make a foalish face.

        Daring angrily ignored it, instead flying tight circles around the structure, struggling to come up with some sort of meaning behind the cryptic presentation. Suddenly, a gasp escaped her lips. With several strong wingflaps, she propelled herself upwards, blurring past windows and balconies and flagpoles. She ascended past the rooftops of apartments, past the spires of skyscrapers, until she hovered just below the blanket of dull gray clouds above.

        Looking down, Daring gazed at the city in its entirety. She tried her best not to get distracted by how mesmerizingly huge the entire maretropolis was. Squinting carefully, she focused on the straight streets she had traversed to find all three equidistant statues. Even from afar, she could spot the red banners dancing in the wind. A scarlet triangle of interconnecting avenues appeared. They had edges to them, and they also had a center.

        That spot also happened to be the site of what was undoubtedly the largest skyscraper Daring had seen in the whole urbanscape. She glided towards it, her jaw dropping with each minute it took to descend past the structure's rigid, stone-gray height. The sun was disappearing below the western horizon around the time she finally reached street level again. When she stood in front of the building, it was like perching on the dark side of the moon; the skyscraper's shadow was so absolutely permeating.

        Breathing her glowstone to life, Daring illuminated a bone-pale entrance flanked with equine statues. A banner hung over the front doors, depicting a black dome with three swords stabbed into it. Quietly, Daring trotted ahead, raising a hoof to pull the door open by its handle. There was a brief blur of blue across the door's glass, but she paid it no mind.

        When she entered the lobby, it was like tossing a can full of pins across the floor of a coffin. The echo of her hooves magnified the place's sheer eeriness, reverberating off every marble pillar and wooden panel with pristine tonality. Daring felt as though she had entered the bowels of a concert hall, and yet as she flashed her light back and forth, she saw the tell-tale furniture of what once must have been the first floor of a massive banking consortium. Teller windows and iron-thick money vaults stretched across a granite wall as she shuffled her way down an ever-darkening corridor.

        Eventually, she stumbled upon a marble flight of steps. The stairs were thick, with rusted metal railings threading down them at equal intervals. When Daring descended, she felt as though an immense black canyon was swallowing her up, when in reality she was traversing what seemed to be a vast basement lobby. The air there was strangely cold, icily complementing the pale bands of light coming out of the adventurer's glowing shard.

        Finally, the stairs ended, and she reached an open floor of marble tile, stretching blackly beyond the limits of her light's shine. Nevertheless, she proceeded forward, piercing the shadows with her enchanted spotlight. This carried on for about a minute until she finally came upon a shape emerging from the inkiness like the crest of a humpback whale.

        Daring slowed to a slow shuffle, her lips pursing in awe. It was most definitely a dome rising up out of the center of the floor, However, unlike the statues in the streets above—or on the banners outside the skyscraper—this sphere was not pierced by any bladed weapon. What was more, the dome was made out of metal. She couldn't tell what element or alloy; the surface had a copper hue, and yet it was interlaced with bands of red, almost bloodlike in color, with dark black rivets fastening them each in place.

        Alone in that dark, dark place, Daring curiously trotted around the metal sphere. One seam in particular ran thickly across the curved surface of the structure like an equator, and it had three equidistant slits in it: one on the left side, one on the top, and one on the opposite end from the first.

        Daring's eyes twitched as she imagined the glint of the steel swords high above, located at the ends of the "triangle" of flag-bearing streets. She had tried tugging the one in the earth pony statue's grisp, but with no luck. Perhaps the others would have budged if she pulled on them too.

        She was about to leave and test this hypothesis when she noticed a particular clue for the first time. Turning back towards the dome, she squinted at a circular emblem that was located just beneath the front end, positioned right below the topmost slit in the sphere. It was the image of an open book, and the circle itself was almost too perfectly the size of an average pony's hoof.

        Daring bit her lip. She clenched her eyes shut for a few seconds, seethed, then sighed. Relaxing, she reopened her eyes and limply performed the inevitable. Placing her hoof over the image of the book, she took a breath and pressed firmly.

        With sickening ease, the emblem sunk into the body of the sphere. A whirring noise filled the basement, growing in both volume and in pitch. The air heated up with a shrill whistling sound. Like clockwork, the outer shell of the sphere rotated, clattered, and slid open like a gecko's eyelid.

        Daring gasped immediately. Beneath the outer shell, the dome was built out of a porous metal framework. Concentric steel bars encircled a glowing book plastered to a rusted surface via tightly bound chains. The source of the book's glow was a mystery to Daring, but it didn't stop her from sliding down onto her knees and struggling to reach a forelimb through the bars.

        She strained and struggled, her face awash in sweat and the pale penumbra of her glowstone. As hard as she tried, she couldn't reach her hoof far enough to grab the book; she couldn't even touch its silver pages. She tried yanking at the chains that held the book loosely within the domed cage, but with even less luck.

        Grumbling, Daring stood up, once more pacing around the dome. She gave the thing an angry glare, and somehow in the process she observed that there was still a single thick metal bar running directly over the body of the sphere. This seam retained the same three slits as did all the granite domes that the mare had spotted on the streets.

        Before she could ponder long on this, the dome began to shake. Daring blinked, gawking at the sight of the wildly vibrating sphere. Then, on a whim, she flapped her wings and hovered a mere inch above the floor. That was how she realized that the dome wasn't the only thing shaking; the entire basement and the building above her were.

        Daring started to panic. Gnashing her teeth, feeling trickles of dust and plaster raining down from the ceiling of the basement above, the mare rushed down and grabbed a few bars of the dome, pulling with all her might. Naturally, the framework refused to come loose. Not so naturally, they also gave Daring a heavy jolt of electricity.

        Yelping, Daring hovered back, blowing foalishly on her hooves. She froze in mid-air, her jaw hanging open as the sphere lit up from the inside like a teslacoil. The book jumped and rattled on the ends of its chains, as if empowered by some unseemly force. No less than ten seconds later, thick cracks formed in the marble floor, and each of them hissing with scalding jets of steam.

        Daring felt the ends of her feathers curling. Not wanting a repeat of the mountain temple escapade, she hovered back, flinching with each thunderous crack that roared through the floor of that place. Soon, all was steam and bedlam. Daring caught the hint of a huge brown mass emerging from the ground, but she was too busy flying away at this point to find out what it was.

        Panting, the pegasus rocketed up over the steps, slicing the air opposite from whence she came. With alarming swiftness, the corridor grew thick with mist and fog. The temperature rose dramatically by the second, turning the whole foundation of the massive skyscraper into a blistering sauna. If that wasn't enough, several concussive bursts emanated directly behind the explorer's gray tail, as if she was being chased by a living earthquake.

        Daring shot her way forward, seemingly piercing a monsoon of fog billowing down against her with otherworldly purpose. She reached the edge of the first floor without knowing it, and she was rewarded with a comical head-butt against the doorframe beyond the mist. Cursing under her breath, she fiddled with the door handle. Glass glinted, and a blue face laughed at her. She almost punched it, choosing instead to fling herself through the building's entrance like a bat out of Tartarus.

        Without hesitation, she ascended to about thirty stories and hovered safely above a neighboring skyscraper's rooftop, or at least as "safely" as she could conceivably afford. The hulking tower in the center of the city shook and wobbled, like an ancient tree threatening to come down at any moment. Long plumes of white mist were channeling down from the overcast sky and into the bottom of the building, like the structure had become a smokestack in reverse. Daring's head nearly collapsed from a series of explosive bursts rising up from the foundation of the skyscraper below. Following cannon blasts to her eardrums, the skin of the city shot chunks of gravel and steel sky high, sending them through the shattering faces of several structures surrounding the site. Beyond the breaking of glass, Daring watched, breathlessly witnessing as a huge body rose up out of the roots of the building.

        Climbing out of the very crater it had made, one massive metal hoof tearing past another, a giant equine automaton emerged in the dying sunlight. It was sealed together from head to tail with dark rusted rivets that bled boiling tufts of steam. In the center of its skull—planted between a pair of sharply bladed earlobes—was the very same dome containing the very same book that Daring had sought. The tome danced and sparked, sending bands of energy down the hydraulic-reinforced frame of the leering golem. As it stood its massive height of ten stories on groaning haunches, Daring again noticed the gray clouds above funneling down past the buildings, magically sliding in through the grooves along the robot's scaled hull.

        When at last every thread of the gray overcast sky was drawn into the equine's mammoth metal body, it leered about under blossoming starlight, its skull like an enormous brown tree branch swaying in slow motion, until it finally trained a pair of glowing lantern-eyes on Daring's hovering form. Its nostrils shot forth bursts of steam, and when it opened its oil-dipping jaws, the sound produced was such that it shattered windows for three blocks in every direction.

        The number it did on Daring's head was biblical. The mare whimpered, clutching her skull as she drifted aimlessly amidst the cascade of loose glass shards. She bumped into a flagpole, her wings getting entangled in a banner bearing a sword-stabbed dome.

        It was precisely the position she didn't want to be in when the hulking monstrosity thundered towards her on asphalt-tearing hooves, ending its charge with the swing of a meteor-thick forelimb right into her puny muzzle.