“Daring, wake up.” Barrier huffed, trying to roll away only for the mare’s hooves to draw him closer, forcing the wind out of him. “Daring…” Barrier tried to shift again only to find he could only slightly budge. Gods above, this mare hath an iron grip…
Daring mumbled unintelligibly, wing shifting slightly to further blanket the unicorn.
“Very well, thou brought this upon thyself.” The stallion’s horn flared to life, retrieving snow from outside of the tent. “Last chance, Daring.”
The pegasus began to chew weakly on the back of the unicorn’s head.
Barrier threw the snow with his magic, scattering the substances across her withers and the wing covering him; Daring shrieked.
Barrier winced as the sunlight filtered into his swollen eye - a reminder of the morning -, his good eye resting on the tan pegasus in front of him
“Cave number three.” Daring said with a slight yawn as she gazed down at the ‘cave’, a medium-sized hole at the base of the icy rock-wall they’d been following since that morning.
Barrier sighed and flared his magic, retrieving the still-glowing flares from the previous cave - the ones that Shining had suggested - from his significantly smaller saddlebags and passing one to the pegasus who took it wordlessly.
The two had left most of their supplies at the campsite, some of them buried in the snow, the others tucked away in the tent. Only some rope, his sword, and a few MRE’s—Shining had insisted they were the equivalent of the condensed hay-bricks from Barrier’s time—as well as an equal number of heating crystals and flares. Just enough to see them through the day while they searched the caverns.
“Rope.” Daring spoke from where she was staring down into the hole, squinting in a vain attempt to see the bottom.
Barrier levitated the thick coil to her, watching as she threw a rock into the hole, counting the time between its departure and the muted thud of it landing.
“We should have enough rope to get down there and back up. Sword.” Daring held out her hoof as she began to feed the rope into the hole.
“Excuse me?” Barrier rested a hoof on the blade that clung to his side, hesitant to acquiesce the pegasus.
“Sword. We need something to act as an anchor point.” Daring finished feeding the rope into the hole.
“Very well…” Barrier sighed and tugged the blade loose before reluctantly passing it to the mare.
Daring only hummed, taking the blade in hoof and driving it in the ground as hard as she could, the well-maintained blade biting into the hard surface of ice and stone effortlessly.
Barrier grumbled to himself as Daring tied the rope tightly onto the hilt and gave it several experimental tugs. “I’ll go down first.”
“What, trying to get a look at my flank by having me go down second?” Daring’s voice took a playful and teasing tone.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Barrier half-chuckled. “If something goes wrong on the way down I can teleport out. No way to know for sure if you’ll have space to fly out. Wait up here until I come back.” Barrier snatched the rope in hoof and jumped into the hole.
“Fair enough. Don’t take too long.” Daring watched the unicorn disappear before she sat down to wait.
Barrier grimaced as he reached the end of the rope but still not the bottom; as expected, the hole hadn’t widened enough to allow for proper flight. Dropping his heating crystal, Barrier waited for it to clatter on the ground, counting the seconds until it did so. Here goes. Barrier released his grip on the rope and began to fall downward towards the glow of his flare, counting as he fell before he disappeared with the tell-tale pop of teleportation and reappeared right next to his flare, momentum having vanished.
Taking a moment to reorient himself, Barrier took the flare in his magical hold once more and raised it, taking in the large cavern that the hole had opened up into, his eyes taking particular note of the sharp stalactites dangling from the ceiling, the slick appearance of the walls, and the stale air. “Wonder how deep I am…” Barrier almost immediately regretted the question when a deep rumble briefly wracked the cave for several frightening seconds before fading into silence once more. Silently making his way back to the hole he’d come in from, Barrier set his flare down and teleported once more.
“So,” Daring stared at the disoriented unicorn in front of her. “What’s the verdict horn-head?”
“It’s a death-trap.” Barrier replied honestly. “It’s about a thirty-foot drop from the end of the rope to the ground, but it opens up into a fairly big cavern after about fifteen. It’s also dangerous. Just my regular voice was enough to set the place shaking. I think we should probably skip this one but I know you’re going to refuse.”
Daring scoffed. “You said we should skip the second cave as well but that turned out fine, didn’t it?”
“You brought the ceiling down on us. Literally.”
“Eh, we got out of that one okay, we’ll get out of this one okay. In we go!” The pegasus didn’t wait for a reply, taking the rope in her hoof and diving down the hole.
“Of course,” Barrier deadpanned at the hole before leaping back down himself, taking the descent far more quickly this time.
“Wow…” Daring whispered in amazement as her eyes danced along the ceiling.
“Starest in wonderment when we’re a-leaving.” Barrier hissed, nudging Daring’s flank forward and glancing nervously at the ceiling, feeling as if an invisible weight were already pressing on him.
“Alright, I’m goin’, stop pushing.” Daring hissed back; a faint wave of dust fell from the ceiling with a faint rumble.
Before Daring could even tense, Barrier’s horn flared to life and an icy-blue shield sprung into life around them drowning out the rumbling sound as well as blocking out their view of the cave.
“Paranoid much?” Daring asked with an almost mischievous smile on her face.
Barrier didn’t reply immediately, instead taking a moment to get his breathing under control before dropping his shield and starting towards the far end of the cavern where another opening awaited with a tired frown.
“Oh come on,” Daring whispered as she caught up to the stallion. “I’m just messin’ with you. Consider it payback for this morning.”
The unicorn didn’t reply until they left the entrance and journeyed further into the vast cavern, hearing a strange noise echo throughout the chamber.
Daring’s ears twitched as they picked up something that sounded like a high pitched laughter.
Another blue shield wrapped around the pair in only a fraction of a second after the laughter caused another deep rumble.
Daring opened her mouth to comment, but lost her words when she realized the stallion was coiled tighter than a spring. Carefully approaching the unicorn, Daring dropped a hoof on his withers. “Alright, what’s got you so worked up?” Her voice has none of the jovial tone it usually carried.
Barrier hesitated, worried about how the statement would make him appear.
“Come on, talk to me,” Daring pressed. “You being this nervous and wound up could be a problem if anything goes wrong while we’re down here.”
“If a cave-in or something happens this far underground, I can’t teleport us both out. One of us maybe, but definitely not both of us, not that far.” Barrier’s barrier slowly faded revealing the drab grey walls faintly illuminated by their red crystal.
“Ah, jeez…” Daring rubbed the back of her head. “Alright, let’s get this over with and get out of here then. I promise I’ll be careful. Come on.” Daring rapped Barrier on the shoulder before moving forward through the tunnel.
Taking a deep breath to steel himself, Barrier followed along, ears swiveling forward as another echo reached them, once more of the high-pitched laughter. “Daring, does that voice sound like someone you’ve faced before?”
“No… and those prints don’t look like anything I’ve seen before either.” Daring held the crystal closer to the ground, illuminating a trail of prints in the thin layer of dust.
“Nor I.” Barrier replied softly as he carefully gazed at the trail. He couldn’t think of any bipedal races that could leave such a long and oddly shaped bootprint.
“Well, I guess we’ll find out when we get there.” Daring picked up the pace slightly, Barrier following suit until they were moving as fast as they safely could as the more sounds - these being the sounds of movement - rang through their tunnel.
“We were so close…who could’ve taken it?”
“I do recognize that voice though…” Daring grimaced as their tunnel opened up to a small circular room with a lone carved pedestal in the center…and a multitude of cats around it. “Ahuizotl.”
Barrier felt his gaze drawn to the tallest of the cats, exceptionally dark-blue with a lighter cerulean underbelly and paws, all topped off with deceptively sharp nails.
“Daring Do.” The cat spoke with well-concealed venom in his tone. “Of course you would be here.”
“I think he’s still mad at me.” Daring’s voice reverted to it’s usual, jovial self. “Nice to see you, Ahuizotl. I half expected you to be out here. Figured you’d recruit snow-leopards or such, but it looks like you’ve only got the usual gang of idiots.” Daring eyed the other cats; a panther, a tiger, a leopard, a lynx, and last but not least, a particularly fluffy white kitten with the eyes of a demon.
“They’re kind of cute. I don’t suppose we can keep them, can we?” Barrier eyed the kitten briefly before it drifted over the other, larger specimens.
“Nah, I don’t think Ahuizotl is litter-trained.” Daring glanced past the cat at the empty pedestal. “Looks like you were a little late, huh kitty-cat?”
Ahuizotl growled, lowering himself into a pouncing position. “Give me the diamond, Daring Do!”
“If I had it, don’t you think I’d be threatening to blast you with it?” Daring flared her wings and began to move to one side of the chamber, following her long-time enemy.
“Why would we do that? Cats are great survival-food, you know? They’re quite rich with protein.” Barrier moved to the opposite side of the chamber, the rest of the cats following him. “You know if we fight here, we risk bringing this entire cavern down on us, right?” All of the cats and Daring Do launched themselves at each other at almost the same time.
“Of course.” Barrier rushed forward, eyes settling on the tiger. They’re more instinct than intelligence. Barrier half-leapt, the tiger responding in kind with a full leap. One down.
Barrier squatted, thrusting his head up, the sharp tip of his horn burying itself in his opponent’s throat. Struggling to remain stable with the sudden addition of weight, the unicorn jerked hard to the side, weakly throwing the mass of muscle off of his horn just in time for something to barrel into his side and close its jaws around his shoulder.
Feeling his hooves begin to leave the ground, Barrier threw himself with the momentum as hard as he could, rolling almost completely in the air before his assailant—the panther, he could now see—crashed painfully into the ground, following by the bulky unicorn half-landing on top of him. Whether through luck or intention, the unicorn was rewarded with a sharp pop and crack as the awkward angle dislocated and cracked the panther’s jaw, releasing his shoulder with a messy tear.
Damn, that smarts… Barrier made to heft himself upward only for another weight to unbalance him, rolling him onto his back. With a vicious roar that sent the cavern—surprisingly stable up to this point—rumbling the cat sunk towards the unicorn’s throat only to find his progress impeded by a desperate forehoof.
Barrier growled in reply as his head tried to bury itself further into the ground, away from the slavering animal. With a grunt, Barrier managed to snake his hind legs beneath the lynx and shot them upwards. For several brief seconds the lynx experienced the miracle of flight, only for it to end with another sickening crunch as Barrier scrambled to his feet and caught the flightless cat on his horn, his neck barely shifting under the fifty pounds. Almost casually, Barrier threw the former predator from his horn and set his gaze on the two remaining opponents, the leopard and the kitten. “So,” Barrier could feel the blood slowly trickling down his horn and flared his magic, boiling and burning the blood off of the surface in an intimidating display. “Which one of you is nex-” the stallion was interrupted when his pegasus companion went flying by him, back into the tunnel they’d come from, crashing noisily to the floor.
Ahuizotl jerked his gaze towards the unicorn, absolute rage in his eyes as he saw the limp forms of his former allies. “You…” the cat’s voice was low, almost quivering with anger.
“Me.” Barrier replied flatly, carefully backing up towards the tunnel he and Daring had come through, ears twitching as the sounds of the pegasus moving reached them.
“YOU!” Ahuizotl’s voice jumped up several levels, the shout of rage bouncing around the chamber and turning the rumble into a crumbling ceiling, cracks spider-webbing throughout the walls and ceiling.
“Daring…” Barrier raised his own voice, calling out over the noise the collapsing cave.
“Run!” Was the pegasus’s reply and the only warning the unicorn needed as both of them turned tail and began to bolt back towards the entrance.
In a fraction of the time it’d taken them before, the pair galloped into the cavern they’d started in, stalactites and chunks of the ceiling crashing all around them.
“Move!” It was Barrier started their flight this time, an angled shield buzzing to life above the pair as they began their mad dash back towards the exit.
“How’re we getting to the rope!” Daring yelled out as they quickly approached their entry-point.
“Just keep running!” Barrier almost stumbled as a rock crashed into and slid down the side of his shield. Closing his eyes as a second layer of magic coated his horn, Barrier groaned as a shield in the shape of a ladder steadily started to snake its way up the wall and into the hole just as the formerly pony-sized chunks of rocks were replaced by rocks the size of carriages.
Daring coughed wildly as she desperately clawed her way out of the hole, followed shortly by a unicorn who was likewise coughing up dust.
“Do you think he’s dead?” Barrier managed to ask hoarsely.
“I wouldn’t count on it…” Daring wheezed out a reply. “Every time I think someone in my rogues gallery is dead, they seem to come back. I swear they’ve gotta be part cockroach.”
“We made it…” Barrier rolled on the icy ground before a final cloud of dust shot up out of the hole and the ground they were resting on began to shake faintly.
“Maybe…” Daring forced herself up on shaky legs. “Maybe we should get back to camp.”
Barrier silently agreed, magic ripping his sword from the ground and severing the rope before he and Daring both stumbled into the frozen wasteland once more, the unicorn stopping only briefly to bandage his shoulder.
“Well,” Daring waited until they were a safe distance from the collapsed cavern to begin speaking, “trying to get the diamond was a total bust, but at least Ahuizotl didn’t get it either. Can’t help but wonder who got their grubby little mitts on it though…”
“We should still consider checking the other caves the princess suggested, just to be absolutely certain. However slim the chance, it’s better safe than sorry.”
“Sure thing, but…” Daring stopped, taking a moment to catch her breath—they’d been almost running towards the camp. “Maybe we should wait until tomorrow morning.”
Sure enough, the sun had began it’s quick descent below the horizon.
“Yeah…yeah,” Barrier replied, equally out of breath. “Tomorrow…” the unicorn flopped uselessly onto his stomach, the campsite just visible in the distance. “Darrring…” the unicorn stretched the word out, holding his forehooves out. “Carry me the rest of the way?”
Daring turned and stared at the unicorn incredulously for a moment before she took both of his forehooves and hefted him onto her back with a groan. “Fine, but you owe me a fancy dinner when we get back to Canterlot.”
“I was joking!” Barrier tried to roll off of the mare only for her to spread her wings to stop him.
“Shaddup,” Daring huffed. “Maybe if you’re extremely lucky and play your cards right, this won’t be only time you’ll be on top of me.”
Barrier’s drew his head back in slight surprise before settling on the smaller mare’s back. “You shut up,” he replied childishly, ignoring what the mare had said despite the scenarios it’d planted in his head.