• Published 3rd Jan 2017
  • 2,800 Views, 185 Comments

Daring Do and the Secret of the Sunken City - 8686



Years ago, Daring Do discovered an ancient city, and a strange lock she couldn't open alone. A while ago she met Rainbow Dash. Now it's time to go back and uncover the secrets she once had to abandon.

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9: Enter Caballeron

It’s not possible...” Daring whispered to herself as she looked up with a scowl. But though it was distant, there was no mistaking the infuriatingly familiar face looking back down at her from on high, with a smile full of smug no less. He should be days behind us!

“Why, Daring Do, whatever are you doing in such an awful place?” called the smarmy voice of Caballeron.

“Why don’t you come on down, I’ll show you?!” she called back. But from her impotent position her voice echoed up the stone walls of the pit and was robbed of most of its threat by the time it reached the ears of her rival. A sinister chuckle fell back in reply.

“A kind offer. But I think we are all very comfortable up here.” How he was loving this.

“Just how long have you been eavesdropping up there?!” she demanded.

“Long enough, Daring Do. Long enough to know that you are trapped at the bottom of that pit. And long enough to know that you have in your possession a pair of ancient artifacts that I am very interested in acquiring. So, rather than stand here and trade insults that get neither of us anywhere... why don’t we make a deal?”

Somewhat unexpectedly, three lengths of thick rope appeared and dangled against the pit walls, thrown down from above.

Daring blinked in surprise and put a confused frown on. “Two artifacts? We only found one crown. You’d know that if you’ve been listening that long.”

“I want the crown and that book, Daring Do. In my estimation both will fetch an impressive price, and in return I will be only too happy to facilitate your extrication from your most recent predicament,” he said, his wicked smile turning thin and sharp as a knife. “Be kind enough to bring them up with you, and we can discuss their transfer from your possession... into mine.”

Twilight gave a reflexive, defensive start and instinctively clutched the book she had discovered a little tighter. Daring gave her a level look, but one not devoid of sympathy. “We don’t have a choice,” she said. It really was as simple as that.

“Daring! That’s Caballeron!” hissed Rainbow Dash. “We can’t make a deal with him!”

“We don’t have a choice,” she repeated. “I won’t risk getting you two trapped down here for the sake of a royal night-light and a ream of crusty paper. There are other treasures in the world, and I promised I’d get you home. Now let’s do this fast before he changes his mind.”

Daring removed the crown from its receptacle and put her foreleg through it, treating it as an enormous bracelet of sorts. She tied the left-most dangling rope around her middle as she would a safety-line and gave it two solid tugs to test its strength. Twilight and Rainbow did the same, Twilight tucking the ancient journal securely beneath a wing, albeit with a measure of reluctance.

The rope began to pull and Daring went with it, forehooves clutching the line above herself, hindlegs walking up the wall of the pit as though she were abseiling. In the space of half a minute all three of them were over halfway up, and as she and her accomplices neared the top she caught sight of the condescending, victorious grin on the bestubbled face of the stallion above her, standing at the edge of the pit and looking down. Unable to resist prodding the hornet’s nest just a little, she put on a smirk of her own and glared back.

“Having your muscle do all the work as usual, I see. What’s the matter? Afraid you’ll break something? A nail? A sweat?

“Ah, I have missed your witty barbs, Daring Do. It’s been far too long since our paths crossed. I must admit I did not expect to find you here,” he replied. Then he gave a nod over his shoulder, and the rope hauling her up suddenly stopped. Daring frowned, but when she tried to climb it under her own power the pony on the other end – whoever it was – began paying it out instead, and so no matter how much she pulled and scrambled, she remained at the same height, just far enough below the lip of the pit that she couldn’t reach it. With a glance to her right, she saw the same was true of Twilight and Rainbow too. All three of them were dangling there, helpless, over a more-than two-story drop. She fixed Caballeron with a frosty stare.

“We had a deal...” she pointed out through gritted teeth.

“I am altering the deal; pray I don’t alter it any further,” he said with a level scowl. “I simply do not trust you not to pull some kind of impressive trickery and escape with my new acquisitions. So hand over the artifacts now, would you kindly? Unless you and your companions wish to return to the bottom of this well far more quickly than you have climbed it...”

Daring scowled, and cursed under her breath. She risked a look down and, sure enough, came to the conclusion that she probably wouldn’t survive being dropped from this height without functional wings, and if she did, she’d have all sorts of broken bones to show for it. Not a good option. But the sheer height of the drop gave her another idea. She might have royally messed this up, at least for herself, but she had one final card she could play to ensure at least Twilight and Rainbow would be safe. She extended her foreleg to the side, dangling the crown from the very end, and lowered her limb to a most precarious angle such that the heavy ornament threatened to slip from it. “You want the crown? Pull them up first.”

Caballeron’s eyes narrowed. “Ah... now that’s interesting,” he mumbled, almost too quiet to be heard. He seemed to make some mental calculation and, with a new grin, decided to call her bluff. “Drop it, Daring Do. It will be found.”

Intact?” It really was a long way down. The chances that the ancient crown would survive without damage or destruction were calculably small. Daring locked her gaze with Caballeron, her serious, unwavering eyes drawing his justifiably confident smirk. “Pull them up and I’ll give you the crown. After that... you can do what you want with me.”

Caballeron’s cocky smile faded, just a tad. “You should choose your words more carefully. A reckless offer like that could land you in far more trouble than being stuck at the bottom of a pit. You are lucky I am a gentlecolt.” He turned to the side and barked over his shoulder. “Those two: pull them up. Retrieve the book from that one.”

At the command, Twilight and Rainbow Dash were swiftly hauled upwards. Suspended just to her right, Twilight desperately reached out for Daring with a foreleg, determined that if she was going she would pull Daring to safety too. But the distance was slightly too great, and her reactions a hair too slow. By the time she’d made the attempt, Twilight had already been pulled out of leg’s reach. As soon as she reached the top a burly stallion stepped forward and plucked the ancient journal from her before she had even had much of a chance to get her balance.

Which left Daring alone, dangling over the sheer pit with Caballeron stood over her. “The crown?” he said, holding his foreleg out for the priceless antiquity.

Daring sighed and, with a careful throw, tossed it up into Caballeron’s greedy hooves. He deftly snatched it from the air, leaving Daring with nothing. No chips to bargain with, and no moves on her board. Checkmate.

“Don’t worry Daring, we’ll think of something!”

That was Twilight’s voice.

“Yeah! We’ll save you!” – Rainbow Dash.

Caballeron turned and regarded them both with an odd look. “Indeed?” he said. He turned back to look down at her, still dangling from her rope, prevented from certain doom only by his whim. Suddenly he didn’t look as smug and cocky as she was expecting. More... pensive. “Very interesting...” Then the thoughtful look was gone. “... but unnecessary. We made a deal, did we not? And I have what I was promised.” Once more he turned to look over his shoulder. “Pull her up.”

Though suspicious, Daring nevertheless found herself pulled upwards. Half-expecting that at the last moment before she reached the top she would hear a wicked cackle an instant before the rope went sickeningly slack, she was instead surprised to find herself hauled within easy reach of the surface, finally crawling onto flat stone back in the city plaza. She stood, disentangling herself from the rope and found herself next to Twilight and Rainbow Dash, half-surrounded and backed against the edge of the pit by Caballeron and three henchponies. Caballeron looked, once again, as smug as though all the world had bowed to him.

“You appear surprised, Daring Do. I am hurt that you so clearly did not expect me to uphold my side of the bargain. What in the world would cause you to entertain such notions?”

Experience,” shot Daring with a glare.

“You wound me.” The henchpony that had hoisted Twilight up the side of the pit presented the book he had taken to Caballeron who took it with no small measure of satisfaction, hefting it and the crown together. “Why would I engage in unnecessary duplicity? We can already see that, once again, there is nothing you possess that I cannot take away,” he murred.

“At least until I take it back,” retorted Daring.

Caballeron smiled now. Even when he was trying to smile genuinely, the corners of his mouth curled into a sinister sneer; the unwanted effect of too much practise. He looked to the side and gave a subtle nod, and the three hired goons stepped backwards a little, giving Daring, Twilight and Rainbow some more breathing room. “Indeed. So often that is the way, is it not? I take from you, you take from me, and round and round we go. And yet, must it always be? You have just seen, it is possible for you and I to co-operate. To honour a gentlecolt’s agreement without recourse to theft and treachery. Haven’t you ever wondered what might have been had you accepted my original offer? We could have avoided years of this pointless hostility. Imagine the discoveries we would have made together. The treasures we would have found...”

“All sold on the black market to the highest bidder,” scoffed Daring. “Some of us aren’t in this game to plunder forgotten ruins and then go hocking their priceless relics for fortune and glory. Sorry, Caballeron, it was never going to happen.”

Caballeron’s tone and manner changed. He drew himself up a shade and gave a hard stare, at once seeming to both step back, and become more menacing. “I would appreciate it if you could remember to address me by my preferred moniker.” His tone lowered to a soft growl and he gave her a pointed glare. “It is, after all, a courtesy I extend to you.”

“Sorry. Doctor Caballeron, I presume?”

“I earned the right to be called by that name, unlike some ponies.”

Daring’s frown deepened into an angry, annoyed scowl and she found herself squaring her shoulders involuntarily. “Having a doctorate doesn’t legitimise tomb-raiding and dirty-dealing!” she retaliated.

Caballeron’s own frown deepened and his eyes narrowed. “You are always so quick to draw your knives on me. How does the hypocrisy not sting you? When I look at you, I see only a reflection. Do you honestly not see the same?”

“We... are not the same,” Daring seethed. “For one, I’m not ruthless.”

He gave her an odd look, then. “Oh... we both know that’s a lie,” he said, his stare becoming piercing. “No, Daring Do, we are cut from exactly the same cloth. The only difference between you and I is where our discoveries end up. Yours, on the pages of a book; mine, as bits in my purse.” He made a show of depositing the crown and the book into a saddlebag carried by the closest henchpony. The one with the hat. Daring made sure to note it.

“Those... belong... in a museum.

“And they may find their way there in years to come. But in the more immediate future, I foresee they will become part of some very wealthy pony’s private collection; an exchange that will net me a great many bits in return.” Caballeron buckled the saddlebag closed and turned back to them. “But where are my manners, really? We stand here trading insults and we haven’t even done proper introductions for the benefit of your... ‘guests?’”

“We all know who you are.”

“Nevertheless, courtesy is so little to ask,” he said, his smug grin returning.

Daring rolled her eyes and sighed. She raised and extended her foreleg, sweeping it over the group before her, and began speaking in a bored monotone. “Twilight Sparkle? Rainbow Dash? I’d like you to meet Cabal— Doctor Caballeron, and his henchponies. The stubbly one with the hat is Biff, the big one with the orange sideburns is Rogue, and the—” Daring blinked. She looked to Caballeron. “Who’s this guy?”

“Hmm? Oh... he is new,” said Caballeron, indicating the third pony – built more slenderly than either of the others he sported a shaved mane, a coat that was slightly darker than powder-blue, and a scar across one eye. “We are still working on his henchpony name. But he is coming along nicely.”

“Right. Anyway... Doc? Meet Purple Smart and Bravely Blue.”

Caballeron bowed his head in greeting and then advanced on Twilight and Rainbow with a look of keen interest. They were stood a little closer to each other than Daring was to either of them, and Caballeron was able to stand in front of both mares while leaving Daring to one side, ignored. “I have known Daring Do for many years, and yet to see her in the company of other ponies by choice... this is a new development. And forgive the assumption, but you are clearly not mercenaries or thugs for hire. So tell me: why are you with her?”

“Because we’re her friends!” cried Twilight with conviction, and Daring felt herself cringe.

And then Rainbow followed up with, “That’s right! She asked for our help and we were there for her!” and it was equally as bad. She was just thankful they weren’t calling themselves a ‘team,’ or something.

For a moment, Caballeron seemed taken aback, looking genuinely surprised. He turned to her. “Your... ‘friends’, Avada?”

Daring felt a flash of annoyance take her, like a searing hot bolt of lightning in her mind as Caballeron touched a nerve. “They’re my associates,” she grumbled. Really, how many times had she had to tell them already?

“Ah,” said Caballeron, sparing a glance back at the other two mares to gauge their reactions. From the corner of her eye they seemed to hang their heads slightly. He looked back to her. “And you claim you are not ruthless...”

Caballeron stood back again and regarded all three ponies before him, a strange look of satisfaction on his face. With a flick of his mane he turned and began to stride away. “Bring them,” he said.

Daring frowned and immediately dropped into a ready-crouch. Her tactical position wasn’t the best, backed against the edge of the pit and with no wings to count on. But she had the measure of at least two of Caballeron’s henchponies, and New-Guy Number Three didn’t look all that tough. And even though Caballeron himself technically counted against her in a numbers game, he never actually got involved with the fighting. Fifty-fifty odds she’d come out on top, even without Twilight and Rainbow Dash helping. And she’d seen them fight. “If you think you’re taking us anywhere, you’ve got a newsflash coming,” she growled, her eyes suddenly very keen, scanning everything, waiting to counter the first move as the henchponies all took a half-step forward and set their shoulders square.

“Wait!” barked Caballeron, and his trio withdrew at once, a little confused. Caballeron looked at her and shook his head sadly. “So quick to turn your thoughts to violence, as always. Haven’t you realised that it is pointless?” He turned away and raised a foreleg, indicating the vast, empty city at the edge of the plaza. “You are still trapped at the bottom of a pit, Daring Do, just a larger one than before. You cannot fly, you cannot climb out, and I... control the only access to the surface.” He left his outstretched hoof pointing towards the base of the broken tower hanging from the centre of the cavern ceiling. Suspended from the bottom, a scaffold had been constructed, affixed to which was a complex-looking array of ropes and pulleys designed to suspend a platform. Like one of those rigs that non-pegasus window-washers in Manehatten and Canterlot used on tall buildings. Caballeron turned back towards them. “Where else are you going to go?”

The henchponies backed off, turning and swiping up the three mares’ saddlebags from the ground where they lay. They were all open – clearly Caballeron’s thugs had already trawled through them – but evidently they’d only been searching for relics and thus found nothing worth taking. From the looks of it, all of Daring’s equipment, all of Twilight’s supplies, all of Rainbow’s... book, were still inside.

Daring looked to Caballeron, stood a few meters distant with his little group, expecting them to come to heel.

“I don’t like it,” said Daring, low enough that only Twilight and Rainbow could hear. “He’s up to something, I can tell. But he’s got the crown and that journal you found, and we can’t let him leave with them.” She looked back to her two compatriots. “Keep your guard up, alright? Come on.” And with that she began to walk. It was rude to keep one’s enemies waiting.

* * *

They walked the wide road that had originally brought them from the square beneath the tower to the plaza at the foot of the palace. Daring, Twilight and Rainbow paced in a tight group, shepherded together by Biff to their right, and Rogue and New-Guy to their rear. Caballeron led the way up front, but there was enough room between them that ponies could move around, speed up or hang back, and so as they walked, they naturally began to talk...

* * *

“Hey, uh... Twilight?”

“Yes, Rainbow?”

“Did we just get rescued, or captured? Cuz... right now it doesn’t really feel like one or the other.”

Caballeron piped up from the front at that, speaking back over his shoulder. “Does it matter? Putting a label on your situation will not change anything about it. You are here, and this is what is happening.”

“It’d just be nice to know if you’re planning on throwing us into a death-trap when we get to where we’re going,” said Daring, not without snark.

“What is this obsession you have with death-traps? It cannot be healthy...” commented Caballeron.

“Hey, it’s not my fault. It’s what the villains do when they get their hooves on me. They lock me in a death-trap. You’d think they’d learn but, no, you’d be wrong,” she shrugged. “Honestly, it’s starting to read like I’m the one running out of ideas. They all do it.”

Really?” spat Caballeron, his voice taking on a sarcastic edge. “Then tell me, Daring Do, how many times have I ‘locked you in a death-trap’?”

“Twice!”

Caballeron was taken aback, having heard the same answer come at the same time from three distinct voices. A couple of seconds passed, and then he craned his neck to look back over his shoulder with a scowl. “Oh, you are not counting Poniopolis!”

“Darn right I am. It was a death-trap. You locked me in it.”

You turned it on!” he cried.

“I had to do something. I was starting to get bored. You were taking so long to solve that puzzle. Red, Yellow, Blue. Primary colours, Doc! It was staring you in the face.”

Caballeron snorted, clenched his jaw, and looked ahead. A long silence fell.

“So... rescued?” said Dash tentatively.

Caballeron’s head drooped. “I am beginning to wish I hadn’t come at all,” he muttered. “Allow me to spell it out. Misfortune has robbed you of the power of flight, no? Thus, you cannot leave this place except by way of my elevator platform.” He indicated the scaffold built at the base of the tower above them, closer now, the ropes running vertically to the ground but the platform at the bottom still blocked from view by buildings at this distance. “This city, through circumstance alone, has bound you more effectively than I could with a hundred chains. And since you are so trapped, I intend to exploit this to my advantage. I do not intend to leave until I have extracted from you every secret you have to offer about this place. And when I have? Your usefulness to me... will be at an end,” he finished with a dark, malevolent smirk.

Twilight’s ears pricked at that. “Uh... meaning?”

“Meaning I will no longer need to... keep you around,” he clarified with just the hint of a wicked cackle.

“That’s still not very clear,” she pointed out, lecturing voice and all. “You might be saying that you’re planning to let us go, or that you’re planning to bump us off. From the way you said it, it could be construed either way.”

“Yes, that’s exactly the p—!” Caballeron started, then hung his head again, sparing a weary glance at Daring. “How have you managed to put up with this?”

“You get used to it,” said Daring.

“I find myself with little desire to try,” he grumbled, then addressed all three of the mares. “Pretend that I have not made up my mind what do you with you yet, and that further inane chatter will cause me to lean towards choosing a less-than-desirable fate for each of you.”

Twilight and Rainbow looked at each other with grim, thin-lipped expressions. “Captured,” they agreed.

* * *

At the rear of the group, the newest addition to Caballeron’s cabal of hired muscle had dropped back just far enough so as to be out of earshot, and was trying desperately to encourage his colleague to follow suit.

Rogue! Psst! Hey, Rogue!” he hissed.

Rogue’s ear twitched. He gave a backwards glance, noticed that his counterpart was no longer in step, and slowed his pace a tad. “What?” he whispered, clearly reluctant to break his silence.

“What the buck is going on?!”

“Riiight,” said Rogue with an understanding nod, straining to keep his voice low. “You noticed the vague ‘Unusual Circumstances’ clause when you signed, right? That’s pretty much to cover when this happens.” He nodded ahead. “I’ll fill you in, but don’t go letting the boss hear you blabbing. It’s a sore subject and you don’t wanna end up on his bad side. Got it?” An understanding nod was the reply, and Rogue took a breath. “Okay then, from the beginning: the one in the hat is A. K. Yearling. She’s an author, writing adventure books based on her own experiences using the pseudonym ‘Daring Do.’ She and the boss... they got history.”

“History?”

“Shh!” Rogue glanced ahead, but they had not been overheard it seemed. “History.” He gave a little shake of his head. “Look we don’t have time for the full story – it’s over two-hundred and eighty pages – so here’s the short version. Years ago, she discovered the location of the Lost City of Palomino. It was said to be home to the Razor of Dreams – a legendary amulet fashioned a long time ago by Princess Luna, that supposedly gave its wearer the ability to Dreamwalk. Anyway, the Doc found out. Now he’d been fascinated by Palomino for years, and done a lot of research on the city: culture, language, architecture; you name it he was expert in it. And when he learned it had actually been found he was pretty excited to finally see it. So he approached her with a proposal: a joint expedition to find the Razor, and the beginning of a prosperous partnership. She said no.”

“Harsh.”

Rogue shrugged. “She works by herself. She’s antisocial like that, and very distrustful of others. In the wrong hooves the Razor could be used in all sorts of invasive ways, and so she figured if it was actually there it needed protecting from the likes of him.”

“How... do you know that’s what she was thinking?”

“Read the book, didn’t I? Point is, her flat refusal stung and he never really got over it. He’s had this thing about trying to beat her to whatever treasure or city she’s looking for ever since. So every so often their paths cross, and they butt heads.”

“And... when their paths cross and they butt heads... what are we meant to do?”

“Nothing. Nothing except what the boss wants you to do. Just bear in mind that, when it comes to her, what the boss ‘says’ he wants and what he actually wants might not be the same thing. You’ll get a feel for it. For now, just follow our lead. Even if it doesn’t make sense. Even if it seems completely idiotic. And if it comes to a fight, stick to the rules and brace yourself for some pain, because she’s very quick. She’ll kick you. A lot. It’s not personal. You’re still getting paid.”

“The... rules?”

“Hoofticuffs. No eye-gouging, no biting, no weapons capable of breaking the skin... your job is basically to grab hold and not let go until the boss tells you what to do next. Sometimes we’ll manage it, but most times we won’t. Other than that? Don’t swear and try not to make yourself look like a fool, because in a few months time all of this’ll be written down and published in her next book. Foals read this stuff, you know.”

“I’m... going to be a character in a piece of fiction?”

“Yep. You don’t get much say in that by the way, it’s all part of that clause you signed up to. But it’s not all bad, once you resign yourself to being an antagonist. Plus you get a little percentage of the royalties for every book you’re in, and free entry to Daring Do related shows and conventions. If the boss lets you.”

“My head’s starting to hurt. This... this doesn’t happen a lot though, right?”

“Let’s just say it happens more often than random chance would seem to dictate.”

“You mean he goes out of his way to...? But... if he hates her so much, why doesn’t he just avoid her?”

Rogue blinked and gave a surprised double-take in his direction. “Hates her? Who said that?”

“But I thought... and they...!”

“Weren’t you paying attention? Why did I say the boss went to her in the first place?”

“Because he wanted to partner with her...”

“Exactly.”

“But you said she refused him. And that now he spends all his time going after the same treasures she does. And they’re at each other’s throats all the time! Why would he go to all that trouble unless he hated her?”

Rogue rolled his eyes and sighed. “You’ve got a lot to learn about mares.”

* * *

“... your preposterous ‘prophecies’!”

“It was a fact, Caballeron! You’re just too closed-minded to accept it.”

Really? Eight-hundred years of ‘sweltering heat’? Somehow confined to that small valley? How would that be accomplished exactly, when the sun is not destined to shine any longer or brighter there than it has ever done?” he scoffed.

“There are other sources of heat in this world than the sun, Doc,” retorted Daring. “The rings form a tower which creates the magical equivalent of a seismic shift in the tectonic plates beneath the valley, displacing thousands of tons of magma, drawing it up into a huge subterranean cavern only a dozen yards beneath the crust. The ground literally bakes from underneath. The lakes and rivers boil dry. Every plant dies. Every animal flees. And one of the most pristine, untouched ecosystems in Equestria becomes a blasted wasteland. And you almost let it happen, to line your own pocket!”

Caballeron looked stunned for a moment and then put on an arrogant, almost condescending expression. “Hmph! A fine theory, if completely incredible. The ring was a curio, worth a fortune to the right buyer at the right time.”

“Right. How is Ahuizotle by the way? Still in cahoots? Do you pop round for tea and braid each other’s manes?” Daring snarked.

Caballeron gave a weak, weary expression. “Ergh... he has proven a most unreliable business associate of late. It would not have escaped your attention that he did not bring any actual coin to our aforementioned transaction. I’ve learned that to be typical. At present our interests simply do not align.”

“Since I destroyed his temple, his only interest seems to be getting rid of me.”

“As I said...”

“—Besides, you didn’t seem to have a problem substituting my bits for his! No, you just stole them and ran.”

“And as I recall, you later stole them back!”

“See? Proof. You don’t care about anything but your bottom line.”

An odd silence followed, Caballeron’s face initially awash with irritation and anger which then gave way to a calmer, more relaxed expression. “Money is my goal often enough. But you are wrong, Daring Do. There is one thing I wish for more than mere wealth.”

“Knowledge!” interjected Twilight with enthusiasm, but rather optimistically.

Power,” corrected Daring, the voice of experience.“Fame!” burst out Rainbow Dash, not to be outdone.

Caballeron missed a step, blinked in surprise and looked round, bewildered. Twilight and Rainbow Dash were looking at him hopefully with wide grins. “All wrong, in fact. And—” He stopped short, blinked again and looked to his henchponies, and could not help but notice they wore interested, eager expressions. “Are there any other guesses?” he asked with resignation.

“Wisdom?” tried Biff, a little uncertain.

“Influence?” guessed Rogue.

“Uh... Glory?” came the voice of New-Guy.

Caballeron frowned at his minions. “Those are just different ways of saying the same—!” He cut himself off and sighed. He looked forward once more and hung his head. “I surround myself with idiots and enemies. I wish I knew which I preferred.”

* * *

They were getting close to the base of the tower now, and to the wide plaza in which they’d first landed. Daring was still trading barbs with Caballeron, and Twilight was chiming in. Rogue and New-Pony were still back there, whispering amongst themselves. Which left Rainbow Dash walking next to Biff, striding just to her right, watching herself, Twilight and Daring with suspicion. But since everypony else was having their own conversations right now, there wasn’t much alternative.

“Hey, uh... pop quiz,” fired Rainbow Dash to the chapeaux-sporting stallion. “You’ve got a river, right? And... you need to make a dam to stop the water. But you’re only allowed to use the water in the river to make the dam. What do you do?”

Biff looked back at her, his eyes narrowing. “What... in the name of Equestria... are you blabbering about?” he growled.

“You gotta dam the river using nothing but its own water. So? How do you do it?”

“Why are you even asking me this?”

“Because it was, like, an allegory... an analogue... an analo— An example, that Twilight gave earlier, about how you could block magic with magic. You have to dam a river using only its water, right? And... and she knows, obviously, and Daring totally got it straight away I could tell, but... it’s driving me crazy!” she admitted. There was a definite awkward pause while Rainbow looked down. Then she realised why it was awkward and she looked back up with a scowl. “Hey, I’m smart!” she proclaimed. “Just not... egghead smart,” she finished, a little weakly.

Biff rolled his eyes and looked ahead. Just one of those schoolyard sideways-thinking puzzles, wasn’t it? Not exactly an heroic master-plan to elicit confidential information.

But that Rainbow Dash pony was actually waiting for an answer. He rolled his eyes again and sighed, looking back at her. “It’s ice, isn’t it? You take some of the water out of the river and freeze it into ice, then you dam the river with that.” The answer was always ice when water was involved in those things.

“Ice!” cried Rainbow Dash in jubilation, drawing Twilight and Daring’s concerned glances. Rainbow just gave one of her cocky, smug grins. “I totally got it.”

* * *

“The statues are certainly striking. Disconcerting, almost,” said Caballeron as the group passed another of the twin-headed monuments, its horns still aglow to light their way. “Why depict a pony thus?” he mused.



“Not figured it out yet?” chided Daring. Truth be told, she’d been racking her brains ever since she’d first seen them years ago. But with the revelations that had flowed from Twilight’s discovery of the ancient journal as well as her own knowledge of pre-classical symbolism, she had enough to make a decent stab at it. “They’re symbolic. The two heads are the two kings who ruled this place, to show they are of two different minds. The heads look left and right respectively, to show two separate viewpoints, or opinions. Each of them can see more than one pony could alone. But they share a single body and the same heart – that’s a single goal; a unity of intent. The joint rulers, literally joined. The essence of this entire society distilled into a single symbol.” Then, just because she could, she fixed Caballeron with another smug grin and finished, “Obviously.

Caballeron looked back at her, a narrow-eyed scowl tinged with the most grudging of respect. “You have certainly given this some thought...”

“I’ve had a few years to mull it over,” she admitted.

Which drew Caballeron’s full attention, his brow knitting into an angry frown. “Oh, now you claim to have known of this place for years? Liar,” he spat.

“Hey! Don’t call her a liar. It’s totally true,” objected Rainbow from her side.

“No, Bravely Dash, or whoever you are, it is not true. If Daring Do had discovered this place years ago, she would have written about it years ago. The world would know of it.”

“I... had my reasons,” countered Daring, feeling a stab of anger.

“Really? I think it is more likely that you learned of my expedition and raced to beat me here so that you could attempt to rob me of my discovery! Which I will not allow...” he finished, his growl tinged with menace.

“How did you find this place, Caballeron?” demanded Daring. “I stumbled onto it by accident, and there aren’t any books or texts referencing this city. And I’ve searched every library in Equestria.”

“No. Not every one, it seems,” said Caballeron, that arrogant smirk returning as he once again took the dominant position in the argument. At a signal, Biff trotted forward and Caballeron rummaged in the saddlebags he wore before extracting a book. It was almost identical to the one that Twilight had found in the pit, right down to the same green dust-jacket adorned with the twin-headed symbol in gold relief. “Would it surprise you to learn that the diary you found is not quite unique? The younger King’s wife, it seems, had a great deal to say about this place. I believe that made her unique among her contemporaries.”

“Where... where did you find that?” asked Daring, half-angry but mostly awed, if grudgingly.

“In the library of a ruined castle, hidden within an ancient, treacherous forest in the very heart of Equestria.”

Daring was about to make yet another snappy remark, but she was beaten to it by Twilight, who burst out with sudden, unexpected anger.

“You... you can’t just go taking things from that castle!”

Caballeron’s unimpressed gaze moved to her now, and he spoke very levelly. “Really? I trekked to an ancient ruin, explored it, and took an artifact from it. And I am not allowed?

“No!” yelled Twilight.

He cast his gaze slowly over Twilight, Daring and Rainbow Dash, then looked above and around to the decrepit city on all sides, before finally returning his gaze to Twilight. “Forgive me, I am waiting for the irony to sink in.”

“That castle’s not a ruin!” Twilight cried. “It’s a... a... a heritage site!”

“Which is kinda in ruins,” pointed out Rainbow Dash.

“Well we haven’t finished restoring it! We will, one day. It’s just... been on hiatus for a while. That’s all. And you can’t just go taking things from it!”

“Think of it this way... I have not stolen a relic from a castle... I have borrowed a book from a library,” countered Caballeron smoothly. “I doubt you could object to that.”

Twilight blinked, frowned and put on an expression of utmost offense. She floundered for a response, but Rainbow waded in. “He’s sorta got you there, Twilight.”

“Well... uh... your late fees are going to be astronomical!” she cried out, every bit the hero delivering the snappy comeback. Until she looked around and found six faces looking at her with odd mixtures of mirth and pity. She hung her head. “Fine, I’ve got nothing,” she admitted.

Caballeron gave a triumphant little scoff. “The book furnished me with enough clues to allow me to pinpoint the city, and told me of the unique treasure I could expect to find here. And now that I also have its twin, I imagine its value will increase tenfold,” he said, putting the book back into the saddlebag alongside its opposite number and dismissing his henchpony.


“How did you get here Doc?” Daring demanded, squaring her shoulders and trotting to Caballeron’s side, fixing him with a stern glare.

“Why, whatever do you mean?”

“You know what I mean. Going by that article, you left Maresachusettes three days ago. Furthest the train would have got you is Coltfoot. That puts you at least two more days from here, travelling by hoof. How the hay did you get here so fast? It’s not like you have wings: you sure didn’t fly.”

Caballeron’s smug grin returned in full force. “Didn’t we, indeed?”

Daring felt her jaw drop. “You... you’re telling me you flew?

“The University was kind enough to loan us a small dirigible for our excursion. We made excellent time.”

“You stole the University’s airship,” admonished Daring, shaking her head.

Borrowed. Why must you always think the worst?”

“Because with you, it’s usually true. You were supposed to be bringing a team of students on this expedition. Where are they? You stiffed ‘em didn’t you? You took the University’s airship and left them behind.” She shook her head again. “That’s low, even for you.”

“I conducted a thorough risk-assessment, and concluded that this ruin would be in no way safe for a group of amateurish academics to be traipsing around. Honestly, you should be praising my newfound safety-conscious approach, not condemning me for it. As for the dirigible, the University will get it back. Assuming the repairs are going well.”

“Repairs?”

“We had a certain amount of difficulty traversing the mountain range. A large number of oddly aggressive avians decided to take offense to our presence and began to rip the canvas from the frame. They pierced one of the gas-bags. Thereafter there was a somewhat uncontrolled descent followed by a rapid, unscheduled deceleration.”

“You crashed,” said Daring with a smirk, fighting a schadenfreudic chortle.

“Withers is up there doing what he can, repairing the fabric.”

“Too dark down here for him to see through his sunglasses?” Hmm. That was a point. Daring looked up and around. She hadn’t noticed before, but it was definitely—

“You knew?”

That was Twilight’s voice, from just behind her and oddly level. Controlled, even. As though she were trying to keep her emotions in check. It sent a tiny shiver up Daring’s spine and she looked around. Twilight looked back at her with a very neutral, straight-mouthed expression, but something was wrong. It was in her eyes. Accusation and hurt. “Twilight? What’s—?”

“You knew,” she stated again. Just as though she might say that the sky was blue. “You knew that Caballeron was behind us. That he was coming here.”

“Yes...” she said cautiously.

“And you didn’t tell us.” Her facade cracked just a little, betraying a hint of... was it anger? Sadness? Betrayal? All three? She couldn’t tell, and it was so fleeting that it was gone in a moment. “You didn’t tell us that there was a chance we might be in danger? You decided not to warn us?”

Daring frowned a thoughtful frown, her brow furrowing in concentration. “I didn’t tell you?”

“No. You didn’t,” she said flatly. “You kept it a secret. We’ve been trusting you, Daring, and you’ve been hiding things from us? Why?”

Ouch! What was that?! It was like a stabbing, searing pain in her chest, right through her heart. But not an actual, physical pain. A more abstract one, but there nonetheless. And when she looked once again at the hurt in Twilight’s eyes, for some reason it grew more intense. “Twilight, I—” she tried, but any attempt at contrition was cut short by Caballeron’s abrupt interruption.

“We are here,” he announced, as they finally entered the small courtyard beneath the broken tower. Over to their right, a red-framed flat-bed platform surrounded by safety-railings rested on the ground. The ropes that connected it to the tower-mounted scaffold high above hung slack, and a large winch mounted on the railings appeared to be the mechanism by which the platform could be raised up to reach the surface.

Caballeron didn’t head towards it though. Instead he turned back to face them, adopting a malevolent sneer. “Now, Daring Do, you are going to tell me every secret I wish to know. Bring her!” he barked.

At the command, New-Guy and Rogue stepped forward to her side. They separated her from Twilight and Rainbow Dash and escorted her forward to stand in the centre of the plaza. Next, they turned her so that she ended up facing her companions as well as the road along which they had all just walked, and each stallion stood close aside her and rested a heavy hoof upon her withers, discouraging her from moving.

She lowered her head, meeting Caballeron’s eyes with a defiant scowl. “I hate to break it to you, Doc, but I’m not feeling in a particularly collaborative mood. Go ahead and torture me if you want, I’ll never tell you anything.”

Torture you? Heavens, Daring Do, I simply intend to ask you. And, ‘you’ will tell me everything I want to know...” he mocked smoothly as Biff stepped over towards him and he removed the Crown of Unity from the henchpony’s saddlebags. “Whether you realise it or not...” he finished with a sinister grin.

Caballeron began to advance on her, the crown held in the crook of one foreleg. The grips of the henchponies beside her became stronger. She strained against them, but was held in place.

“Hey! Leave her alone!” cried Twilight from behind Caballeron as Biff returned to the mares, interposing himself between her two cohorts and herself, forestalling any efforts they might make to come to her aid.

“Get away from her!” echoed Rainbow Dash.

Caballeron paused a moment and turned back to them with an odd frown. “I am doing this as much for your benefit as my own,” he snapped. “You claim to be ‘friends’ with her? It is better you learn here, now, why she does not have friends. I am doing you a favour before you make the mistake of trusting her further.”

“You don’t know what goes on in my head,” Daring shot.

“Oh, but I do. I know you better than anypony in Equestria. I know you are simply me with loftier rhetoric, and now I have the means to prove it.” He resumed his advance on her. “You needn’t look so nervous,” he said, his voice becoming a smooth, menacing tenor. “It won’t harm you. In fact, from what I have read, I understand it is quite a peaceful experience. All I am doing is showing your true self to your new ‘friends’. What could you possibly have to fear from that?”

Behind Caballeron, from the road leading away to the grand plaza and the palace, she saw a flicker. The horns on the two-headed unicorn statues, still alight, were nevertheless beginning to gutter in the manner of a dying candle. She looked up to the cavern ceiling and, sure enough, what she had suspected a few moments earlier was entirely true. The ‘stars’ overhead had dimmed considerably, barely giving off any light at all. The road they had walked had still been well-lit by the statues that lined it, blinding them to the fact that the rest of the city had fallen under a cloak of shadow as Twilight’s magical charge had slowly faded. Now the statues were failing too, winking out one by one.

Caballeron was before her now, ready to raise the crown, but stood just to one side to give her a clear enough view of the two ponies who had accompanied her all this way. “Twilight? Rainbow? Shut your eyes. Don’t look, whatever you do.”

“Daring, we know it’s not true...” Twilight started, her face awash with concern. “I didn’t mean to sound so upset with you. Please understand, there’s nothing we could possibly see that would stop us from thinking of you as a friend!”

“Yeah,” echoed Rainbow Dash. “It doesn’t matter what—”

“I said close your eyes!” hollered Daring. Twilight looked like she was about to object further, and waste more valuable seconds with frilly-talk. Daring fixed her with a steely, piercing stare. “It gets dark real fast this far north, remember?” she growled.

To her credit Twilight was very quick on the uptake. She looked around, and up, and back, her mouth falling open in a silent ‘O’. “Rainbow Dash, close your eyes. Now,” she said to her friend, scrunching her own eyelids tightly shut.

“But it’s not like our eyes are gonna melt if—”

“Do it!” she ordered, and Rainbow Dash fell into line straight away, her own eyes clamped shut.

All to Caballeron’s obvious amusement. “Hmm. It does not matter. If your companions choose to continue deluding themselves as to your true nature, I do not care. I will get what I want from you either way. And as for you... it is high time you confronted the kind of pony you really are, Avada. You have been kidding yourself with your delusions of nobility for too long.” He raised Unity over her, ready, and began to lower it.

Daring scrunched her eyes shut. With a shiver, she felt the cold metal of the crown come to rest upon her head.

And then the lights went out.