• Published 3rd Jan 2017
  • 2,868 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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10: The Bull in the Desert

The timing was perfect.


Daring knew from their experience with Rainbow Dash beneath the city that whatever effect the crown used to render its wearer unconscious wasn’t instant. She had a few seconds to work with, and just as Caballeron released the crown to rest on her head, the statue in the plaza, as well as the two next-nearest down the road, simultaneously went dark. With only the dimmest of light now reaching down from the faded crystals in the cavern ceiling, the city around her was plunged into a deep, shadowed netherworld.


And Daring Do liked the shadows. A lot.


She opened her eyes, and could see everything.


To her left and right, Rogue and New-Guy were still holding her shoulders as though they expected her to try and wrestle free. But the sudden descent into blackness had confused and astounded them, and Daring had other plans.


In a smooth motion she bent all four legs and dropped to her knees, tilting her head forward to encourage the crown to fall, and scooping it up around a foreleg. She tucked into a roll, tumbling forward past Caballeron who was dancing around in blind confusion, and regained her hooves. And then she was away.


“Run!” she yelled to Twilight and Rainbow Dash as they opened their own eyes. Having voluntarily relinquished their sight, their night-vision was instantly far superior to their adversaries who had had their source of vision rudely curtailed. But it was an advantage that was destined to last for mere seconds at most, and so they had to disappear, fast.


Unfortunately there had not been any time to decide on where to disappear to, and as Daring sprinted for the safety of one of the many side-streets off the courtyard, ready to vanish into the maze of buildings and alleys that she vaguely recalled from her first visit, she lost sight of Twilight and Rainbow Dash in the gloom. She heard their hooves galloping together, which was good, and estimated from the distance that they’d reached the safety of the alleyways, which was better, but she couldn’t tell where.


It was a problem for later, she decided. Right now, she had to put some distance between herself and Caballeron’s party before their own sight returned and they began to search. Heart racing, hooves pounding the eons-old cobbles beneath her, she fled deep into the city, the Crown of Unity safely in tow.

* * *

“Quick! After them!” called New-Guy, starting in the direction in which he felt sure he’d heard the hoofbeats recede.



“Wait,” said Caballeron calmly. In this light his smirk had taken on a machievellian twist. “Let them run. They’re not going anywhere, after all.”



“But... they’ve got that crown.”



“Yes. And Daring Do believes that is my objective. Good. She will spend hours being elusive in this city, trying to keep it out of my hooves, which will leave me free and undistracted while I acquire my true goal. There is a far more valuable treasure here than that crown. And once I have it... Daring Do and her ‘friends’ will come to us!” He gave a little chuckle at that and looked once more down the road to the grand courtyard from which they had just come. Then he looked back at his three goons. “Strike some torches, bring some lifting-gear, and follow me. We are going back.”

* * *

Racing through the streets, zig-zagging through alleyways and jumping the occasional high wall, Daring put distance between herself and her supposed pursuers. Within minutes she’d made enough twists and turns, and doubled back on herself enough times that Caballeron’s henchponies must surely have gotten sick with dizziness. She slowed her pace to a trot, then a walk, ears swivelling and hearing no sounds of heavy, clumsy hoof-beats on centuries old stone. Nothing.



Lost them then. Caballeron’s goons really were getting lax. She adjusted her hat on her head and walked on, head low and alert...



Daring crept through the silent streets of the ancient city, careful to keep the noise of her hoof-steps to a muffled minimum. Her adversaries could be anywhere; the last thing she needed was to give her position away carelessly.



This was what it was all about. A lone adventurer, a ruined metropolis spread out before her, the reassuring weight of a rescued artifact tucked securely beneath a wing and a vanquished longtime rival nipping at her hooves.



This was familiar territory to her. This was where she felt most alive. This was where she felt...



Ugh. This whole scene. Just... ugh.



What was wrong? This was bread-and-butter stuff. She’d just executed an adrenaline-pumping escape to find herself very much on the up, but still with obstacles to overcome. She should be feeling the rush, the buzz. But she wasn’t. This scene was just, ‘Daring Do walks through a city in the dark, alone.’



It needed something.



It needed...



A slightly pointless summary of the current situation and events just prior, which nevertheless culminated in an accurate and concise analysis of their current situation...



...Followed by a well-intentioned jibe and the bold contention that they should be fighting, not running...



...Followed by a logical, reasoned argument as to why that was not the most productive course of action...



...Followed by a brash rebuttal, making the point that they would totally win, with a cocky smirk...



...And the rebuke of an erudite, articulate pony nonetheless beginning to lose her temper...



...At which point the voice of experience would interject to quell the argument by offering the current forecast of events and their next practical steps, all the while reminding Twilight and Rainbow Dash that they still needed to keep quiet!



Daring stopped walking, blinking in the glum street.



Wow.


They... they got to you, didn’t they? Those two. Got right under your skin. I mean, you know that’s how they’d both act. It’s not even a guess, is it? How did that even happen? You didn’t suddenly turn psychic. You’re pretty positive they haven’t hypnotised you. And it’s not like you’ve been trying to learn their patterns. All you’ve done is basically be around them for a few days. That... can’t be all it takes. There’s gotta be more to it before you actually start knowing this stuff.



There’s gotta be. Because if... if you can be right about them... why can’t Caballeron be right about you? He’s known you for a lot longer.



A sullen veil seemed to descend, draping itself over her, darkening her mood. All of a sudden she wasn’t Daring Do, heroic pony of wit and action, she was...



She was...



She didn’t know what she was.



For a moment her breathing became heavier and her legs felt weak. She looked up and around, deciding she needed to get off the street. She just needed a minute. She just needed...



She didn’t know that either.



Casting her gaze about her, she spotted a likely looking building lining the wide road, the front door slightly ajar, and headed for it.



A house. Nay, a home, or at least it was, once. The door was stuck and Daring had to give it a shove against its loud, creaking hinges to permit herself entry. She crept inside, slowing her breathing, swivelling her ears to detect any sound that might indicate she was not alone or that she had drawn attention. None. Inside the door there were still coats on wall-hooks, stiff and liable to crumble to dust under the lightest of touches, and a solitary hoof-boot. Whoever had lived here, it seemed had left in a hurry, and with only three shoes at that.



Daring sat herself in the room beyond, cloaked in absolute blackness. She waited, and listened, and thought. She brought the magical ancient crown out from beneath her wing, the large jewel in its centre still glowing softly – perhaps a residual magical charge from where it been on her head for those few seconds, slow to dissipate. She held it in her hooves and gazed at it. Turning it over and over. Over and over. Over and over. And thought.



Caballeron is right about you. Isn’t he? You’re just like him.



They both sought treasure in ancient ruins, both took things that were never meant to be disturbed; that were, in some cases, very well protected. She just used different words to justify her actions while condemning his. Why did she get to ‘explore’ ruins and he only ‘plunder’ them? Why was she allowed to ‘recover’ ancient treasures when with him it was ‘stealing’? Wasn’t it true, when all was said and done, that their behaviour was the same? Was there really no difference between them at all?



If he was right about that, it followed that he was right about the other thing too, though at least that was an easier conclusion to stomach. She didn’t have friends. Those other two ponies, sure they were pretty cool, but they were just a duo she was working with. They were here to fulfill a role, and as soon as she got them home safe that would be that. She was Daring Do, self-sufficient lone-wolf adventurer. She’d never needed friends, and nothing had changed. Here she was, in an ancient, treacherous ruin, enemies at her heels and a mysterious artifact in her hooves, and she was finally alone. Classic Daring Do territory.



And yet... all she could think of as she turned the crown over and over again in her hooves, was the look of pained betrayal on Twilight’s face from a little earlier. It hurt. Why did that hurt? Why did it feel like she really needed to talk to her again?



Argh! What was wrong with her?!



She had this. She just needed a minute. Just to get her head straight. She sat. Still looking at the crown, the fading glow casting a diffuse, teal aura about the room, soft shadows dancing as she continued to turn it over and over, over and over.

* * *

“You’re sure?” said Rainbow Dash in a hushed whisper.



“Not as sure as I was a minute ago,” replied Twilight, trying desperately to keep both her voice and her footsteps subdued as they turned another corner, finally leaving the twisting alleyway and stepping into a wide street lined with houses, scanning left and right. “It could have been an echo I suppose. It sure would be easier if we didn’t have to do this in the dark.”


On impulse, Twilight halted and scrunched her eyes shut, concentrating hard. She reached deep inside, searching within herself. Where once there had been an ocean flooded with mana, now there was simply a hollow void. But as she focused, she found a tiny droplet.


The very tip of her horn began to glow with a familiar magenta aura, so weak and frail that it was barely there at all, and even though she strained and grunted, she could force no greater vibrancy into it. She relented, releasing her hold on her magic, panting and sweating, but the display had seemed to impress Rainbow Dash nonetheless.


“Whoa! How did you... is your magic coming back? Is the river-water melting the ice-dam?”


Twilight looked perplexed for a moment. “What? No. I think... if you imagine magic as being like the blood in your body. That crystal drained the magic from us and captured it. But when your body loses blood, it slowly makes more to replace it. That’s what’s happening.”


“Okay...” said Rainbow Dash, and then seemed to brighten considerably. “Wait, that’s great! So how long before we’re back to normal?”


“It’s too soon to tell for sure. But at this rate... probably about six-to-eight weeks.”


Dash’s new brightened demeanour was quickly lost. “I can’t spend two months not flying!” she moaned, flapping her wings hard in frustration. She looked back at them and frowned, annoyed that they weren’t working properly. “It’s weird. I can feel the air on my feathers, how it flows over them. It’s all totally normal, except there’s just no up happening.”


“We’ll find a better solution, don’t worry. I’m not crazy about being stuck here for that long either. Especially since until I can cast spells again it’s not going to get any brighter down here.”


They walked on. So far the only lead they had was a half-heard sound minutes earlier, so faint that only a vague direction could be discerned. But it was better than nothing and so they searched. But even with a vague direction to work with, the enormity of the task before them was clear.


“She could be anywhere,” lamented Dash.Both ponies stopped, and Twilight hung her head. “Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe she’d actually prefer it if we didn’t find her,” she whispered.



“What?! What are you talking about?” cried Rainbow, in as much as she could cry out in a whispered tone.



Twilight shook her head a little before meeting her friend’s gaze. “We’ve been doing our best all this time, Rainbow, but... well, you saw. She really doesn’t want us as friends. And she’s been keeping secrets from us. What if... what if we can’t trust her? She’s got what she needed from us after all. What if she’s done with us?”



“Whoa, what?! Daring Do would never cut and run on her friends!”



“You’re right. The Daring Do from the books never would. But she’s the one who writes those books. And she said herself... she’s not sure that pony actually exists.” Twilight sighed. “I’m not saying I believe it yet. I’m just saying we have to consider the possibility. She doesn’t think of us as her friends, Rainbow Dash. And she doesn’t have a lot of reasons to help us anymore.”



“What?! No way, Twilight. No. Way. It’s like you said way back on the mountain – we are her friends. And we’re going to be her friends, and awesome ones at that. And it’s a good thing too, because I don’t know how to be anything else. Daring Do is out there somewhere alone in this city, and she might need our help. And until we know for sure she doesn’t, we can’t stop looking for her.”



Twilight sighed again, but now she had a hint of a smile. “You’re right. Of course you are. We need to make sure she’s alright at the very least. Come on, let’s keep looking. We can’t give up.”



They carried on walking. By Twilight’s estimate they’d so far covered about a quarter-mile from the courtyard that was home to Caballeron’s elevator to the surface. That was a far enough distance that, given the amount of criss-crossing streets and alleys and the volume of buildings, the number of permutations as to their escape route were sufficiently high that the chances of being randomly discovered by one of Caballeron’s thugs were minute. They could breathe easy for a bit, although for the time being, any hope they had of leaving this city was going to bring them back into direct confrontation with the sinister doctor.



Twilight stopped dead. She’d seen something. From the corner of her eye, over in that building. The front door was slightly ajar, and she backed up a pace or two until... yes. There.



“Rainbow,” she whispered.



“Hmm?”



Pointing with a hoof, she directed Rainbow’s attention to the door she had seen, and in the gloom beyond it, there was a light. A faint, subtle glow, which would no doubt have been invisible had its surroundings not been pitch black.



They approached the door with caution, Rainbow leading the way. The door was open just far enough that they could slip inside carefully, almost as though another pony had done so before them.



And inside, as though guided by fate, they found her.



She was there, sat with her back to them, silhouetted by the glow from the crown that held her attention, the pith helmet upon her head giving her an unmistakeable outline. She sat still, unmoving except to breathe and turn the crown over in her hooves.



She didn’t stir. Didn’t turn. Gave no acknowledgment at their entrance. She seemed transfixed by the object before her.



“Daring?” asked Twilight, creeping with care towards her.



Which finally garnered a reaction. She gave a small start and glanced back over her shoulder, surprised she’d been crept up on. Then she relaxed and resumed her former posture. “Oh... it’s you two.”


“Daring? Are you okay? Are you hurt?” asked Rainbow Dash.“I’m fine. I’m just... I guess I’m just thinking. It’s okay. I just need a minute here. You two don’t need to worry about me,” she told them.



“Are... are you saying you want us to leave you?” asked Twilight.



“No...” She hesitated for a second.


She cast a glance back over her shoulder to Twilight, and spoke with sincerity. “I’m sorry I never warned you about Caballeron. We were supposed to be gone before he even arrived, but I still should have clued you in. I... I honestly thought I had. I wasn’t trying to keep anything from you. Not on purpose.”


“Then why didn’t you say anything?” Twilight asked gently.


“I guess because... I’m just not used to having to tell others what I know. Plus, when other ponies are involved, there’s usually good reasons for keeping quiet. Except with you two. I mean, I haven’t felt like I needed to keep you in the dark about anything, which is... new. I’m just not practised at the whole ‘sharing and working with others’ thing.” She paused, took a breath, and sighed. “And I know how weak that all sounds. I don’t expect you to—”“Daring, it’s okay. It was a mistake. You don’t need to explain more than that,” said Twilight with a smile, stepping closer.



Daring finally looked round, not able to moderate her surprise. “You... you’re saying you believe me?”



“Of course we do,” said Twilight quietly.


She put on a faint, confused frown. “But... I’ve got no proof.”“So we’ll take it on faith,” she replied with a smile. “We trust you, and we’re not about to let Caballeron convince us that you’re a liar and a cheat like he is.”



“Caballeron... might be more right about me than I like to admit. I... I don’t know anymore.”



There was a certain and awkward pause, and Twilight found that Daring couldn’t meet her gaze.



“Daring, what’s wrong?” Twilight pressed, ever so gently.



“Does this have something to do with that thing he called you?” asked Rainbow. “Cuz it seemed to hit you pretty hard is all. What was it, like... Avatar or something?”



Daring sighed. “Avada,” she corrected.



“Right. What is that? Like, an insult?”



She shook her head. “Sort of. It’s my name.”



There was a short, certain pause before Twilight spoke.



“Your name?



“Yeah,” she whispered, then looked up slightly. “My name. Avada, Kedavra, Yearling.”



“That’s... well that’s a very... unusual name,” Twilight noted.



Daring nodded. “It’s Bovarian. The matron at the orphanage where I grew up was a cow, and she had a thing for the old Cattleese languages. When they found me... they found me on the orphanage’s doorstep, box, blanket, little cardboard sign round my neck that read, ‘please look after this pony,’ and nothing else. I...” she trailed off, at once about to cough out a laugh and choke out a sob. “Heh. Even my origin story’s a cliché.” She shook her head again. “The orphanage needed to call me something. I looked about a year old, and so the matron used her language hobby to give me something they thought was... fitting.”



Daring sighed, and took a breath. “‘Kedavra’ means ‘Unloved’, and ‘Avada’ translates to ‘Unknown.’ My name literally means, ‘Unknown Unloved Yearling.’” She shook her head and hung it. “You can see why I shorten it. You... can see why I change it.” She sniffed and managed to raise her head again. “Caballeron’s known it for a while now. I think he tracked down the orphanage and started asking questions about me. It’s the only way he could’ve found out. Believe it or not, I don’t exactly tend to tell ponies my real name, ever, and it’s not like I have a birth certificate for him to gawk at.”

“Whoa, wait a sec. So how do you even know when your birthday is?” asked Dash, clearly getting to the nub of the issue.



Daring sighed again and shook her head. “I don’t. I don’t even know how old I am, beyond a rough estimate.”



“So you’ve never, in your whole life, had a birthday party?” said a shocked Rainbow Dash, mouth open in awe. “Oh man, Pinkie Pie’s probably feeling a great disturbance in the force right now.” She caught Twilight’s annoyed expression and Daring’s puzzled one. “Uh, I mean... so Caballeron figured out your name. So what?”



“It’s not the fact that he knows my name, it’s the fact that he might be the one pony in Equestria who actually knows me. We’ve been doing this dance for so long that we know practically everything about each other. The things he said might be true. Maybe I am just like him.”



“Daring, you know that’s not true!” objected Twilight.



“No... I don’t,” came Daring’s woeful reply. “I don’t know anything about myself. I don’t even know where I came from. My name’s an insult, my family’s a mystery, my age is a guess and my back-story’s a cliché. I’m exactly the kind of trope character I would have dreamed up... so that’s what I did, didn’t I? I dreamed myself up. Made myself someone else. Someone better. A hero who saves the day. But that’s not real, is it? When the day’s over, all I can point to about me being me are the things I’ve done. And what does that amount to? When you strip away the idealism and the nonsense?” She took a deep breath. “I’m a grave-robber. A common thief, just like him. And he knows it.”



“No, Daring. Caballeron might claim he’s known you for years, but we think we know you just as well. And we know you’re nothing like him!”



“Twilight, when I asked you who you thought I was, you gave me two completely different answers. I haven’t managed to figure it out in my lifetime, there’s no way you’ve managed it in a few days.”



“Maybe we don’t know everything about you, but we’ve followed your adventures for years,” countered Twilight. “And you know what makes Daring Do a great pony? She’s loyal. She’s honest. She’s honorable, and she holds herself to a higher standard than ponies like Caballeron. And you’re right, we haven’t known you that long, but you know what? Nothing I’ve seen in the past few days has given me any reason to doubt any of that. Because that’s who you are. You might think your past sounds like it was culled from the pages of a cookie-cutter novel or something, but that doesn’t stop it from being your past. It doesn’t stop it from being part of who you are. And just because you don’t have all the answers about yourself, it doesn’t make you into Caballeron just because he sees one similarity between you. You’re more than that.”



Daring was silent for a moment, and for a long time she looked deep into the crystal adorning the front of the crown she still held. Seconds passed, and threatened to turn to minutes before Daring took a breath and spoke again. “That’s a nice speech,” she said, her voice taking on a slight, businesslike edge. “But... there’s only one way I’ll know for sure. If I’m like him. If I’m just a deplorable pony riding a high horse.” She stood now and turned properly to face the two ponies before her, a slight frown afixed. “Tell me honestly: did you actually mean it? What you said back there. About there being nothing this thing could show you that would make you run a mile from me?”



“Daring,” said Twilight softly. “We don’t need to do this...”



“Yes, we do,” she responded. “For a start, we might end up having to trust each other again before we get out of here. And I’m not blind. Between me slipping up with not telling you about the Doc coming here, and the things he was saying about me, there’s bound to be a seed of doubt in there somewhere. You need to know if you can trust me. Heck, I need to know if you can trust me. The simple fact is that if Caballeron is right about me... you might decide you can’t and I wouldn’t blame you.”



“Uh... that’s just ‘for a start’?” asked Dash, quirking an eyebrow.



Daring looked between them now and once more sat upon her haunches, the crown held between her forelegs. “The other reason is... it’s now or never. Even if we get the crown back to civilisation, I will never have this chance again. I’m here, right now, with the only two ponies in the world who I would even think about showing the inside of my head to; the only two ponies I’ve met who I sorta-think won’t screw me over by blabbing to everypony what they see in there. I want to know what I’m like; I wanna know what kind of pony I am. I know I might not like the answer. I’m prepared for that. But if I don’t take this chance, it won’t ever come again. So... here it is. Will you help? Tell me what you saw when I come round?”



“Daring... if you’re sure this is what you want, then of course we will,” said Twilight with a smile.



“Totally,” agreed Rainbow Dash in typically efficient fashion.



There was another pause as Daring looked back to the crown, face showing concentration as though she were psyching herself before braving some peril. “Okay...” she whispered, removing her pith helmet and setting it aside. She held the crown in both hooves and took a deep, sharp breath. Cannot believe I’m doing this.Okay, here goes...



She raised the crown and placed it on her head. The crystal shone brighter, and in moments Daring felt herself suddenly become very dizzy. The room started to fade and a great sense of stillness and calm befell her.



And then the lights went out.

* * *

Daring toppled sideways, but Dash caught her before she could smack her head on the floor. She laid her down comfortably, ensuring that the crown would not dislodge itself, and then the crystal flashed to life, projecting its dance of colours into the large room of the ancient home.



The colours settled and the scenery became sharper. And before their eyes, everything that Daring Do was, or would be, or wanted, was given a literal depiction and resolved into sharp focus.



They found themselves in a desert.



The ground was that of hard, dusty red-orange rock and perfectly flat unto the horizon, while overhead the sky was an intense, cloudless blue dotted with an unmerciful sun beating down from on high. The landscape was almost utterly featureless, with nary a cactus nor rocky outcrop nor interesting feature of any kind to be seen marring the perfectly horizontal plain. An unseen, unfelt breeze kicked up, whipping small dust clouds into the arid air, and there was no semblance of life at all.



“This... isn’t quite what I was expecting to see inside the mind of the most awesome, action-y pony I’ve ever met,” noted Dash.



Twilight gave a considered hum, but said nothing, scanning her surroundings in detail, taking it all in.



The world was barren, but it wasn’t a complete blank slate. Far distant on the eastern horizon – for Twilight found that, with the presence of the sun in this mindscape it was suddenly simpler to think in terms of compass points – was a ruined circular tower of some sort, striking toward the sky. It appeared to be but a single building, built of sandstone or the like, and one that was barely standing. From this distance it lacked any interesting traits, notable only for being almost the only thing to break the monotony of the scene.



To the west, the desert was being entirely consumed by a churning sandstorm of impossible size. An immense, thick bank of dust and sand formed a wall beyond which any vision was entirely obscured. It did not seem to encroach toward them except perhaps at the most glacial of paces, but its intensity was such that, were it real, it would be a fool’s errand to venture within it.



Immediately behind them, to the south, was a massive gorge only a dozen metres or so away from where they stood. The desert ended and fell away into a sheer cliff with a sickening drop below, and the gorge ran from east-to-west, appearing almost infinite in length. Yet at least a hundred yards distant, on the chasm’s far side and in stark contrast to the nondescript desert in which they found themselves, a forest thrived. Healthy palm-fronds and thriving tropical plants formed a thick wall of stunning jungle greenery, lush and vibrant. Happy chittering and occasional movement within the trees suggested an abundance of hidden animal and bird life, but above the enticing verdance dark clouds hung motionless, as though threatening a rainstorm. And connecting the two sides of the gorge hung a traditional rope-bridge. The chunky wooden slats and thick, braided rope could have been plucked from any one of Daring Do’s own novels, though to be fair, unlike most of those, this one seemed unusually sturdy in construction.



And finally, directly in front of them, was Daring Do herself. Or at least, that was Twilight’s best guess.



Plodding across the desert, moving from west to east, always with the storm at its back, was a huge, black, metalwork bull.



It was easily one-and-a-half times the size of a real bull, the body of the mechanical creature joined apiece by thick iron bands and chunky rivets. It looked to be driven by some sort of clockwork and possibly powered by steam since every so often, from its nostrils, a large white puff would escape. Every laboured, lumbering step was accompanied by a great creaking and screeching from ill-lubricated joints. Its horns stuck straight up from its head, angular and particularly imposing, and the body had been cast in dies that emphasised every ripple of every muscle, giving the impression of immense strength and might to all onlookers. Its soulless eyes appeared to glow with a red light and its gaze was focused resolutely ahead of itself as though no distraction, no matter what, would deter it from its pre-destined course. Inscribed upon the chest of the bull, etched with pride deep into the black ironwork, were the words Daring Do.



From a thick yoke about the mechanised beast’s neck, a chain was attached. Constructed of stout iron links, it ran to a metal collar that was fastened and locked around the neck of a familiar pony. An ochre-coated, grayscale-maned pegasus trailed a few paces behind the great bull, careful to keep in step lest her chain pull taut and she get a painful tug on her neck. She trudged with her head low and her gaze downcast, forced to follow the beast forever across the burning desert as it relentlessly trekked eastwards.



“Twi... this is pretty surreal,” said Rainbow, taking in the vista with a clear mixture of awe and unease.



“It’s all symbolic,” explained Twilight. “At least, it should be if the crown’s working the same way as it did when you put it on.”



“Okay... but then what does any of it mean?



Twilight brought a hoof to her chin, taking a second to think. Finally she was forced to concede. “I have no idea. With you I had somewhere to start. I know you, so I was able to figure it out. Once I knew what was going on, I mean. But this... her... I just don’t know what this is supposed to be.”



“Yeah. And somehow, I think that if we tell Daring Do that her true self is a desert, a bull, a tower and a canyon, she’s gonna be pretty bummed,” said Rainbow Dash. Who then gave a little confused start. “Twilight? Where’re you going?”



“To ask her,” she said, beginning to walk towards the huge bull a few yards distant.



“Does that... is that gonna work?”



“It worked with you, so I hope so. With luck one of those two will respond to us. I’m kind of hoping it’s the pony and not the gigantic bovine Bulk Biceps over there.”



They approached the bull cautiously, careful to stay out of its path. Its weight and heft appeared such that, were it to take no notice of them standing before it, they might find themselves squished beneath a dinner-plate-sized cloven hoof. Or at least that would have been the fear were it a real thing, and Twilight had to keep reminding herself that it was not. The level of visual and aural detail projected by the crystal in the crown continued to astonish.



Twilight raised her head to speak, though she wasn’t actually sure whom she was addressing. The bull, its associated detainee, or the real Daring Do whose ears were, in reality, the only ones worth reaching. She made her voice loud enough that it should reach all three, even above the continued heavy hoofbeats of the bull’s relentless, lumbering march. “Daring Do?”



The reply came from the downcast, leashed pony walking aside the great machine. She spoke in a mutter as though to herself, not really expecting to be heard. “Sorry, Daring Do is unavailable right now. But if you’d like to leave your name, cutie-mark, and a short message, I’ll see that she gets it later.”



Twilight smiled – and breathed a silent sigh of relief that the bull seemed intent on ignoring them completely. She stepped a little closer to the pony at its side. “Actually, I guess we were hoping to talk to you,” she said warmly.



Which gained an instant reaction as the pony’s head snapped up and she stopped dead in her tracks. “Whoa.” She hesitated a second. “Is that...?” before seeming to lose hope, hanging her head again. “Can’t be,” she sighed.



Rainbow Dash scratched her head. “Huh? What gives? Can’t she see us?”



Which had the pony’s head snapping up again, her mouth hanging open in shock, though it was Twilight who answered.



“No, she can’t. Not literally. She’s part of Daring Do, and she can only ‘see’ what Daring herself sees. Right now, Daring’s asleep. But she can still hear us, probably feel the vibrations we make in the ground when we move. She knows where we are. She knows we’re here.” Twilight took a step forward, and spoke kindly once again. “Don’t you?” she said.



“Twilight Sparkle?” said the facsimile of Daring Do, her awe abating slowly. “You’re here? And you’re talking to... me? And Rainbow Dash too? How’s that...?” She gave a confused frown which furrowed into a concentrated one. “Sorry, just gimme a second here. First time she’s slept in a while. A lot’s happened today. The most recent stuff’s all just filtering through.” She looked back up at them. “Wait, if you’re here talking to me, that means she... with you... oh! Finally!” she cried, clearly overjoyed. “I’ve been trying to persuade her for hours...” She trailed off, and gave a sudden, quick gasp as her gaze seemed to find and fix upon something over Twilight’s shoulder. “A bridge...” she whispered, excitement daring to creep into her voice. “It’s a bridg— Aurckk!” she yelped as the chain finally went taut, yanking her forward by the neck as the great iron monster’s next lumbering step continued its inexorable journey, taking her with it with no heed at all. “Daring!” she cried out towards the bull. “Daring, stop! I... I want to talk to them! Please... just stop! Daring they’re our friends! Yes they are! Please! Daring, don’t do this again! Not to them! No!” she screamed. Her hooves scrabbled for purchase, scraping furrows along the dusty ground. She tried to rear, throw her weight backwards, desperate not to be pulled away but she was utterly powerless against the strength of the automaton which held her tethered. The distance between them grew only slowly, but irreversibly, and she managed to turn her head and offer a sad, “I’m sorry,” to them both before adopting a defeated, hopeless demeanour, plodding with her head hung low, inescapably attached to the black beast at her side.



Twilight and Rainbow looked at each other, and without a word turned and found a pace somewhere near to a slow trot.



“Um... hi,” said Twilight cordially as she drew alongside, falling into step. “I know it seems like you have places to be, but if it’s okay we’d still like to talk to you.” She offered another warm smile as she came up close beside her. “Can we walk with you a while?”



She looked back, once again shocked. She cast a glance back over her shoulder, to where she and Twilight and Rainbow had been moments before, as though she still expected to find them there. As though amazed they had moved. “But... we were leaving you behind. You... you’re coming with us?”



“If that’s okay,” said Twilight.



The reaction on her face couldn’t have been brighter. She broke into a wide, happy smile, as though it were the first time she’d known cheer in an age.



But above and beside them, the gigantic bull suddenly halted. For the first time its movements seemed less like the limited motion of a clockwork mechanism and more the startled reaction of an actual animal. Its head swept frantically left and right, as though scanning its surroundings for threats. It faltered in its footing, even taking a half-step backwards. Then, with noticeable trepidation, it began to walk again, maintaining its ponderously slow rhythm, but with distinctly less assurance in each stride.



“Whoa... what just happened?” asked Dash.



“You scared her,” she explained as the three of them resumed their pace at the hulking brute’s side.



“Scared her? We didn’t do anything!”



“You said you’d stay with her.”



“What? How is that scary?



“It is scary, for her.” She sighed. “She doesn’t understand why you’d want to stay. And she’s afraid of things she doesn’t understand, just like the next pony.”



“But Daring Do isn’t scared of anything,” cried Dash.



“She’s not scared of ancient ruins or deadly traps or wicked villains. That’s her world. Look around. She’s been walking this path for so long that every single feature that might hide a surprise has weathered into nothingness. She can see everything. Nothing can creep up on her. She knows this life inside and out... but it’s never included ponies wanting to stay with her. Not sure if you’ve noticed, but it doesn’t include ponies at all. Just like it doesn’t include a lot of other things,” she finished with a sigh.



“It includes that tower, though,” said Twilight, not being as subtle as she imagined she was being in her quest to probe for information. “What does that represent? A life-goal? A mystery she’s working towards solving?”


“The tower? That’s just the Next Thing. It’s the next lost city, or another ancient relic she has to discover. When she reaches it there’ll be another on the next horizon. Always is. And each one’s a little less impressive than the last. You know, when she was starting out they were gorgeous shining cities full of potential, wonders and treasures. But she left them all behind her. Always had to move on. The storm took them. It takes everything.”


Twilight looked behind herself but saw no cities or treasures. Only the massive, churning wall of dust and sand consuming the desert. “The storm?” she asked.


“That’s the past. She doesn’t go there very often, and when she does, she definitely doesn’t stay long. She’s always looking ahead. Always pressing forward. The past’s always one step behind her and that’s where it belongs.”


“So why does she keep going like this?” asked Rainbow.


“Because she thinks she has to. Thinks it’s all she’s good for. Gotta get to the next ruin, gotta rescue the treasure, gotta write a book about it. Rinse and repeat. The truth is... you’ve seen ten ancient ruins, and you’ve seen ‘em all. Now she’s picking at scraps but she’ll keep on going because she thinks... she thinks there’s nowhere else she can go. Look around. Can you blame her?” She gave a longing look then, past Twilight and Rainbow Dash towards the gorge and the lush, rich jungle on the far side. “One day, I’ll show her she’s wrong,” she muttered.“And uh... no offense here, but... who are you?” asked Dash.



Twilight spoke up. “You’re Daring’s subconscious, right?” A stray thought crossed her mind that she really needed a quill and parchment to take notes on all this with, and that such supplies were frustratingly packed neatly in her saddlebag, dumped next to Caballeron’s elevator-platform.



“I’m...” the other pony started and then stalled. “Yeah. But it’s more complicated than that. I’m... I am what she isn’t. I’m every place she’s never been. Every thing she’s never done. Every pony she’s never met. Every lover she’s never had. I look after what she wants; her hopes and dreams no matter how silly or impossible, just in case. You never know... she might come back for them one day.”



“You’re her imagination...” reasoned Twilight with a note of awe.



“Yeah.” She morosely cuffed the slack chain in front of her, making it jingle and sway. “We've always been really close, me and her. That’s just the bond we have. We used to spend hours and hours together, just by ourselves. Sometimes we’d go to some pretty crazy places and meet some really amazing creatures, and sometimes we’d go home – to a real home, with a family where she belonged. Then, time moved on. This shell started appearing, this... armour. Daring Do. We spent less and less time together, and when we did I could do less and less.” She raised her head and stretched her neck, trying to gain some relief from the iron collar. “At first it was reins she put on me, then a harness. Eventually it evolved into this. A tight leash she keeps me on all the time. Less ‘bond’, more, ‘bondage.’” She raised a foreleg and knocked twice on the blackened haunch of the bull, sounding out a heavy clunk with each impact. It gave no reaction at all. “You know, I wasn’t sure if she could even hear me any more until a couple of days ago. But then, just for a minute, she actually listened to me. You know when that was? When she read your novel,” she said with a glance at Dash.



“Huh?” That had Dash scratching her head. “But... she hated my novel!”



“Oh yeah, she sure did,” she chuckled. “But y’know, it actually got her thinking. About possibilities; about stories based on something other than fact. I got to imagine for her again. And I did. I started to imagine for her what life might be like with friends. Ponies who like her and trust her and she can really trust in return. And... just for a moment... she liked it. Then the chain went taut and she carried on walking for the tower.” She sighed. “But it was something. I was starting to wonder if she was actually still in there, under all that, but now I know she is. One day she’ll come out. I’ll see her again,” she said, her tone turning wistful. “I have to believe that. But until then... I’m still on this leash.”



“Well, can’t we help you?” asked Twilight softly.



“Yeah,” agreed Dash. “There’s gotta be a way we can get you out of that thing.”



“We can’t just leave you like this,” said Twilight.


“You... I... you’d do that? I mean... you’d try?”


“Of course,” said Twilight. “Daring’s our friend. And you’re a part of her, which means you’re—”


Without warning the bull screamed. A horrific, scraping metallic roar of terror from tarnished, rusted vocal cords, vomited into the empty air. It halted, its hooves beginning to dance in panic. Its head whirled about, trying to see all around itself at once and its great sides heaved, the metal-work beast breathing and snorting in terror with a sound like heavily-pumped bellows.


“Daring! Daring, it’s okay! Shh. Calm down,” the tethered pony called, desperately trying to keep up with the bull, lest it whirl about or take off at a gallop and the chain attached to her collar take her with it in a manner most painful.


The bull started to settle slowly, but it remained rooted to the spot. Its terrified gaze looked south, to the gorge, the rope-bridge, and the vibrant jungle of life and colour and noise on the far side, as though studying it for the first time.


Twilight and Rainbow had backed a safe distance from the bull, but while it was still clearly nervous it seemed its whirlwind fit of panic was over for now. They approached it cautiously. It was still for now, but if the bull was likely to carry on like that, Twilight reasoned, they had to find a way to free Daring’s imagination from it before it injured her.


“What happened there?” asked Dash.


“You’re frightening her again. She... this place, this desert, this life... there’s no place in it for... well, ponies trying to help her. Wanting to be nice to her. She’s... she doesn’t know how to react. Well... no... she knows how she wants to react, but... she’s not sure if it’s how she should react. Bearing in mind where she is. It’s hard to explain. What you’re offering... it’s not part of this world. Here, if something’s too good to be true, it always is. Here, if she reacted the way she wants to, she’d end up betrayed and devastated.” She sighed heavily. “I know it sounds weird. This might not make much sense but... do you know what’s always scared her most in the world?”

“Spiders?” guessed Dash.

“That there’ll come a day when she will need help.” She paused, and when she spoke again it was more softly. “Do you know when she was pretty much the happiest she’s ever been? It was a day, not too long ago, when out of the blue, she actually got it,” she said with a warm smile at Rainbow Dash. She raised her head to look across to the gorge herself and then looked back at the great iron beast at her side, placed a hoof on it, and spoke soothingly. “It’s okay. It’s okay,” she said to it.


Twilight turned herself, following their joint gaze out across the canyon. “What is that over there?”


“It’s a different life,” was the reply, her eyes glistening. “One she’s seen other ponies have while she’s over here, walking. She knows what’s over there; catches glimpses of it. Friendship. Love. Warmth. Trust. Ponies who work together and care about one another. But she’s never been there herself. It’s too far away. She can’t reach it. Except...” She licked her lips, as though they’d become dry. “Except every so often... there’s a bridge.


“They’re really rare. To be honest, I’d given up hope of seeing another one. But then... you two happened.” She took a breath. “I mean... you were only supposed to be two ponies she recruited to come with her to the city and help her unlock that mechanism. But... you’ve become so much more than that to her. She likes you. She trusts y—”


The bull roared again, rearing a little. As it lifted off its front hooves the chain tugged her and she had to stumble a couple of steps towards it, giving a pained grunt. “Sorry, sorry,” she said, trying to placate the tense brute. “I mean she thinks she... she wants to trust you—” the bull snorted irritably, “—and she doesn’t want to just leave you to the storm.”


“Okay,” said Rainbow. “But if there’s a bridge to like, this amazing other life of awesomeness and friendship, then why doesn’t she use it? There’s no sandstorm over there,” she pointed out.


“I told you why. She’s frightened.” She sighed. “This armour she’s got on... it’s really heavy now. To cross over, she’d have to put all her faith in the strength of that bridge, and it’s only as strong as the ponies who built it made it for her. If she tries and it doesn’t support her weight... she’ll fall.” At that moment, a strong gust of apparent wind caused the bridge to sway noticeably, its ropes creaking and slats clonking. “It’d take her a long time to climb back up from that. If she even can. And she doesn’t even know what’ll happen when she gets over there. It’s a jungle, after all. What if there are predators? What if she gets lost? It’s a whole other world with totally different rules, and she’d be vulnerable in it.” A sudden lightning strike from one of the dark clouds above the jungle lanced into the tree canopy, scaring up an enormous flock of cawing, cackling birds and changing the melodious animalistic chirrups and laughs into screeches and roars of terror, before they subsided. “She doesn’t know anything about it, other than that it looks really pretty from the outside. She’s afraid of it, and she’s safe here. So... whenever she’s seen a bridge, she’s been tempted, but she’s always passed it by. Left it for the storm.”


“And you? What do you want?” asked Twilight.


“Me?” she said in surprise.


“Well... yes. You’re part of her after all. In fact you’re the part of her that wants. You get a say in this too. Do you want to cross that bridge?”


“I just want her to be happy. And... she hasn’t been happy here for a while now. Just look at it over there! I want to see that! I mean yes, if those storm-clouds break it might be scary... but I think they won’t. I think she’ll like it. And she might think that that bridge looks too weak for her, but I know it’s strong enough. Because you made it for her. Both of you together. The only thing really stopping her is herself. Her fear. And I’m not strong enough to pull her against that.”


“Well, I bet between the three of us we can get her over there,” enthused Dash.


“Uh... Rainbow?” cautioned Twilight. “How exactly...?”


But Rainbow was already striding towards the great bull. She stooped and picked up a length of chain midway between the yoke and the collar, hefted it and wore a confused frown. “It doesn’t weigh anything?” she said with a look over to Twilight.


“It’s not a real chain, Rainbow. It’s just light. Rainbow, wait, that’s not going to—!”


“Ha! Then the bull doesn’t weigh anything either. This should be easy! Alright get ready! One! Two! Three! Pull!


At Rainbow’s command, Daring Do’s figment pulled and strained, striking towards the mouth of the bridge that was only a dozen feet away. Rainbow yanked on the chain to add her own strength to the effort, but when the weightless links in her hooves reached the limit that it would naturally allow, it stopped reacting rather than breach its own laws of physics, and Rainbow’s sudden tug found the chain passing through her hooves. With nothing to restrain her enthusiastic burst of momentum she found herself toppling over, landing on her back. “Ow.”


Ignorant of the futile attempts to dislodge it from its spot, the great bull gave an annoyed grunt and once more began to trudge towards the tower, leaving the bridge behind. The slack of the chain began to diminish.


“Twilight! We gotta stop it! We can’t let it take her away!” cried Rainbow, back on her hooves and scrabbling for the chain once again.


“Rainbow, we can’t force her to go.”


“But we gotta do something!”


“It’s okay. I appreciate you trying...” said Daring’s imagination, not quite able to hide her disappointment at the fact that after coming so close she was to be pulled back to the monotony of the desert.


“I didn’t say we were giving up,” said Twilight firmly. “I said we can’t force her. We have to persuade her. And if what you’re saying is true, then she already wants to go and the only thing stopping her is fear. Fear that she’ll put her trust in something and end up hurt. That is scary, but we just have to convince her it’s going to be okay. That there’s nothing over there that’s going to hurt her.” Twilight moved now, but not to block the path of the bull, for that was futile. Instead she walked over to the real Daring Do, still curled asleep, and spoke kindly. “Daring? I know you can hear me. Maybe you’re not conscious of it, but you’re listening all the same.” She paused, unsure exactly what to say next, and in the end decided to speak simply, and from her heart. “It’s safe, you know? We’re both here for you. We care about you. Honestly, we do.”


The bull halted mid-stride, uncertainty tainting its mechanical movements, turning its head back towards the bridge as another gust blew against it. At last, with a slow wariness, it began to turn.


Encouraged, Rainbow Dash joined in. “Come on, Daring, you can do it. We’re totally here to help you. No matter what happens, you can always count on us! That’s what friends are for!


The bull stepped lightly, creeping towards the bridge as though stalking an agitated beast. It stopped at the edge and observed, refusing to step onto the wooden slats.


“She doesn’t think it’ll hold,” said Daring’s imagination. She fixed herself a frown and darted ahead of the bull, onto the bridge, turned and gently tugged at the chain. “Come on, Daring. It’s okay. It’s a strong bridge. Strong wood. Strong wood,” she encouraged.


And at last, after what seemed like an eternity of deliberation, the bull reluctantly raised its foreleg, and stepped forth out over the chasm. It tested the board on which its cloven hoof found rest carefully, refusing to commit until it was absolutely certain that it would not give. And then another hoof followed. And another, and another, until it had left solid ground entirely. One laboured hoof-fall at a time the massive, ungainly beast began to cross a bridge that appeared far too flimsy based on nothing more than hope and trust. And all the while the soft voice of Twilight Sparkle and the enthusiastic encouragement of Rainbow Dash spurred it on. To ruin, or salvation, it knew not which.


At the midway point the bridge sagged noticeably and the ropes began to stretch, threatening to unravel. The bull looked down and nearly screamed in terror at the fate that surely awaited it, but more soothing sounds from her friends calmed her, and the kind words offered by Twilight and Rainbow in Daring’s ears made it brave. They told her of warm and wondrous things, long secretly yearned for; kindness and generosity, honesty, loyalty and laughter, and an amazing, special kind of magic that bloomed like a flower when all of those were combined: friendship. Friendship they wanted her to share. And the bull listened and heard and the bridge remained whole, coaxed gently onward. It wanted those things. It wanted friendship. Until finally, after a seemingly endless and tense crossing, it made it to the far side, its hooves finding firm footing and the vast, green jungle spread invitingly before it.


And all of a sudden, without warning, the bull began to disintegrate. The thick metal plates that comprised its construction started to fall apart, as though every rivet had suddenly come undone. With heavy clunking noises bits of the armour – the horns, the tail, the greaves – all fell from it. The yoke collapsed, and with it the chain and collar came to bits, freeing Daring’s imagination from its infernal tether. The chestplate fell, as did the head and back and flanks, until it was all rent and laid bare upon the ground.


And there where the bull had been stood a surprised foal, blinking up at the sunlight through the clearing clouds, shivering in wide-eyed terror at the jungle before it. It turned back towards the bridge as though ready to dart across to the supposed safety of the far side, but devoid of its armour it seemed that was not an inviting prospect. And so it stood there naked, rooted, horrified.


Until her imagination walked up to her. “Daring, it’s okay. It’s alright. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”


The foal looked up at her in sudden recognition and blinked again, moisture coming to her eyes. “Y-Yearling?”


“I’m here, Daring. Always have been. Always will be.” She reached out a foreleg and hugged the smaller pony, and the foal hugged back.


“It’s so big. I don’t know which way to go,” she wailed.


“Neither do I,” said Yearling. “But we’ll figure it out together, okay? And I got us some pretty good guides to help.” She looked up then, at Twilight and Rainbow. “Thank you. You have no idea how much this is going to mean to her. And she won’t tell you either, so take it from me... it’s a lot. Just... please, be there for her if she needs it?”


“Of course we will,” said Twilight, and Rainbow nodded at her side.


“I have to wake her up,” said Yearling. “You wouldn’t believe how impatient an unconscious pony can get. She’s desperate to know what you’ve seen.”


“We’ve seen enough,” said Twilight.


“Enough?”


“Enough to know she’s our friend. That we trust her. And the same for you.”


“There’s only one pony here, Twilight. But... thank you.” She smiled one last time, and finally the scene faded as the light in the crown dimmed and inky blackness swept in to take its place.


The room was silent and still. Daring Do still slept but now stirred, sleep receding from her like a spent wave drawing back from the shore into the sea. Twilight stood beside Rainbow Dash and looked at her, waiting for her to come around.


And then a stray thought struck and she felt her blood run cold.


“Rainbow?”


“Yeah?”


“What did we just do?”