• 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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13: Escape

The tunnel was dark. It was cold. And it was long.


But far, far along at the end, there was light.


Daring swam, beating her legs and wings smoothly to conserve her energy and breath for as long as possible. The water was ice-cold against her hide, and the claustrophobic walls barely wide enough apart to allow two ponies to swim side by side. And there was no chance of turning back now. She was compelled by circumstance to go onwards with no guarantee of safety. In all likelihood, this submerged tunnel would turn out to be her tomb. Not exactly an auspicious end but then, she’d never really been the blaze-of-glory type.


In front of her, Twilight and Rainbow were going strong. Timing their strokes and swimming in sync they moved easily through the flooded shaft. They’d get out. Daring was certain of it. And just knowing that gave her a level of peace she wasn’t sure she’d ever have been able to find in this oppressive city.


By contrast, the pony beside her was paddling with all the grace of a land-bound walrus. This was well outside his comfort zone. He was more used to sitting back and letting his hirelings do all the actual work. Idly, she wondered when the last time was that Caballeron had actually swum.


Still, for all that his technique was objectively poor, he was keeping cool and not panicking. He at least had a measure of mettle to him.


They passed the innocuous crack in the tunnel ceiling that Daring had used for her marker before turning back on her recce, and all four were still going strong. About twenty seconds later they sailed past what Daring considered to be the halfway point of the shaft, and it was then that Twilight reached out with her right hoof and tapped Rainbow Dash on her left shoulder.


Rainbow Dash halted immediately in response to the signal, and the two mares faced each other. Each placed a foreleg on the other’s shoulder – to gauge the distance in the murk no doubt – and then Twilight exhaled, a slow stream of bubbles issuing forth. Then, carefully, they brought their muzzles together. It was actually quite a tender thing to watch as they locked lips with closed eyes. Rainbow’s chest fell and in turn Twilight’s rose, the two mares breathing for each other with perfect synergy. Now Twilight breathed out, though not as much, and Rainbow breathed in, and stopped. Both now with half-a-lungful of air, but the urge to breathe sated.


Daring turned to her counterpart, her own lungs aching by now, and gave him a look through the gloom. See? Just like that.


But he beat her to making the first move. With what was clearly a strained, agonised expression, he put his forehoof on her shoulder, and his breath exploded from him, unable to fight off the urge to exhale any longer. And with it, the urge to inhale would be overwhelming.


Daring had to move quickly, before he got himself a lungful of water that would spell doom for them both. She grabbed his shirt and pressed her muzzle to his, forming a seal over his mouth and nose. She breathed out, smoothly and slowly, giving him time to adjust or so she thought. But Caballeron was breathing in hard, as though he were trying to suck the air from her lungs. She allowed her air to ebb away from her, into him, until it was all gone and she was left with only a void.


And there it would end. Caballeron had what he needed from her and no reason to reciprocate.


He broke away, his muzzle leaving hers, leaving her stranded with no oxygen. Here. Now. It was over. Double-crossed by her longtime nemesis; a pony she had known she couldn’t trust. Still, she consoled herself that at least he was consistent. And... she hadn’t had any other options.


It was always gonna go down like this.


Except it wasn’t the end. Caballeron pulled away, but not far. He seemed only to be adjusting his position and then his muzzle found hers again, and he breathed. Out. Letting her take in a half-lungful of stale, sticky air that was certainly less pleasant than when Twilight had done the same for her earlier. But it was something. It was enough.


But it wouldn’t be enough for long. The oxygen content of the air she’d received was now so low that there would be no point repeating the procedure. They all needed fresh air, and so they swam on, toward the elusive light at the end of the tunnel.


It felt like it took forever, though in truth it could only have been thirty seconds or so, and then they cleared the flooded shaft.


They found themselves near the bottom of a gigantic hollow cylinder, with the water level perhaps twenty feet above them. One final push was all that remained. Daring swam upward, her lungs burning, desperate for breath until finally she broke through the surface and gasped. Her loud, greedy inhalation was joined by coughs and gasps and splutters from three other ponies as three other heads broke through at about the same time. They’d made it. All four of them. She had to admit to being surprised.


“You... guys... okay?” she asked in between her own spluttering and choking fits.


“We’re fine,” gasped Twilight. “Are you?”


“Yeah,” she wheezed, and looked over at Caballeron who was finishing up his own bout of coughing. “We’re fine.”


Caballeron caught his breath and looked back at her with a smarmy, arrogant grin. “Our first kiss,” he mocked. “Was it magical for you too?”


She gave him a glare of pure ice. “Doc? I swear I’m gonna cut your tongue out with a spoon...” she growled.


“Where are we?” interrupted Rainbow Dash. Which got all of their attention focused on their new surroundings at last.


The cylinder they were in was enormous: at least fifty meters wide and six stories tall, and open at the top. The cross section was circular except for right at the summit, on one side there was a protrusion jutting inwards from the rim about a third of the way towards the centre. Like a water-spout but folded in instead of out. All around the circumference on, near, and below the level at which they were currently treading water were other tunnels leading away at all angles: dozens, perhaps even scores of them. In fact, Daring would be hard pressed to pick out the tunnel that they had just swum through against all the rest.


“It’s a giant cistern,” she said, awed. “A water reservoir for the whole city. All of these tunnels in the wall, they must run underground taking the water to every neighbourhood. Maybe attached to water-spigots... maybe even running into ponies’ houses. Running water... over a thousand years ago. The engineering! Amazing...” she breathed.


“Look! There’s a ladder. We can climb out!” cried Rainbow Dash from her left. A little too soon, actually. She clearly hadn’t been paying attention to her running-water revelation. This was an important archeological discovery! Nevertheless, there was a ladder over there where Rainbow Dash was pointing. It seemed to run all the way from the rim at the top to the base below them. Perhaps it was a holdover from the original construction, or used for periodic inspections of the internal walls. Whatever the reason, it was there. It was a way out.


Rainbow started swimming and the rest of them followed suit. Reaching the ladder – really a series of regular rungs carved into the curved stone wall of the cistern – they paused as Rainbow Dash found her footing and began to climb.


Once she was a little way removed from the water she looked back at them with an odd expression. “Uh... you guys can all climb a ladder, right?”


“Well, duh...” said Daring.


“Of course. I’m a librarian!” boasted Twilight with a little satisfied grin, placing her forehooves on the closest rung and following Rainbow Dash’s example. Then she actually looked up and gulped. “Although... it is an awfully long way up. Which means it’ll be an awfully long way down if...”


“Relax. Just don’t look down,” said Rainbow Dash. “What about you? You know how to climb?” she asked, addressing Caballeron.


“Not something I have tried before,” he admitted. “But I believe I will have to learn quickly.”


Daring took hold of the nearest rung and followed Twilight up, hauling herself out of the water. The carved rungs were nice and deep, allowing good footing for both fore and hind-legs. The only real problem would be the height they would have to ascend. She looked back over her shoulder. “Just copy me, Doc. And like Rainbow said... don’t look down.”


The four of them began to climb. Rainbow Dash leading the way, followed by Twilight, then Daring, and Caballeron bringing up the rear. Periodic cracking and crashing noises from elsewhere in the city – magnified by the fact that they echoed within the cistern – caused them to keep a brisk pace in spite of their rapidly tiring limbs, which had already been through a lot today.


About halfway up the total height of the cylinder they climbed past a marking – two parallel lines about three inches apart carved into the stonework, running the entire interior circumference. “A depth marker of some sort,” mused Daring aloud. “At a guess, I’d say that means we’re at street-level.”


“Then... we’re officially... not... underground anymore. Yay,” said Twilight, trying to catch her breath. The top of the enormous vessel was still a good three stories straight up.


“Uh... yeah we are,” griped Rainbow, pointing upwards with a forehoof towards the now heavily-cracked cavern ceiling overhead, where the sky should be.


“I meant under-underground,” Twilight retorted.


Rainbow turned back, but when she reached for the next rung it disintegrated under her hoof, the ancient, brittle bricks falling apart after the slightest application of weight. She tried to compensate but her haste had left her at a crucial point in her ascent and she could not avoid falling. But if she fell, she would take the three ponies beneath her with her too, and that wasn’t an option.


With a desperate effort, Rainbow kicked hard against the wall of the cistern and pushed off, giving her enough space to clear the others on her way down.


“Rainbow!” cried Twilight. She reached out to try and catch her, and Daring did likewise, but she had managed to launch herself too far away for either to reach. In what must have been an instinctive reaction, Rainbow’s wings snapped open and beat hard. And surprisingly, they seemed to work. After a fashion.


It took a moment to register, but Rainbow Dash didn’t plummet toward the water below. Instead she seemed to be slowly sinking thanks to her furious flapping. It was rather surreal, and Rainbow seemed as surprised as anypony as she looked around at her own back.


“Hey, awesome! My wings are working again! Kinda. I mean, I’m not getting any up here, but I’ll take this over nothing,” she said as she sank past Twilight’s level, and then Daring’s. She descended past Caballeron and with a little change in wing-angle glided back towards the ladder. “Keep climbing!” she yelled. “I’m good back here. Just be careful!”


They continued their ascent, though with Twilight now in the lead the pace was less brisk and more methodical.


“Why are our wings starting to work?” called Daring. “Unless I missed something, none of us absorbed any of that blast. Trust me, I count that as a good thing.”


“Remember when I said magic can’t just disappear?” Twilight called back, still working her hooves into the rungs and pulling herself ever upward. “I think that after the initial explosion our magic’s been spread throughout this cavern, almost like radiation. And we were all stood at Ground Zero immediately after the blast, and for several minutes too. I think we did absorb some of our magic back, and that we’re still absorbing it now. But it’s happening so subtly we can’t feel it.”


“What about your magic? Is your horn working yet?”


“It’s coming in a trickle, not a flood. I could probably manage a rabbit-out-of-a-hat, but I’m nowhere near being able to turn the rabbit into a hat.”


Daring paused a beat, her planned follow-up question eschewed in favour of another. “You... can do that?”


“She turned a frog into an orange once!” called Rainbow Dash from below. “It took me two days to track it down so she could fix it!”


“It was an accident!” yelled Twilight, resolutely not looking down. “And he was fine afterwards! Fluttershy said soooo... whoa! Look out!” she yelped, dodging to the side on instinct as a chunk of rock as big as her head tumbled down from above, whizzing past them and hitting the water below with a deep sploosh! “Everyone okay?!”


“We’re fine,” called Daring. “Keep going! We’re almost there!”


Another minute of climbing finally brought them to the cistern summit. Twilight pushed herself off the final rung with her hindleg and then turned, offering her hoof to Daring who took it gratefully. Hauling herself over the edge she turned and pulled Caballeron up with Twilight’s help, and Rainbow close behind.


They couldn’t afford to tarry, but they had an excellent view over the entire cavern from here and Daring did take stock.


They found themselves standing on the rim of the enormous cistern, roughly halfway in height between the city below and the cavern ceiling above. They had emerged on the opposite side of the cylinder from the odd spout-like projection, and its purpose was at last apparent.

The spout was merely the terminus of an impressive construction which ran away from the reservoir like a massive, dead-straight, dry canal, standing on majestic, fluted columns built high over the city’s houses and municipal buildings and which seemed to go on for as far as they could see. “It's an aqueduct,” observed Daring with a note of awe. “It must’ve once channelled snowmelt from Brokeback into the reservoir.”


Elsewhere, in the plaza at the foot of the palace, the pit from which they’d earlier escaped had completely collapsed in on itself. What was more, the entire plaza was now flooded as water from the lake cascaded down through a gaping fissure in the cavern roof like a monumental waterfall. It was a shame they didn’t have time to appreciate it, because it was actually quite an impressive and beautiful sight. The water was slowly encroaching into the rest of the city too, the depth about a quarter of the way up the front doors of the houses that she could see. The cracks in the cavern ceiling were still spreading and growing like ugly black veins, and it was only a matter of time before it suffered a catastrophic collapse. They needed to be above-ground before that could happen.


“Look!” said Rainbow Dash urgently, pointing to the centre of the city, to the broken tower and the courtyard beneath. “The platform. It’s still down there, along with our saddlebags!”


“Does that mean the henchponies didn’t make it out?” said Twilight, squinting.


“No. Caballeron’s saddlebags are gone. It’s only ours that have been left behind,” said Rainbow. Daring had to admit that the fact Dash could pick out that detail from this distance was impressive.


“They will have sent the platform back down for me,” said Caballeron. “With luck they are already preparing the airship for launch.”


“I don’t think I can make it to the tower up there yet,” said Rainbow Dash, giving her wings a little, experimental flutter. “But we could probably make it to the platform if we glided it.”


We could, but the wingless wonder here couldn’t,” pointed out Daring. “And there’s no way we’ll carry him if we can’t fly properly ourselves. Oh, give it a rest Doc, that wasn’t a comment on the size of your stomach, it was a fact!” she snorted in response to his quick glare.


She had barely finished her sentence when, with a terrible cracking sound, a chunk of rock the size of an entire house fell from the cavern ceiling on the far side of the city, and plummeted. It impacted with a thunderous crash, crushing several buildings in the distance, a great plume of dust rising. The roof was really becoming unstable.


“Then what do we do?” cried Rainbow Dash. “We can’t stay here. The whole place is coming down!”


“We run!” Daring called over the noise of the continuously collapsing cavern, pointing to the far side of the cistern. “If I’m right about the aqueduct, it must run from here all the way out to Brokeback. If we follow it to the end, we might find a way out of here! Come on! We’ve gotta move!” She took off at a gallop, racing around the circumference of the cistern and onto the straight wall that lined the six-foot deep water-channel, the three others in tow.


“But our saddlebags... all of our supplies are down there. So is the crown!” cried Twilight over the sound of their thundering hoofbeats.


“Forget them!” yelled Daring, picking up speed, running for all she was worth now. The chunks of rock raining down from the roof were getting larger and more frequent. “If this city wants to keep them so bad, it can have ‘em! Just keep moving forward! We have to reach the far end!”


They raced along the wall of the dry canal, pelting as fast as their legs would carry them. Chunks of rock fell all around, increasing in both frequency and size. If one of those house-sized – or larger – chunks fell onto the aqueduct in front of them and cut them off, or worse, caused the whole thing to collapse... it didn’t bear thinking about. But luck seemed to be with them.


The problem with luck was that it had a tendency to run out just before the point at which you no longer needed it.


And they were so close.


They were three-quarters of the way to the end when a lump of rock about the size of half a house-brick – one of dozens, if not hundreds of similar pieces of rubble – was released from the cavern ceiling by the constant fracturing and breaking, falling straight down on a fateful journey... and struck.


Daring heard the impact and thought little of it, only noting in passing that one of the numerous thuds around her sounded slightly different from the countless others.


And then from behind her, Rainbow Dash screamed.


Screamed.


A terrible, inarticulate cry of perfect fear and cold, sickening horror that pierced her eardrums and, for a moment, drowned out even the sound of the world around them falling apart.


Daring skidded to a stop and looked back, ready to ask what the hay was going on and gee-up the party to movement again. Until she saw...


Twilight was down. Legs splayed at unnatural, uncomfortable angles and her body completely limp. And still. So very, horribly still.


“Twilight!” Rainbow Dash cried, trying in desperation to help the lifeless pony to her hooves only to have her flop down again. “Twilight, get up! Come on!


“What happened?” asked Daring Do, not trying to hide the urgency in her voice.


“It was a rock. It hit her on the back of the head and she fell!” explained Caballeron above the sounds of destruction on all sides.

Rainbow Dash was babbling, wide-eyed with fear. “Come on, Twilight, wake up! We... we’re all getting outta here, remember?! We’re so close!” She shook Twilight’s shoulders hard, yet managed only to make her friend’s head loll about as though she were a rag-doll.


“We have to keep moving, before one of us is next!” said Caballeron.


And received a furious death-glare from Rainbow Dash in reply. “I’m not leaving my friend!” she screamed at him, her voice panicked and hoarse.


“And we’re not leaving her here,” Daring called to both of them. “Come on, Doc, help Rainbow lift her onto my back. We’ll run her outta here.”


“No,” objected Rainbow. “I’ll carry her. I’ve got her.”


“Okay, up to you. Doc, help me!”


Together they hoisted Twilight onto Rainbow’s back. Which wasn’t quite as effortless as Daring had thought it would be.


“She is a completely dead-weight,” muttered Caballeron solemnly, and received a sharp stare from Daring in reply.


“You got her, Rainbow?” she called.


“Yeah!”


“Then, get galloping! We’re almost—!”


She was cut off by the loudest crunching sound yet as another immense, small-building-sized chunk of rock was released from the cavern ceiling to fall to the city below. And it fell directly onto the aqueduct, halfway between the cistern and themselves. The bridge-like channel was no match for the massive weight that fell dead-centre onto it, and it collapsed in spectacular fashion at the point directly between two of the mammoth supporting columns.


The columns on either side toppled and fell perpendicularly away from the point of impact... into their neighbours. Which fell into their neighbours...


Oh, you’ve got to be kidding...


Two domino-effect demolitions started, one of which was heading in their direction and Daring’s blood froze as the aqueduct began to disappear, the vanishing canal approaching with increasing speed.


Move!


They ran.


The pace of the disintegrating structure at their backs accelerated, but they had a good headstart and the three ponies that were still on their hooves galloped for all they were worth. They were approaching the city limit now, and they could see the end: the point at which the aqueduct actually met the slope of the mountain, the canal walls ending but the channel continuing, taking a turn diagonally upwards and disappearing into an angled tunnel excavated where the cavern ceiling met the natural hillside. That was their way out, if they could get there.


Stone hailed down thick from above, with Daring suffering her own rock-to-the-head. She would have suffered the same fate as her friend had she not had her sturdy, stalwart headgear to protect her. As it was, she stumbled a little but managed to shake it off and regain her footing without breaking her stride too much.


They were close now. Two hundred metres to safety with the collapsing structure half that distance behind them. Now a hundred metres ahead versus fifty behind. They could make it. Just a few seconds more. In a final, desperate effort, all three of them put on a last burst of speed and raced over the point where the aqueduct met the mountain slope, as the last of it crumbled into the city behind them in a plume of dust and brick.


“Don’t stop for a rest yet,” warned Daring. “Not till we’re through that tunnel. If it collapses, we’re still trapped!”


The water-channel angled upwards at about thirty-degrees, following the gentle slope of the mountain’s base. With the canal walls finally disappearing they had to jump down into the dry channel to navigate it. It was dark and they had to tread carefully over debris such as dead branches and loose stones, but progress was a steady canter. The sounds of collapsing stonework receded behind and below them as they trotted up the incline until, finally... light.


Fractured, sparse, but there. Daylight. Ahead of them the ramped tunnel came to an end. The exit was overgrown with all kinds of bramble and scrub and vine, but through it all there were the hints of broken light. And air. Fresh, clean air devoid of the city’s stale taint.


Daring scowled. They had come too far to be stopped in their tracks by some errant plantlife. She quickened her pace, lowered her head, and charged at full tilt up the slope.


Vines and twigs and even a couple of substantial branches all bent and snapped, no match for a determined pony adorned with a sturdy piece of headgear. Daring burst up through the scrub into the light of the late-afternoon. The cold, sweet air of the outside world hit her at once, and she drank of it deeply. She paused to catch her breath and removed her trusted hat which had once again saved the day. A couple of thorns had cut new, deep scars in the material and a large section of brim was torn a little ragged, but it was still intact. A little more character to add to all those arrow holes... and the rest, she reasoned, but it was a shame she didn’t know anypony who boasted any skills in clothing-repair. The old girl was looking terribly battered.


Brokeback loomed high above her, and the valley stretched behind. Turning, she saw the trees of the forest were starting to sway as the ground beneath crumbled from below, and their once-sturdy roots began to find themselves with no earth beneath to bind and support them. She could yet feel the vibrations of the still-collapsing cavern through the rock of the mountain, but it was a distant thing. They were assuredly upon safe ground.


“Daring... I don’t think she’s doing so well!” Rainbow panted, trotting out of the tunnel with Twilight on her back.


Daring cast her gaze around, and as luck had it there was a small cave just a little to her right, twenty meters up the slope. “Bring her in here. Quick!” she barked, and cantered ahead.

* * *

It wasn’t a large or deep cave, only about twice the size of an average living-room, but it was sheltered and the ground was flat to suit their needs. Rainbow knelt and gingerly laid Twilight down on her side in the centre. And she lay still. Very, very still. Daring felt a chill run through her. She’d hoped that Twilight’s lack of animation was temporary, or perhaps exaggerated in her mind since she hadn’t really had much of a chance to look at her during the escape. But when Twilight flopped down onto the cave-floor she was just as limp as she remembered; as she feared...


Knitting her brow and forcing those thoughts aside, Daring knelt beside Twilight and began to examine her. “What hit her, and where?” she asked.


“It was like a big chunk of rock. About... this big?” said Rainbow, holding her hooves about eight-inches apart. “Got her right on the back of the head.” There was a repressed fear in her voice. A subtle, dry-mouthed quaver that Daring hadn’t heard from Rainbow before.


“She fell immediately,” added Caballeron. “I believe she was unconscious before she even hit the ground.”


Daring took Twilight’s head in her hooves, brushing her mane aside carefully, looking. “There’s no wound,” she said in surprise. “Swelling’s coming up, but it didn’t break the skin...” Laying her friend’s head carefully back down she crouched close, with her ear to Twilight’s muzzle. Then she carefully placed a hoof on Twilight’s neck, closed her eyes and counted slowly to ten.


Not good.


She opened her eyes and found herself looking at Rainbow, who was locking her gaze with the worst expression possible.


Hope.


Daring tried to speak, but no words came out. She tried again, but the same result. Why couldn’t she talk? She was only explaining the situation. Shouldn’t be hard.


Except... she wasn’t just explaining the situation. And the pony lying before her and the pony looking desperately at her weren’t just some random characters she had met on this one adventure: they were her friends. That seemingly insignificant mental distinction somehow made it so much harder to find words. Not only to explain, but to console. To offer comfort. And she realised that she wasn’t capable of it. She wasn’t ready for it. There was nothing she could think of to say that could ever soften the blow.


The only way to do this was dispassionately. Professionally. She cleared her throat and her frown returned. She had to force herself to speak but the words came, level and void of emotion, as though she were addressing a lecture hall.


“Her breathing’s very shallow, and it’s irregular. Worse, her pulse is very faint... and it’s also irregular.”


“So? What does that mean?” said Rainbow. She was still waiting to hear what the plan was. What the solution was.


But there wasn’t one. Not for this.


“It means... it... it means...” Damn it Yearling, why is this so hard? “She won’t....” Just say it. Why can’t you say it? “She’s going to...”


She snapped. She couldn’t do it. It took every piece of willpower she had not to cry – for some reason – and what was supposed to be a dispassionate, emotionless explanation was instead reduced to, “Rainbow I’m so sorry...”


Caballeron chimed in then, picking up her slack. “It means this is not a malady of her body, but of her mind. The centres of her brain that regulate her heartbeat and breathing – the simplest, most basic functions of life – have been compromised. Without them... she does not have long to live.”


“Her brain?” asked Rainbow, the fearful quaver in her voice more noticeable now. “But... she loves her brain! It’s literally the best thing about her. Besides the fact she’s so awesome, I mean. Wait—!” her head snapped up and her eyes went wide, and there was that awful expression of hope again as she turned to Caballeron with what might even have been a relieved smile. As though she had seized upon the answer in the nick of time. “Of course! You’re a doctor!” she cried. And then stalled. Looking from Caballeron to Twilight, and then back to Caballeron as though surprised he hadn’t leapt into action. “Well? Fix her!


“I am a Doctor of archeology!” he shot.


“What are you talking about? Buildings don’t need doctors! They need builders! Ponies need doctors! Are you a doctor or not?!”


“I... er...” Caballeron’s haughty, intelligent arrogance appeared to have had the rug pulled out from under it by Rainbow Dash’s inept logic. “I... am not that kind of doctor,” he finished weakly.


A sudden, distant crash came from the cave entrance; from the valley beyond, as trees started to topple and cracks began to rend the ground. Caballeron whirled around. “I must get to the airship. If my henchponies have not made it ready to fly, they will fall when the ground gives way under them.”


“But she needs your help!” cried Rainbow.


He turned back with a new frown. “There is nothing I can do for her. Nothing anypony can do. Forgive me for instead directing my attention toward those who are not yet lost!”


He looked to Daring then, and while she still had an annoyed frown to match his, she gave a begrudging nod.


He tugged a forelock in reply. And then he was gone, racing down the mountain slope towards the valley, angling for the clearing where they had earlier made landfall.


Leaving Daring and Rainbow alone with the lifeless body of Twilight Sparkle.


Daring checked for the pulse again. Weak, erratic, without rhythm and faltering, and her breathing was ever so slight now. As her hoof came away she brushed a few stray hairs from Twilight’s closed eyes.


“There’s gotta be something we can do...” said Rainbow quietly.


“We can make her comfortable,” said Daring.


“No, I mean—”


“I know what you meant.” Daring sighed. “Rainbow, it’s not like this is bleeding we can bandage, or a bone we can splint. The wound is in there,” she said, resting a hoof lightly on Twilight’s temple. “And unless you’ve got a degree in brain surgery you’ve been keeping quiet about, we can’t treat that.”


“But she... she just looks asleep. I mean, she just looks like she should wake up any second and be totally fine.” Rainbow gave her friend a little, gentle nudge on the shoulder, as though carefully trying to stir her awake. Surely if Twilight would open her eyes and wake up, this would all be over. They’d laugh about how silly it was that they’d all been so worried. Good times.


So convinced by this was Rainbow that when her cajoling failed to rouse her she resorted to trying to prise open her eyelids. “Come on, Twilight! Wake up!” She raised a hoof and swung it, slapping Twilight across the muzzle. “Stop being such a jerk, okay?! Stop... stop making me think that I’m gonna have to tell everypony that you didn’t come back. That you went on to the Summer Lands without us! That’s not fair!” She made to slap Twilight again, but Daring blocked her swing with a hoof.


“Dash! Stop, okay? That’s not going to help.”


With a reluctance borne of the fear of inaction, Rainbow slowly lowered her hoof. Daring understood that compulsion only too well: the feeling that you had to be doing something. Anything, because doing nothing just felt wrong. Even when there was nothing you could do.


“This is all Caballeron’s fault,” said Rainbow levelly. “If he hadn’t tried to take that stupid magic-stealing stone...”


“It’s my fault, Rainbow.” Daring’s head lowered and she looked at Twilight. “I should never have brought her. Either of you. I should never have come back here. I just wanted material for a new book. Selfish. Stupid.”


“Hey. We wanted to come with you,” said Rainbow. “You’re not to blame for this.”


“This stupid city’s been gunning for me for years. It should be me lying there now, not her.” She shook her head and looked up. “Don’t waste your energy blaming Caballeron. He’s not out of the woods himself yet. Not by a long stretch.”


“Huh? What do you mean?”


“Even if he gets the airship flying again before the cavern collapses under it... Cliff Racers are just gonna tear it apart. There’s a good chance he won’t be leaving this valley either.”


“Why didn’t you warn him?”


“He knows.” Daring sighed. “He’s a huge jerk... but he’s got a good bone somewhere. He’s gotta try and save his friends too.”

She looked back down to Twilight and for a horrifying moment she thought she had gone – that they’d been sharing the cave with a corpse without even noticing her pass. But she inhaled a weak, half-lungful of air and let it out again almost at once. It wouldn’t be long now.


“Summer Lands?” asked Daring.


“What’s wrong with that?”


“Nothing. I just thought the Summer Lands was an Earth-Pony tradition. Don’t unicorns go to Elysium?”


“Yeah, but... a while ago we all agreed... we wanna be friends forever. And Applejack sorta has to go to the Summer Lands because her folks have a ranch there already. So that kinda settled it. And it sounds pretty cool. Nowhere near as cool as The End of the Sky, but there’s a bottomless cider-trough and... we’ll all be together. That’s worth giving up the Forever Sunset for.”


“Really? You’d give up seeing the Forever Sunset, so you could spend eternity with a bunch of other ponies instead?”


“Yeah...” There was nothing but soft sincerity in her voice.


“Wow,” said Daring, shocked. The Forever Sunset was supposed to be the most beautiful sight in all of creation. Something every pegasus wanted to see. To sacrifice it... “You must all really love each other. That... that must be nice to have.”


“Hey, you can join us, y’know? There’s always room for more friends.”


“I don’t think so. I mean... you know it’s not true, right? You don’t actually believe in any of that for real...?”


And she got a deep frown in reply. “It doesn’t matter if I believe in it, I'll make it real if I have to! My friend is going to the Summer Lands, okay? And I don’t care if I have to carry her all the way there myself. I don’t care if I have to literally build it for her! She’s going and she’s gonna be happy! Forever! You know why?! Because she deserves it! Because she’s one of the kindest, smartest, best ponies I’ve ever met, and all that awesome doesn’t get to just disappear! Everything she is doesn’t get to just vanish because of a stupid rock! She gets a happy ending, and then one day I get to see her again! That’s what’s happening!


Which left Daring stunned. “Rainbow... I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be insensitive.”


“It’s just... this can’t be how it ends...” whispered Rainbow. “I mean, it’s a Daring Do adventure. The... the heroes are supposed to win the day. That’s how it always goes.” Suddenly her determined frown returned. “And... and the good guys never give up! Twilight would never give up on me, so I’m never giving up on her!”


“Rainbow, there’s nothing we can—”


“Okay Twilight! Here’s how it is,” ordered Rainbow, placing her forehoof upon her own neck. “If you can’t remember when your heart’s supposed to beat, then I’m gonna tell you! Ready? Beat! And... beat! Also breathe! And... beat! Breathe! Uh... beat-breathe! Breathe-beat! C’mon!”


“Rainbow!” Daring snapped, unsure whether this was simple desperation she was witnessing, or a kind of grief-madness. “Rainbow... it doesn’t work like that. Your heart isn’t something you can just order to beat when you want. It’s an unconscious impulse. Even if she could hear you, there’s nothing she could...”


Daring trailed off. She found herself looking at Twilight’s ear. That one, almost insignificant appendage somehow filling her entire vision. Her whole thoughts. And sudden epiphany hit like a firework exploding in her mind.


Oh...


“She can hear you...” she almost whispered. And she felt the adrenaline begin to stir in her blood.


“Huh? What do you—?”


“Her back. Get her on her back!” Daring ordered, pushing Twilight over from her side. Together they rolled her onto her back, her legs flopping every which-way, but that was fine. Daring fixed Rainbow with an urgent scowl.


“Rainbow, listen real carefully to me. You take your hooves and you push down on her chest, right here. You do it about twice-a-second thirty times, and then you breathe for her, just like you did in the tunnel. Understand?”


“I... what?”


“Thirty compressions, then two breaths. Thirty: two! You keep her blood circulating and you keep her breathing. You keep her alive until I get back!”


“What?! You’re leaving?!


“Rainbow, I’ll be back, I give you my wor... no, wait. Uh... I cross my heart and hope to die, stick a muffin... somewhere...” She recovered from her abysmal attempt at a promise and fixed Rainbow Dash’s gaze. “You’re right. We’re not losing her like this. Not without a fight.” She turned and galloped for the entrance to the cave. They had a chance. Only a slim one, but that was all she’d needed before. And if it worked... she could save Twilight. Heck, she might even save Caballeron and get everypony safely away from this blasted valley in the nick of time. Sudden confidence began to surge.


“Wait!” called Rainbow desperately from behind her. “Where are you going? What are you going to do?”


Daring half-turned, framed by the cave entrance and the deepening blue of the early evening sky beyond. “I’m going back into the city. As for what I’m going to do?” She pulled the brim of her hat low. “I’m gonna do what Daring Do does.” She grinned. “I’m gonna save the bucking day.”