• 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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15: Sudden But Inevitable

Twilight’s eyes opened and she tried to sit up, but was immediately prevented from doing so by a clearly delirious pegasus.


“Twilight! Twilight! Are you okay? Do you recognise me?! Quick! How many hooves am I holding up? How do you feel? What colour is the sky? Do you know where you are? What day of the week is it?”


What the heck?


Twilight took a slow breath. There was, after all, only one way to deal with over-excited prismatic ponies. Calmly and rationally.


“I’m fine, Rainbow Dash, and of course I recognise you. You’re holding up two hooves. I have a heck of a headache for some reason and— Ow! Sore,” she realised as she tried to rub the back of her head and received a sharp pain for her trouble. “The colour of the sky depends – it’s not always blue, and technically it’s black every single night. I have no idea where I am, but the colour, texture and strata of the rock in this cave are very similar to the one we sheltered in on Brokeback’s southern peak on the journey here. It’s Thursday.”


“Whoa... you really are fine...” Rainbow grinned, and a moment later her eyes glistened wetly. She reached out for Twilight and wrapped her forelegs around her in a tight, tight, tight hug. “That... was a close one,” she whispered. Then looked up. “Uh... Daring? This is the hug, remember?”


“I’m sure it’s lovely, but we—”


“Get in here!” snapped Dash.


So once again Daring joined the weird friendship-hug too. Well, actually, it wasn’t too weird anymore. In fact, after all the stress and adrenaline of the last few minutes or even hours, there was something very relaxing about it. A pair of warm, cosy, fuzzy bodies cuddled up against her seemed to just make everything... a little better somehow. It was nice. Cathartic. And all of the worry just seemed to drain from her while she felt long-neglected muscles gradually start to unknot. It wasn’t just fuzzyness for the sake of fuzzyness – it served a purpose. Things had been looking pretty bleak for a time there, but the hug seemed to be the way they put that behind them. Everything was okay now.


SKREEEE!


Oh. Right. Everything wasn’t okay now.


“Uh... was that what I think it was?” asked Twilight. “And where’s Caballeron? Wasn’t he with us?”


The hug disbanded and Daring drew herself up. There was still work to be done. “Twilight, there’s not much time so here’s the short version: we all escaped from the city and Caballeron went back to his airship to get it flying again with his henchponies. And now that they’re in the air they’re under attack from the Racers who’ll tear them apart unless we help. And yes, he’s a jerk, but I’m thinking maybe we do him this one favour so he doesn’t become monster-chow.”


“But... we barely escaped from them last time. How are we supposed to stop them?”


“Well, we’re gonna need magic,” she admitted. “How’s your horn?”


Twilight rubbed her horn a little, her eyes trying to travel up to look at it. “It’s getting there. I could probably just about manage advanced spells now, if I really tried.”


SKREEEE!


“We don’t have much time. Our wings might not be a hundred percent yet, but if we work together we should be able to reach the Doc’s airship. Come on!”


Turning, she galloped out of the cave and her two friends followed.

* * *

Dodging and weaving through the air, through the swarm of perhaps fifty Cliff Racers that had descended upon the airship, was a challenge, but their wings were finally serving them well for the first time since they’d descended into the pit, and after only one or two close calls – the horde were clearly focused on the bigger, more inviting target to the exclusion of all else – the trio finally landed on the foredeck of the airship.


Caballeron and his henchponies were doing their best to fend off the attackers with sticks, nets, poles and whatever else they could lay their hooves on scavenged from below-deck. But they simply couldn’t protect the large gas-bag beneath which they were slung from being shredded to pieces, and despite their earlier repairs it wouldn’t be long before the vessel was no longer airworthy again. They seemed to have realised their only chance was to try and make it through the mountain valley and toward the forest before that happened. If they crash-landed among the woodland, the Racers would find it difficult to maintain their attack. Conversely if they hit the mountain, there would be nowhere for them to run.


“Boss! It’s Daring Do!” cried the heretofore unseen final member of the good Doctor’s evil entourage, dropping into a fight-ready crouch, hefting his broom-handle dangerously.


“Hey Withers. Miss me?” said Daring playfully, putting on a mock coquettish smile.


Her voice finally drew Caballeron’s attention and he turned from his furious tussle with one of the creatures as its talons wrenched a twelve-foot pole from his grasp and wheeled away. He regarded her and her two companions stood upon the deck, and upon seeing Twilight his jaw dropped and he gasped as though he was looking upon a ghost. “But that’s... impossible! How did you—?!”


“Trade secret,” interrupted Daring. “If you’re really interested you can read about it, but right now there’s no time!”


“Boss! They’re attacking the ropes now!” called one of the henchponies from the far side of the ship. Sure enough, several Racers were using their beaks and talons to try and slash the thick ropes that suspended the crew-gondola. It was only by fortune that their ungainly frames and small-toothed beaks ill-suited to the task made their attempts largely ineffective. For now. Not forever.


Daring turned to Twilight. “Twilight, listen... can you stop them? Like you did before?”


“I’ll do my best,” said Twilight, lowering her head and lighting her horn.


A familiar lilac aura enveloped it from nape to tip and pulsed with arcane energy. Twilight closed her eyes, furrowed her brow in concentration and tried to block out the constant screeching, clawing and shouting as she worked the familiar spell in her mind. An instant later an enormous purple sphere flashed into existence, surrounding the whole airship and repelling any Racers from within as though they were on the cusp of a powerful but gentle shockwave. The entire airship suddenly floated within a huge translucent lilac bubble with its attackers exiled to the outside. However, the creatures were not to be defeated so easily: they immediately began pecking, scratching, clawing and hammering at the shimmering surface with an intensity and ferocity that was frightening to behold.


“Oh boy. Their friends are coming too!” pointed out Rainbow Dash. The airship had by now sailed well into the mountain pass between the two peaks of Brokeback, and from both of the summits hundreds of Cliff Racers drawn by the aerial invader – and possibly irked by their collective failure to penetrate an earlier example of the mauve energy barrier – were descending upon the dirigible to assist in the attack.


“I can’t keep this up for long! They’re going to break through!” shouted Twilight. “There’re too many of them, the shield’s too large, and there are too many points of attack.”


“Plus, if they were mad before, they’re really ticked now,” yelled Dash, who had armed herself with a tightly wound net, in either end of which was a heavy weight of some sort, like an improvised bolas. Spread around the edge of the rest of the deck Caballeron and his crew had adopted defensive positions. Daring frowned and shook her head.


If this comes to a fight, we’ve lost. Come on, Yearling! Gotta be something you can do. Think! Ponies are counting on you.


Ponies counting on her. Again. Not something she was used to. Working alone had always conveniently absolved her of that unwanted responsibility. But here and now, if she couldn’t figure a way out of this hopeless situation, then... well... she was going to lose a lot of really good characters.


And friends. Friends that she didn’t think she wanted. Didn’t think that she needed. Friends that she had once thought were only there to serve a specific purpose, but who had become so much more important to her than that. Friends that were counting on her and... though she never thought she would say it... that she knew she could count on in return. No matter what. Their experiences in the catacombs below the city had been the beginning of that, as together they had tackled one devious challenge after...


Oh!


Oh... oh boy.


Risky.


Surely impossible.


Ridiculous!


The only thing she could think of.


Friend or not, Twilight was never gonna go for this.


With an urgent stare she turned to Twilight and Rainbow, but addressed Twilight more directly. “Twilight! You remember how we escaped from these creatures, right?!”


“Uh... Yes?” said Twilight. “We basically holed up and waited until dark! Daring, I’m sorry! I can’t keep this up until nightfall! Sunset is at least an hour away, and it’s going to be light for a little while beyond that even!”


“Exactly! We have to make it dark enough to convince the Racers they need to roost for the night!”


Rainbow chimed in. “There’s no way! Even with the thickest, blackest clouds overcasting the sky, we couldn’t make it dark enough to fool them! And I’m not sure even I could whip up that kind of weather while a gazillion bird-things are trying to skewer me!”


“Exactly!” said Twilight. “How are we supposed to—?!”


INCOMING!” hollered Withers from the far side of the deck. Above them at an angle, a tight group of over fifty Racers were all arrowing towards the blimp in their favoured attack pattern. Their spear-straight bodies whistled through the air from high overhead, reaching terminal velocity and closing with shocking speed. Nearly threescore of them hit the forcefield hard, each Racer projecting the full, incredible force of their momentum through the very tip of their beak to a point of impact no thicker than a pencil. Dozens of times, in one small, tight area of the weakened shield. It was too much for Twilight.


Aargh!” she cried as the aura from her horn flashed and evaporated. The shield collapsed into a hundred insubstantial shards of quickly dissipating mana. The attack on the airship began anew, the shrieking reaching a fever pitch as Twilight shook her head to recover.


“Twilight, we have to do this!” urged Daring.


How? How are we supposed to make it dark?!”


“Black-light!”


Twilight blinked. “Daring, it doesn’t work like that! I can’t just ‘use’ Black-light to make something dark! The spell needs a light-source!”


“No Twilight. Not a light source. The light source!”


Twilight blinked again. And slowly her face fell into a look of horror as she followed the direction of Daring’s now outstretched hoof. She looked back, her eyes wide. “You want me to cast Black Light... on the Sun?!” she screamed. “Are you crazy?!


“We don’t have any choice! Can you do it?!”


“It’s a simple enough spell but for the sheer magnitude, but that’s not the point! Daring, we’re talking about casting the world into darkness! Everywhere without artificial light is going to be plunged into pitch black!”


“An hour early!” argued Daring, indicating the sun’s low angle in the sky.


THEY ARE TEARING THROUGH THE CANVAS! IF THEY PUNCTURE THE GAS BAGS AGAIN WE WILL NOT BE IN THE AIR FOR LONG!” yelled Caballeron from the far end of the deck, straining his voice to be heard over the cacophony.


Daring looked solemnly at Twilight. A friend. A friend she could count on. No matter what.


“I’m so getting banished for this...” muttered Twilight, lowering her horn to the horizon. It illuminated once more and she frowned in heavy concentration. Her aura deepened in intensity and built unto a peak. Then there was a bright flash as a lance of magic was fired from the tip, cast directly at the centre of the sun.


A moment passed. Then, slowly, a dark spot appeared at the epicentre. The sky began to darken at once, fading in proportion with the expanding circle of blackness that seemed to be swallowing the fiery orb in the heavens from the inside out. As one every Racer let out a mighty warning screech, and the attack relented as suddenly as it had begun. The monsters began screaming and scrambling against each other in panic as they made haste to climb higher into the sky, striking towards their home caves high on the peaks of the mountain before their ability to navigate was lost. The sunspot expanded over the whole face of the sun, even corrupting its corona. The night-time stars appeared overhead in their hundreds and thousands. Everything else became black and still.


Everything.

* * *

“I can see nothing. My own hoof is two inches in front of my face and I cannot see it.”



“Quit complaining, Doc. You’re not crashing are you?”



“I would simply appreciate the reassurance that I have not been struck blind. What sorcery is this?”



“I uh... I cast a spell called Black Light on the sun,” explained Twilight from somewhere close. “Right now the sun is basically shining out rays of darkness instead of light. So everywhere the sun’s rays fall directly... including on us, the blimp, the mountain... is, well, dark.”



“I see. And yet I am not sure this is an improvement on our previous situation. We are navigating a mountain pass without orientation or any notion of altitude. We have likely only prolonged our swift return to the ground.”



“Hold on, I’ve got an idea. Somepony get me a lamp,” said Daring.



There were various sounds of gentle commotion, rustling, clinking, and even a muffled ‘Ow!’ that sounded like Rogue. After many seconds and several failed attempts, Daring at last found herself in possession of a glow-lantern, tapping it to rouse the sleepy glow-bugs inside. Using the railings at the edge of the deck to guide her she made her way towards the prow and, by feel alone, hung the lamp on the bow-stake at the very front of the airship.



As she expected, where the sun’s rays fell on the lamp no light at all escaped, such was the difference in intensity – nothing could match the sun for sheer output after all. But on the opposite side of the lamp where the rays didn’t directly reach – what would have normally been ‘in the shade’, the lantern shone. “There you go,” she said. “As long as you can see the light from this lamp, that means the ship is heading due west, toward the sun. There was nothing between us and it, so as long as we stick to this course, no crashing is gonna happen. If the wind catches the ship and starts to turn it, the amount of light you can see will change kinda like the phases of the moon. Just correct it.”



“And once the sun goes down below the horizon and the rays of darkness stop shining on everything it’ll just be a normal night,” said Twilight.



“And tomorrow morning?!” asked Dash.



And just from the sigh she gave, Daring knew Twilight had hung her head. “I’ve got a counter-spell to perform and a lot of explaining to do to Princess Celestia...”



“But at least by the time tomorrow comes, you’ll be well away from the mountain and you can head south-southwest back to Equestria.” Daring put on a low growl of a voice. “I’m warning you, Caballeron. I’m gonna be checking. And if I don’t hear that the University got its airship back in working order within a couple of days... I’m coming after you.”



“Such concern for the academic institutions of Equestria. How noble,” scoffed Caballeron as though he wanted to gag. “They will get their property back. I have no further use for it, especially in its current condition. For now, may I suggest we head below deck, where she sun’s... darkness... cannot reach? We will at least be able to see what we are doing, no?”



“I’ve found the hatch. Over here!” came a deep voice that sounded like New-Guy. The sound of a wooden trapdoor being opened came from somewhere just over there and so several sets of hoofsteps made their way over and down a set of wooden stairs.



Daring was the last in line, but just as she began to tentatively feel for the edge of the deck and the steps beyond, she heard and felt the hatch fall shut with a dull wooden whump. After that there was a metallic clink that sounded like a hasp being flipped into place, and a snikt that was awfully reminiscent of a padlock being snapped shut.



“Not so fast, Daring Do...”



That tone. It made her hackles rise and on instinct she backed a step away from the source of the slick, suddenly malevolent voice and dropped into her ready crouch. Heavy hoofsteps seemed to step onto the trapdoor itself, preventing her from reaching it.



In the western sky a cloud, large and grey, conspired to drift in front of the sun. And in an opposite to the norm, the reduction in intensity of the sun’s rays allowed their surroundings to brighten thanks to the lamp at the prow, giving just barely enough illumination to see dimly.



Caballeron was before her, standing upon the now locked hatch to the lower deck, withers squared and glowering at her with a sinister, toothy grin.


“Doc? What are you doing?” “I admit, I was slow on the uptake. I simply could not figure it out. Why did you return to the city? And how was the Princess brought back from the brink? But it makes sense now. You went back for the Crown. And clearly it is more powerful than I had guessed. Showing you a pony’s thoughts is not the limit of its ability, is it? One can manipulate them also? Literally change their mind?



“It’s not a thought-control device. It’s more subtle than that. It won’t let you command a pony to do your bidding or anything!”



“Nevertheless, powerful magic indeed.” He drew himself up and took a looming half-step towards her. “Give it to me.”



“Doc? Seriously? After everything we’ve just been through. After I came here to save your sorry flank? You wanna do this?



“Daring Do, why must you naturally turn this into an ugly confrontation? You have what you came for – enough material from these escapades for another ream of so-called ‘fictional’ literature. I am simply asking for a... share of the spoils of adventure. Albeit a more tangible one. Can we not treat this as you simply giving me what I am due? What I am owed? The outcome of a partnership?”



Unity is too powerful to let fall into the wrong hooves, Doc. It’s not a black-market trinket like those orichalcum beads were.”



“I imagined that would be your stance. But think carefully before you decide, Daring Do,” he said smoothly, and tapped the trapdoor with a hoof. “I am not so deluded as to imagine I could take it from you in combat. But your two friends, on the other hoof, are now trapped below with four of my henchponies. If you wish to ensure their safety, you will hand over the treasure.”



Daring felt her head lower and she planted her hooves, scowling at Caballeron as her blood began to boil. “You wouldn’t dare...” she snarled.



Caballeron smiled She could’t really see it, but she knew he was smiling. “Give me the crown, Daring Do. Or, if you believe I am bluffing... call it.”



“Wait.” Daring sighed. If truth be told, she doubted the Doctor truly had the gumption to bring them harm, but she wasn’t prepared to take the risk. Not with her friends on the line. “Doc, I don’t have the Crown...”



“A lie? A shame. Well, I hope your friends will not blame you for their imminent predicam—”



“I said wait!” snapped Daring, removing her hat. Taking care to disguise what she was doing in the shadows she removed the jewel and unwrapped it. “I only have the crown-jewel. But it’s what you want.” She raised it, and even in the meager light of the lamp and surrounded on all other sides by darkness, it sparkled faintly.



Caballeron had only greedy eyes for it. He stepped towards her and swiped the jewel away, raising it on his hoof and eyeing it critically. “Beautiful,” he breathed. Then, with a quick motion he tucked it behind his neck-scarf and Daring shook her head. Sometimes it was too easy. Had he learned nothing?



“You’ve got your prize. Now, keep your word,” she demanded. “Let them go.”



Caballeron offered her a smooth but still sinister smile. “Of course. Though, I trust you will not be too offended if I ask you and your companions to leave my airship at once? I would like to savour my new discovery without further disturbance,” he said as he extracted a key from his shirt pocket and stepped back towards the hatch. “I do hope they will be joining you on your future adventures. I have waited far too long for something I can exploit as your weakness.” All of a sudden, from within his scarf the jewel began to glow, catching him by surprise. Even as he realised Daring saw his eyes start to roll back in his head. “What is... is... happ—”



The key clattered to the floor somewhere in the pitch dark and Caballeron didn’t even get to finish his sentence before he keeled over and hit the deck with a thud. Out cold. Asleep.



Daring sighed and shook her head again, replacing her hat. “Doc? You really shoulda seen that coming.”



Need that key. She only had the sound the key had made when it had fallen to guide her, and Daring began to carefully root around for it, searching the wooden planking.



The light from the jewel within Caballeron’s scarf didn’t dim though, and an instant later it flared and Daring found herself in different surroundings entirely, and she raised her head in momentary surprise. Yearling? You really shoulda seen that coming.



A new scene emerged, the gem’s power seemingly uninhibited by the thin layer of clothing in which it nestled, and the illusion was strong enough that it seemed unperturbed by even the sun’s black-light. Powerful magic indeed. She had half a mind to retrieve the jewel before this went any further. Stop this before it started. She wasn’t going into this with permission after all, and this felt like a line she shouldn’t really cross, being the good-guy and everything.



But then Caballeron hadn’t asked permission when he’d intended to peek inside her psyche. And while she really should hold herself to a higher standard as the hero of the piece... she liked to think she was closer to an antihero in reality, and this just looked... like nothing she would have expected.

* * *

She was in a circular open-air courtyard in the centre of which was a circular pit about two meters across. It was, in layout, similar to the plaza in the now-destroyed city, although this was on a smaller scale. That was where the similarities seemed to end, though. The ground upon which she appeared to stand was smooth sandstone, and cut into it, in various places, were narrow channels snaking their maze-like, angular way towards the pit itself.



Toward the outer edges of the courtyard, surrounding her everywhere she turned, was an unbroken ring of gold coins, bright jewels, crowns, scepters... every treasure imaginable and even some that were unimaginable, piled in mountains ten or twenty feet high. An apparent breeze whipped up scattered particles of sand while a fierce sun beat down from a baby-blue sky, and Daring was left with the impression that beyond the ring of riches and the walls of the courtyard, an arid desert awaited. Her own mindscape had been a desert, she recalled Twilight telling her, and for a moment Caballeron’s assertion of her similarity to himself rang in her head. There was a difference though. Her landscape had apparently been barren and empty, while here... well, he had everything he ever wanted within leg’s reach.



She spotted Caballeron. He stood over there, near the horde of wealth, with a large sack into which he was shovelling whatever coins, urns, scepters and other no-doubt priceless relics he could get his hooves on. When the sack was finally full he hoisted it onto his back, and only then did she notice how frail he looked. Gaunt and thin, with eyes that were dull and a mane that was unkempt. He tottered to the pit with the weight of a fortune upon his back, and when he reached it he tipped the entire sackful into it. The sound of water splashing reached her, and Caballeron stooped at the edge and craned his neck downwards as far as it would go. A moment later he raised it again with a sickened, disgusted grimace, and turned. He carried his empty bag back towards the mountain of gold, and began to repeat the process.



A voice spoke from behind her. “I know you’re there. The deck-planks creak where you’re standing.”



Daring turned. Sat at a large mahogany desk a little way behind her, a second, more well-groomed Caballeron sat. A pair of small, thin and round spectacles were perched upon his muzzle and he was hunched over a large open book, writing carefully in it with a quill kept steady by a band around his forehoof.



Daring frowned, turned, and approached.



“Good book?”



“It’s called Short Term Memory. It’s in desperate need of an update, I fear. A lot has happened today.”



It was a large hardback book, weighty and thick with pages. On a whim, Daring reached forward and seized it, the projection leaving the desk and entering her hooves as though it were real, as she’d experienced before. The Caballeron at the desk didn’t seem to mind, and instead sat back a little and patiently replaced his quill in the inkwell.



The tome was set out in the style and manner of an informative reference text such as a thesaurus, or dictionary. But when Daring actually read the words on the page, they flowed from one discreet entry into the next. Sentences, punctuation, prose, dialogue. Descriptive detail and the past tense in first person. “This is... a novel, disguised as an encyclopedia. And a pulpy one at that,” she finished with a little professional disgust.



“Guilty, I’m afraid,” said the stallion, removing his spectacles and standing from the desk. He nodded at the book she held. “The good Doctor likes to present himself as well-read and learned – and I assure you he is – but he does rather have a taste for the theatrical; the melodramatic. As you know.”



Daring raised her head from the book to him. “Why aren’t you annoyed that a bitter rival is in your head, poking around?” she asked, not relinquishing her scowl.



“Because there is little that I can do about it,” he said with a shrug.



“You could wake him up,” countered Daring.



“...And also because I would not dream of passing up this rare opportunity to converse with yourself. I must say it is a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Yearling,” he said, and even gave a respectful dip of his head.



“It... is?” She raised an eyebrow. “I would have guessed the opposite.”



And she received a knowing smile in return. The stallion broke her gaze, looking beyond her and nodded as though to draw her attention to the scene behind her. Daring turned. The sickly looking Caballeron hauled another sack of riches to the hole in the ground and tipped the contents in before turning and making the return journey.



“Tell me. Do you recognise what you are seeing? Do you know him well enough to interpret this? I am honestly curious. I know of no other in the world who ever could.”



Daring considered the scene before her and frowned in thought. “The Doc’s hauling all this treasure and putting it into... some sort of vault? Hoarding it. That it?”



“Ah. No, not quite, but not bad. It may help if I explain that that is not a vault, but a well.”



“Okay.” She nodded. “Okay, and I heard water before so there’s water in the well. I’m guessing that represents something? And we’re in the desert, so water’s important. Vital to life. It’s something he needs to survive?”



“Impressive. Not exact, but very close,” he said with an impressed nod. He raised his head and gazed at the well. “The water is... well it is representative of many things. Happiness. Satisfaction. Most of all it is a sense of self-worth. It represents not the things that are necessary to literally survive, more what he needs to ‘keep going.’ To live.”



“Shame it hasn’t run dry yet,” Daring grumped.



“I doubt you truly mean that. Would you believe that there is less to be found in there than you might think? He is constantly thirsty.”



“And I guess if there isn’t enough ‘self-worth’ in the well, he can’t reach it to drink it; can’t live, or at least can’t live a life worth living.” Daring pursed her lips in thought. “Okay... I see. So he throws money at it. Wealth, riches, bits. He dumps it into the well, it displaces the water and makes the level rise so he can drink it. Money makes him happy. Figures.” She smiled a self-satisfied smile, which fell away after a moment. “So... why is he so sickly?” she muttered.



“Because displacing the water will never increase the amount of water,” the stallion beside her replied. “In a desert, gold is no replacement for water, just as money is no substitute for happiness. He can throw a million bits into that well and it may bring the surface within reach of his lips for a time. But one day it will run dry, and all the fortune in the world will not slake his thirst. He will be alone and broken.”



At the well, Caballeron lay flat on his belly, craning his neck as far into the pit as possible. When he raised it, the same look of disgust besmirched his moistened lips and he staggered back to his hooves, tossing his empty sack across his back and turning for the priceless horde once more.



“He drinks but it doesn’t seem to agree with him. He’s not happy being happy?” asked Daring.



“Self-worth abhors material wealth. The metal turns to rust and taints the water, and dissolves completely so that the level recedes. So he must throw it more and more, and the taint gets worse. But he has no choice for he knows no other way he can drink. If only there were a way to refill the well. With fresh, clean water. Perhaps, then, this self-destructive cycle might be broken. At least for a time.”



Above them the projected daytime sky darkened as a large black cloud inched across the face of the false desert sun. The gangly Caballeron looked up in surprise, and then hope, and then excitement.



“Uh... the pony pushing that cloud looks an awful lot like me...” said Daring warily.



“Can you imagine why that might be?”



It began to rain.



It poured, and in moments the entire scene was soaked. The plaza, both representations of Caballeron, everything. And the water gathered, collected in the haphazard channels cut into the groundworked stone. Funnelled into the well. And over there, the sickly-looking Caballeron himself raised his muzzle skyward and opened it, catching what drops he could, and already he appeared healthier. And then, all too soon, the rain ceased. The cloud overhead began to move away, and Caballeron looked hopefully after it, willing it to return. But in moments it was gone.



“Look. The well is now almost full,” said the bespectacled stallion beside her.



It was true. Water continued to drain into it, but the water-level in the well was now within easy reach of a pony stood at the edge. No lying down required, even.



Daring turned and glared at him with an annoyed frown. “Whoa. I know for a fact that I do not make him happy.”



“It is... complicated. You did rather drench him whether you intended to or not, and even a thirsty pony does not appreciate being soaked-through. But you bring with you something that no other pony can offer him. Challenge. Adventure. You are a refreshing reprieve from endless wild goose-chase treasure-hunts, not to mention a pony whose intellect he profoundly respects and with whom he can match wits. Yes, he gets frustrated when he is bested. But that is just part of the game,” the stallion said with a smile. He glanced sidelong at her and took another breath. “May I ask you a question? There is something I have always wondered.”



“Long as you don’t expect me to give up any secrets.”



“You recall the first time you met him, in person? When he asked to partner with you? Why did you say no?”



Daring scowled. “Because I work alone. Always have. Nopony getting in my way, nopony to make allowances for. Just me, myself, and I. Plus to be honest, I didn’t trust him. And you know what’s funny? In all the years since, nothing’s changed my mind.”



He paused for a moment before continuing. “Would it surprise you if I told you that he wasn’t planning to betray you? That in that moment, his offer of a partnership was a sincere one? That at the time, he was looking forward to working alongside a pony he profoundly admired.”



“Right. And you expect me to believe that?”



“I... hmm. I suppose after your subsequent encounters that might be a difficult pill to swallow. Tell me, I’m not quite caught up... has he pulled the sudden-but-inevitable betrayal yet?”



“Just now he locked my friends downstairs and threatened them unless I gave him Unity.”



“An inefficient and obvious ploy, and doomed to failure, wouldn’t you say?”



“The fact that he’s unconscious seems to suggest so,” said Daring, not sure where the conversation was leading.



“Do you really believe he doesn’t know that? Why would he make so foolish a move except for the reason that it is expected of him? Because you would expect it of him.” He sighed a long, nasal sigh. “He would not forgive me for telling you this, for it is a tragic state of affairs... but do you know why he positions himself as your enemy?”



“Because we’re usually after exactly the same things for completely different reasons.”



He shook his head. “It is because he knows he squandered the chance to be your friend. It is a fact that quietly haunts him every day; every time he sees you. Still, he knows there is no hope of changing that now. But if he cannot have your confidence as a respected ally, he can at least have your attention as a worthy adversary.”



Daring blinked in surprise, then scowled again. “Is that what all that, ‘we’re the same, you and me,’ baloney back there in the city was?”



“He has not given up hope that one day, you may see eye-to-eye with him.”



“If he ever wants to not-be-my-enemy, all he has to do is stop hocking priceless antiquities to the seedy side of Equestria!” barked Daring.



“Ah... yes. Admittedly, he has his goals and he does attack them quite relentlessly. I regret, I have little control over his actual behaviour. But he considers himself fortunate that his pursuits bring him into contact with you as often as they do. Because when your paths cross...” he looked to the well with a smile. “... it rains.”



Daring shook her head. When she looked down she realised that she was still apparently holding the large book she had snatched from the desk a little way behind her. The final page was obviously incomplete, and as she read it it appeared to recount their escape from the city, finding the cave and trying to help Twilight with her injury. Daring’s frown deepened and she felt her teeth clench.



She flipped back and found the page on which Twilight and Rainbow Dash were introduced in the text. And she tore it out. In fact every page from then on until the present she tore from the book, scrunched up and tossed away, the paper vanishing as it was ‘thrown’ past the boundary of the illusion.



“What are you doing?!” cried the bespectacled Caballeron. “Stop! That is his memory you are destroying! Stop it!”



Daring snapped the book shut with a whump. “Re-write it,” she intoned with a predatory growl, her anger simmering. “I don’t care how. Make it work. I can deal with the Doc, but he went too far. He threatened my friends, and he threatened to hurt them to get to me. Whether or not he really would have isn’t the point; he crossed a line. They’re not a part of this. So he forgets them, understand? Their names, what they look like, everything. As far as he’s concerned I was here with two random ponies named Bravely Blue and Purple Smart... and they’re nothing to me.” With a heavy throw she tossed the book back to him, causing him to stagger a little as he caught it and jostling his glasses on his muzzle. Daring turned away and walked over the to real Caballeron, asleep on the deck, looking down at him with ill-disguised contempt.



Speaking back over her shoulder, she had one final thing to offer the personification of Caballeron’s subconscious thoughts. “If he ever decides to stop being a jerk, I’ll write him a redemption arc. Until then? Get this into his head: we’re not the same. Not by a long, long way.” She looked back down at the sleeping pony at her hooves. “I left my desert behind,” she said softly. With a smooth motion she stooped, scooped the jewel from Caballeron’s scarf and wrapped it in her towel. The illusion vanished at once, with the final thing she saw being the spectacled pony clutching the book with a look of surprise and shock before he became nothing.



As it had before, the jewel continued to glow after its removal, and using it as another light-source Daring found the key where it had scattered over the deck planks. Seizing it and stowing the gemstone she rushed to the trapdoor just as she heard banging coming from the other side of the hatch.



Daring? Daring? Are you okay?” came Twilight’s muffled voice.



Open it!” was Rainbow’s distant contribution.



I can’t, it’s jammed!



Daring stooped and turned the key in the padlock awkwardly with her teeth, wrenching the hatch open and allowing Twilight and Rainbow to climb back onto the deck. Before any of the others could join them however, she blocked their path, standing before the cluster of four surprised-looking henchponies all gathered with their heads just beneath the level of the deck. Her glare could have frozen water. “If you tried to hurt them... if you so much as raised a hoof against them...” she growled.



There was a surprised pause which lasted until, from the back, New-Guy tapped Biff on the shoulder and spoke in a low voice. “Uh... were we supposed to?



Daring groaned in exasperation and let the trapdoor drop with a slam. Flipping the hasp back over the staple she slipped the padlock through and snapped it shut. Four henchponies safely locked below deck and Caballeron snoozing soundly. Safe, for now. She turned to her friends. “Are you both okay? You sure they didn’t hurt you?”



“Uh... yes? All they did was showed us where they’d stowed our saddlebags,” said Twilight. It was true: Twilight and Rainbow were both wearing their respective satchels, and Rainbow was carrying her set too in addition to her own. “Daring, what’s going on?”



“It’s a long story. I had a little tet-a-tet with Caballeron’s mind and we came to an... understanding.” She felt like she should say more, but now wasn’t the time. She could explain more later. She looked between her two friends and smiled. “Just glad you’re okay is all.”



They stood in amiable silence for a moment, sharing warm, relieved smiles.



“Hey, has anypony else noticed that we can see each other now?” asked Rainbow.



It was true. It was dark, but this was just regular dark, not total all-consuming ultra-dark.



“The sun’s set early,” said Twilight. “Black-light’s not shining on anything.”



“And wow, the moon’s super bright tonight!” added Rainbow.



Daring thought that odd as she looked toward the white orb hanging in the sky, casting its stark light over all the land. “It shouldn’t be a full moon tonight...” she thought aloud.



“I’m guessing Princess Luna has made an allowance after... what happened to the sun,” said Twilight, a tad sheepishly. “Looks like I’m going to have to explain myself to more than one Princess.”



“Just tell them it was my idea,” said Daring. “Wouldn’t be the first time me and the Princesses have, uh... ahem... disagreed.” She got a couple of surprised looks at that. “Not everything I do gets put into a book. Now, whaddya say we get out of here?” she asked, stretching her wings. They felt strong now, full of energy.



“Sounds good to me!” agreed Dash, and Twilight nodded.



One last thing before they left.



She turned once more, standing over Caballeron’s prone body and stooped, tucking the padlock key into his shirt pocket. “Don’t oversleep, Doc. Who knows where you’ll end up?” She smiled a cavalier smile. “Till next time.”



She retrieved her saddlebags from Rainbow Dash and strapped them comfortably in place. Then all three of them hopped onto to the railings at the edge of the deck and stretched their wings.



“We’re not going to make it back home this evening,” said Twilight, stifling a yawn. She looked tired, actually. It had been one heck of a day, after all.



Daring put on a grin. “Don’t worry... I know this great spot where we can set up camp. Got a waterfall and everything.”



She spread her wings wide, and stepped out into the great beyond, drifting silently out into the night.



And her two friends followed.