• Published 3rd Jan 2017
  • 3,051 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.

  • ...

3: And One is Two

“So, let me get this straight. The ruins we’re heading to... you’ve been there once before, years ago. And you found some kind of lock there that one pony alone couldn’t open, so you had to abandon it. Then, a little while ago, you met Rainbow Dash – and myself – and now you figure it’s finally time to go back, with our help? Even though you’ve searched high and low for information on this place and found none, just like I couldn’t find anything on it at all in my library?”

Flying three-abreast, Daring Do, in the centre of the formation, turned to look at Twilight slightly open-mouthed. A moment later she looked the other way to Rainbow Dash. “Does she do that a lot?”

“Huh? Do what?” asked Rainbow.

“That. Exposition. Talking like somepony’s just walked in and needs to get caught up.”

“Oh, that. Uh... you know, I never really noticed before. But... yeah, quite a lot, now that I actually think about it.”

“Hey! That wasn’t exposition!” objected Twilight.

“Trust me, I know exposition and that was textbook,” opined Daring.

“Yeah, come on Twilight,” agreed Dash. “We’ve been flying all day and just now, out of nowhere, you come out with that?”

“Careful,” warned Daring with a weary sigh. “Now you’re doing it too. ‘We’ve been flying all day’? Next thing you’ll be offering a recap of our journey so far.”

“Recap? Nothing’s happened! We left Ponyville, started flying, and now it’s now.”

Daring gave her a look. One that said, See? Rainbow Dash looked surprised, then horrified. “Hey! That... that doesn’t count!”

Daring rolled her eyes, returning her attention forward. So much awkward dialogue. Ugh. When I come to write it, I’ll just work it into the prose somehow.

They flew in silence for another half-minute.

“It’s just, occasionally, I like to summarise the known facts and extol them before moving forward. It helps me think, plus it boils down the salient points and gets everypony on the same page,” muttered Twilight. She shot a hard glare at Rainbow. “And I don’t do it that often!” she sulked.

Rainbow broke into a grin. Then a snigger, followed by a chortle. Then Twilight followed suit, her own smile broadening and eventually chuckling too, right along with her colourful companion. Daring flew on, straight-faced, not entirely sure what the joke had been.

The late-day sun was creeping towards the horizon, imbuing the sky with a pastel pink tinge. A vast evergreen forest of pine and spruce spread out beneath and before them to the limits of vision like a great green carpet, verdant and thick. Directly ahead on the horizon a twin-peaked, snow-capped mountain rose, faint and hazy and so far off, flanked by more peaks more distant still. They would reach it in another half-day or so, but it was now approaching the hour where there was little point continuing the journey until tomorrow.

Rainbow Dash was still as sprightly as she had been when they’d first set off, but in the past hour or so Twilight’s airspeed had almost halved, and while Daring was still going strong she too found herself starting to suffer from fatigue. Spending all day on the wing was surprisingly taxing when you weren’t used to it, and while her limbs were fit and healthy, they weren’t accustomed to such sustained use. For her, wings were a convenience, not a way of life. After all, if you were in the air anyone could see you coming while the ground offered lots of options for concealment and surprise. She preferred one over the other.

Scanning the woodland below, Daring picked up the course of the narrow river, carrying the snowmelt from the mountain ahead of them away toward some distant ocean. She had lost track of it a few times as it wound its way through the thick pine forest, but with the sun just so in the sky it glinted, reflecting its golden light as though it were a sliver of molten metal snaking between the trees like a vein. She spoke up. “We’ve got a couple of hours of daylight left. I remember there’s a clearing somewhere upriver, at the base of a small waterfall. We’ll find it and make camp there.”

“Oh! I’ll go find it and make sure it’s safe!” said Rainbow Dash.

“You really don’t need—”

But she was already gone, leaving a fading whoosh and a faint multi-coloured contrail in her wake. Daring hung her head in lethargy and exasperation. All day, Rainbow Dash had been enthusiastically rushing on ahead – ‘scouting’ as she called it – only to return and report that everything was clear with nothing but chipper gusto. When it happened five times an hour, it started to wear thin. “Is she always like this?” she asked of Twilight next to her, with another heavy sigh.

Twilight looked over. “Well, no. Normally she’s much more easy-going. She’s just excited. And, well... she really wants to impress you.”

“I wish she’d stop. I think I’m getting a migraine,” she grumbled. After a thoughtful pause she pulled her head back up and met Twilight’s gaze. “You don’t seem to have that problem.”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m excited too. But I can just about keep a lid on it. If you want to know the truth I’ve been burning with questions all day. But I know once I start I won’t be able to stop, so I’ve been biting my tongue. Sometimes literally.”

Daring nodded by way of reply. There was that curiosity again. The need for answers that she recognised all too well. Well, those answers would come, and soon.

Lo and behold, all of a sudden Rainbow Dash was back and bursting with cheery optimism. “I found it! And it’s totally clear. No ursas or hydras or anything anywhere around. Let’s go!” Then, instantly, she was gone again with a rush of wind.

Rather than speed after her, Daring kept a more leisurely pace at Twilight’s side and they steered a steady course high over the river until, after a couple of minutes, they spotted the tiny clearing and descended towards it.

The clearing was a little pristine nook in the vast forest. A small, sheltered, roughly circular patch of thick, springy grass nestled at the base of a wide natural rock cliff only about three meters high. The slow-moving stream cascaded from the top of the miniature precipice in a manner that was not so much spectacular as it was picturesque. The cool water fell in thin, disparate streams and met the roughly three-meter wide pool at the base with unobtrusive splashes and a pleasant ambient trickling noise. Thick-trunked, tall and healthy pine-trees bordered the little open space and graced the travelers with the fresh, clean scent of pine-needles as they arrived. Two small boulders that at one time long past had eroded and fallen from the cliff lay conveniently in the middle of the clearing as though ready to be used as makeshift seats. And as Daring and Twilight touched down they found that not only had the boulders been joined by a large, thick log to form a triangle around a central focus, but that there was already a circle of small stones laid in the centre to act as a fire-pit, and within it, a pile of twigs and short sticks for kindling.

Rainbow Dash was busy rummaging in her saddlebags, though what she expected to find was a mystery. Indeed, as Daring had noted earlier in the day, Rainbow Dash’s saddlebags appeared thin and light, and the loose way they hung at her sides suggested a lack of content severe enough to make her second-guess whether Rainbow had actually put anything in them. By contrast, Twilight Sparkle’s bags bulged at the seams, and she had taken great delight during their first hour of flight explaining in detail every eventuality for which she was completely prepared. All of which Daring knew would never come to pass, but she’d kept her own counsel and allowed Twilight feel pleased with her own thoroughness.

In spite of their apparent lack of heft, though, it seemed Rainbow had managed to at least pack a minimal amount of kit into her satchels. She extracted a lightweight purple sleeping bag and unrolled it onto the ground before looking up to see the two other ponies reach the clearing. “What took you?” she asked as their hooves touched ground.

Twilight gave Rainbow vexed, pouted frown. “It’s been two minutes!”

Daring followed up with, “Did you... do all this in two minutes?” gesturing to the log, the fire-pit, the small pile of kindling and her already unfolded bedroll with genuine respect. It already looked like a campsite.

“Heck no, I did all this in sixty seconds. The rest was just waiting around for you slowpokes.” Rainbow put on a self-satisfied grin and turned back to her bags.

Not quite sure whether she had just been insulted, Daring looked to Twilight who rolled her eyes with a wry smile, and unstrapped her own saddlebags. Without further ceremony they too set about unpacking their supplies to get everything ready for the evening, unrolling their own sleeping bags in the spaces between the makeshift seats. But as Daring went back to retrieve her flint, she saw Twilight stood opposite her on the far side of the fire-pit with her horn illuminated. A moment later Rainbow Dash’s already-gathered kindling of sticks and twigs suddenly combusted, fire leaping into life and starting to burn with a bright magenta flame. Twilight’s aura vanished and the colour of the fire faded to a more traditional, healthy orange, crackling happily, spitting up occasional motes of orange spark. Well, that was certainly an easier way to do it.

“Oh, well, would you look at that!” exclaimed Rainbow loudly, rummaging once more in her saddlebags as though searching, even though there must have been almost nothing in there to actually search through. She straightened up and turned to reveal to all that she was in possession of a hardbacked book with a brown cover. “Now how did this get in here?” she said, still ostensibly to herself. “Must have slipped inside while I was packing. Well, I’d better just leave it... here... for now. Wouldn’t want to lose it. Could be worth a fortune someday after all.” She placed the book with the utmost care on the rock next to which Daring had unfurled her bedroll. Then she went back to adjust it so that it was a little closer to Daring, and straightened it with a nudge so that Daring would see it the right way up. Satisfied, she stepped away again. “Well, looks like we need more wood for the fire. I’ll just go get some!” And with that she took to her wings and sped into the forest, and the clearing became noticeably quieter.

Daring sighed, spared a quick, disinterested glance at the book, and returned her attention to her saddlebags, unpacking and arraying everything she needed for the evening according to a familiar routine, long since refined to perfection.

“Well at least we know what that 'one super-important thing' was,” grumbled Twilight from the far side of the campfire. “And she criticised me for wanting to bring books. I swear, if that’s the only thing she’s actually packed...

“Hmm?” said Daring, only half listening. “Why? What is it?” she asked, then glanced at the book again, unsubtly placed right where she had little choice but to notice it.

“It’s her novel,” said Twilight, slightly resigned. “Though... I use that word very loosely. You probably don’t even need to guess why she just happened to bring it.”

Daring rolled her eyes and nodded. “Sorry, I don’t read unsolicited fiction. Publishers frown on it. Say it can get me into trouble and use words like ‘liability’.”

“Probably just as well,” said Twilight. “I don’t use the phrase ‘affront to literature’ lightly but...” She gave a meaningful glance at the book in question.

“Well if it’s so bad, can’t you help her fix it? You seem to know your way around a book.”

Twilight put on an offended expression. “I’ve tried! But what do I know? Apparently, I only read books! I don’t know anything about writing because I’m not a real writer, which you have to be to understand ‘all this serious writer stuff’!”

Daring gave a noncommittal nod and watched as Twilight Sparkle huffed and went back to organising and unpacking her bags.

It didn’t fit, did it? Didn’t correlate at all. On a whim, she asked, “You and her... you are friends, right?”

Twilight looked up, noting Daring’s curious gaze. “Well... yeah.” It felt like she should expand on that short reply in some way, but ‘yes’ was both the most accurate and most complete answer to that question. Yes, by every single measure, they were friends.

“How does that work?”

Twilight blinked in confusion. “What, friendship?”

“Well, that too. But I mean specifically you two. How are you friends?” asked Daring. “Not trying to be rude or anything, but I just don’t see it. I mean, I can tell that you’re the organised, studious, intelligent type, and she’s the brash, headstrong, leap-before-you-look type. You’re the nerd and she’s the jock. You’re poles apart, yet you’re friends? How did that even get off the ground?”

“How did we meet, you mean? Oh, that’s easy,” said Twilight as a little, happy smile crept onto her lips. Gosh, it had been a while now, but she could still remember it clear as day. “I was in Ponyville at the behest of Princess Celestia, making sure everything was ready for the Summer Sun Celebration. All of a sudden I hear this whoosh. Something hits me, the world goes flippity-sideways, and next thing I know I’ve been ploughed into a wet, sticky mud-puddle and there’s a pony on my back. She gets off me, gets a cloud to rain on me, and then makes a miniature tornado that completely ruined my mane!” Twilight giggled. “I wasn’t amused but she found it hilarious. She broke into fits of laughter! Then she showed off a little by busting some clouds, and finally flew away.”

Daring looked on, an open-mouth twinned with a confused frown. “And somehow you got friendship out of that? If that was me, she’d have had a solid hoof to the chops and a threat to stay well out of my way!”

“Oh. Well... there’s more to it than that,” said Twilight.

“Okay... go on.”

“Well, later that evening she followed me all the way to the Ponyville library. She confronted me... accused me of being a spy, actually. I told her and the four ponies with her about the Elements of Harmony and that I had to find them deep in the Everfree Forest, and she refused to let me go after them all alone. They all did.” Twilight smiled a happy, nostalgic smile. “We’ve all been friends ever since.”

If anything, Daring looked even more confused. “Hold on, let me get this straight. A pony who you’d never met before appears out of the blue on the most important day of the year. She drenches you, laughs at you, puts on a show designed to demonstrate she’s superior to you, and even spys on you. Then she learns that you’re going in search of ancient artifacts of untold power, and next thing you know she’s suddenly all friendly and insists on helping to find them with you?”

“Uh... well, the facts are all there,” said Twilight reluctantly.

Daring’s mouth remained agape. “That’s ridiculous! I can tell you exactly how that story pans out, and it doesn’t end in friendship and rainbows. That story there ends with Rainbow Dash knocking you out, tying you up and tossing you into a viper-pit while she and her thugs steal the Elements of Harmony. You could see it coming a mile away! And yet... somehow... it didn’t? You’re actually friends?”

“You’re missing a lot of the context,” Twilight said, her tone bolstered with confidence. Daring’s logical but cynical onslaught couldn’t penetrate a shield tempered by experience and fact. “Rainbow came with me because I was doing something risky – maybe crazy – and she was going to be there for me. Even though she didn’t really know me. She didn’t care about the Elements of Harmony, she cared that I didn’t get hurt because that’s just who she is. That’s why we’re friends. Because since then we’ve always been there for each other.”

There was a long moment of silence before Daring spoke again. “You got real lucky. In all my time I’ve never found anypony who wouldn’t have...” She trailed off, paused, and looked down for a moment as she seemed to work something through. “I guess I’m saying if I’d been in your horseshoes at the time, I would have done things very differently. And I’d certainly never have made any friends out of it. What if I’ve been too...” she finished under her breath. After a moment she gave another little shake of her head. Then she looked up, meeting Twilight’s gaze with a new smirk that wasn’t entirely unforced. “Nevermind, change of subject. You said earlier you had a whole bunch of questions? Well, you answered one of mine, guess it’s only fair I answer one of yours.”

“Okay, deal,” said Twilight, her face lighting up and her lingering sense of disquiet quashed with the arrival of the chance to secure more knowledge. She brought a hoof to her chin as she racked her brains to think of the perfect question. “Uh... okay. ‘What can you tell me about the place where we’re going?’

Daring’s jaw dropped. As questions went that was about as open-ended as they came. Then a new confident smirk appeared as she realised she had the perfect answer. Dragging her saddlebags over with her teeth, she flipped open one of the flaps and began to search through her provisions. “I could spend all night and all tomorrow telling you everything I know, saw, and theorised. But it’s probably easier just to give you this,” she said, pulling out the scrapbook with the words Failed Expedition on the front. She offered it to Twilight who took it carefully in her aura and began to flip through. “Everything I remembered, I put down in that book,” she said. “There’s nothing I can tell you about that place that’s not in there. I’m gonna need it back at some point, but feel free to borrow it.”

Twilight’s gratitude was written in her amazed expression, but actual speech became temporarily lost to her as she began to devour the book like a ravenous predator. Pleasant, ambient quiet fell between the two of them as an entranced Twilight skimmed and tried to assimilate pages and pages of detailed information, notes, sketches, guesses. And there was a lot to look at because everything there was good-quality; thorough and meticulous, just like a true researcher.

Paragraphs of text describing ruins more ancient than anything found in Equestria... drawings of a strange, two-headed unicorn statue... descriptions of the layout of the city... diagram of the two-pony mechanism Daring had mentioned. It looked like a large, ornate table or dais, sitting on a single central leg, with two rods extending horizontally from the rim on opposite sides. A great many hoofwritten notes accompanied the detailed image, spilling over onto the following pages.

Twilight’s brow wrinkled and gears began to turn in her mind. “Is this the mechanism? The one you need us to help open?”

“Yeah, that’s it.”

Twilight studied the page again, looking for anything she might have missed. “But from your drawing and notes it looks like it only needs two ponies. Rainbow Dash said you needed both of us, but if you and her could open the lock together... what do you need me for?”

Daring looked at her with a steely gaze and after a moment, took a breath. “Cards on the table? I don’t. The truth is you weren’t part of the plan. You’re here because Rainbow Dash gave me an ultimatum: you come with us or she doesn’t go at all.”

“Oh,” said Twilight, unable to keep a crestfallen expression at bay. She tried to hide it by returning to the book but it was a poor effort.

“What’s wrong? I thought you were excited to be here.”

“No, I am. Really, I am.”

“Then why’s your face look like a foal who just dropped their ice-cream?”

“It’s just... if you didn’t need me... if you didn’t want me along... you could have said something. I’d have found an excuse to stay behind, for Dash’s ears. If you wanted this adventure to just be the two of you— ”

“I didn’t,” Daring cut in with a frown. “In a perfect world I wouldn’t be here with either of you. Rainbow Dash is here because she was my last and only option. You’re here because Rainbow Dash wouldn’t come without you. I don’t really know either of you well enough to know if I can trust you, but I’m over a barrel.”

“You don’t trust us? But I thought... you’ve met us before!” said Twilight. “We helped you. All of my friends did, especially Rainbow Dash! Don’t you remember?”

“I remember. Look,” said Daring slowly, rubbing her forehead with a hoof. “That was a busy day with a lot going on. Tensions were high, emotions happened. But at the end of it all, what was I left with? Rainbow Dash, a desperate fan who, yeah, helped me out of a jam and left a pretty good impression. That’s why I even considered this, but it’s not quite trust is it? I still don’t know her. As for everything else, all I got was a few other faces who, as far as I could tell in all the chaos, handled themselves okay but probably for their own reasons. That’s all. Far as I can remember, I don’t even think you and I said two words to each other after it was all over. I didn’t know enough to even begin to make a judgement about you, so no, when I realised you’d be coming along too I wasn’t overjoyed.”

Twilight’s face fell again.

Daring rolled her eyes. “That’s not to say that now that you’re here I’m not okay with it. I am. Tell you the truth, I think I’m more compatible with you than with Rainbow Dash anyway. Maybe if we’d spent longer talking at Talacon I’d have come to you first.”

Twilight suddenly looked up, flattered, caught off guard and her dejection temporarily banished. “What? You think you’d get along better with me than with Rainbow Dash?”

“Why so surprised?”

“Well... you said it yourself. She’s the jock and I’m just the nerd. She’s the adventurous, fearless, rough-and-tumble type. I’m... I read books. You’ve got way more in common with her than me.”

“You think so?”

Daring’s question was succinct, but the hard, gruff edge to her voice seemed to have gone, faded away to something softer and more sincere, and genuinely curious. When she locked Twilight’s gaze for a long moment her steely stare from earlier was absent and her eyes bore just a hint of something less coarse. “Twilight? Who am I?”

Twilight blinked, confused. “Huh?”

“It’s not a trick question. Who am I?”

“Well... you’re Daring Do. You’re a fearless adventurer, discoverer of countless ancient sites and relics, thwarter of evil schemes, escaper of death-traps. A pony of action, as quick with her hooves as with a cutting jibe, who laughs in the face of dangers great and small.”

Daring lowered her head and she gazed at the fire. She gave a slow, shallow nod. “Right...” She let out long, weary sigh. “Twilight... who am I?”

Twilight found herself surprised and confused once again. She’d just answered that question!

And then it clicked. Because that hadn’t been the full answer. Not by a long, long way.

“You’re A. K. Yearling,” she said softly, an almost awed inflection to her voice. “You’re an orphan from Baltimare who fell in love with archeology when you were a filly. You have a degree in literature from the University of Pranceton. You did your dissertation on the lore and mythology of pre-Canterlot civilisation. I’ve read it! It was insightful, conclusive, witty! Your essays on the Reinaissance period were published in the journal of the University of Equexeter. You... you...” Twilight trailed off. There was so much more she could say, but the point had been made. There was a whole life there, and one that wasn’t just made of smoke and mirrors.

Daring nodded again and looked up. “How? Those are two different ponies you’ve described, aren’t they? And yet there’s only one here. I can’t be both. So? Am I a fearless, intrepid adventurer who turned to writing to fund her adrenaline-junkie trips... or am I an academic with a love of history who decided one day to go and see the places she’d spent so much time reading about?”

“I...” Twilight stalled. The two pictures she had painted were so different. So incongruous that they couldn’t both be true. And yet she couldn’t discount one in favour of the other. “I don’t know,” she whispered.

“Well, if you do figure it out, would you tell me? I’d quite like to know myself.” Daring gazed into the flames once more.

The quiet, contemplative moment was brought to a premature halt by the return of a loud, pale blue pegasus. “I’m back! Whew, just in time. That kindling’s almost gone,” said Rainbow Dash, a huge pile of short dead branches cradled in her forelegs which she dumped next to the fire. And no sooner had she discarded them than she was next to Daring Do with a hopeful grin, her eyes bright and eager. “So? What did you think?”

“Hmm? About what?”

The excitement on Rainbow’s face dimmed and she bravely fought off a look of disappointment. “Oh... uh... nothing.” She spared an annoyed frown at Book on the nearby rock. Clearly it wasn’t doing its job properly, and that was letting Team Dash down. She gave it another subtle nudge and a straighten such that it would be bound to attract attention.

The penny dropped for Daring at the same time as Twilight jumped in.

“Rainbow? I’m afraid Daring Do can’t read your... novel,” she said in apologetic tones. She had her mouth open to continue, but Dash beat her to the conversation.

“What? But my hoofwriting’s not that bad!”

“I mean she’s not allowed to. It’s in her contract,” Twilight explained.

Rainbow looked to Daring with a heart-wrenching, say it ain’t so expression, and Daring looked back neutrally. She wasn’t given to letting ponies answer for her, but there was very little to elaborate on or contradict in Twilight’s statement. But as Rainbow’s face fell into disappointment, Daring felt an odd little tug inside. A wanting; a little, oh-so-faint yearning. A tiny voice that told her to forget all rules of prudence and ignore what the publishers said... and just read the book, no matter how terrible it was. And when she asked the voice why in the name of all things she should do that, the only answer it gave was: because it might make the sad face on the other pony go away. Might cheer her up.

Well that was ridiculous, wasn’t it? That didn’t help her. She would be leaving herself open to all sorts of accusations of plagiarism, not to mention wasting time on something she had already been told was awful, all for no tangible benefit to herself. Illogical. Foolish.

But that little voice wouldn’t shut up. It wanted her to read the book. It wanted to not-see the sad face on the other pony. It wouldn’t shut up. Just read it. Please?

Daring sighed. She reached a weary hoof towards the book on the rock next to her. “You’re totally signing a waiver when we get back,” she muttered to Rainbow Dash. “And if my next book happens to feature a—” she brought the book to her eyeline, reading the cover, “— Captain of the Wonderbolts, then you agree not to—” Daring blinked. And stared at the cover. And looked up. “You know what? I think we’ll be fine.”

With no small measure of reluctance, Daring opened the cover and began to read...

The Captain of the Wonderbolts

by R. D. Dash

Colour Sprinter was the awesomest flyer ever. Trust me, I know about these things. She lived in a place called Ponytown with her best friends who were all pretty cool. One day Colour Sprinter decided she was going to join the Wonderbolts because that had been her dream ever since she was a filly. “I’m going to join the Wonderbolts!” she said. All her friends thought it was a good idea.

The next day there was a big flying race in Ponytown, and the main judge was Hurricane who was the Wonderbolt captain but who was about to retire. There was also another pony in the race called Thunder Ash who Colour Sprinter didn’t like very much because of their dark history together.

“Go!” shouted Hurricane and the race started. Colour Splinter was easily the fastest pony in the race but Thunder Ash managed to catch up with her and tried to knock her off balance. Luckily, Colour Sprinter was too good a flyer and she did an amazing barrel roll out of the way and Thunder Ash went spiraling way off course. Colour Sprinter came first in the race and got a gold medal and all her friends were there totally cheering her on.

Suddenly Hurricane came over to her. “That was the best flying I’ve ever seen,” he said. “As you know, I’m about to retire as the captain of the Wonderbolts and I really want you to take my place.”

“Ohmygosh!” said Colour Splinter. “I won’t let you down!” So she became the Captain of the Wonderbolts, finally fulfilling her lifelong dream, and she and her friends lived happily ever after.

The End.

Holding the book gingerly as though it were a venomous serpent, Daring’s mouth hung open in abject horror. What... did I... just read...? She flipped a couple of pages over but aside from one sheet with a crude crayon drawing of a pony in a flight-suit above the caption Colour Sprinter – copyright Rainbow Dash, they were all completely blank.

Rainbow Dash’s eyes were gleaming. “Pretty awesome story, huh?”

Slowly, carefully, Daring closed the book, hoping that the hardbacked cover would be sufficient to contain the awful text inside; words that should never again see the light of day. She considered cutting out the middlepony and just chucking the book onto the fire right then, but the little voice inside told her that, though justified as a service to writing, it would be cruel. And though Daring prided herself on being tough, she wasn’t cruel.

“So? What did you think?” asked Rainbow Dash eagerly.

And though Daring wasn’t cruel, she was definitely tough. “That was probably the worst thing I’ve ever read,” she said as she passed the book back.

Rainbow Dash’s face crumbled and fell, awash with slow disappointment coloured with a genuine measure of surprise. “But... but why? What did I do wrong?” she asked, the innocence of the question lending the whole instance an oh-so-sorrowful air that was galling to witness. But even so she was actually waiting for an answer.

“Where to start?” said Daring with a little, resigned shake of her head. “The length, the form, the prose that could have been written by a foal, the fact that you’ve misspelled your main character’s name at least twice? And this is before we even get into the technicals – how you’ve actually managed to incorporate a plot-hole into something this basic is astounding. Do you even know what writing is?

“But... but at least tell me it’s better than Applejack’s novel!”

Daring raised her eyebrows in surprise and found herself looking askance to Twilight in confusion.

“Applejack – you met her too,” said Twilight. “Orange coat, wears a hat, couldn’t pronounce Ahuizotle’s name?”

Ah. Daring nodded, vague memories stirring. “The country girl who looked like she could handle herself in a fight?” She turned back to Rainbow Dash. “I shouldn’t be able to say, given that I haven’t even seen her novel and don’t know anything about it... but hers is better. Trust me, it is. This is just... bad.” There wasn’t really a nicer word for it.

Rainbow held the book in her hooves gingerly, as though it were brittle as a dry leaf, and stared at is as though the text had been physically beaten, bruised and bloodied. To her credit though, she didn’t crumble – she hardened. “Well... then I–I’m gonna make it better!” she said. “Heh... this was... just a first draft anyway. You’ll see. Once I’m done with it, it’ll be totally awesome. Best book you’ve ever read.” Rainbow actually gave a little glance over at Twilight as she said it, her eyes containing both an apology and a request, both so subtle that they might easily be missed. It was as though some silent, unseen communication passed between the two, and Twilight simply smiled happily and gave the slightest of acknowledging nods in return.

The little voice inside Daring was disappointed and saddened at itself. It had wanted to see the other pony happy and it had managed the opposite. And that was the last straw to Daring. That voice was a distraction. She finally managed to get a good grip of it by the scruff of the neck and tossed it somewhere very far away from her foremost thoughts.

The purpose of this trip was not to make other ponies happy. Nor to make friends. This trip was about uncovering the secret behind that mechanism, liberating whatever treasure it guarded, and, ideally – if her most outrageous fantasies were to come true – everyone getting out safe, without anyone double-crossing anyone else, and then actually parting amicably. Oh, how she dared to dream. Still, time to get the goal back in her sights. She cleared her throat.

“It’s starting to get late. The water here is safe to drink,” she began. “Make sure you fill your canteens and eat something, then we’ll bed down for the night. Tomorrow we’re gonna have to climb the mountain so you’ll need as much rest as you can get.”

There was a brief but quiet shuffling as Daring and Twilight both reached for their saddlebags, searching for their respective water-bottles. Rainbow looked between them, nervous and a little lost. “Uh...” she began. “Canteens?”

Daring looked up with a slight frown. “You did bring one? A canteen? A flagon? A waterskin? Something to hold water?”

“Uh... well, you never said anything about...” began Rainbow, who was cut off by the sight of a large round bottle with flat drum-like sides floating its way into her eyeline within a familiar aura. She glanced at Twilight who was similarly levitating a second, identical example while wearing a resigned expression. Rainbow missed a beat, and then grinned, grabbing the bottle from the air with a greedy snatch before returning her attention to Daring. “I mean, of course I did! Sheesh, what kind of lame, unprepare-edy pegasus do you take me for?”

Daring rubbed her face with her hoof. “Did you even bring any food?

“Yes!” said Rainbow defensively, reaching into her bag for what must have been the only other thing in it. She brought out a single large sandwich – lettuce, tomato, and what looked like broccoli in a long wholemeal sub roll almost as long as her foreleg. “See? Food!”

One sandwich? How long do you expect to last on that?”

“Hey! I’m not... gonna eat it all at once or anything,” said Rainbow, in a manner that suggested she had only recently reached that decision. To illustrate the point she hesitantly pulled on the bread, breaking the sandwich in half almost at the mid-point. “See? Now I’ve got two sandwiches!” Some maths seemed to happen in Rainbow’s brain. She looked in awe at the two halves in her hooves and frantically whispered to herself, “Ohmygosh! If I do this again... I’ll have four sandwiches! I’m a genius!

“Come on, professor,” chided Twilight. “Water.”

“Right!” said Rainbow, stowing her dinner and dashing to the pool at the waterfall’s base with a swift flick of her wings. She dunked her newly acquired canteen in, little bubbles glugging to the surface as stale air was replaced with sweet, cold freshwater.

“You brought a spare for her?” muttered Daring before Twilight could move away. “How’d you know she’d need one?”

Twilight rolled her eyes with a smile. “Let’s just say I know Rainbow Dash.”

Daring considered this, and then found her attention drawn to Twilight’s saddlebags. Twice as full as her own, and she considered herself well-prepared. What Twilight could have found to take up all that space had seemed a mystery. One which she believed she’d just partly solved. “You brought enough food for her too, didn’t you?” she asked, deadpan.

Twilight simply smiled more. “Let’s just say I know her really well.” She turned and trotted over to the plunge-pool with her own canteen and dunked it in, standing next to Rainbow Dash near the waterfall.

Daring leaned back against her rock and took a long breath, the cold, pure northern air chilling her lungs and clearing her mind. The sky overhead had faded into deep, velvet twilight, and hundreds of tiny silver stars had introduced themselves high above the silhouetted treetops. The shadows in the forest around her were thick and black now, but they were neither oppressive nor ghastly. They were comforting. The clearing was safe sanctuary, and the shadows were their shroud; an ally and not to be feared.

Daring removed her hat, and then her drab shirt which she folded neatly and placed inside her upturned headgear. As she finished she caught Rainbow Dash stepping away from the pool of water, moving slightly behind Twilight with a devilish glint in her eyes. A moment later, Rainbow swung her hindquarters heavily into Twilight’s rump, knocking Twilight forward.

Twilight shrieked in surprise. Her wings flared immediately but shock, relative inexperience and the split-second she had to react made her flail them in an uncoordinated fluster. They provided no lift at all and so she tumbled head-first into the pool with a mighty splash.

A moment later she surfaced, a look of pure murder in her eyes. “Rainbow Dash! That’s n-not funny! This water is... really... c-cold!”

Rainbow Dash seemed too engaged in her own hysterics to offer any intelligible reply. She laughed so hard that she doubled over, forelegs wrapping around her stomach. The laughing stopped though when a purple aura enveloped her and dragged her from the shore over the pool. “Wha...? Twilight, you wouldn’t–!”

The aura vanished and so, according to the laws of gravity, the pegasus too plunged into the icy water of the miniature lake while Twilight found her own grin, cocky and satisfied.

Daring watched on from her spot near the fire, confident of the outcome: two riled-up ponies, each furious at the other. Not speaking. Exchanging glances of hatred. Perhaps the following moments would even see them come to blows. Certainly her own reaction would include one or more of the above had something similar befallen her.

And yet as Rainbow Dash’s head found its way above the surface things began to unfold in quite the unexpected way. For Rainbow Dash found the same cocky smirk she had worn earlier and levelled a determined frown at her foe. “You are so dead!” She spread her forelegs wide and then swept them forward, creating a wave of ice-cold water that surged towards Twilight, splashing heavily over her face. And then Twilight returned the compliment, and Rainbow Dash shrieked. And Rainbow Dash spread her wings, flapping them forward this time, causing an even bigger wave. And Twilight retaliated. And so it continued.

But they weren’t fighting. They were smiling. And, in short order, laughing. And then by some strange accord, the terms of which not even mooted, the splashing lessened and stopped. Even though the laughter continued. And when that too had finally petered out what was left were those smiles. Not devilish or cocky anymore, but warm and... contented. And in their eyes, something Daring had never seen herself. Not the glaring of daggers or promise of vengeance she was used to seeing in the faces of others but instead something softer. Tender, almost. Nice.

“C’mon Daring, jump in!” called Rainbow Dash. “I mean the water’s freezing but once you’re in it’s pretty okay.”

“Hold on, I think I can do something about that,” said Twilight as her horn lit up. From somewhere near the bottom of the pool a pale pink light began to glow, and soon bubbles began rising to the surface, bursting and popping. Steam began to waft into the chill night air and Rainbow Dash let out a surprised but relaxed sigh as the ice-cold pool gradually transformed into a magical hotspring. Twilight looked from the water to Daring, that smile still in place. “If you want in you’d better hurry. I can’t keep this up for long. Do either of you know what the specific heat capacity of water is?”

Daring looked back neutrally. A day of non-stop flight had naturally caused her to work up a sweat and she’d planned to bathe in the morning. But a warm bath was so much more inviting than a cold one. Accepting the invitation, she stood. “I dunno... is it over nine thousand or something?” she said in answer to Twilight’s question.

Twilight, who it seemed hadn’t expected an answer, seemed caught off guard for a moment, and then eager to reply. “Actually it’s closer to four thousand. But that’s still higher than almost every other common substance, and there’s actually quite a lot of water in here. Plus I’m having raise it by over a dozen degrees to even make it tepid. It’s not easy.”

“I majored in literature, not science,” said Daring, lowering herself into the pool. And oh, it was good. Hot but by no means scalding. As the water enveloped her she could feel her muscles relax into jelly, particularly her overused wings, as knots, tension and lactic acid just oozed out of them. She would be surprised if they ached at all tomorrow after this. Sinking deeper she felt her neck go limp and the back of her head found rest against the soft, tickly grass of the shore as her brain started to melt into a satisfied, contented puddle of goop between her ears. Until her instincts got the better of her.

Snap out of it! Stay alert! Don’t you dare let your guard down, Yearling. You don’t trust them, remember? Stay cautious and you stay alive.

Her eyes snapped open and her head jerked up. Stay cautious. The mantra that had served her well for a very long time. Suddenly she found herself questioning everything. Why would Twilight expend such energy heating this water? To do something nice? No. Ponies weren’t ‘nice’ to other ponies except when they wanted something in return. Twilight and Rainbow Dash had lured her in for some reason. This hotspring... it was a trap. Perhaps not a deadly one, but there were many kinds of traps, some more subtle and insidious than others. Best not to be caught in it. Safer that way.

She turned and clambered out of the pond, shaking herself roughly and casting the excess water from her coat and wings. But the night air was bitter against her dampened hide and wasted no time leeching all of the pleasant but treacherous heat away. She trudged to her saddlebags.

“Daring? Is something wrong?” asked Twilight’s voice from behind her.

“No, nothing,” she said without turning back.

She flipped open the flap on her saddlebag and went straight for her towel to dry herself off. It was a little-known fact of adventuring that a towel was one of the most massively useful pieces of kit you could pack. Endlessly practical; when it wasn’t drying your coat and mane it was a soft pillow, a small blanket, emergency bandage, a face-shield from sand or dust-storms, even a short, thick rope when wound tightly enough. So went the old saying, that any pony who could travel the length and breadth of Equestria, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through and still knew where their towel was, was a pony to be reckoned with. And Daring Do was a pony who really knew where her towel was.

Idly, she wondered if Rainbow Dash or Twilight had brought one.

She turned her head to the pool behind her. “Like I said, make sure you get enough rest.” With little further ceremony she climbed into her sleeping bag and closed her eyes, though she remained awake and alert, ears tuned to the smallest of sounds and would be until she was certain the other two ponies were asleep and thus no threat. Perhaps there was a fine line between caution and paranoia, but caution around others had many times kept her alive, and she couldn’t argue with results.

A few minutes later she heard the splashes of two ponies leaving the water and walking over to their own sleeping bags around the fire. Neither seemed to try to sneak up on her, and she heard nothing that might have been the unsheathing of a blade. In fact the only thing out of the ordinary she heard came a few minutes later. Rainbow Dash’s voice, in a hushed whisper.

“Hey, Twilight? Can I borrow your towel after you?”

Well, that answered that.