• Published 3rd Jan 2017
  • 2,803 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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4: The Climb

Daring woke from a dream she instantly forgot, greeted by the cold of the northern air and the very breaking of the dawn. The sky above looked pale and washed out, casting a dim pastel pallor into the clearing as the shadows slowly retreated under the threat of the rising sun. There was a dampness in the air that was unwelcome if not exactly uncomfortable, and the ashes in the fire-pit still smouldered lightly.

Reluctantly she threw open her sleeping bag and stood up into the chill morning. A few deep, refreshing breaths cleared her lungs and she walked over to the pool with her water bottle in tow, filling it to the brim and splashing some cold water over her face for good measure. Awake and alert she turned back to her two tag-alongs, still snoozing soundly, and reflected on just how awful the trip had been so far as a result of having other ponies in her company.

Except... now that she actually thought about it, she couldn’t quite convince herself that it had been, ‘awful.’ Rainbow Dash might have been a little enthusiastic for her taste, but aside from being ill-prepared and a terrible wordsmith, she hadn’t done anything wrong, had she? Nothing bad. And as for Twilight Sparkle, well, she seemed like a reasonable, resourceful pony. So, ‘awful’? No. She knew awful, and this wasn’t it. If she had to put a word on it, she would use... inconvenient. She might even stretch to tolerable if she was in a good mood.

But nothing more than that. She still didn’t trust them.

Well... okay, she didn’t exactly mistrust them. It wasn’t as though she really believed either of them had been deceptive or false in their motives, and thus far she hadn’t picked up on any subtle foreshadowing that might indicate betrayal further down the line – almost a first. It was more like she couldn’t count on them. That if it came down to it, she thought neither would go out of their way to watch her back. They had no reason to. So she regarded them with healthy suspicion. Never count on anypony but yourself. At least that way, you’ll never be let down.

But aside from that, it wasn’t as though there was anything that felt especially wrong with them being here, with her. She’d still have preferred to solo this, but since that wasn’t an option... yeah. Tolerable.

Daring returned to her bedroll giving the other two ponies a wide berth, preferring not to wake them until it was necessary. She ate a quick breakfast of rations before rolling, folding and packing all of her overnight kit methodically into her saddlebags. She slipped into her shirt and donned her hat, and by the time that was all taken care of the other members of the expedition were both starting to stir.

And thanks to her keen eyes she realised that for one of them, that might not be the best thing.

She quickly made for Rainbow Dash. The blue pegasus was lying on her belly with her lower half mostly within her sleeping bag, but with her shoulders and forelegs outside. But by the time Daring had reached her it had already vanished, and Dash was stirring more.

“Rainbow Dash?”

“Mm-hmm?” replied the sleepy pegasus, looking ready to stretch and yawn.

“Don’t move.”

Rainbow’s eyes snapped open. Then, in what must have been the quickest attempt to contradict her ever, she began to try and get up.

Forcing Daring to put a forehoof squarely on her throat to still her. “Don’t. Move,” she repeated.

Dash stilled. From her awkward position, belly down and face turned to the side, she looked up at Daring with just a touch of the nerves. “What? What is it?”

“There is a Shadow Scorpion on your back.”

Dash’s eyes shrank to pinpricks. “Is... is it...?”

“Don’t freak out.”

“But is it—?”

“Completely harmless.”

Dash closed her eyes and breathed a sigh of relief. “Phew.”

“—Unless it stings you.”

Dash’s eyes shrank again. She gulped. “Deadly?”

“Can be. Depends on where it stings you. If it hits a muscle, then you get excruciating pain and the muscle’s paralyzed for four-to-six hours. If it hits the neck or spine...”

It’s on my back!

“Don’t tense up. You wanna frighten it? Just relax.”

“Get it off me?!” whispered Dash frantically.

“It crawled inside your sleeping bag,” said Daring calmly, scrutinising the covering with the stony professionalism of a surgeon about to go to work on a patient. Rainbow Dash, though, was proving a most difficult patient.

“Oh... Oh horseapples... I... I can feel it moving!” hissed Dash.

“I said relax ,” said Daring. “It’s not like it wants to sting you, okay? They’re cold-blooded: he’s just after a warm, sheltered place to raise his body temperature to start the day. He probably thinks you’re a nice warm rock... so be like a rock and keep still. Now: tell me exactly where you can feel it.”

Dash swallowed. “It’s still on my back. Between my wings... I think... I think it’s stopped there.”

“Okay, great. Now... real slowly... I want you to spread your wings. Lift the sleeping bag off of it as much as you can as gently as you can. Then I’m gonna unzip it and open it up.”

“You sure this is a good idea?” asked Dash in a rushed whisper.

“Just don’t make any sudden moves and you’ll be fine. Like I said, it doesn’t really want to sting you.”

Gradually, Rainbow spread her wings within the sleeping bag, extending them out and up, lifting the material away from her back and from the intruder that had scuttled beneath it. At the same time, Daring used her teeth to pull smoothly on the zipper, freeing up the fabric and allowing it to open out bit by bit.

“It’s moving again!”

“Rainbow Dash, I do not want to have to start today by knocking you out just to keep you still! Relax. Nearly there.”

The zip reached the end of its track and, stepping round Dash, Daring smoothly pulled back on the flap, pulling the top of the sleeping bag over and off the prone pony.

Well?” asked Dash after an interminable moment.

“Shh!” said Daring. “I’m looking.”

Dash almost did a double take. “What? Can’t you see it?!”

“You know why they’re called Shadow Scorpions? It’s because their camouflage is so good that the only part of them that you can see is their shadow. And no, I can’t see it on your back because right now you’re lying in the shade .”

“But... you saw it creep into my sleeping bag!”

“Because they only change colour when their body temperature is high enough. It’s why they hunt in the day, not at night, and why they live in forests like this. Dappled light means they can sit in a sunny patch while their shadow blends into the shade. Almost impossible to spot. At one time ponies even thought that the scorpion was the shadow; a magical beast without an actual physical form.”

“You’re being the worst parts of Twilight and Fluttershy right now,” griped Dash. But at least she was griping calmly.

“Shh!” Daring continued to examine Rainbow’s back, but Shadow Scorpions really were almost impossible to see while they were still. After all, they were magical to an extent: their camouflage adapting seamlessly no matter how much a viewer tried to change their angle or distance of view. “Can you still feel it?”

“Yeah. It hasn’t gone far. Just below my wings, a little left of centre.”

“Okay.” Daring lowered her face slowly. “Okay, I think I see it.” A little patch of blue, only half a shade darker than Rainbow’s natural coat colour. Daring removed her hat and grasped the brim firmly in her teeth. “Put your wings down.” Rainbow Dash complied and, holding her breath – and the hat in her maw – Daring gingerly placed the bottom edge of the pith helmet next to the dark patch.

It moved. A quick jerking movement and suddenly, “Ow!—” from Rainbow Dash.

But in the same instant Daring gave a firm flick of her neck, scooping the interloper from Dash’s coat and sending a vague, nondescript shape three inches long sailing through the air towards the edge of the clearing. It landed heavily in a thick pile of grass, and was gone.

The stunned and confused scorpion, rudely subjected to an unexpected morning flight, knew where it was not wanted and began to scuttle slowly for the safety of the treeline.

Daring checked her hat carefully in a patch of sunlight to make sure the scorpion had not somehow got caught in the bowl, and when she was satisfied she replaced it on her head as Rainbow Dash got to her hooves, looking white as a sheet.

“It stung me!”

Daring rolled her eyes. “It pinched you. It was trying to hold on to you.”

“It... it—!”

“Trust me, it didn’t.”

“Are you sure? I thought you couldn’t see it?”

Daring looked at her flatly. “If it had stung you, you’d know about it.”

“But—!”

“Are you suffering from blurred vision?

“Uh... well, no.”

“Nausea?”

“No, not really.”

“Dizziness?”

“A little.”

“Loss of consciousness?”

“I... don’t think so?”

“Is every nerve ending in your body being wracked with pain, as though somepony has replaced the very blood in your veins with molten steel?”

No answer except a gawping stare.

Daring continued her level gaze for a moment, then turned away and buckled her saddlebags closed. “Trust me, you’re fine.”

There was a brief pause.

“Hey, Daring?”

“What?” she said, still focused on her bags.

“Thanks.”

“Hmm?”

“Thank you. Y’know, for saving me from the killer invisible scorpion?”

“Oh... sure.” That didn’t sound right. Was that how you were supposed to accept gratitude? It wasn’t something she’d had a lot of practise in. “Uh... ‘don’t mention it’,” she recited. That sounded better.

A few feet away the third member of the company slowly roused and stretched. “Hnng! Ah!” groaned Twilight. “Ooh, what a night! Did somepony mention my name? Or did I dream it?”

* * *

The morning routine passed quickly and soon the three adventurers were once again in the air, headed for the mountains. They sailed through a cold but bright day with little in the way of wind to trouble them, and the pale sun sat high in a crystal sapphire sky with only wispy, distant clouds for company, just barely strong enough to provide some warmth for their backs and wings.

“Wow, a real live Shadow Scorpion? They’re very rare. I’d have loved to have seen it. I didn’t know they lived this far north. They usually prefer more temperate climates,” said Twilight.

“Loved to have seen it?” questioned Dash. “You can’t see it! That’s the point! They’re invisible!”

“They’re camouflaged, not invisible. There’s a difference,” corrected Twilight. “You’re incredibly lucky. Very few ponies have ever been that close to one – at least, that they know of.”

Lucky?! If you think it’s so lucky, I’ll go back and grab it and put it on you. See how ‘lucky’ you feel then.”

Daring flew a little in front, deliberately removing herself from the bickering that seemed to constitute the only conversation that the two other mares could make. And they considered each other friends? If all friendship was was basically a series of inconsequential arguments, it was definitely something she could do without.

They made excellent time and by midday the closest of the mountains was only a few miles or so away. It was gargantuan, struggling up from the flat earth before it with a base many miles wide and which greeted the forest at its foot. The low slopes rose shallowly but interminably so it seemed, as though determined to keep going until it scraped the very sky. Two thirds of the way up the mountain’s total height it split, creating a wide and deep valley. Either side, the mountain continued its quest upward to the heavens, eventually culminating in two separate peaks – the southern-most summit taller by several hundred feet than its sibling – that seemed to stand sentry over the mountain pass between them. The whole thing was covered in snow, even close to ground-level as the air became colder and the weather less hospitable this far to the north. Beyond the mountain, either side and receding to the north and the east, other more distant mountains resolved into view, putting an end to the vast, flat plain and forest. It was almost as though they formed a wall, keeping the forest at bay, and with the two-peaked mountain as its gateway to the lands beyond.

“The twin-peaked mountain we’re headed for?” said Daring. “That’s Brokeback. That one peak on the right is the highest in the Mustang range. Luckily we’re not going to have to climb that. Only as far as the valley and then pass through. It’s a tricky ascent, but nothing too advanced.”

Twilight gazed at the mountain, looming over them now as they sailed towards it a mere fifty feet or so over the tree-tops below them. Oddly enough, in the last hour or so they’d been getting lower and lower, and it was left to Rainbow Dash to succinctly articulate the inefficiencies inherent in the premise of Daring’s plan.

“Uh... climb? You do know we’ve got wings, right? The ones we’re using right now? Why don’t we just fly over?”

Daring brought herself to a halt in mid-air, her two companions joining her. “Because of those.”

At this distance they were little more than specks. Dozens, maybe hundreds, wheeling and circling around the peaks and the upper third of the mountain and in the valley.

Twilight squinted hard. “I can’t quite—”

“Whoa,” exclaimed Dash from her side, also squinting. “They’re like some kind of freaky bat-bird or something. Like, with a long head and a beak like a bird, but webbed wings like a bat.”

“You’ve got good eyes,” said Daring. “They’re called Cliff Racers, at least that’s the only name I’ve ever heard them called. And they’re everywhere. They’re vicious and fiercely territorial. They’ll attack anything that comes too close, but only if it’s in the air. They regard ground animals as inferior and thus no threat, so we’re gonna have to climb the old fashioned way and head through the pass on hoof. In fact we’re gonna have to land pretty soon. If we can see them, they can sure see us. It won’t take them long to realise we’re headed their way and if they do they’ll swarm out to meet us. If that happens we might as well turn around and go home because we’re not even getting close to the mountain.”

They flew on for ten more minutes until Daring finally gave the signal to descend. Lowering themselves towards the tree-tops, they carefully submerged through the pine-needled canopy to the ground some fifty feet or more below it.

The trees here were tall and close-packed, and picking their way through would be tricky. They made a start in single file, Daring at the front and Rainbow Dash bringing up the rear, weaving a path through the woodland. The snapping of twigs and the rustle of foliage were constant companions as hooves brushed through thick, occasionally thorny, undergrowth. The high, dense trees blocked out most of the light from above with only occasional thin rays of sunshine able to pierce through to the forest floor. The three ponies walked swiftly and in silence, making good progress towards the mountain now a scant few miles ahead.

A couple of times Rainbow Dash seemed to fall a little behind, gazing with suspicion at some bush or branch before giving it a wide berth. When asked, she would deny anything of the sort but it seemed the revelation that there existed in the world a nigh-undetectable breed of scorpion suddenly meant that they were everywhere, and the fact that they were both very rare, and this forest very far from their normal habitat, were not persuasive arguments to the contrary given her experience.

While Rainbow tarried near a particularly harmless-looking hollow log, Twilight trotted forward to Daring’s side. “Um... Daring Do? I... had a question about your book.”

“Sure, shoot” said Daring, not taking her concentration from the path she was forging through the forest. A brief Q&A about the city couldn’t hurt. Might even give her a new perspective if she was lucky.

Twilight used magic to pull the book from her saddlebags and opened it. “Well... on the first page here... you sort of imply that you were trapped in the city, at least for a while. And that you didn’t think you were going to get out?”

Daring gave a sidelong glance at Twilight before returning her attention ahead. She didn’t like where this was going. “Uh-huh?”

Twilight paused for a moment. Then her gaze found the text in front of her and she began to quote it aloud. “‘I suppose I should put something here about the friends I’d say goodbye to if I could. How much I’m going to miss them; how much I love them. But... I’ve been sat here for the last half-hour thinking and I’ve realised there isn’t anyone. No-one that’s going to miss me. No-one that even knows I’m here. No-one that’s going to care that I’m not coming home. That’s probably for the best.’

Daring clenched her teeth. Of all the times her pathetic bouts of sentiment might come back and bite her in the rump, why now? She should have torn that page out before she handed it over, but that was a mistake that was too late to rectify. She fixed Twilight with a neutral but unimpressed glare. “What’s your question?”

Twilight hesitated for a moment before committing herself. “It’s just... it’s not true, is it? You must know that there are thousands of ponies out there who would care if you just... disappeared?

“I doubt it. You know what happens if ever I don’t come back from one of these adventures? The publishers wait a certain amount of time and then put out a press-release saying that the author of the ‘well-loved Daring Do franchise’ has finally decided to retire in seclusion, and she sincerely hopes her readers continue to enjoy her previous works. The fans may be upset for a while, but soon they’ll go read other things – those Shadow Spade crime dramas are pretty good. Life goes on.”

“Your fans might know you for your books, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t care about you as well.”

“Really? As far as most of Equestria knows or cares, Daring Do is fiction. I don’t exist. Trust me, I’m fine with that.”

“But... surely your friends who know you... they’d care?”

“I don’t have friends. I’ve proven to myself often enough that I don’t need ‘em. And other ponies have proved to me too many times that they’re not worth the risk you take.”

There was a short pause. “Is that how you feel about Rainbow Dash, and me too?” asked Twilight.

“We’re not friends,” said Daring with an annoyed frown, which then relented slightly. “Look... don’t get me wrong, you’re both here helping me out and I appreciate that. I’ll see to it that you both get something for your trouble once I get you safely back home – you have my word. But that’s not friendship. If anything, that’s business.”

“I see,” said Twilight, a little dejected.

Daring gave a little perfunctory nod, closing the conversation. Or so she thought.

“Hey, Daring?” said Twilight.

“Hmm?”

“Just so you know... we’d care.”

Twilight’s voice was soft and pure as honey, and sounded like nothing but honesty. For a moment Daring was surprised at the effect her sincerity seemed to have on her and she nearly missed her footing on her next step. She regained her composure and frowned. “Well... that’s your problem I guess.”

From behind them there was a soft thud, a cry of, “Ouch!” and a crunching rustle that sounded like a pony falling into a bush.

When they looked round all they saw, ten feet behind them and sticking straight up from the thick undergrowth, were four blue hooves.

“Rainbow Dash?” called Twilight.

The hooves remained mostly still and there was a pause of a second or two before the reply came. “Yes?”

“What happened?”

“Nothing. I’m just, uh, taking a break. It’s break-time, y’know.”

Twilight’s mouth creased into a smile and she tried not to laugh. “You tripped, didn’t you?”

“No! I discovered a rock with my hooves. Totally different,” came the voice. Rainbow Dash still seemed determined not to stand.

“Better get up, or you’re getting left behind,” chided Twilight.

“Yep. Break’s over. But hey, why don’t we examine this amazing rock I found first?” said Dash as she finally began moving. A moment later she stood up with a grin and seemed to paw at something in the undergrowth. Whatever it was seemed stuck and a moment later the grin fell away. “Whoa, Twilight... it actually is something.”

Twilight and Daring approached the spot where Rainbow was standing. There, half-buried in the ground was a flat-sided, round-topped rock made of granite. Shaped like a tombstone but half as large and twice as thick. The surface was cracked and covered thick with moss and dirt, but even so it was obviously not a natural formation – it had been made. And on its face were letters, mostly obscured.

Daring bent to examine it more closely, using her hooves to gently scrape away the moss, dirt and lichen. Slowly the etchings came into clearer view.

“It’s a milestone,” said Twilight from over her shoulder. On the face, a long engraved arrow pointed towards the southwest, away from the mountain ahead of them, though beneath it the place where the number of miles should be had been completely worn away. Beneath that though, there were words carved into the rock: the destination, still just barely readable:

Equestria.
Safety.
Freedom.

Daring stepped away and began looking around herself curiously. She peered up at the trees, and then found a patch on the ground clear of any bushes or shrubs and stamped her forehooves down, hard. She took a long look in the direction of the mountain, squinted, stared at the stone, and then a long look southwest in the direction the arrow pointed. At last she nodded. “The trees are less dense here than the rest of the forest, and they’re younger too. The ground is harder, as though it’s been packed, and you can see further in either direction northeast to southwest,” she said. “This was a road.”

“You think? Maybe a road leading to the city?” asked Rainbow.

“More like from it. The city’s name isn’t anywhere on that milestone, and there isn’t an arrow pointing that way,” Daring noted. “Maybe all the traffic was only headed in one direction.”

“But... why would that be?” asked Twilight.

Daring shook her head. “Don’t know.” She stared northeast again, toward the mountain. “Come on, we’re losing time.”

* * *

With an ancient byway underhoof the miles passed quickly. The trees gradually grew shorter and less close-packed, and the forest became brighter as more light found its way to the ground through the thinning foliage. Finally, forest ended where mountain began, and the three ponies left behind the pleasant, peaceful and – if you believed Rainbow Dash – scorpion-infested forest and began to trudge up the slopes.

Snow began to cover the rocky ground beneath them only a couple of hundred meters into their climb and it wasn’t long before it had gone from a thin covering to something much thicker, deep up to their ankles and difficult to find sure footing in.

Above them, hundreds of the strange monster-birds continued to wheel and glide, seemingly paying them no mind. They were odd beasts indeed. Their wings – eight feet in span in most cases – weren’t feathered like a bird’s, but composed of thin but tough-looking leathery skin pulled taught between long, narrow splines in much the same manner as a dragon’s wings or – as Rainbow had earlier noted – a bat’s. Their heads were conical in shape, as though comprised only of a long, narrow beak up to the neck, either side of which sat black, beady eyes and which tapered to a bony crest at the back of the skull. To Twilight they seemed like prehistoric creatures; relics of a time as ancient as the world, before it had had a chance to reduce and refine them into the sleek, elegant birds of the present. As they had begun to climb, Daring had warned them in no uncertain terms to keep their wings furled and even to avoid jumping if possible. Cliff Racers, it seemed, were very touchy about their personal airspace, and ‘air’ to them meant ‘anything literally not on the ground.’

Twilight had fallen to the rear of the group now, and she was suffering a little. Climbing up the mountain through the heavy, wet snow was draining, and while she didn’t consider herself to be in bad shape, she was no match for Rainbow Dash and Daring ahead of her. Plus she’d had something troubling on her mind for a while. Ever since last night when Daring had given her that book, actually, and the more she thought on it the more it bothered her.

Daring was well ahead up the mountain slope now, always staying where she could be seen, but using her experience and intuition to forge the best path ahead. Rainbow Dash could have been up there with her, Twilight was sure, but instead she was hanging back, closer to Twilight, and a couple of times already had helped her overcome a particularly steep or awkward or slippery section, for which Twilight was most grateful.

“Whoa! Gotcha!” she called as Twilight’s hoof found, and slipped on, a thick patch of ice while trying to haul herself up a short rocky incline. Twilight felt her foreleg seized in a firm grip and pulled upwards, and she scrabbled with her remaining hooves to find purchase, finally reaching safety. “Remember when you always did used to have a thing about nearly falling off cliffs?” grinned Rainbow.

“I thought wings would have eliminated that problem,” grumbled Twilight between heavy breaths. “I’ve never wanted to use them as badly as right now.” They started again, climbing the slope. The next half-mile or so looked relatively tricky going and Twilight’s muscles were slow to move.

“You okay?” asked Rainbow, her smile softening.

“I’ll be alright. Besides, it’s not exactly our first time up a mountain, right?”

“Right!” affirmed Dash and together they walked on side by side.

Twilight glanced upwards. A hundred yards ahead of them, and well out of earshot, Daring Do was navigating her way up a series of huge craggy, jagged boulders that formed a miniature cliff in their path and looked very slippery indeed.

“Uh... Twilight... I kinda need to talk to you,” said Rainbow in an almost-whisper. “But promise you won’t tell Daring, okay? She’ll be mad.”

Twilight looked back. “I promise. What’s wrong?”

Rainbow looked at the ground, abashed. “I ate my sandwich,” she mewled.

“Huh?”

“Both of them. All four of them. Whatever. The point is... I got hungry in the middle of the night and it was just so good, I couldn’t stop and then... it was all gone! Now I’m out of food!”

Twilight rolled her eyes with a smile. “Rainbow, don’t worry. I brought plenty and I’ll share.” She paused, the subject of her troubled thoughts dancing at the front of her mind. “But I need to talk to you too. It’s about Daring,” said Twilight.

Dash’s face said it all. At first it was surprise, and then relief. She subtly slowed her pace. “Oh, thank the sky, I thought it was just me,” she said. “I mean, is it just me? Or is this whole trip... with Daring... not as awesome as you thought it was going to be? I mean the journey is fine, it’s just she’s... I dunno... all gruff and cagey.” She paused a moment. “I’m not just saying that because she said mean things about my novel,” she added.

“No, I know,” agreed Twilight. “And you’re right. It’s because she doesn’t trust us. We’re only here because she needs us to be, not because she wants us to be – she told me as much last night.”

“But why? I mean, it’s like all that stuff we did with her just went out the window. Like she doesn’t even remember it or something.”

“She remembers,” said Twilight. “But... she was on her own for a long time before she met us, and she’s been alone again for a pretty long time since. Old habits die hard, I guess, and she’s reverted back to what she’s always known. Solitude and scepticism.” Twilight sighed. “I suppose I was naïve to think that one meeting with us would undo years of ingrained isolation and self-reliance.”

“But we did the hug!” protested Dash. “In pony terms that’s like saying, ‘Welcome to Friendship, population: you.’”

“And now I think she thinks that was a mistake,” said Twilight. She shook her head a little. “On that first meeting we got her to realise that you can’t always do everything by yourself, and that there are good ponies out there who will lend a hoof. I think that lesson stuck, and that’s the only reason she even approached you. But the rest... when she started to open up right at the end there... maybe it was one step too far. I think deep down it might have scared her a little. I think she went back to her lonely cottage, realised how close she’d come to letting other ponies in... and only thought about how bad that could have been. So she retreated to what she knew was safe. A life without friends. A life where no-one can hurt her... and she can’t hurt anyone else either.” She thought back to the line from Daring’s book. No-one that’s going to care that I’m not coming home. That’s probably for the best.

Prompted by that thought, Twilight brought the book out again and opened it for Rainbow’s benefit. “There’s more too,” she continued with a thoughtful frown. “If this were one of her normal adventures I think she’d be less guarded. But this whole journey, to this city in particular... I think it’s affecting her more than she’s letting on. Reading this, it looks like she was trapped there for days. She ran out of food and water. She thought she was going to become part of the place, permanently. I think that might have taken its toll. I mean look – she gathered tons of information, sketches, conclusions and theories, and yet she still calls it a ‘Failed Expedition.’ I think she sees this city – this lock we’re going to open – as her nemesis or something. The one ruin she couldn’t beat, and now she’s going back to conquer it come hay or high water. That kind of thinking might impair her judgment – lead her to take risks. Case in point: us. Because that’s all we are to her – a risk she’s chosen to take to get back at this place.”

Rainbow was nodding slowly, studying the book that Twilight was holding in front of her, open at page one. “She really wrote this?”

“Yeah.”

Rainbow looked up and over to Twilight. “Okay... so what do we do?”

Twilight’s frown vanished and she put on a happier smile as she tucked the book back into her saddlebag. “Well, that’s the easy part: nothing.”

Nothing?

“Well, I mean nothing special,” said Twilight. “We just do what we do best. What we always do. We help each other and we trust each other, and her too. Because despite what Daring Do says, we are her friends. And if we carry on showing her that, then before too long I think she’ll start to realise it. She’s already starting to open up, just a little. We need to show her that it’s okay. That it’s not going to hurt if she does.”

“Gotcha. The plan is: be an awesome friend. I’m pretty sure I can handle that,” said Rainbow with a nonchalant grin.

“I’m pretty sure you can,” agreed Twilight with a smile.

* * *

Hauling herself up over the final lip of the boulder-cliff to safety, Daring stood and surveyed the terrain ahead. Thankfully the next leg of the climb, though steep, looked comparatively easy-going compared to that last few hundred meters. Beyond that, they’d finally reach the pass where the ground would level out and after that it was all downhill. She looked upwards at the twin peaks looming overhead like giant white fangs, caked in what looked like fresh snowfall, and the hundreds of still wheeling bird-creatures in the sky, keeping an eye on them she was certain. The sky to the north was beginning to darken subtly but for the time being the weather was bright and crisp, with the wind picking up to a brisk breeze.

They were making reasonable time too. She had to admit, having two tag-alongs hadn’t slowed her down as much as she’d feared it would. If they kept this pace up they might just be through the pass and off the mountain by sunset.

She turned and gazed downwards, to the base of the steep cliff she’d just climbed. Rainbow Dash and Twilight were just reaching the bottom. They were smiling to each other now, not bickering – which was an improvement – and holding a conversation she couldn’t hear. Presently, they regarded the wall of stone before them and looked up at her. The climb was perhaps thirty feet, and very tricky.

“No!” Daring called down. “Don’t come up the same way I did! I can see an easier path over to the left! No – sorry! – my left: your right! Over there!”

The two ponies beneath her skirted the cliff a few dozen meters until they found the stretch that looked less steep. Even so the boulders that formed the climb were jagged and irregular, forming deep cracks and crevices in which one could trap a hoof as easily as gain a foothold. They’d have to be very careful.

Twilight started to climb first, with Rainbow right behind her. They began to ascend carefully, and it was clear that Twilight wasn’t the most experienced climber in the world. But patience and careful planning went a long way in rock-climbing and those were things she had in abundance. Their progress was slow and methodical, but it was steady.

As Twilight came within reaching distance of the top, Daring crouched and stretched out her foreleg to pull her up. Twilight reached out in kind, but in so doing put too much weight on the rock beneath her left hind hoof. With a crack and a lurch, the stone beneath crumbled, loosened and fell, and Twilight threatened to go with it. Daring lunged, reaching and seizing Twilight’s offered hoof in a firm grip before she could fall away and managed to hold her fast, taking Twilight’s weight while the purple mare scrabbled for purchase. Meanwhile, a hoofball-sized chunk of granite fell towards Rainbow Dash directly beneath, gathering smaller pebbles as it tumbled.

Rainbow had no choice. Caught in a narrow crevice between two vertical ridges, with nowhere to find a hoof-hold on either side, there was only one place she could escape to to avoid being brained by the solid and heavy-looking piece of rubble. Pushing hard with all four legs, she kicked away from the cliff. Her wings flared and she brought herself to a safe hover as the miniature landslide fell harmlessly through the space between herself and the rock-face. With Twilight scrabbling for purchase above her, she flapped upwards and brought herself to the top and leveller ground, ready to lend a hoof, only to find Daring just finishing pulling Twilight to safety.

“Get down!” hissed Daring, turning from Twilight and yanking Dash downwards into the snow. But it was too late.

From somewhere above there was a mighty SCREECH, piercing and shrill. The three ponies looked up. High above, one of the leathery-winged shapes broke away from its neighbours and began to rush at them.

It closed the distance with frightening speed, its wings half-tucked and its body straight as an arrow through the air. It came plummeting closer, closer, closer! And showed no signs of stopping!

“Duck!” yelled Twilight, and all three ponies hunkered down, pressing themselves as far into the snow and as flat against the rock beneath it as possible.

Another shriek sounded from the attacker, this one deafeningly loud and which held a definite roar of anger, as its wings finally billowed and it swooped low. A rush of wind hit the ponies as the beast careered over them what felt like mere inches from their backs. Rainbow even swore she felt thick, sharp talons graze the very tips of her mane. Then the shrieking receded as the Racer began to climb to rejoin its kin, casting furious glares from its beady black eyes down at the interlopers below.

The message was clear: Stay out of my sky.

Daring doubted they’d get a second warning.

The three ponies got to their hooves with a measure of uncertainty. They gazed upwards but the attack indeed appeared to be over. Daring cast a glance at her companions, and considered whether to be furious at Rainbow Dash or not.

Instinctively, it felt like she should. After all, by flying Rainbow Dash had gone against her instructions. And in doing so had drawn the attention of those creatures up there and put their chances of reaching the city – the whole expedition – in jeopardy! If she’d only done what she’d been told and stayed put down there. Yes, she might have been hurt, but the mission would have been safe. That would have been...

Much worse.

Worse?

Worse.

Hold on, Yearling. Can we run through that one again? It sounds like you prefer that that Rainbow Dash pony is okay, even if it scuppers the expedition?

Yes... as odd as it sounded, that was the conclusion she seemed to have reached. And from somewhere in the very back of her mind, the tiny voice she thought she’d banished the previous day was nodding along with approval.

But why? This city has been on your mind for years! You’ve known that pony for, what, a couple of days in total? Same for her friend? And after this is over you’ll likely never see either again. It doesn’t make sense that they’re more important to you.

Daring shook her head and scowled. No, it didn’t. It shouldn’t. It was ridiculous. The city was her goal and everything else was secondary.

But the fact was, she wasn’t angry at Rainbow Dash. Couldn’t even force herself to be.

“Both okay?” she asked.

They both nodded and smiled.

“Good,” she said. And realised she meant it. She even felt a little rush of relief escape. Hmm. She was going to have to think hard about this. Things weren’t adding up.

* * *

A couple of hours of climbing later the slope of the mountain began to lessen and level until they finally reached the pass.

A deep but wide valley nestled between the two towering peaks to their left and right, their slopes swooping steeply from the crests and then less so as they neared the base to form a broad, parabolic cross-section roughly a hundred meters wide and the valley itself about a mile long. Overhead, and much closer now, the Cliff Racers continued to circle and caw, hundreds of pairs of eyes scrutinizing their every hoofstep.

The snow was deeper here, rising to their knees, and the going was slower as a result as the three ponies plowed onwards. The weather was worsening too, with the biting wind now picking up to just shy of a gale, and of course it was blowing against them. Of more concern though, the sky overhead had darkened. A thick bank of black cloud, carried by the wind they faced, was steaming towards the mountain to meet them.

“Yup, that’s a thunderhead,” noted Rainbow Dash. “Gonna be a whole mess of a storm when that thing gets here,” she said sourly. The fact that she, an experienced weather-pony, was grounded and thus couldn’t do anything about it seemed to wrankle with her. The only thing they could do was try and get through the pass before the weather got too bad.

Daring had been deep in thought since the Cliff Racer incident earlier and, finally, had wrangled her thoughts to some sort of ordered conclusion with which she was mostly satisfied.

Firstly, reaching the city was the most important thing. Because it had to be, didn’t it? Nothing else made sense, and everything followed from that. Secondly – and obviously – it was for the best that nopony got hurt during this adventure. That was just horse sense and she didn’t want anyone to get hurt after all. Thirdly, while she technically only needed one pony to reach the city with her, it was fairly clear that she was going to have to get both of her companions safely there (and back, Yearling. You gave them your word,) because one wasn’t going to leave the other behind if they were injured. Reaching the city – and therefore achieving the primary goal – thus rested on both of her companions keeping themselves safe.

Daring liked this line of reasoning. It allowed her to keep sight of what she was certain was the most important thing while letting her justify not being angry at Rainbow Dash for inviting the earlier attack. It even excused the relief she’d noted herself feeling when she’d seen they were both okay, for it was certainly relief that the mission could proceed and nothing more sentimental than that. Yes, this was a good model to work with. Finally she could turn her thoughts back to the situation at hoof.

Noting the fast-encroaching weatherfront ahead of them, Daring picked up her pace to a canter and her two companions fell into step. Running through such deep, fresh snow was going to be draining, but the alternative – being caught out in the open in the middle of a storm – was in no way preferable to four aching legs.

They were a little over halfway through the pass when the storm broke and the whole sky lit up with the first flash of lightning. Daring subconsciously started counting, ready to gauge how far away the epicentre was. She only reached ‘two’ before the rumble came, loud, deep, and roaring. A bassy boom that swept through the valley with the speed and force of a tsunami and persisted entirely too long before receding.

But it didn’t dissipate completely. There remained a faint, low burble almost at the limits of hearing, as though the cloud overhead were determined to keep the thunder going even after it had naturally petered out. Daring found herself looking up, only to find that the source of the lingering rumble wasn’t thunder at all.

“Uh oh,” said Twilight from her left.

“Double uh oh,” seconded Rainbow Dash from her other side.

Daring concurred with both of those assessments.

High up the slopes to the left and right of them, the thunderous reverberations had taken their toll on the layers of recent, loose snowfall. Near the top of each peak the snow had begun to slip and slide, dislodging and gathering more and more as it fell with increasing speed. Even as they all watched in horror, twin avalanches began, fast becoming surging torrents of foaming white mass, roaring with the same intensity of the overhead storm, both careering unstoppably down toward the mountain pass.

With the three ponies trapped right between them.

They had about twenty seconds, by Daring’s estimate. There was no chance of outrunning it. Little chance of surviving it – being hit by an avalanche at that speed would be like being hit by a runaway ten-ton cart, not to mention being buried beneath dozens of feet of snow. And there was only one route of escape which was just as perilous.

So. Buried alive or torn to pieces? What a great choice.

Y’know, I’m really not in the mood for all that digging.

“FLY!” she yelled, struggling to make herself heard over the increasing cacophony. When Rainbow and Twilight looked at her, unsure, she spread her wings and lifted off, leading by example. “Fly! Get above it!”

They didn’t need any further encouragement. As one they spread their wings and followed her into the air.

Almost immediately their ears were assaulted by scores of shrill screeches as the Cliff Racers vociferously objected to their presence in their domain. From above them, circling beneath the thundercloud, dozens of black shapes began to dive towards them even as another flash of lightning and peal of thunder echoed throughout the valley.

Well? Could be worse. Could be raining too, thought Daring as the creatures closed in.

This was going to be one heck of a fight.