• Published 3rd Jan 2017
  • 2,801 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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5: The Battle of Brokeback

‘To be caught between a rock and a hard place,’ is how the old saying goes. That was how Daring felt as two dozen large, angry bird monsters closed on the three of them from high above even as the avalanches beneath them thundered and churned into the valley, fifty feet below.

The Racers arrowed at them, closing them down at such speed it seemed their intention was to ram them out of the sky or worse, skewer them with their long, pointed beaks. They reached the ponies in moments, and the aerial battle began.

Daring dodged to the side, and then used a single powerful flap of her wings to fluidly force herself into a spin whilst shooting upwards. The first wave of bird-things had no time to recalculate their trajectories and so they sailed harmlessly past, the closest missing her by mere inches. She looped up and over, and in her periphery noted that Twilight and Rainbow had both also managed to avoid the initial rush. The Cliff Racers, all having missed their targets, spread out their wings to their full extent and began to flap and billow, climbing slowly back to the ponies’ level.

Then they were upon them. A mass of snapping beaks and flapping wings, clutching claws and screeching shrieks, and scores of beady black eyes, glassy and soulless.

One of the creatures thrust itself at her, and Daring jinked to the side and upward, spinning again. As it passed beneath, her roll ended and she connected mightily with a forehoof driven down onto its back, sending it staggering off kilter through the air. With a smoothness and fluidity that comes only from practise she developed the movement and she landed a second, solid blow in the form of a roundhouse kick to the neck of another creature following in the wake of the first, leaving it dazed and confused. More creatures threw themselves her way, but already she was into the rhythm of the fight.

The Cliff Racers had vastly superior numbers, but for all their screaming and flapping and snatching, they sorely lacked in a particularly crucial area of air combat: that of agility. Their broad, angular, skin-stretched wings were designed for gliding and swooping, not quick turns and darting strikes. Deprived of the gravity-assisted speed of their initial attack they became ungainly in comparison to the smaller, nimbler ponies. Already several of the Racers were trying to gain altitude above the three explorers in an attempt to try their dive-bomb routine again, rather than get caught up in a fight where their disadvantages were multiplied and their advantages cut.

Of the rest, their attacks were furied and unco-ordinated, and most simply got in each others’ way trying to get at their prey. Wings clashed, thrashed and bumped, and a few Racers even tried to take a bite out of each other at some perceived slight. But all the while there was the noise! An ear-splitting pandemonium of shrill caws and screams from all sides, while the constant flapping of wings and clashing of bodies left Daring with no fixed points on which to focus, and threatened to dizzy and disorient.

Beneath them the avalanches met in the cradle of the valley, crashing into each other like two gigantic ocean waves, sending powder plumes high into the air. For a moment the snow even seemed to become as liquid, forming a vortex like a whirlpool as the two fronts tried to smash and crash their way past each other. But it did not stop. The avalanches themselves seemed to have triggered secondary slips high up each slope, as though aftershocks of a sort, which were themselves gathering momentum and becoming equally as impressive and destructive on their way down.

Daring felt herself slowly separate from Rainbow and Twilight, and she allowed herself to go with it. She didn’t need two other ponies getting under her wings and interrupting her routine. She was in full flow now, in the midst of a furious hoof-fight, and even the slightest miscalculation or interference from elsewhere could turn things ugly very quickly. She dodged, she struck, she wheeled and spun and struck again, all the while drifting further and further away from her companions into her own separate fighting space where the Racers could close in on their single target from all sides.

And there were a lot.

The initial vanguard of two dozen were now being joined by scores more, diving from above, threatening to go right through her, and then circling to attack as the more weary and injured of the first wave peeled away. The Racers had a never-ending supply of combatants and it wasn’t long before Daring realised that in a game of longevity, they had the advantage. She was already starting to tire. How long before a missed kick or some other momentary lapse would allow one of them to sink its claws in and drag her down?

She looked over at her two cohorts, expecting to find them in similarly dire straits. Like her, they were surrounded on all sides by sharp talons and buffeting wings. But, surprisingly, they actually seemed to be having an easier time of it than she was. Perhaps because by staying so close to each other then as a proportion they were dealing with fewer attackers each? There was only so much room in the air around them after all.

But as Daring watched – as much as she could while keeping up her own defense – she realised that those two ponies over there... they weren’t fighting separately. They were fighting together.

First there was Rainbow Dash who – and Daring would admit this not even begrudgingly – was easily her superior in the air. Where Daring turned, and struck, and blocked, Rainbow Dash swooped and looped and twirled. She connected with her share of blows, but primarily she seemed to move between the creatures. She was as water, flowing effortlessly between the failed attacks of her assailants. But it was more even than that. As Daring watched she realised Rainbow was baiting them. Her movements, her rhythm, her whole ethos in this fight seemed to be to draw as much attention to herself as possible. She would slip between a pair of attacking Racers and then climb provocatively, encouraging them to follow her along with any others who perceived her vertical reduction in speed to equate to an easy interception. And when she had enough of the monsters in tow – eight or nine at a time, for they were clearly none too bright – there came a flash of purple light. A beam of some kind lancing from Twilight Sparkle’s horn, directed with no small amount of concussive force that struck the entire clustered group and caused them to become dazed; to fall, initially, and then to scatter, dizzy and confused.

Rainbow lured them in. Twilight dispatched them. It was a wonderfully simple arrangement, and yet prior to the fight no tactics had been discussed, no conversation had taken place. This was improvised. Two ponies who both knew not only what they were doing, but what the other was doing too. Ponies who knew their own strengths and how to compliment each other in the most efficient way. And all the while Daring watched on, out on her own, fighting her own fight and exhausting her reserves of strength, and she began to regret becoming so far separated from them.

And then, all of a sudden, it was as though Twilight had read her mind.

Rainbow!” she called from afar, her voice almost a scream to try and be heard above the constant shrieks. “They’re trying to split us up! Don’t let them separate us from Daring!

Daring saw Rainbow look up and over towards her, and she seemed surprised at just how great the distance between them had been allowed to get. She set herself a determined scowl and yelled back to Twilight. “On it!” With a mighty flap of her wings she set herself on a course. Not looping or wheeling anymore – this was a beeline straight for her, and she ended up shoulder-barging two or three racers aside on her journey. Then she was next to her, still moving fast. Rainbow began to fly tight circles around her, faster and faster, and in moments a miniature tornado had manifested with Daring ensconced safely in the eye of the storm. The localised gale-force wind was too much to the fifteen or twenty Racers in their immediate airspace and they were blown aside and away, allowing Daring enough time to shore herself up and catch her breath. A break for which, she had to admit, she was grateful.

The tornado dissipated and Rainbow’s speed slowed. They found themselves back-to-back as the Racers circled and regrouped. But instead the majority climbed and turned, heading now for Twilight, determined to pick off the new straggler. Daring watched in horror as thirty, forty, maybe as many as fifty of the creatures began to descend on her from above while Twilight herself stayed remarkably still.

“We have to get over there!” she called to Rainbow Dash. But even before she could make a move, the Racers fell upon Twilight. Snapping and clawing, a ball of flapping wings tried desperately to get at its target and in the end simply got in each others’ way. Simultaneously there was a bright flash of pink light and then, without delay, another one to her immediate left. Daring’s jaw dropped as Twilight simply apparated into the air next to her, looking her own shades of tired.

The Racers over yonder began to realise they’d been fooled, and their tight cluster broke apart. They searched for their quarry and found them, the three ponies now flying in a tight group that would not be broken apart so easily this time. The monsters began to climb high overhead, ready to begin their onslaught afresh. But the ponies were ready for them now. They’d seen their tactics. The odds were starting to even.

The Racers dived, which already didn’t go well for them. Twilight’s horn-blast blast blinded every creature among the first line of attack and sent them scattering in a directionless mayhem, bumping against each other in the process. Their attack petered out as though a large wave failing to break and instead coming to lap peacefully against shore. And then the ponies were on the offensive.

Rainbow and Twilight resumed their attract-and-dispatch routine, and Daring found a niche for herself within it. Rainbow was the quick, agile scout who lured them. Twilight was the support who zapped and disoriented them. Daring was the tank who lay into them while they were dazed, dishing out heavy amounts of punishment while trying to keep the same away from her allies.

It worked beautifully. But it couldn’t work forever. The Racers’ numbers were so superior that there was never any hope of the ponies winning this fight. The best they could do was keep the stalemate up, and they wouldn’t be able to manage that for much longer. Twilight was looking exhausted, Daring herself was suffering too, and even Rainbow was moving noticeably slower as her wings tired.

“We have to get out of here!” called Twilight between blasts of magic.

Daring agreed. The only question was, where to? And there she saw it. Like a gift sent from above.

Partway up the mountain peak on their right, the avalanches had exposed a large section of steep, bare, grey rock. And there, revealed only by the snow that had fallen from its face, was a cave.

“There!” Daring cried, and pointed. “Let’s move!”

Thrusting herself forward she took point, and instinctively knew that her two companions were hot on her heels. Three Racers seemed to deduce their intentions and dropped in front of them, trying to place themselves in their path but Daring was having none of it. Not when they were so close to safety. She put on an extra burst of speed, picked one of the Racers at random and flung herself at it, crashing into it heavily, sending it tumbling from the sky and its two friends flapping away in panic. In doing so she created space through which Rainbow and Twilight could pass, but knocked herself off balance as she failed to separate cleanly from the body she had struck. She felt herself tumble end over end as sky and ground blurred and became one. She couldn’t find a fixed point to orient herself, couldn’t tell which way was up, and she felt the telltale signs of a spin-out beginning. She took a breath and remained calm, searching for any fixed landmark she could see to begin her recovery, but she wasn’t flying now, she was falling. With each passing second she fell further from her course and became an easier and easier target. Any minute now she expected to be swooped on by an intercepting monster, and the burning pain of talons sinking into her flesh.

“Whoa there!” came a voice. There was something pressing on her flesh, but it wasn’t burning pain. Felt soft.

Rainbow Dash had somehow got underneath her and caught Daring on her back, arresting her spin. That was all it took. Dizziness vanished. That was left, that was right. Up and down all present and correct. Daring re-oriented herself and got back on her own wings. Directly in front of her was the cave, right where it should have been. She hadn’t even fallen that far, thanks to Dash. She powered herself forward in a final sprint for the opening.

Daring reached the cave first, landing with a four-hooved skid and whirling round. Rainbow was right with her, and then Twilight an instant later. And then hundreds of Racers in pursuit, so dense that they blocked out both the storm-cloud above and the mountain’s far peak across the valley from view. The cave entrance would be wide enough for the Racers to alight, but a dozen paces further in it seemed to bottleneck into a short passage before opening out again. They had about twenty seconds to gather themselves.

Daring looked to her two accomplices, who both did similar.

“Everypony okay?” came the same urgent question at the same time from three distinct voices. They glanced between each other again and Daring allowed herself a little rush of relief. For now, they were all okay.

Another piercing screech, very close by, reminded them that that was a particularly temporary state of affairs. “Through there! Move!” urged Daring as the first squad of the creatures landed at the cave entrance.

The ponies retreated through the passage, roughly six feet wide, and into the larger chamber beyond it. A Racer with furled wings would still be able to get through, but only one or two would be able to advance at a time, and they had more chance of holding this ground than anywhere else.

Daring scowled and stepped forward, back into the tunnel, putting herself at the entrance to the bottleneck with the other ponies behind her, safe. In front, a dozen Racers began to advance from the cave entrance into the passage in a haphazard kind of single-file. Daring planted her hooves and dropped into a ready-crouch as the first of them locked its glassy eyes with hers and prepared to strike. She was better at fighting on the ground anyway.

Then, from nowhere, at the point that the path narrowed the most, there came a flash from thin air. And when Daring blinked and looked again, directly in front of her – and separating her from the monsters at the cave’s entrance – was a shimmering, translucent wall of pink-purple light. Daring’s jaw dropped and the Racers, for their part, seemed just as confused. The closest creature pecked at it with its long, cone-shaped beak and in reply the wall shimmered and ting-ed, but did not allow the creature any progress. As though it were made of toughened glass.

Daring turned in time to see the aura dissipate from Twilight’s horn. She looked back at the barrier in front of her in amazement.

“What... is this thing?”

“Oh, just a forcefield,” said Twilight, though her voice sounded tired and her breaths were still heavy from the battle.

Daring appraised the new, conjured wall before her. She reached out a hoof and touched it and found it actually felt a little like glass. Opposite her, literally within leg’s reach, the gaggle of Racers looked at her and then opened their beaks wide, as though they were screeching angrily at the top of their lungs. Yet only highly muffled squawking reached her ears.

“I may have been able to combine it with a basic sound-moderation spell,” said Twilight modestly. “All that shrieking was giving me a headache.”

“This is... a very nice trick,” admitted Daring. On the far side the Racers were furious now, and they were attacking the field with forceful strikes of their beaks and scraping it with their razor-sharp claws. As many of them as could reach it were trying to smash through it to reach them, but on the ponies’ side, all was calm. As though the attackers were half the world away. “How long is it going to last?”

“Depends on how much force they can subject it to. There’s a limit to how much it can take, after which it’ll shatter. But it’ll take them a good while to reach it. This is just a small cross-section after all, not a city-covering, huge-surface-area-having dome. It’s pretty sturdy if I do say so myself, and when they do start to weaken it, as long as I’m here I can repair it before it gives out. We should be able to wait them out.”

“‘Wait them out’?” cried Rainbow Dash. “Have you seen how many of them are out there? They could keep us trapped in here for days!

“We should only need to wait until nightfall,” said Twilight. “These creatures are strictly diurnal.”

“Die–what?

“It’s the opposite of nocturnal,” offered Daring. She turned from her study of the forcefield to look at Twilight. “How do you know that?”

Twilight smiled. “The hour I was able to spend in the library researching this trip before we left,” she explained. “I didn’t find anything about a city, but I did find a little about the creatures native to this region, including your Cliff Racers. They have very poor night-vision, and they can’t risk flying in low-light or they become disoriented and lost. They have to return to their nests to roost until dawn.”

“Roost?” said Rainbow, an edge of caution in her voice. “Uh... Twilight, where do these things live?”

“Mountain caves, mostly,” answered Twilight. Who then paused. And then blinked. “Oh.”

“Relax. We’re not in one of their lairs. Until a few minutes ago this cave was covered by snow,” Daring pointed out. She spared a glance back at the Racers, still attacking the forcefield with a furious fervour but making no headway. “Come on, let’s at least make sure there’s nothing else in here that’s going to give us a surprise.” Giant spiders? Imminent cave-in? Something’s gonna ruin this. This is way too good to be true.

The passage curved slightly before it reached the large chamber, which was roughly the size of Daring’s cottage. The irregular rocky walls were granite-grey and cold to touch, and the cavern echoed with the hard sound of hooves upon stone. The passageway itself ended on a wide ledge extending about five meters out, and running the width of the cave to the left and right cave-walls, but thereafter it dropped about two feet lower, becoming the floor of the rest of the cavern and creating a two-tiered effect. The chamber was roughly circular and towards the rear there were two openings of a similar size to the entrance passage that seemed to lead to further, smaller caves off this large one.

“Either of you get bitten or scratched?” asked Daring as they probed one of the offshoot entrances. “I have a first-aid kit if so. Don’t want anything getting infected. That was a pretty intense fight after all.”

“Pfft!” raspberried Rainbow Dash. “Intense? That was nothing. Try taking on a whole hive of shape-changing flying insect-creatures,” she said with a wide grin.

“Uh... I don’t know if that’s the best example,” said Twilight. “We didn’t exactly win that one, remember? We were captured?”

“Hey, speak for yourself. I was just about to make my move!”

“Of course you were,” said Twilight with a smile.

“Seriously, I had them right where I wanted them!”

“Of course you did,” giggled Twilight. Who then noticed Daring looking between her and Rainbow Dash. “What’s wrong?”

“You’re... being serious, aren’t you? You actually took on a whole army?” she asked.

“Sure did,” boasted Dash. “And for a while there we were totally kicking rump! Not just them either. We’ve run into evil kings, jerky demigods, fallen princesses, magic-stealing-mountain-sized-monsters... and the Bugbear.” She paused, noting Daring had stopped in her tracks. “What?”

Daring shook her head roughly to try and clear the look of astonishment from her face. “Nothing,” she said and began walking again. Fleeting memories of Talacon flitted through her mind and meshed with the battle she had just been a part of in the sky outside...

These two ponies, with their bickering and their cheery dispositions and their occasional bouts of carefree water-splashing... somehow they were much, much tougher than she’d given them credit for. And... somehow... they still found the time to smile.

* * *

Their search of the cave and its two adjoining antechambers revealed no shocking surprises or gruesome secrets, save that the second had a further, narrow and twisting passage that seemed to lead downwards and deeper into the mountain. Daring had decided against going further though. The footing was too treacherous, the light too dim, and in any event all three of them still needed time to recover their strength before taking their quest any further. That, and it was actually safer to stay near the entrance where Twilight could watch over the shield and shore it up when necessary. The last thing Daring wanted was to go delving deeper only to reach a dead-end and find their escape cut off by a horde of Racers who had managed to break through while their attention was elsewhere.

Things settled. The ponies shed their saddlebags in the middle of the higher-tier of the large chamber and with some magical assistance, a fire was laid to warm the chill of the frigid air. Twilight found a place where she could sit near the entrance passage and keep an eye on her spell. Rainbow made an excuse and headed to one of the antechambers. Daring found herself at a bit of a loss, actually. At nightfall the Racers would have to return to their lairs until morning, which would give them the whole night to get off the mountain. But until then, there wasn’t anything to do except wait. Absently she wandered the cave, looking for anything unusual that might hold her interest. Perhaps something that might add a bit of flavour to this chapter of the book. Another cave-chapter, she thought with a grimace. This’ll be the sixth or seventh I’ve written? How original.

There was very little to look at, though, and certainly nothing to excite. Just naked stone. She found herself wandering through one of the two openings on the far wall of the chamber, and in the next room caught a glimpse of Rainbow Dash, hunched over with that... novel... of hers spread before her, a look of concentration to her and with a pencil in her teeth. Daring ducked out of sight before Rainbow noticed her, back into the main cave. With little else to do, she approached Twilight. Awkward silence had been explored. Might as well give conversation a try. It hadn’t been too awful up till now after all.

“That thing still doing okay?” asked Daring.

“They’re managing to weaken the field at a faster rate than I’d predicted. They’re able to project a lot of force into it with those beaks of theirs. That, or maybe it’s not as strong as I thought it would be. It’s not really my spell, you see. I’m borrowing this one from my brother. Protection spells are kind of his thing.”

“Yours or not, it’s useful,” Daring commented. “So’s that disappearing-reappearing act. How many other tricks you got up your sleeve?”

Twilight blushed a little. “Oh, uh... a few. Can we just say it’s slightly more than twenty-five?”

“Modest, much?”

“Well, I don’t like to brag. We’re not all brash, cocksure ponies who love showing off,” she said with a grin. “Speaking of which, where is she? She’s been gone a while...”

“She’s through there,” Daring indicated with a nod. “Working on that sheet of paper she called a novel.”

Twilight’s smile fell away and she fixed Daring with more serious, almost reproachful eyes.

“What’s that look for?” asked Daring with a faint, annoyed frown.

“Well... it’s just you were pretty harsh when you gave her your... critique... yesterday. I think you hurt her feelings more than she let on.”

“Hey, from what you told me, I didn’t tell her anything you haven’t told her first. Why would what I said upset her so much if it’s already come from you?”

“Well, because it’s different with me,” argued Twilight. “She knows me.”

“Huh? What difference does that make? The length of time you’ve known somepony isn’t relevant. It’s your words they’re listening to. Same words, same reaction, surely.”

“It makes all the difference. She knows I’d never want to hurt her feelings, and she can take it in her stride. With you, she doesn’t know you well enough to know that for sure. I mean, I’m sure you were trying to be helpful, but... well, that’s not quite how it came out.”

“Hey, I was honest with her. I thought you ‘friendship’ types liked honesty?”

Twilight shook her head; a little, sad, resigned affair, and as she did so, Daring recognised the movement. It was the same weary shake she herself had given the previous evening, when A. K. Yearling, as close to an expert on the subject of writing as most ponies would be likely to meet, had offered her considered opinion to Rainbow Dash, clearly a total amateur who needed everything explained to her. Twilight was giving her the same exact head-shake now, right down to the closed eyes and lowered muzzle. Odd.

“She never used to read, you know,” said Twilight softly. “She thought books were dumb and only for eggheads. Then one day she put herself in the hospital with a wild stunt gone wrong and nearly went stir-crazy with boredom. That’s when I introduced her to your first book, Daring Do and the Quest for the Sapphire Stone. She loved it so much that when the hospital checked her out, she tried to break back in just to finish it! She’s read and loved every single one of your books, and now she’s even got to the point where she’s trying to write something! To come up with her own stories and tell them to others. That’s huge for her! Can you blame her for wanting approval from the pony that’s inspired her so much?”

Daring sighed. “I’m not saying I wanted to hit her in the gut or anything, but I’m not going to lie and tell her that what she’s written there is the best thing since Coltstoyevski just to spare her feelings.”

“I’m not saying you should. But you’re a skilled writer and words come naturally to you. To her they don’t. She has a fantastic and vivid imagination, and there’s a good story there, trapped in her mind. She just can’t express it. But that doesn’t make it worthless, and she won’t learn anything from what you told her. I’m... guessing you don’t give criticism too often.”

“That would normally require somepony else to be within earshot. Most days, nopony is.” She took a breath. “Fine, I’ll bite. What should I have said?”

“Well, telling her it was the worst thing you’ve ever read wasn’t a great start. You told her what she’d written was terrible and listed why... but she doesn’t know what she did wrong because you never told her how to make those things better. And she doesn’t know what to build on because you never told her what was good about it!”

“There isn’t anything good about it.”

Twilight stared at her with a little scowl. “Find something,” she ordered.

Daring blinked. And looked round. And blinked. “Now?

“We’re not going anywhere till at least sunset,” Twilight noted.

With just a hint of a grumble, Daring slowly rose to her hooves and plodded toward the entrance to the smaller side-cave where she had seen Rainbow earlier. She couldn’t believe she was doing this.

Rainbow was still there, still with the pencil in her mouth, still with the look of deep concentration on her face. The world around her might as well not have existed.

“Second draft going well?” asked Daring.

“I had an idea for a new chapter,” said Rainbow Dash. “What if, during the race, a whole bunch of monsters attacked and Colour Sprinter and her friends had to fight them off? That would definitely impress Hurricane. Also, for the ending, I figured what if Princess Celestia shows up and she’s the one to actually make her the official leader?” Rainbow scribbled a few more words on the paper, which seemed to have become a mess of arrows, inserted words and messy squiggles since its last outing.

Daring rolled her eyes. This was hopeless, surely. But Twilight’s words were still fresh. Find something. On another day she might have asked herself why she should bother with what was clearly a lost cause. But here, today, she decided to go with it. The alternative was boredom after all. What harm was there? It wasn’t as if she could make it worse.

“Look, uh... what I said yesterday about your... ‘novel’...” The word left a bitter taste in the mouth. “It’s not all bad.”

Rainbow looked up suspiciously. “No, it’s pretty bad.” She sighed and turned back to the page. “Gunna make it better though.”

“Well, yeah okay, it is bad. But... you know, your grammar is actually pretty good. And it actually does have a beginning a middle and an end... of sorts. But if you want to make it better, it needs a whole lot of fleshing out.” Twilight had said something about Dash’s imagination outweighing her technical skill, and she decided to start there. “You need to understand as a writer that the audience doesn’t know what you don’t tell them. You need to put everything important that’s going on up there—” she pressed the tip of a forehoof to Rainbow’s forehead, “—down there.” She lowered her hoof to the paper. “Otherwise it doesn’t make sense to anypony. I mean here’s just one example: you mention that Colour Sprinter and Thunder Ash have a dark past... and that’s it? Tell us what it is!”

“Oh, it’s because once, Thunder Ash put Colour Sprinter’s friends in danger, and—”

“Don’t tell me, tell the audience!” urged Daring. “Write it down! And while you’re at it, tell me more about Hurricane. What does he look like? How does he stand and speak and move? Tell me why Colour Sprinter wants to be a Wonderbolt so much; why it’s her dream. Give me a reason to care about her. Tell me about the race – the weather, the crowds, the course. It’s details that pull the reader in. Paint me a picture!” she said. Before adding, “A word picture mind you, not an actual picture,” just to be on the safe side.

Rainbow’s lower lip hung open as she stared at the... novel. “That’s gonna take a really long time,” she said, almost in a whisper.

“Well, yeah. It does. You have to take your time over it, treat it as something you care about. Oh, and not to rain on your parade, but those there are paragraphs, not chapters. A chapter is lots of paragraphs.”

Rainbow shook her head. “This is never gonna be as good as Applejack’s.”

“Why are you so obsessed with this being better that something your friend’s written?”

“Oh, uh... I’m not. Not really, but if she asks I totally am. It’s just hers is really good! You don’t get to tell her I said so, though. It’s set out in the pioneering West. A story about two cowpony sisters who’re the sheriffs of a small town and... it gets good, okay? I just thought if she can do it, so can I! But this is the best I can do, and apparently it’s the worst thing ever written.”

“Hey, I said it was the worst thing I’ve ever read, not that it was the worst thing ever written,” said Daring with a smirk. “I mean there are whole fanfics out there about me that I can’t read but that I’ve been told are total dross. Trust me, with a little help and a lot of work, there’s nothing here that’s inherently unsalvageable.” Rainbow actually smiled at that. Somehow that made Daring Do... feel better? Odd.

Actually, while they were here, there was one facet of Rainbow’s novel that, even at the time, had genuinely caught her interest. “Hey, while we’re talking about it... can I ask you a question about your... book?”

“Sure,” said Rainbow, and she smiled a little more.

“It’s just... of what you wrote, the whole thing’s five paragraphs long. It’s maybe three hundred words in total? Yet you mention Colour Sprinter’s friends at least four different times. They get more mentions than Hurricane or Thunder Ash. Why?

Dash looked confused. “What? I want ponies to know about her awesome friends, that’s all.”

“But they don’t do anything. They’re not important to the story. Why’d you write them in at all?”

Suddenly Rainbow’s expression changed, and she frowned as though offended. “Hey, whoa there. They are too important! If she didn’t have such amazing friends behind her, Colour Sprinter wouldn’t be the totally awesome pony she is.”

“But she’d get there on her own, right? She’s still the best flyer ever. She’d still win the race and get what she wanted. She doesn’t need friends for any of that.”

“No. She needs her friends,” argued Dash with a resolute frown. “And her friends are there for her every step of the way.”

There was a long, drawn out silence. Interminable seconds passed, the only sound the highly muffled screeches from the next room.

Daring shook her head with a sigh. Her muzzle fell to the floor. “I just honestly don’t get it. Why ponies think having ‘friends’ is such a good idea. From what I’ve seen with you and Twilight most of what you do is bicker and argue. You can do without that, surely.”

“Oh come on, that’s not real arguing, that’s just horsing about. For fun. Don’t you ever kid around with your friends?”

Daring met Rainbow’s gaze with a frown. “I live by myself in a small cottage in the most remote part of Equestria I can find; I plan long, solo excursions to ancient ruins where nopony’s been for hundreds of years; then I come back and I write about those trips in quiet solitude. Just how many friends do you think I have?” She snorted and shook her head. “I... I don’t do friends, okay? I wouldn’t even really know how you’re supposed to go about making a friend. Find a random pony and ask them if they want to be friends? That how it works? And how do you filter out the ponies that are going to be a good friend from the ones who’ll stab you in the back? And how—?” She caught herself. She was babbling. She put her comfortable frown back on. “It’s too late for me to learn this stuff. Besides, it’s a part of life I can do without.”

There was another long, quiet moment. Rainbow Dash seemed to study Daring, and then, eventually, she grinned. “Two,” she said.

Daring blinked. “What?”

“Two,” Rainbow repeated. “You asked how many friends I thought you had. Well? I know you’ve got at least two.”

Daring’s frown deepened. Then it relaxed and she found herself rolling her eyes. “Not to burst your bubble, but like I told Twilight yesterday, I’m not your friend. Either of you,” she said.

Rainbow’s smile only increased. “Sorry, Daring Do, but Twilight and I were talking earlier and, as it turns out, you don’t have the final say in that. In fact, you’ve been outvoted. You’ve got two friends whether you like it or not,” she said.

“You’re not hearing me,” said Daring, feeling her teeth clench. “I don’t want any friends.”

“Hold that thought,” said Rainbow, standing, tucking her book under her wing and walking to the opening to the main chamber. “Twilight?” she called through it.

Yes, Rainbow?

“Daring Do is saying she doesn’t want any friends. Is it okay to still be friends with her?”

Yes, Rainbow.

Rainbow looked back triumphantly. “Outvoted.” She grinned from ear to ear.

Daring was glaring now. “I’ll decide who I—!”

But Rainbow cut her off. The pale blue pegasus turned back to her with a suddenly sincere look, and when she spoke her voice was calm, soft, and absent its earlier bravado. “Look... I get it, okay?” she said. “You think because you don’t literally need other ponies to survive like you need food or water or air, they’re not worth the risk you take having them around. But you’re dismissing friendship before you’ve even given it a chance! I get that you don’t want to risk putting your trust in anypony, and that’s okay. It’s scary and, yeah, it might end up hurting – I know. But... think about this: that through there is literally the Princess of Friendship! And right now you’re talking to the bearer of the Element of Loyalty. You couldn’t ask for two better cards in your starter-deck! We’re here for you and that’s not gonna change. So, why not try it out? You can’t tell me friendship is the scariest thing you’ve ever faced. Is it really so terrifying that you never want to know what it’s like to have a friend?” She stared at Daring, locking her gaze, unblinking. “Neither of us would be here if we didn’t want to help you,” she said, almost a whisper. And with that, Rainbow trotted through the opening back into the main cave and out of sight.

Daring’s legs gave way and she fell to her rump, as though she’d been winded. What the heck had just happened? It felt like she’d been railroaded into something, but she wasn’t exactly sure what. Friendship?

She shook her head roughly enough to dislodge her hat, and had to set it straight again. Nothing’s changed. If they want to pretend they’re your friends, just let ‘em. It’ll keep them quiet and off your back. She took a breath, forced a smile, and walked back into the main...

Huh... that was weird. That smile came a lot more easily than she was expecting.

* * *

Hours passed. Twilight had gone from having to reinforce her spell every hour to every two – and even then only out of an abundance of caution – as the Racers gradually gave up. The ones who had been attacking the shield at first had long since conceded the futility of the task and departed, but it seemed that every Racer in the colony at least wanted a go at it, or at least to see it. A magic wall of shimmering light wasn’t something they would witness every day after all. They seemed less concerned at the actual ponies beyond it now, and their muffled shrieks had all but ceased, save for an occasional caw when one bird got in another’s way or stepped on its talon in the narrow passage. Daring was fairly sure from watching their body language that her and her entourage’s earlier transgression had been largely forgotten, and that if the Racers did in fact break through, they likely as not wouldn’t know why they’d been trying in the first place. Still, better safe than sorry, so the forcefield stayed up.

The three ponies were gathered around the fire a few feet from the passageway where Twilight could still see the spell, and the flames burned with some clever, smokeless faggots that Twilight had earlier dug from the depths of her bags. She really had brought everything. If Daring had been worried that things would become awkward in some way after her conversation with Rainbow Dash, it was an unfounded fear. Dash and Twilight were both just as easy-going as they had been up to this point. Nothing had changed. She found herself wondering: how long had they been telling themselves they were her friends?

Did it really matter? The mission was still intact.

“...And then Princess Celestia comes in at the end and says, ‘You’re so awesome Colour Sprinter. I officially declare you as the Captain of the Wonderbolts!’ Pretty sweet, huh?”

Twilight gave a little, musical giggle. “Rainbow, that’s not how she talks.”

“Also, friendly piece of advice: be careful about writing about real ponies, especially using their real names,” said Daring with a grimace. “It’s never a good idea.”

She got a couple of interesting looks at that, which she might have expected.

“Huh?” said Rainbow, confused. “But... you do it. Ahuizotle, Caballeron...”

“I started doing it, and regretted it. Now I can’t stop doing it because the characters are established, so I’m stuck. Ahuizotle I get away with because... well... he doesn’t read too many books or visit many libraries. As for Caballeron...” a scowl found its way to her brow. “He’s got a really clever lawyer.” She looked up. “Publishers weren’t overjoyed when they found out he wasn’t based on a real pony, he was a real pony. Now they have a pony especially to vet anything I write to make sure it can still be construed as fictitious by your average reader. That’s why folks read Daring Do after all – fantastic escapist adventures of bravery and peril. Too many real-life details or references to ponies who actually exist, and suddenly it all becomes pretty mundane.” She glanced to Rainbow Dash. “You remember that copy of Ring of Destiny I sent you? Hold on to that – it’ll be worth something in a few years. It’s one of only two copies ever printed where your real name comes up. In all of the mass-market ones, Daring Do’s sidekick is a brash, cocky mare called Bravely Blue. Thank the Publisher’s vetting-pony for that.” She paused and noted the look of astonished horror and disappointment on Rainbow’s face. “Trust me on this... it’s better this way. For you and them. Just ask Caballeron.” She turned to Twilight. “Poor guy’s gonna have kittens when he reads about you! A mauve alicorn who constantly goes on about ‘friendship’? Not too many of those around. In the final draft you’ll probably end up as a regular unicorn called Purple Smart or something. They’re not great with names, so apologies in advance.”

“Wait – so this is all gonna be part of a new book?” asked Rainbow, excited.

“It’s pretty likely. We’re certainly hitting all the right clichés,” said Daring. “Forest part, mountain part, action part, cave part. Stitch a few parts together and it’s not hard to write an adventure story. I’m just glad there’s no river part. There are only so many ways you can describe a raging waterfall and I’ve used them all by now.” She looked up to see Twilight and Rainbow were gazing at her in confusion.

“But... just because there’s a river it doesn’t necessarily follow that—” Twilight started, but Daring cut her off.

“No, it does. It really really does. Think of any story you’ve ever read, seen, or heard of where the characters end up on a river? There’s always a waterfall. Every. Time.

There was a moment of silence before Rainbow looked down and flipped open her book. “Gonna add a river-no-waterfall chapter to this baby,” she muttered with a little grin.

Daring let out a chuckle. “I gotta admit, I wasn’t expecting the fight scene to be so early and so brutal. That might even be the most intense fight I’ve ever had.”

“Aw, come on,” said Dash, “Surely that’s nothing compared to the Barbarian Baboons of Barbarosa?”

“Or the Cavalry of the Cult of Kali-Ma?” chimed in Twilight with a grin.

“Or the Raging Rhinoceroses of Roan?” added Rainbow.

Daring simply looked between them with her mouth open a touch. Or the Guard Goats of Gruff Isle, she thought with a wan expression. “Look, uh... maybe you shouldn’t believe everything you read about in a book. Especially one that’s presented as a work of fiction,” she said carefully.

There was an awkward pause. A silence that was just a second too long.

“Whoa whoa whoa!” said Dash. “Are you saying that some of the stuff in your books is made up?!

“It’s complicated,” said Daring.

“But... they’re based on your real adventures aren’t they? I mean, we’ve seen you in action!” Twilight put forward.

“They are... but ‘based on’ is kind of a loose term. It’s... ugh, how can I explain?” she muttered. Looking down, she spotted a good-size chunk of rock about the size of a tennis ball and picked it up, hefting it on her hoof. “Okay, here’s an example. Watch this.”

As Twilight and Rainbow watched, Daring Do tossed the rock towards the fire. It made a short flight through the air and landed among the flames and embers with a soft sizzling noise, sending up a small plume of sparks.

Daring looked up at the two ponies opposite her. “What just happened?” she asked.

Twilight and Rainbow Dash shared a confused glance with each other. Ultimately, Rainbow spoke up first. “Uh... you threw that rock in the fire?”

Daring looked to Twilight, wordlessly inviting her comment.

“Well, I’m forced to agree. You threw the rock into the fire.”

Daring nodded. “See, what I saw happen was that, with a casual flick of her hoof, Daring Do hurled the weighty chunk of grey granite through the air in a low arc, aimed squarely at the roaring inferno. The unstoppable stone hurtled towards its target, smashing into the very heart of the blaze, becoming wreathed in scarlet flame as a hundred motes of incendiary splinters erupted in a violent, beautiful cascade, then scattered like fireflies.” Daring paused for breath and she swore Rainbow Dash almost applauded!

“What you said was absolutely right. I threw a rock into a fire. But that doesn’t sound very exciting, right? So I tweaked it a little. Everything I said is still true, it’s just a coat of paint over the facts to make it more interesting for the reader to look at. And if you get the colour bright enough, most ponies don’t notice that the facts might be... kinda dull.” She took another breath. “Everything I’ve written about in my books actually happened. That is true. But... some of my escapes might not have been as last-second as I made them sound. Some of those fights might have been slightly more in my favour than I let on.”

“But... some of them were, right?” begged Dash.

“Sure. Especially in the early days, some of the trouble I got into was pretty hairy. But more recently? Not so much. I’ve been to most of the truly dangerous ruins already. Unfortunately, publishers can’t sell a book that’s marketed as, ‘Come read about Daring Do’s latest escape: it’s not quite as good as her last one!’ So you know what? When I turn my manuscript in, sometimes they put their own, extra layer of paint over the facts.”

“Are you saying... they change things you’ve written?” asked Twilight.

“It’s happened a couple of times, yeah.”

“And you let them?”

“I don’t have much choice.”

“But you’re Daring Do!” cried Dash.

She shook her head with another sigh. “Daring Do isn’t a person, she’s a franchise. A copyright. She’s the main character in a series of novels written by yours truly and edited by Hoofprint Publishing. I’m not even the ‘official’ Daring Do. Did you know that there’s a pony on their payroll who swans around putting make-up and costume on and pretending to be me for publicity? And then in one appearance she goes and spouts off about how much she loves pistachio ice-cream? And next thing the Publishers are inserting whole paragraphs into Daring Do and the Cursed Casket about how much Daring craves the stuff, to keep it consistent. I’ve never even tried it!” She took a deep breath and sighed heavily. “That pony’s got a lot to answer for...” she growled.

An odd look passed between Twilight and Rainbow before Twilight spoke. “You’re not angry at her are you?”

“I’m not the biggest fan that there’s a pony running around out there, impersonating me, hoodwinking fans into thinking she is me, and who sometimes has more influence over what gets put into my books than I do, no,” grumped Daring with a deep scowl. From behind her frown she noticed another look pass between the two ponies opposite.

“Just... please, don’t judge her too harshly,” said Twilight at last. “You don’t know what she’s been through.”

“Oh. You... know her?”

“She’s a friend,” Twilight admitted. Rainbow nodded in agreement.

Daring rolled her eyes. “What a surprise, another friend,” she said with sarcasm.

“Besides, she’s just doing her best to live up to your reputation,” said Rainbow. “And that’s hard because, I don’t know if you’ve forgotten this or what, but you’re awesome. And I don’t just mean in your books because we were there! We saw you kicking Ahuizotle’s butt and foiling his evil scheme. That was classic Daring Do, and it was plenty real! So was that battle out there! So what if a few details like your ice-cream preference get tweaked on paper? Far as I’m concerned, Daring Do is a real pony and she’s right here in this cave!”

“And it wouldn’t even matter if it were all true, or all made up,” added Twilight. “We’d be here for you either way. Because you came to us and said you needed our help. And even after you get it and you don’t need us, we’re still going to be here for you, if you want us to be.” She smiled a sweet, innocent smile. “It’s okay to want us to be, y’know?”

Daring rolled her eyes. How was it possible that these two seemed to be able to turn every avenue of conversation into more mushy friendship nonsense? “Listen,” she said, ready to offer yet another thanks-but-no thanks. And then caught herself as her ears pricked. “Wait... actually listen,” she clarified.

Silence. In fact, Daring couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard a muffled caw or the telltale Ting of a beak striking Twilight’s spell. And the entrance passage seemed darker now.

“I think they’re gone...”

* * *

Night had fallen quickly. Above her the vast sky was dotted with a million crystal stars; more than she’d ever seen, among an ocean of deepest black. Far distant, above the horizon, a bright and brilliant half-moon was rising, taking its place among the studded velvet expanse. The brisk wind was biting cold against her coat so high up on the mountain, and it whipped her mane, tail and loosely-worn shirt about her as she stood, casting a stoic figure at the brink of the cave entrance. Of the Cliff Racers there was no sign and they indeed seemed to have returned to their nests for the night. Daring cast her gaze to the north and east. She could see where the pass ended from here, and could just about make out the valley beyond, but it was too dark to really get a look at. She took a long, slow breath through her nostrils letting the freezing air cleanse her lungs, and let it out through her mouth, her breath turning to vapour and carried away by the thick, buffeting breeze. Mountain air was the best air. She nodded and turned for the passage behind her. The danger was past. The Racers weren’t likely to bother them further unless they saw them commit another infraction. Their memories weren’t great after all.

“The storm’s passed and the Racers are gone,” she announced, returning to the main chamber. “It gets dark real quickly this far north and I guess they’ve had to scarper. I don’t think those creatures will bother us unless we provoke them again. Just to be on the safe side though, it’s probably best if we get off the mountain. You both ready to move?”

“Right with you, Daring Do!” cried Dash, on her hooves at the double.

“Ready,” said Twilight, getting to her hooves a little more shakily. A fact that was noticed by her friend.

“Twilight?” asked Dash with a note of concern.

“I’m fine. Just tired is all. The walking, the climbing, the fighting, fixing up that spell every hour or two. I haven’t had much of a break.”

Daring walked over, casting her eye over Twilight. She was fatigued, and she was fairly certain that before too many more hours had gone by she and Rainbow would feel the events of the day catch up to them too. “Well... we’ve got a choice. We can rest up here in this cave tonight and make our way down the mountain on hoof come morning. But with the Racers asleep, there’s nothing to stop us getting off this peak on our wings. We’ll be the rest of the way through the pass and into the valley before you know it. A little moonlight glide, downhill all the way. That’s our best option, but if you don’t think you’re up for it, just say. Don’t want you falling out of the sky and getting hurt.”

“No, no, I’m okay. That does sound better than climbing down on hoof, and as you said, we don’t want to advertise ourselves to those creatures tomorrow, just in case. I’m ready,” she affirmed, grabbing her saddlebags with her magic and settling them on her back. Daring and Rainbow followed suit, and together they all stepped to the entrance of the cave.

“Oh, wow. That’s beautiful,” whispered Twilight as she took in the vista, the moonlight reflecting softly in the white snow of the mountain peak opposite, framed by the inky black sky and the millions of tiny, pin-pricked stars overhead. “Would you believe I brought everything I thought I could possibly need, and forgot to bring a camera? Ugh!”

Daring stepped forward, spread her wings and trotted off the edge of the mountain. The cool air and firm breeze caught her instantly and she angled silently northwards, through the pass and towards the valley. A moment later she was joined side by side by her two co-adventurers.

The moon’s soft, white light flooded the silent world beneath it. As the mountain pass came to an end the slope fell away and joined a large, circular valley, stretching perhaps two miles in diameter and ringed by several of the other snow-capped peaks in the Mustang range creating a little, secluded almost, patch of space among the relentlessly mountainous terrain further to the north.

The valley was predominantly woodland, though where the forest through which they’d earlier passed was of fir and spruce, the trees here appeared deciduous and leafy. Hardy, no doubt, but rare to see in such an apparently chilly climate. The entire eastern third of the valley was almost entirely given over to an enormous, kidney-bean-shaped lake, dotted with tiny islands, and whose still, black waters shimmered gently beneath the light of the moon.

Daring’s attention was drawn, and she narrowed her eyes. “Lake’s gotten a lot bigger since I was here last,” she noted. “Gotta be twice the size I remember it.”

Beside her in flight, Twilight wobbled and her eyelids fell half-closed. Rainbow Dash was at her side in a flash and immediately wrapped a foreleg around hers, ready to take her weight if need be even as Daring, on instinct, mirrored her on Twilight’s other side. “Whoa there,” she said with a smile. “Don’t go dropping off just yet. We’re almost there.”

“Almost where?” queried Dash with a slight frown. “I thought you said there was a city here?”

“Trust me, there is,” said Daring. “We just need to find the entrance. Just need to get my bearings. It’s been a few years, y’know?”

They flew west in a wide circle, navigating the valley clockwise with Daring peering down into the thick woodland below. Eventually they soared over the lake and Daring raised her head looking out, back over the valley as a whole with the twin peaks of the Brokeback Mountain on the far side. And finally, she saw it.

A tiny light of silver, small enough that were it in the sky it would be mistaken for a star, nestled amidst the thick trees near to the centre of the valley. Daring angled towards it. Twilight had stirred back to life and was well under her own power now, and together the three ponies descended and made careful landfall in a tiny clearing within the dark forest.

Daring had brought them to a structure. Before them, among the trees and crowded by scrub, stood an obelisk. Built of dark stone – grey granite or perhaps black onyx, it was difficult to tell in this light – it stood at least eight meters tall, but lost out to the taller trees surrounding it for height. It’s base was square, three meters to a side, and each of the four tall faces were engraved with decorative reliefs and motifs, including, once upon each face, a dominant symbol of two horse’s heads back to back. To Daring, it reminded her of the symbol representing a Knight in the game of Chess – two such symbols, facing away from each other and joined at the nape of the neck, but each sporting a long, proud unicorn horn. The sides of the obelisk tapered slowly upwards towards its culmination: a pyramid-shaped capstone mounted at the top of the tower and shining out with the same silver light that had drawn them hence.

“Whoa. What makes it glow?” asked Rainbow.

“An enchantment of some kind, I’d guess,” said Daring. “It glows silver-white at night when the moonlight falls on it, but by day, under the sun, it’s golden.”

“A luminal reciprocation enchantment,” Twilight posited, though her voice came slightly hollow and with just a hint of a slur. “A spell to capture the light falling on it and then re-emit it at certain wavelengths. They’re pretty much self-powering; they can persist for a very long time before they fade. The design of it though... it’s like it was designed to be a beacon or something.”

They had approached the tower from the rear it seemed, and Daring led her two companions around to the far side – the side closest to the twin-peaked mountain from which they’d recently flown – into which was set an opening; a doorway allowing access to the inside of the tower. Daring saw it and smiled, memory and nostalgia combining and conspiring to turn a wistful smile to her lips. “There it is,” she half-spoke, half-breathed.

Rainbow, ever in search of the obvious, did her own circuit of the obelisk before questioning, “There what is? The entrance to the city? Where’s the actual city?

Daring smiled. “Through there,” she said motioning to the entrance, shrouded in dark shadows.

Rainbow looked quizzically at her and then approached the doorway. She ducked inside and was lost to sight for a while before she reappeared. “What are you talking about? There’s nothing in here. Just some stairs leading down to a basement or something.”

“Uh-huh?” Daring deadpanned as Rainbow stepped back out, joining her in the small area in front of the obelisk that was clear of scrub and bush. “How far down do they go?”

“I dunno, it’s too dark to see,” said Rainbow as she cast her gaze back at the doorway and then lower, as though imagining the path those steps might take. “But it’s not like you can fit a city in... a... basement...” she trailed off as her gaze drew lower. And lower. Until eventually she was looking straight down at the floor beneath her hooves. Her head snapped back up and she stared, in equal parts awe and shock, at Daring. “No way...” she breathed.

“Oh yeah,” Daring grinned.

“The city is underground?! It’s underneath us, right now?!”

Daring nodded and shed her saddlebags while Rainbow Dash struggled to control her amazement. “Twilight, can you believe—?!” she began, but cut herself off.

Daring looked round, and found Twilight was already down. She was lying curled up comfortably on her side in a nice patch of soft grass, eyes closed and she spoke in a slow, muttering slur. “Juss... pud a pillow unner my face an’ I’ll see you inna mrnin’.” The promise of a brand new discovery wasn’t quite enough to stave off exhaustion it seemed. And even as that thought crossed her mind, Daring broke into a wide, deep yawn and felt her own legs go a little wobbly.

With a warm smile, Rainbow stepped over to Twilight and went one better, digging out both pillow and blanket from the Princess’ saddlebags and tucking them comfortably in and around her friend, whose consciousness was fast receding. Daring thought that was a nice gesture. There weren’t any ponies who would do the same for her in that situation. Not that she’d want that. Not at all. Ever.

She looked up at Rainbow. “Let’s get a fire going and get some sleep ourselves. Tomorrow... is gonna be a big day.”