• Published 20th Nov 2023
  • 101 Views, 39 Comments

The River Rising (Iota Force Issue #7) - The Iguana Man

Icy Flight must overcome her deepest phobia to save her town and friends from a seemingly-omniscient enemy, while deep in the Everfree Forest, cut off from Ponyville and alone with only two of her team. No pressure, kid!

  • ...

Chapter Two: Slipping Under, Punching Through

“Are you really sure about this?” Sunny asked as she and Icy approached the mouth of the cave.

Icy swallowed hard, forcefully suppressing the sigh at being asked that for what must have been the tenth time. It wasn't that she didn't think it was worth a sigh, she just wasn't sure what she should be sighing at, so it would feel weird to do so. She thought it was most likely that her mother wasn't repeating the question intentionally and was simply letting her worry about her daughter overwhelm her. This would be worth a slight sigh of exasperation, but she couldn't blame Sunny for it.

However, there was a tiny part of her that refused to be silenced that told her that her mother was repeating the question on purpose because she already knew the answer – Icy wasn't in the least sure about what she was doing and, no matter how much she told herself it was probably the best course of action, she couldn't accept that fact with any degree of certainty.

Whatever the case, she did suppress her sigh and turned to her mother, having to twist her body around a little to do so – the hood drawn tightly around her head cut off her peripheral vision, so she needed to look head-on at her. “I need to go, Mom. Archer and Lance might need my help and it's not like you'd let me help if I stayed here.”

Sunny opened her mouth to retort, but no sound came out. After a moment, she shook her head. “Touché,” she said, raising her voice a little to be heard over the rain. “Still, I meant what I said – I'm going to find some way to join you.”

Icy hummed for a moment as she stepped into the cave, keeping her hood drawn and her hooves standing near the wall, trying desperately to ignore the sound of water flowing down the descending cave. “I... I know you will and I really want to say thank you. But... if it's okay, I want you to promise me something.”

Sunny raised an eyebrow as they walked into the cave and she lowered her hood to look fully at her daughter. “Oh?” she said, clearly amused by the request. “Well, I hope you're not planning on demanding it, but depending on what the promise is, I'll think about it.”

Icy nodded, steeling herself to say what she knew she needed. “I know you're gonna be worrying about me while I'm out there. It's probably good that you will be but, just... promise me you won't spend all your time worrying about me. Or,” she said immediately, cutting off any comment, “on looking for a way to come help. If there is one, you should probably use it but... Alula was right – you're experienced with this kinda thing and the town needs your help, probably more than I do. Please promise me that until you find a way through the wind wall, you'll focus on helping the town instead of wishing you could help me.”

Sunny blinked, astonished at what Icy had just said. Icy wasn't sure if she was just realizing that, had Icy not said that, she probably would have spent her time fretting or if she already knew and was just surprised at Icy's insight.

Either way, after a moment, she let out a chuckle. “Wow, you know me well, Sweetie.”

Icy giggled. “Well, I have kinda known you for my whole life.”

Sunny nodded. “Well, yes, but this is kind of a new case – it's not like I had a problem with you fighting with your friends before – it's just because... you know...”

Icy nodded, grimacing – she appreciated her mother not drawing attention to how the situation played directly to her phobia. “I know and it's... it feels really good for you to care about me so much but... I don't think it is good, in a way... kinda... sorry, I'm not sure how to explain it.”

Sunny shook her head with a smile. “It's okay, Sweetie, I know – you're not the only one who needs my help. Still,” she looked out into the rainstorm – presumably symbolically, since nopony could see more than a few dozen metres through it, “no reason I can't keep tabs on Pinkie's project.

Icy nodded instinctively before it occurred to her to ask. “What is she working on, anyway?”

“I don't know,” Sunny replied, not looking away from the rain. “She didn't show all of us, only Princess Twilight. Apparently, she needed her to check the calculations and the physics of it and, well,” her eyes rose to stare wistfully up into the sky, “I know a bit of physics, but it's fairly specialized and I never really calculated it with numbers anyway.”

Icy frowned slightly, trying to reconcile her image of Pinkie Pie with the idea of careful scientific calculation. Normally, she'd have dismissed the combination as little more than the hyperactive mare insisting that 'Party power equals fun over time', but if the Princess agreed with her...

After a moment, she just sighed. “Is there anything Pinkie can't do?”

Sunny shrugged. “Fail to surprise you? There probably are things, but I'm not even going to try to figure out what.”

Icy nodded in agreement before a movement in the rain caught her attention. Squinting a little, she could just about make out the shape of a pony, though any further details eluded her for a few seconds.

As it turned out, that wasn't just due to the rainfall – as the form approached, Icy was able to see how Archer's dark blue suit helped camouflage her among the darkened day.

“Hey there!” Archer called out as she neared the two. “Sorry I took so long!”

“Huh? We've only been waiting five minutes! Maybe less.” Icy replied as Archer walked into the cave mouth, not seeming bothered by how sodden her hair and tail had gotten as she walked.

Archer shrugged. “Yeah, but that's still five or less minutes we could be going in. I just needed to put on my suit and get my quiver and my good bow.”

Sunny tilted her head slightly. “Your... good bow?”

Archer smiled as she wrung out her hair. “Well, I mean, I always carry a folding bow and a couple arrows around, but it's nowhere near as good – turns out, making a bow all fold-up kinda messes with how it bends. Who knew? Still,” she jerked her head to the filly-sized longbow strapped across her back, “long as the proper one's available, ain't a problem.”

Icy looked out into the rain. “So, we're just waiting for Lance? Although, wasn't he already equipped?”

Archer nodded. “Yep, and if I know Lance – and I do – he'll have gone on ahead and be waiting down in the cave. Which means we got no time to waste. Let's go.” And with that, she turned and began trotting down the tunnel.

Icy blinked for a moment before starting after her, putting a little more force than necessary into her hooves to move quickly and not give herself time to think about things.

After a moment, though, she turned around to give her waiting mother a meaningful look.

Sunny raised her hooves placatingly. “Okay, okay, message received. Just... be careful, sweetie.”

Icy gulped. “I will. I promise.”

That done, Icy turned and followed Archer deeper into the cave, trying to give as little thought about where she was going as she could.

“What was that about?” Archer asked as Icy caught up with her.

“Just making sure she'd be doing what she had to,” Icy explained as she slowed down alongside her teammate.

Archer chuckled. “From what I've seen, it's amazing how often kids need to be parents to their parents, huh?”

Icy thought for a moment. “I guess, maybe? I mean, I think friends do it as well – when you care about somepony, you have to look out for them, right?”

“Hey, no argument here,” Archer shrugged. “I mean, how often have we had to stop Scoots from dashing off and getting herself into trouble.”

Icy blinked for a moment, Archer's ever-level tone making it hard to tell if she'd intended the pun in “dashing off”, before dismissing the thought. “I guess a couple of times. I mean, we're a team, so we help each other out, right?”

“Right,” Archer nodded. “I help all of you out and, if I ever get into trouble, you help me out.” She was smiling, but her tone suggested that she didn't anticipate ever getting into enough trouble that she'd need help.

Still, Icy sighed wistfully. “But you are kinda right – parents look after us, but sometimes we need to look after them, right?”

Archer shrugged. “I wouldn't know personally, but the ones I’ve seen need that, yeah.”

Icy nodded automatically for a moment before what Archer had said truly registered. “Wait, wh- do... do you not have...?”

“Nope,” Archer replied casually. “'Fraid not.” She gave Icy a slight smirk. “Wish I could say it's cause they'd just slow me down buuut Miss Herder's still in charge of me and the others and she does a good enough job of that anyway.”

Icy swallowed hard, trying to reconcile this new information with how nonchalantly Archer had told her. “Oh, well... I'm sorry, I didn't realize...”

“Hey, it's fine,” Archer replied, enough force behind her words to make clear she didn't want Icy to apologize, but not enough to seem offended. “If it was that big of a deal, I'da told you ages ago. Doesn't bother me, so I don't want it to bother you, got it?”

“I... I guess.” Icy rubbed the back of her neck with a wing. “Still... I'm sorry if I can't stop thinking about it for a while.”

Archer sighed. “It's fine, I get it. Still, I think you might be forgetting... well, let's just say you might have other things to think about in a bit.

Icy was about to ask what she meant when the two of them came to a fork in the tunnels, turning to the left and rising slightly. She might not have noticed at all had it not been for the small, steady stream of water that had been flowing down the cave that, of course, wasn't going down the tunnel they were now heading down.

She looked down at her hooves, still wet but no longer splashing in the shallow water, and felt herself relax a little, a bit of the tension that had been poking at the back of her mind abating. It was a pleasant feeling, but it, along with Archer's words, also served as a reminder that she'd soon be facing far, far more water.

She gulped loudly. “I see what you mean.”

The two continued down the winding passage in silence for a while, rapidly going deeper and deeper into the earth. After a short while, Archer took out a small, blocky badge and gave it to Icy. Before Icy could ask what it was, Archer was clipping another to her own costume's chest and clicking a small button on the side, causing the front of the block to start casting a bright light into the tunnel before them. Shrugging, Icy clicked the button on her own flashlight, both happy that they had them and a little unnerved that they needed them.

After a few more minutes of walking, they turned the corner and saw the distinctive white form of Lance in his full gear, standing next to a large crack in the cave wall. He gave them a nod as they approached, the mask pushed up onto his head dipping down weightily.

“Hey, sorry about the delay,” Archer said as they came up to him, “you all ready?”

Lance turned his head towards her, blinking a little in puzzlement.

“Right, right, stupid question,” Archer said as she looked into the crack, humming a little as she did so.

Peering into it herself, Icy saw that Sunny hadn't been kidding that an adult would have trouble fitting through the passage – despite starting with an expansive gap in the wall, the tunnel quickly narrowed to the point where a fully grown pony would have to squeeze themselves hard just to be able to move their hooves and, as the passage turned past where she could see, it seemed to begin narrowing even further.

“Are we sure we'll be able to make it through here?” she asked, spreading a wing out in front of the gap to get a feel for the airflow, which only confirmed how long and thin the tunnel got.

Lance shrugged – there was only one way to find out.

Icy started nodding in agreement, only to stop when Lance started stepping forward, ready to head into the tunnel. “Hey, what are you doing?” she asked as she stepped back in surprise.

Lance turned to her and tilted his head, waving a hoof sharply down the tunnel.

Icy nodded. “I know you're going down the... I mean, are you sure you should be going first?”

Lance nodded sharply. He jerked his head towards the tunnel, indicating that they didn't know what was down there.”

“Yeah, I get that,” Archer replied to his silently-spoken point. “But I'm with Icy – with all your gear on, you're not exactly the thinnest, right?”

Lance sighed, before waving his hooves along his side, then doing the same to the other two.

“Yeah, if you can fit down there, we'll know we can,” Archer translated, “but if you can't? If you get stuck? We'll have to pull you out and pull back to a point we can switch over.”

Lance took a purposeful step towards the tunnel, indicating that was a risk he was willing to take.

Icy swallowed. “Um, okay but, well... if you do get stuck or we do have to squeeze or help you, how will you tell us?

Lance raised a hoof before freezing as he considered this. After a moment, he grunted and took a step back.

Icy nodded. “It's okay – my wings'll be able to tell if you can fit, plus I can make ice on the walls if we need to slip through anywhere. It makes sense if I go first.”

Not waiting for an answer, Icy turned and began walking into the crack, wishing once again that her logic was strong enough to convince her instincts.

However, before she could pass fully into it, she felt something thin wrap around the top of her left hindleg. She began whipping her head around, only to have to stop for a moment to prevent herself from smacking it into the wall.

Leaning to the side, she carefully twisted her head until she could see Archer in her peripheral vision, doing something. “What was that?”

“Just a bit of insurance,” Archer answered, stepping back a little and picking one end of a rope, the other end of which was presumably tied around her leg. “Tied something onto you so we can pull you back if you get stuck.”

Icy hummed for a moment, turning forward again and walking into the tunnel even as her face remained in a frown of confusion. “Couldn't you just grab me by the leg, then?”

“Depends,” Archer replied from a short distance behind her, moving along with her down into the crack in the earth. “Might be able to, but if you're really stuck, probably wouldn't be room to get a good grip on you. Besides, then only one of us could pull – if a bit's thin enough for you to get stuck in, it's probably thin enough that I could only just get close and Lance couldn't at all. This way, we can both pull you out if we need to.

Icy nodded, though she doubted the others could see. “Alright, that makes sense.” She didn't like the idea of being yanked out like that, but it was good to be safe.

As she thought of that, she smiled. “Well, I just hope you're not joking with me. I'd hate to think I'm safe but then find out you're just... pulling my l-Ah!” She nearly stumbled forward as the rope yanked backwards suddenly. “Hey! What was that for, Archer?”

“Wasn't me. That one was Lance,” Archer replied. “Think he wanted to stop you making a bad joke. I stand by his decision.” Icy could almost feel the wind from Lance's decisive nod.

Sighing, Icy continued, soon becoming used to the feeling of the rope pulling slightly against her and shifting up and down her leg, the knot rubbing up against her costume.

As she noticed that, she had a thought. “Hey, Archer, were you ever in the filly scouts?”

“For a little while,” she heard Archer say. “Why?”

“Just realized you tied a knot with your hooves. Was never able to figure out how scouts did that – could you tell me?”

“Well, you just...” Archer paused and Icy could feel a slight movement in the rope as the filly holding it raised her hoof, presumably looking at it. “It's... kinda hard to explain. Maybe I could show you later. Once everything's over, I mean.”

Icy smiled. “Sure, that sounds good. Maybe you could even teach me?”

“Not sure about that – like I said, wasn't in the scouts long, so I only know the basics,” Archer told her, more as a factual correction than any kind of shameful admission. “Besides, couldn't you just use your wings? Seems like they'd be a lot better with fiddly stuff than your hooves – Pegasus instead of Earth Pony and all that.”

Icy blinked as she shifted her wings against her sides, embarrassed at having not thought of that. “I guess. Although, if you don't mind me asking, why'd you leave the scouts? Didn't you like it?”

“Eh, it was fine, wasn't like I wasn't having fun but,” she gave a short, low chuckle, “let's just say I had a damn good reason not to want to get to the part where they gave us knives.” There was a short, awkward pause before she continued. “Besides, I learned all the stuff I needed on my own, so it's fine.”

Despite that assurance, Icy got the slight sense that it would be best not to pursue the topic further. Swallowing hard, she refocused on the tunnel in front of her, puffing her wings out to the side a little to give her a sense of exactly how narrow the tunnel got.

She hadn't walked for ten more metres before she encountered the first part that worried her.

“Okay, think we might have a problem,” she called back quietly. After a moment, she felt the rope tense slightly, causing her to shake her head. “It's okay, Lance, I'm not stuck and me and Archer should be able to get through here if we squeeze, but I'm not sure about you with all your padding.”

There was a hum from just behind as Archer approached a little closer. “Hmm, see what you mean. Might have to sling my bow and quiver under me, but I think I can make it. But, yeah, Lance, I'm not sure...”

She was interrupted by the sound of ripping velcro, letting both of the fillies know what was happening behind them – Lance was stripping off his fencing gear to slim down. The sound had come from a little way back down the tunnel, a moment's recollection informing Icy that that was the nearest place with enough elbow room to allow him to disrobe and disarm.

She and Archer waited for a while as the sounds of velcro, zippers and shifting fabric echoed down the tunnel. It was a little awkward, though not because of what Lance was doing – Icy couldn't imagine why anypony would have a problem with being seen removing their clothes. Admittedly, she had heard that it could be a little weird, as it would reveal a pony's body but, while Lance's physique was certainly impressive, Icy doubted there'd be any reason to look. Instead, the reason it was awkward was that the twisting tunnel turned fairly sharply along the next five metres of the cave, meaning she was spending the time staring at a rock wall.

From behind her, she heard Archer snicker. “Lance taking his clothes off right behind us – bet half the fillies in school wish they were here right now.”

Icy blinked, more confused at the statement than inclined to re-evaluate her previous assessment. “Huh? If... if you say so. Why'd they...?”

She was cut off when she felt a tug on the rope around her leg. “What was...”

“He tied the clothes bundle to the rope so you could pull it – good thinking,” Archer explained.

Icy exhaled sharply, unsure how to feel about being unknowingly hitched to cargo like that. Still, as she pulled her leg forward to continue, she was relieved to find that the burden wasn't enough to interfere with her movements – just a small bit of extra weight.

Still, she did give that leg a small, sharp tug as she started forward again, feeling how the rope shifted as the clothes attached to it popped out of Lance's hooves. She couldn't see him but sensed the slight surprise in his silence and smiled.

That done, she started forward again, pressing her wings into her sides to fit through the narrow space. A few seconds later, she heard a quiet scraping from behind her as Lance forced himself through, the space not sounding comfortable in the least, but also not sounding like he'd have too much difficulty getting through.

Of course, that did mean Archer was making her way without difficulty, but that was no surprise for the lithe filly, given she lacked either wings or width. Admittedly, the latter might have seemed counterintuitive to some, as she had told Icy once that it took considerable strength to use a longbow with the power and range she did, so if one knew that, it might seem odd she was so slim. However, this was easily explained due to her being an Earth Pony, meaning she didn't just gain strength from her muscles, but from her magic and Talent as well.

For that matter, Icy wasn't sure what sort of pony would be aware of the intricacies of bow use but unaware of how the most populous of the pony tribes worked. Then again, it didn't have to be a pony – griffons and minotaurs could easily use bows and Archer herself proved that a hooved race could also make use of them. For that matter, dragons could theoretically use them, even if Icy had no idea why they'd ever need to. Still, the idea of a hundred-metre-tall dragon using a bow and arrow to hit a bullseye the size of a wagon wheel did amuse her.

A low point in the ceiling knocked her out of her reverie almost literally, forcing her to duck her head sharply to avoid smacking it against the jutting bit of rock. She let out an “ungh!” of surprise before calling back, “Careful of your head there.”

“Got it,” Archer replied, making Icy's eyes dart to the side, looking as far back as she could without turning her head. As she did, though, she noticed that the tunnel had begun to widen again, allowing her to relax her wings as she continued, turning around a small bend.

That said, the long, straight section of more tunnel didn't exactly make her feel that gratified.

“How long is this tunnel, anyway?” Icy asked, not with the expectation of an answer, but not rhetorically either – she'd have liked to know, but she didn't need to in order to think the question was worth asking.

Fortunately, Archer replied. “If the map's right, about a mile and a bit.”

Icy nearly stumbled, her wings beginning to flare out for a moment before the rock walls on either side of her blocked them off. “A mile and...”

“We're not just going down the street here, Icy,” Archer pointed out, clearly not bothered by the prospect. “We're going deep into the Everfree forest. And forests tend to be kinda big. Heck, even when we're past this tunnel, there's still a whole cave system to get through.”

Icy sighed. “I guess. Sorry, it just felt like...”

“...like every turn might end up showing you the end?” Archer suggested. “Yeah, I get that, but don't worry, it's not like we're in any danger. We can get through this easy.”

There was a sharp exhale from behind her.

“You and me can get through this easy,” she amended.

Icy sighed but nodded as she continued on. She almost asked Archer how much distance they'd covered so far, but she didn't want to seem whiny. Besides, she was afraid Archer would be able to tell her.

For that matter, she wasn't sure how anyone had known how long this tunnel was in the first place – her mother had been right that no ordinary adult would be able to fit down here to measure it. It was possible they just looked at where the tunnel started and ended and figured out the distance between them, but considering how much the passage twisted and turned, that wouldn't be a very good measurement – certainly not good enough to put on an official map.

On the other hoof, since they could fit down here, it was obviously possible to get down here, though Icy had never heard of any filly cartographers. That said, she hadn't heard of that many cartographers at all – only a few that her mother had worked with and she hadn't usually gone into how old they were. Besides, Sunny Flight wasn't the Bureau's go-to when it came to caves – not enough space, vertical or horizontal, for her to really show her stuff.

Of course, as Icy had been reminded when she first got her costume and met À La Mode, not all small ponies were children. For that matter, it was possible that a unicorn could have shrunk themselves or somepony else to explore down here, but that seemed like a lot of effort to go to just to look into a crack in the stone. Then again, if there were no time constraints, why not?

And all of that was assuming the mapmaker had been a pony. Granted, most of the races of the world capable of drawing maps were pony-sized or larger and Icy hadn't heard of any Breezies being employed in such capacities. However, if a pony was good enough with animals, they might have been able to coordinate with some smaller ones to get a good enough idea of how it worked to make a rough map.

The thought made Icy's eyes widen a little as she realized that, though unlikely, there might have already been some varieties of animal or creature that made their home in this tunnel. After all, the narrowness of it would make it an ideal place to stay safe from any larger predators and, while that did imply that any such creatures wouldn't be at the top of the food chain, that didn't mean they couldn't be dangerous. The entire reason Icy and her friends were down there, after all, was because it was connected to the Everfree and even the prey there didn't tend to be the sorts of things to take lightly.

The realization sent a tension into Icy's front legs and wings, almost reaching her waist before she clamped down on it – if her back legs started tensing up, Archer would doubtlessly sense it and Icy didn't want to worry her.

Well, she didn't want to make her think there was anything wrong, at any rate – Icy wasn't sure anything less than a crashing meteor could worry Archer.

Still, she pricked her ears up as she walked, listening intently for any troubling sounds from the tunnel ahead of her. Not that she or the others could likely do anything about whatever was down there, given there was neither room to rear up nor extend her wings, but it would at least give them some warning.

She knew that, in all likelihood, she'd hear any inhabitants before she saw them, though sadly that didn't apply in reverse – the light being given off from her chest-mounted flashlight would give away their presence long before they got into the actual sight-line of anything. Icy just hoped that the light would startle the creatures enough to make a sound so they could both realize each other's presence around the same time.

Admittedly, Icy wasn't entirely sure how light going down a bendy tunnel worked, but it was still a danger. Obviously, Icy knew roughly how light worked – shooting along a beam from wherever it started. But she also knew that it didn't have to go in a straight line even if what she knew about it suggested it should. After all, if it couldn't go around things, then how come a pony's shadow wasn't pitch black, even if it was from a single light source?

No sooner had she thought this than the light from her torch went strange. Icy blinked for a moment before realizing what had changed: there was a small gap in the rock in front of her, about twenty metres ahead. It wasn't fully visible, as there was a slight curve to the tunnel, but it looked very much like an exit.

Smiling, Icy picked up the pace a little, striding down the tunnel as the gap grew until, at last, she passed out of the cramped corridor and into an open, expansive cavern.

Spreading her wings in relief, Icy trotted in place as the others joined her. It wasn't much of an achievement, but they'd managed to get through a mile of tunnel without experiencing any real problems from the space, any inhabitants or the rain outside...

Icy's hooves locked up for a split second, bringing her happy trot to a halt as she was reminded why they had to come this way in the first place. The easy-but-still-extant challenge of the tunnel had done a good job distracting her from the plummeting mass of water far above their heads. She couldn't hear it, of course, which might have been a good sign, but now she had remembered, she thought she could feel it.

Still, she turned back to her friends, hoping to be able to distract herself again.

Fortunately, she was saved the trouble as her trotting and turning had quite thoroughly tangled the rope tied to her around her legs and, as she tried to face her friends, she found her legs being pulled together and her body toppling over like a chopped-down tree, plummeting towards the ground.

She impacted the ground softly and let out a grunt, both out of discomfort and embarrassment. A snort of repressed laughter told her that Archer had been watching the whole thing and had little reason to interfere.

Fortunately, Lance was a little more physically responsive as he walked up to her. Admittedly, his face only spared her a momentary glance of sympathy before he focused on the rope, but Icy appreciated it nonetheless. From Lance, even a fleeting display of sentiment was noteworthy.

However, he was clearly more concerned with dealing with the problem than sympathizing with it and, before Icy even had a chance to try and turn her head down enough to see exactly what he was doing, he had unwoven the tangled rope from around her legs and undone the knot that had been tied to her in the first place.

Guess he was a scout for a lot longer, Icy thought as he coiled up the rope for storage. Though it'd make sense if he didn’t have a problem with being given a knife.

Once he'd gathered the rope into a loop, Lance nodded over to Archer before picking up the bundle of thick cloth Icy had been pulling and retreating into the crack to change.

Feeling a little awkward watching him go, Icy turned to Archer. “So, where do we go from here?”

Archer looked up, having just finished rearranging her bow and quiver to rest on her back again rather than under her barrel. “Hm? Oh, hang on!”

She reached to the side of her quiver, where a waterproof plastic tube was tied. Popping the top off, she pulled out a rolled-up piece of laminated paper and placed it on the floor, unravelling it to reveal a map.

“Hmm, looks like we need to go that way,” she said, not looking up as she pointed forward and to the right of them.”

“Um, Archer?” Icy said as she followed Archer’s hoof.

“Hm?” Archer looked up at Icy for a moment before following her eyeline and turning to look where she was pointing. “Ah.”

As it turned out, the crack had come out onto a large rocky shelf in a huge cavern. The ground was firm and the area wasn't small, but it still ended a short distance away, meaning that Archer seemed to be pointing over the edge of a chasm. Icy didn’t know what was below it, but she wasn't sure she was keen on finding out.

Archer hummed for a moment more before a smile poked its way onto her face. “Ah, hold on, look up there.” She angled her hoof up a little and, following it, Icy saw an exit to the cavern on a smaller and higher outcropping.

Icy gulped. “You're sure that's where we have to go?” she asked, hoping for even a hint of doubt in Archer's reply.

Unfortunately, she was left wanting. “Yep, fits the angle on the map perfectly. Besides, if there was more than one way out in that direction, the map'd say. Still, if it is the wrong way, won't have to take it for long before we realize the map stops working. Then we can just come back and take whatever way we should do.”

“Oh, okay,” Icy replied, swallowing hard and decidedly not bringing up that she had hoped they wouldn't have to get up there in the first place.

Still, Archer did hum a little as she evaluated the distance, horizontal and vertical, to be traversed. And, while she didn't seem that intimidated, she at least seemed to acknowledge that it was a barrier to be overcome.

After a moment's thought, though, she went over to the coiled-up rope and picked it up, carrying it up to the edge. “Well, me and Lance can take a rope up there, what about you? Can you climb or fly up there?”

Icy shook her head. “Well, I can't fly up... I can't really fly,” she amended, “but you know that. I can sort of leap and glide, but not that high or far.”

“Yeah, how does that work, anyway?” Archer asked, her tone speaking of nothing but innocent curiosity. “I mean, it's all flapping and holding, isn't it?”

Icy rocked a hoof side-to-side. “Kind of, but my wings are very weak.” She spread out her right wing for emphasis, even if she didn't know if what she was talking about was visible. “I can flap them hard and I can hold them out to glide but it takes a lot of effort and I can't do both at the same time, which you need to do if you want to actually climb and properly fly. Besides, even if I can, I don't know how to direct the flap so it gets me up that high. So, I need something solid underneath it if I want to get any height out of it.”

Archer hummed. “And rope-climbing?”

Icy gulped. “Um, I don't know. I've never really tried it and, well...”

Archer nodded, her eyes scanning over the distance between their location and their destination. “Yeah, I get it – not exactly the best place to try and find out. And you reckon that's higher than you can jump? By how much, do you think?”

Icy looked up at the exit, squinting a little as she thought. “Well, it's not quite twice as high, but probably pretty close.” She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, embarrassed that she was holding the group up even before they'd got out into the main part of their mission. “I'm sorry, I...”

“No, it's fine,” Archer said, barely seeming to register the possibility that this was a problem. “So, if you could get a second jump in after your first one, you could make it?”

Icy tilted her head, confused for a moment. “Er, why would a second jump get highe-'' she stopped as she saw Archer turning to her, her mouth opening and her hoof raising to explain. However, before she had the chance, Icy realized what she meant. “Oh, you mean, like, in the air, at the top of the first jump?” At Archer's nod, she frowned a little. “I mean, probably, yeah, but I don't know how. There'd need to be a bit of ground up there, right?”

Archer smiled as she turned her head, looking towards the wall that stretched out between them and the outcropping. “Maybe not. You reckon you could launch off a wall as well as a floor?”

Icy's eyes widened as she thought about the possibility. “Huh. I mean, maybe. It'd be hard, need to flap hard or more carefully to... you know... the angle...” she waved a hoof vaguely, understanding what she wanted to say but not having the words to do so.

Still, Archer seemed to nod in understanding. “But you think you could do it if you had somewhere to land?” She readied her bow and pulled a thick, grey arrow covered in metallic veins out of her quiver.

Icy put a hoof up before Archer could load the arrow, however, and spoke quickly. “Yeah, but an arrow wouldn't do it.”

“Oh, don't need to worry about your weight,” Archer said, though she did pause in her nocking of the arrow. “It's a special kind of arrow that...”

“Yeah, I can see that,” Icy interjected, a little awkwardly. “What I mean is that an arrow's too small for me to land on enough. I wouldn't be able to get my hooves under me and stay stable enough to angle my wings right – I'd be too busy trying to get a grip and not fall.”

Archer remained still for a moment before relaxing, her shoulders slumping slightly as she sighed. “Oh. Makes sense.” She put the arrow back into the quiver. “Shame, I was hoping to try out the new trick arrow.”

“Oh, is it new?” Icy asked, hoping to distract Archer from her disappointment. “What does it do?”

Fortunately, it seemed to work as Archer smiled. “New little gadget Cue came up with to improve on my sucker arrows – Post Impact Immovability.”

Icy raised an eyebrow – she hadn't had the chance to meet Zyracue, the resident weaponsmith and artificer of the subsect of the Night Guard that Iota Force belonged to, colloquially referred to as the Weirdness Patrol. Still, she got the impression he was rather fond of the technical names he came up with. “P-I-Is?”

Archer shrugged. “Maybe. I just call 'em Stick-n-Stays. Basically, once they hit the target, they lock in place – not on whatever they hit, but in the air too. Once they're in place, they'll stay exactly where they are and nothing short of Big Mac's biggest buck'll move ‘em. Pretty useful, huh?”

Icy nodded. “Yeah, sounds good. Sorry I can't-”

“It's fine,” Archer interrupted, waving off her apology. “If it wouldn't work, it wouldn't work. 'Sides, only got a few, so probably best not to waste 'em. Still, does mean we need to figure out a way to get you something to land on. Pity Cue hasn't figured out those platform arrows yet.”

Icy didn't give the allusion much attention as she thought – what could they use to make a big enough platform for her?

Something brushed against her wings, sending a shiver through them and causing Icy to whirl around with a start. Her wings flared out as she saw Lance, now fully dressed in his fencing gear, standing there with his hoof out. She waited for a moment for him to lower his hoof, only to see that he was purposely holding it up, pointing at her wings.

It only took a moment for her to understand his meaning and she only stopped herself slapping a hoof against her forehead because she was unsure of his suggestion. “My ice?” She looked up once more at the distance she needed to cover. “I dunno – I don't think I can make a platform tall enough to get the height.” She looked at the ground beneath them. “Maybe if I had a whole long while, but I guess we don't...”

Her attention was drawn back up by Lance shaking his head. Raising her head again, she saw him point to the wall of the cavern, in between the two rocky shelves.

Icy's mouth went to the side as she thought. “Make one on the wall? That... that could work, but it'd need something under it, I think. Otherwise, I couldn't make it wide enough to land on. Hmm...” She looked over the wall, hoping to find a small outcropping she could use to build a platform.

After a moment, Archer spoke up. “What about if you filled in that crack right there?”

Icy turned towards Archer, expecting to see her holding a hoof out to point to where she was talking about, only to find her simply looking at it.

Icy turned to where she was looking, hoping in vain to follow her sightline. “Where?”

There was a twang and an arrow flew out and into the wall in question, straight into the centre of a moderately-sized crack in the wall, disappearing into it up to its fletching. “That one,” Archer replied the instant it hit.

Icy nodded. “Yeah, that'd work. Although... hey, could you maybe get a longer arrow in there?”

Archer smiled. “Sure thing,” She reached into her quiver and started pulling out another arrow. However, unlike when she normally did so, she had to pull it out as far as her leg would go and then flick her hoof down to a lower point on the shaft, pulling it the rest of the way out and revealing an arrow over half the length of Archer herself.

Icy blinked in surprise at the huge piece of ammunition as Archer carefully loaded it into her bow, having to lean back considerably to keep from overbalancing. “Huh,” Icy said after a moment, “I know I asked if you had one, but I don't think I should have expected you to.”

Archer shrugged as she pulled back the string, pointing the bow up at a sharper angle than before. “Hey, never know when you might need an emergency pole,” she said simply before letting the arrow fly, the massive shaft's higher weight making it arc a lot more in the air before landing in the crack, over half its length protruding from the wall.

Icy smiled and flapped her wings the instant it hit – she didn't know if or when it might fall out of the crack, so she didn't give it the chance, sending a bolt of freezing energy out at it and encasing the arrow in a thin layer of ice. That done, she took a moment to gather a lot more energy in her wings before she began flapping harder, thickening the ice until it had filled up the crack and created a platform large enough for her to land on.

That said, the image of her landing brought up the one slight problem with her plan – ice tended to be just a little bit slippery and she didn't want to fall off the platform if she could avoid it.

She hummed for a moment, looking at the platform she'd made. She'd be coming at it from opposite the wall, so she didn't have to worry about slipping off the front or back. However, she didn't have enough control over how she froze things to create a level landing surface, meaning the platform was curved on its top and she might be in danger of slipping off the side without something to stop her.

However, as soon as she thought of that, she clopped a hoof on the ground as she realized what she could do. “Hey, Archer, could you maybe fire a couple of arrows into the wall on either side of it, a little higher than the middle of i-”

Icy was cut off by two twangs in rapid succession, followed by the thunk of two arrows embedding themselves in the wall.

“Sure,” Archer replied. “Why?”

“Just for safety,” Icy said as she started flapping her wings again, coating the two arrows in enough ice to act as makeshift railings.

“Cool,” Archer said over the sound of the wind. “Need any more?”

Icy shook her head as she relaxed her wings, reasonably proud of the job she'd done. “Nope, that should be it.” Icy rested her wings for a moment before she heard Archer pull another arrow out of her quiver. It was an odd sort of sound – very quiet, so much so that there needed to be no other sounds for it to be audible, but distinct: like the sound of somepony sucking in breath but reversed without being turned into a breath out.

Shaking her head out of her consideration of how she thought she knew what that sounded like, she turned to see that Archer had already tied the rope around the arrow's tail and was pulling it back in the bow, pointing its grappling hook head up at the platform they were heading towards.

After a moment, she fired, sending the arrow flying with the rope trailing behind. After a couple of seconds in the air, the arrow flew over a small pair of close-together rocks on the edge of the opposite shelf, the weight of the rope soon pulling it down and back, latching the head firmly onto the rocks.

Nodding in satisfaction, Archer picked up the other end of the rope and began looping it around a much larger rock. “Well, looks like we've got our ways up. We going or what?”

Icy turned to the chasm, beginning to nod before an unpleasant thought occurred to her as she looked into the darkness. Bending down a little, she picked up a small rock and tossed it over the side, listening intently to what happened next.

After a second or two, she heard it impact the ground with a tiny splash and smiled – she didn't think there would be any real water down there, but she didn't want to be either distracted by the possibility or startled by it if there was any and if her flashlight happened to illuminate it. Fortunately, it was clear from the sound that there wasn’t anything but a couple of small puddles down there at most.

That done, she nodded firmly and flapped her wings hard, shooting up into the air before she had a chance to reconsider. Once she'd reached the peak of her jump, she flared her wings out into a glide, heading straight for the ice platform she'd made.

It took a few seconds for her to reach the jutting shard of ice, but it was enough time to get a closer look and appreciate how slick and reflective it was, making a slight jolt of apprehension shoot through her. However, by the time it had fully registered, she was already coming in for a landing, her rear half lowering and her wings angling down, making her tail fly up and tickle her belly.

Wait, my tail!

Thinking quickly, she shifted her tail a moment before she reached the platform so that she landed on it. She still slid worryingly forward and to the side but the thick, curly hair of her tail provided just enough friction that, even without the safety barriers she'd made, she wouldn't have slid off.

A fraction of a second later, she had stopped, bringing her full weight onto the ice. There was a quiet but deep cracking sound that seemed to be echoed in her chest as her heart felt like it was fracturing. However, after a moment, the sound faded, replaced by a slight groaning – the ice was holding, for the moment at least.

Fortunately, her tail-first landing had given Icy enough stability that a moment was all she needed before she straightened up, turned around and angled her wings down and back. With another flap, she rocketed off the ice with another, louder crack. However, as the ice left her peripheral vision, she didn't see it shatter or even have any significant pieces fall off. As she flew, she couldn't hear any further cracking either, which implied that it was a lot stronger than she'd given it credit for.

However, she didn't have time to think about it as she was soon approaching the rocky shelf she was aiming for. It looked like she was going to make it, but only just, reaching only the lip of it.

Frowning, Icy leant to the side a little. She didn't have enough strength in her wings to truly turn reliably, but she was able to slightly shift her trajectory so that she'd be landing next to the rope Archer had lodged there, able to grab it if she needed to.

Fortunately, that proved unnecessary as she reached the ledge just before she would have descended below it, her hooves skidding along the rock the instant they got over it and her body coming to a stop with her back legs still hanging over the precipice.

She dragged herself forward, breathing heavily but otherwise relieved. “Okay, I made it!” she said, more to herself than anyone else.

She then realized that she really should say it to someone else, and turned around, ready to tell Archer... only to see her just beginning to shimmy her way up the rope.

Still, she called out to her. “Okay, I'm over. Let me know if you need me to do anything over here!”

“Will do!” Archer replied, continuing to make her way slowly up.

There was a long pause as Icy sat down, watching Archer easily-but-gradually climbing. She trusted that, if Archer needed any help, she'd say so, but that didn't make it feel any less awkward to just sit there while the agile filly slowly traversed the distance. She didn't know if Lance felt the same, as he was standing with his usual stoicism next to the other end of the rope, ready to intervene if anything went wrong, but she wouldn’t have been surprised.

Eventually, she decided to speak up. “So...” she trailed off for a moment, grasping for a conversation thread before something from what Archer had said earlier occurred to her, “you said Cue was working on... platform arrows? What, um... what are those?”

“Little idea I had,” Archer called back, clearly not having any trouble climbing and talking at the same time. “Basically, making an arrow that, once it hits, it'd make a little platform out of force magic. Thought it'd help with climbing and falling. Heck, if you could combine it with a stick-n-stay, you could have a platform hanging anywhere there's something solid to hit. Figured that'd have some uses.”

“I guess,” Icy replied, understanding how it could be a good thing to have, but unable to shake the feeling that it would be a rather niche tool. “But you said he hadn't figured out how to make them, right? That makes sense – how do you fit that much magic in an arrow?”

“Oh, no, that's the easy part,” Archer assured her, now beginning to close the distance between them. “I mean, it wouldn't be cheap, for sure, but Cue knows his stuff and he could do it. No, the problem is making sure the platform's level. See, if the platform's set to come out of one bit of the arrow's… circular outside thing, then that bit needs to be facing perfectly up or down for the platform to be level. And, I mean, I'm one of the best with a bow in the whole Night Guard,” she stated with neither doubt as to her skill nor any real admiration or vanity about it, “but even I'd have trouble making sure an arrow’s always facing up with how they spin when you shoot ‘em, and no one else'd even have a chance. So any platforms we make'd be at least diagonal.”

Icy tilted her head as Archer approached. “Would that be a problem? The diagonal one, I mean.”

Archer chuckled. “Well, force magic ain't exactly known for friction. Anything more than a slight angle, you'd be sliding off before you could even get your hooves under you. And all that's assuming you can get the arrow itself totally level. Which, if you're in a situation where you need a platform, ain't too likely.”

Icy nodded as Archer climbed up onto the ledge. “So, probably not seeing them any time soon?”

“Nope,” Archer said with a tiny amount of strain as she pulled herself fully up to Icy's level. “Still, I'm sure we'll manage somehow, huh?” She jerked her head back at the rope.

Icy giggled. “I guess so.”

Smiling, Archer turned back to the chasm, looking out over at Lance. “Ready when you are, Lan-” she cut herself off, looking a little confused and, when Icy looked over herself, she could see why.

Rather than beginning to climb up the rope as Archer had done, Lance had untied it from around the boulder that was holding that end in place and was pulling it away from the edge a little, the tip grasped in his teeth. His mask was hanging on a hook on his belt, but his hat was still firmly atop his head.

“Hey, Lance,” Archer called, though her tone made it clear she was more curious than worried. “You gonna be okay getting over he-”

Without seeming to acknowledge Archer's question, Lance yanked the rope in his teeth back until it was taut, then took off at a full sprint towards the cave wall. He swung round, keeping the rope stretched as he approached the wall before leaping up onto it.

“Well, ask a bonehead question...” Archer muttered with a smile.

The instant Lance impacted the wall, he began running along it with three of his legs, keeping his body at a sharp angle against it, while the other leg and his mouth kept hold of the rope, pulling it in towards himself as he travelled along the wall, making sure it was always taut enough to keep him steady and stop him descending along the wall.

He travelled like this for a good five seconds before he reached Icy's platform. His trajectory had taken him a little bit over it, but once he was on top of it, he hopped off the wall, letting the rope in his jaw slacken a little.

He impacted it with a resounding crack, bending his knees as the massive fracture spread through the ice before leaping off just as the whole thing collapsed. However, the surface had given him enough of a jumping-off point that he was able to get even higher and further along the wall. Icy swallowed quickly – it didn't look like he'd be able to resume his wall run from the angle he was going.

Fortunately, it seemed he didn't have to, as he shot his hooves out in front of him and launched himself off the wall and over the chasm. However, as he did, he opened his mouth to allow the rope to run through it, travelling up along it until he'd reached the top of his jump's arc. The instant he got there, he clamped his teeth down onto the rope again and fell into a swing, travelling perpendicular to the edge of the platform Icy and Archer were on.

This meant that, after he had fallen briefly out of sight, he came up again on the other side of them, the force behind his descent sending him swinging almost to the lip of the platform. Once he was there, he flashed his sword out of his scabbard and thrust it into the rock next to him. Letting the rope drop from his teeth, he swung on his new hoofhold until he could flip up onto the platform, landing on his hindhooves with his hooves out in a balancing posture that just happened to somewhat resemble a 'ta-da!' one.

As he bent down to retrieve his sword, Icy leaned over to Archer and whispered, “So, do you think he meant to show off just then?”

Archer shook his head as she retrieved the rope. “No, and I wouldn't suggest telling him he was unless you like getting glared at for months. I'm pretty sure he just thought that was the quickest and most efficient way up here.”

Icy considered this for a moment. “Well, I mean, he wasn't wrong.”

Archer nodded with a chuckle as she started coiling the rope. “Yeah, it's amazing how many of his 'efficient methods' involve him being flashy while he’s sneering at the idea.” She shrugged. “Chalk it up to the general weirdness of the group, I'd say.”

Lance looked over as he sheathed his sword once more, giving a firm nod as he saw Archer finish with the rope. That done, he began walking purposefully down the tunnel out of the cavern.

Archer gave Icy a knowing glance as she started following him. “See what I mean, being flashy and being direct don't make each other impossible. Or being rude, I guess.”

Icy nodded for a moment as she pondered the idea. After a few seconds, though, she hopped to her hooves with a start at realizing she was lagging behind, hurrying to catch up with the others.

Sunny Flight strode her way through Sweet Apple Acres, planting her hooves hard on every step across the muddy ground and keeping her eyes locked forward, peering through the water deluging in front of her and pouring down her waterproof hood.

Eventually, she saw her destination – a barn on the edge of the orchard, near the border to the Everfree. Pinkie and her group had been using it as their base of operations for her project and she was heading over to check the progress of it, as well as learn what it actually was.

Sunny chuckled as she thought about how long it had taken before she had a chance to come out here. She wished it was because she had heeded Icy's advice and dedicated herself to her role in organizing the town's flood defences and while, in a sense, she had, it wasn't due to any decision or virtue on her part. Instead, it was simply that a huge number of things had started happening all at once almost the moment Icy and her friends had left her sight which all meant she and the rest of the organizing committee had been swamped dealing with it. So, while she hadn't spent her time worrying about her daughter, it was only because she hadn't had a chance to, which she supposed was a blessing of a sort.

Still, now that there was a momentary reprieve, she'd volunteered to check the progress of Pinkie's team and, as she walked up to the barn doors, she braced herself for what sort of weirdness she was about to see and hoped it would provide her a way to get to Icy.

As she pushed the door open, she wasn't disappointed by the first but was doubtful of the second.

In the centre of the barn, with ponies working all around it, was a huge, multi-stranded shaft of wood. The back of it, from her perspective, was near the ground, but the front was raised up on huge, stable legs and what looked like the shaft of a massive, horizontal bow was just being attached to it.

Sunny blinked as she stood there, taking in the sight of it. She barely even noticed when Pinkie dashed up to her side and threw a hoof around her shoulders.

“Hey there, Sunny! You here to help us out, to tell us the news, to get the news from us or just to bring us more food? The last batch only has seven donuts...” There was a brief cessation of pressure on Sunny's shoulder and a whoosh of air next to her before Pinkie's hoof reasserted itself, “six donuts left!”

Sunny swallowed, entirely ignoring Pinkie's question as she stared at the colossal contraption. “Pinkie? Is this a ballista?”

“Yepperoonio!” Pinkie chirped, hopping in front of her to wave her hooves over the machine like a model over a racing chariot. “See, when I heard about the wind wall that was stopping anyone walking, flying or teleporting into the forest, I thought it was such a shame that Rainbow Dash was all the way on the other side of Equestria, since a rainboom might have given her enough speed and force to power through the wall but then I realized that all we need to do to get somepony through is give them enough force, so we'd need a machine to fire them through.”

She leaned an elbow on the ballista's side, eliciting a sigh from the carpenter who had just finished working on that part half a second earlier. “It was this or a cannon and I figured this'd be easier to make on short notice. I'm gonna ask the mayor if we can always keep a non-party cannon on standby for if this happens again, though.”

Sunny found herself nodding, even if she wasn't sure exactly why. “And you're sure that this'll have enough power to send a pony through... and not enough to be a danger to them?”

Pinkie opened her mouth to answer when a small voice from behind interrupted her.

“Consarnit!” Apple Bloom snapped as her head popped out from under the body of the ballista. “It might work if I can get this frickin' head mounted right!”

Pinkie gave the little filly a frown. “Language, Bloomie! What'd Applejack say if she heard you talking like that?”

Apple Bloom frowned, a little confused. “Erm, this goldarn head mounted right?”

Pinkie nodded firmly. “That's better!”

Sunny watched this all with a nonplussed expression. While Apple Bloom was on her own rather than with the rest of the Crusaders, meaning the chances of disaster were significantly reduced, she was still hesitant to take her word that things wouldn't go wrong.

Still, she had been assured that Princess Twilight herself had looked over the forces involved, so there was reason to be optimistic. Although...

“Hmm, I take it you have a plan to stop it getting rain-soaked and ruined before it has a chance to fire?”

“Uh huh!” Pinkie assured her, taking a pencil out of her mane and marking a couple of points on the body of the ballista. “We've got Lyra, Minuette, Amethyst Star and Sea Swirl on call to provide a force umbrella that should keep it dry. Though, if you wanted to help out, that'd make it even better – you're pretty good with force magic, aren't ya?”

Sunny nodded, not questioning how Pinkie knew that. “Well, yes, but that wasn't quite how I was thinking I could help.”

“Oh?” Pinkie stepped forward, allowing Pokey Pierce to step up behind her and start making holes where she'd marked. “How's that, then? I'm always open to new ideas.

That much is obvious, Sunny thought before shaking her head. “Tell me something. If whoever was riding the bolt from this thing could keep a windbreaker shield up in front of it, would that make it easier to fire it through the wall?”

Pinkie thought for a moment. “Well, I mean... it would, but nopony could keep a shield like that up.”

Sunny lit her horn up, a smirk starting to appear on her face. “Nopony?”

“Nopony!” Pinkie shook her head vigorously. “Cause of all the spinning.”

Sunny's smirk died half-formed. “Spinning?”

“Uh huh! See, once the bolt's fired,” Pinkie waved a hoof at the long cylinders in the corner being sanded down, “it'll start spinning around cos of all the forces involved. Even if a unicorn could keep their magic going through all that spinning, they couldn't keep the shield at the same angle. It'd start spinning around too and just mess up the aerodynamics worse. It was hard enough just to account for the weight of the pony themselves messing it up - Twilight's gonna need to cast some weird magical thingy on them and the bolt to deal with that.”

Sunny blinked as she saw what Pinkie meant, for the first time realizing that the erratic mare had thought things through more than she had. “Oh. I see.”

“Still, you can keep a shield next to the bolt until it's out of your range, that'd still help a whole heap of a lot! That way you could...”

“Out of the question!” Sunny declared, staring Pinkie dead in the eye. “See, I'm not going to be staying back here long enough to do that. When you've got this thing finished, then let me assure you, I'm going to be the first one to use it.” She turned to stare at the massive machine, a grim smile coming to her mouth. “This thing has a chance of getting me to my daughter and I'll be damned if I don't take it!”