Daring Do and the Secret of the Sunken City

by 8686

First published

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.

Years ago, Daring Do discovered an ancient city, forgotten in one of the farthest reaches of Equestria, and within it a mysterious lock that could not be opened by a single pony alone. Frustrated and eventually defeated she was forced to abandon her find, willing time to absolve her of her failure.

Not too long ago, she met a pony named Rainbow Dash. A pony who helped her.

Now old memories are rekindled when Daring learns that a longtime rival has uncovered the city's location. Forced into action, she sets off on a race against time to beat her competitor, and finally learn the secrets it undoubtedly holds. But this time, she'll succeed where she failed all those years ago. This time, she'll have help.

Prologue: Failed Expedition

View Online

I figure I should get something down on paper before my last torch gives out. I know I should have been taking notes all along, but I’ve been too distracted; this place is like nowhere I’ve ever seen. Nowhere I would even have imagined. So many questions I’ll never know the answers to.

The cavern is huge. Scouting by torchlight isn’t easy but by my guess it’s gigantic enough to encompass the whole of Canterlot. I’m certain it’s artificial too, not the result of a natural event. The symmetry is too neat. To think: to build something like this would be a massive undertaking in this day and age. I can’t even begin to imagine how they managed it back then.

The ruins... actually that’s the wrong word – they’re amazingly well preserved... are old. This may even be the oldest example of a true city I’ve ever encountered. Definitely ancient unicorn architecture – that much is obvious even without the weird statues.

I’ve seen a few of them all the same. A horse, normal in all traditional proportions for a stallion, except with two necks side-by-side and two heads looking to the left and right respectively, each bearing lengthy horns. I’m certain that no such creature has ever really lived, and the depictions of the same motif in a couple of stone wall-carvings I’ve seen lead me to believe it is either symbolic, or a statement of identity – perhaps similar to a city crest or flag? I can’t even make an educated guess as to what it represents though, not without more information. I suppose it’ll have to remain a mystery.

And then there’s the mechanism. I’ve tried for days to unlock this thing, but it’s beaten me. Not only is it clearly designed for two ponies to operate, but it seems like it’s actively supposed to prevent a single pony from doing the same. And whoever built it did that really well: I’ve tried everything I can think of to improvise it and there’s nothing doing. It’s... frustrating. I know there’s something there. A relic or an artefact; or something that might give me some answers about this place, but I’ll never be able to get at it. I’ll never know, and that’s the worst part. If I’m going to take my last breaths here, I at least wanted to know where here was. What I’d found.

I’m out of food, and being cut-off from the sunlight for centuries – perhaps millenia? – means there’s no plant-life here to graze on either. I drank the last of my water hours ago. I’ve searched for days for the entrance I stumbled through, but it could be anywhere in an entire ocean of blackness, and by mere torchlight it’s proven impossible to find. It might even have collapsed behind me, I don’t know. Once this final torch dies I’ll be stuck here in the dark, effectively blind, and then it’ll only be a matter of time.

I’ve always known it might come to this. I suppose when your hobby involves digging around ancient cities and trap-filled ruins it’s more likely than not that one of them will turn out to be your grave.

I suppose I should put something here about the friends I’d say goodbye to if I could. How much I’m going to miss them; how much I love them. But I’ve been sat here for the last half-hour thinking, and I’ve realised there isn’t anyone. No-one that’s going to miss me. No-one that even knows I’m here. No-one that’s going to care that I’m not coming home.

That’s probably for the best.

So, to whomever finds these notes, I hope that what I record here serves you better than me. If you can, find the answers I couldn’t. I wish you the best of luck.

~ Daring Do.

1: The Game Begins

View Online

“Here, let me do the leg-work for you!” quipped Daring Do as she flung another kick at her assailants, sending one flying and crashing into a small group of his cohorts, knocking them to the ground. That only left a dozen or so to deal with.

Two of them tried to rush her with a net made of vine, but a jump and a single flap of her wings carried her safely over them and they ended up tripping, falling, and tangling themselves up in their own would-be trap.

Five or six more flung themselves at her, jumping on her and hoping to pin her with their combined weight, but Daring was too strong. She used her momentum to whirl around, sending those that had grabbed her sailing through the air like drops of water cast off a spinning top.

Then the remaining foes stood back, and Daring squared up to them. “Had enough already?” she challenged. But instead of rushing her they parted, standing aside to allow the approach of another of their number. Their Champion, she supposed, for he stood easily twice as tall as all of the others.


A heavy sigh accompanied a muffled scrape as Daring pushed her typewriter away, a slight disgusted grimace on her lips. Yeah, and he still only came up to my chin. Her eyes meticulously scanned the previous few paragraphs for flaws, and judged them all sorely lacking when it came to anything approaching intrigue, peril, or astonishing feats of bravery. Her scrapbook lay open on the desk beside her, containing all of her hoof-written notes and with a quick glance she concluded that, based on what was in there, the following few paragraphs weren’t going to have those things either, no matter how well she conspired to word them. The Pygmy-Goat tribe of Gruff had been far from her most fearsome of adversaries.

And their mythical, ancient treasure had turned out to be a mere bauble. Sacred to them, perhaps, but in the wider context lacking any measure of archeological or historic value. Ultimately she had chosen not to acquire it, made peace with the tribe’s elders in highly anticlimactic fashion, and there had been a large feast in honour of the pony-warrior from foreign shores. Good food, actually. Music hadn’t been bad. She sighed again and massaged her brow with a hoof.

None of this made for a gripping tale, and she fancied she could hear the reviews already. ‘With her latest novel, Yearling invites readers on a journey of monotony and tedium at the end of which they will be forced to conclude that nothing has actually happened.’ Tough to argue with.

But she had little choice but to forge ahead with it. Her excursion to the isle of Gruff might not have been her most scintillating adventure ever, but in terms of fodder for a new book it was all she had.

Her eye came to rest on the recent, awful paragraphs still nestled in her typewriter... and suddenly the thought of just wantonly plowing through such a mundane episode made a little bile rise in the pit of her stomach, and she felt queasy. She leaned back on her stool, took a deep breath through her nose and closed her eyes. Time for a break.

Forsaking her own ramblings she turned instead to somepony else’s, carefully pulling yesterday’s newspaper out from beneath the scattered scraps, notebooks, maps and documents strewn everywhere over her writing desk. She unfolded it and spread it flat, flipping absently through the almost-current news stories, searching for anything of interest. Equestria had once again been saved from certain destruction while she wasn’t looking. Nothing to get too excited about. Date for this year’s Grand Galloping Gala announced. She wasn’t going. Royal baby news. Admittedly cute, but still not her cup of tea. She skimmed and scanned page after page of otherwise uninteresting text until, on page eight, one tucked-away article caught her eye, beneath a small photo of a familiar face.

Renowned Archeologist Announces Expedition.

Oh... what was this?

Famed Archeologist, Dr. Caballeron PhD, has announced he is to lead an expedition to the remote Mustang Mountains. Speaking at the University of Maressachussetts today, Caballeron told reporters that he has uncovered evidence pointing to the location of what he stated may be one of the oldest and most significant ancient cities in Equestrian history. Declining to elaborate further, Caballeron simply stated he would let his findings speak for themselves upon his return. The University has pledged to fund his trip and a small team of students will accompany him on the expedition which is set to depart tomorrow.

Daring’s eyes narrowed. The Mustang Mountains? Oh, why was that familiar? She’d been there, hadn’t she? Years ago. Wasn’t that where she’d found...?

Her head snapped up to the shelf above the writing desk. It held copies of her previously published works, each one paired with a scrapbook containing her original notes from each excursion. She reached up and took the battered notebook on the right-hand end, left slightly separate from the others. On the cover she had simply written, Failed Expedition.

She brought it down and flipped quickly through the pages. It was all there. Mustang Mountain range. Gigantic cavern. Ancient, ancient ruined city.

The two-pony mechanism.

Daring felt an angry frown darken her brow as she looked again to the printed text of the newspaper article, and Caballeron’s smarmy grin in the small associated black-and-white photograph. Caballeron had found something out about the city. Enough to learn where it was. Perhaps enough to learn what it was.

How? When her own research had come up entirely empty? After her escape she’d spent months scouring history books for clues and found nothing! It was as though all trace of the city had been erased or something.

Yet somehow Caballeron had located answers she never could, and he would use them to claim the find as his own. More than that, with other ponies along he’d have the ability to open the mechanism and take whatever treasure or secret it guarded! Daring’s scowl deepened.

Oh no you don’t. That is my discovery!

She did a few quick mental calculations. If the newspaper was dated yesterday and Caballeron was leaving Maressachussetts today, it would take him most of a week to reach the mountain range. With wings, she’d be there in less than half the time. If that city hid a secret, she was going to learn it before he could steal it!


She returned her attention to her old scrapbook, to the pages where she described every method she had tried to open the mechanism. But she had been typically exhaustive in her efforts and there were no ideas she could think of now, even after all this time, that she hadn’t made mention of in her notes. There would simply be no way for her to release it on her own and that was just a fact. So... if she did this, she was going to need somepony else with her.

She almost shuddered at that conclusion. She worked alone. That was how she liked it. It was how she had always liked it. Having somepony else along meant you had to watch your back constantly – a nuisance at best. And when you didn’t ever need to count on someone else, you never had to worry about getting let down. Simple as that.

But now, suddenly, ‘alone’ just wasn’t an option. Not if she was going to succeed.

Unfortunately – unlike Caballeron it seemed – her cup did not exactly runneth over with ponies she could call on for help. In fact, with a little pang of frustration, she realised that the first names that came to mind were actually those of adversaries who would rather see her entombed in said city than aid her.

Daring gritted her teeth and threw her head back, letting out a long, frustrated sigh through puffed cheeks. The alternative was a hireling. A tavern lowlife of some sort whose loyalty and discretion were measured only in direct proportion to the amount of bits she would offer, and who would inevitably betray her as soon as he sensed the greater opportunity. She could plan for it, of course. Heck, past experience meant that she could likely predict down to the second the moment that they would turn. She wouldn’t be caught out. But... it was the fact that she would have to plan for it that was the frustrating thing; the fact that she had no other option, whereas it seemed Caballeron merely had to clap his hooves and reprobates flocked to him, eager to offer their scurvy services in twisted, yet somehow loyal, allegiance. Maybe it hadn’t ever been an issue before, but it was slightly galling to think that he had that come so easily to him, but in spite of all of her previous adventures, she’d never even crossed paths with anypony who wouldn’t likely sell her out for a bigger bag of bits. She huffed as her gaze once more found the shelf above the desk, with all her previous books lined up in no real order. Daring Do and the Quest for the Sapphire Stone. Daring Do and the Marked Thief of Marapore. Daring Do and the Fate of Aquastria. Daring Do and the Ring of Destiny. Daring Do and the...


With care, she plucked Ring of Destiny from the shelf and brought it down. There, on the limited-edition illustrated cover, Daring Do alongside another pony. A boisterous pegasus she’d met on that particular adventure. Oh, it had been some time ago now. But nevertheless as she interrogated her memory for information about the mare it returned with only good things. No apparent inclination toward treachery. No noticeable propensity for greed. A little clingy perhaps and Daring seemed to recall she’d had a tendency to try and be too helpful, especially at first, but in the end that pony had seemed like someone she could...


Work with, she allowed grudgingly.

She still didn’t like it. Other ponies just complicated things that were best left simplified. And there was always the possibility that she’d misremembered how genuine that other pony had seemed to be. This could easily end in disaster if she wasn’t cautious.

But another grimace found her lips as her gaze flicked between the taunting newspaper article and her uninteresting notes on Gruff Isle...

Unfortunately, it’s really not like I have a better choice.

Scraping her stool back hurriedly, she stood from the writing desk. Things to do. Now she had a detour to make which would cost her at least a day. But as long as she moved quickly she and her travelling companion should reach the mountains while Caballeron and his cronies were still busy trekking through the forest. That would give them more than enough lead time to finally succeed where she’d failed all those years ago, and put her rival’s nose out of joint to boot.

Heh. Wouldn’t he be surprised when he found out she’d beaten him to it? Twice!

She pulled her saddlebags from the hook on which they hung and began packing her usual supplies, organising and arranging her equipment in the same, practised way as always whenever she ventured out on a sortie. She tossed in the Failed Expedition scrapbook too – she might want to refer to it, and always better to have it and not need it than the alternative. She buckled her bags closed and strode towards the front door of the small, secluded cottage. Just as she opened it she turned, her eye catching on the typewriter and the half-finished page of text still within. The publishers weren’t going to be happy that she’d missed another deadline but... they’d get over it. A mysterious city? A race against time? A tentative alliance and a sinister villain? Already this felt like a more interesting adventure than Daring Do and the Goats of Gruff Island. The Publishers would forgive her.

Taking her pith helmet and seating it firmly atop her head, she left the cottage and closed the door behind her.

The game was ahoof!

2: Two For One

View Online

Dawn was still an hour off when the overnight express arrived into the peaceful village of Ponyville. The train chuffed into the station amidst a racket of squealing brakes, lurching ponderously to a stop whereupon a long puff of steam billowed forth from the locomotive with a great serpentine hiss.

The thick vapour cleared slowly as a bassy-voiced, mutton-chopped conductor blew a whistle and announced, “Ponyville, folks! This is Ponyville!” at far too great a volume for the hour. Doors thudded open and from the carriages stepped half a dozen travel-weary ponies, their hooves clumping hollowly on the platform’s wooden floorboards as they wended their way towards the station’s exit and home.

One such stallion, perhaps looking less fatigued than most of his contemporaries, found himself joined in step by another passenger. A mare wearing a low-brimmed cloth hat, shawl, and a thick-rimmed pair of stylish spectacles.

“Excuse me, sir?” she asked upon reaching his side. She pulled a hardbacked book from her saddlebag and, concealing much of the cover behind her hoof, directed the gentlecolt’s attention to the main point of interest – a blue-coated pegasus. “I’m looking for this pony.”

The stallion regarded the image for a long, quiet moment, and then met her gaze as though waiting for more. Silence persisted.

“She’s called Rainbow Dash,” prompted the mare.

“Eeyup,” the stallion said, agreeing.

“Uh... okay. Do you know where she lives?”


The mare waited for a moment, but when no further information was forthcoming a little scowl creased her brow. “Can you tell me?”

The stallion nodded and raised a hoof, pointing out over the train-tracks. Yonder, a distant large, tall cloud hovered as a black shape in the night air, its edges reflecting the silver light of the crescent moon. Like a miniature palace, it hung low over a quiet meadow just beyond the town limits. Rainbows flowed in streams from a number of points near the pinnacle and pooled at the base, though without the sunlight to refract through them they were dimmed, their colours muted and greyscale.

Still, impressive and quietly beautiful. It must look stunning in daylight.

“Thanks,” said the mare, looking back with a doff of her hat to mark her gratitude.

The stallion nodded a single, deep nod, and then began trundling away towards the exit once more. A nice enough fellow. Rugged and handsome in the traditional sense, if a little quiet. He bore a red coat and a ginger mane that was of a shorter cut, and...

...and is the description necessary? Guy’s probably not going to figure in the story after this point. Describing him now would imply he’s significant or expected to return. Don’t want to mislead the audience. Come on, Yearling. Basics.

Shaking her head to clear her thoughts, looking towards the cloud, the mare started trotting.

When she was sure she was far enough away from the station she removed her shawl and spectacles, and replaced the cloth hat with one that was ivory-coloured and of an altogether sturdier construction.

* * *

Cloaked in deep, black shadows fitting more comfortably than any clothing, the mare stood motionless at the foot of the bed. For an entire minute she subjected her blissful, oblivious quarry to silent scrutiny, the soft sounds of continued snoring proof enough that her intrusion had gone unnoticed.

A frown crept to her brow as she gazed upon the slumbering pony, noting the little dribble of drool that had started to seep, undignified, from her mouth. This was her then. This pony, whom she barely knew, would be accompanying her. Doubtless she would share in secrets that she had no guarantee she would keep. It was even possible, if unlikely, that they may even have to put their faith in each other. In some ways the predictable certainty of betrayal by a lowlife-for-hire was preferable to this; to not knowing how far you could rely on somepony. And this was that somepony. Right there in that bed: Drooly McSleepface wearing a set of silly, cutesy turtle-slippers, snoring without a care. Not some nebulous, aspirational entity anymore. Real. Flesh, blood, and flawed.

Deep breath.

With care she stepped up to the side of the bed, the black shadows shifting and sliding over her coat more smoothly than even the lightest silk. She raised a forehoof high, ready to rouse the lethargic pony with a firm smack. Yet before she delivered the blow her eye caught on the nightstand, noticing a tall glass half-full of water. Seeing it, she stayed her hoof and lowered it.

Instead she picked up the glass and, in a smooth motion, poured the contents onto the face of the snoozing pegasus. The cold water splashed and spattered and garnered an immediate reaction of shock, horror, light coughing and a little splutter. As the cyan pony rapidly came to terms with consciousness the instrusive mare leaned in close, locked her gaze with a hard, piercing stare and spoke in a low voice, thick with threat.

“Can I trust you?”

Her only reply was a few seconds of sniffly-splutters followed by a distant, “Whuh...?” as the sky-blue pony seemed to have trouble extracting herself from sleep, in spite of the rude awakening. After a moment she seemed to regain a little more sense and her eyes focused. “D... Daring Do? What’s going—?”

“Can I trust you?” pressed Daring, not losing Rainbow Dash’s stare for a second.

Rainbow Dash blinked blearily. “Well... yeah,” she murmured, as though it were obvious.

Daring nodded a slow, careful nod and considered Rainbow’s reaction at length. Ponies were generally honest after suffering a shock and she was still half-asleep even. Surely most unlikely to have formed a coherent deception. Still, a long way from there to ‘trust.’ After yet another agonising mental debate, she spoke again.

“I’m headed northeast to the Mustang Mountains, and I need another set of hooves. Are you in?”

A long, slow blink and a very lethargic stretch preceded her reply. “Ad... advenchure?” the other mare slurred. Sleep, it seemed, was not going quietly.

“Uh, sure. Big adventure. Tons of fun.”

Rainbow Dash seemed to relax, her expression falling into something similar to recognition and she gave a slight, knowing nod. “Totally going on an adventure with Daring Do...” she said absently as her eyelids fell closed. She raised her head slightly from her pillow and her lips formed a slight pucker – to Daring’s surprise and chagrin.

Raising her foreleg again, this time she gave the Rainbow-maned sleepy-head a solid – though not especially hard – cuff across the chops. It seemed to bring her far more to her senses than the water.


“What do you think you’re doing?” demanded Daring.

“What? Normally when I have this dream, this is the part where we...” Dash trailed off as she rubbed her obviously painful cheek with a hoof, and in doing so seemed to come to some kind of realisation. “Not a dream?”


She rubbed her cheek for a few more moments before finding the most appropriate words for her situation: “Uh-oh.”

Daring’s brow folded into a heavy, annoyed scowl. Not for the first time she found herself racking her brains, asking herself if this was really her best option. And... not for the first time... she came to the conclusion that yes, sad as it may be, it really, really was. She rolled her eyes and decided to move right along. “Are you in or not?”

But, alas, Rainbow Dash still seemed to be having difficulty coming to terms with... well everything, as she carefully wiped her face with her hoof.

“Why am I all wet?” she asked.

With a sudden surge of annoyance, Daring felt her teeth clench. This wasn’t how she had envisaged this playing out. She wanted a quick ‘yes’ from the other pony and for them both to be on their way. Instead she was being drawn into pointless dialogue and answering obvious questions of the kind that killed the pace and would be instantly eradicated from any first draft. “I threw your water on you to wake you up.”

“And then you hit me...?” Rainbow asked, as though trying to piece together her memory of only a minute ago.

“Ugh. Yes.”

Rainbow Dash seemed to consider this for a groggy moment. “That wasn’t very nice,” she concluded.

“Mare-up and get over it.”

At last Rainbow shook her head roughly, left her covers and clambered out of the far side of her bed. The thick cobwebs of her rudely interrupted sleep appeared to clear, though her breathing now came a little deeper than was normal for a relaxed pony. “Okay. Okay. So Daring Do is actually in my house, and she wants me to go with her to...” she looked up. “Sorry, where?”

“The Mustang Mountains,” repeated Daring with a note of growing impatience.

“...To the Mustang Mountains. I... am being asked... to go on an adventure with Daring Do!” Confusion slowly, finally gave way to comprehension. Excitement followed on its heels. “This is so awesome!”

“So you’re in?”

“Totally!” enthused Rainbow. Sleep, it seemed, was but a distant memory already and in moments she had transformed into a bright and alert mare. The pace at which she’d gone from zero to full throttle was impressive, and probably a little worrying if thought too hard about.

Never mind. Daring had the answer she wanted and that put a little spring in her step. One major obstacle overcome. She started to turn towards the window, flexing her wings. “Great. Come on and let’s get—”

“Lemme just round up the rest of my friends, and we’ll get going.”

Daring blinked in surprise, then turned back to give Rainbow Dash a frown. “No. No friends. Just you. I need one assistant for when we get there and that’s all.”

“What? Hold on, you can’t expect me to come with you on a totally awesome dangerous adventure... by myself!”

Daring raised her eyebrow. “Why not?”

“Because no-one’s gonna believe me when I tell them! I gotta have somepony to back me up!”

The eyebrow fell and Daring frowned again. “Tell them they can read abo—”

“Is there gonna be fighting?” asked Rainbow eagerly, “‘Cuz Applejack would totally be up for this!”

“There isn’t going to be any fighting,” groaned Daring. The idea was to reach the city and be done with it before Caballeron arrived. He could pick the bones out of what she left behind.

“What about weird monster-creatures?” continued Dash, undaunted, “We’d need Fluttershy for that. Or tribes of hostile war-ponies? Because Pinkie Pie could totally partify* them. And Rarity could... uh... Rarity... Rarity...” she mused with a thoughtful frown. “Oh! Disguises! She’d do the disguises,” Rainbow finished with a self-satisfied grin.

Daring’s face was thunder. “No!” she growled. “I told you, I don’t need any other ponies. The more ponies there are, the slower we’d move, and we’re on the clock as it—”

“Twilight!” cried Dash. “We gotta take Twilight with us!”

“Are you even listening t—?!”

“She’d never forgive me if she found out that Daring Do invited me on an adventure and I didn’t even tell her about it. She can’t miss out on this! She’s like your biggest fan! Even bigger than I am!”

“Lots of ponies claim to be my biggest fan,” said Daring coldly. “I didn’t come here because I needed a fan, I came because I just need a pony to come with me and do exactly what I tell them, and, ideally, for them not to try and get me killed while they’re doing it. It’s not complicated and unless you think it’s beyond you, then we’re leaving. Now.” She extended her wings and prepared to take flight through the window.

Behind her, caught in her peripheral vision, Rainbow Dash sat neatly on her haunches and didn’t move. When Daring inevitably looked back she discovered a faint, level frown on the other mare’s face. Not angry as such, but quite determined. “I’m not going without Twilight,” she said.

Daring brought a hoof to her face and rubbed hard. This was fast escaping her control. But when she tried to fix Rainbow Dash with her best angry stare – a well-practised glower that could stop a henchpony in his tracks at twenty paces – she found it unusually ineffective. Rainbow Dash simply sat there with her brow half-knit and her expression resolute.

Daring gave a long, exasperated sigh. “Does your friend have wings? We gotta move quickly which means we gotta wing-it. We can’t afford the delay, so unless your friend can fly, and more importantly keep up, there’s just no point.”

“She can fly! Sort of.”

Sort of?

“Well, she’s got wings and technically she can use them. I mean... it’s not ‘flying’ by my standards but she can fly.”

From beneath the brim of her pith helmet Daring regarded Rainbow Dash’s expression carefully, sizing it up as a wild animal might appraise a territorial rival, searching for any hint of weakness in her determined frown; any chink that might indicate she was open to persuasion. She clearly wanted to come, but it seemed that that desire wasn’t enough to dislodge her from her obstinate position. And as hard as Daring looked, there was no hint of concession in those eyes at all, and they never once broke her gaze or looked away.

An impasse, it seemed, but Daring was in the weakened position. If she didn’t secure the services of an accomplice there was no point in continuing the venture at all. But she had nowhere else to turn and thus she was in a corner. Only two paths to choose between, and one of those led back to her cottage, to Pygmy-Goat mundanity. “This friend of yours. Twilight. You’re really not going to agree unless she comes too?”

Rainbow shook her head, her determined expression unmoved. “Sorry.”

Another sigh. “Is she at least a fearless adventurer with a thirst for intrigue who laughs in the face of danger?” asked Daring, rather optimistically it had to be said.

“Uhhh... she’s kind of an egghead.”


Her mouth curled into a grimace. Once again the mental debate raged. Now a whole new set of variables was in play. A third pony, with uncertain motivations and a pre-existing relationship with her new volunteer. One that doubtless trumped the fragile, temporary alliance she was cultivating. The danger there increased ten-fold. Was it still worth the risk?

I have to know what’s behind that mechanism.

I’m so going to regret this.

“Okay. If you can convince her, she can come. But if she doesn’t agree to, we go without her. That our deal?”

Rainbow Dash smirked. “Deal!”

* * *

The ice-cold water left the glass and splattered heavily over Twilight Sparkle’s face, drenching mane and coat alike.

“Rainbow Dash? I don’t think that was necessary,” said Daring.

“Huh? Why not?”

“She was already awake.”

Sat at her reading desk engaged in a little pre-dawn research, Twilight had been most surprised when the two pegasi had burst in through her bedroom window – one of them with notable enthusiasm and the other wearing a resigned grimace. She had been about to ask what was going on when Rainbow Dash had spotted the glass of mineral water from which she’d been sipping and, without warning, had snatched it and thrown it over her. Now, dripping wet and with a slick mane, she regarded her friend with an unamused – though not especially surprised – pout. “Rainbow? This had better be good,” she growled. She wiped her face with her hooves and used magic to wring the water out of her hair.

“It is, it is!” insisted Rainbow Dash, unable to keep the smirk from her face nor the snickers of almost-laughter from her voice. With great effort, she composed herself. “Twilight? Daring Do is going on an adventure to the Mustang Mountains! And she needs our help!”

“She does?” inquired Twilight.

“Totally! You and me... are going on an adventure... with Daring Do!” enthused Rainbow Dash. “It’s like a dream come true! Except totally not a dream. Trust me, I already checked.”

Stood a little way behind Rainbow Dash, outside the conversation, Daring Do’s nose wrinkled and her mouth became a tight line. She cast her restless gaze around the room for something to do as she endured overhearing the half-truth of Rainbow’s summary explanation. The multi-coloured mare’s boundless energy was starting to grate already. She was surprised that she had managed to forget just how much of it there was.

To her credit though, Twilight Sparkle was quicker on the uptake than her sleepy-headed friend had been. The purple mare put on a thoughtful expression, turned, and used her magic to levitate a book from a nearby bookshelf – of which there were an abundance – to a desk not dissimilar in size and shape to Daring’s own back home, placing it open atop the volume she had been absorbed in. The new book seemed to be an atlas and the page she flipped to showed the mountain-range in question – a circle of mountain peaks surrounding a shallow valley, far to the northeast of the continent. “Hmm. The Mustang Mountains are pretty remote. They’re almost as northerly as the Crystal Empire, and I don’t know of any cultures that have lived in that particular region. There shouldn’t be anything out there.”

Daring found her thin-lipped grimace relaxing into a small smile, which surprised her just a little. Twilight Sparkle, then: well-read, analytical, skeptical. Impressive. She found herself warming to her. A little.

“Trust me, there’s something there all right,” Daring said, turning to her. And when Twilight raised her head from the book, Daring saw it in her eyes. Curiosity. That burning thirst for knowledge that she recognised so very well indeed.

“Well, if Daring Do is asking for my help, it’s not like I’m going to turn her down,” said Twilight as a friendly smile spread across her lips.

She wasn’t actually asking for both of their help, but Daring bit her tongue. She squared her shoulders and cast her gaze between the two ponies before her. This was it then. Both ponies, or neither. She had already concluded that ‘neither’ was no use at all for her purposes, and while ‘both’ presented unprecedented levels of risk... if she kept her wits about her and watched them both like a hawk, she could manage that risk. So... she would give them the benefit of the doubt. She would assume they could be taken at face value, for now. But at the slightest hint of deception from either of them; the first sign of a betrayal being planned, she could bail on them. Even if that would mean ultimately failing in her mission, she would be able to console herself that she had been right not to trust them.

Nothing like starting an adventure with a positive attitude, huh Yearling?

Drawing herself up, she spared a quick look at the paling, pre-dawn sky beyond the window and then back to her two new... 'partners.' They both seemed very pleased about something, smiling warmly and broadly at each other, and her. Whatever. “Okay, here’s how this works. I want to be away at sunrise, which means you’ve both got about an hour to pack whatever supplies you need. You’re gonna need food, and it’s gonna be cold. I’d rather not risk being seen and mobbed in town, so I saw a small glade about half-a-mile north of the village on the way over here. Be there before the sun clears the horizon.”

Suddenly Twilight’s smile vanished and she cried out. “Only an hour? I’m going to need more time than that for research. I... I don’t even know which books to pack! Spike!” she called towards the next room.

“Twilight,” groaned Rainbow Dash. “You can’t worry about research or packing books! This is a real adventure. With a real adventurer! The answers are out there...” she said with a note of wonder that was slightly put-on, “Not in a book!”

“The answers are always in a book,” harrumphed Twilight. “And if they’re not, it’s only because the book hasn’t been written yet.”

“Whatever, I gotta go find this one super-important thing. I’ll see you there!”

“One hour, or you get left behind,” warned Daring.

Rainbow Dash gave her best devil-may-care grin and saluted, then made use of the window and sped from the castle.

At that moment, from the next room, a small purple-scaled and green-spined dragon slouched in, dragging his feet and rubbing his eyes, trailing a small blue blanket behind himself. In the nook of his forearm he carried a small white doll with purple hair – a coat and mane combination that Daring found familiar in the vaguest, most distant of senses.

“I’m awake. I’m awake. I think,” said the dragon. He raised his heavy head and finally noted the other pony in the room, dropping his possessions in surprise. “Whoa. Guests. Twilight, you didn’t say.”

“Spike, no time,” said Twilight. “I’m headed north with Daring and Rainbow Dash, and I’m gonna be gone for a couple of days. Take care of Owloiscious and ask that Fluttershy checks in on Tank. And if you’re having one of your boys-nights-in while I’m gone, clean up after yourselves! It took me forever to get the Big McIntosh-shaped dent out of the couch, and I’m still finding popcorn kernels everywhere! Right now though I need your help in the library looking for anything we have on the Mustang Mountains. Come on!” She turned and galloped through the door, and her hoofbeats echoed long down the corridor. Hanging his still-weary and somewhat bewildered head, the dragon began to trudge after.


No reaction.

“Excuse me, sir?” Daring tried again.

The dragon looked up. “Huh? Oh, you mean me? Sir, huh? I could get used to that...”

“You’re her... butler? Footman?”

The dragon frowned and folded his arms. “Let’s go with ‘oldest and most loyal friend’.”

“Sorry. No offense meant.”

“Well you did give me the Sir, so none taken.”

“You’ve known her a while then?”

“My whole life.” The dragon gave a considered pause. “Literally, my whole life.”

Daring nodded, then raised her gaze to the open door through which Twilight Sparkle had galloped in her hasty exit. “She always like this?”

He grinned and gave a faint, throaty chuckle. “Oh yeah. Absolutely.”

Another pause. “She trustworthy?” she asked, looking back at him.

The dragon blinked and looked up, this time with deep sincerity. “Oh yeah. Absolutely.”

Daring nodded again. “Okay.” She took another deep breath and finally turned for the open window. “Look... don’t let her spend too long searching in there. She’ll just be wasting her time. Trust me, I spent years looking in library after library and found zilch. Make sure she eats something and that she’s not late. I can’t wait around.” She hopped onto the windowsill, stretching her wings and spreading her feathers wide.

“Wait,” called the dragon from behind. “Twilight... she called you Daring. You... you actually are her, aren’t you? For real? You’re Daring Do.”

Daring looked back with a faint, melancholic sigh.


She spread her wings, and was gone.

* * *

*Partify. A verb, used similarly to ‘pacify’, but where the reduction in hostilities is achieved solely via the medium of parties.

3: And One is Two

View Online

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

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

“Huh? Do what?” asked Rainbow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They flew in silence for another half-minute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You really don’t need—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How does that work?”

Twilight blinked in confusion. “What, friendship?”

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

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

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

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

“Okay... go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, that’s it.”

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

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

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

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

“No, I am. Really, I am.”

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

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

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

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

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

Twilight’s face fell again.

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

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

“Why so surprised?”

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

“You think so?”

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

Twilight blinked, confused. “Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmm? About what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Captain of the Wonderbolts

by R. D. Dash

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

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

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

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

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

The End.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that answered that.

4: The Climb

View Online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rainbow Dash?”

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

“Don’t move.”

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

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

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

“There is a Shadow Scorpion on your back.”

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

“Don’t freak out.”

“But is it—?”

“Completely harmless.”

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

“—Unless it stings you.”

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

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

It’s on my back!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s moving again!”

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

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

Well?” asked Dash after an interminable moment.

“Shh!” said Daring. “I’m looking.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It stung me!”

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

“It... it—!”

“Trust me, it didn’t.”

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

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


“Are you suffering from blurred vision?

“Uh... well, no.”


“No, not really.”


“A little.”

“Loss of consciousness?”

“I... don’t think so?”

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

No answer except a gawping stare.

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

There was a brief pause.

“Hey, Daring?”

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



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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Daring?” said Twilight.


“Just so you know... we’d care.”

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

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

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

“Rainbow Dash?” called Twilight.

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

“What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The message was clear: Stay out of my sky.

Daring doubted they’d get a second warning.

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

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

Much worse.



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

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

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

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

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

“Both okay?” she asked.

They both nodded and smiled.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh oh,” said Twilight from her left.

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

Daring concurred with both of those assessments.

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

With the three ponies trapped right between them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was going to be one heck of a fight.

5: The Battle of Brokeback

View Online

‘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.”


“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.”

6: The Forgotten City

View Online

Morning came. Far too quickly, if you asked Twilight, for it seemed to her that no sooner had her head hit the plush grass than her ears detected the musical warbling of songbirds combined with the rustling of leafy trees, and warm, dappled rays of sunlight falling onto her eyelids. She took a deep breath, inhaling the sweet, fresh fragrances of the woodland and basking in the gentle mountain breeze. She did not open her eyes, content to lie at rest; at peace.

“She’s waking up,” said a familiar voice from nearby. A voice which her body thus became determined to prove wrong.

She shifted a little, finding her movement constricted by something warm and soft – a blanket tucked tightly around her – and snuggled down into it, desperate for just five more minutes.

And then suddenly the myriad subtle, clean scents of the surrounding flora were replaced with just one – a thick, overpowering aroma, earthy yet sweet, and instantly recognisable. Twilight felt a little smile come to her lips. There was no mistaking that smell. That was coffee.

Still groggy but her senses returning to her one-by-one, Twilight finally opened her heavy eyelids.

“Rise and shine, sleepy-head,” said Rainbow Dash with a grin. She and Daring were sat up around a small campfire over which a cooking pot dangled, suspended from an improvised spit made of branches and tied with thin vine.

Daring carefully retrieved the pot and poured some of the liquid contents into a small cup which she placed on the ground next to Twilight’s muzzle. The strong, sweet scent became irresistible and Twilight stirred.

With some difficulty – whoever had tucked her in had done a sterling job – she forced herself free of the blanket and sat up. Taking the cup of hot coffee in her hooves she brought it to her lips and sipped.

“Hope you don’t mind it black,” said Daring. “Coffee and sugar keep forever, but milk and cream don’t. Can’t really bring those on an excursion.”

Twilight swallowed, the smooth, hot liquid rolling down her throat and pleasantly warming her belly. She looked up. “How long was I... I mean how long have you both...?

“About an hour,” said Daring. “Don’t worry about it – we were all beat after yesterday.” She poured more of the liquid from the cooking pot into two more plain, handle-less mugs, one for herself and one which she passed to Rainbow. “I didn’t bring much of this, but I figured I had to break out the good stuff after what we’ve just been through. That and, since Rainbow Dash ‘fessed up this morning that, predictably, she’s out of food, we’re gonna end up pooling our rations one way or another. Might as well start.” Daring took a sip from her own mug and savoured the taste before returning her attention to Twilight. “Come on, I’ve got some pressed oat-bars with raisins for breakfast. Gonna need some energy.”

The three explorers breakfasted quickly and heartily on Daring’s rations, and enjoyed her generously gifted coffee. At a leisurely pace they finished their eating and packed up their respective pieces of gear – Daring securing her cookpot and cups and Twilight folding her blanket and pillow back into her bags. Before too long they had broken camp and were stood before the entrance in the base of the obelisk. As Daring had predicted, the capstone at the peak shone with a golden light this morn.

Before dousing the fire, Daring used the embers to ignite a torch, and then turned to her two compatriots. “Ready?” she asked. Two ponies nodded in reply and then, together, all three of them crossed the threshold.

* * *

Three sets of hooves clopped softly in the dark, echoing upon stone steps and cold, close walls. The dim light of Daring’s flaming torch flickered constantly; their only illumination, and the faint flagging of the flame the only sound besides their hoof-falls. Voices silent, they descended deeper and deeper into the earth.

The staircase wound downwards in an anti-clockwise spiral, descending far further than the depth of a normal basement with no hint of ending. As they forged deeper the walls changed in construction, becoming more normal block-and-mortar affairs rather than the sheer surface of the obelisk above. A floor or two further down they came to the first window – thin and tall like an archer’s post, but which looked out into deep, smothering blackness. A half-turn of the staircase later they found another, and it seemed as though they were within a high castle tower. Not a construction that one would normally expect to find underground.

Daring led her entourage ever deeper, wary of her footing but with a satisfied smile. She was in a good mood. More than that, even, she was happy. She was finally in her element here. She had a ruin to explore, a torch to guide her and her own wits to rely on, and thus she was content. All of the distracting elements that had contributed to this adventure thus far... the company, the talking, her feelings – the things that hadn’t quite been within her comfort zone – all just faded into the background – a mildly disappointing prelude to this, the main event. This was what it was all about. Nothing else mattered.

Another three-quarter turn down the spiral steps, Daring called a halt. From behind her, her two companions could not see why at first until Daring carefully stepped to the side and brought the torch low.

The stairs ended. Suddenly and without warning they simply stopped, the final step inviting descent into nothing but a pitch black void, and the walls ceased just as abruptly leaving a gaping abyss ahead of and around them. The tower they were within was suspended from the cavern ceiling, but supported by nothing from below. The air down here was cold, thick, and somehow tainted. It tasted old and dry, yet seemed to leave a thin, unwelcome film on the back of the throat with every inhalation.

“Careful here,” said Daring. She took a deep breath of the stale air and the memories already flooding back to her took on a life of their own. “When I was here before... I... I found the valley up there and, well, didn’t think much of it at first. I remember it started raining – a sudden downpour from thick, grey clouds. With the sky being so dim, the capstone glowing in the distance was easy to pick out, and I decided to investigate. Found the obelisk, and the rain was only getting heavier. I ducked inside to take shelter, found the stairs and just had to keep going. But the water ran down these steps like a sluice; made it too slippery to keep any footing and I stumbled and fell. Bounced down the stairs and slipped off the edge right here, down there, into the blackness, before my wings caught me. By then it was too late. I’d fallen too far and lost sight of the entrance in the smothering dark, completely disoriented and stuck below ground. Ended up spending a few too many days here.”

“How’d you find your way out again?” asked Rainbow.

Daring paused a moment, looking out into the featureless void, and then back up the staircase behind them. “When my last torch gave out, everything was pitch black. No light at all. I looked up to the cavern ceiling and I saw... really faint... a kind of white glow. Moonlight. Outside the full moon was in just the right place, and shone onto the obelisk at just the right angle, that the merest hint reflected down the staircase... and I was in just the right place to be able to see it. It was pretty lucky – I’d never have spotted it if my flame hadn’t died when it did. Figure Celestia was looking out for me that night.”

“Don’t you mean Luna?” asked Rainbow.

“This was a fair few years ago. Back then, Celestia was still in charge of the moon.” She tapped a hoof on the final step of the staircase and a couple of tiny pieces of masonry crumbled from it and fell into the deep black beneath. “Pretty sure this is the only way in or out, too. This was likely originally a tower from the city to the surface, but the tower collapsed leaving just this top section hanging from the cavern roof. Like a big stalactite.”

“I’m... not so sure,” said Twilight, drawing Daring’s attention. Twilight carefully stood a couple of steps up from the brink and pointed at the loose brickwork of the tower walls and stairs at the point they ended. Some feature seemed to have caught her interest. “I don’t think the tower just collapsed. Do you see?”

Daring followed her gaze to the stone, and when she saw it she berated herself for not seeing it first.

“Scorch marks,” said Daring.

“And some of the stone looks... melted,” added Twilight.

“Really?” said Rainbow, jockeying for a closer look. “What could even do that?”

Twilight stared at the stone and considered. In her experience, not many things, but one explanation seemed to fit the facts more than others. “Magic.”

The three of them paused to consider this, but without further context the precise fate of the tower was of little consequence at present.

Rainbow Dash broke the silence. “So, how’re we getting down? I’m not crazy about flying blind, y’know.”

Daring nodded and held her torch out over the drop. She released it and it fell, tumbling end over end, the flame leaving a faint orange streak against the lightless ocean into which it plummeted. It twirled for seconds that seemed to stretch into minutes, and then eventually a faint clatter reached up to them from below. Perhaps two hundred meters down, the torch came to rest and a tiny circle of orange light illuminated a patch of solid ground.

“Aim for that,” said Daring, who spread her wings and, with an air most casual, stepped out into space, falling at first and then gliding. And then she was gone, the dark absorbing her as if she were one with its shadows.

The two ponies now left in the dark in the ruined tower hesitated, one moreso than the other.

“Uh... Rainbow? You know how flying’s still not completely my forté? I’m not really sure I...” said Twilight, her cadence one of controlled fear as she peered into the featureless expanse, broken only by the tiny coin of light from directly beneath.

“No sweat, Twilight. Just... hold on to me, ‘kay?”

Twilight felt Rainbow Dash nudge her gently with her foreleg, and Twilight eagerly raised her own to meet it, linking them. Simply having something to hold onto reassured her no end, for aside from the dot of light beneath her now, she could see nothing. She breathed a calming, deep breath through her nose and let it out through her mouth. “Okay. We can do this?”

“Sure we can. Piece of cake,” said Rainbow’s voice from her side. And though Twilight could not see her expression, she knew she wore that grin of hers, confident and cocky. “Just don’t go anywhere. Ready?”

Twilight gulped. “Ready.”

They stepped out into the abyss together.

* * *

The odd statue was just as it had been on her first visit. A stallion with two necks; two heads side-by-side, each looking in the opposite direction, each with a long proud horn. The impossible horse stood at perhaps twice the height of an average stallion and the features – brows, jaws, muzzles, haunches, were heavily accented. The white, clean marble-work was exquisite, she could tell, even with only the dim flame a few meters behind her to shine on it. There were dozens of these that she’d seen on her first expedition here dotted around the city in differing states of repair. The one before her, though, was a fine, intact example and she couldn’t help but admire it while she suffered the interminable wait for her cohorts to catch up.

Presently, from behind, the hollow clicking of hooves upon stone reached her as her tag-alongs made landfall next to the torch still on the ground. The amount of light cast by the flame over the surrounding flagstones wasn’t much and so Daring had withdrawn to the shadows to be sure to give them enough space to land; and in doing so had noticed the statue nearby. Now with the other two mares safely down she turned back toward them, even as they, near the fire, looked around in confusion into what – to them – must have been an impenetrable screen of darkness.

“Uh... hello?” called Rainbow Dash. It seemed she and Twilight had guided each other down through the cavern, and they unlinked their forelegs now and scanned their surroundings. “Daring Do? Are you there?”

“It’s okay, I’m over here,” she said. She was only a dozen paces distant, but while she could see them the reverse wasn’t true. She walked into the torchlight and their gaze finally fixed on her. Their smiles widened too. Not sure why that would be.

Daring stooped and picked up the torch. “Just getting my bearings,” she said. “If we know this place is pretty much right beneath the exit, we’ll need to find it again when we want to leave.” She looked at Twilight. “Those strange statues I wrote about? There’s one of them just here,” she said, stepping back towards it. A few paces and the dancing flame revealed the mighty sculpture.

Twilight looked at it with an awe and wonder that Daring was sure she had held on her own face the first time she had seen one. Rainbow Dash looked more nonplussed, giving the piece a concise critique:


“Rainbow!” scolded Twilight.

“What? You don’t think a two-headed pony is weird? Please tell me the city wasn’t like, full of two-headed ponies or something?”

“No, of course not,” said Twilight. “It’s probably some kind of symbolism.”

“That was my conclusion too,” said Daring. “Never did figure out... what... though...”

As she spoke, the flame of the torch guttered, spat, and finally died, casting all into black.

There was a moment of surprised silence before Daring felt her brow crease and she let out a grumble, casting an invisible but highly judgemental stare at the length of wood she held. “Already?!” she fumed. “Urgh. Pitch must have gotten wet dragging my bags through the snow yesterday. Gimme a second here...”

“Oh, it’s okay, I can help with that,” came Twilight’s voice.

A purple glow appeared at the tip of Twilight’s horn, lighting all around them. A moment later and with some more concentration the glow intensified and the light became brighter, and then brighter still. Then, at last, Twilight said, “I even think I can...” before trailing off. With a soft hiss, as though drops of water falling onto hot embers, the now hoofball-sized ball of light separated from the tip of Twilight’s horn and began to float. It ascended above them to a height of perhaps forty feet, acting as a miniature sun and illuminating far more than they’d been able to see by fire-light alone. Twilight had a little satisfied smile on her lips for a moment, but it dissipated quickly as the shadows around them changed, lengthening as the ball of light began to move of its own volition.

“Hey... where’s it going?” asked Twilight, aloud.

The ball of light rose higher, and moved faster too, at an angle now, soaring towards the cavern ceiling and leaving the ponies below in the dark once again. In the moment before it vanished it seemed to reveal a crystal of some sort, embedded in the rock high above. The light made straight for it, struck it, and was gone.

“It absorbed my light spell...! Oh...” Twilight whispered, still looking up.

A faint glow appeared. At first it was purple – the same colour of the magic that spawned it – but it soon resolved to white and grew brighter, and brighter still. It was some manner of crystal, set into the roof of the cavern as one would set a jewel into a crown. And as its brightness increased, nearby other lights began to flicker hesitantly to life. And then, adjacent to those, others still, the network expanding with exponential pace. Soon the entire cavern roof, hundreds of feet above them, was aglow with hundreds of glowing white crystals which shone their light down and gently drove back the darkness that had so long stagnated over the city. Pure, clean light fell onto a vast, ancient capital, and for the first time in an epoch the city revealed itself to lay its full glory bare. Not even Daring Do could suppress a feeling of wonder as the shadows around her receded as though on a tide, and from them emerged a city as ancient and as beautiful as anywhere she had ever encountered.

Tall, fluted towers rose gracefully above lower, stone-built buildings of tasteful architecture showcasing a restrained design ethic, with subtle baroque hints in the way windows were framed and arches drawn. Underhoof the ground was paved with flagstones, smooth and unfussy for the most part, though occasionally a beautiful and ornate design could be found in some prominent place among them – the same two-headed symbol that had adorned the obelisk above. The streets ran between the buildings at angles, as though designed in the manner of a spider’s web with all roads interconnected yet leading toward one point, though a point not at the centre of the city but offset by about a third to the east. In that direction the buildings became taller, grander and more ostentatious – perhaps denoting the rich-quarter of the metropolis.

The beauty extended to the cavern ceiling as well, as the myriad glinting crystals shining down upon them gleamed, shone and twinkled with a subtle but delicate rhythm. There was something oddly familiar about the way they were arranged, and it took Twilight to point it out before it clicked.

“Constellations,” she whispered from her side. “They’re arranged in the shape of the constellations. Look, there’s Ursa Major, and Scorpio... and Taurus, the bull... and there’s Orion and... wait... one of the stars in his sword is missing. Hmm, and one from Ares’ horn, and I can’t see Sirius at all! Just a large crack where it should... oh.”

It was true. In one, vast section completely covering the eastern third of the city, large, ugly black cracks had fissured and spread through the roof, doubtless casting down the lighting crystals that had been unfortunate enough to find themselves in their advancing paths. In fact where the cracks were thickest the whole ceiling of the cavern had even begun to bow, as though the bottom of a massive, shallow bowl.

As one, all three ponies stared in silence, up at the enormous convex deformity.

“Uh... isn’t there a lake up there?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Yeah,” whispered Twilight.

“And water is...?”

Really heavy.” She looked to Daring. “I think we know why that lake is so much larger than the last time you were here,” she said. “The weight of the water has begun to collapse the cavern roof. As the roof slowly caves in the lake gets bigger, fed by snowmelt from the mountains, which means more water, which means more weight. Eventually the ceiling will give way.”

“And then?” asked Rainbow, with just a touch of the nerves.

“Well, the city will flood,” said Twilight.

“And... us?

“Relax,” said Daring. “The city’s been here for a long time. Over a thousand years, easily. That ceiling isn’t going to collapse in the next couple of days. Probably won’t even happen in our lifetime. We’ll be fine.”

Twilight nodded in agreement and Rainbow Dash, though still looking ill at ease, at least managed to tear her gaze from the roof and the thought of a bajillion tonnes of water crashing down on their heads.

Before them the statue they had been regarding had its own trick on display. It seemed it had siphoned off a small portion of Twilight’s spell and the lengthy horns on both of its heads stood aglow as though producing their own aura, adding to the light in their vicinity.

“Like a street lamp...” Daring noted, eyeing the statue with a new appreciation.

And if nothing else, all of this went to show that it was a very good thing that Twilight Sparkle had been brought along on this trip. Doing this in the dark, or even by torchlight, (again,) would have been much more bother than being able to see everything, as they could now. Definitely a good decision, Yearling. You won’t regret it. You really hope you won’t regret it.

Behind her there was a stifled giggle, a snort, and ultimately a laugh from Rainbow Dash, as though something had tickled her just so. Daring and Twilight eyed her.

“Sorry,” she said, still fighting to control her mirth. She looked at Twilight and indicated the statue. “It’s just... can you hear it? Rarity’s voice in your head? My, such an elegant fusion of form and function daahlings. It’s simply exquisite, and such a handsome specimen, too.

Daring Do watched as there was a split-second pause before Twilight’s mouth creased into a broad smile and she began chuckling right along with her friend. Daring rolled her eyes, setting her jaw and her sights on the road leading toward the centre of the web of streets as another apparently private joke passed her by.

A wide street ran straight through the square they had landed in towards the focus of the city’s network of roads, and the three ponies began to walk it, their destination barely visible in the distance. They passed abandoned buildings that had once been homes, now sitting silent, their darkened windows void of any warmth or comfort. The further they travelled the low-built homes and houses became larger until gradually the buildings took on more decorative appearances with short spires and balconies, terraces and verandas becoming the norm.

“Well, I think we can conclude beyond doubt that this is an ancient unicorn city,” said Twilight. “The fact that you need magic to turn the lights on is kind of a giveaway, even if the architecture weren’t.”

“How is that working anyway?” queried Rainbow. “Did your magic, like, charge up the roof or what?”

“Basically, yes,” said Twilight. “Luminal reciprocation again. It’s a very energy-efficient spell.”

The street entered another small plaza, this one circular and about twenty meters across, before continuing on. Within the new space four stone benches sat at the cardinal directions, and to one side there stood a three-story rectangular building with a triangular roof supported by half a dozen columns at the front. A town hall, or similar municipal building. In the centre of the miniature courtyard was a short, flat-topped stone pillar about four feet high and crowned with something. Like an angled point set into the top surface, as though someone had stuck an elaborate set-square on its upright edge and fixed it in place.

Daring watched Twilight spot it, notice it, and trot towards it with a face awash with confusion.

“That... that doesn’t make sense,” Twilight muttered to herself, though loud enough they could all hear. The princess turned her gaze from the pillar straight upwards to the cavern ceiling, a thoughtful frown creasing her brow, and then finally back to the artifact before her.

“What’s wrong?” asked Dash. “What is that thing?”

“Well... it’s a sundial,” said Twilight, not able to keep the confusion from her tone. “But what good is a sundial when you’re...” She spared a final look straight up at the cavern roof. She gazed at it for a long moment but eventually gave up, leaving the pillar and returning to the group. She still looked confused but had nothing more to say and no conclusions to draw, and so there was a moment of simple, uncertain quiet before they began moving once again.

They followed the road onwards as straight as the crow might fly, passing half-a-dozen more of the two-headed statues on their travels – and Twilight lit each one as they went. If they somehow lost sight of the suspended tower that marked the exit, then to find their way back to the square in which they’d landed they just had to follow the path of statues with glowing horns. Simple.

Daring had to admit it was an elegant solution, even if Twilight did seem a little too pleased with herself for coming up with it.

They passed a huge, rectangular space that intersected their road at right-angles and continued to their left and right, joining with other streets. Stalls, tents and flimsy shacks stood, before which were decrepit tables – not many of which still carried themselves on four legs – and crates built of long-decayed wood and crude nails. An ancient market or bazaar. Twilight seemed to pause to take a few mental notes but Rainbow Dash stayed in step. And they continued on. They were close now.

A short onward walk finally brought them to the centre of the spider’s web of roads and streets. To the focus of the city, and for the first time even Daring Do beheld it, now able to see it in its entirety, her vision not limited by mere torchlight.

The place where they stood was about a third of the way east of the geographical centre of the city, and almost directly beneath the worst of the deformity in the cavern roof. The street brought them to the cusp of an enormous circular plaza, a little under a hundred meters across. Right the way around the circumference a dozen other main roads led away into the depths of the city. The floor was sunken, about six feet down from their level, with steps leading down from the end of every road that terminated here. Three staggered rows of stone benches filled the remaining space around the perimeter, and it was as though they were looking onto a wide but very shallow amphitheatre. Directly in front of them, midway to the centre of the courtyard, a low and plain rectangular slab stood like an altar. On the far side to where they had entered, there stood a palace, smaller in scale than, say, Canterlot Castle but equally as opulent, with towers and spires reaching up almost to the cavern ceiling; lavishly worked engravings set into its walls, turrets and balconies, with elegant touches and flourishes that spoke of true care and attention to detail in its construction at every level.

If the road that they had used to enter the courtyard were viewed as the six o’clock position on a clock-face, and the palace stood at twelve, then at both the nine and the three-o'clock positions there stood a statue. For a change though, these two monuments did not have a pair of heads each. They were both simply normal unicorn stallions, clad in sculpted finery and upon their heads each bore an ornate crown with a single prominent jewel, and which had such detail in the stonework that the most artisan of craftsponies must have spent scores of hours working them. At first glance the statues appeared to mirror each other, but a closer inspection would reveal subtle differences in their features, mane, clothing, and the crowns on their heads. They were positioned in the courtyard at the terminus of two more roads, about a third of the way in from the stone benches that marked the perimeter.

And at the very centre of the huge courtyard was the apparent focus of attention for the whole city. The point from which every road supposedly had its origin. A round table of some sort, cast in bronze and into the surface of which were etched numerous decorative symbols and engravings. It was seven feet in diameter and the table-top near eight inches thick, resting upon a single, wide pedestal rising from the floor. Set into the vertical rim of the chunky tabletop were two four-inch wide circular holes, directly opposite each other and which seemed to bore inwards to the tables’ core.

“That’s it,” said Daring in a whisper. “That’s the mechanism.”

Rainbow, who had been squinting hard at the whole arrangement before her, offered her opinion. “That thing? Uh... are you sure? I mean... it just looks like a big, round table. Are you sure the reason you couldn’t get it to ‘work’ isn’t because it’s just a big, round table?”

“Trust me, I’m sure,” she said, taking a stride forward towards the short set of steps that led down to the plaza’s level.

She led them past the altar, heading straight towards the centre of the courtyard, and approached the mysterious dais with her companions in tow. Reaching it, she stopped, drew herself up and lowered her head enough to give it a severe glare from beneath the brim of her hat, gazing at it as though it were an old adversary.

The bronzework had long ago tarnished and faded to a dull and muted grey-green, but the intricate and bold floral decorations embossed into its surface were still clear and proud. The same two-horse-head emblem they had seen several times now was worked into the design in various places, and set into the very centre of the table was what looked like a large, round, white, semi-transparent stone of glass or crystal, as big as a large stallion’s hoof, and within which there seemed to be two bright strands of gold-white light writhing amidst a milky, roiling fog that gently swirled. On opposite sides of the table, directly above the round holes in the rim, a thin circular recess had been cast in the shape of a ring. Not as decorative or ornate as the other workings on the tabletop, as though functional in some way.

Daring shed her saddlebags not far from the table, rolling her neck and stretching her back, and Twilight and Rainbow did likewise. Spying something on the ground on the left side of the plinth, she stepped toward it and stooped low. When she straightened she was holding a six-foot long, thick and heavy cylinder of metal, the same tarnished colour as the table. One half of its length was covered in irregular grooves, both jagged and wavy but with no discernable pattern to them. Daring gave herself a chuckle as she hefted it. “Heh... forgot I left this one here.”

A pair of confused looks prompted her to explanation.

“You see the holes here in the side of the dais?” said Daring. “Inside of them there are small teeth around the interior. You insert one of these special, grooved rods into each hole, and each acts like a key. When both rods are in place, it should unlock the mechanism.”

“And when it unlocks?” asked Twilight.

“Not sure. Never got that far and I don’t know enough about this place, this culture or this artifact to guess. But... if I had to speculate based on previous experience and how these things normally go? I’m guessing the table opens up somehow to reveal some treasure or relic. If not, chances are we get a map or something, maybe projected by that stone in the centre.”

“Okay, so we just need to figure out how to work this thing with only one key,” said Rainbow Dash, eyeing the table. From her expression it was clear she was trying to find some way that ‘brute force’ could be employed as the solution. But it wasn’t as simple as that.

“You can’t,” said Daring. “Believe me, I tried. You need both.”

“Uh... stop me if I’m wrong,” said Twilight, “But isn’t the other one over there? I mean, it sure looks similar...”

“Yeah, that’s it,” confirmed Daring, turning only now. Twilight had indicated the stallion statue that had been towards their left as they’d entered the courtyard. Directly before it, another tall, thin cylinder jutted vertically from the floor, stood upright by virtue of the fact that the bottom third of its length – covered in the same grooves as its sibling – was recessed into a hole in the flagstones clearly excavated especially for it. In the same place on the opposite side of the plaza before the statue’s opposite number, a familiar-looking hole in the ground stood empty.

There was a moment of confused quiet.

“If that’s it then... why haven’t you got it and used it?” asked Rainbow Dash.

Daring snapped her head back toward them. “Oh, you think it’s that simp—!?”

She caught herself. Bit her tongue. She could feel herself getting annoyed; riled up, and she was sure that meeting this blasted table again – the thing that had beaten her; made her turn tail and slink away – was part of the reason. Knowing the cause did little to improve her mood though. She felt a frown on her brow and heat in her throat. “Be my guest, Rainbow Dash,” she said with cynicism. “Go get it.”

Still with a slightly puzzled look, Dash flitted over to the statue. The stonework horse loomed over her at easily twice her height as she approached the artifact. Grasping the metal relic with her hooves, she heaved and tugged, but the rod would not budge. She huffed before turning back. “It’s stuck,” she announced.

Daring nodded and, still carrying the cylinder, she led Twilight towards the monument on the right and the vacant hole in the ground. She was close to getting her answers now; to finally beating the one challenge that had bested her... except for every little delay by those other two ponies she still needed. Every question that felt like it took an eternity to ask and answer, every pause or look or action that wasn’t directly linked to accomplishing their goal were grains of sand that were slipping through her hourglass of patience, and they were beginning to pile up.

Twilight, for her part, didn’t seem to notice. As they crossed the courtyard she found herself looking more closely at the statue towards which they were headed. “There’s something about him...” she concluded. “Something I can’t place. It’s like I recognise him somehow.”

For a moment, Daring’s curiosity overcame her building irritation. “You’ve seen him before?” she asked.

“No... I’m sure I haven’t. But there is something about him that’s... familiar.

“What about this guy?” called Rainbow from the opposite sculpture. With only the sound of silence to compete with, even conversational voices carried cleanly across the plaza.

Twilight looked behind her, and while the far statue was quite some distance away, she still shook her head. “No. I mean clearly there’s a resemblance between those two. Maybe they’re brothers? But him...” she looked back at her own statue. Then, after a lengthy silence, she shook her head. “Nope, can’t put my hoof on it. Never mind. Probably my head playing tricks.”

They reached the hole in the ground before the other stallion. Daring frowned, and gritted her teeth a little in remembered frustration.

There was another of those strange, brief pauses before Twilight spoke. “Okay... so, what’s the catch?”

Daring harrumphed and rolled her eyes as another grain of patience slipped by. She inserted the cylinder she had brought with her into its recess and pushed it home. “Okay,” she said and turned back toward Rainbow Dash on the far side of the courtyard. “Now try it.”

This time when Dash pulled, her cylinder slid smoothly out. A half-second after it came clear of the flagstones, a solid ‘click’ sounded from somewhere underhoof and Daring felt the faintest of vibrations in the stonework beneath. Now it was Daring’s rod that was firmly stuck within the floor.

“You hear that? Feel it?” she asked of Twilight. “Some kind of lock or vice mechanism, I think. Removing one rod locks the other in place. I was never able to find a way to free both up together. Not... by myself and believe me, I tried.” She sighed.

“Alright,” said Twilight with a sudden, cheery smile “Well it’s a good thing you brought a friend then. Now... the lock only seemed to trigger when Rainbow’s rod finally came free. So, we’ll pull them both out at the same time, and see how far we get.”

“Yes... that is the theory...” said Daring with a quirked eyebrow. Twilight did have a habit of stating the obvious.

“Great! Okay get ready to pull. Ready Rainbow?” she called.

“Ready!” Rainbow called back, re-inserting her rod and instantly ready for her cue.

“Okay. Three... two... one... pull!”

Daring and Rainbow Dash carefully, slowly pulled on the cylinders in unison. And as Daring held her breath, both of the cylinders came smoothly free of their respective recesses until they were clear. Rainbow held hers aloft in triumph while Twilight gave a moderately confused look.

“Huh. Well, that was easy,” said Twilight with a creased brow.

Daring was taken aback, and could only stare and gawp at the metal rod she now held. Which Twilight noticed.

“Daring? Is something wrong?”

“Huh? No... nothing.”

“Are you sure? You look a little... well, shell-shocked.”

Daring shook her head roughly. When she raised it she found Twilight’s eyes looking at her with that weird ‘concerned’ expression she had. Daring sighed. “Two days. I spent two days down here, in the dark, playing with these things. Trying to extract them by myself without damaging them. Everything I tried, failed. I built up so much frustration around this... thing! And now... with you and your friend here the problem’s solved in two minutes. Like it wasn’t even a problem at all.” She broke eye-contact and shook her head again. “I don’t know how I feel about that,” she admitted.

Her reverie was interrupted by the sound of metal scraping upon metal from nearby. Over by the table, Rainbow Dash was already trying to insert the grooved portion of her cylinder into one of the holes in the table-rim without success.

“Ungh!” she grunted. “It’s stuck!”

“Because there’s a similar mechanism inside the table,” said Daring as she walked back over with Twilight. “Same way as you have to remove the keys together, you have to insert them together. I never got one to go in on its own.”

Rainbow looked up but Daring was already in position, on the opposite side of the table and with the end of her cylinder at the mouth of its receptacle. “Ready? One, two, three!

The quiet singing of metal sliding against metal sounded in the empty air as the two keys were pushed horizontally into the table, ancient locks within retracting to grant access to the twin rods until finally they were in as far as they would go, seating into place with a pair of clicks and each leaving about three feet of metal protruding.

Daring stood at the table, looking over it with a critical eye but her heart thundering within her chest. She had to remind herself to breathe, even. Finally, both keys were in place, after who-knew how long. A thousand years, at least and probably a couple of centuries over. But now, whatever the table was designed for was surely about to be revealed. This was the moment she loved. The discovery; the triumph. Any second.

Nothing happened.

“Huh,” said Rainbow Dash, leaning casually against the rod she had inserted. “Well, that was a bust. What now?”

Daring continued to scan the tabletop, searching. She wasn’t frustrated anymore though, in spite of her thin-lipped countenance. She was excited. This was progress, she was sure of it. There was just another step to figure out, and that was the fun part. “Could be there’s a hidden switch or lever we haven’t seen yet...” she said, before turning her attention to her own rod. “Or... it could be broken. Sometimes these ancient relics don’t last. I have to improvise.” She gave the cylinder a little push-pull back and forth, on the off-chance that it wasn’t correctly located.

And the table turned.

With Rainbow Dash leaning on her cylinder, and Daring pushing hers, the entire tabletop rotated a few degrees anticlockwise. More than that, it accompanied a horrendous scraping sound of stone dragged across stone which seemed to come from everywhere around them at once even as the ground beneath them seemed to... shift somehow. Twilight nearly lost her balance and Rainbow fell flat on her back – a combination of the cylinder she’d been leaning on suddenly moving away and the somehow unstable floor beneath her. “Ow,” she protested even as everything came to an abrupt, lurching end. She stood back up and regarded her friends and the table.

“Hey! Look at this!” said Twilight. She had turned to face away from the table and bent low.

Behind her – behind all of them, the ground on which they were standing had sunk. A twenty-foot wide circular section of floor from the very middle of the courtyard – encompassing the table at its centre – had uniformly descended about three inches below the level of the surrounding flagstones, and it was this brand new vertical discrepancy that Twilight eagerly pointed out.

Daring took another look at the table with its two protruding rods, that had rotated a few degrees about its centre axis, and the floor which had now descended by several inches from its original environment, and everything seemed to come into clear focus. She adjusted her hat with newfound confidence even as she felt a familiar, adventurous grin appear upon her muzzle.

“Oh, this just got much more interesting.”

7: Gauntlet

View Online

With Twilight and Rainbow Dash on one side, and Daring on the other, all three ponies were now pushing against the bronze cylinders they had inserted into the table, causing the whole arrangement to rotate anti-clockwise, one revolution after another. And as it rotated, the whole twenty-foot wide platform gradually descended below the level of the flagstones; as though it were on the head of a screw that they were winding down. In fact, if Daring had to guess, the actual mechanism wouldn’t be too dissimilar to that analogy.

Metre by metre they lowered the platform into the depths of the city’s underground as smooth stone walls of block and mortar rose up around them, as though they were sinking into the depths of a deep well. When Daring let go of her rod to re-adjust her grip the whole apparatus came to a sudden, lurching halt and Twilight and Rainbow found their weight thrown forward onto the suddenly-stuck handle they’d been pushing, almost knocking the wind from them both. There were slight exclamations of protest as they both let out some variant of, “Oof!”

“Huh...” said Daring with a faint scowl, concentrating on the table. “Some kind of brake mechanism,” she concluded after a few seconds. “Both handles have to pushed at the same time or it doesn’t budge? Whoever built this place really was keen on the whole, ‘do everything in twos’ thing.”

“It’s getting tougher too,” noted Rainbow.

“Agreed,” said Daring. “Feels like we’re pushing against a spring or something. The deeper we get the harder it’s becoming.”

“That’s not all,” said Twilight, pointing to the centre of the table.

The crystal or glass stone mounted in the centre had begun to luminesce as the fog trapped within it moved more rapidly, roiling and swirling as though it were a miniature storm and emitting a pure, white glow that had been building in intensity the deeper into the pit they had descended. The twin strands of light had become more agitated too, writhing with new vigour.

“You don’t think it’s just illumination?”

“I think it’s magic,” observed Twilight. “And I think it’s building to something.”

“Well, if we’re lucky we’ll find out when we hit the bottom,” said Daring as she took a firm grip on the rod once more. They had come too far to stop now.

After a half-dozen more revolutions, Rainbow spotted an opening in the wall of the well, right at floor-level. A few more turns and the platform lowered further, revealing a doorway complete with an iron portcullis to block the way. And after a final mighty heave – the resistance of the platform having risen considerably so as to almost make the table unmoveable now – there were a series of loud knocks, clicks and scrapes and the table came to a certain end of its rotation. The platform floor rested at the same level as the base of the door, at least three stories below the surface. Clearly, they had reached the end of the line.

Suddenly there was a sizzling sound in the air, and before any of the ponies had time to react the crystal stone in the centre of the table let out a blinding white flash of light that engulfed all three before fading quickly.

As soon as the light touched her coat, Twilight gasped and let out a shuddering shiver, as though she had been plunged into an ice-bath.

“Twilight?” blurted Rainbow Dash as her vision started to return.

“What’s wrong?” asked Daring in a calmer, more measured tone, blinking to reassert her own sight in the face of the sudden flash.

Twilight took a moment to gather herself before she responded. “I’m not sure. It... felt like walking through a freezing waterfall. Didn’t you feel it?”

“I dunno. Maybe a little?” said Rainbow, her own sight returning quickly. “Nothing worth going all wibbly over. You’re okay though, right?”

“I think so. But the stone did something. Almost like it cast a spell on us,” said Twilight, turning. She lowered her horn a touch and... her eyes widened. “My magic. It’s not working! Whatever that thing did, it’s blocking it,” she said, suddenly awed. “That’s... amazing.” She took another look at the table and then up at the pit they’d found themselves at the bottom of. “Whoever it was that built this place... they had an immense grasp of the arcane.”

“Really? It, uh... doesn’t sound that impressive?” said Rainbow Dash.

“Using magic to neutralise itself? Believe me, that’s quite a feat. Like... imagine if you had to dam a river, but you were only allowed to use the river-water itself to make the dam. Yes, it’s possible, but not without some creative thinking and a lot of skill.” She started musing to herself: “The builders of an ancient unicorn city went to great lengths to ensure that nopony who found their way down here could use their magic. Why would they do that? And why did you feel it... too...?” Twilight trailed off, looking a worried shade of askance at Rainbow Dash. “Rainbow? Can you fly?”

“Huh? Of course I can fly.”

“I mean right now? Can you fly right now?”

“Well obviously,” said Rainbow, extending her wings and giving them a couple of flaps. Just enough the get her off the...

A moment later Rainbow looked back at her furiously flapping wings as all four of her hooves remained stubbornly in contact with the stonework beneath them. She even tried jumping into the air, and though the flapping of her wings slowed her descent by a negligible amount, flight was simply not on the cards. Rainbow’s brow raised and her jaw dropped, abject horror a picture on her face. “Agh! Twilight! I can’t fly! Something’s wrong! What’s wrong?!”

“Whatever that spell is, clearly it can nullify flight as well as magic,” said Twilight calmly, which drew Rainbow’s annoyed glare.

“What are you talking about? You can’t just turn off flying! It’s about air and pressure and surface area: it’s physics, not magic!

“No, Rainbow, there is a magical component to pegasus flight. Not a large one which is probably why you didn’t feel it as strongly as I did, but it does exist. And you can neutralise it. Tirek managed it, remember? I wonder if the enchantment on that stone is a variant of the spell he used...” Twilight mulled as she regarded the stone with scrutiny once more. The milky, roiling mist within it had become noticeably thicker and swirled more vigorously now, and she noted with horror that the two strands of electric light within had been joined by three more separate strings of fizzing energy. “It’s not blocking it... the stone absorbed—?” she whispered, only to be cut off.

“Twilight, this isn’t cool! Can’t you do something?”

Twilight straightened. “Well... I’m sure there’s a counter-spell that would restore our natural abilities. But without magic, I can’t cast it.” The look on Rainbow Dash’s face told her that was exactly what she didn’t want to hear, so Twilight tried another tack. “Okay, let’s think about this for a second,” said Twilight. “The stone was building up its spell on the way down, right? Well, maybe when the table returns to the surface, it releases the spell. It would make sense. This was all clearly designed for a reason. I doubt that reason was to permanently deprive ponies of their gifts.”

“Getting the platform back to the surface? It’s not gonna happen,” said Daring Do with a grimace. “The whole platform’s locked in place somehow. We’d need to figure out how to unlock it first.”

“But... how are we supposed to—?!”

“Relax,” snapped Daring. “We’ll figure it out. Just add it to the list of questions we don’t have answers to yet, along with worshipping two-headed horses and using sundials underground. For now though... we go on,” she finished, raising a hoof and pointing.

Their sole route of progress was now unimpeded for the portcullis had raised, apparently in time with the flash of light. Daring stood before it and a grin spread across her face. Ancient ruins, clever mysteries, dire peril. This was what it was all about! With her head raised high, she strode to the threshold with her two tag-a-longs hesitantly forming up behind her.

The corridor beyond was the same block-and-mortar construction; hundreds of perfectly chiseled, flat-edged lumps of rectangular stone formed a passage about two meters wide and a little over that high. Here and there, embedded at regular intervals in the walls, crystals glowed with a faint, white light, providing barely adequate illumination. The air was more stale even than that of the city above and without any warmth to it at all, and the only sound a hoofstep echoing on the stone, deafening in the absence of any other noise.

With a practised eye, Daring scanned the walls, the floor, the ceiling, everything she could see from just inside the threshold. Searching for the holes in the stonework that signified dart or arrow traps; the subtle variances in texture and pattern that indicated a false floor over a spike pit. And the rest. She found none in her immediate vicinity but she trod lightly, joints always slightly bent, ready to duck, roll or leap at an instant’s notice. So far into her typical routine was she that she forgot to register that she needed to take additional account of her novice tourists. Presently she stopped and turned to look back over her shoulder. “There could be traps anywhere so here’s how this is gonna work. You step where I step. You touch nothing. Not unless I say so, and if I say run... run. Got it?”

“Traps? What... like, booby-traps?” asked Rainbow.

“Hey, watch your language. Little foals are gonna end up reading this, y’know,” said Daring, allowing herself another grin.

From behind, Twilight let out a little surprised noise. “Hey hold on... there’s something here. In the wall of the pit. There’s a narrow gap in the brickwork where the mortar’s been dug out. There’s something in it... oh... wow. You won’t believe this: there’s a book here!” she cried, clearly elated. Daring had never heard of anyone getting so excited over a book before. A subtle noise of scraping and sliding indicated that Twilight was, at that moment, retrieving said book from where it had been hidden.

Daring looked round with a frown. “What did I just say?”

Twilight seemed to realise her error, but the fact was that no arrows had been fired from the walls and the floor hadn’t collapsed from beneath them. “Sorry. But... it’s a book,” she said, pleading her case.

And so it was. An average-sized hard-backed book within a plain green dust-jacket with no title at all. But the front of the jacket was adorned with a delicate gold-work example of the same two horse-head symbol they had seen many times now.

Not being able to resist, Twilight very delicately – for she did not have magic to assist her – opened the cover to the first page. Dry, yellow, cracked and terribly brittle paper greeted her, upon which was text written in beautiful, flowing calligraphy, and text that she could still read no less.

“You’re gonna read that now?” queried Rainbow Dash.

Twilight looked up, her gaze cast between both of her friends. “You know those answers we don’t have? Some of them might be in here.” She put on a little grin. “The answers are always in a book, remember?”


“Just keep your wits about you, alright? We’re not stopping for a reading session and I don’t want you skewered by a spike-trap,” said Daring.

“Fair enough. I can read and walk at the same time. I’ve had a fair bit of practise.”

“And remember... if I say run...” reminded Daring.

They walked on towards the doorway at the far end of the corridor.

And Twilight read...

* * *

I find myself having a difficult time, of late. In recent months there have been so many questions and concerns on my mind that they all scream and clamour for attention, yet I am unable even to stop, pause, and think on their solutions. Summer Sun knows me too well not to have noticed, and she has finally convinced me to take action, of a sort. She believes that writing about my stresses will give me the chance to order my thoughts. At the very least, she says, it will allow me to lay them all bare. She is probably right. And though it feels foolish to disclose my troubles to a quill and a ream of bound parchment, I know better than to dismiss her suggestions. She has always been more knowledgeable in these matters than I.

Platinum is not returning. Not two weeks ago we received word: herself and her assistant, with whom she struck out on her headstrong quest to explore a new land for settlement, have located just that. By her account it is a vibrant land of rich colour and warm weather, and she has made good friends upon her travels, including Earth-kind and Pegasus ponies! Summer Sun was far less surprised by this news. Pegasi make for the most devoted and loyal companions, she noted, then astutely reminded me that it was for this reason I married her. I cannot argue.

But while the thought that my niece will not be returning home has sent a pang of grief through my own heart it is nothing to what I know must have beset my brother. I believe he always thought she would return from what he saw as her foolhardy endeavour, and while they may not always have seen eye-to-eye, she was ever his daughter, and he her loving father. But at least he knows she is safe and happy, and has not met with any ill fate. Thus he will weather this and respect the decision she has made. For us both, our first duty is to the city and our people, as it always must be.

Unfortunately I cannot say I blame her for not wanting to return. The unusual winter has grown colder, though I did not think that possible, and it has lasted for eighteen months now. Spring, once a certainty, is now but memory and hope. Blizzards pile snow in the streets faster than it can be cleared. Ice covers everything from doors to drains and our ponies are wrapping themselves in many layers of clothing simply to call on their neighbours. In this terrible climate the only seeds that grow are those of tension and mistrust, and they have finally bloomed among the populace, with rumours of hoarding and even crime beginning to cause unrest. The mages are once again proclaiming the foul weather to be the work of malevolent spirits, but such preposterous notions cannot be entertained. Not when we must focus all of our energies into finding a solution to the cold.

And it seems there are only two options to consider: in the first case we must leave the city – every last stallion, filly and colt – and abandon all we have built here, all we have worked so hard for, and travel south and west, hoping that Platinum might welcome us into the new land they are even now building. But there are some – the young, the elderly, the infirm – who would simply not survive the journey through the mountains in this climate. And the worse the weather becomes, the greater the number that cannot make the trip grows. My brother and I have talked long and seriously about this, and in this we are in complete agreement – we will not abandon a single pony. Thus we must take the second option: remain and protect our city and our ponies in whatever way we can. Our best architects have devised a plan – one that I never would have thought possible, one that I am afraid to even give voice to – but they assure us it will work. It will be a massive undertaking, and it will require every ounce of skill and expertise that this city has ever cultivated... but that skill is second to none anywhere in the world. This will change our city and our way of life forever, but I do believe it will save us, as does my brother, and so there is no choice.

And yet, even in spite of all of this talk of strife, desperation and melancholy, with the weight of thousands upon my brow, I find myself all of a sudden filled with hope. For not four hours ago Summer Sun told me of the most terrifying yet exhilarating news that it is possible for any stallion to hear:

I... am going to be a father.

* * *

The far end of the corridor ended in another doorway, beyond which was a room, and their first obstacle.

On the far side, at about head-height, a similar door to that through which they had entered provided the exit. But directly before them a ramp sloped away, downwards at an angle of perhaps thirty degrees. The incline descended about eight feet before it leveled out and then met a sheer, vertical wall eight or nine feet high which led up to the level ground of the corridor. It was as though they were standing before a deep pit which spanned the entire width of the room, albeit one that it was fairly easy to trot out of on their own side.

Daring sized it up. Spike-trap? No, no holes. Moving walls? No, no grooves or scuff-marks. Gigantic boulder rolling down the slope to squish you? Hmm... no. Just no. Safe. She trotted down the incline and stood before the wall. It was too high for even a tall pony to grab the top edge even with the most athletic of leaps, and the gradient of the slope behind her seemed designed to ensure that no matter where you stood on it, that would always be the case. Flight was also out of the question thanks to that magic crystal. So, that left only one solution. She spun with a little grin.

“Alright. We’re gonna need to fashion some basic climbing tools. Anything sharp and thin that we can drive into the mortar will work. Give us some hoof-holds – it’s not that high, we should only need a couple. Failing that, we’ll braid some of our tail-hair to make a short rope and find something we can use as a grapple to haul ourselves up with.”

A pair of confused, befuddled expressions stared back at her from the top of the slope.

Seriously?” said Rainbow. She exchanged an odd, almost pitied look with Twilight before closing her eyes and shaking her head a little. And with that they both trotted down the slope to the base of the wall. “C’mon, Twilight, I’ll give you a boost.”

Daring watched open mouthed as, next to her, in the space of seconds and without prior rehearsal, Twilight clambered onto Rainbow Dash’s back, and then stood upon her head, their combined height easily allowing her to reach up with her forelegs to cling onto the ledge above them. Rainbow Dash reared a little, giving Twilight an extra foot in height and then Twilight scrambled, and was up. She turned and lay on her belly, reaching down for Rainbow’s hoof, linked with it, and pulled Rainbow up to her level too. Then Rainbow turned and reached down for Daring.

“Or... y’know, we could totally do the whole mane-rope thing instead,” she said with a smirk.

Daring’s mouth had not yet found closure and she continued to gawp for a moment. “Huh,” she finally concluded.

There wasn’t really much she could add.

* * *

I would not have believed it possible. It has been only a few months since my brother and I assented to the project, and the structure is already half-complete. Including the magnificent central tower. The finest unicorn builders and engineers ever to have lived are, even as I write, crafting and creating piece-by-piece our salvation from the cold. When it is finished even the mightiest storm needn’t trouble us. In another few short months, our ponies will finally be safe from the worst the world can throw at us in these discordant times.

But meanwhile the weather grows worse. Some days I can almost believe it mirrors the decaying mood of our people. The worst of the blizzards seem somehow timed to strike at the worst possible moments, when morale is at its lowest, as though they respond to the combined, desperate anger of the populace. There are many that are enraged, and outspoken in their views; their disagreement to this course is clear, particularly among the groups joining the miniature exodus that seems to be underway.

The Celestial Cadre were always the most vociferously opposed to the endeavour. It did not take them long to work out that being cut off from the sun and the moon would make it most difficult for them to perform their task of bringing forth day and night. Though my brother and I rule the city as equals, the Cadre has, by virtue of the importance of their station, always wielded a vast measure of power and influence. Even before we had decided on this course they had given us an ultimatum: stay this madness or they would be forced to leave the city. They made good on their threat, and perhaps one-in-ten of the city’s ponies left with them: those who said they would rather brave the treacherous mountains than live the rest of their lives devoid of sunlight. More decide to follow them every day. They will travel southwest, to Platinum and the new land of Equestria, and to all of them I wish the best of luck.

But our city must survive. Our culture and people must survive. And this is the only way it can. The vast majority support our decision. When we undertook our most recent Trial a week ago, their spirits soared! The bond between my brother and I is strong; our trust unshakeable. And with Unity and Harmony the people saw once again that it is our commitment to keeping them safe that drives us. I swear there was such a swell of warmth from them, and at the perfect moment the sun even managed to appear through the clouds to gladden our hearts; as though the storm were banished by the raising of their spirits. It was a good day.

I worry that those will be in short supply in the days to come.

* * *

The next chamber brought them face-to-face with another pit. This one about five meters wide and three times that in length. The pit seemed to be two or three meters in depth, but rising from the floor, in neat rows, were scores of thin, pointed spikes rising to two-thirds the height of the drop. As before, there was no way to circumvent the pit itself as it encompassed the entire width of the new chamber. From each of the four corners, and from midway along the two longer sides, six thick chains of rusted metal seemed to trail loosely upwards before disappearing into six holes in the ceiling, one directly above each. Along the left and right walls, stretching out away from them at about floor-level, a series of blocky protrusions extended a few inches, a dozen on each side. Far too narrow to stand on, their purpose appeared utilitarian rather than decorative, but Daring couldn’t fathom their function.

On the right wall next to where they stood, not far from the drop, was mounted a simple vertical wheel half-recessed into the stone. Thin metal rods protruding at perpendicular angles to the wheel’s surface allowed easy purchase for hooves to pull on, and allowed free rotation of the wheel by virtue of thin slits in the stone wall above and below through which the handles passed easily. The whole affair was doubtless connected to some mechanism hidden from view. On the other wall, diagonally opposite the wheel on the far side of the pit, was what appeared to be the exit. Thus the pit itself was rectangular, extending all the way to the back of the chamber, but the room seemed to be L-shaped, with the goal ahead of them and to the left – solid ground on the same level as their own.

I do love a classic spike-pit, thought Daring as she turned to Rainbow. “Give that thing a pull or two,” she said, indicating the pull-wheel on the wall.

Rainbow stepped over to it and began to turn it. At once the six dangling chains rising from the pit went taught and began to ascend into the ceiling, clattering and chattering as they went. As Dash continued to pull on the wheel, from the floor of the pit – heretofore hidden in the gloom – rose a metalwork mesh composed of thin strands of criss-crossing ironwork within a thick bronze frame, now being suspended by the half-dozen chains around its perimeter. The mesh was woven in such a manner that it allowed the slender spikes in the pit to pass right through, but still knit closely enough that it would be easy to walk upon. Rainbow continued to pull on the wheel until the mesh cradle cleared the spikes and came to rest at floor-level, impeded from further ascent by the blocky protrusions on the long walls against which the frame suddenly clattered. So that’s what they were for.

Daring stepped right to the edge of the pit and examined with care the mesh beneath her. It seemed strong enough, but the sheer size of the frame made it look extremely heavy. Doubtless there was some pulley-mechanism at play allowing a single pony to lift its weight, but...

She turned back to Rainbow, still with a handle of the wheel gripped in her hooves. “Let it go.”

She did, and at once the improvised suspended floor plummeted back into the pit. The spikes rose cleanly through the mesh, and the whole frame crashed heavily to the floor with an almighty racket of metal hitting stone.

Rainbow gulped. Twilight grimaced.

“So... if you’re on that thing and the pony holding the wheel lets go...” began Twilight.

“You fall onto the spikes,” said Daring grimly. “Nice.” She took a deep breath.

Turning to Rainbow, she said, “Okay, pull it up again.”

The mesh cradle was once more raised above the sharp forest of needles, coming to rest against the bottom of the blocky ‘teeth’ in the walls. When it was in place and the crank would turn no more she faced Rainbow again. “Okay. You hold that thing right there. You don’t let go. Not for anything. And if it feels like you’re gonna lose your grip, or you’re gonna sneeze, or anything like that, you yell out. You hear me?”

Rainbow gave her an odd look in reply. As though Daring might as well have just informed her that water was wet, or that bees made honey. “I’m not gonna let you fall, y’know,” she finally said with an odd, soft sincerity to her tenor.

To which Daring frowned. “Darn right. Because I’m not becoming a pony-kebab today, got it?” She turned and, with a light step, trod carefully onto the wire floor, held over the pit of deadly spikes by nothing more than a fallible pony of flesh, blood and attitude, who might decide at any moment that it was more important to scratch her butt or something than actually keep her alive. Her blood almost ran cold when she realised just what a terrible idea this actually was, putting her fate in somepony else’s hooves, but she was already halfway.

She reached the corner diagonally opposite from where Rainbow Dash stood holding the wheel, and, turning to her left, stepped off the mesh onto solid stone again. Stupid, Yearling, stupid! You know better than that! Trust them with a pen or something. Not your life! Nopony’s that trustworthy. She let out a long breath, thankful that the other two could not see her, concealed as she was round the corner on the short side of the L-shaped chamber.

Ahead of her stood the exit doorway, and on the wall to her left – concealed from the far end of the pit where Rainbow and Twilight stood – was another vertical wheel similar to the first. Daring pulled on the wheel now, and she could feel the slack being taken up with each turn. Eventually the wheel would turn no more and when she tried, the frame jostled noisily against the teeth in the walls that prevented it from being raised too high.

“Okay, you two. You can come across. It’s safe,” she called.

A slight pause.

You’re sure?” That was Twilight’s voice.

“Yeah, it’s okay. I’ve got it.”

Alright, we’re coming over.

Another slight hesitation before she heard Rainbow’s voice, talking to Twilight. “Look, maybe I should hold onto this. Just in case.

She said it was safe,” was Twilight’s simple reply.

Followed by another, brief pause.

You’re right. Daring Do said it was safe, so it’s safe. Okay, let’s go.” And with that, there swiftly followed two sets of hooves clanking softly and carefully upon metal.

They trust you though, Yearling. Daring sighed. More’s the fool them, then. Just... hold real tight, okay? Don’t let them fall. They’re more important than scratching your butt.

Mere moments passed, though they seemed to stretch into hours, before finally both ponies reached the corner and stepped onto firm stone again with obvious relief. They looked at each other.

“What?! I wasn’t worried! You were worried,” began Rainbow with a sly grin.

“I was not!” protested Twilight with an expression of mock offense.

And then they were both chuckling in that strange way they did.

And for once, Daring too found just a hint of a tickle in the back of her throat. She wasn’t sure why. Couldn’t pinpoint where it had come from or what was even the slightest bit funny, but there it was. She let out a subdued, nasal exhalation that might have had the merest note of mirth to it before she turned and led them towards the door, and onwards.

* * *

I have a daughter!

Oh, I am so happy I could leap for joy. She is beautiful – so much so that I cannot even find the words to convey it on paper. Mere text cannot describe how radiant she is, or how happy she has made Summer and I! She has Summer’s coat and her beautiful, expressive eyes. She is everything we could have wished for: strong and healthy and happy. And we have been positively inundated with outpourings of love and goodwill from everypony – my brother and his wife, our loyal courtiers, the city ponies all. I cannot thank our physicians enough – they have been truly amazing. Today is a day for celebration, and doubly so, for it has come to happen that on the same day of the birth of my first daughter, the Great Construction has been completed. The final section of the roof that now covers our city and shields it from the terrible climate has been erected and sealed in place. And though the sun is now lost to us and we must learn to adapt, I am nevertheless overjoyed that my daughter was able to see its light, if only for a few brief hours. It feels fitting, somehow.

Already the air is warmer and the snow does not trouble us. Life can finally return to how it was before this cursed winter befell our city and tried to drive us away. Let this be a lesson to all forces that would seek to uproot and destroy us, be they natural or foreign – we are unicorns, and we will protect our way of life and those we hold dear, no matter what is thrown at us.

I hear music playing outside in the Grand Plaza. A party is beginning in honour of my daughter and my family. I intend to join it. After so many months of doubt and stress, I know now that it was all worthwhile. The city and its ponies are safe. Everything is going to be just fine.

* * *

The corridor turned several corners in both directions before bringing them to the next chamber, which was...

Ugh. This isn’t gonna translate well to paper.

The chamber was rectangular, but about three times as wide and long as any they’d explored yet. Three-quarters of the way down, a gridded, iron latticework stretched from the left wall to the right, bisecting the room into two halves. Nearest the right-hand wall of the room the metal trellis incorporated a door, hinged at the wall itself but prevented from opening by two thick, iron bands extruding from the stonework and locking into brackets mounted on the door and its jamb. Their placement was such that the iron bars appeared designed to retract into the wall somehow, thus freeing the door to open.

In the half of the room that the explorers stepped into, the dominant feature was a square pit four meters to a side and about three meters deep, leaving enough space to walk around it easily. It looked much like a small, empty swimming pool, actually, but for two oddities. On the left wall, near the top of the excavation, was a large square recess, one metre deep, at the back of which was a sheet metal plate, while on the wall straight ahead at the bottom of the pit, was a similarly-sized opening which seemed to lead into a square tunnel or passage of some kind. Finally, on the left of the room, above the recessed alcove in the pit, a parallel pair of chains extended from floor-to-ceiling as though they might be rigged to a pulley.

“Okay... what?” said Rainbow Dash aloud, her brow furrowed and her nose scrunched as she tried to puzzle out the room. Daring remained quiet, scanning everything she could see but reaching no obvious conclusion.

Twilight, for her part, headed to the right and then along the right wall, circumnavigating the pit until she reached the door in the gridwork that opposed their progress. Instinctively she gave it a little push-pull, but her only reward was the sound of metal clanking on metal. The door stayed firmly shut, bound by the thick bars. Peering through to the other side of the room she let out a thoughtful hum. “The floor on the far side of the room is lower – there’s a couple of steps down – and there’s a metal trap-door or something in the floor over there,” she said. “I can see thick iron catches holding it closed.” She turned with her own puzzled expression.

“Hold on here,” Daring told her two accomplices, stepping to the edge of the pit. With a quick leap she jumped down and landed on the sunken floor, bending her knees to cushion herself as she landed. A three metre drop was child’s play.

She headed for the entrance to the tunnel directly ahead of her, but had to stop when she reached it. Her confused frown increased. The tunnel ran ahead of her for a couple of metres before making a ninety-degree left turn. Except that in the wall directly ahead was a small section of the same iron grille as that which separated the room above into two sections. Beyond the grille there was another, in the wall of the tunnel as it ran past again, and beyond that another. The tunnel, as far as she could guess, was simply a long series of S-turns running the width of the room, with those gratings placed so that, standing here at the entrance, she had a view of the goal all the way on the far side. It was a crank, complete with handle, mounted on the far wall. That wasn’t what halted her though. Because the entire floor of the tunnel – as far as she could see anyway – was covered in fine metal spikes from wall-to-wall. Not large ones, or even particularly deadly ones, for they were only about three inches in height. But they were more densely packed than the width of a hoof and so walking into the tunnel was not possible.

Daring turned and regarded the pit once more, but the only other feature of interest was a grating in the centre of the floor which looked as though it was firmly fixed in place.

A drain? Ah... okay. Starting to make sense.

She looked up, addressing the other two ponies above her. “There’s a wall-mounted crank at the far end of this tunnel. I’m betting turning it retracts the bars up there and opens up that door. But the tunnel floor’s lined with spikes. Can’t just walk up to it.”

There was a moment of silence before Rainbow Dash asked the obvious question. “Okay... so how are we supposed to reach it?”

Daring nodded at the pair of floor-to-ceiling chains on Rainbow’s level. “Give those a tug,” she said, fairly confident in the result.

Rainbow stepped over to them and, grasping one, gave a heavy pull. The chain moved smoothly and at the same time, from the recess in the wall of the pit underneath it, the metal plate – in fact it seemed more that it was a door – raised and unleashed a torrent of water which spewed out and into the pit, beginning to fill it. Tugging the chain had also caused the drain in the centre to close up somehow. Must be a linkage somewhere. Pretty complex. The fact this is all still working is astounding.

Daring nodded a grim nod, looking down at the water rising around her fetlocks – it was freezing – and flowing into the tunnel too. At this rate it wouldn’t be long before it was flooded. She raised her head to Rainbow and Twilight again and had to raise her voice to be heard over the sound of the water cascading into the pit. “Okay, so here it is: I swim down the tunnel to the crank, open that door for ya, then you go on through and unlatch the trapdoor so I can climb out. Got it?

Are you sure you don’t want one of us to swim the tunnel with you?” called Rainbow Dash.

It’s narrow enough as it is; I don’t want one of us getting in the other’s way. Relax, this isn’t my first water-hazard. Just get that trapdoor open, right? Oh, and hold this for me,” she said, pulling off her pith helmet and tossing it to Rainbow Dash.

You can count on us!” called Twilight.

Yeah... we’ll see. I don’t have much choice, thought Daring with a hidden grimace. She looked down, and cleared her mind. The water rose above the tunnel ceiling and quickly, she breathed all of the air out of her lungs before inhaling the deepest, fullest breath she could... and dove.

Everything went quiet, calm and blurry. Daring’s world was a muted symphony of muffled sounds and barely-visible walls as she located the entrance to the now-submerged tunnel. She slipped inside, sailing over the spikes in the floor and made the turn to the left. In various places on the walls, more of those glowing crystals had been mounted so at least it wasn’t dark. She reached the far wall and the tunnel turned right, and then right again, doubling back on itself as expected, and Daring found herself swimming the width of the room just to make progress. She moved quickly and efficiently, saving her stamina, giving an occasional flap of her wings to help her along – two extra limbs sure were helpful when it came to underwater challenges, and the propulsion they supplied far outweighed the drag they created. She reached the far wall again and the tunnel turned left, and then left in another switchback, and so now she was swimming back toward the left wall.

It’s like they wanted to cram the longest tunnel possible into the smallest space.

Thanks to the gratings in the walls at the mid-point of each tunnel she could accurately gauge her progress at least. It looked like she had two more full widths to do after this one – a right and then a left – before the final half-width should bring her to the crank. She’d been slowly releasing her breath bit by bit, but she had plenty left. She reached the left wall. Halfway now. She picked up the pace a little, flapping slightly harder with her wings, pumping her hindlegs a little more, making the next width pass more quickly and reaching the left turns at the end. On the home-stretch; the fourth and final full width with her lungs just under half full. She reached the midpoint and passed the grating, with the crank tantalisingly close right there on the other side. Got to the end. Turned right and...


The tunnel didn’t offer her a second ninety-degree right-turn to take her to the crank. Instead it turned ninety degrees straight down. Daring halted for a second and stared. The tunnel did look like it continued in the right direction about fifteen feet below. Not too great a dive, but if it threw another curveball at her after that... she was already running out of air.

But there was no point in going back. She was so close. Pumping all of her limbs now, she dove downwards, reaching the bottom of the vertical drop. There were no spikes anymore, and the tunnel resumed its course heading to the right. And there, halfway along, as expected, it turned upwards, climbing like a chimney. Daring swam up, her breath nearly gone now, and there was the crank. She took a firm hold of it and began to turn. It was heavy, but that was good – in all likelihood that meant it was still connected to the mechanism, and after half-a-dozen revolutions, the wheel came to a solid stop and would not rotate further.

She looked up. Just above her a metal sheet similar to that which had formed the sluice door served as the termination to the tunnel. She swam up to it and knocked on it two times with her hoof.

Nothing happened.

She knocked twice more, not the easiest of tasks underwater, but the sound still came as a clear ringing thud that must have been heard above-ground. Still nothing happened.

Daring frowned. It didn’t make sense. This was it – the underside of the trapdoor that Twilight and Rainbow would open up to let her out.

Wasn’t it?

You don’t know. You never actually saw that trapdoor, did you Yearling? You took somepony else’s word that it was there. Believed them just because they told you something. Didn’t make certain yourself. And even if that is it... they don’t need to open it, do they? Why would they bother? For you? They’re not your friends.

Daring’s blood ran colder than the freezing water surrounding her as the horrible realisation dawned. This was it, wasn’t it? This was the sudden but inevitable betrayal, right now? The two ponies she had made the journey all this way with had decided that she wasn’t needed anymore, and all they had to do to make certain that she’d never be any trouble again... was nothing.

And she hadn’t seen it coming.

That annoyed her more than anything.

Daring closed her eyes, her breath gone now and her lungs starting to ache. She refused to panic, and weighed her options.

There was no way back. It was too late for that. Her air was spent and she would drown before she was even halfway through the second width of the tunnel. Morbidly, she realised that the tunnel had likely been designed to be as long as it was for exactly that reason, making the door above her the only viable exit. If another pony decided they wanted to open it.

She placed her hooves on the underside of the trapdoor and pushed. She felt it give a millimeter or two, just enough to determine upon which side it was hinged, but it was held tightly shut by something. She pushed harder, and then with all her might, hoping somehow that her dwindling reserves of strength might prove superior to a locking mechanism constructed over ten centuries in the past... but to no avail. The edges of her vision darkened, black spots dancing in her periphery and growing larger. Her head felt light and muzzy, her lungs burned and the impulse to draw breath became overwhelming.

This is it, isn’t it? This place... this city... it really did beat you, in the end.

Still. At least you were right. Can’t count on anypony. They just let you down. Anypony that ever made a friend is a fool.

You were a fool.


Daring Do? Daring Do?! Twilight get a hold of her!

I can’t, she’s sinking! I can’t reach her!

Move over, I’m going after her!


Pull her out! Hurry!


...her back! Roll her on her back!

Daring Do, can you hear us?! Twilight, do something!

Come on Daring Do! Breathe! Breathe!!


Come on, Yearling. Don’t you think you should go see what they want? You can’t end the story like this, after all.


* * *

Daring Do spasmed, sat up, turned to the side, and vomited. A half-gallon of cold, clear freshwater seemed to ejaculate from her bowel, her stomach and her lungs all at the same moment. And though her first, primary, and overwhelming instinct was to inhale, for a brief, terrifying instant that ability was denied to her as she could only hack, wretch and splutter.

Yet, for a mercy, it was temporary. After a moment of pure agony, Daring felt her lungs clear somewhat and she was finally able to take a breath. Cool, sweet air filled her, and she coughed it right out again along with the remains of the liquid still inside. And then she breathed. Deep, regular breaths, the like of which she hadn’t believed she would ever experience again a scant few moments prior.

After a few repetitions she managed to bring herself to some sort of stability. She found herself on her back, a few feet distant from the trapdoor which was, at this moment, standing open. Behind Twilight and Rainbow Dash the doorway in the metalwork grille was ajar, and not entirely intact it had to be said. The criss-crossing metal bands were warped, twisted and dented badly, as though they had been hammered upon with staggering, desperate force to create a gap just large enough for a pony to squeeze through. She managed to roll onto her front and cough up the last of the water in her lungs before she fixed one of the ponies – Twilight, as it happened – with a scowl.

“What the hay took you so long?!”

“We’re so sorry,” began Twilight with an expression that was an excellent example of, ‘sincere.’ “The bars opened just as they should have, but the hinges on the door – they’d corroded badly. They’d seized shut and we had to force them open. We were barely able to get through, and the catches on the trapdoor – they were just as bad. We almost... we thought....” for a second, Daring could have sworn there was a tear in her eye? Pah! Probably just a figment of her—

Until Twilight reached out and hugged her. Tight.

“We’re just so glad you’re okay!” she said.

“Yeah!” echoed Rainbow Dash, joining in and wrapping her forelegs around her. “That was a close one!”

Daring sat still, stunned for a moment, trapped between two ponies who had thrown their legs about her. Ponies never normally got this close to her, unless she was being attacked. It was a bit like being attacked, only... in a kind-of-nice way. “What... is going on here?”

“What? This is the hug!” said Rainbow.

Daring clenched her jaw and rolled her eyes. “Get off me.”

The two ponies released her and stepped back. They were still smiling.

She levelled her gaze at Rainbow Dash. “Take that thing off. That hat looks ridiculous on you.”

“No problem,” said Dash, removing the headgear and passing it back to its rightful owner.

“Thanks,” said Daring, seating her hat, and then raising her head to look at them both. “And, uh... thanks.”

* * *

My old journal. It’s been years since I set eyes on it. Perhaps it’s fate that I’ve happened upon it now, when I seem to need it more than ever. It always did help me think.

All is not well in the capital. Indeed, if I am honest they have been deteriorating for a long time.

The city’s stores are running low again, and this time I do not know how we will replenish them. The trade caravans, upon whom we have relied for years, arrive far less frequently than before, and even some of the more renowned traders have ceased visiting altogether. After speaking with one or two, I believe it is only a matter of time before the rest follow suit as well. The mountains are too treacherous, the weather too severe, and there simply isn’t enough profit to outweigh the risks to themselves and their wares. There are no other settlements this side of the mountains any longer, the merchants tell us. Every other township lies abandoned to the snow and ice. Our city is the last bastion of the old world. And it is withering.

Every week a few more ponies leave, as though deserting a sinking ship. The small community of pegasi to which we were host have almost completely evacuated. Only Summer Sun and a half-dozen others remain for the sake of their families, and while our contingent of earth-ponies was always tiny, when I learned that there were now none left in the city at all, it was sobering. In total we have half the population we once had, and the more ponies that leave, the less profit for the traders; and the less frequently the traders arrive, the more ponies decide to leave, fearing the day when their supplies run out and the merchants do not come.

My brother and I have done everything possible to encourage solidarity and to persuade the vendors that the route here is a profitable one, but it seems to no avail, and our citizens drift inexorably away. Meanwhile the peddlers that do arrive come bearing only good news from afar. They tell wondrous tales of the prosperous new land that is Equestria – a land even now thriving under the benevolent stewardship of Platinum and her fellow councillors. Where Earth-kind, Pegasi and Unicorns all live together in true friendship. Where the pegasi have regained control of the climate and earth-ponies grow food in abundance beneath warm, sunny skies. Where hardship and strife simply do not exist. And these tales captivate and inspire, and tempt more of our ponies to strike out and seek their fortune. It seems most find it, for none have ever returned to re-settle.

So we must act, before it is too late.

After we complete our next Trial, my brother is set to announce a restriction that will prevent our citizens from leaving the city. The gates to the great tower will be barred and guarded, and access to the surface will be curtailed. This must be done. I know it must, and issuing the edict at Trial will allow the ponies to see that we are doing it for their own good. The hemorrhaging of our citizens must stop before there are too few left to sustain the city.

And yet I am filled with disquiet at the prospect. I support my brother, of course. We only want what is best for our people and our way of life. But I cannot shake the notion that we are denying them their freedom. And I don’t see how that can be for the best.

Yesterday I asked Summer if she would want to leave too. To say goodbye to this city – our home – for good and go to a place where she and I and our daughter can live under the sky again. I know she wanted to say yes. Truly, that is all it would have taken and I would have started to pack that very moment. But she simply smiled at me. Hugged me. And told me that she would support me, always.

I am so confused. Everything I have done has been to try to save our city. Our society. But it seems all I have managed to do is prolong its death. And I do not see how this will help.

* * *

“Come on, Twilight. Not even a little one?”

“For the last time, Rainbow Dash, there are no booby-traps in Canterlot Castle!”

“There’s gotta be! Seriously, you can’t tell me that a million years from now, when Daring Do’s great-great-great-grandaughter discovers the ruins of Canterlot and starts searching for the Princess’s lost treasure in the secret dungeons under the palace, that there isn’t even the tiniest pressure-plate arrow-trap to make it interesting?”

“Rainbow, there are no secret dungeons. There’s no hidden treasure! There are some empty caves in the mountain that are sealed off and a couple of secret passages – and before you ask, they’re secret and, actually, kinda boring – and that’s all. And the crown jewels aren’t even hidden – they’re on display to the public!”

“So, not even a simple spike-pit?”

“Rainbow, Princess Celestia does not design death-traps!”

There was a brief interlude of quiet.

“Princess Luna might,” said Rainbow.

“I’m not having this conversation,” groaned Twilight in exasperation.

“What about yours? Come on, we gotta make your castle cool! How about a classic moving-wall trap in the entrance-hall? Or a break-away floor over a bottomless pit? I bet you could use magic to actually make it bottomless. That would be awesome!

“Rainbow, I don’t want ponies to have to defy death every time they come over for a visit!”

“Suit yourself, but in a million years when explorers discover your castle, they’re just gonna end up writing about, The Really Easy Stroll through the Front Door to find the Obvious, Not-Secret, Not Even Hidden Treasure. Not exactly gripping stuff.”

“I don’t have any treas—! Ugh. Never mind. How did we even get onto this?”

“We started talking about historical cultures,” Daring piped up. “Discussing how lots of societies, including this one, designed elaborate traps protecting their relics and treasures, and then Rainbow Dash wondered why we don’t still do it. Then she thought, maybe we do.” She glanced at Rainbow with a little grin. “But I doubt it.”

“That’s right, we don’t. And besides... I wouldn’t say the challenges we’ve faced here so far are death traps, exactly,” said Twilight.

That caught Daring’s attention, and she frowned. “Spike-pits and water-mazes seem pretty death-trappy to me. Just speaking from experience.”

“Well... yes, on the face of it,” began Twilight. “But these aren’t traps designed to catch ponies out. They’re more like challenges, and they’re obviously designed to build and foster co-operation between the ponies facing them. If the ponies facing them trust each other, they’re actually not that dangerous. Stuck hinges aside.”

They continued walking in the low light of the corridor, headed for the next chamber just up ahead. Daring gave a thoughtful hum.

It was an obvious conclusion, and yet she had to admit, not one she would have reached alone. But it was true, wasn’t it? Two ponies working together and trusting in each other would have no problem negotiating any of the perils they’d faced. The rotating table, high-wall, spike pit and water-tunnel were all laid out as problems to be solved, not traps to avoid. Conversely, she thought back and tried to decide if a single, resourceful pony could have made it this far on her own. Well, the table already beat me, but after that? That wall I could handle; the spike-pit? I guess I could find something to wedge under the wheel to stop the bridge from dropping. The water-maze? Uhhm... actually, no. Don’t think I’d have got past that, unless I found a way to bust through that grid somehow. Guess it’s still a good thing those two are here, then.

There was a twin conclusion there too, though. No matter what the next obstacle was, Twilight’s theory suggested that, as long as she kept her wits about her and they put their faith in each other, they would be in no real danger.

Of course... putting her faith in them? That was still a big ask. But after what she’d been through already, she was pretty sure she could manage it. Just until they managed to get out of this place.

* * *

I love my brother. I do. But... this cannot continue. This realisation has been a long time coming but now, after yesterday, I can ignore it no longer. Everything has become so clear, and I have my precious daughter to thank for it.

She is still a filly, but she is growing up quickly. Insatiably curious, devouring knowledge like a ravenous beast. She is always asking questions, always learning. Her eyes are still young and innocent but every so often, when I look into them, I see the beginnings of wisdom. She was so excited when we told her the happy news the other day: Dr. Holby is certain that Summer is carrying another foal, and what’s more he is fairly sure it will be a girl. He has rarely been wrong in these matters and so we trust to this prediction. When we told her, my daughter’s face lit up and she squealed excitedly. She cannot wait to have a baby sister!

And then there was yesterday. A day I will never forget as long as I live.

We were in the parlour, reading, the three of us, when all of a sudden she cocked her head and gazed at Summer’s flank, as though seeing something for the first time. “Mom, what is that?” she asked.

Summer looked around at her cutie-mark and smiled happily. “Why, that’s the sun, sweetheart,” she said.

My daughter considered this for a moment, and then she cocked her head again. “What’s the sun?”

Truly, it felt like I had had a ton of bricks dropped on my head. The shock and weight of guilt I felt was overwhelming. My daughter; my beautiful beloved daughter with her books and her inquisitiveness and her happy, happy smile, has never seen the sun. She doesn’t know what it is! How could I have denied her this? Summer tried to explain that the sun was what made day and light, and made plants grow and gave us warmth... but my precious girl did not fully understand. How could she? Her entire life has been spent down here, away from all those things.

That evening we had an early supper and as a special treat I took her up the great tower to the surface. And I have never seen such joy before! When she felt a breeze on her face, when she bounded into the snow, when she saw daylight for the first time! It was wondrous. We found high ground where I sat with my foreleg around her, and together we watched the crimson sunset as it dipped below the Western mountains, beyond which Equestria is even now thriving while we wither. The sky turned a deep, burnt orange and faded, and the sun finally slipped from view. It was beautiful.

“I don’t want it to go,” she said with an innocent, sorrowful lilt. And before I could even console her, she had lit her horn and... I experienced a terror and a wonder the like of which I have never felt before. I am shaking even as I think on it. I turned to look at my daughter in shock to find only a sincere smile, happy and contented. I bade her to stop. Told her that she must never interfere with such things! And her face fell, surprised and shocked. She almost cried. “I... was only making friends with it,” she whimpered. We hugged then, tightly. I believe we both shed tears.

I have only told Summer for no-one else in the city would believe me. But I am certain that wherever they are now, the Celestial Cadre must be doing backflips in horror. For yesterday evening the sun set twice.

It was then that I knew she is meant for great things. Things that she cannot accomplish here, in this cavern. But even were that set aside, I will not condemn my daughter – no, my daughters – to a life here below ground. Where the beauty of the world, and even simple pleasures like running through a sun-soaked meadow upon fresh spring grass, are denied to them. No-one has the right to deprive them of that. They deserve better than this failing city. And if this is true for my daughters, then why is it not also true for my people?

We have been so obsessed with preserving our way of life, with saving our culture, that we have entombed ourselves. After seeing the sunset and feeling the wind for the first time in years, descending the stairs to the city felt so like entering a dreary crypt that I wonder if we have literally dug our own grave. I told my brother of this, in private, and he dismissed my concerns without hearing them. We must stay the course, he said. But I cannot, not any longer, for the sake of my wife and my children. I will not force them to endure this life. To survive is not enough. I want my daughters to live.

There are rumblings of disquiet among the populace. The growing schism between myself and my brother was widely rumoured even before now, despite our efforts to show our unity. Already I see the ponies in the streets begin to divide according to their loyalties. Those who demand to be allowed to leave oppose those who are determined to remain, and I am in danger of becoming a figurehead for the former. I pray that it does not fall to violence but by the same token, I know something must be done.

I love you, brother, I do. But this cannot continue.

* * *

The next chamber was the largest by far. It seemed it was a long rectangle, ten meters wide, but its length could not easily be determined. In the centre of the room, a little way in from the entrance door, a partition reached from floor to ceiling and ran the remaining length of the chamber, dividing it lengthwise into two five-meter wide corridors lit from above by more of those glowing crystals.

At the point the partition began, both of the corridors gave way to a pit, the bottom of which was shrouded in blackness and could not be seen. But rising out of the darkness in each half of the room, was a path. Comprised of square pillars about a meter wide, the path seemed to form a continuous, though not straight, walkway from the explorers’ end of the room down each corridor, to...


Looking down the left hand half of the room, the path extended about thirty meters before a wall of darkness seemed to absorb it. As though a thick, black, featureless curtain had been stretched across the entire width of the corridor, blocking the view of anything further along. In the right-hand corridor the wall of blackness was much closer – a mere ten feet away, and just as impossible to see through.

Daring stepped over to the left-hand side of the chamber, scanning everything she could see. Twilight joined her while Rainbow Dash had headed to the—

“Gah! Twilight!”

Daring’s head whipped round, and Twilight wheeled. “Rainbow?!”

Daring’s heart skipped a beat and then, after a second, there was an obvious sigh of relief from the other side of the partition. “No... no, I’m good. This is just... really freaky. You gotta come see.”

They walked toward the rightmost half of the room and found Rainbow Dash had taken the first few steps on the pathway. Thanks to the fact that it seemed to be constructed of square pillars joined together, the individual sections of the path could readily be described as ‘squares.’ In which case, the path began with three squares forward, two left and one more forward before the curtain of blackness engulfed it. Rainbow was stood there now, directly in front of the void, and looking back.

She saw them, and then by way of demonstration, extended her foreleg into the veil of darkness. And it vanished from sight completely.

“It just disappears!” she said. “And if you stick your head in there, it’s like, boom, can’t see anything! This isn’t just darkness, this is like super industrial-strength darkness.”

Daring frowned. She’d never experienced anything like this before. From beside her, Twilight gave a little, thoughtful hum, drawing her questioning stare.

“Black light,” said the alicorn. “At least it looks like it. Dark magic; very old.”

Immediately Rainbow’s face blanched and she withdrew her hoof into the light at a rapid clip. “Dark magic?”

“Dangerous?” asked Daring, still with her frown.

Twilight looked confused for a moment, and seemed to replay what she’d just said in her mind. “Oh... no, I don’t mean Dark magic, with a capital ‘D’. I mean it’s literally ‘dark magic.’ A magic spell that emits darkness instead of light.” A pair of confused stares prompted her to elaborate. “Okay... imagine you’re somewhere really dark. You can use a flashlight to make it brighter, right? Well, just flip that around. If you cast Black Light on that flashlight, it’ll emit a beam of darkness instead.”

Daring looked back at the veil of impenetrable darkness, and then stepped back so that she could compare it to that on the other side of the partition. Rainbow continued to appear confused. “What? How is that useful? Like... at all?!

“Well, it isn’t really,” admitted Twilight. “A long time ago they thought that manipulating black-light might eventually lead to a true invisibility spell, but it never did. We used to play around with it at Celestia’s school, but it’s more an academic curiosity than a useful skill.” She peered at the ceiling. “See? They’re like floodlights. Those crystals are emitting light. A little further along, there are others emitting black-light. That’s why we can’t see beyond it.”

Rainbow turned and regarded the wall of black before her. “Okay... so we have to pick which path to take?”

“Well, we need to decide which we prefer. Not being able to see now—” she indicated the path before them, “—or not being able to see later.” She gestured to the left-hand corridor.

“No. That’s not it,” said Daring with a head-shake. She hung her head and gritted her teeth, releasing her breath in a slow hiss before she looked back up. Her frown still hadn’t left. “It’s all about co-operation, isn’t it? Well... look.” She pointed a hoof at each path in turn – as much as they could see. “The two paths are the same. Look, there’s even a square there that’s a different texture in the same place. We’re supposed to take both. The catch being that one pony can see where they’re going... the other can’t. And then...” she pointed further down the left corridor, “... I’m guessing we switch.” She looked back at them. “Gonna be tricky.”

“Hah! Is that all? Nothing we can’t handle, right everypony?” enthused Rainbow Dash. Twilight’s wide, beaming grin signaled her agreement. Daring had to refrain from rolling her eyes.

But there really wasn’t any choice.

“Alright, let’s get this over with.” She walked over to the left-hand path and stepped onto it.

A moment later Twilight joined her and she looked round, quirking an eyebrow. “You’re coming with me?”

“Well, I can’t go down both,” she pointed out.

“Thought you’d prefer to stay close to your friend, is all.”

“I am staying with my friend,” said Twilight. Her grin was even wider now.

Daring had to roll her eyes now, and she gave Twilight a hard stare. “Real subtle.” She let out a breath. “You remember how this works?”

Twilight nodded. “I step where you step. I touch nothing,” she recited.

“Okay then.” Daring looked back ahead. A few steps had brought her to the point in the path that mirrored where Rainbow Dash had been stood in front of the blanket of darkness earlier. To her right, the whole length of the partition was peppered with small holes about two inches wide in a regular, diamond pattern. Too small to allow her to see the other corridor, but enough for sound to pass through easily. “Are you ready, Rainbow Dash?” she called.

Ready!” came the reply.

“Okay. Let’s go.” Daring stepped forward, with Twilight right behind her. The route the path took wasn’t diffic—


“Rainbow? You okay?” Twilight called.

Uh... I’m fine. It’s just... really freaky, y’know? Like, I can’t even see my own hooves, or tell which way is up right now. It’s totally disorienting.

“Keep our voices on your left and stone underneath you and you should be okay,” Daring pointed out.

Okay. So... what do I do?

Daring frowned. The route the path took wasn’t difficult. It was fairly straight with a few dog-legs here and there, and a couple of simple obstacles. Child’s play, really. But... she forced herself into Rainbow Dash’s horse-shoes, and suddenly it was an infinite labyrinth of deadly traps and byzantine twists designed to catch you out – where your next hoofstep could easily be your last and you’d never know until it was too late.

“Where are you now?” called Daring.

I’m on the first tile into the darkness. I think.

“Okay. Walk two more tiles forward, and then two to the left. Let us know when you’re there.”

Okay... one...” a moment passed. “Two... and then two left... One...

Daring shook her head, herself and Twilight already having strolled to the relevant square. This is going to take forever.

She bit her tongue, disappointed at herself. If it takes forever and everypony comes out okay, then that’s as long as it takes, Yearling.

* * *

Progress was slow. Almost painfully so at first, but it did improve. One of the issues they hadn’t immediately appreciated was that in order to make any progress at all, it was vital that Rainbow and Daring were always on the same square before moving on. It needed a lot of concentration to keep track because even one tile’s difference meant that at some point down the line instructions became impossible to follow. And while there were more of those differently-textured squares – ‘safe squares’ as they soon came to be known – to serve as reference points, they were few and far between and backtracking to one was almost as difficult for Rainbow Dash as going forward.

After about five minutes of trial-and-improvement they came to their first real obstacle.

“Alright, Rainbow Dash. Stop dead.”

Right. What now?

“In front of you there’s a gap in the path. You’re on the last square before it falls away. Can you feel the edge?”


“You’re going to have to jump it.”

Uh... okay. There was a slight tremor of nervousness to the voice from beyond the partition. “You know I can’t see where I’m going to land, right? Or even... if I’m going to land?

“You’ll be fine. The landing area on the other side is three whole columns in width. You won’t miss it.”

Easy for you to say...” came a grumble. “How far is the gap?

“It’s not far at all, but it’s slightly too wide to step over.”

That information’s not as useful as you think it is.”

Twilight spoke up. “Rainbow? It’s okay. The gap in front of you? It’s just a little wider than Fluttershy’s hop-skip-and-jump. Remember hop-skip-and-jump?”

I remember. Heh, sheesh, that was ages ago...” She trailed off and there was a moment of silence before, “Aw man, now I’ve got the song stuck in my head. Thanks a lot, Twilight.

Daring looked over her shoulder at Twilight and quirked an eyebrow. “Song?”

“Uh... never mind. It really was more of an improv piece.”

Daring shook her head. What were they going on about?

Never mind, they had to keep moving. A small jump was all it took to clear the short gap, and she landed on the wide platform on the far side with Twilight joining her a moment later.

Okay. Here I go,” came Rainbow’s voice. The quick clip-clopping of hooves on stone gave way to a moment of horrific silence—

—Daring heard Twilight’s breath catch for a moment, and she called out. “Rainbow?!”——an instant before the sounds of a solid, heavy impact and a little scraping signified that Rainbow Dash had made a successful, though awkward, landing on the other side.“I’m good. I made it! Heh, hop-skip-and-jump works every time.

They gathered themselves, and Daring sized up the path ahead. Two tiles in front of them was a textured square – this one with a series of horizontal wavy lines carved in relief – then two regular tiles before a dog-leg right, short straight run, dog-leg left, couple more straight, and another safe square in the distance, just before the cloak of darkness fell over their own path. Piece of cake.

“Alright Rainbow, couple of tiles forward and there’s a safe square.”

Okay... aaaand... I’m there.

“Good, now—”

As Daring took the next step ahead she felt a familiar but immediately-disconcerting sensation of the ground beneath her giving way, just ever-so-slightly. A pressure-plate. She looked down with a scowl and a chill ran up her spine. “Uh-oh.”


Twilight didn’t get more than one word of her question out before, from their left, a series of thick, stone blocks the same width as the columns upon which they stood – essentially the wall of the chamber from the landing on the far side of the pit all the way to just-short of the next safe-square – began to extend horizontally. Towards them.

“They’re going to push us off the path!” cried Twilight.

Guys? What’s going on? There’s a lot of noise and vibration happening over here!

“Rainbow! You have to run! Uh... Two forward, and then two right! Then, forward for, uh, one, two, three, four...”

Twilight! Not helping!

“Five! And then—!”


“Everypony, stay calm!” yelled Daring. She spared a quick glance at the columns: they had time, but not much. She whirled and fixed Twilight with a steely stare. “Sparkle? Run on ahead. The next safe-square. Go, now.”

“But I—!”

Daring glared. “Step where I step, touch nothing, and when I say run...” she growled. “I’ll take care of Rainbow. Go!

Twilight was clearly a little taken aback, but she nodded and raced on. Daring stood where she was, almost as though she were in no hurry. Panic was the real enemy, almost as deadly as any deathtrap. Once you learned to keep it at bay, most things were survivable. This eminently so.

“Rainbow Dash? Listen carefully. That vibration? The columns in the wall to your right are advancing towards you, and in a few seconds they’re going to push you off the path into the pit. But do exactly what I say, and you’ll be fine. Understand?”

Uh... yeah.

“Good. From the safe-square, walk two tiles forward. Do it now, do it quickly, tell me when you’re there.” As Daring spoke she herself copied the directions she had just given. The columns were over halfway toward her now, and since the paths were identical as opposed to mirrored, Rainbow’s next steps would be towards the pushers while her own would be away.

I’m there. I can feel the edge in front of me.

“Good. Now two to the right. Say when you’re there.” Daring took her own two steps to the right. A run of five columns lay ahead of her, but she had to reach the far end of the run quickly, otherwise she would be cut off before she could make the left-right onto the final section where Twilight was waiting.


“Good. Now five forward. At a trot, Rainbow! Count them off as you go!” Daring galloped along the run to the fifth tile, but to her left the final pushing column had already reached the corner stone and was grinding over it, almost upon her.

Three... four... five... There! Agh! I can feel the wall. It’s pushing me!

“Relax, Rainbow! You’re fine! Two tiles to your left, you hear me? Then forward until you hit the next safe-square. Get there!”

Daring couldn’t follow suit with her own instructions this time. The pushing column advancing from her left side had already cut her off from the path, and if she stayed put she was done for. With no other options, she set her sights on the path diagonally ahead of herself, took a quick run-up, and leapt for it just as the moving stonework started to eclipse her tile. On instinct her wings flapped in mid-air, though they provided no lift, and Daring hit the side of the path beyond the final pusher, hooves just about finding purchase as she clung on. Twilight was above her, offering her hoof to pull her up to safety, but she was good. She had this. She didn’t need help.

Daring hauled herself up back atop the path of columns, dusted her shirt down and reset her hat. The pushing columns stopped moving, having covered all of the width of the pathway behind them but not quite reaching the whole width of the chamber.

And slowly, her own and Twilight’s gaze turned to the partition, from which there was only silence to hear.

“Rainbow Dash? You there?” called Daring.

A silence that lasted too long, before...

Yeah, I’m here. I’m good. Whoa, sorry about that. It’s taking my eyes a while to adjust after so long in the dark.

“You can see again?”

Yeah. The darkness just ended at this safe-square. I’m guessing for you... it’s just about to start?

“Yep, you got it,” said Daring, regarding the curtain of darkness that descended a couple of column-widths in front of herself and Twilight. With a fixed frown, she walked towards it.

* * *

It has begun. It was only a matter of time before a spark ignited the building tensions. And now my brother has provided far more than that. I still cannot believe what he has done, yet I saw it with my own eyes.

A large group of unicorns formed at the gates to the central tower, demanding that the guards allow them to leave the city. And when, at my brother’s order, the guards refused to stand aside, the citizens could no longer turn a blind eye to the inconvenient truth: they have been imprisoned here against their will. And they responded with violence.

The guards were mobbed, overwhelmed and disarmed; their weapons used to force the gates open and reduce them to scrap, and then dozens of our ponies began to surge through, climbing the tower to claim their freedom.

And, whether consumed by rage or desperation I do not know, my brother destroyed it. Before the escaping citizens could climb even beyond three floors he obliterated the top of the tower, chunks of stone and iron collapsing from the cavern ceiling, causing a mass panic on the ground with many stampedes starting as the crowd ran and screamed. The ponies who fled up the tower were left with nowhere to go, and so returned to the courtyard where they were arrested. Twenty ponies linger in the dungeons at this very moment, judged guilty by my brother because they chose to pursue their freedom; their right.

Seven ponies have been hurt; two even have broken bones. I cornered my brother later, and demanded to know what he was thinking! And he replied with a fevered zeal I have never seen before, his eyes ablaze. He said that this city needed every citizen to be loyal if it is to remain strong. He said that we would restore this city to glory; that soon it would once again be the greatest city in the world, and a place to which his daughter would finally want to return, and be welcomed with open hooves. He spoke with such passion that I could not find it in my heart to be angry; I could only pity him. But, as much as I love him, this cannot be allowed to continue.

There are calls for another Trial.

I have plans to make.

* * *

“Alright Rainbow Dash, Twilight and I are in the dark. We’re... officially in your hooves.”

You don’t have to be that downbeat about it.

“Just tell us where to go?”

Right. No sweat. Three forward and then three left.

“Anything in the way?”

Nope. Not yet. After that, go two more forward and then stop.


It really is disconcerting. Just a sea of blackness, in every single direction. No up or down; really easy to get turned around. The only thing I’ve got to go on is smooth stonework beneath my hooves and a disembodied voice from somewhere over there. Can’t even see Twilight right behind me. Gotta be careful, keep moving, make sure to keep pace with Rainbow or else we’re both gonna get lost. Can’t count on Rainbow Dash being as fastidious with her directions as I was.

“Okay, we’re there.”

Twilight still with you?

“I’m here, Rainbow.”

“We’re both okay. What’s next?”

Great. Okay, now this is gonna be a little tricky. There’s like a beam reaching out from the tile you’re on, over a gap in the path, to the far side. Like a balance-beam making a really thin bridge. You get the idea?

“We get it,” said Daring. “How far is it to the other side?”

Further than you can jump.

“Rainbow!” snapped Twilight.

No, I mean... ugh... it’s like... remember how far Applejack jumped in the Iron Pony competition? Imagine like, two times that.

“The iron-what?”

“Say about twelve metres or so,” explained Twilight.

“Right. Fine. Let’s do this.”

Okay, but be really careful, okay? Cuz it’s really narrow, and it’s not straight.

“Not straight? What do you mean?”

Well, it’s left-and-right straight, but it starts off going uphill a little until it gets to halfway, and then goes back down. Just make sure you go slow and keep your balance.

“Not my first rodeo, Rainbow Dash.”

No, but... Twilight? You still okay?

“Still... whoa... uh, still here! It really is narrow. It’s only about a hoof-and-a-half wide!”

Just keep moving forward slowly. You can do it.

“I’m at the apex,” said Daring. “Careful here, Twilight. It’s trickier going downhill than up.”

“It’s almost impossible – how am I supposed to keep my... whoa!... balance when I can’t see!

“Just keep putting one hoof in front of the other. Close your eyes if it helps.”

“Oh. That does help a little.”

Guys? I’ve reached the other end. You there yet?

“Not... yet... okay, I’ve hit stone again. I’m there, back on the path.” Daring sighed a quiet sigh of relief.


“I’m coming! I’m... nearly... or at least I think I’m nearly... nearly... uh...”

“Relax, just keep coming.”

“There! Phew...”

“Okay. Good. Rainbow Dash? Now what?”

Okay, two tiles ahead there’s a safe-square. Go there.


“Okay... we’re there.”




“Rainbow Dash? What’s going on?!”

Uh... I think we triggered a trap.

I could’ve guessed that much. “What kind, Dash?! Do we need to move?!”

NO! Don’t move! At all! Stay really... really... totally still, okay?


“Rainbow Dash, what is happening?!” This was not a good situation to be in, blind and with no information as to the danger.

It’s okay. You’re safe. Don’t move and you’re safe. Uh... let’s see...


Okay... it’s like this: you know those old-timey tall clocks? What are the things inside them that dangle down and always swing back and forward?

“You mean grandfather clocks,” asserted Twilight. “That part you’re talking about is a pendulum.”

Right. Imagine that, except ten times bigger.


And moving really fast.


And on the end of each one is a wicked-looking scythe-blade. And the first one’s literally right in front of you.

Twilight gulped audibly.

“First one?” said Daring.

There’s four, all moving at different speeds. They’re swinging between each tile, over the join. Imagine like if you’re right in the middle of a tile, you’ll be fine, but if you’re halfway between two of ‘em... you’re gonna end up as half a pony. Or two ponies. Whichever. It’s not gonna be good.

“We can’t see them. We don’t know when it’s safe to move.”

I know... and you gotta trust me on this, okay? I mean like... really really trust me. Only move one square at a time. And only when I say. And only stop when you’re sure you’re in the middle of a tile. And only—!

“Rainbow! Stop babbling!” scolded Daring. “We need clear instructions, not a motor-mouth!” She was getting frustrated now.

Right. Sorry. Move when I say so, okay? Are you ready?


Twilight? You ready?

“Um... I’m... I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”

A short pause.

Twilight? I’m gonna get you through this, alright?

“I know,” said Twilight. “I know.”

Okay. We’re doing this. Ready...? Aaaand... MOVE!

A step, fumbling in the dark. A faint rush of wind from behind, grazing the tip of her tail. A pony close at her side.

“STOP! Wait... aaand MOVE!”

Another rush of wind, passing in front. A stride forward. Twilight with her. Then standing still. Very still.

“STOP! Wait... wait... wait... aaand MOVE!

In the dark. Guided by nothing. Stepping forward because another pony told her to. Because that pony knew when it was safe. Because that pony wanted her to be safe too.

STOP! One more! Ready... aaand... MOVE!

An act of faith. Of trust. A final step. A rush of wind. A feeling of safety, textured stone beneath her hooves and then...

“Whew! That’s it! Past the last one! And you’re not gonna believe what I can see next! Guys? Guys?!

“It’s okay, Rainbow, we’re both here, although I think Twilight might be about to lose her breakfast. And don’t worry... we can see it too.”

With black-light no longer shining on themselves and everything around them they could once again see, and it seemed finally they had reached the end of the pit. Three tiles in front of them, the path of columns once again became floor, with the far wall of the chamber a few meters beyond that. The partition did not end, though. It kept the two halves of the room separate for one final obstacle.

Ahead of them, in the centre of the end-wall, a doorway to the next chamber. Covered by a gold gate within vertical runners, and attached to the top of which was a heavy golden chain. The gate was adorned with the two-headed unicorn symbol, and the chain extended toward the ceiling and then to the right, held up by metal rings, until it passed through a small opening in the partition to the other side. A similar, parallel chain made the return trip, descending the wall between the partition and the door, where it finally wound around an iron winch.

“We don’t get to raise our own gate,” observed Daring. “We only get to pass if our partner decides we...” Before she’d even finished the sentence the chain attached to the gate jingled, clattered and started to move. The gate began to rise.

Daring blinked and found herself walking toward the winch. “Huh. For some reason I was expecting this to be more of a thing.” She began turning it and Twilight moved to help her.

After a dozen or so revolutions, Daring and Twilight’s gate had raised fully. And when their winch would turn no further, there was a loud click as some kind of ratchet engaged, preventing it from turning backward. With both gates raised fully, all three ponies passed through their doorways and into the next room.

Suddenly there was the sound of galloping hooves upon stone, getting rapidly closer, and before Daring even had time to turn to look, she and Twilight found themselves on the receiving end of a charging Rainbow Dash, who leapt at them and threw a foreleg around each, hugging tightly, and laughing all the while.

Daring grimaced. “This again?” she muttered.

Twilight didn’t seem to mind. In fact she was hugging back.

Rainbow stopped laughing for long enough to speak. “Whoa! That was tense! But I totally wasn’t worried,” she said, still refusing to release her embrace. “Not for a second. And if you tell anypony I was, then I’m gonna say it’s not true. Cuz it’s not. Wasn’t worried at all.”

“We’re glad you’re okay too, Rainbow,” said Twilight with a happy smile and a little nuzzle.

If Daring had been wearing a watch, she would have checked it. The seconds before the hug was released seemed interminable.

Not that it was unpleasant. As before, it was... sort of nice. But there was no sense getting used to it. This was simply some strange ‘friendship’ ritual she had to participate in; not the first time she’d come across an odd custom she had to respect. After this mission was over, there wouldn’t be any more.

Finally, Rainbow released them and the three ponies stood separate.

“Right!” said Rainbow Dash. “What’s next?”

Daring turned to regard the room into which they had all stepped. “I think... nothing,” she said in mild surprise. “I think... I think we made it.”

* * *

It has taken months of planning, and preparations have had to be handled in the utmost secrecy, but finally we are almost ready. There is but one more fragile step.

I am so sorry that it has had to come to this.

My loyal guards are slightly outnumbered by my brother’s, but by the time his soldiers realise what has happened it will be too late for them to act. Nay, it is my hope that with my brother out of the way they will finally see sense and stand down.

Tomorrow we hold Trial, as we have done many times before. The Architects have once again devised new obstacles for us both to overcome in the gauntlet. We will surpass them all, I am sure. And it will not matter. Not this time.

Tonight while the city sleeps, with the aid of a spell of concealment, I will descend into the catacombs with the only pony in this city I can truly trust, now. I feel so much guilt asking this of her, but she supports me and our trust is so strong we cannot but succeed. Summer Sun and I will pass the gauntlet together, and I will take Harmony. Without both crowns, when my brother and I undertake the Trial we will not be able to unlock the dais to return to the surface. And by the time we reach the end of the gauntlet and that becomes clear... it will be too late. The evacuation will already have begun.

As soon as my brother and I enter the catacombs my guards will seize key points in the city and rally the ponies. I have loyal mages standing by to manifest a staircase of light beneath the ruins of the central tower so that the citizens can flee to safety. They will leave the valley and take the pass through the mountains to their new home. And I will give Harmony to Summer Sun. I will tell her to find a secluded spot in some far off forest, and bury it. In the land of Equestria its value as a symbol of authority will be nonexistant, and as for its power... perhaps it is better that it be forgotten, else the ruin that has befallen this city might be destined to repeat itself.

As for myself, I will bear my brother’s wrath and fury, as we both remain trapped beneath the city. I do not believe I will leave that place, for it would require nothing less than the trust – the real bond – we once shared, and that is a slim hope indeed. If Trial were still about showing that trust, and not the mockery of going through the motions it has become, perhaps there would be no need for any of this. But my brother will not understand. He will rage and thunder when he realises I have deceived him. He may even try to kill me. For this I am prepared.

But my wife will be safe. My daughters will be safe. And they will find a new life in Equestria. My family is royalty but, while I am a King in name, my brother is the elder, and tradition must hold that the true succession of title rightfully passes to his descendants. My daughters will never be more than princesses, but that does not matter. What matters is that they will be able to live their lives according to their heart’s desire. And I will gladly die to give them that gift.

And now I must go and talk to my daughters. My youngest is still an infant, but my eldest... she knows. She understands that they are all going on a long journey tomorrow, but she does not yet know that I am not going with her. There are so many things that I must say to her that she should never have to hear. I am going to have to tell her to be strong for her mother. To take good care of her baby sister. And to never look back to this place. I am more afraid of this conversation than I am of any I have ever had with my brother. Than anything I have ever done. I feel so much guilt. I feel like a monster for doing this to my family. But I love them. I’m doing this for them. And so it must be done.

* * *

The high-ceilinged room in which they found themselves was semi-circular, with the straight wall behind them home to the twin doors. Decorative stone friezes containing more representations of the two-headed horse symbol adorned the curved walls which extended away and before them, until at the furthest point of the room, two small recesses sat side-by-side at about chest height. Within each recess, a featureless bust was carved. A stone pony head without details such as eyes or a mouth. Underneath each recess, a stone plaque – beneath the left recess, the word Unity; beneath the right one, Harmony.

And while the head on the right was plain and barren of adornment, upon the left bust rested a gorgeous crown – a circlet of deep, rich gold on the front of which was mounted a large, flawless, marquise-cut jewel of the palest azure.

Daring approached it, jaw slightly open. A stunning, pristine example of pre-classical, pre-paleopony craftsponyship, delicately worked with detailed flourishes moulded and etched into the metalwork, the gem mounted almost seamlessly, tastefully yet its prominence clear. This was it. The reward at the end of the road.

With steady hooves she carefully relieved the bust of its crown and picked it up, holding and turning it delicately, the gold and the jewel catching and reflecting the light just so. It was beautiful.

I did it. I actually did it. I finally beat this place. I finally—

She stopped herself. Paused and took a breath. Turned slowly, towards the other two ponies in the room. Saw them smiling.

I didn’t do anything, did I? We did. Together.

“It’s beautiful,” said Twilight in a hushed whisper, unable to take her eyes off the crown Daring held.

And Daring took a step towards her. And smiled herself. “Go on, take a look. You’ve both definitely earned it.”

“It’s amazing,” said Twilight, captivated as Daring handed her the crown. It seemed that the delicate nuances of the period detailing were not lost to her either.

Rainbow Dash seemed of a far more practical mindset as she took the crown from Twilight. “Yeah, sure it’s pretty. I mean Rarity would definitely approve, but how much do you think it’s worth?”

“A lot,” said Twilight without humour.

“Doesn’t matter,” said Daring. “A find like this? We have to turn it over to the Equestrian Archeological Society. I mean, this may be the oldest symbol of power from the oldest civilised city known to ponydom. They need to study it.”

“Aw, phooee,” said Rainbow, blowing a little raspberry. She looked at the crown in her hooves, and a little mischievous gleam came to her eye. “‘She who wears the ancient crown, be they worthy, shall become a princess!’” she ordained in a low, bassy voice.

“Rainbow, it doesn’t work like that. You know that,” Twilight chuckled.

“Come on,” said Dash with a smug grin of her own as she flipped the crown onto her head. It was just a little big for her, but it managed to seat nicely. “Princess Rainbow Dash? Tell me you’re not already totally on board with this idea.”

“And what would you be Princess of, exactly? Awesomeness?”

“No. Speed. Duh,” said Rainbow and stuck her tongue out playfully as she wobbled on her hooves. “It’d be my job to make sure ponies... um... make sure they... sure they... urrgh.” She trailed off into a groan, and all of a sudden it was as though all of Rainbow’s strength up and left her. Her knees buckled and she slowly collapsed to the ground as her eyes fell closed. In the space of a moment she had fallen into a heap, head resting on the stone floor, unconscious.

“Rainbow? You okay? Rainbow?!” cried Twilight, her voice rising in volume, using her hooves to cajole Rainbow Dash back and forth in an effort to rouse her. But she was dead to the world.

And Twilight was shouting.

“Rainbow?! Rainbow wake up! Rainbow! Rainbow!

8: The Crown of Unity

View Online

Rainbow Dash lay still near the back of the room, appearing for all the world as though she were asleep. But try as they might, neither Daring Do nor Twilight could wake her. They had at least adjusted her position to a more comfortable, less awkward one than she had landed in when she fell, but otherwise she was unresponsive. It was as though she had slipped into a coma.

“What’s wrong with her?” asked Twilight, her litany of knowledge failing to adequately explain the current malady that had befallen her close friend.

“No idea,” said Daring. “I’ve never seen anything quite like this. But she collapsed just after she put the crown on.”

“You think the crown could be enchanted with some kind of... sleeping spell?”

Daring looked at Twilight. “You tell me. Is that a thing?”

“Well... yes, it’s possible, but... why?

“Not sure, but let’s get it off her and hopefully she’ll snap—”

Daring never finished her sentence.

At that moment the jewel on the front of the crown began to glow with a fierce light. It built quickly and flashed, and then suddenly it seemed to project. At once the space around them changed, superimposed with vivid imagery and they found themselves no longer in an anteroom beneath a long-forgotten city, but somewhere else entirely. Twilight was familiar with projection spells – using magic to manifest a screen on which to essentially ‘play-back’ events, for instance – but this was more. This was an entire scene, in three dimensions, surrounding them. Something that they were a part of, as opposed to watching.

And it was very odd indeed.

They found themselves on the stage of an enormous amphitheatre, with rows of raked white-marble seating extending outward and upward for what seemed like miles. Perhaps forever. Even so, the theatre was packed with ponies, of every kind, so close together that not a free space could be found among them, and all of them were cheering furiously, creating a cacophonous, ecstatic pandemonium.

In the centre of the circular stage was what appeared to be a large egg – a pale-blue ovoid narrower at one end than the other, resting on its wide base within a shallow depression excavated especially for it. The egg was larger than the average house, but still dwarfed by the immensity of the theatre in which it stood.

The sky above and around the egg appeared to be divided loosely into two sections. In one half, a swarm of changelings hovered and darted, their black carapaces shining slickly as their wings buzzed, while the other half was home to a set of aerial obstacles – cloud-rings, slalom-pillars and the like.

And through the sky soared a cyan-coated, rainbow-maned pegasus.

She twisted and turned through the rings, pulled crazy loops and punishingly tight hairpins, all to the screaming adulation of the thousands of fans. Then she would zoom to the space on the far side of the amphitheatre where she would tackle dozens of changeling attackers at a time, weaving and striking cleanly while dodging vicious counter-attacks. She would alternate between the two constantly, first performing, then fighting, and the screams of the fans only grew louder.

As the pony in the sky continued to impress, the crowd began to throw things for her – roses, or streamers or confetti to express their adoration. The detritus all landed on the flat stage and quickly began to build up like so much rubbish. Except, on the ground with Daring and Twilight, was another pony. Her coat was a greyer, more washed-out shade of cyan, and the same was true of her rainbow mane, but even though she wore a thick, bored grimace it was still recognisably Rainbow Dash. She trudged around the stage with a broom, sweeping the clutter away slowly but surely, although the quantity of stuff raining down from above was more than her single brush could shift in any reasonable length of time. All the while her sweeping was accompanied by the overhead sounds of adoring fans, smacked changelings and the occasional sonic-boom.

“What the hay is going on?” asked Daring, trying to look every which-way at once, searching for any danger in this freaky, faux diorama.

Which prompted an immediate reaction from the pale Rainbow Dash who stopped her sweeping, head snapping towards them with a look of surprise. “The heck?” she said to herself, and then approached them cautiously and with a confused frown. “Who is that?”

“Rainbow Dash?” said Twilight. “Is that you? Are you okay? What’s going on here?”

“Oh, it’s you, Twilight.” Pale Dash’s posture relaxed and her gaze lowered. She resumed her sweeping, clearing a path through a thick covering of withered roses. “Dunno. This has never happened to her before. I gotta admit, it’s a little weird.”

“Rainbow Dash, what’s the last thing you remember?” asked Daring.

“Sorry, can’t help you there,” said the pale pony with a little, bored sigh. “If it’s short-term memory you’re after you’d need to ask her.” She spared a glance at the sky above them, and the vivid, multicoloured pony streaking around it, doing battle, showing off, the gaze of every fan fixed upon her.

Twilight looked up, and then called out. “Rainbow! Rainbow Dash! Down here!” she cried, waving her hooves to try and attract the soaring pony’s attention.

Pale Dash shook her head. “She can’t hear you. She’s asleep right now.” Her confused frown returned and her nose scrunched a little. “That’s odd. She wasn’t expecting to go to sleep. Huh...”

“So what we’re seeing here... this is her dream?” asked Daring.

“Actually, right now she’s dreaming about having to take her Wonderbolt History exam again, and she totally hasn’t studied at all. And she’s completely naked.” A thoughtful frown. “Not sure why that last part’s an issue but apparently it is.”

“But if this isn’t her dream then... what are we looking at?” asked Daring as she again tried to take everything in.

“This is Rainbow Dash,” said the pale pegasus. “This is everything she is. Everything she wants to be. Everything that makes her her, is right here. I guess you’re kind of... looking at her whole self in microcosm.”

“Microcosm?” asked Twilight, eyebrow raised.

“What? It’s a word.”

“It’s not a Rainbow Dash word,” she pointed out.

“She knows what it means,” said Pale Dash. “She heard you use it once. I liked how it sounded, so I bugged her with curiosity until she looked it up. But she won’t ever admit to opening up that dictionary you gave her, because she knows it’ll only encourage you. Don’t tell her I blabbed.” Pale Dash actually grinned for a moment before her gaze fell to her broom once more.

“Then... who are you?” asked Daring.

“Me? I’m just... here. Just think of me as a background pony. She goes charging through life, living it up, and I watch on. Clean up after her, make sure nothing important gets lost among the clutter,” she said, trudging toward another large pile of roses, broom at the ready. “I handle the things she’s usually too busy having fun to do: keep her heart beating, make sure she breathes, blink for her when she’s not doing it herself.” Pale Dash continued to sweep as she spoke, clearing away the myriad objects and tokens littering the ground of the amphitheatre stage.

“You’re Rainbow Dash’s subconscious,” concluded Twilight with a little awed inhalation.

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“How come you didn’t recognise us?” asked Daring.

“Hey, this is all a little new to me as well,” said Pale Dash. “I don’t exactly get many visitors to talk to. It took me a moment to work out who you were. Well, you, anyway,” she said to Daring.

“But Rainbow knows us both,” said Twilight. “Surely you must recognise us too?”

Pale Dash shook her head a little. “I can’t actually see you. I can only process what Rainbow Dash’s senses can register, and at the moment her eyes are closed. But I’ve still got sound, smell, touch and taste to work with.” Pale Dash smiled again, but a warm smile this time. “But that’s more than enough to get you, Twilight. She’d recognise you just by the way you tread when you walk, or that little shuffling noise you make when you ruffle your wings and don’t realise. She’d know you anywhere.” She turned to Daring. “You were a little trickier is all. She just hasn’t known you as long. It takes time for me to build up a profile, especially one as complete as Twilight’s. I’m working on it though. You’re on the fast-track, as it were. Won’t be much longer until you’re as familiar to her as any of her other friends.”

In the air above them Rainbow Dash was clearly beginning to tire, and so were the crowd. The roses had stopped being thrown for her, replaced by empty hay-fries boxes and other actual litter. Where before there had been no spare seats to be found, now there were gaps as the spectators gradually seemed to become fewer and further between. The ones still watching the show were cheering much less, and instead of happy grins and shouts of encouragement, they instead offered bored expressions and the occasional heckle. But Rainbow Dash carried on, only getting faster, tighter, tougher, in spite of her increasing exhaustion. She zoomed from her aerial performance to the other side of the arena, doing battle with scores of changelings and doing an impressive job. When all of a sudden one of them broke formation and found a new target, diving toward the huge egg in the centre of the amphitheatre’s stage. The changeling reached it in seconds and began to hammer at it with its hooves and gnash at it with its fangs, causing a few deep scratches in the surface of the shell.

And when Rainbow Dash noticed, she let out an almighty scream of horror. A terrible, cracked cry of “NO!” that spoke to a level of fear and panic that Twilight had never heard from Rainbow Dash before. She powered down through the air to interdict the lone attacker, reached it in moments and laid into the snarling beast with every ounce of fight she had left within her, throwing it clear of the egg and sending it tumbling towards the stage. The changeling crashed into the ground and disintegrated, crumbling into small shards of what looked like black glass, ready to be swept away.

“Okay, none of this is making any sense,” said Daring.

Pale Dash simply looked at her neutrally and, after a moment, offered a resigned shrug. “It makes sense to me,” she said.

“What the heck is this egg thing?”

“It’s the most important thing in the world to her.” Pale Dash continued to look resigned and gave a few token sweeps with her brush. “You should have seen it when she was younger. It was tiny.”

Twilight continued to watch on with rapt fascination.

By now the changeling horde had all but been vanquished, and Rainbow Dash was putting what energy she had left into her amazing routine. She flew with sweat pouring off her, teeth clenched, fighting through the pain that must have been wracking her muscles and straining through the g-forces of aerial manoeuvres that would constitute the most dangerous, most spectacular flying performance ever to have been seen by pony eyes; all to the increasing indifference of the now miniscule crowd. Everything began to darken, the upper rows of the amphitheatre falling into shadow, and with no more than a dozen ponies left in the audience, Rainbow Dash finally landed.

She panted heavily, soaked in sweat, looking ready to collapse. She looked up at the crowd in a silent plea, spreading her wings as though ready to take to the air once more. She would show them what she could do. She would find some way to impress them if they’d just stay a little longer... but the final member of the audience simply shook his head in disappointed fashion and stood to leave as darkness descended over everything but the stage.

Rainbow Dash’s head hung, and she let out a long, ragged sigh. Her lips trembled subtly and she seemed about to cry from a tortured mixture of exertion, desperation, disappointment and defeat. She looked utterly drained, and utterly fed up. She had given her all, heart, body and soul. And all she had to show for it was a silent, empty theatre, with nopony else there for her.

“Oh, Rainbow...” said Twilight pitifully as she looked on.

“Oh, nono. It’s okay. This is the good bit,” said Pale Dash. She actually had a smile as she too watched the tragic scene unfolding before her. “I love this part.”

As they watched, Rainbow Dash’s head finally raised and she turned it to look at the egg towering over her, almost as though she’d just been reminded it was there. And as her gaze found it, a distant, wistful smile found her lips. With a couple of slow, faltering steps, Rainbow Dash approached, her despondency gradually molting from her until she reached it, her smile turning hopeful now. She extended a forehoof and touched it. The shell glowed golden where she made contact and seemed to become immaterial. Rainbow Dash passed through it, into the house-sized egg, and was gone.

“See?” said Pale Dash, still with her own smile. “She’s happy. Because no matter how bad things get out here, she knows she can always go in there.” Pale Dash looked at the ground once again, still with her smile, and swept.

There was a moment of silence, and then it was Daring who asked the question that, judging from her reaction, Pale Dash wasn’t expecting and yet probably should have been.

“Well? What’s in there?”

“Can we go in and see?” Twilight followed up.

Pale Dash’s brush stopped mid-sweep and she froze. Her expression became one of embarrassed panic, like a pony who’d promised to keep a secret realising they had just let it slip, and was now trying to work out how to backpedal without digging a deeper hole. She raised her head again, nervous. “Uh... no. No, I can’t let you in. Look... uh, please don’t take this the wrong way... but you can’t go in there. It’s... she... Rainbow Dash really doesn’t want any other pony to see what goes on in there. That’s... well that’s what she’d tell you, at least, so that’s what I have to stick to.”

Twilight’s head drooped a little, but Daring fixed Pale Dash with a frown. “Then how come it sounds like you’re trying to convince yourself as much as us?” she questioned.

“Because I know what’s in there!” blurted Pale Dash before she could stop herself. “And... and I think it’s really sweet, and that more ponies should see it. I think it’s sad that she hides it away inside this thing. It makes her so happy but for some irrational reason she’s afraid that if other ponies know about it, somehow her life will be ruined.”

“Well if you think more ponies should see it... you could let us in and we could see it,” pressed Daring. The urge to explore extended even unto here.

Pale Dash was on the back hoof now, but still trying to fight. “No! It’s... it’s not my call. I’m sorry, I can’t just decide to let you in, okay? I don’t make decisions. Of any sort. My job is just to keep everything working. Rainbow Dash makes all the decisions, and she’s asleep right now. You’ll have to wait till she wakes up and ask her.” She paused, looked away and rubbed her head with the back of her hoof. “Of course, she won’t know what you’re talking about. I mean... it’s not like it’s a literal egg. If you ask her, ‘hey Rainbow, what’s inside that egg in your brain?’ she’s just gonna give you a funny look.” She met their gaze again. “Look, I’m not... I’m not saying I don’t want you to see what’s in there. I’m not even saying that, deep down, Rainbow Dash wouldn’t want you to know what’s in there. I’m just saying that...” She trailed off then and looked confused for a moment. Then her head hung in defeat. “Aw, snap.” Somehow, she’d managed to lose the argument without there even being an argument. She looked up again, still with a clear case of nerves, and spoke more softly. “There’s a very short list of ponies that Rainbow Dash would literally do anything for, and you both happen to be on it. But... if I let you in, you have to understand that it’s not what it looks like. And... and even if you don’t get it... you have to promise that you’ll still be friends with her, okay?” she begged.

“Of course I promise,” said Twilight without hesitation. She raised a hoof and made a little cross in the air over her chest, and then followed it up with an incomprehensible series of movements that Daring didn’t follow at all. “There’s nothing I could possibly see in there that would stop me thinking of Rainbow Dash as a true friend.”

Pale Dash’s gaze turned on Daring, expectantly.

“We’re not friends,” she said flatly.

“Daring!” admonished Twilight.

“What? Look, I like her, okay?” she turned her level gaze back to Pale Dash. “That good enough?”

Pale Dash hung her head, turned, and walked over to the egg. “I’m so gonna regret this,” she muttered, but she signalled the other two to join her nonetheless.

As they crossed the stage to the egg they walked through the leftover rose-petals and tokens of affection tossed by the earlier crowd. The debris that hadn’t yet been swept into a pile by Pale Dash’s broom. On a whim, Daring gently dragged her hoof through some, and then kicked lightly at a small mound of already-swept litter. The flotsam on the ground reacted exactly as one would expect, being pushed aside or tossed around according to her actions, even though she couldn’t feel it. Everything around her was just light being projected by the stone set into the crown that Rainbow Dash – the real one – still wore as she lay sleeping over at the edge of the real-world-room. But in spite of that, Daring was able to affect it. Manipulate it, even though it was intangible. She reached the egg with Twilight and Rainbow Dash’s subconscious manifestation, and halted.

At Pale Dash’s invitation they stepped forward, through the outer shell of the egg, and into the interior.

The scene changed. Gone was the amphitheatre and the crowd, the changelings and rose-petals. Gone too was the darkness that had fallen. Inside the egg everything was light and lively. They were in a pale-blue room the same colour as the egg-shell. Not one that Twilight had ever been in before, and likely not one that actually existed, but still recognisably a room. And a recognisable room at that.

It was a creche.

Along one wall, a septet of pastel-coloured cribs stood, empty for the most part. Five of them were painted in very familiar shades, and their headboards adorned with very familiar symbols while a sixth was smaller, with purple sides interspersed with green bars.

The floor of the room was festooned with soft-toys, story-books and all manner of foalish playthings, not to mention foals. Five instantly identifiable baby ponies and an infant dragon crawled and staggered and burbled happily, playing and making mischief, all under the supervision of Rainbow Dash. She stopped them before they touched something too sharp, or put something too small in their mouths. She read to them from a book, fed the ones that were hungry, and intervened when baby Applejack and baby Rarity started fighting each other and crying. It was wrong to say that Rainbow Dash looked relaxed, but she’d never looked happier as she darted around the room, trying to keep an eye on all of the tiny creatures in her care.

Twilight took it all in, took a slow, deep, quiet gasp, and her eyes glistened just a little as a warm smile settled on her lips.

Daring looked around the room, saw everything that was going on, and felt her brow crease into a familiar frown. She half-turned away, not quite able to stomach the scene before her. “Okay, I’ve seen enough. Maybe this was a bad idea.”

Stood beside her, Twilight expressed her surprise. “What do you mean?”

“This is just sad. And I’m sorry if that sounds a little harsh, but you’ve been paying attention, right? This is all Rainbow Dash. Everything we’ve seen, it’s basically a visual representation of her personality and innermost thoughts. And what have we seen? A pony who, when she can’t get the ego-boost she wants out there, literally retreats into her shell so she can find it in here. I’m guessing all these kids are representations of her friends right? I mean, that’s you over there, and there’s that dragon I saw in your castle. Well? Don’t you get it? This is how she sees you. As weak children she has to baby. Ponies who couldn’t take care of themselves without her around. That all look up to her as superior, wiser, stronger. That’s more than just narcissism, it’s a classic superiority complex. The only reason she keeps you around is to make herself feel better about herself.” Daring shook her head, an uncomfortable instinct to gag tickling the back of her throat. “And to think I was almost starting to believe in that ‘friendship’ guff,” she muttered.

Twilight couldn’t quite find the words to react, but from behind them both there came a defeated, depressed sigh. “I knew it. I knew you wouldn’t understand,” said Pale Dash softly. She looked skywards and her voice dropped to a whisper. “Oh no, what have I done? I’ve... I’ve ruined her friendships. Oh, no. Oh, no no no no!” Pale Dash’s panicked eyes began to water and she almost started to hyperventilate. “She’s going to lose her friends. And it’s all my fault...”

Twilight turned and walked the few paces over to the distraught pony. She put a foreleg around her withers – really holding it in mid air where Pale Dash’s withers apparently were, but Pale Dash reacted as though the limb were really there. And Twilight fixed her with a warm, encouraging smile.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I understand.”

Pale Dash risked a look back, hope daring to dart fleetingly across her face. “You... you do?”

“Yeah, I do,” Twilight whispered. “And she’s not going to lose any of us.”

Daring cocked an eyebrow as Twilight turned to face her, lecturing voice at the ready. “You’re wrong. That’s not what this is. You haven’t known her that long, and you’ve only really seen the Rainbow Dash we saw outside. That’s the one she shows to the world after all – the cocky, brash, confident pegasus who’s the best flier ever and can stop an army of evil villains with her bare hooves because why not? Everypony sees her showing off, and that’s how she likes it. But that’s not the whole story by a long way. She puts on that front because she wants ponies to like her. To respect her. Because underneath all that bravado... she’s actually kind of insecure.”

Pale Dash’s hopeful smile had come back now, and her eyes were watering a little. Twilight continued.

“You saw what happened when the crowd started leaving? She pushed herself harder. She did everything she could to get their attention; to make them like her, to the point where she was broken and hurting. But nothing worked did it? After all that effort, after everything she tried to do to wow them, she just ended up alone. That’s what frightens her. You wouldn’t understand this about Rainbow Dash unless you’ve known her for a while but... she really doesn’t do well by herself.

“She needs other ponies around. Not literally all the time of course, but she needs to know they’re there. So she has this place, and keeps it right in the centre of the stage. A place she can always come where there are friends waiting for her; where she can totally be herself, safe in the knowledge that her friends will always love and respect her. It’s an egg because she thinks it’s fragile, and you saw how horrified she was when she thought something might break it, because she loves her friends too. It’s something she’d give anything to protect.

“And as for what’s in here?” Twilight surveyed the room again, her warm happy smile only growing and then turning back to face Daring. “These aren’t how she thinks of her friends... they’re how she thinks of her friendships. Fragile things that need constant care and attention if they’re to thrive... and look at how she responds. She nurtures them, feeds them and cares for them, and so her friendships get stronger. I mean look at how healthy they all are. It’s beautiful,” she finished, her own eyes tearing up.

Pale Dash stepped forward now and threw her forelegs around Twilight in a tearful hug. “She never says it, but she loves you all so much,” she said.

“I know,” responded Twilight, still beaming. “We know.”

Presently there came a noise from the final crib in the room. This one was stood a little apart from the others, and it appeared unfinished. The structure was there, but the ochre paintwork upon its beech frame was only half-done, and there was no cutie-mark on the headboard yet. Rainbow Dash looked up, worried, and then made her way over to it as the noise became a dry, throaty cough. “Whoa, easy there lil’ filly,” she said soothingly. “It’s all gonna be okay. You just need some medicine and then you’re gonna be fine.”

Daring hesitated for a moment. She had a bad feeling about this, but she couldn’t not look. She wandered over to the crib with Twilight following, and when she reached it and looked in, that bitter, acrid taste of bile threatened to rise into her throat again. She sighed. “Yep. It’s me.”

In the cot, a tiny, weak and pallid-looking Daring Do was writhing and sweating, as though she had a fevered sickness upon her. She made little, pained noises and shivered, eyes scrunched shut.

“If there’s one thing that Rainbow doesn’t think of you as, it’s inferior to herself,” offered Twilight.

“Yeah? So why do I look so sickly?”

“Because she thinks her friendship with you is in trouble.”

“I already said, we’re not friends. So why would she even—?”

The infant Daring Do suddenly started to wail, sobbing and bawling as though wracked with a sudden jolt of pain she couldn’t comprehend.

Daring frowned, and for once found herself joined in this by Twilight. “Interesting...” she said.

“Fascinating,” echoed Twilight, who looked to Pale Dash.

“She might not be conscious but her ears are still working, and I’m still processing everything in the background,” she explained. “Hard for her not to think she’s losing you as a friend when you keep telling her you’re not one,” she said to Daring.

At the crib, Rainbow Dash looked down, her expression of concern never leaving as she offered the baby a spoonful of ruby-red syrup and tried desperately to comfort her. “...don’t worry, everything’s gonna be fine, you’ll see...” she said softly.

“And yet she’s not giving up on you,” Twilight noted.

Daring remained silent as she watched Rainbow Dash devotedly try and nurse what she saw as an ailing friendship into a healthy, happy one like the half-dozen others that were playing and burbling and bounding around her hooves in the creche. Little happened though, and she supposed that there simply wasn’t a quick-fix for this sort of thing. She sighed through her nose.

“Okay, maybe you sold me, but as... nice as this all is, let’s not forget that this is all the product of a magical artifact that we know nothing about. It could all be a trick, so it’s probably best we make sure she’s okay for ourselves.” She looked to Pale Dash. “If you are her subconscious, can you wake Rainbow Dash up?”

Pale Dash blinked in surprise. “What? Now?

“Can you?” said Daring.

“But... she hasn’t finished her dream yet! Somehow that exam turned into extreme sledding with Fluttershy and she’s... I can’t wake her up from that!” she pleaded.

“She’ll get over it. Besides, we can’t stay. We’re three stories below an ancient city that is itself a couple hundred feet below a mountain valley. We have to get out of here,” insisted Daring.

Pale Dash’s pleas turned defensive now. “But she’s resting. Look, I know this has all happened a little strangely and she fell asleep without really meaning to which is odd in itself... but I checked: she’s not in pain, she’s not bleeding or freezing, there’s no trauma anywhere. She’s just... asleep. And if I wake her up now she might get all cranky and she hates feeling cranky. Can’t you just give her another six hours or so?”

“We can’t stay here for six hours,” replied Daring. “For all we know it’s not safe, which means she’s not safe either.”

“I’m afraid Daring’s right,” said Twilight. “We do have to get out of here, and we need Rainbow Dash with us.”

Pale Dash looked obstinate for a moment, then hung her head. “Okay, fair enough. I’ll wake her.” She raised her gaze for the last time and regarded the other two ponies. “Hey, uh, for what it’s worth? Whatever happens... it was nice to meet you. I mean I’ll see you again. Every time she does, in fact but... I don’t ever get to talk to other ponies myself. It was fun, while it lasted.” She smiled.

Twilight smiled back. “Goodbye. And don’t worry, Rainbow Dash’s friendships are going to be just fine.”

Pale Dash nodded a grateful nod and then closed her eyes. She disappeared from the room, and then the room itself began to fade. The jewel in the crown on the real Rainbow Dash’s head dimmed slowly and went out. With the projection gone, the two ponies found themselves once more in the semi-circular chamber beneath the ancient city with Rainbow Dash asleep near the rear wall. And a moment later, she began to stir.

She yawned wide and opened her eyes, apparently surprised to find herself anywhere other than her comfy bed made of clouds. She blinked blearily and forced herself to sit up, wobbling a little.

“Rainbow? Are you alright?” asked Twilight.

“Mmnhgh... I... think so?”

“How do you feel?” asked Daring.

“Like somepony stuck a wooden spoon in my brain and turned it into scrambled eggs,” said Rainbow, staggering to all four hooves now. “What happened? Last thing I remember I put that crown on my head and suddenly it was lights out.” She removed the circlet from her cranium and studied it.

“The crown is magic. It knocked you out... well, actually sent you to sleep, I guess,” said Daring. “Then it showed us what goes on in your mind.”

“It showed you... huh? What? You saw what happens inside my brain?” asked Dash.

“Yeah, in a manner of speaking.”

There was a brief pause.

“Cool,” said Rainbow Dash. Who then eagerly followed up with, “Hey, what’s it like in my head? Is it awesome?”

“It was... different,” Daring allowed. “But right now we need to get moving. Come on,” she said, turning for one of the twin doors.

“Whoa, hold on, what do you mean different? Daring? Daring?! Hey, come on, I wanna know! What’s it look like in there?” She tried turning to the other pony in the room. “Come on Twilight, help me out. You were in my head: what did you see?”

And suddenly Twilight reached out and drew Rainbow Dash into a tight, soft hug, nuzzling into her neck with a wide, happy smile. “Nothing I didn’t already know was there,” she said, her soft voice but a whisper. She released Rainbow Dash, wiped some moisture from her eye, and followed Daring towards the door.

Leaving Rainbow Dash utterly confounded.

“What? Hey, that’s not an answer! Wait... where are you going? Twilight? Daring?! Wait up! Come on, I wanna know! What does my head look like? Guys? Guys! Would you just tell me already?! Guys...!

* * *

With the object of their quest in tow, Daring led her small party back through the chambers they had initially traversed.

The first chamber was fully-lit now, as the crystals emitting the black-light had extinguished. Probably when the two gates had been raised earlier, Daring mused, but in their haste to proceed that detail had escaped their notice. With the blackness gone the chamber was far less terrifying in every single way. For one, the supposedly bottomless pit over which the path of columns was meant to offer safe passage, was only ten feet deep. The bottom, it seemed, had been flooded with black-light to give the impression that it was a much more cavernous excavation than it was, and hence something into which a pony would certainly not want to fall. And on the far side, near the door where they’d first entered, there were even hoof-holds to help a pony climb out if they found themselves stranded. Not only that, but the swinging blades that had caused no small amount of tension on their passage through were now hanging still, and moreso than that the blades themselves were decidedly blunt – more likely to crash into a pony and send them tumbling over the side with a bruised rib or two than to actually slice them in two pieces.

“‘Wicked-looking blades’, huh?” chided Daring with a grin as they picked their way past.

“Hey... they were moving real fast,” retorted Rainbow Dash. “They looked sharp. And don’t tell me you’re not glad they didn’t hit you.”

The columns had retracted too, giving the ponies a clear path to the exit.

The water-chamber was a non-issue now, as the gate through which Twilight and Rainbow had smashed their way earlier still stood open, and beyond that the grate over the spike pit was once again a trivial matter. After that it was a careful jump down the high climbing-wall that had greeted them when they’d first entered the gauntlet, and finally they arrived back at the ornate, round bronze table that had kicked the whole affair off.

“Okay... so now what?” asked Rainbow.

Daring studied the table, and found her gaze drawn to the pair of odd circular recesses upon its upper surface. They still seemed a little out of place: more function than form, and only now she understood why.

She took the crown from Rainbow Dash and placed it carefully into the ring-shaped groove in the table’s surface. At once there was a sound of clunking and grinding from beneath her hooves as hidden locks seemed to retract. But when Daring and Rainbow went to push and pull on the bronze rods, the table would not budge.

She frowned. There was a second recess on the opposite side of the table after all. And her friends seemed to come to the same realisation.

“Wait... did we miss something?” asked Rainbow. “Was there another one of these things in that room we were supposed to pick up?”

“No, there wasn’t,” said Daring. “That second bust was empty.”

“It’s not here,” said Twilight, fidgeting with the book she’d been clinging to all this way. “The other crown is gone. Taken by one of the two kings of this city as a ploy to trap his brother down here in the tunnels.”

Daring and Rainbow looked sternly at her.

“Alright Twilight. I think you’d better tell us exactly what’s in that book you’ve had your nose in all this time,” said Daring.

* * *

They listened patiently as Twilight relayed the fragmented accounts she had studied in the ancient journal, chronicling the fall of the city from glorious prosperity into abject ruin. A city whose twin rulers became enemies, with terrible results.

“But what was all this though?” Rainbow asked aloud indicating the pit and, as a whole, the rooms beyond. “I mean crazy, random two-pony challenges that might-or-might not kill you?”

“It was called Trial,” answered Twilight. “I couldn’t get all the details from the book, but every so often the two Kings would perform some ceremony together and come down here, to this gauntlet. They’d brave the challenges, retrieve the crowns of Unity and Harmony, and return to the surface victorious in front of their people.”

“Right, but... crowns they enchanted with a magic hex that, not only sends you to sleep when you wear them, but shows everypony who watches what your innermost thoughts and personality are? That doesn’t strike you as weird?”

“I’ve studied far stranger rituals,” said Daring. “Rituals and ceremonies are strange things. They often start out as common and sensible tasks, but over time many get added to and warped until eventually you end up with a mishmash of different pieces that add up to something... just bizarre. This? It was probably originally some kind of trial by ordeal. To show the citizens that their leaders were still strong enough to rule.”

“That’s it!” cried Twilight, a little too enthusiastically for the occasion. She realised her outburst and dialled it back a little. “Ahem. Though... I don’t think it was to prove ‘strength’. I think it was more likely to prove ‘trust’.”

Rainbow and Daring both turned their heads to look at Twilight.

“Go on,” said Daring, after a pause.

“Well, what’s the biggest threat any civilisation faces?” asked the alicorn.

“Epic pony war?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Catastrophic natural disaster,” opined Daring confidently.

“More insidious than both of those. Something that can happen right under your muzzle and eat a society from the inside out until it collapses in on itself: corruption.” She paused for effect. “When the ponies you put your faith in to organise and govern society fairly and justly stop working for the good of the people and start working for themselves. When they start abusing privileges, taking bribes, appointing the wrong ponies to high office, all while protesting that they’re acting in the best interests of the people. It’s difficult to stop because it often starts so innocently, but once it does it’s a slippery slope. And one that throughout history has often lead to violence and revolt.”

“The Prench Revolution, or Emperor Neighro watching over the destruction of the Roan Empire,” suggested Daring. She was scrutinising the bronze table now, casting her meticulous eye over every facet, searching.

“Exactly. So how do you avoid it? Or even the appearance of it? How does a ruler prove to the ponies they rule that when they make an unpopular decision they’re making it in good faith and not abusing the system for their own gain? Well, having two rulers is a good start, one to balance the other. But they’d have to trust each other implicitly – it would be no good if a grudge were ever fostered between them, or they were at each other’s throats all the time, because nothing would get done. That’s what the Gauntlet is designed to prove. That the foundation of their leadership is built on a bedrock of mutual trust between two ponies. And when they returned to the surface with their crowns, they’d put them on. They’d lay themselves and their personalities bare before the whole city, and let the populace decide if they were still the right ponies to rule. If either or both of them weren’t fully committed to the people above themselves, they wouldn’t be able to hide it. You have to admit, wanting to build a society where you can literally see if you can trust who’s in charge has a certain appeal.”

Daring found herself nodding slightly. Being able to know for sure if you could trust someone or not without the risk of being lied to? That did have an appeal.

“And if you don’t feel like putting the crown on, taking a nap and baring your soul to, like, thousands of ponies?” asked Rainbow.

“Well, maybe you’ve got something to hide. Or maybe you don’t trust them as much as you want them to trust you. Either way, you’re probably not the right pony for the job.”

“Wasn’t perfect though, was it?” said Daring. “From what you describe, things were heading downhill between those brothers for a long time before it all came to a head. How come the ponies didn’t pick up on that when their Kings put their crowns on?” She ran her hoof across the textured metalwork of the table before her. No sign of a hidden release mechanism.

“Because I think... in their own separate ways... they really were both trying to do what they thought was right for their people. In spite of how hard things got, I think they both genuinely loved each other, and their subjects. That’s what they would have seen.” Twilight looked at the crown, still resting on the tabletop. “I’m not saying it’s a perfect system. Even the King who wrote this realised that. But this is the system they had, and they made it work for a long time too if the age of the city is any indication. It’s just a shame it all ended down here because they realised they couldn’t trust each other anymore.”

Rainbow Dash nodded sagely, as though she’d followed everything. She hadn’t quite, but she’d got the jist. The whole, weird affair was one big performance to prove you had what it took to be king. That was enough. But there was one more thing she couldn’t let go of. “Okay so... let me get this straight... A whole bunch of years ago, this was pretty much the Unicorn capital of the world, with these two royal siblings who ruled it together equally. They were best buds, but then they fell out because one of them basically turned evil. So the good one had to trap the bad one somewhere he couldn’t get out of so that he couldn’t doom ponies to living in a world without sunlight and make their lives miserable forever.”“Well, as a summary that’s not bad,” admitted Twilight.

There was silence for a moment while Rainbow regarded her with an odd little frown.

“But you see what I’m saying, right?” said Rainbow.

“It is a familiar-sounding story,” agreed Daring.

“Yeah. It’s like pony royal families are doomed to end up fighting each other or something.” Rainbow put on a little grin and gave Twilight a quick nudge in the ribs. “Heh! Guess we’re just lucky that you don’t have a sibling who’s royalty and in charge of an impor...tant...” Her face fell even as she spoke, and realised she hadn’t thought this one through. “Oh, uh... oops. Heh. Sorry, Twilight.”

Daring took notice long enough to distract her from her examination of the table and the crown upon it. She glanced to Rainbow and then her stare fell on Twilight. “You’re not serious?”

Twilight nodded. “It’s true,” she said. “My brother is a Prince. He co-rules the Crystal Empire.” Her head hung and she looked oddly embarrassed. Guilty, even? As though some impending doom had just been prophesied to her.

Daring processed this new information for a moment before turning from the table to the pit wall behind her, sizing it up. “Relax. History only repeats itself until we learn from it. All you have to do is not start an epic pony war between good and evil next time he forgets your birthday and everything will be fine, okay?” She ran a hoof down the stonework: almost completely smooth.

“Hey wait...” said Rainbow Dash, piping up again. “Was that a... joke?

Daring looked around with an odd frown.

Rainbow’s curious smile developed into a full-blown smug grin. “It was! It was totally trying to be a joke!” She chuckled. “It was terrible by the way, but that’s not the point. You’re finally starting to lighten up!”

“What? I can make jokes!”

“Come on, Daring Do. You’ve barely even cracked a smile since we got here! I thought adventuring was supposed to be fun? Oh, and if that is what you call ‘making a joke’ then we’ve got some serious work to do with Pinkie Pie when we get back to Ponyville.”She poked and prodded at the pit wall, searching bit by bit. Loose brickwork? Hidden pressure-switch? No. “No need. When I come to write this up I’ll just give myself a better line. You’re totally getting zinged in the edit, Bravely Blue.” In spite of herself she had a grin now, and from behind her two ponies chuckled. It was nice hearing that, actually. Refreshing. It certainly made the current problem seem less severe, even if it were but for a moment.

After a minute she sighed and turned fully back to face the ponies currently trapped with her. “Jokes or not, history or not, none of this helps us,” she said, resigned. “The table won’t move without the second crown, and we’re not climbing out of here. Not with these walls.” She clenched her teeth and looked straight up toward the top of the pit with a scowl. “I’ve got gear that could help. Ropes and grapples, but it’s all in my saddlebag. And we left all our supplies up there.” She huffed.

The statement was greeted with a moment of awkward, introspective quiet. So far they hadn’t wanted to acknowledge the truth that was slowly beginning to resolve. Whatever locks held the table immobile would not release completely without the second crown being placed within the other circular recess, and, frustratingly, it was smaller in diameter by about half a centimeter or so than its sibling. Hardly anything, but enough that no amount of maneuvering and cajoling could force the crown they had to locate properly. And so the dais and the platform remained stuck. All the light-hearted chatter in Equestria wouldn’t change that fact.

As though she had been reminded, Daring looked to the round, hoof-sized crystal set into the centre of the table, blazing with white light as five thick but separate ribbons of energy within it seemed to twist and writhe, never settling. She frowned a deep, thoughtful frown and, after a pause, raised her head to the magic-expert of their group. “You think this stone absorbed our abilities somehow? That your magic and our ability to fly are literally in there right now?”

Twilight nodded with a sketch of hesitation. “It would explain why it’s glowing brighter since the flash, plus the increased... activity, inside it. Alicorn and unicorn magic can’t just disappear, it has to go somewhere. I’m guessing the same is true of pegasus-flight as well, but it would make logical sense.”

“Okay. So what if we smash the crystal? Will our abilities return to us? Like, will we absorb them again, or what?”

For a moment Twilight looked horrified, and Daring’s serious frown returned. “Hey, I’m not crazy about destroying an historical artifact either, but we’re running out of options more quickly than I’d like. We can’t climb this, we can’t fly, and we can’t move this platform without a key in the shape of a crown that, from what you’ve read in that book, sounds like it’s buried on the other side of Equestria. It sure isn’t here.” She let out a long breath. “So, you’re the expert. Destroying the crystal. Think it’s an option?”

“I really don’t,” said Twilight sadly, looking at the crystal herself now. “From past experience I can suppose that once our magic is free, it should return to us. But if we just smash the crystal open, the first thing that will happen is that the combined magical energy contained inside will be released in a completely uncontrolled, and possibly exothermic, way.”

“In other words... it would explode,” said Daring.

Twilight nodded gravely. “All of my magic is in there. And, I’m not trying to brag but... let’s just say that, knowing how much magic that is... I wouldn’t want to be stood here if that explosion were to happen.”

Three sets of eyes gazed at the crystal. After a long, heavy pause, Rainbow spoke up. “Well... okay... so, I guess, don’t stand here,” she said, not without hesitation and stepping with care around the table to the side furthest from the door. She reared a little and put her forehooves on the tabletop, looking at the crystal without humour. “Maybe... one of us stays here to smash the crystal... while the other two head back to the room where we found the crown. Lotsa brick and rock between here and there. Probably be okay...” she finished, not taking her eye from the glowing artifact. “I mean we... we don’t know it’s gonna blow up, right? Everything might work out...”

Daring stared, open-mouthed. Rainbow Dash had mentioned no names of course, but her body language, and the fact that Daring and Twilight were now slightly closer to the door than she was, said it all.

And the fact that Rainbow Dash was even considering it... the fact that it might come to that... sent a cold shiver through her. To her left, Twilight looked aghast and about to offer an objection of her own, but Daring almost surprised herself by beating her to it. Her scowl locked with Rainbow’s eyes and she lowered her head dangerously, advancing on her. “Whatever fool-pony thing is going through your head, Rainbow Dash, you can un-think it right now!” she seethed. She stopped next to her, still glowering, but the hoof she raised with the intention of knocking some sense into that chromatic cranium instead found itself coming to rest on her withers. “We are not there yet. Not by a long, long way, you hear me? I brought three ponies to this city. That’s twelve hooves, six wings, and three rumps, and I’m not about to go back to Ponyville and tell your friends that I came back with even one feather less than I left with!” That hoof on her withers was tugging slightly, almost as though it was trying to offer a little heartfelt reassurance. Daring wasn’t sure where her limb’s instructions were coming from, but it felt more right than the slap she’d been about to launch. “Nopony’s going to risk blowing themselves to Kingdom Come, understand? This is not the worst situation I’ve been in.” And besides, if we do get there... you won’t be the one who stays behind.

“Besides, it won’t come to that,” said Twilight, oddly confidently.“Exactly,” said Daring. “Smashing the crystal? That’s Plan Z, got it? Right now we’re working on Plan B.” She adjusted her hat and took another look at the sheer walls running up the side of the well. “Anypony got any ideas for Plan B?”“What I meant was, even if we can’t find a way up, we’re not in that dire straights. If worst comes to worst, we can just wait for rescue,” said Twilight with a smile.

Daring raised an eyebrow at that. “Uh... not to dampen your optimism right away... but nopony’s been here except me for well over a thousand years, and nopony knows where we are. How you figure we’re getting rescued?

“Think about it logically,” said Twilight, her smile and her gaze moving to Rainbow Dash. “Spike knows where we are, or at least where we were headed. And he’ll be getting worried about how long we’ve been gone more or less about now,” she said.

Rainbow Dash raised her head from the stone toward Twilight and, after a moment, her own smile spread as she caught on. “Right...” she chimed in. “And when you of all ponies don’t come back exactly on schedule, he’ll know something’s gone wrong.”

“Exactly. He’ll go to Applejack and tell her he’s worried about us, and Applejack will agree that something’s not right.”

“She’s always been Team Mom like that,” sniggered Dash.

“She’s not Team Mom! She’s more... Team Big Sister,” suggested Twilight. “Anyway, together they’ll round up the rest of the gang.”

“Fluttershy’ll say it ‘sounds dangerous’,” said Rainbow in her best soft-voiced imitation, which caused Twilight to smile.

“And Pinkie will say they’re all going on the ‘funnest adventure ever!’”

“Heh... Starlight’s right, you do have a Pinkie Pie voice...”

“They’ll head northeast, and Applejack will keep them following the river we flew over so they’ve always got water. That’ll bring them to our camp from that first night. They’ll see the remains of our fire-pit and know they’re on the right track.”

“They’ll keep going through the forest, and Pinkie will find the milestone I tripped on. One rock in a forest thousands of acres wide? It couldn’t not happen to Pinkie.”

“After that, they’ll reach Brokeback and have to deal with the Cliff Racers. They should be fine as long as Fluttershy keeps her hooves on the ground.”

“Hah! Are you kidding? Fluttershy will probably just talk to them. Or she’ll stare at them,” said Rainbow. “Either way, she’ll probably have those overgrown birdbats eating out of her hoof. She’ll ask them if they’ve seen us. And thanks to our little ruckus, I’m pretty sure they all did.”

“They’ll cross through the mountain pass into the valley, and Rarity – with her eye for detail and, uh, shiny things – will pick out the capstone on top of the obelisk amongst the foliage. It’ll lead them right to the entrance to the city.”

“They’ll find a way down with Fluttershy’s help and, thanks to all those weird two-headed statues we were lighting up, it’ll lead them like a path, straight here!” cried Rainbow Dash.

“Exactly. So you see, even if we can’t find a way up ourselves, there’s nothing to worry about. We’ll get out of this.”

Daring’s focus had been ping-ponging back and forth throughout the whole conversation, scarcely able to keep up, her jaw hanging open from sheer incredulity. Finally, she forced her voice into action. “I’m sorry... what?”

“What?” said Twilight, while Rainbow offered Daring her own confused expression.

Daring clarified her statement. “You can’t possibly believe that all of that is going to happen...”

“Duh! Of course it’s going to happen!” said Rainbow.

It was odd. It wasn’t hope or belief Rainbow was expressing in her tone. It was as though she were relaying a fact.

“Do you have any idea how many things have to align for any of what you just said to even get off the ground? How many ponies have to talk to each other? It’s a house of cards. If even one detail doesn’t go the way you think it will, then they don’t get here, do they? And it won’t happen like that because you’re just guessing. You can’t know how ponies will react in all those situations,” argued Daring.

To which there was only confused silence for a moment.

“Huh? Of course we know,” said Rainbow Dash.

“Really? How can you possibly know what might go on in the head of someone else? Someone who’s hundreds of miles away at that?”

Another moment of confused silence before Twilight replied. “Because we know our friends,” she said simply. “And trust me, if we need them, they will come through for us.” She had that smile on again. She was so sure! How?!

Daring snorted and returned to the wall. “That’s Plan Y.” She began methodically prodding the stonework again, more prepared to put her faith in a secret hidden mechanism than a one-in-a-million shot that relied on other ponies that she neither trusted nor really knew. If Twilight and Rainbow Dash wanted to take solace in their supposed ‘friendship’ coming to the rescue, then fine. As for her, she knew the truth. The only exit was one you made yourself. There would be one. Just had to find it.

“Our friends have never let us down,” said Twilight from behind her, still with that serene confidence. “We’re not going to be trapped down here forever. At worst, a couple of days, tops.”

Daring grunted. “If it makes you feel better. But I guarantee we’ll starve before anypony actually finds us out here.”

A new voice spoke. “On that count, you are most mistaken.” It came in a thick, accented, masculine tenor from high above, its echoes cascading down the walls of the well, imbuing it with a subtle, sinister timbre. The three adventurer’s heads snapped up, and the pony at the top of the pit narrowed his eyes, turning his voice to a low, smooth rumble. “Well, well, Daring Do. What an unexpected surprise.”

Oh, you are kidding me...

9: Enter Caballeron

View Online

It’s not possible...” Daring whispered to herself as she looked up with a scowl. But though it was distant, there was no mistaking the infuriatingly familiar face looking back down at her from on high, with a smile full of smug no less. He should be days behind us!

“Why, Daring Do, whatever are you doing in such an awful place?” called the smarmy voice of Caballeron.

“Why don’t you come on down, I’ll show you?!” she called back. But from her impotent position her voice echoed up the stone walls of the pit and was robbed of most of its threat by the time it reached the ears of her rival. A sinister chuckle fell back in reply.

“A kind offer. But I think we are all very comfortable up here.” How he was loving this.

“Just how long have you been eavesdropping up there?!” she demanded.

“Long enough, Daring Do. Long enough to know that you are trapped at the bottom of that pit. And long enough to know that you have in your possession a pair of ancient artifacts that I am very interested in acquiring. So, rather than stand here and trade insults that get neither of us anywhere... why don’t we make a deal?”

Somewhat unexpectedly, three lengths of thick rope appeared and dangled against the pit walls, thrown down from above.

Daring blinked in surprise and put a confused frown on. “Two artifacts? We only found one crown. You’d know that if you’ve been listening that long.”

“I want the crown and that book, Daring Do. In my estimation both will fetch an impressive price, and in return I will be only too happy to facilitate your extrication from your most recent predicament,” he said, his wicked smile turning thin and sharp as a knife. “Be kind enough to bring them up with you, and we can discuss their transfer from your possession... into mine.”

Twilight gave a reflexive, defensive start and instinctively clutched the book she had discovered a little tighter. Daring gave her a level look, but one not devoid of sympathy. “We don’t have a choice,” she said. It really was as simple as that.

“Daring! That’s Caballeron!” hissed Rainbow Dash. “We can’t make a deal with him!”

“We don’t have a choice,” she repeated. “I won’t risk getting you two trapped down here for the sake of a royal night-light and a ream of crusty paper. There are other treasures in the world, and I promised I’d get you home. Now let’s do this fast before he changes his mind.”

Daring removed the crown from its receptacle and put her foreleg through it, treating it as an enormous bracelet of sorts. She tied the left-most dangling rope around her middle as she would a safety-line and gave it two solid tugs to test its strength. Twilight and Rainbow did the same, Twilight tucking the ancient journal securely beneath a wing, albeit with a measure of reluctance.

The rope began to pull and Daring went with it, forehooves clutching the line above herself, hindlegs walking up the wall of the pit as though she were abseiling. In the space of half a minute all three of them were over halfway up, and as she and her accomplices neared the top she caught sight of the condescending, victorious grin on the bestubbled face of the stallion above her, standing at the edge of the pit and looking down. Unable to resist prodding the hornet’s nest just a little, she put on a smirk of her own and glared back.

“Having your muscle do all the work as usual, I see. What’s the matter? Afraid you’ll break something? A nail? A sweat?

“Ah, I have missed your witty barbs, Daring Do. It’s been far too long since our paths crossed. I must admit I did not expect to find you here,” he replied. Then he gave a nod over his shoulder, and the rope hauling her up suddenly stopped. Daring frowned, but when she tried to climb it under her own power the pony on the other end – whoever it was – began paying it out instead, and so no matter how much she pulled and scrambled, she remained at the same height, just far enough below the lip of the pit that she couldn’t reach it. With a glance to her right, she saw the same was true of Twilight and Rainbow too. All three of them were dangling there, helpless, over a more-than two-story drop. She fixed Caballeron with a frosty stare.

“We had a deal...” she pointed out through gritted teeth.

“I am altering the deal; pray I don’t alter it any further,” he said with a level scowl. “I simply do not trust you not to pull some kind of impressive trickery and escape with my new acquisitions. So hand over the artifacts now, would you kindly? Unless you and your companions wish to return to the bottom of this well far more quickly than you have climbed it...”

Daring scowled, and cursed under her breath. She risked a look down and, sure enough, came to the conclusion that she probably wouldn’t survive being dropped from this height without functional wings, and if she did, she’d have all sorts of broken bones to show for it. Not a good option. But the sheer height of the drop gave her another idea. She might have royally messed this up, at least for herself, but she had one final card she could play to ensure at least Twilight and Rainbow would be safe. She extended her foreleg to the side, dangling the crown from the very end, and lowered her limb to a most precarious angle such that the heavy ornament threatened to slip from it. “You want the crown? Pull them up first.”

Caballeron’s eyes narrowed. “Ah... now that’s interesting,” he mumbled, almost too quiet to be heard. He seemed to make some mental calculation and, with a new grin, decided to call her bluff. “Drop it, Daring Do. It will be found.”

Intact?” It really was a long way down. The chances that the ancient crown would survive without damage or destruction were calculably small. Daring locked her gaze with Caballeron, her serious, unwavering eyes drawing his justifiably confident smirk. “Pull them up and I’ll give you the crown. After that... you can do what you want with me.”

Caballeron’s cocky smile faded, just a tad. “You should choose your words more carefully. A reckless offer like that could land you in far more trouble than being stuck at the bottom of a pit. You are lucky I am a gentlecolt.” He turned to the side and barked over his shoulder. “Those two: pull them up. Retrieve the book from that one.”

At the command, Twilight and Rainbow Dash were swiftly hauled upwards. Suspended just to her right, Twilight desperately reached out for Daring with a foreleg, determined that if she was going she would pull Daring to safety too. But the distance was slightly too great, and her reactions a hair too slow. By the time she’d made the attempt, Twilight had already been pulled out of leg’s reach. As soon as she reached the top a burly stallion stepped forward and plucked the ancient journal from her before she had even had much of a chance to get her balance.

Which left Daring alone, dangling over the sheer pit with Caballeron stood over her. “The crown?” he said, holding his foreleg out for the priceless antiquity.

Daring sighed and, with a careful throw, tossed it up into Caballeron’s greedy hooves. He deftly snatched it from the air, leaving Daring with nothing. No chips to bargain with, and no moves on her board. Checkmate.

“Don’t worry Daring, we’ll think of something!”

That was Twilight’s voice.

“Yeah! We’ll save you!” – Rainbow Dash.

Caballeron turned and regarded them both with an odd look. “Indeed?” he said. He turned back to look down at her, still dangling from her rope, prevented from certain doom only by his whim. Suddenly he didn’t look as smug and cocky as she was expecting. More... pensive. “Very interesting...” Then the thoughtful look was gone. “... but unnecessary. We made a deal, did we not? And I have what I was promised.” Once more he turned to look over his shoulder. “Pull her up.”

Though suspicious, Daring nevertheless found herself pulled upwards. Half-expecting that at the last moment before she reached the top she would hear a wicked cackle an instant before the rope went sickeningly slack, she was instead surprised to find herself hauled within easy reach of the surface, finally crawling onto flat stone back in the city plaza. She stood, disentangling herself from the rope and found herself next to Twilight and Rainbow Dash, half-surrounded and backed against the edge of the pit by Caballeron and three henchponies. Caballeron looked, once again, as smug as though all the world had bowed to him.

“You appear surprised, Daring Do. I am hurt that you so clearly did not expect me to uphold my side of the bargain. What in the world would cause you to entertain such notions?”

Experience,” shot Daring with a glare.

“You wound me.” The henchpony that had hoisted Twilight up the side of the pit presented the book he had taken to Caballeron who took it with no small measure of satisfaction, hefting it and the crown together. “Why would I engage in unnecessary duplicity? We can already see that, once again, there is nothing you possess that I cannot take away,” he murred.

“At least until I take it back,” retorted Daring.

Caballeron smiled now. Even when he was trying to smile genuinely, the corners of his mouth curled into a sinister sneer; the unwanted effect of too much practise. He looked to the side and gave a subtle nod, and the three hired goons stepped backwards a little, giving Daring, Twilight and Rainbow some more breathing room. “Indeed. So often that is the way, is it not? I take from you, you take from me, and round and round we go. And yet, must it always be? You have just seen, it is possible for you and I to co-operate. To honour a gentlecolt’s agreement without recourse to theft and treachery. Haven’t you ever wondered what might have been had you accepted my original offer? We could have avoided years of this pointless hostility. Imagine the discoveries we would have made together. The treasures we would have found...”

“All sold on the black market to the highest bidder,” scoffed Daring. “Some of us aren’t in this game to plunder forgotten ruins and then go hocking their priceless relics for fortune and glory. Sorry, Caballeron, it was never going to happen.”

Caballeron’s tone and manner changed. He drew himself up a shade and gave a hard stare, at once seeming to both step back, and become more menacing. “I would appreciate it if you could remember to address me by my preferred moniker.” His tone lowered to a soft growl and he gave her a pointed glare. “It is, after all, a courtesy I extend to you.”

“Sorry. Doctor Caballeron, I presume?”

“I earned the right to be called by that name, unlike some ponies.”

Daring’s frown deepened into an angry, annoyed scowl and she found herself squaring her shoulders involuntarily. “Having a doctorate doesn’t legitimise tomb-raiding and dirty-dealing!” she retaliated.

Caballeron’s own frown deepened and his eyes narrowed. “You are always so quick to draw your knives on me. How does the hypocrisy not sting you? When I look at you, I see only a reflection. Do you honestly not see the same?”

“We... are not the same,” Daring seethed. “For one, I’m not ruthless.”

He gave her an odd look, then. “Oh... we both know that’s a lie,” he said, his stare becoming piercing. “No, Daring Do, we are cut from exactly the same cloth. The only difference between you and I is where our discoveries end up. Yours, on the pages of a book; mine, as bits in my purse.” He made a show of depositing the crown and the book into a saddlebag carried by the closest henchpony. The one with the hat. Daring made sure to note it.

“Those... belong... in a museum.

“And they may find their way there in years to come. But in the more immediate future, I foresee they will become part of some very wealthy pony’s private collection; an exchange that will net me a great many bits in return.” Caballeron buckled the saddlebag closed and turned back to them. “But where are my manners, really? We stand here trading insults and we haven’t even done proper introductions for the benefit of your... ‘guests?’”

“We all know who you are.”

“Nevertheless, courtesy is so little to ask,” he said, his smug grin returning.

Daring rolled her eyes and sighed. She raised and extended her foreleg, sweeping it over the group before her, and began speaking in a bored monotone. “Twilight Sparkle? Rainbow Dash? I’d like you to meet Cabal— Doctor Caballeron, and his henchponies. The stubbly one with the hat is Biff, the big one with the orange sideburns is Rogue, and the—” Daring blinked. She looked to Caballeron. “Who’s this guy?”

“Hmm? Oh... he is new,” said Caballeron, indicating the third pony – built more slenderly than either of the others he sported a shaved mane, a coat that was slightly darker than powder-blue, and a scar across one eye. “We are still working on his henchpony name. But he is coming along nicely.”

“Right. Anyway... Doc? Meet Purple Smart and Bravely Blue.”

Caballeron bowed his head in greeting and then advanced on Twilight and Rainbow with a look of keen interest. They were stood a little closer to each other than Daring was to either of them, and Caballeron was able to stand in front of both mares while leaving Daring to one side, ignored. “I have known Daring Do for many years, and yet to see her in the company of other ponies by choice... this is a new development. And forgive the assumption, but you are clearly not mercenaries or thugs for hire. So tell me: why are you with her?”

“Because we’re her friends!” cried Twilight with conviction, and Daring felt herself cringe.

And then Rainbow followed up with, “That’s right! She asked for our help and we were there for her!” and it was equally as bad. She was just thankful they weren’t calling themselves a ‘team,’ or something.

For a moment, Caballeron seemed taken aback, looking genuinely surprised. He turned to her. “Your... ‘friends’, Avada?”

Daring felt a flash of annoyance take her, like a searing hot bolt of lightning in her mind as Caballeron touched a nerve. “They’re my associates,” she grumbled. Really, how many times had she had to tell them already?

“Ah,” said Caballeron, sparing a glance back at the other two mares to gauge their reactions. From the corner of her eye they seemed to hang their heads slightly. He looked back to her. “And you claim you are not ruthless...”

Caballeron stood back again and regarded all three ponies before him, a strange look of satisfaction on his face. With a flick of his mane he turned and began to stride away. “Bring them,” he said.

Daring frowned and immediately dropped into a ready-crouch. Her tactical position wasn’t the best, backed against the edge of the pit and with no wings to count on. But she had the measure of at least two of Caballeron’s henchponies, and New-Guy Number Three didn’t look all that tough. And even though Caballeron himself technically counted against her in a numbers game, he never actually got involved with the fighting. Fifty-fifty odds she’d come out on top, even without Twilight and Rainbow Dash helping. And she’d seen them fight. “If you think you’re taking us anywhere, you’ve got a newsflash coming,” she growled, her eyes suddenly very keen, scanning everything, waiting to counter the first move as the henchponies all took a half-step forward and set their shoulders square.

“Wait!” barked Caballeron, and his trio withdrew at once, a little confused. Caballeron looked at her and shook his head sadly. “So quick to turn your thoughts to violence, as always. Haven’t you realised that it is pointless?” He turned away and raised a foreleg, indicating the vast, empty city at the edge of the plaza. “You are still trapped at the bottom of a pit, Daring Do, just a larger one than before. You cannot fly, you cannot climb out, and I... control the only access to the surface.” He left his outstretched hoof pointing towards the base of the broken tower hanging from the centre of the cavern ceiling. Suspended from the bottom, a scaffold had been constructed, affixed to which was a complex-looking array of ropes and pulleys designed to suspend a platform. Like one of those rigs that non-pegasus window-washers in Manehatten and Canterlot used on tall buildings. Caballeron turned back towards them. “Where else are you going to go?”

The henchponies backed off, turning and swiping up the three mares’ saddlebags from the ground where they lay. They were all open – clearly Caballeron’s thugs had already trawled through them – but evidently they’d only been searching for relics and thus found nothing worth taking. From the looks of it, all of Daring’s equipment, all of Twilight’s supplies, all of Rainbow’s... book, were still inside.

Daring looked to Caballeron, stood a few meters distant with his little group, expecting them to come to heel.

“I don’t like it,” said Daring, low enough that only Twilight and Rainbow could hear. “He’s up to something, I can tell. But he’s got the crown and that journal you found, and we can’t let him leave with them.” She looked back to her two compatriots. “Keep your guard up, alright? Come on.” And with that she began to walk. It was rude to keep one’s enemies waiting.

* * *

They walked the wide road that had originally brought them from the square beneath the tower to the plaza at the foot of the palace. Daring, Twilight and Rainbow paced in a tight group, shepherded together by Biff to their right, and Rogue and New-Guy to their rear. Caballeron led the way up front, but there was enough room between them that ponies could move around, speed up or hang back, and so as they walked, they naturally began to talk...

* * *

“Hey, uh... Twilight?”

“Yes, Rainbow?”

“Did we just get rescued, or captured? Cuz... right now it doesn’t really feel like one or the other.”

Caballeron piped up from the front at that, speaking back over his shoulder. “Does it matter? Putting a label on your situation will not change anything about it. You are here, and this is what is happening.”

“It’d just be nice to know if you’re planning on throwing us into a death-trap when we get to where we’re going,” said Daring, not without snark.

“What is this obsession you have with death-traps? It cannot be healthy...” commented Caballeron.

“Hey, it’s not my fault. It’s what the villains do when they get their hooves on me. They lock me in a death-trap. You’d think they’d learn but, no, you’d be wrong,” she shrugged. “Honestly, it’s starting to read like I’m the one running out of ideas. They all do it.”

Really?” spat Caballeron, his voice taking on a sarcastic edge. “Then tell me, Daring Do, how many times have I ‘locked you in a death-trap’?”


Caballeron was taken aback, having heard the same answer come at the same time from three distinct voices. A couple of seconds passed, and then he craned his neck to look back over his shoulder with a scowl. “Oh, you are not counting Poniopolis!”

“Darn right I am. It was a death-trap. You locked me in it.”

You turned it on!” he cried.

“I had to do something. I was starting to get bored. You were taking so long to solve that puzzle. Red, Yellow, Blue. Primary colours, Doc! It was staring you in the face.”

Caballeron snorted, clenched his jaw, and looked ahead. A long silence fell.

“So... rescued?” said Dash tentatively.

Caballeron’s head drooped. “I am beginning to wish I hadn’t come at all,” he muttered. “Allow me to spell it out. Misfortune has robbed you of the power of flight, no? Thus, you cannot leave this place except by way of my elevator platform.” He indicated the scaffold built at the base of the tower above them, closer now, the ropes running vertically to the ground but the platform at the bottom still blocked from view by buildings at this distance. “This city, through circumstance alone, has bound you more effectively than I could with a hundred chains. And since you are so trapped, I intend to exploit this to my advantage. I do not intend to leave until I have extracted from you every secret you have to offer about this place. And when I have? Your usefulness to me... will be at an end,” he finished with a dark, malevolent smirk.

Twilight’s ears pricked at that. “Uh... meaning?”

“Meaning I will no longer need to... keep you around,” he clarified with just the hint of a wicked cackle.

“That’s still not very clear,” she pointed out, lecturing voice and all. “You might be saying that you’re planning to let us go, or that you’re planning to bump us off. From the way you said it, it could be construed either way.”

“Yes, that’s exactly the p—!” Caballeron started, then hung his head again, sparing a weary glance at Daring. “How have you managed to put up with this?”

“You get used to it,” said Daring.

“I find myself with little desire to try,” he grumbled, then addressed all three of the mares. “Pretend that I have not made up my mind what do you with you yet, and that further inane chatter will cause me to lean towards choosing a less-than-desirable fate for each of you.”

Twilight and Rainbow looked at each other with grim, thin-lipped expressions. “Captured,” they agreed.

* * *

At the rear of the group, the newest addition to Caballeron’s cabal of hired muscle had dropped back just far enough so as to be out of earshot, and was trying desperately to encourage his colleague to follow suit.

Rogue! Psst! Hey, Rogue!” he hissed.

Rogue’s ear twitched. He gave a backwards glance, noticed that his counterpart was no longer in step, and slowed his pace a tad. “What?” he whispered, clearly reluctant to break his silence.

“What the buck is going on?!”

“Riiight,” said Rogue with an understanding nod, straining to keep his voice low. “You noticed the vague ‘Unusual Circumstances’ clause when you signed, right? That’s pretty much to cover when this happens.” He nodded ahead. “I’ll fill you in, but don’t go letting the boss hear you blabbing. It’s a sore subject and you don’t wanna end up on his bad side. Got it?” An understanding nod was the reply, and Rogue took a breath. “Okay then, from the beginning: the one in the hat is A. K. Yearling. She’s an author, writing adventure books based on her own experiences using the pseudonym ‘Daring Do.’ She and the boss... they got history.”


“Shh!” Rogue glanced ahead, but they had not been overheard it seemed. “History.” He gave a little shake of his head. “Look we don’t have time for the full story – it’s over two-hundred and eighty pages – so here’s the short version. Years ago, she discovered the location of the Lost City of Palomino. It was said to be home to the Razor of Dreams – a legendary amulet fashioned a long time ago by Princess Luna, that supposedly gave its wearer the ability to Dreamwalk. Anyway, the Doc found out. Now he’d been fascinated by Palomino for years, and done a lot of research on the city: culture, language, architecture; you name it he was expert in it. And when he learned it had actually been found he was pretty excited to finally see it. So he approached her with a proposal: a joint expedition to find the Razor, and the beginning of a prosperous partnership. She said no.”


Rogue shrugged. “She works by herself. She’s antisocial like that, and very distrustful of others. In the wrong hooves the Razor could be used in all sorts of invasive ways, and so she figured if it was actually there it needed protecting from the likes of him.”

“How... do you know that’s what she was thinking?”

“Read the book, didn’t I? Point is, her flat refusal stung and he never really got over it. He’s had this thing about trying to beat her to whatever treasure or city she’s looking for ever since. So every so often their paths cross, and they butt heads.”

“And... when their paths cross and they butt heads... what are we meant to do?”

“Nothing. Nothing except what the boss wants you to do. Just bear in mind that, when it comes to her, what the boss ‘says’ he wants and what he actually wants might not be the same thing. You’ll get a feel for it. For now, just follow our lead. Even if it doesn’t make sense. Even if it seems completely idiotic. And if it comes to a fight, stick to the rules and brace yourself for some pain, because she’s very quick. She’ll kick you. A lot. It’s not personal. You’re still getting paid.”

“The... rules?”

“Hoofticuffs. No eye-gouging, no biting, no weapons capable of breaking the skin... your job is basically to grab hold and not let go until the boss tells you what to do next. Sometimes we’ll manage it, but most times we won’t. Other than that? Don’t swear and try not to make yourself look like a fool, because in a few months time all of this’ll be written down and published in her next book. Foals read this stuff, you know.”

“I’m... going to be a character in a piece of fiction?”

“Yep. You don’t get much say in that by the way, it’s all part of that clause you signed up to. But it’s not all bad, once you resign yourself to being an antagonist. Plus you get a little percentage of the royalties for every book you’re in, and free entry to Daring Do related shows and conventions. If the boss lets you.”

“My head’s starting to hurt. This... this doesn’t happen a lot though, right?”

“Let’s just say it happens more often than random chance would seem to dictate.”

“You mean he goes out of his way to...? But... if he hates her so much, why doesn’t he just avoid her?”

Rogue blinked and gave a surprised double-take in his direction. “Hates her? Who said that?”

“But I thought... and they...!”

“Weren’t you paying attention? Why did I say the boss went to her in the first place?”

“Because he wanted to partner with her...”


“But you said she refused him. And that now he spends all his time going after the same treasures she does. And they’re at each other’s throats all the time! Why would he go to all that trouble unless he hated her?”

Rogue rolled his eyes and sighed. “You’ve got a lot to learn about mares.”

* * *

“... your preposterous ‘prophecies’!”

“It was a fact, Caballeron! You’re just too closed-minded to accept it.”

Really? Eight-hundred years of ‘sweltering heat’? Somehow confined to that small valley? How would that be accomplished exactly, when the sun is not destined to shine any longer or brighter there than it has ever done?” he scoffed.

“There are other sources of heat in this world than the sun, Doc,” retorted Daring. “The rings form a tower which creates the magical equivalent of a seismic shift in the tectonic plates beneath the valley, displacing thousands of tons of magma, drawing it up into a huge subterranean cavern only a dozen yards beneath the crust. The ground literally bakes from underneath. The lakes and rivers boil dry. Every plant dies. Every animal flees. And one of the most pristine, untouched ecosystems in Equestria becomes a blasted wasteland. And you almost let it happen, to line your own pocket!”

Caballeron looked stunned for a moment and then put on an arrogant, almost condescending expression. “Hmph! A fine theory, if completely incredible. The ring was a curio, worth a fortune to the right buyer at the right time.”

“Right. How is Ahuizotle by the way? Still in cahoots? Do you pop round for tea and braid each other’s manes?” Daring snarked.

Caballeron gave a weak, weary expression. “Ergh... he has proven a most unreliable business associate of late. It would not have escaped your attention that he did not bring any actual coin to our aforementioned transaction. I’ve learned that to be typical. At present our interests simply do not align.”

“Since I destroyed his temple, his only interest seems to be getting rid of me.”

“As I said...”

“—Besides, you didn’t seem to have a problem substituting my bits for his! No, you just stole them and ran.”

“And as I recall, you later stole them back!”

“See? Proof. You don’t care about anything but your bottom line.”

An odd silence followed, Caballeron’s face initially awash with irritation and anger which then gave way to a calmer, more relaxed expression. “Money is my goal often enough. But you are wrong, Daring Do. There is one thing I wish for more than mere wealth.”

“Knowledge!” interjected Twilight with enthusiasm, but rather optimistically.

Power,” corrected Daring, the voice of experience.“Fame!” burst out Rainbow Dash, not to be outdone.

Caballeron missed a step, blinked in surprise and looked round, bewildered. Twilight and Rainbow Dash were looking at him hopefully with wide grins. “All wrong, in fact. And—” He stopped short, blinked again and looked to his henchponies, and could not help but notice they wore interested, eager expressions. “Are there any other guesses?” he asked with resignation.

“Wisdom?” tried Biff, a little uncertain.

“Influence?” guessed Rogue.

“Uh... Glory?” came the voice of New-Guy.

Caballeron frowned at his minions. “Those are just different ways of saying the same—!” He cut himself off and sighed. He looked forward once more and hung his head. “I surround myself with idiots and enemies. I wish I knew which I preferred.”

* * *

They were getting close to the base of the tower now, and to the wide plaza in which they’d first landed. Daring was still trading barbs with Caballeron, and Twilight was chiming in. Rogue and New-Pony were still back there, whispering amongst themselves. Which left Rainbow Dash walking next to Biff, striding just to her right, watching herself, Twilight and Daring with suspicion. But since everypony else was having their own conversations right now, there wasn’t much alternative.

“Hey, uh... pop quiz,” fired Rainbow Dash to the chapeaux-sporting stallion. “You’ve got a river, right? And... you need to make a dam to stop the water. But you’re only allowed to use the water in the river to make the dam. What do you do?”

Biff looked back at her, his eyes narrowing. “What... in the name of Equestria... are you blabbering about?” he growled.

“You gotta dam the river using nothing but its own water. So? How do you do it?”

“Why are you even asking me this?”

“Because it was, like, an allegory... an analogue... an analo— An example, that Twilight gave earlier, about how you could block magic with magic. You have to dam a river using only its water, right? And... and she knows, obviously, and Daring totally got it straight away I could tell, but... it’s driving me crazy!” she admitted. There was a definite awkward pause while Rainbow looked down. Then she realised why it was awkward and she looked back up with a scowl. “Hey, I’m smart!” she proclaimed. “Just not... egghead smart,” she finished, a little weakly.

Biff rolled his eyes and looked ahead. Just one of those schoolyard sideways-thinking puzzles, wasn’t it? Not exactly an heroic master-plan to elicit confidential information.

But that Rainbow Dash pony was actually waiting for an answer. He rolled his eyes again and sighed, looking back at her. “It’s ice, isn’t it? You take some of the water out of the river and freeze it into ice, then you dam the river with that.” The answer was always ice when water was involved in those things.

“Ice!” cried Rainbow Dash in jubilation, drawing Twilight and Daring’s concerned glances. Rainbow just gave one of her cocky, smug grins. “I totally got it.”

* * *

“The statues are certainly striking. Disconcerting, almost,” said Caballeron as the group passed another of the twin-headed monuments, its horns still aglow to light their way. “Why depict a pony thus?” he mused.

“Not figured it out yet?” chided Daring. Truth be told, she’d been racking her brains ever since she’d first seen them years ago. But with the revelations that had flowed from Twilight’s discovery of the ancient journal as well as her own knowledge of pre-classical symbolism, she had enough to make a decent stab at it. “They’re symbolic. The two heads are the two kings who ruled this place, to show they are of two different minds. The heads look left and right respectively, to show two separate viewpoints, or opinions. Each of them can see more than one pony could alone. But they share a single body and the same heart – that’s a single goal; a unity of intent. The joint rulers, literally joined. The essence of this entire society distilled into a single symbol.” Then, just because she could, she fixed Caballeron with another smug grin and finished, “Obviously.

Caballeron looked back at her, a narrow-eyed scowl tinged with the most grudging of respect. “You have certainly given this some thought...”

“I’ve had a few years to mull it over,” she admitted.

Which drew Caballeron’s full attention, his brow knitting into an angry frown. “Oh, now you claim to have known of this place for years? Liar,” he spat.

“Hey! Don’t call her a liar. It’s totally true,” objected Rainbow from her side.

“No, Bravely Dash, or whoever you are, it is not true. If Daring Do had discovered this place years ago, she would have written about it years ago. The world would know of it.”

“I... had my reasons,” countered Daring, feeling a stab of anger.

“Really? I think it is more likely that you learned of my expedition and raced to beat me here so that you could attempt to rob me of my discovery! Which I will not allow...” he finished, his growl tinged with menace.

“How did you find this place, Caballeron?” demanded Daring. “I stumbled onto it by accident, and there aren’t any books or texts referencing this city. And I’ve searched every library in Equestria.”

“No. Not every one, it seems,” said Caballeron, that arrogant smirk returning as he once again took the dominant position in the argument. At a signal, Biff trotted forward and Caballeron rummaged in the saddlebags he wore before extracting a book. It was almost identical to the one that Twilight had found in the pit, right down to the same green dust-jacket adorned with the twin-headed symbol in gold relief. “Would it surprise you to learn that the diary you found is not quite unique? The younger King’s wife, it seems, had a great deal to say about this place. I believe that made her unique among her contemporaries.”

“Where... where did you find that?” asked Daring, half-angry but mostly awed, if grudgingly.

“In the library of a ruined castle, hidden within an ancient, treacherous forest in the very heart of Equestria.”

Daring was about to make yet another snappy remark, but she was beaten to it by Twilight, who burst out with sudden, unexpected anger.

“You... you can’t just go taking things from that castle!”

Caballeron’s unimpressed gaze moved to her now, and he spoke very levelly. “Really? I trekked to an ancient ruin, explored it, and took an artifact from it. And I am not allowed?

“No!” yelled Twilight.

He cast his gaze slowly over Twilight, Daring and Rainbow Dash, then looked above and around to the decrepit city on all sides, before finally returning his gaze to Twilight. “Forgive me, I am waiting for the irony to sink in.”

“That castle’s not a ruin!” Twilight cried. “It’s a... a... a heritage site!”

“Which is kinda in ruins,” pointed out Rainbow Dash.

“Well we haven’t finished restoring it! We will, one day. It’s just... been on hiatus for a while. That’s all. And you can’t just go taking things from it!”

“Think of it this way... I have not stolen a relic from a castle... I have borrowed a book from a library,” countered Caballeron smoothly. “I doubt you could object to that.”

Twilight blinked, frowned and put on an expression of utmost offense. She floundered for a response, but Rainbow waded in. “He’s sorta got you there, Twilight.”

“Well... uh... your late fees are going to be astronomical!” she cried out, every bit the hero delivering the snappy comeback. Until she looked around and found six faces looking at her with odd mixtures of mirth and pity. She hung her head. “Fine, I’ve got nothing,” she admitted.

Caballeron gave a triumphant little scoff. “The book furnished me with enough clues to allow me to pinpoint the city, and told me of the unique treasure I could expect to find here. And now that I also have its twin, I imagine its value will increase tenfold,” he said, putting the book back into the saddlebag alongside its opposite number and dismissing his henchpony.

“How did you get here Doc?” Daring demanded, squaring her shoulders and trotting to Caballeron’s side, fixing him with a stern glare.

“Why, whatever do you mean?”

“You know what I mean. Going by that article, you left Maresachusettes three days ago. Furthest the train would have got you is Coltfoot. That puts you at least two more days from here, travelling by hoof. How the hay did you get here so fast? It’s not like you have wings: you sure didn’t fly.”

Caballeron’s smug grin returned in full force. “Didn’t we, indeed?”

Daring felt her jaw drop. “You... you’re telling me you flew?

“The University was kind enough to loan us a small dirigible for our excursion. We made excellent time.”

“You stole the University’s airship,” admonished Daring, shaking her head.

Borrowed. Why must you always think the worst?”

“Because with you, it’s usually true. You were supposed to be bringing a team of students on this expedition. Where are they? You stiffed ‘em didn’t you? You took the University’s airship and left them behind.” She shook her head again. “That’s low, even for you.”

“I conducted a thorough risk-assessment, and concluded that this ruin would be in no way safe for a group of amateurish academics to be traipsing around. Honestly, you should be praising my newfound safety-conscious approach, not condemning me for it. As for the dirigible, the University will get it back. Assuming the repairs are going well.”


“We had a certain amount of difficulty traversing the mountain range. A large number of oddly aggressive avians decided to take offense to our presence and began to rip the canvas from the frame. They pierced one of the gas-bags. Thereafter there was a somewhat uncontrolled descent followed by a rapid, unscheduled deceleration.”

“You crashed,” said Daring with a smirk, fighting a schadenfreudic chortle.

“Withers is up there doing what he can, repairing the fabric.”

“Too dark down here for him to see through his sunglasses?” Hmm. That was a point. Daring looked up and around. She hadn’t noticed before, but it was definitely—

“You knew?”

That was Twilight’s voice, from just behind her and oddly level. Controlled, even. As though she were trying to keep her emotions in check. It sent a tiny shiver up Daring’s spine and she looked around. Twilight looked back at her with a very neutral, straight-mouthed expression, but something was wrong. It was in her eyes. Accusation and hurt. “Twilight? What’s—?”

“You knew,” she stated again. Just as though she might say that the sky was blue. “You knew that Caballeron was behind us. That he was coming here.”

“Yes...” she said cautiously.

“And you didn’t tell us.” Her facade cracked just a little, betraying a hint of... was it anger? Sadness? Betrayal? All three? She couldn’t tell, and it was so fleeting that it was gone in a moment. “You didn’t tell us that there was a chance we might be in danger? You decided not to warn us?”

Daring frowned a thoughtful frown, her brow furrowing in concentration. “I didn’t tell you?”

“No. You didn’t,” she said flatly. “You kept it a secret. We’ve been trusting you, Daring, and you’ve been hiding things from us? Why?”

Ouch! What was that?! It was like a stabbing, searing pain in her chest, right through her heart. But not an actual, physical pain. A more abstract one, but there nonetheless. And when she looked once again at the hurt in Twilight’s eyes, for some reason it grew more intense. “Twilight, I—” she tried, but any attempt at contrition was cut short by Caballeron’s abrupt interruption.

“We are here,” he announced, as they finally entered the small courtyard beneath the broken tower. Over to their right, a red-framed flat-bed platform surrounded by safety-railings rested on the ground. The ropes that connected it to the tower-mounted scaffold high above hung slack, and a large winch mounted on the railings appeared to be the mechanism by which the platform could be raised up to reach the surface.

Caballeron didn’t head towards it though. Instead he turned back to face them, adopting a malevolent sneer. “Now, Daring Do, you are going to tell me every secret I wish to know. Bring her!” he barked.

At the command, New-Guy and Rogue stepped forward to her side. They separated her from Twilight and Rainbow Dash and escorted her forward to stand in the centre of the plaza. Next, they turned her so that she ended up facing her companions as well as the road along which they had all just walked, and each stallion stood close aside her and rested a heavy hoof upon her withers, discouraging her from moving.

She lowered her head, meeting Caballeron’s eyes with a defiant scowl. “I hate to break it to you, Doc, but I’m not feeling in a particularly collaborative mood. Go ahead and torture me if you want, I’ll never tell you anything.”

Torture you? Heavens, Daring Do, I simply intend to ask you. And, ‘you’ will tell me everything I want to know...” he mocked smoothly as Biff stepped over towards him and he removed the Crown of Unity from the henchpony’s saddlebags. “Whether you realise it or not...” he finished with a sinister grin.

Caballeron began to advance on her, the crown held in the crook of one foreleg. The grips of the henchponies beside her became stronger. She strained against them, but was held in place.

“Hey! Leave her alone!” cried Twilight from behind Caballeron as Biff returned to the mares, interposing himself between her two cohorts and herself, forestalling any efforts they might make to come to her aid.

“Get away from her!” echoed Rainbow Dash.

Caballeron paused a moment and turned back to them with an odd frown. “I am doing this as much for your benefit as my own,” he snapped. “You claim to be ‘friends’ with her? It is better you learn here, now, why she does not have friends. I am doing you a favour before you make the mistake of trusting her further.”

“You don’t know what goes on in my head,” Daring shot.

“Oh, but I do. I know you better than anypony in Equestria. I know you are simply me with loftier rhetoric, and now I have the means to prove it.” He resumed his advance on her. “You needn’t look so nervous,” he said, his voice becoming a smooth, menacing tenor. “It won’t harm you. In fact, from what I have read, I understand it is quite a peaceful experience. All I am doing is showing your true self to your new ‘friends’. What could you possibly have to fear from that?”

Behind Caballeron, from the road leading away to the grand plaza and the palace, she saw a flicker. The horns on the two-headed unicorn statues, still alight, were nevertheless beginning to gutter in the manner of a dying candle. She looked up to the cavern ceiling and, sure enough, what she had suspected a few moments earlier was entirely true. The ‘stars’ overhead had dimmed considerably, barely giving off any light at all. The road they had walked had still been well-lit by the statues that lined it, blinding them to the fact that the rest of the city had fallen under a cloak of shadow as Twilight’s magical charge had slowly faded. Now the statues were failing too, winking out one by one.

Caballeron was before her now, ready to raise the crown, but stood just to one side to give her a clear enough view of the two ponies who had accompanied her all this way. “Twilight? Rainbow? Shut your eyes. Don’t look, whatever you do.”

“Daring, we know it’s not true...” Twilight started, her face awash with concern. “I didn’t mean to sound so upset with you. Please understand, there’s nothing we could possibly see that would stop us from thinking of you as a friend!”

“Yeah,” echoed Rainbow Dash. “It doesn’t matter what—”

“I said close your eyes!” hollered Daring. Twilight looked like she was about to object further, and waste more valuable seconds with frilly-talk. Daring fixed her with a steely, piercing stare. “It gets dark real fast this far north, remember?” she growled.

To her credit Twilight was very quick on the uptake. She looked around, and up, and back, her mouth falling open in a silent ‘O’. “Rainbow Dash, close your eyes. Now,” she said to her friend, scrunching her own eyelids tightly shut.

“But it’s not like our eyes are gonna melt if—”

“Do it!” she ordered, and Rainbow Dash fell into line straight away, her own eyes clamped shut.

All to Caballeron’s obvious amusement. “Hmm. It does not matter. If your companions choose to continue deluding themselves as to your true nature, I do not care. I will get what I want from you either way. And as for you... it is high time you confronted the kind of pony you really are, Avada. You have been kidding yourself with your delusions of nobility for too long.” He raised Unity over her, ready, and began to lower it.

Daring scrunched her eyes shut. With a shiver, she felt the cold metal of the crown come to rest upon her head.

And then the lights went out.

10: The Bull in the Desert

View Online

The timing was perfect.

Daring knew from their experience with Rainbow Dash beneath the city that whatever effect the crown used to render its wearer unconscious wasn’t instant. She had a few seconds to work with, and just as Caballeron released the crown to rest on her head, the statue in the plaza, as well as the two next-nearest down the road, simultaneously went dark. With only the dimmest of light now reaching down from the faded crystals in the cavern ceiling, the city around her was plunged into a deep, shadowed netherworld.

And Daring Do liked the shadows. A lot.

She opened her eyes, and could see everything.

To her left and right, Rogue and New-Guy were still holding her shoulders as though they expected her to try and wrestle free. But the sudden descent into blackness had confused and astounded them, and Daring had other plans.

In a smooth motion she bent all four legs and dropped to her knees, tilting her head forward to encourage the crown to fall, and scooping it up around a foreleg. She tucked into a roll, tumbling forward past Caballeron who was dancing around in blind confusion, and regained her hooves. And then she was away.

“Run!” she yelled to Twilight and Rainbow Dash as they opened their own eyes. Having voluntarily relinquished their sight, their night-vision was instantly far superior to their adversaries who had had their source of vision rudely curtailed. But it was an advantage that was destined to last for mere seconds at most, and so they had to disappear, fast.

Unfortunately there had not been any time to decide on where to disappear to, and as Daring sprinted for the safety of one of the many side-streets off the courtyard, ready to vanish into the maze of buildings and alleys that she vaguely recalled from her first visit, she lost sight of Twilight and Rainbow Dash in the gloom. She heard their hooves galloping together, which was good, and estimated from the distance that they’d reached the safety of the alleyways, which was better, but she couldn’t tell where.

It was a problem for later, she decided. Right now, she had to put some distance between herself and Caballeron’s party before their own sight returned and they began to search. Heart racing, hooves pounding the eons-old cobbles beneath her, she fled deep into the city, the Crown of Unity safely in tow.

* * *

“Quick! After them!” called New-Guy, starting in the direction in which he felt sure he’d heard the hoofbeats recede.

“Wait,” said Caballeron calmly. In this light his smirk had taken on a machievellian twist. “Let them run. They’re not going anywhere, after all.”

“But... they’ve got that crown.”

“Yes. And Daring Do believes that is my objective. Good. She will spend hours being elusive in this city, trying to keep it out of my hooves, which will leave me free and undistracted while I acquire my true goal. There is a far more valuable treasure here than that crown. And once I have it... Daring Do and her ‘friends’ will come to us!” He gave a little chuckle at that and looked once more down the road to the grand courtyard from which they had just come. Then he looked back at his three goons. “Strike some torches, bring some lifting-gear, and follow me. We are going back.”

* * *

Racing through the streets, zig-zagging through alleyways and jumping the occasional high wall, Daring put distance between herself and her supposed pursuers. Within minutes she’d made enough twists and turns, and doubled back on herself enough times that Caballeron’s henchponies must surely have gotten sick with dizziness. She slowed her pace to a trot, then a walk, ears swivelling and hearing no sounds of heavy, clumsy hoof-beats on centuries old stone. Nothing.

Lost them then. Caballeron’s goons really were getting lax. She adjusted her hat on her head and walked on, head low and alert...

Daring crept through the silent streets of the ancient city, careful to keep the noise of her hoof-steps to a muffled minimum. Her adversaries could be anywhere; the last thing she needed was to give her position away carelessly.

This was what it was all about. A lone adventurer, a ruined metropolis spread out before her, the reassuring weight of a rescued artifact tucked securely beneath a wing and a vanquished longtime rival nipping at her hooves.

This was familiar territory to her. This was where she felt most alive. This was where she felt...

Ugh. This whole scene. Just... ugh.

What was wrong? This was bread-and-butter stuff. She’d just executed an adrenaline-pumping escape to find herself very much on the up, but still with obstacles to overcome. She should be feeling the rush, the buzz. But she wasn’t. This scene was just, ‘Daring Do walks through a city in the dark, alone.’

It needed something.

It needed...

A slightly pointless summary of the current situation and events just prior, which nevertheless culminated in an accurate and concise analysis of their current situation...

...Followed by a well-intentioned jibe and the bold contention that they should be fighting, not running...

...Followed by a logical, reasoned argument as to why that was not the most productive course of action...

...Followed by a brash rebuttal, making the point that they would totally win, with a cocky smirk...

...And the rebuke of an erudite, articulate pony nonetheless beginning to lose her temper...

...At which point the voice of experience would interject to quell the argument by offering the current forecast of events and their next practical steps, all the while reminding Twilight and Rainbow Dash that they still needed to keep quiet!

Daring stopped walking, blinking in the glum street.


They... they got to you, didn’t they? Those two. Got right under your skin. I mean, you know that’s how they’d both act. It’s not even a guess, is it? How did that even happen? You didn’t suddenly turn psychic. You’re pretty positive they haven’t hypnotised you. And it’s not like you’ve been trying to learn their patterns. All you’ve done is basically be around them for a few days. That... can’t be all it takes. There’s gotta be more to it before you actually start knowing this stuff.

There’s gotta be. Because if... if you can be right about them... why can’t Caballeron be right about you? He’s known you for a lot longer.

A sullen veil seemed to descend, draping itself over her, darkening her mood. All of a sudden she wasn’t Daring Do, heroic pony of wit and action, she was...

She was...

She didn’t know what she was.

For a moment her breathing became heavier and her legs felt weak. She looked up and around, deciding she needed to get off the street. She just needed a minute. She just needed...

She didn’t know that either.

Casting her gaze about her, she spotted a likely looking building lining the wide road, the front door slightly ajar, and headed for it.

A house. Nay, a home, or at least it was, once. The door was stuck and Daring had to give it a shove against its loud, creaking hinges to permit herself entry. She crept inside, slowing her breathing, swivelling her ears to detect any sound that might indicate she was not alone or that she had drawn attention. None. Inside the door there were still coats on wall-hooks, stiff and liable to crumble to dust under the lightest of touches, and a solitary hoof-boot. Whoever had lived here, it seemed had left in a hurry, and with only three shoes at that.

Daring sat herself in the room beyond, cloaked in absolute blackness. She waited, and listened, and thought. She brought the magical ancient crown out from beneath her wing, the large jewel in its centre still glowing softly – perhaps a residual magical charge from where it been on her head for those few seconds, slow to dissipate. She held it in her hooves and gazed at it. Turning it over and over. Over and over. Over and over. And thought.

Caballeron is right about you. Isn’t he? You’re just like him.

They both sought treasure in ancient ruins, both took things that were never meant to be disturbed; that were, in some cases, very well protected. She just used different words to justify her actions while condemning his. Why did she get to ‘explore’ ruins and he only ‘plunder’ them? Why was she allowed to ‘recover’ ancient treasures when with him it was ‘stealing’? Wasn’t it true, when all was said and done, that their behaviour was the same? Was there really no difference between them at all?

If he was right about that, it followed that he was right about the other thing too, though at least that was an easier conclusion to stomach. She didn’t have friends. Those other two ponies, sure they were pretty cool, but they were just a duo she was working with. They were here to fulfill a role, and as soon as she got them home safe that would be that. She was Daring Do, self-sufficient lone-wolf adventurer. She’d never needed friends, and nothing had changed. Here she was, in an ancient, treacherous ruin, enemies at her heels and a mysterious artifact in her hooves, and she was finally alone. Classic Daring Do territory.

And yet... all she could think of as she turned the crown over and over again in her hooves, was the look of pained betrayal on Twilight’s face from a little earlier. It hurt. Why did that hurt? Why did it feel like she really needed to talk to her again?

Argh! What was wrong with her?!

She had this. She just needed a minute. Just to get her head straight. She sat. Still looking at the crown, the fading glow casting a diffuse, teal aura about the room, soft shadows dancing as she continued to turn it over and over, over and over.

* * *

“You’re sure?” said Rainbow Dash in a hushed whisper.

“Not as sure as I was a minute ago,” replied Twilight, trying desperately to keep both her voice and her footsteps subdued as they turned another corner, finally leaving the twisting alleyway and stepping into a wide street lined with houses, scanning left and right. “It could have been an echo I suppose. It sure would be easier if we didn’t have to do this in the dark.”

On impulse, Twilight halted and scrunched her eyes shut, concentrating hard. She reached deep inside, searching within herself. Where once there had been an ocean flooded with mana, now there was simply a hollow void. But as she focused, she found a tiny droplet.

The very tip of her horn began to glow with a familiar magenta aura, so weak and frail that it was barely there at all, and even though she strained and grunted, she could force no greater vibrancy into it. She relented, releasing her hold on her magic, panting and sweating, but the display had seemed to impress Rainbow Dash nonetheless.

“Whoa! How did you... is your magic coming back? Is the river-water melting the ice-dam?”

Twilight looked perplexed for a moment. “What? No. I think... if you imagine magic as being like the blood in your body. That crystal drained the magic from us and captured it. But when your body loses blood, it slowly makes more to replace it. That’s what’s happening.”

“Okay...” said Rainbow Dash, and then seemed to brighten considerably. “Wait, that’s great! So how long before we’re back to normal?”

“It’s too soon to tell for sure. But at this rate... probably about six-to-eight weeks.”

Dash’s new brightened demeanour was quickly lost. “I can’t spend two months not flying!” she moaned, flapping her wings hard in frustration. She looked back at them and frowned, annoyed that they weren’t working properly. “It’s weird. I can feel the air on my feathers, how it flows over them. It’s all totally normal, except there’s just no up happening.”

“We’ll find a better solution, don’t worry. I’m not crazy about being stuck here for that long either. Especially since until I can cast spells again it’s not going to get any brighter down here.”

They walked on. So far the only lead they had was a half-heard sound minutes earlier, so faint that only a vague direction could be discerned. But it was better than nothing and so they searched. But even with a vague direction to work with, the enormity of the task before them was clear.

“She could be anywhere,” lamented Dash.Both ponies stopped, and Twilight hung her head. “Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe she’d actually prefer it if we didn’t find her,” she whispered.

“What?! What are you talking about?” cried Rainbow, in as much as she could cry out in a whispered tone.

Twilight shook her head a little before meeting her friend’s gaze. “We’ve been doing our best all this time, Rainbow, but... well, you saw. She really doesn’t want us as friends. And she’s been keeping secrets from us. What if... what if we can’t trust her? She’s got what she needed from us after all. What if she’s done with us?”

“Whoa, what?! Daring Do would never cut and run on her friends!”

“You’re right. The Daring Do from the books never would. But she’s the one who writes those books. And she said herself... she’s not sure that pony actually exists.” Twilight sighed. “I’m not saying I believe it yet. I’m just saying we have to consider the possibility. She doesn’t think of us as her friends, Rainbow Dash. And she doesn’t have a lot of reasons to help us anymore.”

“What?! No way, Twilight. No. Way. It’s like you said way back on the mountain – we are her friends. And we’re going to be her friends, and awesome ones at that. And it’s a good thing too, because I don’t know how to be anything else. Daring Do is out there somewhere alone in this city, and she might need our help. And until we know for sure she doesn’t, we can’t stop looking for her.”

Twilight sighed again, but now she had a hint of a smile. “You’re right. Of course you are. We need to make sure she’s alright at the very least. Come on, let’s keep looking. We can’t give up.”

They carried on walking. By Twilight’s estimate they’d so far covered about a quarter-mile from the courtyard that was home to Caballeron’s elevator to the surface. That was a far enough distance that, given the amount of criss-crossing streets and alleys and the volume of buildings, the number of permutations as to their escape route were sufficiently high that the chances of being randomly discovered by one of Caballeron’s thugs were minute. They could breathe easy for a bit, although for the time being, any hope they had of leaving this city was going to bring them back into direct confrontation with the sinister doctor.

Twilight stopped dead. She’d seen something. From the corner of her eye, over in that building. The front door was slightly ajar, and she backed up a pace or two until... yes. There.

“Rainbow,” she whispered.


Pointing with a hoof, she directed Rainbow’s attention to the door she had seen, and in the gloom beyond it, there was a light. A faint, subtle glow, which would no doubt have been invisible had its surroundings not been pitch black.

They approached the door with caution, Rainbow leading the way. The door was open just far enough that they could slip inside carefully, almost as though another pony had done so before them.

And inside, as though guided by fate, they found her.

She was there, sat with her back to them, silhouetted by the glow from the crown that held her attention, the pith helmet upon her head giving her an unmistakeable outline. She sat still, unmoving except to breathe and turn the crown over in her hooves.

She didn’t stir. Didn’t turn. Gave no acknowledgment at their entrance. She seemed transfixed by the object before her.

“Daring?” asked Twilight, creeping with care towards her.

Which finally garnered a reaction. She gave a small start and glanced back over her shoulder, surprised she’d been crept up on. Then she relaxed and resumed her former posture. “Oh... it’s you two.”

“Daring? Are you okay? Are you hurt?” asked Rainbow Dash.“I’m fine. I’m just... I guess I’m just thinking. It’s okay. I just need a minute here. You two don’t need to worry about me,” she told them.

“Are... are you saying you want us to leave you?” asked Twilight.

“No...” She hesitated for a second.

She cast a glance back over her shoulder to Twilight, and spoke with sincerity. “I’m sorry I never warned you about Caballeron. We were supposed to be gone before he even arrived, but I still should have clued you in. I... I honestly thought I had. I wasn’t trying to keep anything from you. Not on purpose.”

“Then why didn’t you say anything?” Twilight asked gently.

“I guess because... I’m just not used to having to tell others what I know. Plus, when other ponies are involved, there’s usually good reasons for keeping quiet. Except with you two. I mean, I haven’t felt like I needed to keep you in the dark about anything, which is... new. I’m just not practised at the whole ‘sharing and working with others’ thing.” She paused, took a breath, and sighed. “And I know how weak that all sounds. I don’t expect you to—”“Daring, it’s okay. It was a mistake. You don’t need to explain more than that,” said Twilight with a smile, stepping closer.

Daring finally looked round, not able to moderate her surprise. “You... you’re saying you believe me?”

“Of course we do,” said Twilight quietly.

She put on a faint, confused frown. “But... I’ve got no proof.”“So we’ll take it on faith,” she replied with a smile. “We trust you, and we’re not about to let Caballeron convince us that you’re a liar and a cheat like he is.”

“Caballeron... might be more right about me than I like to admit. I... I don’t know anymore.”

There was a certain and awkward pause, and Twilight found that Daring couldn’t meet her gaze.

“Daring, what’s wrong?” Twilight pressed, ever so gently.

“Does this have something to do with that thing he called you?” asked Rainbow. “Cuz it seemed to hit you pretty hard is all. What was it, like... Avatar or something?”

Daring sighed. “Avada,” she corrected.

“Right. What is that? Like, an insult?”

She shook her head. “Sort of. It’s my name.”

There was a short, certain pause before Twilight spoke.

“Your name?

“Yeah,” she whispered, then looked up slightly. “My name. Avada, Kedavra, Yearling.”

“That’s... well that’s a very... unusual name,” Twilight noted.

Daring nodded. “It’s Bovarian. The matron at the orphanage where I grew up was a cow, and she had a thing for the old Cattleese languages. When they found me... they found me on the orphanage’s doorstep, box, blanket, little cardboard sign round my neck that read, ‘please look after this pony,’ and nothing else. I...” she trailed off, at once about to cough out a laugh and choke out a sob. “Heh. Even my origin story’s a cliché.” She shook her head again. “The orphanage needed to call me something. I looked about a year old, and so the matron used her language hobby to give me something they thought was... fitting.”

Daring sighed, and took a breath. “‘Kedavra’ means ‘Unloved’, and ‘Avada’ translates to ‘Unknown.’ My name literally means, ‘Unknown Unloved Yearling.’” She shook her head and hung it. “You can see why I shorten it. You... can see why I change it.” She sniffed and managed to raise her head again. “Caballeron’s known it for a while now. I think he tracked down the orphanage and started asking questions about me. It’s the only way he could’ve found out. Believe it or not, I don’t exactly tend to tell ponies my real name, ever, and it’s not like I have a birth certificate for him to gawk at.”

“Whoa, wait a sec. So how do you even know when your birthday is?” asked Dash, clearly getting to the nub of the issue.

Daring sighed again and shook her head. “I don’t. I don’t even know how old I am, beyond a rough estimate.”

“So you’ve never, in your whole life, had a birthday party?” said a shocked Rainbow Dash, mouth open in awe. “Oh man, Pinkie Pie’s probably feeling a great disturbance in the force right now.” She caught Twilight’s annoyed expression and Daring’s puzzled one. “Uh, I mean... so Caballeron figured out your name. So what?”

“It’s not the fact that he knows my name, it’s the fact that he might be the one pony in Equestria who actually knows me. We’ve been doing this dance for so long that we know practically everything about each other. The things he said might be true. Maybe I am just like him.”

“Daring, you know that’s not true!” objected Twilight.

“No... I don’t,” came Daring’s woeful reply. “I don’t know anything about myself. I don’t even know where I came from. My name’s an insult, my family’s a mystery, my age is a guess and my back-story’s a cliché. I’m exactly the kind of trope character I would have dreamed up... so that’s what I did, didn’t I? I dreamed myself up. Made myself someone else. Someone better. A hero who saves the day. But that’s not real, is it? When the day’s over, all I can point to about me being me are the things I’ve done. And what does that amount to? When you strip away the idealism and the nonsense?” She took a deep breath. “I’m a grave-robber. A common thief, just like him. And he knows it.”

“No, Daring. Caballeron might claim he’s known you for years, but we think we know you just as well. And we know you’re nothing like him!”

“Twilight, when I asked you who you thought I was, you gave me two completely different answers. I haven’t managed to figure it out in my lifetime, there’s no way you’ve managed it in a few days.”

“Maybe we don’t know everything about you, but we’ve followed your adventures for years,” countered Twilight. “And you know what makes Daring Do a great pony? She’s loyal. She’s honest. She’s honorable, and she holds herself to a higher standard than ponies like Caballeron. And you’re right, we haven’t known you that long, but you know what? Nothing I’ve seen in the past few days has given me any reason to doubt any of that. Because that’s who you are. You might think your past sounds like it was culled from the pages of a cookie-cutter novel or something, but that doesn’t stop it from being your past. It doesn’t stop it from being part of who you are. And just because you don’t have all the answers about yourself, it doesn’t make you into Caballeron just because he sees one similarity between you. You’re more than that.”

Daring was silent for a moment, and for a long time she looked deep into the crystal adorning the front of the crown she still held. Seconds passed, and threatened to turn to minutes before Daring took a breath and spoke again. “That’s a nice speech,” she said, her voice taking on a slight, businesslike edge. “But... there’s only one way I’ll know for sure. If I’m like him. If I’m just a deplorable pony riding a high horse.” She stood now and turned properly to face the two ponies before her, a slight frown afixed. “Tell me honestly: did you actually mean it? What you said back there. About there being nothing this thing could show you that would make you run a mile from me?”

“Daring,” said Twilight softly. “We don’t need to do this...”

“Yes, we do,” she responded. “For a start, we might end up having to trust each other again before we get out of here. And I’m not blind. Between me slipping up with not telling you about the Doc coming here, and the things he was saying about me, there’s bound to be a seed of doubt in there somewhere. You need to know if you can trust me. Heck, I need to know if you can trust me. The simple fact is that if Caballeron is right about me... you might decide you can’t and I wouldn’t blame you.”

“Uh... that’s just ‘for a start’?” asked Dash, quirking an eyebrow.

Daring looked between them now and once more sat upon her haunches, the crown held between her forelegs. “The other reason is... it’s now or never. Even if we get the crown back to civilisation, I will never have this chance again. I’m here, right now, with the only two ponies in the world who I would even think about showing the inside of my head to; the only two ponies I’ve met who I sorta-think won’t screw me over by blabbing to everypony what they see in there. I want to know what I’m like; I wanna know what kind of pony I am. I know I might not like the answer. I’m prepared for that. But if I don’t take this chance, it won’t ever come again. So... here it is. Will you help? Tell me what you saw when I come round?”

“Daring... if you’re sure this is what you want, then of course we will,” said Twilight with a smile.

“Totally,” agreed Rainbow Dash in typically efficient fashion.

There was another pause as Daring looked back to the crown, face showing concentration as though she were psyching herself before braving some peril. “Okay...” she whispered, removing her pith helmet and setting it aside. She held the crown in both hooves and took a deep, sharp breath. Cannot believe I’m doing this.Okay, here goes...

She raised the crown and placed it on her head. The crystal shone brighter, and in moments Daring felt herself suddenly become very dizzy. The room started to fade and a great sense of stillness and calm befell her.

And then the lights went out.

* * *

Daring toppled sideways, but Dash caught her before she could smack her head on the floor. She laid her down comfortably, ensuring that the crown would not dislodge itself, and then the crystal flashed to life, projecting its dance of colours into the large room of the ancient home.

The colours settled and the scenery became sharper. And before their eyes, everything that Daring Do was, or would be, or wanted, was given a literal depiction and resolved into sharp focus.

They found themselves in a desert.

The ground was that of hard, dusty red-orange rock and perfectly flat unto the horizon, while overhead the sky was an intense, cloudless blue dotted with an unmerciful sun beating down from on high. The landscape was almost utterly featureless, with nary a cactus nor rocky outcrop nor interesting feature of any kind to be seen marring the perfectly horizontal plain. An unseen, unfelt breeze kicked up, whipping small dust clouds into the arid air, and there was no semblance of life at all.

“This... isn’t quite what I was expecting to see inside the mind of the most awesome, action-y pony I’ve ever met,” noted Dash.

Twilight gave a considered hum, but said nothing, scanning her surroundings in detail, taking it all in.

The world was barren, but it wasn’t a complete blank slate. Far distant on the eastern horizon – for Twilight found that, with the presence of the sun in this mindscape it was suddenly simpler to think in terms of compass points – was a ruined circular tower of some sort, striking toward the sky. It appeared to be but a single building, built of sandstone or the like, and one that was barely standing. From this distance it lacked any interesting traits, notable only for being almost the only thing to break the monotony of the scene.

To the west, the desert was being entirely consumed by a churning sandstorm of impossible size. An immense, thick bank of dust and sand formed a wall beyond which any vision was entirely obscured. It did not seem to encroach toward them except perhaps at the most glacial of paces, but its intensity was such that, were it real, it would be a fool’s errand to venture within it.

Immediately behind them, to the south, was a massive gorge only a dozen metres or so away from where they stood. The desert ended and fell away into a sheer cliff with a sickening drop below, and the gorge ran from east-to-west, appearing almost infinite in length. Yet at least a hundred yards distant, on the chasm’s far side and in stark contrast to the nondescript desert in which they found themselves, a forest thrived. Healthy palm-fronds and thriving tropical plants formed a thick wall of stunning jungle greenery, lush and vibrant. Happy chittering and occasional movement within the trees suggested an abundance of hidden animal and bird life, but above the enticing verdance dark clouds hung motionless, as though threatening a rainstorm. And connecting the two sides of the gorge hung a traditional rope-bridge. The chunky wooden slats and thick, braided rope could have been plucked from any one of Daring Do’s own novels, though to be fair, unlike most of those, this one seemed unusually sturdy in construction.

And finally, directly in front of them, was Daring Do herself. Or at least, that was Twilight’s best guess.

Plodding across the desert, moving from west to east, always with the storm at its back, was a huge, black, metalwork bull.

It was easily one-and-a-half times the size of a real bull, the body of the mechanical creature joined apiece by thick iron bands and chunky rivets. It looked to be driven by some sort of clockwork and possibly powered by steam since every so often, from its nostrils, a large white puff would escape. Every laboured, lumbering step was accompanied by a great creaking and screeching from ill-lubricated joints. Its horns stuck straight up from its head, angular and particularly imposing, and the body had been cast in dies that emphasised every ripple of every muscle, giving the impression of immense strength and might to all onlookers. Its soulless eyes appeared to glow with a red light and its gaze was focused resolutely ahead of itself as though no distraction, no matter what, would deter it from its pre-destined course. Inscribed upon the chest of the bull, etched with pride deep into the black ironwork, were the words Daring Do.

From a thick yoke about the mechanised beast’s neck, a chain was attached. Constructed of stout iron links, it ran to a metal collar that was fastened and locked around the neck of a familiar pony. An ochre-coated, grayscale-maned pegasus trailed a few paces behind the great bull, careful to keep in step lest her chain pull taut and she get a painful tug on her neck. She trudged with her head low and her gaze downcast, forced to follow the beast forever across the burning desert as it relentlessly trekked eastwards.

“Twi... this is pretty surreal,” said Rainbow, taking in the vista with a clear mixture of awe and unease.

“It’s all symbolic,” explained Twilight. “At least, it should be if the crown’s working the same way as it did when you put it on.”

“Okay... but then what does any of it mean?

Twilight brought a hoof to her chin, taking a second to think. Finally she was forced to concede. “I have no idea. With you I had somewhere to start. I know you, so I was able to figure it out. Once I knew what was going on, I mean. But this... her... I just don’t know what this is supposed to be.”

“Yeah. And somehow, I think that if we tell Daring Do that her true self is a desert, a bull, a tower and a canyon, she’s gonna be pretty bummed,” said Rainbow Dash. Who then gave a little confused start. “Twilight? Where’re you going?”

“To ask her,” she said, beginning to walk towards the huge bull a few yards distant.

“Does that... is that gonna work?”

“It worked with you, so I hope so. With luck one of those two will respond to us. I’m kind of hoping it’s the pony and not the gigantic bovine Bulk Biceps over there.”

They approached the bull cautiously, careful to stay out of its path. Its weight and heft appeared such that, were it to take no notice of them standing before it, they might find themselves squished beneath a dinner-plate-sized cloven hoof. Or at least that would have been the fear were it a real thing, and Twilight had to keep reminding herself that it was not. The level of visual and aural detail projected by the crystal in the crown continued to astonish.

Twilight raised her head to speak, though she wasn’t actually sure whom she was addressing. The bull, its associated detainee, or the real Daring Do whose ears were, in reality, the only ones worth reaching. She made her voice loud enough that it should reach all three, even above the continued heavy hoofbeats of the bull’s relentless, lumbering march. “Daring Do?”

The reply came from the downcast, leashed pony walking aside the great machine. She spoke in a mutter as though to herself, not really expecting to be heard. “Sorry, Daring Do is unavailable right now. But if you’d like to leave your name, cutie-mark, and a short message, I’ll see that she gets it later.”

Twilight smiled – and breathed a silent sigh of relief that the bull seemed intent on ignoring them completely. She stepped a little closer to the pony at its side. “Actually, I guess we were hoping to talk to you,” she said warmly.

Which gained an instant reaction as the pony’s head snapped up and she stopped dead in her tracks. “Whoa.” She hesitated a second. “Is that...?” before seeming to lose hope, hanging her head again. “Can’t be,” she sighed.

Rainbow Dash scratched her head. “Huh? What gives? Can’t she see us?”

Which had the pony’s head snapping up again, her mouth hanging open in shock, though it was Twilight who answered.

“No, she can’t. Not literally. She’s part of Daring Do, and she can only ‘see’ what Daring herself sees. Right now, Daring’s asleep. But she can still hear us, probably feel the vibrations we make in the ground when we move. She knows where we are. She knows we’re here.” Twilight took a step forward, and spoke kindly once again. “Don’t you?” she said.

“Twilight Sparkle?” said the facsimile of Daring Do, her awe abating slowly. “You’re here? And you’re talking to... me? And Rainbow Dash too? How’s that...?” She gave a confused frown which furrowed into a concentrated one. “Sorry, just gimme a second here. First time she’s slept in a while. A lot’s happened today. The most recent stuff’s all just filtering through.” She looked back up at them. “Wait, if you’re here talking to me, that means she... with you... oh! Finally!” she cried, clearly overjoyed. “I’ve been trying to persuade her for hours...” She trailed off, and gave a sudden, quick gasp as her gaze seemed to find and fix upon something over Twilight’s shoulder. “A bridge...” she whispered, excitement daring to creep into her voice. “It’s a bridg— Aurckk!” she yelped as the chain finally went taut, yanking her forward by the neck as the great iron monster’s next lumbering step continued its inexorable journey, taking her with it with no heed at all. “Daring!” she cried out towards the bull. “Daring, stop! I... I want to talk to them! Please... just stop! Daring they’re our friends! Yes they are! Please! Daring, don’t do this again! Not to them! No!” she screamed. Her hooves scrabbled for purchase, scraping furrows along the dusty ground. She tried to rear, throw her weight backwards, desperate not to be pulled away but she was utterly powerless against the strength of the automaton which held her tethered. The distance between them grew only slowly, but irreversibly, and she managed to turn her head and offer a sad, “I’m sorry,” to them both before adopting a defeated, hopeless demeanour, plodding with her head hung low, inescapably attached to the black beast at her side.

Twilight and Rainbow looked at each other, and without a word turned and found a pace somewhere near to a slow trot.

“Um... hi,” said Twilight cordially as she drew alongside, falling into step. “I know it seems like you have places to be, but if it’s okay we’d still like to talk to you.” She offered another warm smile as she came up close beside her. “Can we walk with you a while?”

She looked back, once again shocked. She cast a glance back over her shoulder, to where she and Twilight and Rainbow had been moments before, as though she still expected to find them there. As though amazed they had moved. “But... we were leaving you behind. You... you’re coming with us?”

“If that’s okay,” said Twilight.

The reaction on her face couldn’t have been brighter. She broke into a wide, happy smile, as though it were the first time she’d known cheer in an age.

But above and beside them, the gigantic bull suddenly halted. For the first time its movements seemed less like the limited motion of a clockwork mechanism and more the startled reaction of an actual animal. Its head swept frantically left and right, as though scanning its surroundings for threats. It faltered in its footing, even taking a half-step backwards. Then, with noticeable trepidation, it began to walk again, maintaining its ponderously slow rhythm, but with distinctly less assurance in each stride.

“Whoa... what just happened?” asked Dash.

“You scared her,” she explained as the three of them resumed their pace at the hulking brute’s side.

“Scared her? We didn’t do anything!”

“You said you’d stay with her.”

“What? How is that scary?

“It is scary, for her.” She sighed. “She doesn’t understand why you’d want to stay. And she’s afraid of things she doesn’t understand, just like the next pony.”

“But Daring Do isn’t scared of anything,” cried Dash.

“She’s not scared of ancient ruins or deadly traps or wicked villains. That’s her world. Look around. She’s been walking this path for so long that every single feature that might hide a surprise has weathered into nothingness. She can see everything. Nothing can creep up on her. She knows this life inside and out... but it’s never included ponies wanting to stay with her. Not sure if you’ve noticed, but it doesn’t include ponies at all. Just like it doesn’t include a lot of other things,” she finished with a sigh.

“It includes that tower, though,” said Twilight, not being as subtle as she imagined she was being in her quest to probe for information. “What does that represent? A life-goal? A mystery she’s working towards solving?”

“The tower? That’s just the Next Thing. It’s the next lost city, or another ancient relic she has to discover. When she reaches it there’ll be another on the next horizon. Always is. And each one’s a little less impressive than the last. You know, when she was starting out they were gorgeous shining cities full of potential, wonders and treasures. But she left them all behind her. Always had to move on. The storm took them. It takes everything.”

Twilight looked behind herself but saw no cities or treasures. Only the massive, churning wall of dust and sand consuming the desert. “The storm?” she asked.

“That’s the past. She doesn’t go there very often, and when she does, she definitely doesn’t stay long. She’s always looking ahead. Always pressing forward. The past’s always one step behind her and that’s where it belongs.”

“So why does she keep going like this?” asked Rainbow.

“Because she thinks she has to. Thinks it’s all she’s good for. Gotta get to the next ruin, gotta rescue the treasure, gotta write a book about it. Rinse and repeat. The truth is... you’ve seen ten ancient ruins, and you’ve seen ‘em all. Now she’s picking at scraps but she’ll keep on going because she thinks... she thinks there’s nowhere else she can go. Look around. Can you blame her?” She gave a longing look then, past Twilight and Rainbow Dash towards the gorge and the lush, rich jungle on the far side. “One day, I’ll show her she’s wrong,” she muttered.“And uh... no offense here, but... who are you?” asked Dash.

Twilight spoke up. “You’re Daring’s subconscious, right?” A stray thought crossed her mind that she really needed a quill and parchment to take notes on all this with, and that such supplies were frustratingly packed neatly in her saddlebag, dumped next to Caballeron’s elevator-platform.

“I’m...” the other pony started and then stalled. “Yeah. But it’s more complicated than that. I’m... I am what she isn’t. I’m every place she’s never been. Every thing she’s never done. Every pony she’s never met. Every lover she’s never had. I look after what she wants; her hopes and dreams no matter how silly or impossible, just in case. You never know... she might come back for them one day.”

“You’re her imagination...” reasoned Twilight with a note of awe.

“Yeah.” She morosely cuffed the slack chain in front of her, making it jingle and sway. “We've always been really close, me and her. That’s just the bond we have. We used to spend hours and hours together, just by ourselves. Sometimes we’d go to some pretty crazy places and meet some really amazing creatures, and sometimes we’d go home – to a real home, with a family where she belonged. Then, time moved on. This shell started appearing, this... armour. Daring Do. We spent less and less time together, and when we did I could do less and less.” She raised her head and stretched her neck, trying to gain some relief from the iron collar. “At first it was reins she put on me, then a harness. Eventually it evolved into this. A tight leash she keeps me on all the time. Less ‘bond’, more, ‘bondage.’” She raised a foreleg and knocked twice on the blackened haunch of the bull, sounding out a heavy clunk with each impact. It gave no reaction at all. “You know, I wasn’t sure if she could even hear me any more until a couple of days ago. But then, just for a minute, she actually listened to me. You know when that was? When she read your novel,” she said with a glance at Dash.

“Huh?” That had Dash scratching her head. “But... she hated my novel!”

“Oh yeah, she sure did,” she chuckled. “But y’know, it actually got her thinking. About possibilities; about stories based on something other than fact. I got to imagine for her again. And I did. I started to imagine for her what life might be like with friends. Ponies who like her and trust her and she can really trust in return. And... just for a moment... she liked it. Then the chain went taut and she carried on walking for the tower.” She sighed. “But it was something. I was starting to wonder if she was actually still in there, under all that, but now I know she is. One day she’ll come out. I’ll see her again,” she said, her tone turning wistful. “I have to believe that. But until then... I’m still on this leash.”

“Well, can’t we help you?” asked Twilight softly.

“Yeah,” agreed Dash. “There’s gotta be a way we can get you out of that thing.”

“We can’t just leave you like this,” said Twilight.

“You... I... you’d do that? I mean... you’d try?”

“Of course,” said Twilight. “Daring’s our friend. And you’re a part of her, which means you’re—”

Without warning the bull screamed. A horrific, scraping metallic roar of terror from tarnished, rusted vocal cords, vomited into the empty air. It halted, its hooves beginning to dance in panic. Its head whirled about, trying to see all around itself at once and its great sides heaved, the metal-work beast breathing and snorting in terror with a sound like heavily-pumped bellows.

“Daring! Daring, it’s okay! Shh. Calm down,” the tethered pony called, desperately trying to keep up with the bull, lest it whirl about or take off at a gallop and the chain attached to her collar take her with it in a manner most painful.

The bull started to settle slowly, but it remained rooted to the spot. Its terrified gaze looked south, to the gorge, the rope-bridge, and the vibrant jungle of life and colour and noise on the far side, as though studying it for the first time.

Twilight and Rainbow had backed a safe distance from the bull, but while it was still clearly nervous it seemed its whirlwind fit of panic was over for now. They approached it cautiously. It was still for now, but if the bull was likely to carry on like that, Twilight reasoned, they had to find a way to free Daring’s imagination from it before it injured her.

“What happened there?” asked Dash.

“You’re frightening her again. She... this place, this desert, this life... there’s no place in it for... well, ponies trying to help her. Wanting to be nice to her. She’s... she doesn’t know how to react. Well... no... she knows how she wants to react, but... she’s not sure if it’s how she should react. Bearing in mind where she is. It’s hard to explain. What you’re offering... it’s not part of this world. Here, if something’s too good to be true, it always is. Here, if she reacted the way she wants to, she’d end up betrayed and devastated.” She sighed heavily. “I know it sounds weird. This might not make much sense but... do you know what’s always scared her most in the world?”

“Spiders?” guessed Dash.

“That there’ll come a day when she will need help.” She paused, and when she spoke again it was more softly. “Do you know when she was pretty much the happiest she’s ever been? It was a day, not too long ago, when out of the blue, she actually got it,” she said with a warm smile at Rainbow Dash. She raised her head to look across to the gorge herself and then looked back at the great iron beast at her side, placed a hoof on it, and spoke soothingly. “It’s okay. It’s okay,” she said to it.

Twilight turned herself, following their joint gaze out across the canyon. “What is that over there?”

“It’s a different life,” was the reply, her eyes glistening. “One she’s seen other ponies have while she’s over here, walking. She knows what’s over there; catches glimpses of it. Friendship. Love. Warmth. Trust. Ponies who work together and care about one another. But she’s never been there herself. It’s too far away. She can’t reach it. Except...” She licked her lips, as though they’d become dry. “Except every so often... there’s a bridge.

“They’re really rare. To be honest, I’d given up hope of seeing another one. But then... you two happened.” She took a breath. “I mean... you were only supposed to be two ponies she recruited to come with her to the city and help her unlock that mechanism. But... you’ve become so much more than that to her. She likes you. She trusts y—”

The bull roared again, rearing a little. As it lifted off its front hooves the chain tugged her and she had to stumble a couple of steps towards it, giving a pained grunt. “Sorry, sorry,” she said, trying to placate the tense brute. “I mean she thinks she... she wants to trust you—” the bull snorted irritably, “—and she doesn’t want to just leave you to the storm.”

“Okay,” said Rainbow. “But if there’s a bridge to like, this amazing other life of awesomeness and friendship, then why doesn’t she use it? There’s no sandstorm over there,” she pointed out.

“I told you why. She’s frightened.” She sighed. “This armour she’s got on... it’s really heavy now. To cross over, she’d have to put all her faith in the strength of that bridge, and it’s only as strong as the ponies who built it made it for her. If she tries and it doesn’t support her weight... she’ll fall.” At that moment, a strong gust of apparent wind caused the bridge to sway noticeably, its ropes creaking and slats clonking. “It’d take her a long time to climb back up from that. If she even can. And she doesn’t even know what’ll happen when she gets over there. It’s a jungle, after all. What if there are predators? What if she gets lost? It’s a whole other world with totally different rules, and she’d be vulnerable in it.” A sudden lightning strike from one of the dark clouds above the jungle lanced into the tree canopy, scaring up an enormous flock of cawing, cackling birds and changing the melodious animalistic chirrups and laughs into screeches and roars of terror, before they subsided. “She doesn’t know anything about it, other than that it looks really pretty from the outside. She’s afraid of it, and she’s safe here. So... whenever she’s seen a bridge, she’s been tempted, but she’s always passed it by. Left it for the storm.”

“And you? What do you want?” asked Twilight.

“Me?” she said in surprise.

“Well... yes. You’re part of her after all. In fact you’re the part of her that wants. You get a say in this too. Do you want to cross that bridge?”

“I just want her to be happy. And... she hasn’t been happy here for a while now. Just look at it over there! I want to see that! I mean yes, if those storm-clouds break it might be scary... but I think they won’t. I think she’ll like it. And she might think that that bridge looks too weak for her, but I know it’s strong enough. Because you made it for her. Both of you together. The only thing really stopping her is herself. Her fear. And I’m not strong enough to pull her against that.”

“Well, I bet between the three of us we can get her over there,” enthused Dash.

“Uh... Rainbow?” cautioned Twilight. “How exactly...?”

But Rainbow was already striding towards the great bull. She stooped and picked up a length of chain midway between the yoke and the collar, hefted it and wore a confused frown. “It doesn’t weigh anything?” she said with a look over to Twilight.

“It’s not a real chain, Rainbow. It’s just light. Rainbow, wait, that’s not going to—!”

“Ha! Then the bull doesn’t weigh anything either. This should be easy! Alright get ready! One! Two! Three! Pull!

At Rainbow’s command, Daring Do’s figment pulled and strained, striking towards the mouth of the bridge that was only a dozen feet away. Rainbow yanked on the chain to add her own strength to the effort, but when the weightless links in her hooves reached the limit that it would naturally allow, it stopped reacting rather than breach its own laws of physics, and Rainbow’s sudden tug found the chain passing through her hooves. With nothing to restrain her enthusiastic burst of momentum she found herself toppling over, landing on her back. “Ow.”

Ignorant of the futile attempts to dislodge it from its spot, the great bull gave an annoyed grunt and once more began to trudge towards the tower, leaving the bridge behind. The slack of the chain began to diminish.

“Twilight! We gotta stop it! We can’t let it take her away!” cried Rainbow, back on her hooves and scrabbling for the chain once again.

“Rainbow, we can’t force her to go.”

“But we gotta do something!”

“It’s okay. I appreciate you trying...” said Daring’s imagination, not quite able to hide her disappointment at the fact that after coming so close she was to be pulled back to the monotony of the desert.

“I didn’t say we were giving up,” said Twilight firmly. “I said we can’t force her. We have to persuade her. And if what you’re saying is true, then she already wants to go and the only thing stopping her is fear. Fear that she’ll put her trust in something and end up hurt. That is scary, but we just have to convince her it’s going to be okay. That there’s nothing over there that’s going to hurt her.” Twilight moved now, but not to block the path of the bull, for that was futile. Instead she walked over to the real Daring Do, still curled asleep, and spoke kindly. “Daring? I know you can hear me. Maybe you’re not conscious of it, but you’re listening all the same.” She paused, unsure exactly what to say next, and in the end decided to speak simply, and from her heart. “It’s safe, you know? We’re both here for you. We care about you. Honestly, we do.”

The bull halted mid-stride, uncertainty tainting its mechanical movements, turning its head back towards the bridge as another gust blew against it. At last, with a slow wariness, it began to turn.

Encouraged, Rainbow Dash joined in. “Come on, Daring, you can do it. We’re totally here to help you. No matter what happens, you can always count on us! That’s what friends are for!

The bull stepped lightly, creeping towards the bridge as though stalking an agitated beast. It stopped at the edge and observed, refusing to step onto the wooden slats.

“She doesn’t think it’ll hold,” said Daring’s imagination. She fixed herself a frown and darted ahead of the bull, onto the bridge, turned and gently tugged at the chain. “Come on, Daring. It’s okay. It’s a strong bridge. Strong wood. Strong wood,” she encouraged.

And at last, after what seemed like an eternity of deliberation, the bull reluctantly raised its foreleg, and stepped forth out over the chasm. It tested the board on which its cloven hoof found rest carefully, refusing to commit until it was absolutely certain that it would not give. And then another hoof followed. And another, and another, until it had left solid ground entirely. One laboured hoof-fall at a time the massive, ungainly beast began to cross a bridge that appeared far too flimsy based on nothing more than hope and trust. And all the while the soft voice of Twilight Sparkle and the enthusiastic encouragement of Rainbow Dash spurred it on. To ruin, or salvation, it knew not which.

At the midway point the bridge sagged noticeably and the ropes began to stretch, threatening to unravel. The bull looked down and nearly screamed in terror at the fate that surely awaited it, but more soothing sounds from her friends calmed her, and the kind words offered by Twilight and Rainbow in Daring’s ears made it brave. They told her of warm and wondrous things, long secretly yearned for; kindness and generosity, honesty, loyalty and laughter, and an amazing, special kind of magic that bloomed like a flower when all of those were combined: friendship. Friendship they wanted her to share. And the bull listened and heard and the bridge remained whole, coaxed gently onward. It wanted those things. It wanted friendship. Until finally, after a seemingly endless and tense crossing, it made it to the far side, its hooves finding firm footing and the vast, green jungle spread invitingly before it.

And all of a sudden, without warning, the bull began to disintegrate. The thick metal plates that comprised its construction started to fall apart, as though every rivet had suddenly come undone. With heavy clunking noises bits of the armour – the horns, the tail, the greaves – all fell from it. The yoke collapsed, and with it the chain and collar came to bits, freeing Daring’s imagination from its infernal tether. The chestplate fell, as did the head and back and flanks, until it was all rent and laid bare upon the ground.

And there where the bull had been stood a surprised foal, blinking up at the sunlight through the clearing clouds, shivering in wide-eyed terror at the jungle before it. It turned back towards the bridge as though ready to dart across to the supposed safety of the far side, but devoid of its armour it seemed that was not an inviting prospect. And so it stood there naked, rooted, horrified.

Until her imagination walked up to her. “Daring, it’s okay. It’s alright. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

The foal looked up at her in sudden recognition and blinked again, moisture coming to her eyes. “Y-Yearling?”

“I’m here, Daring. Always have been. Always will be.” She reached out a foreleg and hugged the smaller pony, and the foal hugged back.

“It’s so big. I don’t know which way to go,” she wailed.

“Neither do I,” said Yearling. “But we’ll figure it out together, okay? And I got us some pretty good guides to help.” She looked up then, at Twilight and Rainbow. “Thank you. You have no idea how much this is going to mean to her. And she won’t tell you either, so take it from me... it’s a lot. Just... please, be there for her if she needs it?”

“Of course we will,” said Twilight, and Rainbow nodded at her side.

“I have to wake her up,” said Yearling. “You wouldn’t believe how impatient an unconscious pony can get. She’s desperate to know what you’ve seen.”

“We’ve seen enough,” said Twilight.


“Enough to know she’s our friend. That we trust her. And the same for you.”

“There’s only one pony here, Twilight. But... thank you.” She smiled one last time, and finally the scene faded as the light in the crown dimmed and inky blackness swept in to take its place.

The room was silent and still. Daring Do still slept but now stirred, sleep receding from her like a spent wave drawing back from the shore into the sea. Twilight stood beside Rainbow Dash and looked at her, waiting for her to come around.

And then a stray thought struck and she felt her blood run cold.



“What did we just do?”

11: The 'F' Word

View Online

Sleep was slow to recede and as consciousness seeped back into her – spreading its tendrils and connecting her senses once more – she found herself groggy and sluggish.

Touch was the first sensation to return. She felt a rough rug beneath her, the fibres itching and tickling her coat, and a faint draught from somewhere. Smell followed quickly, and the stale air was familiar and unpleasant.

After that, hearing was next.

“... I mean... did we change her? We literally interacted with part of her psyche and... altered it. What if we altered her personality too?”

That was Twilight, getting characteristically worked up, no doubt over very little.

“So we convinced her to give trust a chance. Big deal, right? We don’t know if anything we did is even real, and even if it is, it’s not like anything bad is gonna happen. After all, it was us she was trusting.”

Rainbow Dash, typically injecting her own-brand of anti Twilight-Freakout medicine.

Her mind was still muzzy, and she was grabbing hold of the tone and inflection more than she could hear the actual words. But still, she heard the voices of her two friends being exactly as Twilight and Rainbow as they had been since she’d first met them. The fact that they hadn’t already run a mile, and weren’t talking like they needed to stop her at any cost, made her feel better. They couldn’t have seen anything too disturbing.

What were they talking about?

“What... are you talking about?” she heard herself ask. Ah. Good. Clearly speech was back. Now all she needed was some muscle-power to haul herself upright, and to open her eyes.

She sat up, still groggy, and immediately wished she hadn’t as spots appeared before her and her head went light.

“Daring?” asked Twilight, a note of fear and worry to her voice as she helped sit her up, removing the crown from her head. “Daring, are you okay? How do you feel?”

“Ugh. Feels like... like...” She caught Rainbow Dash’s eye and gave a grin. “Scrambled eggs, right?”

“Hah! See? What’d I tell ya, Twilight? She’s perfectly normal!”

“So... we didn’t change anything? None of that mattered?” She sounded relieved, but at the same time almost disappointed.

“Change what?” Daring asked curtly. “What did you see? Am I an evil Caballeron-clone, or what?”

They looked at her with odd, uncertain expressions, until finally Twilight said, “No, of course not. You’re a good pony, Daring. You’re just... afraid. Not of falling into a trap or battling a monster. You’re afraid of... well... ponies.”

Daring started to recoil with a typical incredulous frown, ready to pronounce proposterousness upon that proposition... and then stopped herself. It was odd. When she looked at Twilight and Rainbow, it was like something about them had changed. As though the light fell a little more kindly on their coats; as though they stood out against the gloomy, dreary backdrop of this place just a little more than they had before. And their words... not only were they spoken honestly, but from the back of her own mind Daring could tell they carried the ring of truth. “Okay... go on,” she said with caution. “Tell me everything.”

* * *

“A bull?


“Not what I would have picked,” said Daring, scratching her head. She had figured that once Twilight and Rainbow had told her what they’d seen, it would make perfect sense. It was her mind after all. But as it turned out, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. “And this other pony? I had her chained up?”

“Your imagination,” said Twilight.

“Well, I guess it’s true I don’t use it as much as I used to. I stick to the facts when I write, y’know? And a few colourful sentences here and a little evocative imagery there isn’t exactly taxing my creativity to its limits. But... you say you freed her?”

“We were trying to help you,” said Twilight, as though she felt the need to apologise.

“Do you feel any different?” asked Rainbow.

“I’m feeling a little bewildered, to be honest. Apparently I’m the kind who doesn’t think twice about wrapping a collar around another pony and marching her across the desert against her will. It’s not doing much for my hero-cred, this.”

“It’s not like that,” said Twilight. “It’s all an abstract, just like we saw with Rainbow Dash. Of course you’re not that kind of pony. You’re an adventurer, but at some point adventuring just became routine. But you’ve never been able to find any meaning in anything else because you’ve never seen a way to reach any other life. Adventuring is what you know. What you’re the best at, to the point that it’s so normal for you it’s become mundane. There’s a good heart in you, and if nothing else we know you’re not motivated by greed, or power, or glory. Just by the compulsion to keep going.”

“Because I have nothing else,” she said, and as it came out it left a bitter taste in her mouth. Then once more she looked up, and now found her friends looking at her with concern in their eyes. But before Twilight could say, You have us, or something equally sappy, she shook her head to try and clear it. “Look... thanks for this. It might not be what I expected, but I asked for it and you helped me. I appreciate it. I... I know I can’t make you promise not to tell anypony what you—”

“We swear,” said Twilight, doing her funny little hoof-charade again. The same one Daring had noticed she’d done earlier.

“Cross our hearts,” said Rainbow who mimicked her.

Daring blinked. And couldn’t resist the question. “Okay, seriously, what is that?”

“What?” they both said.

“That little dance you just did?”

“What, this?” said Twilight, repeating it in part. “It’s, ‘cross our hearts, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in your eye.’”

“It’s a Pinkie Promise,” explained Rainbow Dash. “Our friend Pinkie Pie invented it. It’s the most unbreakable promise there is.”

“Is it magic?” asked Daring.

“Uh... no,” said Twilight.

“Then it’s not unbreakable, is it?” she said, not without cynicism. “Your friend comes up with this dumb promise-thing, and everyone in your friendship-club treats it as sacred because... why?”

“Because we’d do anything to avoid breaking a promise to a friend,” answered Twilight. “And it’s important our friends know that.”

Daring stood and turned for the door. “Okay. I... guess I can see the appeal.” And a thought struck and she had to turn back halfway. “You don’t make those promises about just anything, do you?” she guessed.

“Only for, like, super-important things,” confirmed Rainbow Dash.

“And very close friends,” added Twilight.

Daring nodded neutrally. “Okay. Uh... thank you. Really. I appreciate it.” She turned back to the door and raised her head high, returning her pith helmet to its rightful place. “Okay, here’s the plan. Caballeron’s probably scouting the city for us, which means by now he’s gotta be far enough away from that courtyard that we can slip back there unnoticed. I’m betting he’s only left one guard watching that platform with the rest out looking, so we head over there, subdue him, and ride the elevator outta here, crown and all before he knows what’s happened.”

“Great idea. Let’s go!” said Rainbow.

“Alright. Follow me.”

With a careful look up and down the street, Daring nosed through the door. The coast was clear, and she gave a quick nod behind her before trotting out into the open, heading for the small plaza and Caballeron’s platform, her two friends in tow...


The ‘F’ word.

The one she’d been actively avoiding around those ponies. The one she’d practically denied existed. And it had happened. In her head, and so naturally too. She’d referred to them as ‘friends’. In fact, she realised, she’d done it more than once even since waking up and hadn’t even noticed!

And with a spark of horror she realised too that not only that, but in a circular way, Twilight had called her a friend and she hadn’t even reacted. It had just felt normal.

Later, Yearling. Gotta get them outta here first. You’re still responsible for ‘em. Figure this ‘friendship’ thing out after they’re safe.

The platform was just a few blocks away.

* * *

“Huh. Guess I was wrong about the guard,” Daring whispered as she and her friends – it really was easier to just say it – stole from the deepest shadows at the edge of the courtyard and crept with care towards the platform. It felt like a trap, but there was nopony around.

The pin-points of light in the cavern ceiling had mostly failed now, and it was almost too difficult to see anything anymore.

“You think maybe they gave up looking and just left?” asked Rainbow.

“The platform’s still here,” Twilight pointed out.

“Well, maybe they sent it back down for us. Like bait. We ride it up and then, bam! They’re waiting for us at the top. They don’t need to look for us at all that way.”

“They didn’t leave,” said Daring. “They might have left our saddlebags behind, but they wouldn’t have left their own too.”

It was true. All of the saddlebags, including Caballeron’s, had been placed on the platform ready to be raised, as though the intent was to return to them in short order. Actually... since the bags were all there...

Daring rummaged in the various saddlebags for a few seconds. As she flipped the top on her own satchel she noted her towel, neatly folded. Good. Still knew where her towel was. Then she turned her attention to her real task. Strictly speaking it wasn’t necessary to go to the trouble she went to, but when Caballeron eventually realised what she’d done... well it would be a poignant sting in the tail for him. She gave a little, wicked grin and finished up. They really did look pretty similar, and only a keen observer would notice the difference before it was too late.

As she closed the flaps, she noted Twilight fiddling with her own saddlebags, desperately re-arranging everything to try and make room for the Crown of Unity. She managed it too, unbelievably. Was there no limit to what those things could hold?

“So, what’s the plan?” asked Rainbow. “If you’re sure they’re not up there waiting for us then...”

“There’s nothing stopping us from leaving,” said Daring, tugging the support ropes, testing them for strength. “We’ll get out of here and once we’re up I’ll send the platform back down for them. Caballeron can be a jerk... but that doesn’t mean him and his bodyguards deserve to be buried alive down here with no way out.”

“What do you think he’s doing out there?” said Rainbow, unconvinced that it could possibly be that easy.

“Don’t know. Don’t care. Can’t imagine what he expects to find. Trust me, I spent days down here. The only interesting thing out there was that mechanism.”“Well, we’re leaving not a minute too soon if you ask me,” said Twilight. “I can barely even see my hoof in front of my face. It’s going to be a while before I have enough magic built up even to make a small light for myself, let alone light up that ceiling again!” she said with a smile.

Daring froze.

Releasing the rope she was half-tugging she turned slowly back to Twilight, her eyes wide. “Your magic...” she said, struggling to keep her voice level.

“Oh, yeah. It’s coming back very slowly. No doubt yours will too, but I’m sure that if I ask Princess Celestia, she’ll be able to find a way to instantly restore—”

“I’m such an idiot,” Daring gasped. “How could I have been so blind?!”

At the speed of panic she took off at a gallop, sprinting furiously toward the wide road that led toward the palace. “Come on!” she hollered. “We’ve gotta get back there!”

“Daring? What’s wrong?!” cried Twilight, turning and running herself now, her and Rainbow struggling to keep up.

“Caballeron! I know what he’s doing! We have to stop him!”

* * *

With a final, mighty heave, the heavy circular table was at last hauled out of the pit. As it was pulled to the edge, it toppled, fell, and landed heavily upon the plaza’s flagstones with a loud, dull, solid ring, resting at an angle upon its edge and pedestal.

A victorious grin upon his lips, Caballeron stepped towards it while his three henchponies caught their exhausted breaths, the rope they had used still tied to the table but falling limply to the ground. It had taken no small amount of effort to wrench the table from its mountings, but brute strength had won out in the end. There were even fragments of stone from the surface of the platform clinging stubbornly to the base of the pedestal.

“That thing weighs a ton!” complained his newest inductee into the world of hired muscle. “Boss, what the heck do we want with such a heavy... oh...” he trailed off. The indelicate journey of the table up the side of the pit wall had, in places, scraped away some of the grey-green tarnish upon its surface. Beneath, the gleaming metalwork of the table’s true construction was revealed, taking on a deep, deceptively rich hue by the firelight of their torches. “Gold... the whole thing is made of gold! We’re rich!” he cried.

Caballeron rolled his eyes. “It is bronze, you fool. It is worthless,” he snipped.

“Oh. Then, uh... why did we pull it up here?”

“Because... of that,” Caballeon whispered, gazing down at the table’s surface, and his true goal. After a moment, he looked up. “The pick-axe,” he said, and Biff passed him the tool.

That was as far as he got though, before a trio of galloping hooves interrupted his imminent triumph. Daring Do and her two cohorts entered the massive plaza and made a beeline straight for them, coming to an abrupt stop as they approached. Daring scowled at him, facing him down. He returned the gesture with a typical smug smirk.

It was interesting, Caballeron noted. There was now a certain... togetherness, for want of a better word between the three mares. Where before Daring had stood aside from the other two, that distance – both figurative and literal – now seemed to have disappeared. Now she stood confidently between them, as though emboldened by their presence as opposed to ashamed of it. Would wonders never cease?“Why Daring Do, how nice of you to join us again. And here I thought that your earlier flight meant that you were not enjoying my company,” he said with a grin.

“Enough, Caballeron!” she challenged. “I know what you want, and we can’t let you take it. You may as well stand down, because there’s no way you’re getting that huge table to the surface through the three of us.”

“Oh, but Daring Do, I do not need the entire table, do I?” he said, hoisting the pick-axe. Then, with a smooth, practised motion he swung it sideways at the tilted table-top, and it struck home with a solid, metal clunk. Pressing on the handle of the pick, he levered it and a moment later, a satisifying snickt broke the air and the crystal in the centre, still glowing with an intense white light, popped free and he caught it on his hoof.

Oh no,” whispered Twilight, as realisation seemed to sink in.

Caballeron held the crystal aloft. Now that it was free of its mounting it was not, in fact a sphere, but a teardrop shape, the pointed end having been buried in the table’s surface. Its glow was so stark and bright, especially in the gloom overtaking the city, that it was almost blinding. The five ribbons of energy inside writhed and twisted intensely, as though unhappy that they had been disturbed, and the piercing white light grew brighter in consequence, ignored by Caballeron.

“Think, Daring Do: the true treasure of this city was within your grasp the entire time, and you ignored it. Oh, the journal and its twin will be of interest to a collector no doubt, and the crown is a wonderful piece of enchanted bric-a-brac... but it is a plaything compared to this! A magic-stealing crystal capable of absorbing a pony’s abilities, robbing ponies of their magic, flight, and strength; a weapon the like of which has never been created before or since! Were that all this were then it would already be the most valuable treasure I have ever set eyes on, but now, thanks to you, it not only contains the combined flight power of three winged ponies, but also the raw magical ability of an alicorn princess! Truly, Daring Do, I must thank you.”

“Give it over, Caballeron!” Daring yelled.

“Yeah! And... what are you gonna do with it anyway?” called Rainbow Dash, half angry, half confused. “I mean you don’t have wings. You don’t have a horn. It’s not just gonna give you the power to fly or do magic. What’s in there is useless to you!”

“Indeed you’re quite right,” said Caballeron with a smooth grin. “This crystal will grant me no power whatsoever. But then... that’s never been my modus operandi, has it?” he said with another sinister smirk directed at Daring Do.

“You’re going to sell it,” said Daring.

“Naturally. And thanks to you, I imagine a great many ponies will want to bid for the chance to examine and manipulate raw alicorn magic. Let us all hope that the ponies who would wish to acquire it for responsible study have deeper pockets than those who might use it for more nefarious purposes, hmm?”

“You can’t do this, Caballeron! You can’t just take Twilight’s magic! You can’t steal our ability to fly from us!”

“Oh, Daring Do, do not be so dramatic. You make it sound as though I am maiming you. You still have your wings, and your natural abilities will return. Eventually. But in the meantime, thanks to your... donations... I plan on becoming disgustingly wealthy.”

Suddenly, Twilight spoke up and stepped forward, holding her head high and her wings half-extended. “No,” she said with authority. Her lecturing voice rang out clear and firm. “As you’ve already observed, Doctor, the potential for this crystal to be used as a weapon is far too great if it falls into the wrong hooves. As a Princess of Equestria, I cannot allow you to sell or retain it, and I insist that you turn it over to me for safekeeping.”

But it seemed a response was already planned. “Ah... alas, while I would ordinarily be only too willing to obey the orders of royalty, I fear I do not recognise your authority here, Princess,” replied Caballeron. “This city was ever its own sovereign state. Equestria was created apart from it, and in all the ages since neither formally conquered nor united with it. And while the border of Equestria today extends beyond the mountain range in which we find ourselves, that political convenience applies to the land on the surface, but not under the ground. We are not in Equestria, your highness. Technically, we are in another country entirely and thus you have no say here.”

Daring stepped forward. “We’re not letting you take that crystal, Caballeron,” she growled.

“A shame. I truly was hoping to avoid our typical bout of violence on this occasion, but so be it.” He raised his head and turned it slightly. “Hitponies? Stop them!”

And so it was on.

* * *

Ordinarily, this fight wouldn’t have been a problem. Daring could just-about handle three of Caballeron’s goons in a straight-up brawl. The issue was that she also had another factor to contend with – Caballeron himself and his possession of the crystal. She had to get it from him before he could escape, which meant she had to focus on him, leaving his henchponies free to blindside her.

Fortunately, she had backup.

“Twilight! Rainbow Dash! Keep these thugs busy!” she called as she charged forward. Two of the brutes tried to make a grab for her but with a quick, darting side-step she sent them lurching the wrong way and she slid cleanly past, moving quickly, bearing down on her quarry. An instant later, from behind her, there was a muffled, pained ‘Oof’ followed by a loud cry of, “Take that!” Rainbow Dash was getting stuck in. Good girl.

Daring skidded to a stop, facing Caballeron at the very edge of the wide pit. Somewhere in the back of her mind, her encyclopedia of clichés identified this as a variant on the classic showdown-on-the-brink-of-a-cliff climax. Though, sadly, it also told her that for maximum dramatic effect it needed to be raining heavily, with both parties soaked through and shouting to be heard. Well, maybe in the edit...

“Give me the stone, Caballeron!” she demanded.

“No, Daring Do. You would claim the discovery of this city. You would claim to have unlocked its concealed history. You would claim to return the Crown of Unity to Equestria. But you will not claim this!” His eyes narrowed cruelly, his voice lowering to a seething hiss. “Hundreds of hours of research and planning to make it to this point. I... have earned this, Daring Do. And you will not take this from me too!”

“I’ll do whatever I have to to make sure that thing doesn’t end up in the wrong hooves!”

“No, Daring Do. You will try!” he said, tucking the stone safely inside his neck-scarf.

They lunged at each other and the true battle began.

In truth, had it been a conventional fight it would have been a very one-sided affair. Caballeron, for all his bluster, would struggle to fight his way free from a wet paper bag. He was not totally without threat: his stocky frame and earth-pony heritage gave him a great deal of strength – he could take a beating, and he had an explosive right hook that, when properly deployed to a pony’s jaw was a significant risk to the teeth of the recipient. But he was slow. And more than that, inexperienced in combat. He almost never fought himself. As an intellectual, it was beneath him. He had goons for that.

Instead of going for the attack, he backed away from her and defended, blocking her probing jabs and seeking a counter-attack where he could employ his one real offensive option. He managed to keep her at leg’s length and it was clear that his tactics were designed around a one-kick strategy: keep Daring at bay until he saw an opening and then strike hard enough to daze her and make good his escape. He didn’t want to fight, he wanted to run. All Daring had to do was wear him down until he was too tired to do either and then take the stone from him.

Problem was, time wasn’t quite on her side. With all three of his henchponies engaged in assaulting Twilight and Rainbow, it likely wouldn’t be long before they split them up and overwhelmed them. She risked a quick glance over, happy to see that for the moment they were holding their own. They seemed to be using a modified, ground-based version of the same distract-and-attack technique as they’d used in the aerial battle in the mountain pass. Twilight, being slower, would present an easier target and Rainbow would dart in while their focus was misplaced. But Caballeron’s henchponies were smarter than the average winged monster, and they were already starting to recognise and adapt. If Daring could get the stone before Caballeron’s thugs grabbed one of her friends this would end in a win. If not...

Daring struck and dodged and struck again, her blows being parried for the most part but that was fine. Caballeron was tiring, she could tell. She pressed her advantage, throwing a triple-combo of jabbing kicks his way and then ducking to the side to evade his furious right-hook counter-attack.

Except this time it wasn’t furious, it was a feint, and Caballeron’s true attack came from his left hoof. His weaker side to be sure, but Daring’s dodge carried her right into the blow. His hoof connected with her cheek and the impact sent her sideways, reeling as she saw stars. She staggered and in the next instant, as she put a hindleg down ready to kick off and launch a counter of her own, her stomach lurched instead as her hoof found nothing beneath it but empty space! She fell heavily onto her stomach, winded herself, and scrabbled desperately with her forehooves as her downwards momentum dragged her over the edge into the pit. Just at the last she managed to find a hoofhold that would prevent her from careering into the maw, and she pulled hard, arresting her fall. Finally still, she found herself hanging against the pit wall with a tenuous grasp. Her ribs hurt where the rim of the pit had struck them and her breath came in gasps, but at least she wasn’t plummeting to the bottom of a three-story shaft.

She looked up to find Caballeron stood over her with a victorious grin on his lips, the effect only mildly sullied by the sweat on his brow and clearly heaving sides. He’d been right at the limit of exhaustion then. That blow was his last, desperate gambit, and Daring cursed herself for the fact that she’d fallen victim to it. She met his gaze with gritted teeth, giving him a silent glare of daggers from her inferior, hopeless position.

“Well, Daring Do, this has been a most entertaining adventure as always, but I regret this is where we must part ways. Goodbye, until our next encounter.” He turned and barked. “Hitponies? To the elevator!” He turned back and fixed her with a smirk. “Unfortunately, by the time you reach the surface, I will be safely airborne. Enjoy your long walk back to EquestriaaaaaAAAAARRGH!”

Caballeron’s face contorted into a visage of pain and agony and his hooves suddenly clutched for his throat. Falling to his rump he unknotted his scarf and half-wrapped the shining, teardrop shaped crystal in it, holding it on one forehoof while he rubbed his neck with the other. The light inside the crystal was immense now, almost too difficult to look directly at, and lighting up the whole plaza. As Caballeron regarded it, his face became worried.

Daring pulled hard on her forelegs, and though it took a few moments she finally managed to climb up out of the pit and stand on all hooves once more, the pain in her ribs ignored for now. “What happened?”

“It has got very hot all of a sudden,” said Caballeron, wrapping more layers of scarf around the crystal as it became too hot to handle. “And it is getting worse.”

Daring raised her head. “Twilight! Quick! Over here!”

It seemed Caballeron’s henchponies had already scarpered for the road toward the courtyard beneath the broken tower, no doubt upon hearing the order to withdraw and expecting their boss to be right behind them. Thus the fight was over, and Twilight trotted over with Rainbow on her heels.

She looked at the crystal in Caballeron’s hooves, squinting hard against the harsh glare it cast, and quickly gave her conclusion with a voice not devoid of worry. “It’s cracked,” she said, her voice carrying a fearful tone that sent shivers down the spine. “You must have damaged it when you pried it loose. The magic inside... so much in such a confined space... it’s only a matter of time before it...” she trailed off. At the base of the crystal, where the teardrop came to a point, there was indeed a small, deep crack in the surface. And it was ablaze with the most brilliant, purest white light that seared the retinas, as though the entirety of the energy contained within the crystal was being focused on that point and was beginning to bleed through. The crystal continued to heat, now actually starting to faintly give off steam and it was clear that even through all the layers of scarf, Caballeron was suffering discomfort to hold it.

“We gotta get outta here!” cried Rainbow Dash. “We gotta run!

“Rainbow... there’s no point,” said Twilight sadly. “We’ve got seconds, at most.”

“And then?” asked Caballeron, his pupils pinpricks and his ears flat.

Twilight looked to Daring. “And then the magical energy is going to be released in an uncontrolled and, from the looks of it, very exothermic way.” She looked back to the crystal. “The blast is going to be huge. We won’t outrun it. We can’t escape. It’s too late.”

Everypony fell into stunned silence, completely unable to do anything but look at the timebomb in Caballeron’s hooves. Except Daring. Her interest was more on the other ponies around her than the artifact that would shortly spell their doom.

On the faces of each of the other three ponies, Daring saw a fatalistic, defeated look. The half-vacant expression that ponies wore when unexpectedly confronted with their own mortality, as their brains worked overtime trying desperately to cram what should be months worth of existential debate and eventual acceptance into the space of a few seconds, so that they might leave this life at peace and unafraid.

Daring was unafraid. She’d faced certain doom before. She’d worn that same expression before. Not often. And not now. She kept her cool. After all, if you kept your cool, most things were survivable. This... uh... well, fifty-fifty?

Look around you, Yearling. Two best friends and one worst enemy. One way or another... everypony you’ve ever cared about is right here with you.

You’re the author, remember? You’re not just gonna let their stories end here.

Heh. After all, they’re all recurring characters and the audience loves them.

She locked Caballeron’s gaze with a wicked, cocky smirk. “Doc? I would apologise, but the truth is, I’m actually gonna enjoy this a bit.” And with a mighty swing, Daring’s forehoof connected with the Doctor’s with a loud, smacking slap. He cried out in angered pain, but the scalding crystal was flung from his tenuous grasp, arcing up through the air and then down, down... down, as it sailed into the pit.

Daring whirled and roared. “EVERYPONY DOWN!” With a leap away from the edge she landed on her belly and raised her forehooves over her head, pressing her hat down and bracing for the worst.

The crystal fell, tumbling gracefully end over end, gravity speeding it upon its journey towards its final destination. It was smoking now, sparks ejecting from the crack near its point, but too late. It reached the unyielding stone floor of the pit, shattering into a million tiny shards as a terrible white light erupted from it and consumed all.


12: Always in a Book

View Online

Twilight was right about one thing: the explosion was huge.

A thunderous, deafening, explosive roar that sent horrific vibrations up the walls of the pit to the ground upon which they cowered.

And then the bright, blinding light; an immense amount of pure magical energy erupting from the pit as though an enormous, high-pressure geyser, the pit walls acting like the barrel of a cannon serving to compress and focus the destructive power in one direction alone: up.

The unleashed energy ejected in a vertical beam of searing light and heat, striking the cavern ceiling with terrible force. As an unexpected consequence, the star-like crystals mounted above suddenly bloomed back into life, glowing fiercely with the new injection of raw mana and cascading to their neighbours, gradually illuminating the city once more.

But the sheer amount of magic was too much for most of them, especially those closest to the point of impact. Many of the crystals began to burst and pop as they were overwhelmed, dozens of them exploding with the force of a stick of dynamite. And from the beam’s point of impact, huge dark cracks appeared and spread outwards in the manner of a jagged spider-web. When nearby crystals continued to explode, the cracks grew larger until they began to shed whole lumps of rock which came crashing down to the ground around them.

As the light faded and the shockwave passed, Daring tried to push herself back to her hooves, but something was wrong and she felt the ground beneath her shift and tilt. The explosion had done a number on the walls of the pit, and the stone nearest the edge was beginning to soften, crumble and collapse.

She was too close to the rim and the ground gave way beneath her, sinking to an angle and causing her to slide over the side and into the maw. She grasped for the edge in desperation, but the very stone beneath her forehooves crumbled away, threatening to send her plummeting into the abyss beneath. She tried to re-adjust but wherever she thought she might find safe purchase the stone continued to crack, split, and yield. She scrambled frantically, only able stave off the inevitable fall for a moment or two but she would fight hoof and nail for every instant she could get.

Caballeron was in trouble too, as the next-nearest to the edge when the explosion had thundered up from below. The ground beneath continued to give way and he found himself sliding too. Fortunately, he was within reach of the great bronze table, and still wrapped around it were the lengths of rope that had been used to haul it up and onto the plaza floor. He made a desperate grab for one, hoping to curtail his motion towards the pit, but the point at which he had seized the cord had slack yet to pay out and so he found himself careering over the side before the line finally went taught. And as Daring’s final meager hoofhold disintegrated into nothing she finally had something solid to reach for, and she seized it greedily.

I’m spending an awful lot of time today dangling over the edge of this stupid pit... she thought grimly, clinging on to the only thing that might save her from a swift descent to the ground – one of Caballeron’s hind legs.

Which did not go unnoticed. With his hindleg caught in her grip and her mass added to his own, Caballeron craned his neck to look at her with a glare. “You have put on weight since Canterblanca!” came a hard-edged voice from directly above.

“Really?!” she cried. “You wanna do fat-jokes now?!

“Simply an... ugh! Observation!” he grunted as he tried unsuccessfully to pull their combined weight back to the surface.

Without warning the ground shifted again as more supporting bricks in the pit wall began to crumble and fail, and to her horror, their lifeline began to give up more slack as the bronze table shifted and started to roll...

Oh... crud.

“Caballeron! Down!” she yelled.

Thankfully it did not take him too many seconds to see the wisdom of her plan. With the table above them now right at the pit-edge and ready to fall any moment, there was no chance they would be able to pull themselves free in time. It took precious moments for Caballeron to drop the rest of the length of rope beneath him, and then Daring seized it in preference to the hindlimb she had up to now been clinging to.

From the cavern ceiling above, larger and larger chunks were now beginning to fall into the plaza with horrendous smacks and crunches of rock on rock. And with the epicentre of the impact sited directly overhead, the worst of the debris was falling straight towards them. Daring winced as a hunk of granite the size of a large cart whistled down past her, crashing into the platform still a long way beneath. They couldn’t stay here.

Move, Doc!” she bellowed, abseiling down the face of the pit wall as fast as the rope-burns on her hooves would allow. In moments she had reached the floor of the pit, strewn with rocky debris all over. Caballeron was right behind her. Too close, in fact, and before she could clear the base of the rope he knocked into her, rump first, his momentum sending her sprawling to the ground towards the middle of the platform, and she dared to look up as the bronze table above rolled off the edge and began to plummet.

Without thought or conscious impulse guiding her, and relying only on the most base of survival instincts, Daring rolled towards the cart-sized boulder that had beaten them to the ground. She came to rest on her back, nestled right against it and watched with horror as the table seemed to fall straight towards her.

She shut her eyes tight. She didn’t need to see this.

The world shook. It roared. It crashed. There was pain, sharp at first, right across her middle, then it began to dull. After a moment things began to settle and a strange peace overcame her. In fact, she even thought she heard a waterfall.

But rather than the gentle fade-to-black that she was expecting, consciousness was stubborn in its persistence, and so she had to find use for it.

Alright Yearling, your day’s gone to rat-droppings and it doesn’t look like it’s going to improve anytime soon. But for now, let’s just figure out how bad things are and go from there. First off, can you feel all your limbs? Left leg front. Right leg front. Left leg back. Right leg back. Left wing. Right wing. Okay, good, haven’t lost anything major. Breathe in, that still work? Uhhh, yep, seems to— ouch! Ow. I think if that rib wasn’t bruised before it definitely is now. And there’s something pushing down hard on your chest. Gonna need a closer look at that, but otherwise, you seem to be in good shape for a pony that should have just been smushed.

Finally confident that she wasn’t about to see one of her own legs bent at a sickening angle, or something equally grotesque, Daring opened her eyes, shaking her head to clear the worst of the gravel-dust away. The table had fallen onto its edge, and about a third of its diameter had crashed almost directly onto the rock against which she’d rolled. By the sheer force of the impact the tabletop had sliced vertically into the granite almost all the way to the flagstones beneath, save for a tiny triangle of space between where the curvature of the table met the floor and where it entered the rock. Space that was currently wholly occupied by her body. Daring was caught between the side of the rock and the edge of the table which rested awkwardly against and across her chest, pressing her into the flagstones against her back. The top surface of the table greeted her head, chest and forelegs, and from somewhere down below, her hindleg could feel the pedestal.

And the peaceful waterfall? That was real, it seemed. A stream of freezing water was cascading down from directly above and beginning to pool nearby. And the stream was getting thicker by the minute.

The lake... it’s breaking through the ceiling! Alright, come on Yearling, gotta get out of here.

She grunted and pushed hard with her forehooves, but the table had embedded itself in the solid rock and would not move for her. She tried struggling beneath it, desperate to wriggle free but she was too firmly wedged. Rocks, some the size of her hat, continued to rain down feet, if not inches away from her and the water was now cold against her back, covering the ground. More leaks were springing from the cavern roof now: thick rivulets of fresh, freezing cold snowmelt from the lake above the surface streaming down into the plaza and funnelled into the pit thanks to the depression caused by the half-collapsed floor, cascading over the edge to pool around her as the water level climbed, and she unable to do anything to stop it.

“Daring Do?” called a familiar accented voice from somewhere near her hindlegs.

“Caballeron?” she called back.

Caballeron stepped around the side of the table, into view and frowned at her. “Amazing. Somehow you are still in one piece. You have more lives than a cat,” he grumbled, shaking his head.

“I’m pinned,” she said, grunting and giving another hard struggle against the solid table pressing down on her, to no avail.

“Oh? No witty rejoinder? No smug, insufferable comment? Interesting how things change when the horseshoe is on the other hoof. I’m certain there is a cutting remark to be made here. Off the top of my head, something about how you have really let things get on top of you? Perhaps when you come to write this paragraph into your next tissue of lies you will at least credit me with a measure of wit. Now I suggest you get ready to push as hard as you can.”

Caballeron reared onto his hindlegs, grasped the edge of the table and yanked hard, trying to roll it towards himself and away from the rock it had crashed into. In tandem, Daring pushed up with as much might as her limited leverage would allow. Her eyes scrunched shut and she clenched her teeth so tight they began to hurt, certain that she just needed a little more strength before the table would come loose and she could free herself. Just a little more. A little more. Just... a little... more! Agh!

Her tortured limbs gave up and she fell back, worried to find that the water was now more than halfway up her back, lapping against her trapped wings.

“Again!” called the Doctor, and so they re-tried. But fatigue doomed their attempt to a much shorter effort and the same exact result.

“It will not budge,” said Caballeron, breathing hard and wiping genuine sweat from his brow.

“Thanks for the update, Doc. I noticed,” said Daring. She rested her head back against the flagstones as she caught her breath, and the water had risen to her ears. She could keep her head above it for now, but in a few scant minutes the water level would rise to where no amount of strength or struggle would enable her to force her muzzle past the surface. She would take her last breath and know it was her last. Drowning then. There must be worse ways to go she supposed, but... this was pretty bad.

This place. It really did get you in the end.

Daring Do! Daring Do, are you okay?!” The shrill voice from high above, echoing down to her was that of Rainbow Dash.

Daring scowled and gave another heave against the table, finding her efforts as futile as ever. “Rainbow! Twilight! Get out of here, understand?! Get back to the platform and get out! This whole place is coming down!”

Don’t worry, we’re here. Just hold on, we’ll find some way to get you both up from down there!” That was Twilight.

“There’s no time! Just g—!”

“She is trapped!” Caballeron interrupted, calling up to them himself.

“Shut up, Caballeron,” she growled.

There was a short, confused beat before Rainbow shouted again. “Well then, un-trap her!

“As if I had not been trying,” he muttered. “I cannot! The table is wedged too tightly!”

Okay! Hold on, we’ll find a way down! Don’t worry Daring, we’re coming!” called Twilight.

“I said no! Get —ungh!— out of here!” She glared daggers at Caballeron stood over her. “I won’t forgive you for this,” she growled.

And received an equally furious glare in reply. “I cannot move this, and if you remain there your fate is sealed. You have never had a deathwish before: why would you not wish their assistance now?”

“Because I’m responsible for them, jerk! I brought them here, and I promised they’d get home safe! That’s all that matters!”

“Yes, and I am certain that when they return and tell their loved-ones how they bravely abandoned their friend to die at the bottom of a pit, their guilt will be utterly assuaged by the knowledge that you told them not to try,” he seethed. “How is it that you can write ponies so convincingly, yet know so little about them?”

Caballeron! We need that rope! Throw it up to us!” called Twilight.

Turning, Caballeron gathered up the rope, untangling it from the crashed and mangled table. Scooping up a hoof-sized rock from among the many that had impacted around them he tied the end of the rope about it and began whirling it like a lasso. At the perfect moment he sent it catapulting straight upwards at ferocious speed, trailing the rope behind it, until – at the first time of asking, remarkably enough – it reached the outstretched forehooves of Twilight high above, who snatched it and brought it safely to herself.

They have nothing to use for an anchor, thought Caballeron. But even before the thought left his mind he was proved wrong. Over the edge of the pit Rainbow Dash appeared with his pick-axe grasped between her forelegs. With a mighty heave she swung it vertically, straight down, burying one of the points deep in the pit wall just a couple of feet below the lip, with the wooden handle now pointing upwards at a diagonal angle. With a quick test for strength, a loop from the end of the rope was thrown over the handle and suddenly they had an anchored rope long enough to reach from the top of the pit to the bottom.

Not wanting to risk weakening the anchor in the probably-no-longer-stable walls of the pit, Rainbow and Twilight descended separately, but rapidly. In the space of moments, and thanks to teamwork, they had reached the bottom, water sloshing around their fetlocks.

“I told you two to get out of here,” snapped Daring.

“Yeah? And we told you that friends don’t leave friends behind!” retorted Dash, her mane sopping wet and her eyes full of righteous, steely, heroic determination.

Which gave Daring pause. She quirked an eyebrow. “Uh... at no point have you actually said that yet,” she noted.

“Well, we’ll say I did,” said Dash. “Because it’s true and it’ll make a great callback. But right now we gotta get this thing off you.”

Together the three ponies took up positions – Twilight and Caballeron on either side of the tabletop ready to pull, while Rainbow Dash stood upon the rock to try and push it away. After the count of three they all heaved with as much strength as they could muster, with Daring once more adding her own efforts from below.

Strained groans and grunts of exertion filled the pit even above the sound of the sloshing water cascading around them. They pushed and pulled and heaved for all they were worth, muscles screaming, bones aching, but surely making progress. This had to be it. The combined effort of four ponies acting as one, with one goal and one intent would in the end prove to be...

A failure.

With gasps and heaving sides all four of them relaxed their grips and the table had not moved at all. Even sitting up as far as she could, the water level had risen halfway up her face now.

“It’s no use,” she admitted. “This thing’s not going anywhere.”

“It is too firmly wedged in the stone,” agreed Caballeron. “We need...” he trailed off and turned, walking beyond the table to where she couldn’t see him.

“We gotta try again!” cried Dash. “We must have loosened it!” Her eyes were shrunken and darting, and Daring saw the signs of panic starting to set in. In Twilight too, actually, though it was more subtle. It was odd. They weren’t the ones about to meet a grisly fate in this cold, unforgiving city. Why would they be afraid?

“Guys... look. Thanks for trying, but you’ve gotta get out of here. You don’t have long before—” She was cut off by another large rock shed from the cavern ceiling, demonstrating the point she’d been about to make by crashing into the water next to them with a large splash.

Twilight looked from the receding splash to Daring with a look of barely-contained fear. Though, clearly not fear for her own safety. “Daring, we’re not just going to leave you here!”

“We’ll figure something out!” cried Rainbow Dash.

Daring looked up at both and gave them sincere, grateful looks. “Look... it’s okay, alright? You don’t have to see this. Just go.”

Twilight’s face softened at that and the panic in it slowly drained, replaced by something at once kinder and yet more worrying: acceptance. “We’re not going to let you face this alone,” she said. “We’re here for you. We’re your friends.”

“I... Heh. You know, I never thought I’d say this but—”


“—I’m really glad to have you guys as—”

Hngh! Ungh!

“—You guys as fr— Oh, for the love of peat, what are you doing back there... Doc...?” Daring’s mouth fell open as movement caught her eye and her gaze trailed up the side of the pit. The rope was being pulled taut and then would fall slack, as though it were being yanked on, hard. “No...” she breathed. “Caballeron, stop, you fool!”

“You two! Get over here! I need your assistance!” he barked.

“What is it?!” asked Dash as she turned towards him.

“The pick-axe! We need the pick-axe! I cannot dislodge it!”

“Caballeron, stop!” cried Daring again. “If you pull the pick out of the wall, they’ll have no way back up! You’ll all be trapped down here! Just go! All of you! Leave me and get out of here while you can!”

But her pleas fell on deaf ears, it seemed. Twilight and Rainbow stepped beyond the table to where she could not see them, a moment later there were renewed and forceful pulls on the rope, and a moment after that the pick-axe embedded high above them in the pit-wall finally came free, accompanied by a few crumbs of crumbling brickwork.

The tool fell and splashed into the water where it was snatched up by Caballeron, hefting it with intent. Quickly he scrambled onto the rock that wedged the table in its grip. Grasping the handle of the pick-axe in his teeth he gave a mighty swing, slamming the tip into the granite with as much force as he could muster. It impacted on the rock with a solid, curtailed TING! And so he hefted it again, ready to strike anew.

“Pull on it! Hard! We must loosen it as much as we can!”

The two mares didn’t need to be told twice. They tugged and wrenched as Caballeron set to his task of destroying the stone around the table.


Daring was having to crane her neck to its limit to keep her muzzle above the water, but she could feel tiny movements in the table now. Twilight and Rainbow were rocking it back and forth, causing it to shift by millimeters, but her own muscles were exhausted. She just needed a second, but she knew if she dropped her head below the surface of the water to rest, she might not find any air when she came back up. She fought it off for as long as she could, but in the end the burning in her muscles overtook her and her heavy head fell back, beneath the surface where all was calm and peaceful.

* * *

“Twilight!” cried Rainbow. “Get Daring! Keep her head above the water!”

“We need a few more minutes!” agreed Caballeron, striking hard with the axe; every impact loosening the blasted hunk of metal just a little more.

Twilight nodded and waded over, reaching into the water with her hooves and finding Daring’s head. Gently she sat and cradled it, taking its weight and lifting it upward until Daring’s muzzle broke the surface once more. Daring gasped and drew in a desperate breath through her nostrils, but it seemed she was at the limit that her pinned body would allow. In mere seconds the water would rise to cover it, and no amount of pulling or tugging would change the fact that Daring wouldn’t be able to get her nose above it.

“We need to hurry!” urged Twilight. “She’s out of time!”

“We’re nearly there!” called Rainbow. “I can feel it moving back and forward! We just need another minute!”

“She doesn’t have that long!” called Twilight as the water finally overtook Daring’s muzzle.

“Keep her breathing!” ordered Caballeron. “We are nearly there!”

Twilight looked down at the face in her hooves beneath the water, and the slow stream of bubbles rising from Daring’s lips. The stream of small bubbles suddenly became a cluster of large ones as Daring’s mind lost the battle to her body, desperate to exhale. This was it. She was out of air. In a few seconds the pony beneath her was going to drown less than a minute from safety, unless Twilight did something.

Keep her breathing, she repeated mentally. Of course! Carefully releasing Daring’s head she crouched and took a deep breath. Closing her eyes, she plunged her own head into the water.

* * *

This was it. She’d staved it off for longer than she had any right to already, but her lungs had burned. They’d been desperate to replenish the stale air within them despite her conscious insistence that there was none to be found. And in an instant of weakness she’d let her final breath go. Now there was nought to do but wait until she could no longer suffer the vacuum in her chest, and she would automatically breath in again. Except this time there would be no air, only cold water, and it would be her last.

A shame. Except for the terrible pressure in her chest – the drive to inhale – it really was quite peaceful down here.

But she couldn’t stall any longer.

Suddenly she felt a shift in the water directly above her. Her eyes snapped open but she could see little in the dark and from beneath the surface. Instead she felt a soft muzzle against hers, pressing forward, forming a seal. And as Daring’s own maw opened and she instinctively gasped for oxygen, that was exactly what she received. Twilight exhaled and Daring inhaled, her lungs filling with slightly-stale air, but which nevertheless sustained her.

Oh, clever girl. You really are Purple Smart.

A moment later the table began to move more. Instead of rocking back and forth by millimeters, now it was inches and the effect was accelerating. She could still feel the vibrations of Caballeron’s pick hammering into the rock against which she was wedged, but it was definitely loosening. Twilight had to breathe for her one more time and then finally, as the table rocked away with one final effort, Daring gave her own mighty heave upwards with her forehooves, pushing it just far enough, and then she scrambled for all she was worth. Twilight pulled her by the shoulders and together they managed to get her clear.

Free at last she stood, coughed, spluttered, and glared.

“I told you to leave me!” she yelled. “Now you’re trapped down here! You should have saved yourselves!”

Caballeron and Rainbow Dash looked annoyed at that, but Twilight looked hurt. And then, in one question she summed it up: “What would you have done?” she asked.

Oh, snap.

Before the sudden wave of guilt could descend she shook her head. There would be time for that later. Right now they had big problems to deal with, and they weren’t doomed yet.

“Besides, we’re not trapped,” said Rainbow Dash. “I mean, the water’s gonna fill this pit up eventually, right? Why don’t we just wait and swim to the top as it does?”

“Because we don’t have that much time!” said Daring, looking upward. She pointed, and all three ponies followed her gaze.

The cavern ceiling was shedding huge chunks of rock now. They could be heard crashing into the plaza on all sides above them, and it was surely only a matter of time before two or three large, unavoidable chunks fell into the pit. Onto them. But even were that not the case, the walls at the top of the pit were starting to sag and crumble – the victims of the explosion they had channelled. And even as they watched, the bricks in top fifth or so of one side gave way, plummeting toward them.

“The whole pit is going to collapse! Everypony, quick, into the passage! Go!” yelled Daring, marshalling the three ponies ahead of her through belly-high water into the tunnel as brickwork and masonry rained down. Suddenly a pang of horror struck her and she turned back to the table, still stubbornly on its side. Crouching down and plunging her hooves into the water, feeling desperately for it she found it right where her head had been, and brought it up: one pith helmet. The top section of the pit gave way entirely and Daring leaped for the safety of the tunnel, reaching it just as the base of the well was filled with rock and stone, blocking the entrance behind her.

But the danger wasn’t over. The tunnel had been subjected to the blast too, and was decidedly unstable. Anywhere from a quarter to a third of the masonry blocks that had once made up the walls and ceiling were now strewn onto the floor, plus the water was continuing to rise. They needed to get to safety before they were either crushed or drowned.

Hastening to the far end they came to the high wall, the cut-away pit beneath it now a pool of frigid liquid.

“We need to find a way up,” said Caballeron. Only to register obvious surprise when Rainbow Dash placed herself just at the top of the slope of the pit and planted her hooves. Taking her cue, Daring deftly hopped onto her back and pushed off, leaping toward the pit-edge. Out of habit her wings gave an instinctive flap and just for a moment, actual lift seemed to register. She reached the ledge, hauled herself up and turned. Rainbow jumped for her, she grabbed on and pulled her to safety. Then Rainbow turned and between them they encouraged Twilight to jump for it and they pulled her up too. Leaving Caballeron alone.

“Come on, Doc!” called Daring, extending her forehoof, relieved to find that Rainbow did likewise. She wasn’t sure that she could pull him up herself.

Caballeron hesitated for a second but then seemed to find his resolve. He leapt for them, though his leap was nowhere near as athletic as even Twilight’s had been. Stretching his hooves to their limits he just managed to link them with her own and Rainbow’s, though for a moment they both threatened to go over the edge! Grunting and groaning they both pulled mightily until at last, Caballeron scrambled up to the wide ledge, and finally all four of them could claim a measure of safety.

Daring fixed the Doctor with a sarcastic glare. “And you have the nerve to say I’ve got heavier?” she chided.

Caballeron turned to her. “I... am surprised that you would—”

“Save it,” she snapped, and looked down at the now-flooded, mostly-collapsed tunnel beneath them and let out a sigh. “We’ve bought ourselves some time, but that’s about it. That was the only way in or out of this place,” she finished with a grimace.

A moment of reflective quiet greeted them. Dull thuds and pounding noises from far above could be heard, channelled through the brickwork, but it all seemed far away. They were safe for now, but conversely they were trapped. From here, destiny had narrowed its options to but a single fate for each of them. The only surprise left would be when.

A few silent moments passed as that sank in.

Daring gave herself a quiet, frustrated snort as she reflected on the comedy of errors that had brought them to this point. She had had so many chances to avoid it. So many opportunities to turn back. But no. More than anything, it was her own incompetence that had led them all here. The irony was, if she’d stuck to working alone she would never even have made it this far; certainly wouldn’t have dragged two innocent ponies away from lives that it looked increasingly likely they were never going to get back to. Because of her. Because she didn’t know when to quit and leave well enough alone. Now more than ever she felt less an adventurer and more a literature graduate, caught in a situation she’d blundered into headlong without any knowledge of this place, or the risks it posed.

From their grim expressions it seemed the others were musing on their fates too.

“I’m supposed to... I’ve got a Wonderbolt gig next weekend...” said Rainbow Dash. Then she tried to force some mirth into her forlorn tone. “Heh, wait... wait until the team finds out that I literally lost the ability to fly. They’re never gonna let me live it down.” She sighed a forlorn sigh. “Hope whoever gets my spot does a good job for the team,” she finished quietly.The thick quiet descended again, the three other ponies each looking contemplative and a little worried. That wasn’t good. They were likely beating themselves up too, to different extents. Thoughts like that would only lead to despair, and that wasn’t what they needed. Not now. Not yet. Come on, Yearling, get it together.

Daring turned and flicked her tail, making for the passageway that led deeper into the catacombs. “Come on, Doc. You’re here now, might as well see what all the fuss was about,” she said, leading him toward the first of the challenges she and her friends had faced earlier. It may have been little more than a distraction, but it clearly worked because without further ado, Caballeron and the two mares followed.

* * *

“And so they would reach this point and retrieve their crowns before returning?” Caballeron half-asked, half-stated as he stood before the two empty busts in the final room of the gauntlet. The traps and puzzles had not re-set themselves and the lighting down here was still adequate to see by, thus they had had no problem reaching the finish line. Plus, it was the logical place to go – the furthest place away from the earlier blast and now the slowly encroaching water.

Daring wasn’t sure if the water would eventually flood the entire passage system, or if the air-pressure would air-lock it into a huge air-bubble below ground. Not that it mattered too much. Right now it was just a question of which danger would eventually account for their demise – drowning, asphyxiation, starvation, or having the entire tunnel network collapse on top of them. Choices choices choices.“The crowns acted as keys fitted into the two circular receptacles on the top of the table. When they were both inserted, the table would unlock, return their magic, and they’d rise back to the surface in triumph,” said Twilight.

Caballeron turned to her. “And what if they were to fail to reach this point? If their ‘trust’ was not up to the challenges? They would end up trapped, as you were?”

“There must have been some kind of failsafe,” reasoned Twilight. “Maybe something we disrupted when we set the Crown of Unity into the table. I guess it was never envisaged that they’d only be coming back to it with one of the crowns after all.”

“A timer maybe? Or perhaps something controlled from elsewhere,” posited Daring. “Must have been some way to reset it, because we know the Kings got trapped down here, just as planned, but the platform was on the surface when I found the place. Rods were in place too. Maybe re-inserting both rods into their holders raises the platform on that spring we felt we were pushing against on the way down? You’d need outside help to make that work though...”

“Maybe the younger brother had co-conspirators who reset the platform once he and his fellow king had disappeared into the catacombs,” reasoned Twilight. “No way back up for them then. Gave them enough time to evacuate the city.”

“We’ll probably never know exactly how it went down,” said Daring. “One theory’s as good as another right now.”

“It is a grim fate that they shared,” said Caballeron with a grimace. “Trapped forever below ground, with a pony you once respected, now your worst enemy.” He seemed to come to a realisation, and turned a cruel frown on Daring. “The parallels are intriguing, no?” he bristled.

“Shall we focus on not killing each other and let this place do it for us?” retorted Daring.

“Daring’s right. We need to work together,” chimed in Twilight.

Not sure that’s exactly what I said...” grumbled Daring, returning Caballeron’s glare with an evil-eye of her own.

All this while, Rainbow Dash had been silent.

In truth, her mind had been wandering for some time. Since the eggheads had all started blabbering about those ancient Kings again, actually. It was like the eggheads were multiplying or something.

So her thoughts wandered, but she couldn’t get them to meander very far. Because right in the back of her mind there was the sense that things just weren’t adding up somehow. The gauntlet, the ancient Kings, the journal. There was something ever so slightly wrong with the whole picture... like a puzzle-piece that didn’t quite fit, or a tiny, aberrant black-hole that held her thoughts trapped in its orbit, but that she just couldn’t see clearly.

She almost dismissed it. After all, Twilight and Daring and even Caballeron were the brainiacs. If there was something amiss they’d have spotted it ages ago. It was probably nothing, but she just couldn’t make herself let it go.

“Hey, uh... guys? How long do bones last?”

Twilight, Daring and Caballeron halted their conversation-cum-argument. Daring turned and gave her one of her not-really-mad-but-I’m-still-frowning-at-you frowns. “Hey, don’t go starting thinking like that. We’re not licked yet, understand?”

“No, but... seriously... how long do they last?”

Twilight looked a little nervous at Rainbow’s apparent contemplation of the decidedly morbid, but she had been asked, so she answered. “Well... depending on the environment, they could conceivably last hundreds of years.”

“Right. But not, like, over a thousand?”

“Well, possibly, yes. If they were somewhere cool, dark, away from the sun and weather-erosion.”

“Right.” Rainbow looked around herself for a moment, then lowered her head, a little confused frown creasing her brow. “Those two brothers... they definitely came down here, didn’t they? And they got trapped together?”

“The younger King’s journal was left here, at the bottom of the pit. There were already two ribbons of energy in that crystal when we arrived. And we know the exodus to Equestria was a success. It’s safe to assume his plan worked.”

“And without both of the crowns to unlock the platform, they got stuck just like we were?”

“Yeah,” said Twilight. “But don’t worry Rainbow. We’ll think of something. We’re not going to perish down here like those two brothers did, okay?”

Rainbow shook her head. Twilight either wasn’t getting it, or she was way ahead of her. “Okay... but how do we know they didn’t make it out?”

“There aren’t any other accesses to the surface,” said Daring. “It’s not even as if there are any side-passages or rooms to explore. If they couldn’t get the platform moving without the other crown that that journal said was already gone – or if Twilight’s right and the platform was reset by somepony else while they were down here – there aren’t too many other outcomes.”

“Plus, the King’s journal was still here,” reasoned Twilight, a little sadly. “From the things he wrote in it, I think it was pretty important to him. If they’d found a way to escape together, I doubt he would have just left it behind.”

Rainbow looked up again, sure that her argument was about to be undone by a simple, logical explanation. “Okay, so... if they never made it out of here... and there aren’t any other rooms or passages... where are their bones?”

And Daring looked right at her. She was still frowning, but now it was the excited frown of someone annoyed with herself for not seeing something blindingly obvious. “Son of a...” she whispered.

“Maybe we just missed them?” Twilight suggested.

“No chance. Between us we’ve seen every inch of this place, and even given Doctor Greedy-Guts here the grand tour. If they were here, one of us would have noticed them,” affirmed Daring. “Rainbow’s right: those two kings... they’re not here.” She looked at Twilight. “There was something in that journal. Almost at the last part you read to us,” she said, taxing her memory and forcing it back to just a few hours ago. “It was something like, ‘I don’t believe I’ll leave that place, for it would require nothing less than the real trust we once shared.’ I thought it sounded weird at the time. Why would he write it like that? He knew they wouldn’t be able to get out the usual way: by the time they came down together the Crown of Harmony was already gone – they had no key. Unless... there was another way out. One that the King knew about but didn’t think he’d be able to use without trusting his brother completely. One final do-or-die challenge.” Daring was grinning a determined grin now. “What if they actually found that trust again? What if they escaped?”

“But... if they got out, why did the King leave his journal behind?” asked Twilight. “Just the idea of abandoning a book makes me queasy.”

Daring’s grin widened. “Because he couldn’t take it with him. Because the only way of getting out would have destroyed the book in the process!” Daring looked at Rainbow with a confident grin, respect clear in her eyes. “Rainbow Dash? You’re a certified genius! Come on!” she said, whirling and galloping for the door, the other three falling into quick step behind.

And Rainbow put on the widest, smuggest, self-satisfied grin she’d ever had. “Oh yeah. Twilight and Applejack are always telling me I should be certified.”

* * *

They stood on the edge of the deep pool in the water-room, still filled with water after their first encounter with it hours prior. Daring pointed to the metal gate high up on the wall of the pool that had allowed the water to sluice through.

“The water comes through it to fill the pit up, right? But the water’s gotta come from somewhere. A reservoir, an underground river, something. If we swim it, there might be a way out on the other side.”

“Alright... so what about the trust part?” asked Rainbow.

“I have a theory about that. Just need to test it. Do me a favour and pull the gate up?”

Rainbow duly took her position at the mechanism and pulled, the gate in the pool wall raising. The water level didn’t seem to rise further, Daring noted. The pressure must have equalised. Good.

She took off her hat and passed it to Twilight. “Hold this till I get back.” Then she dove into the water and a moment later, swam into the tunnel.

An uncomfortably long time passed. Over a minute, easily. Twilight and Rainbow began to exchange worried looks, while Caballeron’s face was unreadable. But presently, Daring re-emerged from the tunnel and broke the surface of the water, coughing and spluttering. She hauled herself out of the pool, gasping and retching for air.

After a couple of harsh, wet coughs Daring finally stood on her hooves. She was cold, soaked through and a little unsteady – not to mention she’d had her fill of water already today – but otherwise okay. She’d seen what she needed to. She raised her head to the two other ponies and—

Twilight was wearing her hat and trying to look innocent about it. What was it with ponies and that hat?

At a gesture, she retrieved her headgear from the alicorn, and finally regarded the three expectant ponies before her. “It’s like I thought. The tunnel is really long. I can see that there’s an exit of some kind at the far end, but there’s absolutely no way any of us are going to be able to swim it on one breath of air. I pushed myself as far as I could and didn’t get to half-way before I had to turn back.”

“Okay... so... wait, I don’t get it... are we stuck?” asked Rainbow.

Daring looked seriously at them. “No. It won’t be easy, but we can reach the other end.”

“Okay, but how?” asked Twilight.

“We just do for each other what you did for me back in the pit there. Breath-sharing. You each take the biggest lungful of air you can and start swimming. When you get as far as you can go, you give a signal. One of you exhales. Then you lock your lips together and pass breath back and forth, in and out. It’s not ideal and it might make you a bit dizzy, but that should give you enough breath to reach the other end.”

“What... so it’s like... we’re kissing each other underwater?” was Rainbow Dash’s typically to-the-point contribution.

“It’s not about romance, Rainbow Dash, it’s about survival,” deadpanned Daring. “If we stay here, we really are trapped. This is the only option we have, but I think it’ll work. We’ll go in pairs. You and Twilight. Me and Caballeron,” she said, ending with a grimace that was reflected by the good Doctor.

There was a brief, confused pause.

“Daring, are you sure that’s a good idea?” asked Twilight.

“Yeah,” agreed Rainbow. “I thought you said it was about trust. You’re not saying you trust him?!”

It is as though I were not even here...” grumbled Caballeron in the background.

“No, but you two trust each other. And this is about giving you the best chance of making it through. I promised I’d make sure you got back home safe, and I’m gonna do what I can to keep my word.”

“But what about you? What if Caballeron pulls something? He could take your air all for himself and not give you any back!” said Rainbow Dash.

“We don’t have much choice. This won’t work with an odd number of ponies,” said Daring. “Besides, trust or not... we can’t just leave him here.”

“If you believe that I am in any way enthused about this course of action, I am not,” snapped Caballeron from well outside the clique.

“Yeah, but at least you know that Daring Do isn’t gonna pull anything tricky on you!” retorted Rainbow Dash. “She’s gonna keep her word! We all know what you’re like.”

“Yes of course, how could I forget? I am the villain! Cast in two dimensions and rotten to the core! Let us not even consider the notion that I might possess a shred of decency; let us not even give voice to the concept that I might wish to abstain from an act tantamount to murder!” said Caballeron with heavy, angry sarcasm. He narrowed his eyes then. “And you are mistaken if you believe that the pony you see there is the same as the hero from those books,” he growled.

Twilight and Rainbow bristled at that, and both made ready to offer loud, defensive objections.

“Enough!” called Daring. “Caballeron? Stop trying to drive a wedge between us. It’s not helping anything. Rainbow? Stop provoking him. You and Twilight jump in the pool and start practicing the technique. You’re only gonna get one shot for real so you’d better get it down.”

Twilight and Rainbow exchanged a look but took themselves to the pool and lowered themselves in, beginning to practise their routine below the surface. With the two other mares out of the way, Caballeron gave Daring a long stare. One that she was all too happy to return in kind.

“Let’s get this straight, Caballeron. For them, this is about trust. For you and me, it’s about necessity. We’re doing this because we have to, not because I trust you because I don’t. But Rainbow Dash is right all the same – I’m gonna keep to my side of the bargain. And even though I doubt you’ll do the same... we’re doing it anyway.”

Caballeron gave her an odd look at that, head tilted slightly to one side. “Do you really believe I am so despicable? That I hold life – your life – in such low regard that were the choice so simple, I simply would not make the effort to sustain it?”

“That’s the point, I don’t know. After what you pulled at Friesian Fjord I think you’ll do pretty much anything to get what you want,” Daring threw back.

“You think that I would equate theft, treachery and a little black market dealing to taking a life?”

“You left out kidnapping, extortion, fraud...”

“I am not a monster, Avada.”

“No. You’re a snake, Caballeron.”

He paused at that. Then, put on a strange smile for a moment. “I do enjoy the exchange of insults. They never cease to entertain. You say I would do anything to get what I want? That is not true, and even if it were... I do not want you dead. Any more than a sports team wishes the death of their competitors on the field of play. Discredited perhaps, taken down a peg or two certainly, and out of my way more often than not. But we are rivals. Persistent thorns in each other’s sides. Adversaries playing the most interesting game in Equestria. That has never made us mortal enemies.”

Daring gave him a long, hard look. Usually she was able to tell when he was lying, (his mouth moved,) but here and now, she just couldn’t be sure. She shook her head and sighed. “Like I said, it doesn’t matter,” she said with a fatalistic air. “We’re going for it either way.”

“If I wanted you dead, I would not have worked so hard to keep you alive...” muttered Caballeron with a note of annoyance.

A moment of silence passed before Daring realised they weren’t sharing it alone. She looked to the pool with an annoyed frown to see two heads bobbing above the surface, staring.

“Uh... do you two need another minute?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“You’re supposed to be practising!” rebuked Daring.

“What? We’ve totally got it down. It’s not exactly hard, even if I am basically smooching queen octopus-lips over here.”

“Hey!” said Twilight, giving Rainbow an angry glare. “The seal needs to be tight!”

“The point is, don’t you guys need to practise too?” said Dash.

The final word though was lost within the sound of a distant but enormous thundering crash from the passage that led back towards the pit. The whole chamber around them vibrated noticeably and streams of dust began to fall from the ceiling, from the cracks between the ancient stone blocks.

“Uh... what was that?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Tunnel collapse!” cried Daring, looking quickly from the tunnel to the three other ponies. “There’s no time. We’ve gotta go now! Move!

She dove into the water, Caballeron close behind her, and then the four of them were taking the deepest breaths they could as the ceiling of the chamber began to sag.

They swam for the tunnel, Daring bringing up the rear. Just as she reached the entrance she felt vibration in the water behind her and she turned to see a stone block shed from the ceiling plunge downwards, trailing a stream of bubbles. Tearing her gaze away, she headed into the flooded shaft.

Whatever happened, she knew at least that the three ponies ahead of her would be reaching the far side of this tunnel, and with that she was content. Whether or not she would be joining them was a secondary consideration, and now solely in the hooves of one of the least trustworthy ponies in Equestria. One with a series of grudges against her to boot. She wasn’t exactly confident that she’d be seeing the light of day again.

Still, if it came to it, she was glad that if it were to go down that way, Caballeron would have a hand in her demise. This blasted city had been gunning for her since she found it. She was glad it wouldn’t have the total satisfaction of beating her.

Pumping her wings to give her thrust, she swam after the good Doctor and her friends. Only way was forward now. To whatever end.

13: Escape

View Online

The tunnel was dark. It was cold. And it was long.

But far, far along at the end, there was light.

Daring swam, beating her legs and wings smoothly to conserve her energy and breath for as long as possible. The water was ice-cold against her hide, and the claustrophobic walls barely wide enough apart to allow two ponies to swim side by side. And there was no chance of turning back now. She was compelled by circumstance to go onwards with no guarantee of safety. In all likelihood, this submerged tunnel would turn out to be her tomb. Not exactly an auspicious end but then, she’d never really been the blaze-of-glory type.

In front of her, Twilight and Rainbow were going strong. Timing their strokes and swimming in sync they moved easily through the flooded shaft. They’d get out. Daring was certain of it. And just knowing that gave her a level of peace she wasn’t sure she’d ever have been able to find in this oppressive city.

By contrast, the pony beside her was paddling with all the grace of a land-bound walrus. This was well outside his comfort zone. He was more used to sitting back and letting his hirelings do all the actual work. Idly, she wondered when the last time was that Caballeron had actually swum.

Still, for all that his technique was objectively poor, he was keeping cool and not panicking. He at least had a measure of mettle to him.

They passed the innocuous crack in the tunnel ceiling that Daring had used for her marker before turning back on her recce, and all four were still going strong. About twenty seconds later they sailed past what Daring considered to be the halfway point of the shaft, and it was then that Twilight reached out with her right hoof and tapped Rainbow Dash on her left shoulder.

Rainbow Dash halted immediately in response to the signal, and the two mares faced each other. Each placed a foreleg on the other’s shoulder – to gauge the distance in the murk no doubt – and then Twilight exhaled, a slow stream of bubbles issuing forth. Then, carefully, they brought their muzzles together. It was actually quite a tender thing to watch as they locked lips with closed eyes. Rainbow’s chest fell and in turn Twilight’s rose, the two mares breathing for each other with perfect synergy. Now Twilight breathed out, though not as much, and Rainbow breathed in, and stopped. Both now with half-a-lungful of air, but the urge to breathe sated.

Daring turned to her counterpart, her own lungs aching by now, and gave him a look through the gloom. See? Just like that.

But he beat her to making the first move. With what was clearly a strained, agonised expression, he put his forehoof on her shoulder, and his breath exploded from him, unable to fight off the urge to exhale any longer. And with it, the urge to inhale would be overwhelming.

Daring had to move quickly, before he got himself a lungful of water that would spell doom for them both. She grabbed his shirt and pressed her muzzle to his, forming a seal over his mouth and nose. She breathed out, smoothly and slowly, giving him time to adjust or so she thought. But Caballeron was breathing in hard, as though he were trying to suck the air from her lungs. She allowed her air to ebb away from her, into him, until it was all gone and she was left with only a void.

And there it would end. Caballeron had what he needed from her and no reason to reciprocate.

He broke away, his muzzle leaving hers, leaving her stranded with no oxygen. Here. Now. It was over. Double-crossed by her longtime nemesis; a pony she had known she couldn’t trust. Still, she consoled herself that at least he was consistent. And... she hadn’t had any other options.

It was always gonna go down like this.

Except it wasn’t the end. Caballeron pulled away, but not far. He seemed only to be adjusting his position and then his muzzle found hers again, and he breathed. Out. Letting her take in a half-lungful of stale, sticky air that was certainly less pleasant than when Twilight had done the same for her earlier. But it was something. It was enough.

But it wouldn’t be enough for long. The oxygen content of the air she’d received was now so low that there would be no point repeating the procedure. They all needed fresh air, and so they swam on, toward the elusive light at the end of the tunnel.

It felt like it took forever, though in truth it could only have been thirty seconds or so, and then they cleared the flooded shaft.

They found themselves near the bottom of a gigantic hollow cylinder, with the water level perhaps twenty feet above them. One final push was all that remained. Daring swam upward, her lungs burning, desperate for breath until finally she broke through the surface and gasped. Her loud, greedy inhalation was joined by coughs and gasps and splutters from three other ponies as three other heads broke through at about the same time. They’d made it. All four of them. She had to admit to being surprised.

“You... guys... okay?” she asked in between her own spluttering and choking fits.

“We’re fine,” gasped Twilight. “Are you?”

“Yeah,” she wheezed, and looked over at Caballeron who was finishing up his own bout of coughing. “We’re fine.”

Caballeron caught his breath and looked back at her with a smarmy, arrogant grin. “Our first kiss,” he mocked. “Was it magical for you too?”

She gave him a glare of pure ice. “Doc? I swear I’m gonna cut your tongue out with a spoon...” she growled.

“Where are we?” interrupted Rainbow Dash. Which got all of their attention focused on their new surroundings at last.

The cylinder they were in was enormous: at least fifty meters wide and six stories tall, and open at the top. The cross section was circular except for right at the summit, on one side there was a protrusion jutting inwards from the rim about a third of the way towards the centre. Like a water-spout but folded in instead of out. All around the circumference on, near, and below the level at which they were currently treading water were other tunnels leading away at all angles: dozens, perhaps even scores of them. In fact, Daring would be hard pressed to pick out the tunnel that they had just swum through against all the rest.

“It’s a giant cistern,” she said, awed. “A water reservoir for the whole city. All of these tunnels in the wall, they must run underground taking the water to every neighbourhood. Maybe attached to water-spigots... maybe even running into ponies’ houses. Running water... over a thousand years ago. The engineering! Amazing...” she breathed.

“Look! There’s a ladder. We can climb out!” cried Rainbow Dash from her left. A little too soon, actually. She clearly hadn’t been paying attention to her running-water revelation. This was an important archeological discovery! Nevertheless, there was a ladder over there where Rainbow Dash was pointing. It seemed to run all the way from the rim at the top to the base below them. Perhaps it was a holdover from the original construction, or used for periodic inspections of the internal walls. Whatever the reason, it was there. It was a way out.

Rainbow started swimming and the rest of them followed suit. Reaching the ladder – really a series of regular rungs carved into the curved stone wall of the cistern – they paused as Rainbow Dash found her footing and began to climb.

Once she was a little way removed from the water she looked back at them with an odd expression. “Uh... you guys can all climb a ladder, right?”

“Well, duh...” said Daring.

“Of course. I’m a librarian!” boasted Twilight with a little satisfied grin, placing her forehooves on the closest rung and following Rainbow Dash’s example. Then she actually looked up and gulped. “Although... it is an awfully long way up. Which means it’ll be an awfully long way down if...”

“Relax. Just don’t look down,” said Rainbow Dash. “What about you? You know how to climb?” she asked, addressing Caballeron.

“Not something I have tried before,” he admitted. “But I believe I will have to learn quickly.”

Daring took hold of the nearest rung and followed Twilight up, hauling herself out of the water. The carved rungs were nice and deep, allowing good footing for both fore and hind-legs. The only real problem would be the height they would have to ascend. She looked back over her shoulder. “Just copy me, Doc. And like Rainbow said... don’t look down.”

The four of them began to climb. Rainbow Dash leading the way, followed by Twilight, then Daring, and Caballeron bringing up the rear. Periodic cracking and crashing noises from elsewhere in the city – magnified by the fact that they echoed within the cistern – caused them to keep a brisk pace in spite of their rapidly tiring limbs, which had already been through a lot today.

About halfway up the total height of the cylinder they climbed past a marking – two parallel lines about three inches apart carved into the stonework, running the entire interior circumference. “A depth marker of some sort,” mused Daring aloud. “At a guess, I’d say that means we’re at street-level.”

“Then... we’re officially... not... underground anymore. Yay,” said Twilight, trying to catch her breath. The top of the enormous vessel was still a good three stories straight up.

“Uh... yeah we are,” griped Rainbow, pointing upwards with a forehoof towards the now heavily-cracked cavern ceiling overhead, where the sky should be.

“I meant under-underground,” Twilight retorted.

Rainbow turned back, but when she reached for the next rung it disintegrated under her hoof, the ancient, brittle bricks falling apart after the slightest application of weight. She tried to compensate but her haste had left her at a crucial point in her ascent and she could not avoid falling. But if she fell, she would take the three ponies beneath her with her too, and that wasn’t an option.

With a desperate effort, Rainbow kicked hard against the wall of the cistern and pushed off, giving her enough space to clear the others on her way down.

“Rainbow!” cried Twilight. She reached out to try and catch her, and Daring did likewise, but she had managed to launch herself too far away for either to reach. In what must have been an instinctive reaction, Rainbow’s wings snapped open and beat hard. And surprisingly, they seemed to work. After a fashion.

It took a moment to register, but Rainbow Dash didn’t plummet toward the water below. Instead she seemed to be slowly sinking thanks to her furious flapping. It was rather surreal, and Rainbow seemed as surprised as anypony as she looked around at her own back.

“Hey, awesome! My wings are working again! Kinda. I mean, I’m not getting any up here, but I’ll take this over nothing,” she said as she sank past Twilight’s level, and then Daring’s. She descended past Caballeron and with a little change in wing-angle glided back towards the ladder. “Keep climbing!” she yelled. “I’m good back here. Just be careful!”

They continued their ascent, though with Twilight now in the lead the pace was less brisk and more methodical.

“Why are our wings starting to work?” called Daring. “Unless I missed something, none of us absorbed any of that blast. Trust me, I count that as a good thing.”

“Remember when I said magic can’t just disappear?” Twilight called back, still working her hooves into the rungs and pulling herself ever upward. “I think that after the initial explosion our magic’s been spread throughout this cavern, almost like radiation. And we were all stood at Ground Zero immediately after the blast, and for several minutes too. I think we did absorb some of our magic back, and that we’re still absorbing it now. But it’s happening so subtly we can’t feel it.”

“What about your magic? Is your horn working yet?”

“It’s coming in a trickle, not a flood. I could probably manage a rabbit-out-of-a-hat, but I’m nowhere near being able to turn the rabbit into a hat.”

Daring paused a beat, her planned follow-up question eschewed in favour of another. “You... can do that?”

“She turned a frog into an orange once!” called Rainbow Dash from below. “It took me two days to track it down so she could fix it!”

“It was an accident!” yelled Twilight, resolutely not looking down. “And he was fine afterwards! Fluttershy said soooo... whoa! Look out!” she yelped, dodging to the side on instinct as a chunk of rock as big as her head tumbled down from above, whizzing past them and hitting the water below with a deep sploosh! “Everyone okay?!”

“We’re fine,” called Daring. “Keep going! We’re almost there!”

Another minute of climbing finally brought them to the cistern summit. Twilight pushed herself off the final rung with her hindleg and then turned, offering her hoof to Daring who took it gratefully. Hauling herself over the edge she turned and pulled Caballeron up with Twilight’s help, and Rainbow close behind.

They couldn’t afford to tarry, but they had an excellent view over the entire cavern from here and Daring did take stock.

They found themselves standing on the rim of the enormous cistern, roughly halfway in height between the city below and the cavern ceiling above. They had emerged on the opposite side of the cylinder from the odd spout-like projection, and its purpose was at last apparent.

The spout was merely the terminus of an impressive construction which ran away from the reservoir like a massive, dead-straight, dry canal, standing on majestic, fluted columns built high over the city’s houses and municipal buildings and which seemed to go on for as far as they could see. “It's an aqueduct,” observed Daring with a note of awe. “It must’ve once channelled snowmelt from Brokeback into the reservoir.”

Elsewhere, in the plaza at the foot of the palace, the pit from which they’d earlier escaped had completely collapsed in on itself. What was more, the entire plaza was now flooded as water from the lake cascaded down through a gaping fissure in the cavern roof like a monumental waterfall. It was a shame they didn’t have time to appreciate it, because it was actually quite an impressive and beautiful sight. The water was slowly encroaching into the rest of the city too, the depth about a quarter of the way up the front doors of the houses that she could see. The cracks in the cavern ceiling were still spreading and growing like ugly black veins, and it was only a matter of time before it suffered a catastrophic collapse. They needed to be above-ground before that could happen.

“Look!” said Rainbow Dash urgently, pointing to the centre of the city, to the broken tower and the courtyard beneath. “The platform. It’s still down there, along with our saddlebags!”

“Does that mean the henchponies didn’t make it out?” said Twilight, squinting.

“No. Caballeron’s saddlebags are gone. It’s only ours that have been left behind,” said Rainbow. Daring had to admit that the fact Dash could pick out that detail from this distance was impressive.

“They will have sent the platform back down for me,” said Caballeron. “With luck they are already preparing the airship for launch.”

“I don’t think I can make it to the tower up there yet,” said Rainbow Dash, giving her wings a little, experimental flutter. “But we could probably make it to the platform if we glided it.”

We could, but the wingless wonder here couldn’t,” pointed out Daring. “And there’s no way we’ll carry him if we can’t fly properly ourselves. Oh, give it a rest Doc, that wasn’t a comment on the size of your stomach, it was a fact!” she snorted in response to his quick glare.

She had barely finished her sentence when, with a terrible cracking sound, a chunk of rock the size of an entire house fell from the cavern ceiling on the far side of the city, and plummeted. It impacted with a thunderous crash, crushing several buildings in the distance, a great plume of dust rising. The roof was really becoming unstable.

“Then what do we do?” cried Rainbow Dash. “We can’t stay here. The whole place is coming down!”

“We run!” Daring called over the noise of the continuously collapsing cavern, pointing to the far side of the cistern. “If I’m right about the aqueduct, it must run from here all the way out to Brokeback. If we follow it to the end, we might find a way out of here! Come on! We’ve gotta move!” She took off at a gallop, racing around the circumference of the cistern and onto the straight wall that lined the six-foot deep water-channel, the three others in tow.

“But our saddlebags... all of our supplies are down there. So is the crown!” cried Twilight over the sound of their thundering hoofbeats.

“Forget them!” yelled Daring, picking up speed, running for all she was worth now. The chunks of rock raining down from the roof were getting larger and more frequent. “If this city wants to keep them so bad, it can have ‘em! Just keep moving forward! We have to reach the far end!”

They raced along the wall of the dry canal, pelting as fast as their legs would carry them. Chunks of rock fell all around, increasing in both frequency and size. If one of those house-sized – or larger – chunks fell onto the aqueduct in front of them and cut them off, or worse, caused the whole thing to collapse... it didn’t bear thinking about. But luck seemed to be with them.

The problem with luck was that it had a tendency to run out just before the point at which you no longer needed it.

And they were so close.

They were three-quarters of the way to the end when a lump of rock about the size of half a house-brick – one of dozens, if not hundreds of similar pieces of rubble – was released from the cavern ceiling by the constant fracturing and breaking, falling straight down on a fateful journey... and struck.

Daring heard the impact and thought little of it, only noting in passing that one of the numerous thuds around her sounded slightly different from the countless others.

And then from behind her, Rainbow Dash screamed.


A terrible, inarticulate cry of perfect fear and cold, sickening horror that pierced her eardrums and, for a moment, drowned out even the sound of the world around them falling apart.

Daring skidded to a stop and looked back, ready to ask what the hay was going on and gee-up the party to movement again. Until she saw...

Twilight was down. Legs splayed at unnatural, uncomfortable angles and her body completely limp. And still. So very, horribly still.

“Twilight!” Rainbow Dash cried, trying in desperation to help the lifeless pony to her hooves only to have her flop down again. “Twilight, get up! Come on!

“What happened?” asked Daring Do, not trying to hide the urgency in her voice.

“It was a rock. It hit her on the back of the head and she fell!” explained Caballeron above the sounds of destruction on all sides.

Rainbow Dash was babbling, wide-eyed with fear. “Come on, Twilight, wake up! We... we’re all getting outta here, remember?! We’re so close!” She shook Twilight’s shoulders hard, yet managed only to make her friend’s head loll about as though she were a rag-doll.

“We have to keep moving, before one of us is next!” said Caballeron.

And received a furious death-glare from Rainbow Dash in reply. “I’m not leaving my friend!” she screamed at him, her voice panicked and hoarse.

“And we’re not leaving her here,” Daring called to both of them. “Come on, Doc, help Rainbow lift her onto my back. We’ll run her outta here.”

“No,” objected Rainbow. “I’ll carry her. I’ve got her.”

“Okay, up to you. Doc, help me!”

Together they hoisted Twilight onto Rainbow’s back. Which wasn’t quite as effortless as Daring had thought it would be.

“She is a completely dead-weight,” muttered Caballeron solemnly, and received a sharp stare from Daring in reply.

“You got her, Rainbow?” she called.


“Then, get galloping! We’re almost—!”

She was cut off by the loudest crunching sound yet as another immense, small-building-sized chunk of rock was released from the cavern ceiling to fall to the city below. And it fell directly onto the aqueduct, halfway between the cistern and themselves. The bridge-like channel was no match for the massive weight that fell dead-centre onto it, and it collapsed in spectacular fashion at the point directly between two of the mammoth supporting columns.

The columns on either side toppled and fell perpendicularly away from the point of impact... into their neighbours. Which fell into their neighbours...

Oh, you’ve got to be kidding...

Two domino-effect demolitions started, one of which was heading in their direction and Daring’s blood froze as the aqueduct began to disappear, the vanishing canal approaching with increasing speed.


They ran.

The pace of the disintegrating structure at their backs accelerated, but they had a good headstart and the three ponies that were still on their hooves galloped for all they were worth. They were approaching the city limit now, and they could see the end: the point at which the aqueduct actually met the slope of the mountain, the canal walls ending but the channel continuing, taking a turn diagonally upwards and disappearing into an angled tunnel excavated where the cavern ceiling met the natural hillside. That was their way out, if they could get there.

Stone hailed down thick from above, with Daring suffering her own rock-to-the-head. She would have suffered the same fate as her friend had she not had her sturdy, stalwart headgear to protect her. As it was, she stumbled a little but managed to shake it off and regain her footing without breaking her stride too much.

They were close now. Two hundred metres to safety with the collapsing structure half that distance behind them. Now a hundred metres ahead versus fifty behind. They could make it. Just a few seconds more. In a final, desperate effort, all three of them put on a last burst of speed and raced over the point where the aqueduct met the mountain slope, as the last of it crumbled into the city behind them in a plume of dust and brick.

“Don’t stop for a rest yet,” warned Daring. “Not till we’re through that tunnel. If it collapses, we’re still trapped!”

The water-channel angled upwards at about thirty-degrees, following the gentle slope of the mountain’s base. With the canal walls finally disappearing they had to jump down into the dry channel to navigate it. It was dark and they had to tread carefully over debris such as dead branches and loose stones, but progress was a steady canter. The sounds of collapsing stonework receded behind and below them as they trotted up the incline until, finally... light.

Fractured, sparse, but there. Daylight. Ahead of them the ramped tunnel came to an end. The exit was overgrown with all kinds of bramble and scrub and vine, but through it all there were the hints of broken light. And air. Fresh, clean air devoid of the city’s stale taint.

Daring scowled. They had come too far to be stopped in their tracks by some errant plantlife. She quickened her pace, lowered her head, and charged at full tilt up the slope.

Vines and twigs and even a couple of substantial branches all bent and snapped, no match for a determined pony adorned with a sturdy piece of headgear. Daring burst up through the scrub into the light of the late-afternoon. The cold, sweet air of the outside world hit her at once, and she drank of it deeply. She paused to catch her breath and removed her trusted hat which had once again saved the day. A couple of thorns had cut new, deep scars in the material and a large section of brim was torn a little ragged, but it was still intact. A little more character to add to all those arrow holes... and the rest, she reasoned, but it was a shame she didn’t know anypony who boasted any skills in clothing-repair. The old girl was looking terribly battered.

Brokeback loomed high above her, and the valley stretched behind. Turning, she saw the trees of the forest were starting to sway as the ground beneath crumbled from below, and their once-sturdy roots began to find themselves with no earth beneath to bind and support them. She could yet feel the vibrations of the still-collapsing cavern through the rock of the mountain, but it was a distant thing. They were assuredly upon safe ground.

“Daring... I don’t think she’s doing so well!” Rainbow panted, trotting out of the tunnel with Twilight on her back.

Daring cast her gaze around, and as luck had it there was a small cave just a little to her right, twenty meters up the slope. “Bring her in here. Quick!” she barked, and cantered ahead.

* * *

It wasn’t a large or deep cave, only about twice the size of an average living-room, but it was sheltered and the ground was flat to suit their needs. Rainbow knelt and gingerly laid Twilight down on her side in the centre. And she lay still. Very, very still. Daring felt a chill run through her. She’d hoped that Twilight’s lack of animation was temporary, or perhaps exaggerated in her mind since she hadn’t really had much of a chance to look at her during the escape. But when Twilight flopped down onto the cave-floor she was just as limp as she remembered; as she feared...

Knitting her brow and forcing those thoughts aside, Daring knelt beside Twilight and began to examine her. “What hit her, and where?” she asked.

“It was like a big chunk of rock. About... this big?” said Rainbow, holding her hooves about eight-inches apart. “Got her right on the back of the head.” There was a repressed fear in her voice. A subtle, dry-mouthed quaver that Daring hadn’t heard from Rainbow before.

“She fell immediately,” added Caballeron. “I believe she was unconscious before she even hit the ground.”

Daring took Twilight’s head in her hooves, brushing her mane aside carefully, looking. “There’s no wound,” she said in surprise. “Swelling’s coming up, but it didn’t break the skin...” Laying her friend’s head carefully back down she crouched close, with her ear to Twilight’s muzzle. Then she carefully placed a hoof on Twilight’s neck, closed her eyes and counted slowly to ten.

Not good.

She opened her eyes and found herself looking at Rainbow, who was locking her gaze with the worst expression possible.


Daring tried to speak, but no words came out. She tried again, but the same result. Why couldn’t she talk? She was only explaining the situation. Shouldn’t be hard.

Except... she wasn’t just explaining the situation. And the pony lying before her and the pony looking desperately at her weren’t just some random characters she had met on this one adventure: they were her friends. That seemingly insignificant mental distinction somehow made it so much harder to find words. Not only to explain, but to console. To offer comfort. And she realised that she wasn’t capable of it. She wasn’t ready for it. There was nothing she could think of to say that could ever soften the blow.

The only way to do this was dispassionately. Professionally. She cleared her throat and her frown returned. She had to force herself to speak but the words came, level and void of emotion, as though she were addressing a lecture hall.

“Her breathing’s very shallow, and it’s irregular. Worse, her pulse is very faint... and it’s also irregular.”

“So? What does that mean?” said Rainbow. She was still waiting to hear what the plan was. What the solution was.

But there wasn’t one. Not for this.

“It means... it... it means...” Damn it Yearling, why is this so hard? “She won’t....” Just say it. Why can’t you say it? “She’s going to...”

She snapped. She couldn’t do it. It took every piece of willpower she had not to cry – for some reason – and what was supposed to be a dispassionate, emotionless explanation was instead reduced to, “Rainbow I’m so sorry...”

Caballeron chimed in then, picking up her slack. “It means this is not a malady of her body, but of her mind. The centres of her brain that regulate her heartbeat and breathing – the simplest, most basic functions of life – have been compromised. Without them... she does not have long to live.”

“Her brain?” asked Rainbow, the fearful quaver in her voice more noticeable now. “But... she loves her brain! It’s literally the best thing about her. Besides the fact she’s so awesome, I mean. Wait—!” her head snapped up and her eyes went wide, and there was that awful expression of hope again as she turned to Caballeron with what might even have been a relieved smile. As though she had seized upon the answer in the nick of time. “Of course! You’re a doctor!” she cried. And then stalled. Looking from Caballeron to Twilight, and then back to Caballeron as though surprised he hadn’t leapt into action. “Well? Fix her!

“I am a Doctor of archeology!” he shot.

“What are you talking about? Buildings don’t need doctors! They need builders! Ponies need doctors! Are you a doctor or not?!”

“I... er...” Caballeron’s haughty, intelligent arrogance appeared to have had the rug pulled out from under it by Rainbow Dash’s inept logic. “I... am not that kind of doctor,” he finished weakly.

A sudden, distant crash came from the cave entrance; from the valley beyond, as trees started to topple and cracks began to rend the ground. Caballeron whirled around. “I must get to the airship. If my henchponies have not made it ready to fly, they will fall when the ground gives way under them.”

“But she needs your help!” cried Rainbow.

He turned back with a new frown. “There is nothing I can do for her. Nothing anypony can do. Forgive me for instead directing my attention toward those who are not yet lost!”

He looked to Daring then, and while she still had an annoyed frown to match his, she gave a begrudging nod.

He tugged a forelock in reply. And then he was gone, racing down the mountain slope towards the valley, angling for the clearing where they had earlier made landfall.

Leaving Daring and Rainbow alone with the lifeless body of Twilight Sparkle.

Daring checked for the pulse again. Weak, erratic, without rhythm and faltering, and her breathing was ever so slight now. As her hoof came away she brushed a few stray hairs from Twilight’s closed eyes.

“There’s gotta be something we can do...” said Rainbow quietly.

“We can make her comfortable,” said Daring.

“No, I mean—”

“I know what you meant.” Daring sighed. “Rainbow, it’s not like this is bleeding we can bandage, or a bone we can splint. The wound is in there,” she said, resting a hoof lightly on Twilight’s temple. “And unless you’ve got a degree in brain surgery you’ve been keeping quiet about, we can’t treat that.”

“But she... she just looks asleep. I mean, she just looks like she should wake up any second and be totally fine.” Rainbow gave her friend a little, gentle nudge on the shoulder, as though carefully trying to stir her awake. Surely if Twilight would open her eyes and wake up, this would all be over. They’d laugh about how silly it was that they’d all been so worried. Good times.

So convinced by this was Rainbow that when her cajoling failed to rouse her she resorted to trying to prise open her eyelids. “Come on, Twilight! Wake up!” She raised a hoof and swung it, slapping Twilight across the muzzle. “Stop being such a jerk, okay?! Stop... stop making me think that I’m gonna have to tell everypony that you didn’t come back. That you went on to the Summer Lands without us! That’s not fair!” She made to slap Twilight again, but Daring blocked her swing with a hoof.

“Dash! Stop, okay? That’s not going to help.”

With a reluctance borne of the fear of inaction, Rainbow slowly lowered her hoof. Daring understood that compulsion only too well: the feeling that you had to be doing something. Anything, because doing nothing just felt wrong. Even when there was nothing you could do.

“This is all Caballeron’s fault,” said Rainbow levelly. “If he hadn’t tried to take that stupid magic-stealing stone...”

“It’s my fault, Rainbow.” Daring’s head lowered and she looked at Twilight. “I should never have brought her. Either of you. I should never have come back here. I just wanted material for a new book. Selfish. Stupid.”

“Hey. We wanted to come with you,” said Rainbow. “You’re not to blame for this.”

“This stupid city’s been gunning for me for years. It should be me lying there now, not her.” She shook her head and looked up. “Don’t waste your energy blaming Caballeron. He’s not out of the woods himself yet. Not by a long stretch.”

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“Even if he gets the airship flying again before the cavern collapses under it... Cliff Racers are just gonna tear it apart. There’s a good chance he won’t be leaving this valley either.”

“Why didn’t you warn him?”

“He knows.” Daring sighed. “He’s a huge jerk... but he’s got a good bone somewhere. He’s gotta try and save his friends too.”

She looked back down to Twilight and for a horrifying moment she thought she had gone – that they’d been sharing the cave with a corpse without even noticing her pass. But she inhaled a weak, half-lungful of air and let it out again almost at once. It wouldn’t be long now.

“Summer Lands?” asked Daring.

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing. I just thought the Summer Lands was an Earth-Pony tradition. Don’t unicorns go to Elysium?”

“Yeah, but... a while ago we all agreed... we wanna be friends forever. And Applejack sorta has to go to the Summer Lands because her folks have a ranch there already. So that kinda settled it. And it sounds pretty cool. Nowhere near as cool as The End of the Sky, but there’s a bottomless cider-trough and... we’ll all be together. That’s worth giving up the Forever Sunset for.”

“Really? You’d give up seeing the Forever Sunset, so you could spend eternity with a bunch of other ponies instead?”

“Yeah...” There was nothing but soft sincerity in her voice.

“Wow,” said Daring, shocked. The Forever Sunset was supposed to be the most beautiful sight in all of creation. Something every pegasus wanted to see. To sacrifice it... “You must all really love each other. That... that must be nice to have.”

“Hey, you can join us, y’know? There’s always room for more friends.”

“I don’t think so. I mean... you know it’s not true, right? You don’t actually believe in any of that for real...?”

And she got a deep frown in reply. “It doesn’t matter if I believe in it, I'll make it real if I have to! My friend is going to the Summer Lands, okay? And I don’t care if I have to carry her all the way there myself. I don’t care if I have to literally build it for her! She’s going and she’s gonna be happy! Forever! You know why?! Because she deserves it! Because she’s one of the kindest, smartest, best ponies I’ve ever met, and all that awesome doesn’t get to just disappear! Everything she is doesn’t get to just vanish because of a stupid rock! She gets a happy ending, and then one day I get to see her again! That’s what’s happening!

Which left Daring stunned. “Rainbow... I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be insensitive.”

“It’s just... this can’t be how it ends...” whispered Rainbow. “I mean, it’s a Daring Do adventure. The... the heroes are supposed to win the day. That’s how it always goes.” Suddenly her determined frown returned. “And... and the good guys never give up! Twilight would never give up on me, so I’m never giving up on her!”

“Rainbow, there’s nothing we can—”

“Okay Twilight! Here’s how it is,” ordered Rainbow, placing her forehoof upon her own neck. “If you can’t remember when your heart’s supposed to beat, then I’m gonna tell you! Ready? Beat! And... beat! Also breathe! And... beat! Breathe! Uh... beat-breathe! Breathe-beat! C’mon!”

“Rainbow!” Daring snapped, unsure whether this was simple desperation she was witnessing, or a kind of grief-madness. “Rainbow... it doesn’t work like that. Your heart isn’t something you can just order to beat when you want. It’s an unconscious impulse. Even if she could hear you, there’s nothing she could...”

Daring trailed off. She found herself looking at Twilight’s ear. That one, almost insignificant appendage somehow filling her entire vision. Her whole thoughts. And sudden epiphany hit like a firework exploding in her mind.


“She can hear you...” she almost whispered. And she felt the adrenaline begin to stir in her blood.

“Huh? What do you—?”

“Her back. Get her on her back!” Daring ordered, pushing Twilight over from her side. Together they rolled her onto her back, her legs flopping every which-way, but that was fine. Daring fixed Rainbow with an urgent scowl.

“Rainbow, listen real carefully to me. You take your hooves and you push down on her chest, right here. You do it about twice-a-second thirty times, and then you breathe for her, just like you did in the tunnel. Understand?”

“I... what?”

“Thirty compressions, then two breaths. Thirty: two! You keep her blood circulating and you keep her breathing. You keep her alive until I get back!”

“What?! You’re leaving?!

“Rainbow, I’ll be back, I give you my wor... no, wait. Uh... I cross my heart and hope to die, stick a muffin... somewhere...” She recovered from her abysmal attempt at a promise and fixed Rainbow Dash’s gaze. “You’re right. We’re not losing her like this. Not without a fight.” She turned and galloped for the entrance to the cave. They had a chance. Only a slim one, but that was all she’d needed before. And if it worked... she could save Twilight. Heck, she might even save Caballeron and get everypony safely away from this blasted valley in the nick of time. Sudden confidence began to surge.

“Wait!” called Rainbow desperately from behind her. “Where are you going? What are you going to do?”

Daring half-turned, framed by the cave entrance and the deepening blue of the early evening sky beyond. “I’m going back into the city. As for what I’m going to do?” She pulled the brim of her hat low. “I’m gonna do what Daring Do does.” She grinned. “I’m gonna save the bucking day.”

14: Daring Ex Machina

View Online

Dodging falling trees and racing over shifting, uneven ground, Daring pelted across the doomed forest. The sharp cracks of tree-trunks snapping as they fell, dislodged from their once-firm purchase in the earth, were deafening and omnipresent. Fractures and fault-lines were starting to appear on the surface, and the ground was breaking up, ready to fall in at any moment. She had absolutely no time, and she sprinted onwards. Gouts of dirt and dust and stray leaves thrown into the air by the monumental upheaval conspired to disorient and distract her, but her focus was set.

The obelisk. Still standing strong, its golden capstone glowing like a welcoming beacon amid the tumult of destruction all around. Daring homed in on it, ran for it like her tail was on fire. Every second was crucial. Twilight couldn’t survive on CPR forever. If she couldn’t get back to her before she expired, this was all for nothing.

She reached the obelisk and found the entrance, and the staircase descending into the depths of the city. She hesitated not a second before plunging once more into the bowels of the earth; into a decaying metropolis that had repeatedly attempted to entomb her. She would give it one final opportunity to try.

She took the steps on the spiral staircase in leaps and bounds, ignorant of sure-footing and trusting her safety to instinct as a compromise for speed. She had to reach the base of the broken tower before the cavern ceiling collapsed around it and it fell.

There it was. The end of the staircase and the drop into nothing. The city below illuminated by the dwindling number of star-lights in the increasingly ruined ceiling.

But at the edge of the staircase, right where it dropped away, and secured to the walls both left and right by thick, sturdy bolts, was a scaffold. Well made and firmly erected, it hung itself out over the drop and trailed four strong, burly lengths of rope straight down to the small courtyard below. And as Daring looked down, there it was, half-submerged by the floodwater permeating the city.

The platform. And still upon it, three sets of saddlebags. And in one of those: the Crown of Unity.

There was a winch-and-crank mounted on the scaffold, as a method to raise and lower the platform without being on it, and Daring took hold of it and started to turn.

The platform started to rise, but agonisingly slowly as each turn of the winch seemed to yield half-a-metre’s increase in height. Daring felt the tower shift and sway around her – it wouldn’t be long before the constant movement of the cavern ceiling caused it to give up its hold and fall, and she needed to be gone before that happened. She turned the crank faster, her muscles starting to burn, but the platform now over half-way to her. She could see Twilight’s saddlebags now. Even fancied she could make out the outline of the Crown through the fabric. Closer. Closer. She was going to do it!

The platform rose to barely five meters beneath the base of the broken tower. Almost within grabbing distance. And then the tower shook.

Block and mortar, wall and stair began to crumble and disintegrate. Large sections of ancient, fragile masonry fell away as the tower started to collapse. The scaffolding on the outer wall went, heavy bolts and sturdy braces now useless as their anchor-points vanished with a rumble and a snap. The construction fell, jolting the platform beneath and pitching it vertically. And all three sets of saddlebags slid off and fell back into the city below as more brickwork fell atop them amidst half a dozen lengthy metal poles.

Daring stared, aghast. “No!” she screamed, scrambling away up several stairs as they began to fall apart beneath her. She couldn’t believe it. She had been so close! Almost within leg’s reach! No!

Come on, Yearling. Take a breath and get it together. This isn’t one of those times when it doesn’t matter if you fail. Ponies are counting on you. You’ve gotta get that crown. Whatever it takes.

The platform was still hanging just below her level, suspended by the scaffolding on the inside wall which had not yet collapsed. Reaching forward over the empty space where three stairs had just fallen away, she released the lock on the winch mechanism and the platform plummeted back down to the courtyard, running down its two remaining support ropes. She took a deep breath and steeled herself. And she leaped.

She grabbed the closest rope, and it lurched horribly as the remnants of the frame fixed to the tower began to crumble. But she needed it to hold for but a few moments, and for a mercy, it did.

Descending the rope as fast as she dared, she brought herself to ground in the small courtyard next to the ruined section of scaffold that had been rent from the tower above. She splooshed as she made landfall, the floodwater up to her belly, and cast her gaze around for Twilight’s saddlebag. Had to be here. Where?

There! Half submerged and half-buried, all three sets of saddlebags had fallen in a sorry heap amidst a hefty pile of rubble. It took a little digging to— Whoa! A large wet splash leapt at her, just from her left as a building-block-sized chunk of stone from the tower above crashed into the water beside her, and follow-up splashes continued as half-brick sized debris followed it down, raining in a scatter-gun pattern. She needed to get away from here, fast, else her cranium would have its own Twilight-style encounter with a piece of the city, and from that height, her hat probably wouldn’t offer much protection.

Scrabbling with her hooves, she freed the rubble up from around the pile of saddlebags. Of course Twilight’s were on the bottom. Just had to be so, didn’t they? Rainbow’s came free first, light as a feather considering their almost complete lack of content, and she tossed them across her back. Then her own saddlebags followed suit. Finally she reached for Twilight’s... Oh.

Oh, when is this place going to cut me a break?!

Twilight’s bags had come open in the fall, and its contents had ejected far and wide. Daring was able to retrieve the bags themselves – now mostly empty save for a little food that might just have been well-wrapped enough not to be totally soggy – but the crown was gone.

Twilight’s depleted saddlebags joined Rainbow’s and her own on her back and she scanned everywhere for the relic. The fact that it was probably under two or three feet of water made everything more difficult, and she was constantly splashed by the rubble raining down from above. Come on! Where is it?!

At last a faint gleam caught her eye. A fraction of gold buried among the debris. There. Frantically she scraped and lifted and pulled on the rocky detritus until she could see it clearly.

The end of one of the poles of the scaffold fallen from the tower above had – in a calamitous stroke of evil luck – been driven through the centre of the crown. The circlet of gold was trapped, as though a loose shackle around the core of the scaffold pole which was buried on either side by the heavy chunks of masonry that had fallen upon it.

Daring scowled. She pulled on the metal pole, but it would not budge. Gathering her strength she yanked it hard, but found it firmly wedged. She pushed against the rubble, hoping to free up at least one of the ends, but the weight of the stone, and yet more stone atop it, was too great. She lifted, she shoved, she pulled, she wrenched, she kicked, she roared and finally, she screamed. An agonised howl of pure frustration.

She couldn’t free the crown. It was within sight... within reach. She could literally touch it! But she couldn’t get it. She wasn’t strong enough. She hadn’t been fast enough. The one hope that Twilight had, and she couldn’t bring it to her. She couldn’t save her. She had failed. She’d failed her friend in the worst possible way. And in a few moments the rest of the tower above her would surely collapse and bury the entire courtyard in rubble, followed soon after by the whole cavern ceiling. And all hope for Twilight would be lost.

She gritted her teeth and scowled a dangerous scowl at the crown, furious at the inanimate piece of metal entrapped by rod and rubble. All it had had to do was land anywhere other than right there. But no. It seemed this city, and everything about it, was determined to make her suffer. She didn’t even want the stupid crown! As far as she was concerned the city could have it back after she was done with it! This wasn’t about Daring Do risking her neck for some ancient forgotten relic, this was about her finally risking her neck for something that mattered. Her friend! Twilight needed her! Needed that crown! And this stupid city wanted...!

And she stopped. She looked at the crown again. A gleaming circlet of pure gold, adorned on the front with a large, bright, marquise-cut gemstone of the palest azure. And she felt her breath catch.

I don’t need the crown,” she whispered. “I just need you!”

She reached for it, and quickly recoiled. “I can’t touch it,” she reminded herself aloud, the self-verbalised cautionary note enough to override her haste before it became misadventure. If just grab it, it’ll knock me out like it did before. Hmm. She needed something to wrap around it. Like a cloth or fabric or... of course!

Quickly flipping open the flap on her own saddlebag she pulled out her towel and wrapped it loosely around a forehoof. And with the assistance of a loose rock, chipped and with a flat edge, she carefully levered the jewel from its gold mounting.

It popped out with a satisfying plink, unscathed though the metalwork of the crown hadn’t faired intact – she’d been forced to bend it in order to get the gem free. But free it was, landing squarely in her hoof and she wrapped her towel tight around it.

Once again, Daring Do’s towel, the unsung hero of many adventures, saves the day. She removed her hat and popped the Jewel of Unity into the bowl before firmly seating it back on her head. Safest place in all of Equestria. Now... she thought, turning her attention to escape.

The platform was still dangling vertically from two of its four support ropes. It wouldn’t be easy, but she would have to climb the ropes all the way up to the tower before it collapsed...

It collapsed.

As she looked upward the entire remains of the tower fell from its fixture in the ceiling, coming crashing toward the courtyard. It was all Daring could do to leap clear towards the wide road that led to the enormous plaza, landing with a splash in three feet of water.

And then there was an almighty sound. A cross between a deep, bassy Thoom and a heavy, slow Whump. From the direction of the plaza. As Daring looked up, all of a sudden the water began to move. A strong current came from nowhere and swept her off her hooves, carrying her away along the road. What the heck?!

She was swept with frightening speed toward the plaza. Her waterlogged wings were useless and the saddlebags she’d insisted on retrieving became tangled with each other and weighed her down. She was a passenger on a thrill ride with no idea what the end might involve. Almost as she reached the plaza she passed through a curtain of water streaming down from above, and once on the other side of it, she saw why.

The entire roof of the cavern above the plaza had finally collapsed. Calm daylight streamed down from a void in the ceiling the size of a hoofball pitch. The centre of the lake-bottom in the valley had at last given way and the entire remaining freshwater content was currently cascading into the plaza and surrounding streets in a wide, ringed waterfall.

And the reason for the sudden current also became apparent, because the plaza itself was gone!

Almost the entire sunken circular area was no more, fallen into a gigantic sinkhole as the catacombs beneath had finally collapsed. Daring was swept forward and she felt the ground under her hooves vanish, pulled out of her depth in an instant. But the water from the lake had not yet filled up the subterranean caverns it seemed, and with the platform-pit in the centre of the plaza acting as its focus the water was being drawn down into the expansive network of chambers below, forming a huge whirlpool as though it were escaping down the drain in a bathtub.

Not good! If Daring couldn’t get herself out of the water, she’d be pulled to the centre of that whirlpool in moments and the current would drag her down and drown her. She flared her wings in desperation, but the current was too strong and she couldn’t get them far enough out to flap them. Her only hope was to find something to grab onto, and she looked around for anything that could save her.

There. Both of the statues had fallen when the ground of the plaza had given way beneath them. But over there, that one had toppled and come to rest on its back, with its legs jutting upward just above the surface. The current of the whirlpool would carry her past it, but it was dragging her toward the centre. She would pass by it, but be out of reach. With a last, mighty effort from her exhausted muscles, Daring fought the current which tried to carry her away and swam for it. If she couldn’t reach it, she was done for, but if she could...

By a narrow margin – which would no doubt become narrower once the book came out, she realised – she managed to seize hold of the closest of the statue’s legs. Which promptly broke off! But her momentum had been arrested and she had just enough time to discard the severed appendage and make a new grab. The second limb was sturdier than the first but not by much, and the current was still trying its best to drag her away, putting further strain on the stone. Already a large crack had appeared at the knee-bone and Daring was suddenly planning which of the other two legs would be her next move. Neither seemed to offer much long-term hope. She tried her wings again, but the sheer amount of fluid upon them left them drowned and she could gain no lift at all. Nowhere she could go, and nothing she could do.

The second leg broke and she made a desperate grab for the third, and felt the telltale vibrations of the ancient stone already starting to give way beneath her.

Suddenly, everything around her became a little darker. As though a cloud had crossed the face of the sun and, awkward though it was from her position, she turned her head and peered upwards toward the sky through the collapsed ceiling.

And was in no way prepared for what she saw.

Oh, you magnificent son-of-a-mule...

Hovering directly overhead, just above the level of the maw in the cavern ceiling but filling it enough to almost block out the sky... the University of Maresachusettes’ airship, the Machina, looking very much the worse for wear. The canopy had clearly been patched in many, many places using various mismatched fabrics, and slung beneath it by a hammock of sturdy ropes as thick as cables, a wooden ship-shaped, schooner-sized crew gondola comprising a large deck and a single lower living level. And there on the prow, was Caballeron. Even from three hundred meters below his intonation and his frantic gesticulations left little doubt as to what he was saying.

“Lower! Lower, you fools! The rope will not reach from this height!”

“If we go any lower we’ll be inside the cavern, boss!”

“I said lower, curse you!”

And so the blimp sank lower. The University’s airship was only of a modest size, especially compared to some of the luxury air-yachts so rarely seen in the skies over Canterlot and Manehatten – an educational establishment’s budget was only so large after all – but it still took some very careful manoeuvring to bring it down into the cavern. If the torrent of water falling from the lake were to catch the canopy or stabilisers just wrong, it might send it spinning out of control. Fortunately the cavern roof was still in the process of collapse, and so the hole was only getting larger. Finally, a break.

Whoa! The third leg of the statue snapped and was cast aside in favour of the sole remaining appendage. I didn’t mean that kind of break!

The dirigible came lower, and then lower still, until the huge, beautiful gas-bag was barely seventy meters above. And over the side, a long, thick rope was tossed, falling and unravelling towards her.

She reached out, but missed, and the end fell into the water, carried off by the current, but thanks to its attachment to the ship above it found a stopping place in the water a dozen meters or so distant, just as Daring felt the final statue leg start to break away.

She would only have one chance. If she missed, she was as good as drowned. Twilight would be lost. Caballeron and his airship were Racer-fodder. The only likely survivor of this doomed expedition would be Rainbow Dash, left alone to trek back to Equestria and tell of their ill-fated adventure.

The final leg crumbled and broke off in her hooves and Daring was carried by the current towards the rope. Spreading her hooves as wide as she could she reached for the slick, slippery line. And seized it. She clutched and hugged it to her as though her life depended on it – for it very much did – and quickly wrapped it around a foreleg to make it secure. Looking up, she gave an all-clear salute to the Doctor on deck.

“Up! Get us up at once!”

And slowly the blimp ascended. Daring was pulled from the freezing water with shirt, hat, three sets of saddlebags and one mystical enchanted jewel all safely in tow. The airship rose out of the cavern, above the tree-tops, and Daring realised that the rope to which she was clinging was being reeled in by the ponies above her. But there was no time for that. Daring scanned the valley to the southwest, searching the foot of the mountain for the cave in which Twilight was still surely clinging to life. She had to be. This wasn’t all in vain.


She didn’t think her wings were back to their full potential yet... but she could make that. Just as long as she wasn’t bogged down by three sets of tangled-up saddlebags dangling from her. Slipping them off her back with some difficulty, she conspired a knot between the various saddlebag-straps and the rope such that they were all securely attached... and then just as she reached the perfect height above the tree-tops, she let go.

Her wings flared magnificently and she pumped them for all she was worth. Air rushed over her feathers and she felt real lift take hold for the first time in hours. She sprinted through the air, her body arrow-straight, her wings at the perfect angle to reduce air-resistance. She was a missile, and her target was right there in front of her.

And then from high above, from the peaks above the mountain pass, there issued forth an immense collective shriek, shrill and piercing. Daring risked a glance upwards, and saw a vanguard of twenty or thirty Racers diving toward the valley, the airship in their sights. They’ve seen you, Doc. Just hold ‘em off for a while, somehow.

Daring reached the cave entrance and billowed her wings hard, bringing herself to a rapid halt. Inside, Rainbow was still working, covered in sweat and looking exhausted, but Twilight still had colour to her. She was still with them.

Twenny-three, Twenny-four, Twenny-five...” Rainbow heard her land and looked up. “Where they hay have you been!?” she hollered.

“I went for a swim,” she deadpanned as she rushed to Twilight’s side and knelt. The full story could come later.

“So? What’s the plan?” asked Rainbow, still working Twilight’s chest. “Please tell me there’s a plan?”

“There’s a plan. Step one? We save Twilight. Step two? We rescue Caballeron and his jerk-ponies from crashing into the side of a mountain and being pecked to bits by a horde of reptilian bird-monsters.”

“How’re we gonna do that?”

“One thing at a time,” said Daring, flipping off her hat and removing the towel. Before she went any further she fixed Dash with a serious, apologetic gaze. “Rainbow... I don’t know for sure if this is gonna work the way I hope, but... it’s the best I’ve got.” She opened the towel to reveal the gem-stone within.

“No way... is that the jewel from the crown?”

Daring carefully placed the jewel on Twilight’s brow, just above her eyes and beneath her horn. “Come on, Twilight...” she whispered.

A moment later the jewel began to glow with a fierce light, just as it had before. And just as before, it flashed.

And suddenly their surroundings were very different.

* * *

The crystal projected its light outward, using itself as a centre, and around them the walls of the cave appeared to become as wood. There were grains and knots and rings... it was as though they were within an entire room made of natural oak, except one that hadn’t been built – for there was no join or fixing to be found – one that appeared to have been sculpted. Hollowed out.

The room was circular, and on one side a staircase led upwards to an assumed upper-level, though the roof of the cave did not allow the illusion to persist in that direction. And on every other wall were wide shelves in columns three or four rows deep. All empty. And on the floor of the room, strewn around as though they had all simply been dumped from the shelves, were books. Scores. Hundreds. Piles and piles and piles. In complete disarray.

“Whoa,” whispered Rainbow. “Never thought I’d see this place again.”

“You know where we are?”

“This? It’s her home.”

“Home? This doesn’t look like the inside of that castle I saw. That was all... crystally.”

“Yeah... but this is where she really used to feel at home. Her library. Y’know, I think the first time we were all together was in this room...”

Their attention was drawn by a short, sharp sniffle. A little, subtle sob and they turned their gaze from the walls of the room – which they did not realise had captured their focus so completely – back toward the pony in the centre. Twilight was still out cold and clinging on. But stood watch over her, with an expression of shock and fear, was a foal.

Twilight in miniature, reduced to a filly half her age, lacking wings and oh-so-tentative in her expression and her movements. She reached out, her hoof pressed against the real Twilight’s side trying to stir her awake. Crying.

“Big Twilight? Big Twilight? Please... please wake up. I can’t... I can’t find it. Big Twilight please...” sobbed the foal. “I don’t want to go yet... please...

“Twilight’s subconscious? She’s terrified,” whispered Rainbow.

Daring nodded. “If Twilight doesn’t make it, neither does she. It must be pretty scary.”

The foal looked up, terrified, and tried to both shield Twilight and hug her close for comfort. “Who...? Who’s there?!” she squeaked.

Daring stepped forward and took the lead. “It’s okay Twilight, it’s us. Daring Do and Rainbow Dash,” she said in a calm voice as close to ‘soothing’ as she had. “We’re your friends. Do you recognise us?”

The foal looked up at them and for a moment a glimmer of desperate hope crossed her eyes as she ‘looked’ from one to the other. She opened her mouth and seemed to flounder for words. “You... here...? You can hear me?”

“We can hear you. We’re here for you.”

The foal looked so relieved for the briefest of moments. Then she cried out in a pained wail, tears flowing freely. “Help me!”

“It’s alright. It’s alright. Don’t be afraid. We’re here to help. You’re Twilight’s subconscious aren’t you? Twilight’s heart isn’t beating in rhythm and her breathing pattern is too shallow. You need to get her heart beating properly again.”

“I know! I know!” wailed the foal, panic returning and she started to quiver. “But I can’t! I... I... I don’t even know where to start looking! There’s too many... it could be anywhere!”

“Whoa, okay, just relax,” said Daring, backpedalling a little. “What are you talking about? Too many what?

“And what happened in here anyways?” asked Rainbow. “The Twilight I know would freak if she saw this mess.”

“I know! I’m supposed to keep it tidy in here. I don’t know what happened, and I can’t rouse her! It happened so fast: everything was absolutely fine. Big Twilight’s breathing was heavy and her legs were aching but nothing dangerous and then suddenly, BAM! All of the books came flying off the shelves and crashed onto the floor!”

That must’ve been when the rock hit her,” said Rainbow Dash.

“Heavy concussion. Knocked so much sense out of her that her brain can’t repair itself. Doesn’t even know where to begin...” added Daring, surveying the countless books strewn across the floor of the library.

“Daring, check it out,” said Rainbow, stooping. She ‘picked up’ a book in her hooves and turned it to show the title. Scents and Sensibility: A Hundred and One Instantly-Recogniseable Aromas That Twilight Sparkle Enjoys. By handling the projection as though it were a real book, Rainbow was even able to flip it open and read it. “Freshly-baked cookies, roses on a wet Spring day, toothpaste... toothpaste? Really?”Foal-Twilight was sobbing now. “Then the fire started outside... and I knew what it meant... and that I was the only one who could stop it because no help was coming but it got so big so fast and I panicked and I didn’t know what to do and I froze! I can’t do this. If there were a few books out of place I could, but this... it’s way too much! There’s just no way I can get everything back in order before she... oh, Big Twilight...

Daring and Rainbow half-turned and looked through the window on the wall of the library, to the projected scene beyond the illusory glass. Outside, Ponyville was ablaze. Wildfire tore through the streets beneath a crimson sky and every building was a skeletal husk of burnt timber and ashed thatch. A deep wall of flame seemed to ring the library on all sides, encroaching slowly, with smoke already creeping its way under the door.

“That’s brain-damage,” suggested Daring. “This must be the very core of her subconscious. Her brain’s last-ditch attempt to protect the vital functions at the expense of everything else. If the fire burns this place out, that’s brain-death.”She frowned, the pieces coming together. She looked back at the foal, still crying. “Somewhere in here there’s a book that tells Twilight how her heart is supposed to beat?”

‘Correct Cardio and Proper Pulmonary Pace,’” said the foal.

“Then we need to find that now, and get it back on the shelf where it’s supposed to go.”

“But... like I said, I don’t even know where to start! I’ll never find it in time!”

“And like we said... we’re here to help,” said Daring. “We don’t know where all these books have to go, but I’m betting you do. And you can’t gather all of them up and get them back in order in time, but Rainbow and I... we can move pretty fast.”

“Plus, y’know, wings for the high shelves,” noted Dash.

“Come on. Let’s get to it!”

* * *

“What about this one?” called Dash. “‘The Sister, The Soldier, His Wife and Their Daughter’?”

“That goes in the Memory section, cross-referenced with Family!” foal-Twilight called back.

“This one? It’s called, ‘It’s Wrong If Ice or Fire,’?” asked Daring.

“That has to do with regulating body-temperature. It goes over in the General Health section, between The Shivering and Pride and Perspiration.”

‘War of the Words’?”

“That sits in the Reasoning section, cross referenced with Arguments.”

“Oh, here’s a good one! ‘Singer Tailor Farmer Pie’,” Dash called out.

“That’s a collection of random facts about her friends that don’t fit into the main volume. It goes in Memory, in the Ponyville subsection.”

“We’ve got about half of them!” shouted Daring. She turned from placing her latest volume and cried out. “Rainbow! That book’s on fire!”Rainbow spun. Next to her the door to the library was ablaze – though it of course radiated no heat that she could feel – and on the floor near to it, one unlucky book was starting to give off smoke as its cover singed, licked by the flames.

Foal-Twilight screamed. “The fire... it’s getting in! Oh, no, no, no! I’m gonna start losing her!” she cried, racing around the room and moving as many volumes as she could away from the flame, sweeping them into a large pile more towards the centre. It kept them further from the advancing fire, for now, but it made more of a disorganised pile of everything they had yet to sort. It would slow them down. “We have to keep them safe for as long as possible. Every book in here is really important. Memories, experiences, likes and dislikes... everything that makes up who Big Twilight is. If one of these books gets burned, that part of Twilight is gone forever!”“What about this?” asked Rainbow, holding up the book that had had its cover mildly charred. “She’s not gonna forget how to be a poindexter or something because of this, is she?!”

“As long as we can still read the book, it’s okay! If any of the information inside gets destroyed...!”

“If these books start going up in smoke, that’s permanent brain-damage. Irreversible,” said Daring. The inferno’s advance seemed to be increasing in pace. In a minute or two the whole library floor would be afire, and that would be as good as game-over as every book that represented who Twilight was burned to ash. They had to slow it down. The fire represented Twilight’s losing struggle to stay alive, so to keep the fire at bay they had to... Oh, Yearling you’re such an idiot!

“Rainbow! The fire’s getting closer because Twilight’s still having trouble breathing and pumping blood to her brain! Get back to giving her CPR! Lil’ Twilight and I will keep trying to find that book!”

“Got it!” Rainbow called back, rushing over to Twilight and beginning her previous routine.

“Make sure you don’t let that jewel fall from her head! If it does, we’re gonna lose the ability to help her!”

“Right!” said Rainbow as she gingerly gave Twilight two mouth-to-mouth breaths, careful not to dislodge the stone.

Already the fire was becoming less rampant, its perilous advance slowed. But not reversed, and not quite halted. Still, they had more time to work with. She’s putting up a hell of a fight to stay alive. Good girl. Just hang on a little longer.

Suddenly, Foal-Twilight gasped in surprise, drawing Daring’s attention. “Did you find it?”

Foal-Twilight was dragging a hardback almost as large as she was from the periphery of the mess to the actual Twilight in the centre. The multicoloured cover was distinctive and unique among all of the other tomes they had seen thus far, and with a heave she pulled the book and propped it against Twilight’s flank as Rainbow continued to work her chest from the opposite side. “Rainbow? You gotta look after this. Make sure it stays as far away from the fire as possible. It’s the most important book in here.”

“More important than knowing how to breathe?” interjected Daring.

“It’s her decision, not mine,” said Foal-Twilight. “If this all goes wrong and we start losing her... this book has to be saved. No matter what. And if it goes very wrong... this has to be the last thing to go. This is the part of herself she wants to cling onto the absolute longest, until there’s nothing left.”

Rainbow stopped working on Twilight long enough to look down at the volume now in her care. On the front cover, in large yellow calligraphic script, the title read, My Best Friends. And it really was a big book.

“I got it,” said Rainbow quietly, with a nod.

“It’s not gonna go wrong if we get back to it right now!” cried Daring. “Come on! What about this one? ‘A Brief History of Thyme?’

“That’s about the tastes she likes and dislikes, and known foods and spices that meet those criteria. It goes on the Taste shelf in the Senses section.”

Daring duly placed the book and then turned to survey the room with a familiar frown. “That book has to be here somewhere. We’ve only got a couple of dozen left to—”

“There it is!” cried Foal-Twilight, extending a foreleg. The book she seemed to be indicating was on the bottom of a scattered pile. A thick, hardback book with a deep (blood?)-red cover adorned with a large, pink heart, (of course.) But the fire had advanced to within scant feet of it, and was burning strong and fierce. Foal-Twilight scampered over towards it, but had to slow and stop before she was within reach, shielding herself from the flame with a hoof. With a dertermined grimace she tried to forge closer, tears of desperation forming at the corners of her eyes and Daring swore she saw the tips of her mane begin to singe.

But it was for nought, and with a cry of agony she was driven back. “The heat! The fire’s too hot! I can’t... I can’t reach...!” she wailed, panic beginning to set in, all hope lost.

“Whoa there, take it easy. Come away and don’t hurt yourself,” said Daring, trotting over. The flames after all were merely tricks of light as far as she was concerned, and she had no issue simply walking right up to them – or even into them as necessary – and scooping up the imperilled volume. Sure enough, the title read, Correct Cardio and Proper Pulmonary Pace. Daring calmed herself, breathed a hidden sigh of relief and turned. “See? No sweat. Now, where does it go?”

General Health, right on the top shelf,” said Foal-Twilight, shivering with sick relief. “She... she’s gonna be okay. She’s actually gonna be okay!”

Daring placed the book on the shelf, and though such a simple act had no right to, it caused an immediate reaction. The fire started to retreat and dampen, slowly at first, but definitely, and finally it left the library completely, leaving none of the remaining few books on the floor in danger. Rainbow spoke up.

“Her pulse is getting stronger. She’s starting to breathe on her own again!”

Gonna be okay. Gonna be okay!” chanted Foal Twilight. Then she launched herself at Daring and wrapped herself weightlessly around one of her forelegs. “Thank you. Thank you! If you hadn’t... I’d have been... we’d have been...” she trailed off, losing the end of several sentences to a series of thick sobs.

“Come on, we’re not done yet. Got a few more to put back,” said Daring.

“What about out there?” asked Rainbow, standing back on her hooves. “Ponyville looks a total mess.”

“Don’t worry, I can fix all that,” said Foal-Twilight. “All of the ingredients to put Ponyville back together are here in the library. If we’d lost stuff, there’d be bits of Ponyville I couldn’t replace, but we didn’t! Nothing out there can’t be rebuilt from what’s in here. This was all the really important stuff. Especially this,” she finished, reaching for the large hardback next to real-Twilight. When the filly struggled to heft it, Rainbow picked it up. On a whim, she flipped it open.

“Wow, cool. There’s all different sections for each of us. With pictures and everything! Pinkie Pie, me, Princess Celestia, Spike... whoa,” she breathed with a warm grin. And turned the book around. “Looks like she started a new section for you.”

Daring gawped. Sure enough, on a new page of the book was a picture of herself in her classic hat-and-shirt combo beneath a header reading, A. K. Yearling. There wasn’t a ton of information contained in the text beneath, but the basics were there. And there was a lot of blank space sitting idly, as though waiting for the chance to be filled. “Not just a friend... she... she thinks of me as one of her best friends?”

“Yep. Looks like you joined the club! Totally awesome.”

“I... I don’t know what to...” Daring raised a hoof to her eye. To scratch it. Definitely not to wipe any moisture away. “Okay... where does it go?” she asked, turning to Foal-Twilight.

“In Memory. On the highest shelf. Right in the middle.” She smiled. And then added, “Please don’t drop it.”

The book was returned to its rightful place. And as they looked around, the library looked a lot better than it had a few minutes previously. Almost all of the books were back in their proper spots on the shelves, neat and tidy and orderly.

“Thank you, both,” said Foal-Twilight. “I can manage from here. I’ll get the rest of these put back where they belong, fix up Ponyville good as new, and then I’ll see if I can bring her round. She... she’s so lucky to have amazing friends like you. And don’t worry, she knows it.”

The scene around them began to fade, the charming, homely library once more becoming a drab, stone cave miles from anywhere. The last of the detail was finally lost from sight, and Daring picked up the jewel from Twilight’s forehead, wrapping it within her towel once more.

Then there was little else to do but wait. A quick check confirmed that Twilight’s breathing and pulse were steady and strong. She simply seemed to be asleep now. Daring and Rainbow Dash sat next to her, watching over her, willing her to stir.

A quiet moment passed.

“Y’know... for about five minutes there... I wasn’t sure if you were coming back,” Dash admitted.

Daring nodded. “That’s okay. For about five minutes there I wasn’t sure I was gonna make it back. But I was never gonna abandon you guys. Daring Do isn’t the kind of pony who bails on her friends. Either of them.”

“Wow. You’re actually using the ‘F’ word now?”

“What can I say? It’s grown on me.”

Rainbow nodded. “And Daring Do knows that whenever she needs her friends, they won’t bail on her either, right?”

Daring looked up and locked Rainbow’s gaze. “Yeah. She knows.”

Daring looked down at Twilight. Her legs were starting to twitch softly and her head was lolling as though she were just beginning to surface from a long, deep slumber.“Hey... Daring?”


“Did we actually just save Twilight’s life by literally reassembling her brain from the inside thanks to an ancient magic jewel that can basically read minds?”

“Yeah.” She paused. “I think so.” She took note of Rainbow Dash’s expression. “What?”

“I’m just saying... when you come to write the book, maybe leave that part off the back cover. I don’t think the readers would go for it if they just read that out of context. It sounds pretty far-fetched.”

“What? It’s not that incredible. I’ve had way stranger things than this happen before.”

“Daring? This is totally in the top five.”

Daring looked at Twilight again, noting the little twitches had now become full leg-stretches, and as she watched, the prone Princess let out a low, strangled moan, inarticulate but apparently deeply satisfying.She shook her head slightly. “Top three,” she corrected.

15: Sudden But Inevitable

View Online

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

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

What the heck?

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

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

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

“I’m sure it’s lovely, but we—”

“Get in here!” snapped Dash.

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


Oh. Right. Everything wasn’t okay now.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Oh... oh boy.


Surely impossible.


The only thing she could think of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And tomorrow morning?!” asked Dash.

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

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

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

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

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

“Not so fast, Daring Do...”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

Daring frowned, turned, and approached.

“Good book?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You could wake him up,” countered Daring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you imagine why that might be?”

It began to rain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open it!” was Rainbow’s distant contribution.

I can’t, it’s jammed!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One last thing before they left.

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

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

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

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

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

And her two friends followed.

16: At Journey's End

View Online

The water was divine!

Twilight heated it to just the right temperature, and as Daring felt herself utterly relax, every knot in every muscle seemed to unwind and she felt herself go limp as jelly. From the satisfied little moans next to and opposite her, it sounded like Rainbow and Twilight were having a similar experience.

Why hadn’t she done this sooner?

They relaxed in the plunge-pool at the base of the waterfall in the same clearing that had served as their encampment once already on this adventure. The full moon beamed down on them from high overhead, and the gentle relaxing noise of the waterfall soothed their stresses away. They were safe, concealed in the forest shadows, the danger of the city far behind them, and lost to Caballeron and any hope of pursuit.

“So... the Jewel of Unity then? And the other crown had the Jewel of Harmony in it, right?” asked Rainbow, lying back against the side of the pool, head resting against the grass as she looked up at the liquorice sky dotted with tiny sugar-speck stars. “And the King’s wife took Harmony and buried it somewhere in what’s now Equestria. And her journal made it into the library of the Castle of the Two Sisters where Caballeron found it.”

“From what we know, that sounds about right...” said Daring, quirking an eyebrow.

“So, do you think if we buried the jewel we have, like, in a thousand years we’d get a Tree of Unity, with Elements of Unity and everything?”

“Tree of what?” asked Daring. “What in Celestia’s name are you talking about?”

“Uh... we’ll fill you in later,” said Twilight with a smile. “But you have to keep it a secret, okay?”

Daring relaxed again and smiled, resting her own head against the side of the pool, the grass tickling the back of her neck. “No problem. Uh... cross my heart and... hope to... ugh, forget it. I promise.”

Twilight chuckled behind a hoof, and Daring’s smile grew. This was all just... nice. Being here. With friends. At the end of another exciting adventure. Couldn’t think of anything better. Not even if she were by herself.

“It’s a shame we can’t read that journal Caballeron found,” said Rainbow. “Probably had all kinds of other secret stuff in there.”

“Can’t we?” Daring’s smile turned into a grin and she closed her eyes. Then they snapped open, as the full extent of what she’d done hit her. She raised her head and looked sincerely at the pegasus. “Rainbow Dash... I’m sorry, okay. I... I had no right. Not without asking you. But if you’re serious about it, I’ll help you re-do it. Make it better. You have my word.”

Rainbow Dash looked all sorts of confused. “What are you talking about?”

Daring took a breath. Confession time...

* * *

Caballeron woke to the sound of jack-hammered pounding of hooves on wood. Initially dizzy he quickly located the source of the commotion. The hatch to the lower deck was closed and locked, and Daring Do was nowhere to be seen. Oddly, the key to the padlock was in his pocket. Yet he was sure he had dropped it.

Opening the hatch he found his four henchponies looking various shades of surprised and annoyed. They didn’t even need to speak. It was obvious what had happened.

“I am going to lie down,” he grumbled, forestalling their attempts at explanation. He trotted down the stairs, forcing the four ponies in his employ to stand aside.

“Boss, where do you want us to head for? Are we going after her?”

“No,” he sighed, exasperated. There was no point and he had had enough for one day. “Get us to Maresachusettes. I wish to be rid of this flimsy collection of matchwood and string before it falls apart.” Then he turned away. With a weary gait he staggered along the lower deck where, at the rear, a small cabin served as his quarters, and entered.

Against the wall, his set of saddlebags rested and seeing them perked his ears and gave him a wicked little smile. Daring Do may have escaped with that gem along with those two strangely nondescript mystery-ponies, but he had at least managed to retain one treasure for himself. The ancient journal Daring had found beneath the city. Married to the one he had taken from the ruins of that ancient castle they formed the only known writings of the ancient civilisation. They would fetch a handsome price and his eyes lit up as he began to imagine all of the potential buyers he knew. And there were many who would bid against each other for such a set.

He opened the saddlebag and retrieved the pair of volumes now, their similar green dust-jacket covers proudly displaying the two-headed unicorn motif that was the symbol of the city.

His smile widened further and he put one down, keeping hold of the one he recognised as the one Daring had discovered. Written firsthoof by an ancient monarch chronicling the downfall of his city. His curiosity piqued. He couldn’t very well sell it without knowing exactly what it contained after all. He flipped the cover open and began to read...

Colour Sprinter was the awesomest flier in Equestria. Trust me, I know about these things.

What the—? He closed the book and removed the dust-jacket to reveal that this was not the journal he had taken! It was a joke novel apparently written by a pony he had never even heard of! He clenched his teeth so hard that they hurt, turned his head to the ceiling and roared. “DARING DO! I WILL GET YOU FOR THIS!”

Yet after a moment his anger subsided and he looked at the book in his hooves. Oddly, his smile returned. “Well... there is always next time.”

* * *

“You switched the books?!” blurted Rainbow in surprise.

“When we got back to the platform after you’d gone spelunking in my brain,” said Daring. “Just swapped the dust jackets over so they’d look similar at a glance and presto. I knew he’d be too arrogant to check them closely.” She noticed she was getting an oddly reproachful look from Twilight. “What?” she asked innocently.

“Well... I guess I feel a little sorry for him. For all his bluster and attitude, he did put a lot of work into finding the city. It feels wrong that he’s left with nothing to show for it.”

“Hey, I gave him my book too,” argued Daring. “There are enough notes in Failed Expedition that, if he were serious about it, he could write a whole paper on that city. A thoroughly-researched, well-thought-out, insightful and definitive piece covering one of the oldest genuine metropolises known to have existed. A subject so fascinating that a famous author might just use that paper as the inspiration for the next installment of an action-adventure series about a globe-trotting explorer. If he were willing to put the effort in for once, he could get as much out of this as he wanted, and earn himself some major academic kudos in the process. What’s the betting we hear no more about it, though?” She shook her head. “Don’t feel too sorry for him. He still gets royalties off my work without having to lift a hoof. He’s not exactly gonna starve.”

She rested her head again and there was a quiet, comfortable lull in the conversation.

After a couple of minutes the water stopped bubbling and Daring noticed that the oh-so-subtle musical thrum of Twilight’s magical aura had fallen silent. “You okay?” she asked.

“Oh, I’m fine. But it’s quite a lot of effort to keep the water at this temperature for so long. I just need a minute to, uh, stretch, I guess.”

“So what’s the deal with this anyway?” asked Dash. “Did we get all our magic or abilities or whatever back? I mean, we can all fly again, right? Are we, like, up to full power now? Does it even work like that?”

“I’m not sure, exactly,” said Twilight. “If I had to theorise, I’d still say that the explosion scattered our magic throughout the city like tiny particles. Once it was released we started to absorb it again. We became like magnets, and our individual magical energies were like iron filings. All the time we were escaping the city our magic was being drawn to us, but we were a little too preoccupied to notice, what with everything falling apart...”

“—and you getting brained.” added Rainbow Dash.

“As for now? Well, I feel back to normal. Any deficiency we might be suffering from not getting every last scrap back will likely only take a day or two for our bodies to compensate for.” Twilight looked at Rainbow Dash, who was offering her a face that was at once confused at half of the words she’d just heard, and annoyed that Twilight was deliberately being obtuse by saying them. Twilight offered her own impatient-yet-resigned frown in exchange. “The short version is you’re going to be fine for your Wonderbolt show,” she grumbled.

“You could’ve just said that,” said Dash, rolling her eyes.

Daring relaxed again. Somehow the sound of the playful bickering was more of a comfort even than the silence. As the sounds of her friends’ voices drifted to her ears, she found her mind wandering. She recounted the journey she had been on to get here. From her home, to Ponyville, to the destruction of an ancient city, and a few minor details in between. Shadow-scorpions, sky-monsters, two-pony death-traps, ancient magical artifacts of enormous power and significance, a returning villain to contend with... there was so much. This was going to be an epic book. She smiled.

“There’s still one thing I don’t get,” said Rainbow.

“Only one?” said Twilight with a perfectly-weighted touch of jovial cynicism that Rainbow Dash utterly missed.

“That crystal that took our abilities away. You saw it, right? Those five ribbons of energy? Well? One, Two, Three...?” she said, pointing out the three of them.

“It’s fairly obvious. The other two strands of energy were those of the ancient Kings. Whatever else happened to them, without both crowns they never had the means to recover their magic from the stone. It was trapped inside all this time.”

Daring felt a frown form and she raised her head, looking at Twilight, thinking hard.

“What?” Twilight asked, noticing her countenance and looking back in confusion. Rainbow gave her a similar look too, but once again she had come up with the important question. That pegasus really was pretty astute, even if not in a book-smart kind of way.

“Well... you said it yourself,” Daring said to Twilight. “Magic can’t just disappear. So what happens to it now? The combined magical energy of two powerful monarchs is just sitting in that valley. Swirling around an ancient, flooded city. A place that bred and festered in mistrust and paranoia so deep that it eventually tore itself apart. A city where pony turned against pony, brother against brother, all because of fear, loss, and hatred. And a city that was eventually destroyed because we as ponies couldn’t play nice and share. Imagine all that negativity. Centuries of it, capped with a seismic event born of our own hostility. What do you think all that raw, pent-up emotion would do to that magic?” Twilight looked flummoxed and confused, prompting Daring to add, “That’s not a rhetorical question, I’m genuinely asking.”

“I’m not sure. But I really wouldn’t worry about it,” said Twilight. “It’s not as if their magic is going to come to life or anything. If I had to theorise, I’d say the only lasting effect would be a slight increase in background thaumic energy within the valley for a while. That’s all.”

“Twilight?” said Rainbow.


“You’re doing it again.”

“Doing what?

“Being all egghead.”

“Well excuse me for trying to share some opinions on never-before observed magical phenomena!”

“Just make the water bubbly again,” said Rainbow, stretching her neck and relaxing back. “I like it when you make the water bubbly.”

Twilight groaned. Daring smiled.

Those two...

She really liked those two.

* * *

Far to the Northeast, just within the borders of modern-day Equestria, there lie the Mustang Mountains. A low, sweeping and snow-capped ring of peaks, dominated by the twin summits of Brokeback Mountain overlooking a secluded but massive lake.

It covers the entire valley floor, but here and there, in just a few places, the surface is broken by what look like stone ruins. Surely it is but an illusion, for there are no records of any civilisation ever having settled in this remote land, and thus no construction should exist. And yet, even on closer inspection, they do look like the spires and steeples of tall, ancient buildings.

Chill winds from the mountains often funnel into the valley and whip the lake into a swirling, churning foam. The water cannot seem to settle, as though just beneath its surface, large solid objects impede its natural flow.


Off-centre, east of the middle of the valley-spanning lake, there is a roughly circular patch of calmer water. On the darkest of nights, and more noticeable with the New Moon, the centre of this wide area seems to luminesce with a pearl, milky light that pulses oh-so-faintly.


In the dead of winter, when the nights lengthen and the weather is at its coldest, the light seems to brighten, coalescing and consolidating towards the centre of the placid water. It is a subtle thing, but each passing night seems to yield a slightly stronger glow from the depths of the murk.


It was said that there was once a great city nestling within the valley. Legends told of a city of incredible beauty and majesty. A city of prosperity and opportunity. A proud city that, at one time, was the envy of every other civilisation in the land of the Ponies.

A city that turned on itself. A city that imploded in a cataclysm of mistrust and betrayal.


A city destroyed by hatred.

17: Plan Y

View Online

Morning dawned in Ponyville.

Striding up and down in front of the rank of three ponies before her, Applejack surveyed her troops and found their preparations acceptable. Rarity had overpacked as usual, and Pinkie had only packed cakes and balloons but... they would make do. She was eager to be away.

“Okay, y’all. Spike here reckons that Twilight and Dash headed northeast, toward some mountain range up there. I know they ain’t been gone all that long but somethin’ about this just don’t feel right. ‘Specially after what happened to the sun yesterday. So we’re gonna find ‘em and make sure they’re okay, help ‘em if they need it, and bring ‘em back safe. Everypony got it?”

“Certainly, darling.”


“Um... this sounds awfully dangerous.”

“We’ll be fine, and I’m sure they’re okay too. Spike? Hop on. You’ve got the map now, so you’re navigatin’. Everypony else? Keep yer eyes peeled and if’n ya see any sign of Twilight or Rainbow Dash, holler out. Ready? Let’s go!” she finished, rearing up and flailing her forehooves.

“I WIN!” shouted Pinkie Pie before she had even dropped back to the ground.

Applejack lurched to an awkward stop, failing to complete even the first stride of their new adventure. She turned back with a frown. “Pinkie, what the hay’re you talkin about now?”

“You said the first one to see any sign of Twilight and Rainbow Dash wins!”

“I didn’t say anythin’ close to that!”

“I won!” Pinkie insisted, pointing into the sky.

“Pinkie, we don’t have time for...” she trailed off, following Pinkie’s outstretched hoof. “Oh.”

High in the sky, approaching from the north, two immediately recogniseable specks – and a third that she recognised after only a slight delay – glided towards the green in front of Twilight’s castle where Applejack and her company had assembled. They grew closer at a quick clip, circled, descended and landed. And then pandamonium broke out.

Spike raced for Twilight and wrapped his arms around her in a tight hug. Pinkie Pie launched herself at Rainbow Dash, tackling her to the ground, the pegasus’ last-ditch attempt to dodge coming just a hair too late to save her from the cuddle. Fluttershy and Rarity shared a relieved nuzzle, except that Fluttershy strayed too close to Pinkie Pie and found herself seized by a pink hoof and ensnared. It was fairly clear that Pinkie’s snuggle-pile had turned predatory and wouldn’t rest until every single one of her friends had been captured.

Daring and Applejack found themselves rolling their eyes at almost the same time and then finding their attention on each other. With little, confident smiles they tugged the brims of their respective hats by way of greeting.

“This is amazing!” squealed Pinkie. “We set off on a mission to find two friends, and we find three before we’ve even left town. Best. Rescue. Ever!” The hug-pile was inching its way closer to Daring and she eyed it warily.

“What are you all doing here?” asked Twilight.

“Sorry Twilight. I got worried,” said Spike. “I couldn’t shake this weird feeling that something was wrong, and then last night when the sun turned all black I knew something was up, so I went to find Applejack.”

“Spike told me what had happened an’ where you’d gone and I didn’t like the sound of it one bit,” Applejack picked up. “So we rounded everypony up and were gonna come after you, in case you needed help.”

Twilight stepped within range of Daring and gave her a little nudge in the ribs. “See?” she smiled. “Plan Y.”

Daring sighed, rolled her eyes again, and gave Twilight a little smile. “Sure. Plan Y.”

The writhing pile of ponies on the ground broke up, with Fluttershy looking just a little traumatised, and Pinkie stood. “I can’t wait to hear all about it! Luckily, I came prepared. Who wants popcorn?!” She nosed open the flap on one of her saddlebags packed in preparation for the trek ahead, and began to rummage around.

Suddenly her eyes widened and she pulled her head out. Her muzzle wrinkled and twitched as though in spasm and a moment later she let out an almighty sneeze. She wiped her nose with a hoof and received an admonishing glare from Rarity.

“Pinkie darling, that is most unhygienic,” Rarity scolded as she used her magic to float her a cotton handkerchief from her own saddlebags. But no sooner had Pinkie seized it than her nose wrinkled uncontrollably once again and she sneezed a second time. And then a third time. Her nose wouldn’t stop scrunching.

“Pinkie? Are you... quite alright, dear?” asked Rarity.

“It’s an itch-a-twitch!” said Pinkie in surprise. “Wow! That’s a really rare one. I can’t even remember the last time I had one of these! That’s the twitch I get when it’s somepony’s birthday, and they haven’t realised it’s their birthday!” She giggled and had to stifle another sneeze. “I mean really, who could forget something so important as their birthday? Now lets see... Twilight, Rarity, Spike and Rainbow Dash have all had their birthdays this year. Applejack’s isn’t for another two moons, and mine and Fluttershy’s aren’t until after that. So whose...” She trailed off as her roving eyes scanned the group. Then her eyes lit up in wild surprise. “Daring Do! It’s your birthday?!”

Daring frowned. “It’s not my birthday.”

“But... hold on. You said you didn’t know when your birthday was,” Rainbow Dash pointed out.

“I know it’s not today.”

“But... how?” pressed Rainbow.

“Because the odds that today just happens to be my birthday are three-hundred and sixty-five to one against!”

“Same as every other day,” Applejack noted.

“And it’s clearly one of our birthdays. Just look at Pinkie Pie,” said Rarity. “And we all know when ours are, darling,” she finished with a smile.

A moment of quiet fell, everypony looking at Daring with expectant smiles.

“You can’t be serious,” said Daring with a quirked eyebrow. “You all think that just because Pink Frosting over there can’t stop sneezing, that has to mean my birthday is today?” To her amazement, she got a series of nods from the others around her. Even from Rainbow Dash.

Twilight stepped up beside her. “Daring? I know it doesn’t make much sense. But those of us who’ve been in Ponyville a while have learned over time that, if Pinkie starts twitching, you’d better listen.” She smiled too. “I’ve never known her to be wrong. You might have to take it on faith, and you might have to trust us that we know what we’re talking about, but believe me it’s more than likely that, even against the odds, today is in fact your birthday.”

Daring shook her head with a sigh. “This is a huge plot contrivance,” she mumbled. It wasn’t even subtle. This sort of thing didn’t happen. Not in real life. The authorial part of her brain refused to accept a coincidence of such scale.

“Even if it were, does it matter? You can’t go the rest of your life not having a birthday!” said Rainbow.

“I’ve managed it so far...” she retorted, only to be cut off.

“You’ve never had a birthday?!” screamed Pinkie over her. And then her expression turned into one of manic happiness. “You know what this calls for?!”

And then silence.

“Uh... what does it call for?” asked Daring with hesitation.

OhpleasesomeponytellherIcan’ttakeitanymore!” squealed Pinkie, who it seemed had been holding her breath for too long.

“For future reference, the answer to that question is always, ‘a party,’” said Rainbow.

A PARTY!” screamed Pinkie, bouncing high into the air. “Luckily, I brought plenty of cake and punch, which is good, because if this is your first birthday party ever then I’m gonna make it the best birthday party ever!” She leaned in close and stage-whispered behind her hoof. “Trade secret: all my parties are the best party ever!

Daring blinked. And looked at Pinkie. And finally nodded. You know what? I can relate to that.

* * *

Daring spent the next two hours feeling... a little awkward it had to be said. The castle had been decorated with balloons and streamers and Happy Birthday banners adorned with her image – where did they come from? – and there was cake and pie and ice-cream and punch and all of it was delicious. Where did it come from?!

And Twilight and Rainbow’s friends were all nice. She’d met them before of course, but only fleetingly. She hadn’t managed to spend any actual time with them before now. Fluttershy was very kind and polite, Rarity took one look at her pith helmet and insisted she could make it good as new, darling. Spike, for the few minutes she talked to him, displayed a dry, wry wit that she found engaging. And Pinkie Pie was... well, she was something else.

But even as she’d been working her way around the room it was fairly clear that parties just weren’t her thing. Too many other ponies. Too many social rules to follow, none of which she knew. The irony was that if she’d been on a mission to infiltrate this soirée, she probably would have been having a less stressful time than she was in this relaxed, informal setting. She was just a little out of her depth and she was sure it showed.

She found herself standing next to Applejack, the last pony among the group that she hadn’t yet spoken to – although she wasn’t sure she could call the interaction she’d had with Pinkie Pie a ‘conversation.’

“Nice hat,” she said with a little nod.

“Back at’cha,” said Applejack with a smile.

“You’re Applejack, right? The one with the novel?”

A rush of colour overcame Applejack’s cheeks. “Rainbow Dash! She promised me she wasn’t gonna blab about it again.”

“Don’t beat her up too much. She just told me she thought it was really good. And hey, she’s got great taste in literature after all,” she said with a self-satisfied grin.

There was a friendly smile followed by an awkward pause during which very little eye-contact was made as two ponies dropped their gaze to the cups of punch on their hooves.

“So, uh... you work with apples?” said Daring. And when Applejack looked up with a little light in her eye and drew a breath that was slightly too deep she knew she’d asked just the wrong question. How was it that she could escape the most cunning death-traps ever devised and yet couldn’t extricate herself from an uninteresting conversation?

Fortunately, help was at hoof.

“Excuse me, Applejack,” said Twilight walking up to them.

“Howdy, Twi. Where ya been? You’ve been gone for nearly half an hour.”

“I’ve been in the library doing a little research. I’ve got something I want to show Daring Do, if I can borrow her for a minute?” she said with a smile. Daring doffed her hat to Applejack and allowed Twilight to lead her away.

“Thank you,” she said when they were out of earshot. “Look, your friends are all very nice. But... I’m not sure I’m ready to make so many new friends at once. I’m still coming to terms with the two I have.”

Twilight chuckled. “Don’t worry about it. For now, all you need to know is that you have a lot of ponies here who’d drop everything for you if you needed help, no strings attached.”

“That’s nice to know, I guess,” she said as they entered the library and approached a large circular table with half a dozen books lying open. Most of them were in a language she couldn’t read. “Though of course, Daring Do doesn’t need help,” she said with a small, playful smile.

“Of course,” said Twilight. “But from time to time, A. K. Yearling might. In fact, that’s sort of what I wanted to talk to you about.” She turned to the books on the table. “There was something you told us back in the city that I thought didn’t quite ring true. So I pulled a few books on the ancient Bovarian dialect, and I discovered a few interesting things.” She brought one book to the front and flipped a few pages. “See, in Cattleese they relied heavily on accented letters. In a similar way to how if we put an ‘E’ on the end of a word we can drastically change how it sounds, they used accents to change what a word means.

“I looked up Avada. You said it meant ‘Unknown’, which is one meaning. But used in context, a closer translation would be ‘Stranger,’ or if we went with the literal version, ‘One who is unexpected.’”

“Sounds about right,” said Daring.

But, if you write it like this,” said Twilight, pointing out an entry on the page: Avadá. “That has a very specific meaning: ‘Welcome.’” She smiled, and Daring felt her mouth fall open just a touch as she scanned the page.

“I looked up Kedavra too,” continued Twilight. “It’s not quite ‘Unloved’. It literally translates to, ‘One I have no love for,’ or, ‘One who is unknown to me.’ But Kedavrá, on the other hand also has a specific meaning. It means ‘Friend.’” She smiled. “You said you thought your name was a cruel joke or a taunt. But you also said it was never written down anywhere. I think, in reality, when they gave you that name, you weren’t being shunned as unwanted, you were being welcomed with love.”

Daring looked at Twilight with a faint frown. “Let me get this straight. You want me to believe that my name actually translates to, ‘Welcome, Friend Yearling’?” Twilight nodded a satisfied little nod. Daring shook her head. “That’s almost as bad. It doesn’t even scan. I’m not unshortening it.”

Twilight gave a little, light giggle. “I’m just saying that you shouldn’t be ashamed of it. It’s part of who you are. It shows you’ve always had others around who care about you, even if you didn’t know it. You’ve never been as alone as you might have thought. And that’s especially true now.”

As though on cue, the library door opened admitting another pony to make her even less alone. “Twilight!” blurted Rainbow. “Pinkie’s about to start pin-the-tail, except the tail is a hat and the pony’s Daring Do! Let’s—! Oh... what’s goin’ on?” she asked, entering the room fully and allowing the door to swing shut behind her.

Daring grimaced. Party games too? How many more opportunities was she going to be given today to prove just how socially awkward she was.

Well... none, she decided.

“Sorry. As fun as pin-the-tail... or hat... sounds, I think it’s time I made my exit.”

Twilight looked surprised, but then gave a solemn, understanding nod. Rainbow looked crestfallen. “But you’ll miss all the dancing!” she wailed.

Daring sighed. “Look... Twilight, Rainbow, I appreciate it. All of it. Everything you’ve done for me. I’ll never forget it. But all of this friendship stuff... parties, games, dancing... it’s just not my thing. Not yet. The thing about Daring Do is, she’s a loner. She doesn’t want any help.”

“But—!” objected Rainbow and Twilight simultaneously.

Daring held up a hoof to cut them off. “But it’s nice to know that if I ever need it... I know exactly where I can come,” she said with a warm smile. She tipped her hat and, with a strong flap of her wings she was airborne, alighting on a high windowsill and pushing it open. She turned back to Twilight before rummaging in her saddlebag and withdrawing a pastel-pink parcel tied with string. “Sorry about the pink paper, it was all I could find to bundle it up, thanks to party-pony. That package contains the Jewel of Unity and both of those journals. The jewel needs to be kept somewhere secret; somewhere safe. It’s too powerful to let fall into the wrong hooves and too useful to abandon. I trust you to find somewhere for it. As for the books? Well... see that they’re returned to their rightful owners, will you? We both know who they are.” She nodded and turned for the open window, spreading her wings once again. “Goodbye you two. I’d better see you both again soon,” she added with a wink.

Before she could take flight, Twilight caught her. “Wait, Daring. Before you go... there’s one more thing. I know you’re not crazy about making friends but... there’s one more pony you should consider meeting.”

“I know what you’re gonna say.” She sighed. “I’ll think about it, alright? Take care of yourselves.”

“You too.”

She stepped through the window and her wings snapped open.

And with that she was gone.

* * *

A knock at the door to her chambers brought Luna’s attention, and she opened it to the caller.

“Sister? Is something the matter?” she asked in surprise, ushering her elder sibling inside and closing the door behind her. “Tia... what’s wrong? Have you been crying?”

Celestia turned and sat on the bed, dry tears staining her cheeks. She raised a piece of parchment in her aura to show Luna. “I have just received this letter from Twilight Sparkle,” she said. “It contains an explanation... an apology really... as to why the sun was afflicted with darkness yesterday evening.”

Luna’s brows knitted in confusion. “I do not understand. We guessed that she was the cause already, did we not? And we reasoned that for her to act as such, the circumstances must have been incredibly dire or the situation otherwise of great import. Has something in that letter altered these conclusions?”

“No, of course not...”

“Then why do they cause you consternation now when last night all seemed... if not ‘well’ then at least ‘settled’?”

“It is not that part of the letter, Luna. She sent these too.” She held up a pair of hardbacked books.

Even without the dust-jacket, Luna recognised one of them. The other she had never seen before, but by virtue of its proximity and similarity, she could form a definite assumption. “Is that...?”

Celestia nodded and smiled a happy smile, new tears flowing. “Father’s,” she said with a quaver to her voice.

Luna looked at the book with awed reverence. “How can it be...?” she whispered. She looked at Celestia. “Have you...?”

“No,” her sister said with another smile. “I thought... we should do it together.”

Luna nodded. “Together.”

* * *

Home sweet home.

Daring alighted and trotted through her door. The finishing tape at the end of another adventure, her mind overflowing with thoughts and ideas.

She strode into the living room, shedding her saddlebags and tossing them over the back of a chair. She could unpack later. Much later. The hat came next, whipped off her head and, with the brim gripped in her teeth she gave it a little, expert toss onto the wall-hook where it lived. Shirt next, and that went straight in the laundry basket. She gave a little shake and stretch and, basking in the familiarity of her homely surroundings, looked slowly around the room.

The quiet room.

The quiet, empty room.

The quiet, empty, lonely room.

In a quiet, empty house in the loneliest part of Equestria.

As her gaze travelled over the familiar furnishings, many coated with a thin layer of dust, she realised that no other pony had ever used them. Shared them. No other pony would ever sit in that chair. Or bask by that fireplace. Or admire her collection of ancient trinkets upon the mantlepiece...

Hey, look at this one!

Rainbow Dash, don’t touch that! You don’t know what it does!

Duh, of course I do! It spins! See? So spinny.

She chuckled, but her mirth fell from her as the echoey voices in her head receded into nothingness.

Suddenly, the solitude that she had so long treasured and fought to maintain felt... alien. Like a choice she vaguely remembered making yet couldn’t fathom why. Being alone... it just wasn’t as good as being with those other two ponies. Her smile fell and her gaze turned forlorn as she continued to cast her gaze around the room. And she realised... she had lost something. Something important. Something she had never thought she would want, but really, really did. Her gaze came to rest on the door...

And her smile returned, just a little. Because she hadn’t lost it, had she? No, if she needed it, she knew exactly where it was. Through that door, beyond the woods to the rail station, then the overnight express to the little town of Ponyville. That was where it was. That was where they were waiting. And they always would be, if ever and whenever she needed them. That was enough to make her feel better.

She raised her head and whirled back toward the room, new energy filling her. Right now, A. K. Yearling had a book to write, and a lot of ideas to get down on... oh.

Looking over toward her typewriter, she gave a little, ugly grimace as she spotted the sheet of paper still tucked inside. The page she had been working on when this whole debacle had kicked off. The underwhelming battle from Daring Do and the Goats of Gruff Island. Yuck.

Gonna have to write to the Publishers. Let them know I’m nixing this and starting afresh.

She strode to her writing desk, ready to tear the offensive paper from the roll, but caught herself as she re-read the final paragraph she’d written, the memories of being sat there only a couple of days ago returning in a rush:

‘Then the remaining foes stood back, and Daring squared up to them. “Had enough already?” she challenged. But instead they parted, standing aside to allow the approach of another of their number. Their Champion, she supposed, for he stood easily twice as tall as all of the others.’

It was weird. She could even recall the exact thoughts that had been going through her mind when she’d reviewed that sentence. And with a smile, a hint of inspiration struck and Daring sat down. Shame to let that work go to entirely to waste, she thought. She hit the carriage-return to begin a new paragraph. And slowly, she began to type...

A heavy sigh accompanied a muffled scrape as Daring pushed her typewriter away, a slight disgusted grimace on her lips. ‘Yeah, and he still only came up to my chin.’ Her eyes meticulously scanned the previous few paragraphs for flaws, and judged them all sorely lacking when it came to anything approaching intrigue, peril, or astonishing feats of bravery...

The End

The Secret Epilogue: Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow

View Online

I turn with a flourish, head raised heroically, flipping my mane to give it that extra, dramatic flair. The bright spotlight directly overhead pierces the blackness shrouding the rest of the stage with a shaft of intense, white light, almost blinding to me beneath it. Still I hit my mark, gaze sternly at Purple Smart, and tell her not to give up. Daring Do will find a way out of here, and get her and Bravely Blue home safe, just as she promised!

The spotlight dims to half-brightness and over the loudspeaker a new, masculine voice is heard, accented and thick with threat, with the reverb dialled up a little to simulate the echo from the cold stone walls of the dank pit myself and my unfortunate companions have found ourselves trapped within. The audience collectively gasps. They know whose voice that is.

I look upwards in horror and then put on a grim face. I turn to the crowd, deliver the final, defiant line of the scene, and the spotlight goes out casting everything into black.

The stage-lights come up and the applause is rapturous. The entire stadium erupts into cheering, screaming and stamping as a thousand flashbulbs staccato like sparkling diamonds. I stand centre stage with Purple Smart, (Silver Screen) and Bravely Blue, (Twice Bright) either side of me. We link forelegs and take our bows with broad, happy grins, and the already deafening applause grows even louder. We bow a second time and then all three of us pick up a rose from among the dozens thrown by those in the nearest rows, blow a kiss to the crowd, and make our way from the stage into the wings, where Dervish is waiting with a pleased smile.

We wait until we’re out of sight of the crowd and then the three of us turn to each other. None of us can keep a straight face, and it’s Silver Screen who cracks first, bursting into jubilant giggles and throwing her forelegs around us. Twice Bright and I follow suit and soon the three of us are hugging, the sense of relief palpable. I know we’re all professionals, but Las Pegasus is the biggest and most expensive show on the tour, and it has just gone off without a hitch. Whew!

Okay, I can see a lot of you are surprised to see me here. I guess I’d better get you caught up, huh?

So a lot happened after the terrifying, almost-getting-fired meeting with the Executives that I told you about. Things started changing. Subtly at first, and only for the better. For whatever reason, the whole ethos around the Publishers’ handling of the Daring Do franchise seemed to shift a little. Whether it was because of that meeting, or whether the Execs figured the ‘Real Daring Do experiment’ had run its course – or a little of both – suddenly the whole contrivance of a real Daring Do living in Equestria wasn’t the flavour of the month anymore. In fact, it was almost like they were trying to distance themselves from it, slowly, carefully. The schedule became less brutal, most of the shows more relaxed, and I wasn’t required to stay in character all day afterwards anymore. I got more time away to spend with my family and I saw Dervish – my favourite Suit – more often, eventually to the point where he was the only Suit ever sent to monitor the performances. Even the big centrepiece shows (or, if you’re cynical, extended trailers and advertisements for the next book,) became focused on the entertainment they provided, not fastidiously propogating some weird, parallel continuity. Suddenly my name – my real name – even started appearing on the billing. I wasn’t ‘Daring Do, in person’ anymore, I was Footlight appearing as Daring Do. I can still remember the first time I saw it printed like that. My jaw hit the floor.

Bit by bit, the intensity of everything got dialled back. I found myself once again playing the part of the adventurer I loved to read about when I was little, not actually trapped living her faux life. I found myself enjoying the performances more and more. And one morning, when I woke up refreshed with a wide, happy smile, I realised... I loved it again.

It was never playing the character, or entertaining the crowds that bothered me. It was the sense that, every time I wore that shirt and put on that hat, I was telling the world that I was okay with Daring Do being the real pony and Footlight being the piece of fiction. But it just doesn’t feel like that anymore. Footlight is her own pony with her own friends and her own career, and the Publishers respect that now. So you know what? When they offered me the piece of paper again, I signed it. For the first time in a very long while I put my name on that contract not because I thought I had no choice, but because I knew I did. Because I knew I could have walked away, but it was genuinely what I wanted. That was liberating. And believe me, they weren’t expecting it. I can still see that Suit’s face. Priceless!

Oh, and speaking of my friends? The Execs were as good as their word. Ponyville is on every tour. In fact the Ponyville show is next week, and I’ve already had a letter from Twilight saying they got the invitations I sent, and that they’ll be there, front row centre. I can’t wait. I really want them to meet Twice Bright.

That name might ring a bell with some of you. She was the first Daring Do, before me, who the Publishers cut loose when she broke her leg during one of their own performances five months after landing the role. They made a huge mistake with that, and were rightly torn apart by the media for it. But they couldn’t undo it. By then they’d already come to me in desperation because they had dates booked in and obligations for Daring Do that they simply couldn’t put off for six weeks while Twice Bright healed.

Twice Bright’s career kind of fell apart after she got given the sack, and she never recovered the level of fame she once enjoyed on Bridleway. When the Suits told her in her hospital bed that they were legally permitted to terminate her contract, the writing was on the wall. And as if getting that news before she was out of hospital wasn’t bad enough, before that day was even out she had been unceremoniously dumped by her agent – a bullish, uppity sort named Svengallop who abandoned her sinking ship to go manage some other rising star. A singer, I think. Whoever that was I feel sorry for them because, from what I know now, it’s pretty apparent that he was a big part of Twice Bright’s widely talked-about ‘attitude problem.’ Under his management, her haughty, prima-donna reputation preceded her wherever she went, and hard-working ponies like Argento often suffered the sting of her demanding, entitled tongue. (He still never talks about it.) But when he ditched her there was nothing to fuel or sustain the brutish, diva façade she’d manufactured and it soon fell away to reveal that, actually, there was a nice pony underneath, and one that had been trying to get out for a while. But without the contacts necessary to promote herself, and with a reputation for being ‘difficult’ that wasn’t entirely her fault, she was reduced to taking less and less glamorous roles and, eventually, bit-parts, walk-ons, and even filling in as an extra or understudy in whatever productions she could find.

As for me, it had always been a background source of guilt that I’d essentially landed my dream job only due to the misfortune of another. So, after my meeting with the Execs, when I realised they were actually listening to me for once, I snuck back and, heart-in-mouth, made one more demand.

They had to bring Twice Bright back on board somehow. It was never right that they just cut her loose like that and they needed to make it up to her. And they said yes. Instantly, humbly and without hesitation. I think they were secretly glad that I’d been the one to make the suggestion. Looking back, I’m pretty sure that the reason they had never approached her before was because they were afraid there might be some bad blood between her and myself. And, if truth be known, I was scared of that too. But that didn’t stop it from being the right thing to do. So when the Executives agreed, but on the condition that I had to be the one to make the offer – as Footlight, not Daring Do, that would be insensitive – I plucked up the courage, went to Manehatten, and tried to find her.

And after five years of living on the acting equivalent of scraps, she really had changed.

I found her backstage one evening working as a stagehoof, quietly undressing the set of My Fair Filly. And as soon as she laid eyes on me, she recognised me. We’d auditioned at the same time and been on the same shortlist after all, and she obviously knew all about me getting the role. When her eyes locked with mine I was terrified. I was afraid that she would be enraged at me for stealing her job away and, with it, her career, her life; reducing her to what she had become. And when she saw me... she was afraid. Afraid that I’d come to gloat and rub my success in her face. Because in that moment, I could see it in her eyes... that was all it would have taken to break her.

I told her instead that I’d come because I wanted to help. And she smiled. I smiled. We cried. We made friends.

So Twice Bright is on the payroll full-time, filling in whatever roles she needs to on stage. She’s exceptionally versatile and she’s lost none of her talent in those five years. She was famous for a reason. For this tour she’s Bravely Blue – Daring Do’s pegasus sidekick and officially a recurring character! (One whose personality reminds me so much of Rainbow Dash it’s untrue.) She loves playing her, but it gets even better than that, because after this tour is over Twice Bright gets to play Daring Do herself! For the next six months she’s finally going to get the chance to take on the role she was always supposed to. And after that? We’re gonna share it.

For me, I’m leaving for six months for Bridleway. I’m playing Long Mane Silver, the villainous pirate in the stage adaptation of Treasure Atoll. The Publishers have sanctioned it and I’m really looking forward to it. I think it’ll be a nice change of pace to play the villain for once, and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do: step outside of Daring Do for a while and go do some real acting. Don’t get me wrong, I’m coming back – I’ve got a contract to fulfill. But I figure I just need a break from the character for a bit. And if the time comes that I do decide to move on permanently, the Publishers will have Twice Bright willing, able and ready to go. They can’t say fairer than that. I’m not saying I’m thinking about it yet, but it’s nice to remind myself I’m carrying on because I truly want to, not because I feel obligated to or because I’d be leaving the Publishers in the lurch if I left.

Back to the here-and-now, and the hug breaks up. Dervish congratulates us all with a friendly smile and ushers us towards backstage and our dressing rooms. He makes impressed-sounding noises and, with a grin, reassures us that the Publishers will be getting yet another report of an exemplary performance. The three of us pretend to scoff and begin to playfully criticise each other. There’s a lot of laughing and playful shoving, and Dervish is part of it.

It’s strange. Me, Silver, Bright, Dervish and Argento – the core players on this tour – we’ve all become really close. Like a family. And the closer we’ve got off stage, the better every performance has become on it. This... this was how it always should have been. All of us ponies working together to pull off something amazing, not separately and consigned to our individual miserys.

Our dressing-rooms are three of the stadium’s borrowed offices lined up along one corridor, and adorned with our character’s names as opposed to our own – an odd holdover from the days when the pretense that the characters were real was still going strong, but a fun one. I leave Silver Screen at Purple Smart, and bid adieu to Twice Bright as she enters Bravely Blue. The goodbyes are only temporary – the four of us – we three plus Argento – are all meeting up for dinner at the restaurant once we’ve cleaned our make-up off and stored our costumes. Daring Do is the last dressing room, right at the end of the corridor on the left, and Dervish walks with me to it.

We’re halfway along before I even realise that there’s another Suit stood outside of it, as though a sentry. I look in puzzlement to Dervish and he catches hold of me, motioning me to stop before we’ve reached the door. He’s got a slightly guilty look in his eye.

He says he’s sorry he couldn’t tell me before, but he’s only just found out himself, and this is only for my ears, not my co-stars’. A celebrity – he’s no more specific than that – arrived during the show and demanded to see me. And it’s not a demand the Publishers can refuse. Before I can articulate any sort of question we walk on and reach the door. The Suit guarding it proffers me a scroll and a quill, with a stony face.

I’m officially very confused now, but Dervish and I have worked together enough that I trust him. He might be a Suit himself, but I honestly believe that if it ever really came down to the choice, he would protect me over lackeying for the Publishers.

I peer at the scroll. It’s a bespoke NDA – that’s Non-Disclosure Agreement for those not in the know. Essentially, if I sign it, I’m promising that I mustn’t disclose any of what goes on inside the room, or even mention that I’ve had a meeting at all. Above all else, it says at the bottom, the identity of the pony I’m about to meet is to be kept absolutely confidential.

My mind is racing. The fact that they’ve gone to the trouble to draft a specific document covering this one meeting is very far from normal. And the stipulations within it... well, warning bells are ringing left right and centre. But I take a deep breath. Dervish wouldn’t allow this if he thought anything bad might happen to me. And the Publishers have never ever put my safety at risk before. To do so now would be to go against everything I know about them. They’re just not like that. Suddenly fear takes a back seat to curiosity and I begin to wonder who is in there, waiting? Waiting for me?

A celebrity, and one the Publishers daren’t refuse at short notice? To my mind the only ponies that could wield that kind of influence are the Princesses. I gasp and for a moment I get excited. Could it be Twilight? She’s a Princess now, after all. Maybe she’s here to surprise me! Maybe she brought Rainbow Dash too! Then I think it through. The Princesses don’t do cloak-and-dagger. They’re open and honest, and why would Twilight need to swear me to secrecy with a contract?

My curiosity is burning so fiercely that I’m writing my signature on the scroll without really making a conscious effort to do so. Footlight. It’s done. The Suit rolls up the parchment in perfunctory manner, and then steps smartly aside, making no other movement. The door is in front of me, but no-one’s forcing me to walk through it. It’s my choice.

I give Dervish one last look and he gives me a solemn nod. I take that as an indication that he knows what’s going on and that, while not happy about it as such, he knows that everything will be alright once it’s over. I nod back, and place my hoof on the handle.

The door opens, I step through, and it closes behind me.

The room is dark. Gloomy. Coming in from the brightly-lit corridor outside, I can’t see a thing. There’s only a single ceiling lamp that’s now lit, casting a pool of light into the middle of the room, but one which doesn’t reach the walls or even my dresser. I hear a loud, solid click and realise it has come from the door at my back. The Suits have locked it. My blood turns to ice in an instant and I instinctively turn, my eyes darting to the handle and my heart thumping like a jackhammer. When I see it, relief comes in a slow wave and my breaths become calmer and less shallow. There’s a quick-release catch on the inside of the door. I can leave whenever I want. I haven’t been locked in... the rest of the world has been locked out. Whoever this is really doesn’t want our meeting to be interrupted.

I turn back to the room, my eyes starting to adjust, and just as I think I’m able to pick out the faintest, ghostly silhouette of a pony sat on the far side of the room, beyond the edge of the light, a voice speaks to me.

“Who are you?”

It’s low and hard-edged, but recognisably female and it’s not exactly what I’d call threatening. More... annoyed?

I draw myself up a little and swallow hard, determined not to stammer. I tell the voice that my name is Footlight, and there’s only the slightest quiver to my reply.

“Really?” says the voice from the dark. “I’ve heard you go around calling yourself Daring Do.”

That’s put my back up straight away. I play Daring Do, but I’m not Daring Do. Not anymore. I have my own life now, and those that know me know that this is still a touchy subject. They also know that I have a pretty short fuse, and right now mystery-mare over there – with her needlessly dark room and her locked door and her NDA – is tossing lit matches all over the place.

I just about manage to keep a lid on my temper, and I wonder at the same time if that was actually some kind of hint. Am I supposed to be meeting her as Daring Do? Is this some impossibly-rich, influential – and probably spoiled – fan who wants a private audience with her hero? It would have been nice if the Suits could have told me, but then the general rule has always been that while I’m still in costume, I’m still in character.

So it’s my fault. I’ve done this the wrong way, haven’t I? I should have started at Daring and gone to Footlight if the situation called for it. Maintain the illusion...

I feel a prickle of anger, hot on the back of my neck and at the back of my throat. That was always my mantra, before. I was always Daring Do because the situation never called for Footlight. No-one ever wanted to talk to Footlight until... until Twilight Sparkle. And now I’ve just caught myself blaming myself for telling that pony who I really am instead of who I’m really not!

I feel like I’m regressing, in danger of becoming the meek, downtrodden Footlight who lost five years of her life enslaved to a figment of somepony else’s imagination. Well, that won’t happen. I have friends now. Friends like Twice Bright and Argento. Like Twilight and Rainbow Dash. Friends who value me for me. My anger simmers but instead of letting it boil over I use it as fuel for the fire of my confidence. It blazes bright, driving back the shadows of fear.

I still haven’t replied, and that pony – whose silhouetted outline is resolving into something vaguely familiar – is clearly waiting for some kind of reaction from me. Well, I haven’t exactly done a great job at keeping my powder dry on the I’m Daring Do front, but I’ll respond as I should. As Footlight, and with the truth.

I forthrightly tell the pony-with-too-much-time/money/clout that I’m a character-actor who plays the role of Daring Do at the request of the Publishers, but that I’ve been doing it for a long time now and if she was hoping for a meeting with her, well, I guess she’s got one. I’m the closest thing there is to a ‘real’ Daring Do in all of Equestria.

I think I see the ear of the other pony twitch and flick, and I get the general impression from the rest of her body-language that my response has only annoyed her more. Finally she stands and speaks again.

“No, you’re not.”

The pony shifts, and finally steps forward into the light. What the...? Oh. That’s good. That’s actually very, very good.

It’s like looking at a living mirror. The shade of the coat, the shape of the hair, the detail on the cutie-mark... all exceptional. I’ve seen cosplay before of course, but this is next-level stuff. This is Argento-level, professional quality we’re talking here, and surely not cheap. The hat actually looks like a real pith helmet and properly war-torn, and the shirt is of a better quality even than my costume. This pony looks even better than Rainbow Dash did when Argento made her up as Daring Do, and I didn’t think that was possible! She’s as close to story-accurate as I’ve ever seen. Indistinguishable from every piece of promotional material, and I would know. After all, whenever you’ve seen Daring Do on a glossy poster or a book-cover... that’s me in the photograph.

Unless the reason her getup looks so professional is because it is professional. Has Argento made her up? Is this some kind of gag, or joke? Or... ah. Maybe the Publishers are recruiting. They might have finally decided they need understudies or gap-fillers for after I leave for my six-month sabbatical, in case Twice Bright gets sick or something. What if I’m here to evaluate this candidate, see how she handles the role? Could that be it?

That theory only fits half the facts, but in this context the other half don’t make sense anymore. If this is a celebrity, it’s certainly one I don’t recognise. I step forward and to the left, off to the side so I can get a better view, looking her up and down, appraising. I’m no less impressed by what I see. And then... she does the same. Now that I’m fully under the light she casts a judgmental, critical eye over me with a faint scowl etched in place. We sort of end up half-circling each other a wary distance apart, like two pugilists about to enter the fray but unsure who’s throwing the first kick.

There’s a tiny pause, and she draws breath. “You plant your hooves too wide when you turn, you flip your mane too much, your voice is a semitone too low, the last line was all wrong, and there’s to be absolutely no mention of pistachio ice-cream from here on out.” She frowns at me dangerously. “Got it?”

My jaw hangs open a little and I feel my own brow crease into a frown. My temper flares again and my teeth clench hard. And I realise I’m not even going to try and hold it back. I’ve tried to be polite, but now... might as well make my feelings known.

Pistachio ice-cream was a mistake I regret making, but it’s canon now and I’ll mention it whenever I need to! I did not get the last line wrong, I followed the script! And before she asks, no, the script doesn’t imitate word-for-word the dialogue in the book, they never do. They’re interpretations, designed to give the flavour of the scene to the audience to build interest, so they’ll buy the book and see what happens! And as for the rest of it? I lock her gaze and scowl. How dare she? If this was a fan telling me there were things she didn’t like about my rendering of the character that would be fine. I’d listen. But her! She waltzes in here out of the blue, made-up to look like me, Suits somehow in the frog of her hoof, NDA agreement at the ready, into my dressing room, and starts telling me how to do my job!? A job I’ve been doing for over five years now! Who the hay does she think she is!?

Somehow she’s completely unmoved by the verbal tirade I’ve just set upon her, standing still, calm, and unflinching as a stone.

“I’m A. K. Yearling,” she says.


No. Sorry, but no. If this was ridiculous before, now it’s absurd. That is not A. K. Yearling. I mean, I’ve never met A. K. Yearling – which is to say whenever I’ve asked I’ve always been politely told ‘no’. About the only thing I know about her is that that’s not the name she uses all the time. But I’ve always had my theories. My favourites were either that she was some shy-but-exceptionally-talented filly working feverishly out of a too-small apartment in Manehatten, or more conspiratorially, secretly one of the higher-ups in the Publisher’s organisation, using a pseudonym to work behind and the machinery of Hoofprint to get rich off. But none of my theories were as dumb as this. A. K. Yearling doesn’t make herself up as Daring Do. Whoever this pony is, she’s either very confused, or very...

How... did she know about the line?

No, really. How? The book isn’t even out yet, and won’t be for another week. There are exactly two advance copies between the three of us and right now Silver Screen and Twice Bright are using them both. There’s no way she could know that the line I said isn’t the line in the actual novel.

Unless she wrote it.

A Celebrity, that the Publishers daren’t refuse, and a meeting needing a bespoke NDA. The bottom falls out from my stomach and I feel it lurch. That’s... A. K. Yearling? She’s here, talking to me. And she’s made herself look like...

Oh. My stomach lurches again and I feel a bit dizzy because I can see it now. Now that I’m closer and she’s fully in the light. Now that I’m really looking for it. That’s not greasepaint. That’s not hair-dye. A. K. Yearling actually looks like that. Like Daring Do.

When did that happen? When did it turn out that I was the one who’d walked through the looking glass?

A. K. Yearling actually looks like Daring Do.

That’s... so sad.

I feel a tremendous wave of pity. I had always thought that A. K. Yearling was a brilliant, talented author, able to bring an amazing, original character to life. But now, on this side of the mirror, suddenly Daring Do is nothing more than a self-insert. She’s a straight-up wish-fulfillment fantasy foisted on us by the pony in front of me. How could I not have seen it? It was so obvious in retrospect. The constant stream of amazing, heroic things she’s supposedly done earning her the adoration of all should have been a dead giveaway. The fact that everything in those books was so outlandish, unbelievable, incredible was never a problem before. Now, all of a sudden, it smacks of hubris.

Pity turns to anger. Because I believed in that character. I loved that character, once! Ever since I was small! She was my hero! And now I find instead that she’s... this?!

Anger turns to rage, and all hope of control is gone. Because Footlight lost five years of her life to Daring Do. I endured years of crushing schedules, sticky jungles, nosey interviewers, and show after show after show after show! And it was all thanks to her! Every stupid stunt she wrote to make herself sound impressive, I had to perform! Every insect-infested wilderness she threw in to make herself sound exotic, I had to do a photo-shoot in! Every piece of geeky minutiae she inserted to make herself sound smart I had to memorise! And I was always alone! For five years A. K. Yearling was literally the author of my misfortune, and she didn’t even care! I was alone for five years, trapped living her character’s life instead of my own, and she couldn’t give a flying feather about me just as long as it sold more self-aggrandising books! I did what I was told; everything she wrote, all to promote her! And because once, by accident, I told the world that I happen to like pistachio ice-cream, all of a sudden it’s all not good enough?! Well if you’re the author and you look like that, WHY WEREN’T YOU DOING IT ALL?! WHY DID I HAVE TO SUFFER?!

I let loose an inarticulate scream of fury, and there’s the briefest, most satisfying look of surprise on the face of ‘Daring Do’ as I launch myself at her.

My body hits her, hard, and I send her tumbling onto her back. I come to rest on top, muzzle to muzzle with her, screaming half a decade’s worth of anguish and vitriol into the face of pretty-much the most famous and widely-read author in Equestria. This might seem like an over-reaction but then, when your past includes the time you once hurled an epic tirade of abuse at the faithful, prize student of the Princess of the Sun right in front of the Princess of the Sun, there aren’t too many ways to top that. This is nothing.

That’s not to imply that I’m not certain that I’m going to be regretting this in very short order. I am really not a fighter. Still, there is a part of me that’s quite proud – and extremely surprised – that I’m winning. If the pony underneath me was really Daring Do, or even had half her skill, I’d have been beaten senseless by now. Except, you couldn’t really call this a fight. For one thing she’s just lying there. Motionless. She’s not trying to fight back. Hasn’t even shifted or raised a hoof. And for another, I’m pretty sure I’m completely incapable of actually hurting anypony, (at least physically.) So far my attacks have amounted to a vigorous grabbing and shaking of her shirt lapels while screaming – and now crying – in her face. My tears stain the green fabric in a few places. It’s happening again. Always does. The tsunami of rage that once seemed unstoppable was just a normal wave. It inevitably breaks on the shore and recedes, leaving nothing but naked despair beneath. I’m not yelling at her anymore. I’m wailing, then sobbing, then crying in silence. I give a few more token pulls on her shirt-lapels and then I slump, defeated. And she hasn’t had to move a muscle.

With a sudden urgency the door to the room unlocks and opens. Light from the corridor outside spills in as the two Suits hurriedly enter. They gaze at the scene before them in wide-eyed horror, and I can only imagine what they’re seeing. Me, pinning the pony that basically counts as their employer to the floor with my hooves close to her throat. Yeah... this is pretty bad. But before they can make another move, or even open their mouths to speak, the pony underneath me beats them to it.

“I asked for no interruptions.”

The Suit-that-isn’t-Dervish pipes up, saying that they heard a lot of screaming, and then a crash, and then everything went quiet, so they thought—

“We’re talking,” she says calmly but curtly. She says nothing else, but it’s immediately clear that she wants them to leave and lock the door again. Dervish gives me a quick, worried look, but I give him a subtle, I’m okay nod – although I really don’t think I am – and both Suits leave. One more reluctantly than the other. The door lock clicks once more.

Now that I’m slightly more with-it I can feel a pressure on my stomach. I realise with a dawning sense of dread that it’s her back hoof. When I tackled her and landed on top she must have bent her hindleg and drawn her hoof up before my weight fell on her. It’s pressing against my barrel, her rear leg like a coiled spring ready to buck me off and send me crashing into the dresser against the far wall before my wings could stop me. No wonder she was so calm. For a second there I actually thought I was winning, but she’s been in control the entire time, waiting. And now that I’ve realised that, she’s about to make sure I regret it. Any second. I just about manage to articulate the pitiful apology I would have made anyway, and brace myself.

And nothing happens.


Waiting yields no reaction at all. So slowly, very carefully, I start to lift myself off her. I know that as soon as she realises I’m trying to avoid being kicked across the room it’ll prompt her to do just that, but I can’t stay here forever. Again, nothing happens. I manage to clamber off her prone body without incident and her hindleg relaxes.

She rolls over and moves to get up, but I’m there, next to her, and I offer her a forehoof. It seems like the least I can do, and to my surprise she takes it and I pull her back to her hooves. I’m very, very ashamed of myself right now, and I mumble another short but sincere apology.

She gives me a little frown in reply, but I get the impression that she’s not mad as such. I can’t read her but it’s like she doesn’t think that what just happened is anything she needs to hold against me. I’m pretty sure I would think differently if I were her.

“Let’s clear the air,” she says and the frown deepens. “I never agreed to you. Hoofprint never even consulted me, they just went ahead. When I found out what they’d done I had more important things to worry about, but I was never exactly happy knowing you were out there. I thought you were an opportunist, trying to fool ponies into believing you were me, taking the credit for my work and doing who-knew-what to Daring Do’s image for your own ends while my back was turned.” She sighs a sigh that I recognise as a guilty sigh. I’ve sighed that sigh before. A lot. “I didn’t understand, okay? Twilight said you’d been through a lot, and it’s obvious she was right. And rather than resenting you all this time it seems like I should have been thanking you instead. The crowd loved you out there, and everyone I spoke to said that that’s not a fluke. I can’t quantify how much interest you’ve created in Daring Do just by being in the public eye for me but judging by what I just saw, it might well be massive. What if it’s only thanks to you that I had enough money to make it to Tenochtitlan? That whole valley might be roasting right now. I’ve heard you know Daring back to front and inside out, and you really do look the part. I can see you’re working hard to do justice to the character, not usurp her for yourself. And... trust me on this... I know how difficult it can be to try and be two ponies at once. I understand. Still... if what just happened there is any indication, it’s a good thing there isn’t gonna be any combat. I don’t have anything like the time it would take to train you to move like me in a fight.”

Wait, was that more criticism of my performance? I know I can’t actually fight my way free from a wet bag in real life, but she should see some of the choreography work that goes into our fight scen— hold on, did she say Twilight?

“I was never talking about your performance on stage. Far as I’m concerned, your interpretation is solid. I’m talking about tomorrow night, where ‘interpretation’ ain't gonna cut it.”

Yes, but she mentioned Twilight and— wait, what was that about tomorrow? There’s no show tomorrow.

“You really should learn to ask your questions one at a time. But yeah, Twilight. You and I have a couple of mutual friends. Good ones, too. In fact, in more ways than one, they’re why I’m here.”

Before I can respond to that she casually moseys over to my dresser and starts poking a few things around. “What did you think of the book?” she asks. The hard edge to her voice is gone now, become something softer and more genuine.

I... well, okay, thrown me off track a bit, but I’ll answer. I tell her the truth – I loved it, far-fetched stuff aside, but think it’ll be divisive among the fans who think Daring should stay a lone-wolf. Personally I really like that fact that Daring Do has friends now. I think in that respect at least it’s an improvement on Ring of Destiny, where I always felt the supporting character was introduced too late in the narrative to really get to know her. This makes up for that in spades. I really like that she brought Bravely Blue back, and I just love Purple Smart! They both remind me so much of my Ponyville friends it’s scary. Plus, from a purely selfish point of view, I like working with other actors on stage. I quietly-hopefully wonder aloud if Daring Do might have more adventures with them in the future?

“It’s possible,” she admits levelly but pretty noncommittally. “You say you want Daring Do to have more adventures with other ponies? Well... careful what you wish for.”

She finally turns away from the dresser, facing me again, and there’s a determined glint in her eyes and a devilish smile on her lips that’s classic Daring Do. She draws a quick breath. “Tomorrow night there’s an auction in Monte Cartlo. Dr. Caballeron is selling off two ancient journals recovered from one of the oldest cities ever discovered. Aside from the dust-jackets they come in, everything about them is fake. One is a collection of notes on the city that I wrote myself – I don’t care about that. The other one is a book that he’s claiming was written by a foal from the city before it fell. That one I need back. Now, normally I’d just charge in there, take out the dozen-or-so security ponies, and make off with the book. But... there’s a safer, easier, more civilised and much less violent way for me to get it, and I’d rather not hurt ponies I don’t need to. Unfortunately, for the plan to work I have to be in two places at once. So I need another me. Or rather, I need someone who can completely convince another pony they are me. I need a pony who speaks, acts, walks, knows and is Daring Do,” she says with a smirk. “Know anyone like that?”

Whoa whoa whoa. Hold on. Back up a sec. What does she mean ‘Caballeron’ is holding an auction. He’s not real!

She gives me an odd look at that. Next she digs around inside her shirt pocket and retrieves a crumpled piece of paper and spreads it on the dresser. It’s a flier for an auction hosted by Dr. Caballeron PhD in Monte Cartlo tomorrow evening.

But he’s not real! He’s like me – an actor on the Publisher’s payroll, hired to put in the odd appearance in public. Those lectures he gives? That poster? The occasional articles in the paper? That’s just clever publicity. He’s not a real pony! There isn’t a real auction! And those books she’s describing, they’re the ones from the novel aren’t they? They’re not real either!

“Kid?” she says, leaning in close. “He’s real. It’s real. They’re real. It’s all real.”

I... But... I... But that doesn’t make sense! And even if it were real, this book she’s talking about, Daring Do thought it was the worst thing she’d ever read. She said so in the narrative! Why would she risk this to get it back?

“Because it wasn’t mine to give away.” She gives another one of those guilty sighs. “Rainbow Dash gave it to me to look at. And it was awful... just awful. But that’s not the point. It’s her book, and I had no right to put it in Caballeron’s hooves. I’m just trying to do right by my friend. And... maybe tweak the Doc’s muzzle a little in the process,” she finishes with a tiny grin.

I... it’s Rainbow Dash’s book? But then that has to mean... Bravely Blue... and Rainbow Dash... but does that also mean that Twilight and Purple Smart are...!

“You said yourself they sounded familiar,” she says, her grin getting a little wider.

My stomach lurches again and I feel the colour drain from my face. This rabbit-hole goes very deep indeed, doesn’t it?

“Hey, whoa, easy there, you don’t need to look like that. I can guarantee you’ll be safe. Like I said: just keep your hooves a little closer together, raise the pitch of your voice a tad and don’t flip your mane like that. We’ll be identical. Baby steps: right now, all I need is you – and whoever does your make-up – on the train to Monte Cartlo leaving in ten minutes. We’ll go over the plan on the way and if you’re not happy you’re totally free to walk when we get there. But if we pull this off, you and me... this is gonna be awesome, and they’ll never figure it out! So. Are you in?”

Me and Argento? On a spur-of-the-moment, romantic trip to exotic, coastal Monte Cartlo? Embroiled in a caper full of mystery and intrigue? With the actual, real-life Daring Do? (I just said that last sentence again in my head and it still sounds weird. About five minutes ago I thought I was the ‘actual real-life Daring Do.’ About three minutes ago I wanted to kill the actual real-life Daring Do, but we’ll gloss over that. Funny how some friendships start.) And all I have to do is do what I’ve been doing almost every day for over five years?

This... doesn’t sound so bad. In fact it sounds fun.

I’ll get Dervish to apologise to Twice Bright and Silver Screen for me – looks like Argento and I won’t make it to dinner with them tonight.

Of course... there is one condition.

She wasn’t quite expecting that, and she raises an eyebrow. “What condition?”

I give a grin of my own. Pistachio ice-cream! If we’re going on this trip then I get to introduce her to pistachio ice-cream, and if she tries it and she loves it and it becomes her favourite ever ice-cream then I am totally off the hook for what happened in Cursed Casket. (And a few other things.)

She draws herself up and frowns at me. Then it passes and her determined, confident smirk returns. “Okay. Deal,” she says as her smirk widens into a full grin.

I grin right back.

I get the feeling that when I see Twilight and Rainbow next week, we’re all gonna have a lot to talk about.