by shortskirtsandexplosions

First published

Daring Do goes on an epic quest full of danger and peril. Her goal: to cross landscapes, to scale boundaries... and to transcend herself.

Daring Do goes on an epic quest to cross magnificent landscapes, to scale impenetrable boundaries, and to transcend herself.

Epic Cover art by Dream0rDie

And the Shifting Sands

Her fuzzy ears twitched upon hearing a rustling sound, like long sheets of paper shredding apart in the dark confines of an abandoned library. Soon, that rustling turned into a gentle roar, coming and going in vacillating sequence. Then her shoulders started shifting with the sound, and she opened her mouth to breathe. Her nose and muzzle produced nothing but bubbles.

Daring Do lifted her face, sputtering. Her ruby eyes opened to a flash of bright blue sky, then immediately clenched shut to squeeze out the salt and stabbing light. She curled up with a foalish whimper, only to hear the ripples of water all around her. Bobbing liquid surrounded the mare's body, soaking her, christening her tan coat with cool suds amidst the glaring heat.

It took a great deal of courage, but Daring opened her eyes yet again. Her pupils stung from the gritty sand and saline dripping off her lashes. At best, she could barely make out a fuzzy line bobbing and weaving straight ahead of her. As she tried focusing on the horizon, another wave of cold liquid doused her from behind. She found her body surging forward, her hooves plowing through a sopping muck of wet sand below.

She used the boost to her advantage and stood up, wobbling wearily on all fours. Only once she was upright did she realize how shallow the surf was. The water lapped against her fetlocks as her soaked green safari shirt dribbled streams of seawater into her wavering reflection. One pensive hoof after another, she tried trotting forward.

With a grunt, she tripped and fell flat on her chest. The wind flew out of her lungs, and in the next inhale she tasted thick salt in the air. The sound of birds echoed over the waves, and she looked up through pained eyes.

Three seagulls streaked through the bright blue sky directly overhead. They spun like vultures, twirling counter clockwise, mechanically chasing each other forever and ever until Daring Do blinked.

With a groan, Daring tried crawling forward. As she did so, she gazed directly ahead. A line of green fuzz solidified into a thin forest of palm trees and tall emerald grass, stretching left and right beyond rolling mounds of pale white sand. Daring found herself inching immediately towards a shallow beach dotted with bent palm trees and gray specks of exposed rock. She tilted her head back and forth to see what lay beyond her peripheral vision. As best as she could tell, the ocean shore stretched from horizon to horizon, not bending or breaking even once.

The bird cries intensified. Daring glanced up. The seagulls spun their circle away, as if retreating from her glare. As another wave of surf struck the mare's weak body, she felt something tap into her right hoof.

In a jerk, Daring glanced aside. She blinked to see a small object of brown leather sliding into her as it bobbed in the low surf. Reaching a hoof out, she spun the thing around. A beam of sunlight glinted across its slick surface, revealing the thing to be a book—splayed open with its ruined pages lying face-first in the the sand.

A deep sigh that escaped the mare's lips. She reached a hoof up, hesitated, then slowly slicked her soaking wet mane back. After a few seconds, she stifled a groan, sat on her haunches, and propped the book up in her hooves.

Daring Do was silent. Her nostrils flared once or twice, but otherwise her face remained as dead as stone. She scanned the sopping wet pages of the book, but there was nothing decipherable left to read. What was more, most if not all of the papers had been ripped out, leaving nothing but mottled, translucent leaves. She slapped the soaking tome shut and glanced at its cover. The hints of a colorful and artistic cover were still there, but the swirling paint strokes had all been drained away, leaving the stenciled silhouette of something that once held a pattern, but was no longer salvageable.

She exhaled quietly. In an emotionless shrug, she dropped the book with a wet plop onto the sand, where it was then consumed once more by the crashing waves. The tome floated back out to sea, and Daring Do trotted forward, this time with strength and purpose. Her slogging steps turned into wicked stomps as she crossed over from wet grit to dry sand. Powdery hoofprints marked the mare's deliberate path as she broke right at ninety degrees and began walking parallel to the shore.

Wincing from the heat and moisture, Daring repeatedly shook her mane and tail hairs, desperate to get as much of the salt and sand out as possible. Her vision was starting to adjust, and the blue sky wasn't quite so punishing. As she fidgeted with the soaking wet cuffs of her shirt, she glanced up at the sky. The seagulls were gone, and in their place the sun loomed directly overhead. She couldn't tell what time of day it was, only that it was hot. Her thoughts quietly mulled this over, rolling with the endless crashing of ocean waves.

About two minutes into her trek, she dared to look to her right, gazing out across the open ocean. A quivering blue horizon undulated softly before her, revealing no continents, no islands, no boats, not even a single mirage to tickle the adventurer's imagination. The waves glittered as if to show off the vast stretch of aquatic desolation lying before her.

Thus, it was with a gasp that Daring beheld a singular object moving amidst the waves. She pivoted towards the ocean, squinting. Then, with a desperate breath, she galloped straight into the rolling surf. She waded towards the small thing, wincing as the cold waves lapped up to her forelimbs' upper joints yet again. Nevertheless, she persisted, scaling the tide until the object was within reach. Without hesitation, Daring clasped the lid of the thing between her teeth. With a splash, she spun around and kicked at the waves until she was walking onto dry shore once again.

Squatting on her haunches, Daring happily plucked the pith helmet out from her toothed grip and examined the article closely. She turned it over and gave it a shake, draining the hat of both sand and seawater. With a grimacing expression, she reached a hoof in and dragged out a clump of vomit-green seaweed. It took several flicks of her forelimb to toss the clingy mass away. Once rid of it, she sighed and planted the pith helmet atop her gray head. The hat was just as soaked as she was, but at least it gave her tan brow some shade from the punishing sun.

Reunited with her headpiece, Daring Do turned directly towards the grass beyond the beach and marched forward. Her muscles ached, so she kept her trot slow and steady, crossing the blazing hot sands with more or less grace. Once her hooves made contact with the springy knoll, her whole body relaxed. She exhaled with relief, then fumbled through the tall swaying reeds in search of shade.

After about ten minutes of traversing the edge of the shore's vegetation, she found a blissfully cool spot. A trio of palm trees stretched into one another, their rustling fronds forming a patch of shadow in which Daring Do eagerly squatted. She rested for the better part of an hour, peeling her wet shirt off and stretching it—unbuttoned—across a gray slab of exposed rock lying against the base of a steep hill.

She emptied the pockets of her shirt and laid her personal belongings side by side in a patch of sand, right beside her pith helmet. As she sat on folded limbs in the shade, she passed the time by examining each item one by one.

One was a compass, miraculously unfazed by the seawater that had pelted it—and pelted her. Daring unclasped the thing and rotated it in the crook of her hoof, watching as the compass rose inside—a perfect match for her cutie mark—rotated to show her which direction was which. She blinked curiously to see that north and south were perfectly aligned with the shore. She glanced behind her, looking west over the crashing waves. Sullenly, she glanced straight ahead. The land east of her was blocked by a solid line of sharply jutting hillsides, beset with craggy rocks and loose mounds of sand.

Quietly, she clasped the compass back shut and placed it down. Next, she picked up a pale blue shard of crystal. She shook the enchanted object beside her ear, listening as the air immediately surrounding her danced with the ethereal sound of bells, then went silent. Raising the object to her mouth, she blew on it. The crystal strobed with a pulse of pale blue light, then went dim. Inhaling deeply, Daring next breathed on the shard for the span of ten seconds. The object proceeded to glow with magical torchlight, almost to the point of blinding her like the sun earlier did.

Stifling a snort, Daring bore a tiny smile and placed the glowstone back in the sand. Annoyed with the persistent glare, she lifted her pith helmet and plopped it over the enchanted crystal. Next, she reached for a slender, oval case. On the side of the item, in silver-embossed font, the container read: "Professor Do – Neigh York Institute for History and Archaeology.'" After turning the glossy gray thing over, she pressed a button in its middle and popped it open like a clam shell. Inside was a pair of bifocals, framed perfectly for her eyes, but that wasn't what the mare was looking for.

Tilting the container at a steep angle, she looked at an oval mirror that was shaped to fit the interior of the container's lid. A pair of dull ruby eyes stared back at her from its polished surface. Daring's face grew long as she gulped and—with fidgeting hesitation—tilted the container's mirror so that she could have a better look at her mane. The pegasus’ hair was still sopping wet, and many of the gray tones had tangled to form the color of bubbling stormclouds. She looked and looked intently at her mane, reaching a hoof up every now and then to spread the bangs apart. Her ruby eyes squinted, darting about, before finally giving up. With a sigh of disappointment, she clasped the container shut, then turned to give her equally wet tail a dull glance. She flicked the hairs for good measure, but still seemed equally bored.

Eventually, she placed the container back onto the sand and slumped forward, resting her chin atop a pair of criss-crossing forelimbs. For several minutes, she gazed past the swaying palm trees, into the churning shore, listening as the endless waves crashed and receded and crashed again. Her fuzzy ears twitched, and she detected the sound of skittering limbs. Her eyes jerked to the left in time to witness four crabs. They walked sideways, albeit in a loop, shuffling clockwise around a solitary tree. The crustaceans did this—quietly and persistently—for as long as Daring bothered to stare at them.

She didn't know when she gave up staring, but at some point Daring retrieved her shirt, buttoned it up, put her belongings back into the thing's pockets, grabbed her pith helmet, and resumed strolling south along the beach.

For an hour, Daring traversed the thick grass that bordered the surf-pounded sand. She climbed over crags of rock and piles of petrified sediment. She hopped over lopsided palm trees and fumbled through scratchy fronds and bushes.

Every now and then, the mare would pull her compass out, unclasping it to see if there was any change to her bearings. At each check, she found that she would always be facing south, with the east looming directly to her left. Bearing a dull expression, Daring glanced repeatedly towards the wall of grassy earth, wondering when there would be a break in the steep landscape. Her feathers were still wet with seawater, and she didn't want to risk flying into unknown territory if there was a chance she might fall and crash.

No matter how far she trotted, it felt as though there wasn't enough shade. The heat wasn't so much unbearable as it was annoying. Daring hissed in discomfort, for the seawater that had dried on her coat had left fine granules of salt clinging to her skin, and it made her flesh itch with a vengeance. The edges of her lips stung, and she felt as though her eyelids were growing more and more puffy by the hour. The pegasus quietly prayed for a cave or an alcove or a massive cluster of palm trees to appear and give her some much needed shelter.

Instead, she chanced upon another blessing: there was a break in the grassy ridges to her left. Daring paused, squinting down what appeared to be a narrow chasm of sorts. It wasn't too thin; daylight filtered down in random spurts, and she detected a hint of fine mist filtering out from the sudden cleft in the earth.

Without hesitation, Daring turned left and briskly trotted east. She was immediately rewarded with a cool reprieve as the shade of palms and rockfaces crossed over her like shadow puppets. The ravine meandered, winding right and left and right again. Soon, the crashing of waves dwindled into obscurity behind the mare, gradually replaced with the roar of another sort. Curiosity led Daring further down the serpentine cabin, as did a delightfully cool spray of moist air.

At last, she trotted around a final bend. The steep earth sloped down, revealing an emerald glen flanked by thick bushes buzzing with insects. Daring's attention was stolen by a shimmering sight at the far end of the clearing: that of an enormous waterfall crashing into a shallow pond at the base of a steep, steep rockface. A dense patch of shade hugged the walls, leading to a niche that curved inward from the pond, giving the mare enough space to walk through between the rock and the thundering waterfall.

Daring stepped underneath the natural overhang, and immediately she was in heaven. Wave after wave of cool, clingy moisture pelted her weary body with delight. She bore a rosy-cheeked smile as her walk slowed into a lazy trot. She stretched her neck against the rising mist, allowing the airborne droplets to kiss every square inch of her coat. The adventurer's green shirt was being soaked again, but she didn't care. She came to a stop on the rocky platform directly behind the thickest curtain of the pounding falls. Her ears drooped to avoid being deafened as she leaned in and stuck her hoof courageously into the deluge, testing the pressure of the plummeting moisture. The water stung a bit to the touch, but the coolness outweighed the pain.

Smiling, Daring took her pith helmet off and plopped it down beside her. The pegasus then set her hooves apart, balancing herself so as not to slip on the rock that had been smoothed to a pearlescent shine from countless centuries of liquid punishment. After a deep, deep breath, she plunged her neck forward and doused her skull in the shallow pool. Once thoroughly doused, she yanked her head up, tossing her sopping-wet mane back and allowing rivulets of water to roll down her neck and chest. She splashed hoof-fuls of moisture onto her lower limbs and fetlocks, washing away the sand and grit of her previous trek.

It was halfway through this impromptu "rinse" that Daring paused, her ruby eyes catching movement from beneath the surface of the pond. She spotted three shapes darting around themselves, and it took her a few seconds to realize that they were rotating in a circle. The pony stood there, serenaded by the cacophonous waterfall, watching as three fish perpetually chased one another in a counter clockwise motion.

Daring raised an eyebrow. On instinct, she looked straight up and ahead of her.

There was a dark shape from beyond the waterfall, lying perfectly still.

Slowly, Daring squatted low and slipped her pith helmet back on. With cautious steps, her wet body crept around the edge of the rock face, slowly emerging from the earthen niche beyond the other edge of the waterfall. As she rounded the cascading deluge, she spotted a dark, dark cave lingering on the far edge of the glen. It stood out like a sore hoof, leaving her amazed that she had not seen it when she first arrived upon the clearing.

With quiet steps, she padded across the grass, approaching the mouth of the cave. A cold wind billowed through the stone chamber. From where she stood at the entrance to the natural formation, she estimated that the craggy corridor was no less than twenty feet wide.

After a few deep breaths, Daring slithered forward. Darkness overcame her, and she slowed her movement in order to stretch a hoof toward the left front pocket of her shirt. Unbuttoning the flap, she slid out her enchanted stone so that it protruded halfway from her outfit. Breathing hotly on the shard, she summoned a pale-blue glow. A cold spotlight bounced and bobbed ahead of her, matching her movement, lighting her path as she spelunked the straight corridor that cut through what she assumed to be a rocky hill.

Much like the crashing surf, the roar of the waterfall behind her dwindled. The underground passage was deathly silent, punctuated only by Daring's clopping hoofsteps and the occasional sound of moisture dripping in the dank cave's unlit recesses. Daring pivoted her chest left and right, shining the swath of pale blue light back and forth. Despite her efforts, she could only illuminate the walls of the place; there was no sight of the cave's end.

At first, Daring was puzzled, and even slightly dismayed. About five minutes into the underground trek, she slowed her trot, for the echoes of her hoofsteps were becoming lesser and lesser apart. Suddenly, a halo of light solidified in front of her. The mare's glowing stone was illuminating a solid wall.

She came to a stop, her hooves shuffling. Breathlessly, she gawked at the apparent dead-end. Just then, a drop of water fell from the ceiling directly in front of her, but it made no sound. She looked straight down and realized why.

There was a drop—a hole—and it fell into complete darkness. Gulping, Daring breathed into the enchanted glowstone once again, causing it to pulsate with renewed energy. She squatted down to her chest and peered over the edge of the drop, shining her light directly into the vertical space. As she did so, a wave of air blew at her mane. She winced, then furrowed her brow in thought.

The air obviously had to be coming from somewhere. Determined to find out, Daring stood back up and stretched her wings. She didn't feel ready to fly, but she was certain that she could glide if she put her mind to it. So, flapping the wet feathers one last time for good measure, she plunged daredevilishly off the edge of the cliff. She plunged, rotating as she did so, circling gracefully towards the darkness below until her light struck smoothe rock—followed by her four hooves.

She landed on even stone and pivoted around, shining her light in every direction she could. There was another gust of air, and she spun in the direction from which it came from. She swore that she saw something glistening in the distance. She slid the glowing shard deep into her pocket in order to drown out the immediate light. Squinting, she made out a pale sliver in the distance. She trotted cautiously towards it, then broke into an eager canter as her eyes focused, making out a flat stretch of solid rock between her and her destination.

At last, the light and wind culminated in a chamber facing towards the outside world. Three vertical slits had been carved into the wall; they were too geometrically perfect to have been natural. Sure enough, as Daring Do scuffled to a stop, she noticed blatant furnishing to the place. Wooden support beams framed the rocky walls and ceiling. A cobblestone floor stretched between shattered, emptied pots, and on the far end were wooden tables and chairs that had decayed into brittle splinters with time.

Daring Do approached one of the lopsided tables. She tilted her head aside as she observed several wooden cups, bowls, and discarded pieces of ancient tools. A pale stretch of cobwebs bounced in the wind. Daring turned immediately around and faced the three carved slits on the far side. In the center of the room was a cylinder positioned at about knee-level, but she ignored it, choosing instead to trot over toward the windows. Once she stood before the slits, she leaned forward to peer out, squinting. However, the world outside was unbearably bright, and she couldn't make out any semblance of a landscape, foggy or clear. Another gust of wind blew at her mane, tugging at her pith helmet, and she sat back on her haunches, mulling the situation over in silence.

It was then that something crawled over her flanks.

With a sharp breath, she flicked her tail and stood up. The mare turned and stared down at the cobblestone floor.

She saw a couple of ants marching in a line... a dozen ants... a hundred ants... hundreds of ants. As Daring Do took more and more of a survey of the room's floor, she realized that an entire squadron of soldier ants had been skittering across the ground the whole time. What's more, every single one of them was conforming to an undeniable pattern.

Daring looked at the ants, then at the cylinder in the middle of the room, then at the ants again.

They were marching precisely clockwise around the cylinder.

Curious, Daring trotted forward, making sure she stepped over the insects without squashing a single one of them. She approached the cylinder, giving it a close study. Upon closer inspection, she realized that the cylinder's top pedestal was—in fact—consisting of circles within circles. There were four layers total, and each of them were adorned with stone engravings, patterned after four different creatures. The outermost layer bore the image of soldier ants—much like the ones that were circling the dais. Working its way in, Daring saw a circle inscribed with fish, a smaller circle inscribed with crabs, and a final, small circle inscribed with seagulls.

The adventurer cocked her head to the side. Cautiously, she reached two hooves forward. She gripped the outermost circle of the cylinder, gently at first, and gave it a tug. Slowly—with a scraping noise—she found that she could rotate the outer circle along the cylinder's circumference.

Something dramatically shifted in her peripheral. She looked down—then did a double-take, her ruby eyes wide.

Every single soldier ant had stopped marching altogether, instead scurrying collectively towards her with their barbed mandibles thirsting for tender pony flesh.

Daring hissed through clenched teeth. She looked at the ants, then at the carvings that matched them on the outer circle. Her head jerked as a thought ripped through her mind. With a jolt, she rotated the circle the other way: clockwise.

The ants all stopped in place, their feelers waving in the air.

Daring held her breath and continued rotating, rotating, rotating the circle clockwise.

The ants walked unnaturally backwards, went back into formation, continuing their clockwise orbit of the cylinder—and Daring in turn.

The pegasus exhaled with relief. At last, the circle stopped rotating altogether, clicking loudly as it locked in place. Daring stood there, leaning limply on the cylinder, rubbing her chin in thought. Then, with a brightening expression, she brushed her hooves towards the next ring of stone. Gripping the circle marked with fish, she rotated the inner circle counter clockwise. She did this until the scraping panel locked into place. She next grasped the smaller circle labeled with crustaceans, this time rotating the thing clockwise. After it clicked to a stop, she finally gripped the smallest circle and—with much effort—forced it to rotate counter clockwise.

When this one clicked to a stop, it popped up in the center of the stone cylinder like a loose piston, forcing Daring to emit a slight yelp. She backed up as a deep rumble rolled through the chamber. Then, with an explosion of fine powder, the cylinder expelled wave after wave of loose sand from deep within its interior. The cobblestone floor was absolutely covered with sediment, sweeping the ants away and burying them altogether. The air became too thick with debris, and Daring raised the collar of her shirt over her muzzle so that she could breathe without choking. At last, the rumbling stopped; the cylinder now resembled a stone island in the center of a loose fountain of sand.

Anxiously, Daring waded her way through the mess and grasped the edges of the circles. This time, she lifted, and the top of the cylinder popped off like the lid to a jar of strawberry preserves. She flung it aside, hearing as it crashed loudly against a wall of crumpled wooden furniture. Daring looked down into what turned out to be a round chest. A single item lay in the center of it, exposed after all the sand had spilled loose from the device. Reaching down, Daring grasped it and raised it up into the light from the windows.

It was a book; a very thick one at that. Years of sifting through coarse sand had rubbed off any hint of a title or picture along its leather covers. Daring wasted no time in dwelling on this obscure detail; she opened the book, flinging its pages wide. A fine dust was added to the already suffocating air. She studied the white pages, her eyes narrowing. Perhaps it was the sand, or perhaps the milky white haze that wafted in through the windows, but all she could see was a foggy blur of text. There was nothing to decipher, and Daring wasn't about to try.

With a sudden jerk, the pony flung her mouth forward, bit her teeth onto a thick wad of pages, and yanked her head back. The air of the room roared with the tearing of ancient sheets of paper. In an instant, the adventurer had ripped half of the book's contents to shreds. She let the loose leaves fall to the ground, where they mixed with the sand.

It wasn't long after that a heavy gust of wind blew in from the world outside. Daring Do gritted her teeth and covered her head. She fell to the ground, almost drowning in sand and loose pages. As soon as the tumult began, silence reigned once again. She swam her way up through the dust and stood on four hooves, squinting into a continuous gale. Looking out through the three windows, her vision finally spotted a landscape.

Waves upon waves of rolling green hills stretched as far as Daring's ruby eyes could see. Tall grass waved in perpetual downdrafts as dark gray clouds swam overhead. Gone was the sound of crashing waves entirely, replaced instead by a whistling howl as the smell of pollen and dewy grass tickled the mare's nostrils.

She couldn't explain why, but the tiniest of smiles adorned her lips. She trotted towards the centermost window, but suddenly paused. Reaching a hoof into her pockets, she fished around until she pulled out her eyeglass case. Popping the clamshell container open, she looked into the mirror built inside the thing's lid.

Her smile left. She tilted the mirror until she got a good look at her windswept mane. Her eyes searched and searched... but found nothing.

Daring sighed.

Clasping the container shut, she slid it back into her pocket and stretched her wings. Her feathers were dry now, and it was about time she rested her legs.

So, with a triumphant gallop, she threaded her way through the centermost window and plunged over the edge. She dove down an enormous cliffside, shot her wings out, and sliced her way against the winds, gliding like a tan speck over the immense plain of rolling green hills.

And the Whipping Winds

Daring thought she could glide against the howling winds with relative ease. She was wrong.

Less than thirty minutes into her glide, the whistling air above the plains proved too tempestuous to handle. She gritted her teeth and beat her wings harder and harder until they felt like tearing off. At last, she resorted to descending until she was about ten feet off the top of the hilly mounds of grass. There, she found that she could skim the landscape at a slow yet unchallenged speed.

However, this made the flight a great deal more stressful than she had anticipated. The landscape wasn't simply a flat plateau of fields, but rather a bumpy array of windswept hills. It was as if Daring was crossing an emerald sea of rolling green waves. She almost expected a creature to leap spontaneously out of the earth and land beneath her in a splash of weeds and dirt.

Nevertheless, the adventurer maintained her low altitude, scaling each rise and fall in the verdant topography. There was something hypnotic about the manner in which the emerald blades danced in the endless breezes. To her left and right, she saw tremendous gusts, outlined by serpentine swaths of bent grass winding before and behind her.

She found herself so entranced by the wind-swept vegetation that she realized she had suddenly lost her bearings. So, with a muted groan, Daring lowered herself to land atop the crest of a hill. She sank through the tall grass; her hooves didn't land quite where she had expected them too. Gasping, she found herself drowning in the tall green blades. They went up to her neck, brushing and scratching and tickling her legs and flank.

Shuddering, Daring trotted forward a bit, beating back the grass, weeds, and wind that never ceased to pelt her. To her joy, she found a cluster of compact dirt where the grass only grew up to her fetlocks. There, she plopped down on her haunches, resting while she pulled her compass out from her green shirt's pocket. Unclasping the thing, she watched as the rose rotated to a stop.

She was facing east-northeast; the mare hadn't flown far off her intended trajectory. She smiled and slapped the item shut, only to hear a loud bang echoing across the heavens. With a gasp, Daring clutched the compass to her chest, staring breathlessly upwards.

Gray clouds had coalesced overhead. They were thickest in the north, boiling and flickering with distant flashes of lightning. As Daring watched, she was serenaded by another roll of thunder, softer this time, giving a bass reverberation to the endless field of grassy hills. When the thunder cleared, Daring's ears were assaulted once again with perpetual whistling. The winds did not cease for one second, and this produced a high-pitched whine that sang high above the rustle of grass blades brushing up against one another.

With a sigh, Daring pocketed the compass and sat still for a few minutes. She took even breaths, drinking in the copper taint lowering through the billowing air. As the sky grew darker, she could feel her coat hairs tingling with static electricity. With each roll of thunder, there was no telling when and where the next bolt of lightning would strike. It was immeasurably dangerous to keep traveling forward, especially by wing.

Daring Do leapt forward and flew without hesitation.

An hour passed. The winds whistled with a vengeance, but Daring had grown numb to it. She flew as low as she could afford to over the hills, her hooves and muzzle occasionally being slapped by precocious blades of grass. She kept her ruby eyes trained forward, hoping without end that there'd be a change in the landscape beyond the next hilltop... or the next... or the next one after that.

Alas, with each rolling piece of earth that she passed, there came another breath of disappointment, accompanied by a violent gust of wind as she tried to skirt past the top of a gale-blasted knoll. It seemed to the mare that the turbulence was increasing. She gnashed her teeth and tried angling her wings to better slice through the cyclonic forces, but she found herself being thrusted faster and harder towards the earth.

After an hour and a half, she finally gave in, landing in an awkward skid across the western face of a grassy bend. Daring clung to the earth for a few seconds, struggling to catch her breath, trying not to be blown off her hooves by layers upon layers of punishing bursts of air. Lightning flashed, and she felt the thunderous vibrations rolling through the springy earth beneath her.

Gritting her teeth, Daring looked up. The clouds were nearly black at this point; they cast an ominous shadow over her and the swaying vegetation. A part of her contemplated jumping off the ground and soaring straight up. If she pierced the clouds with her pegasus body, then perhaps she might be able to fly at a high altitude unfettered by howling winds. However, for the life of her, she couldn't expect to fly twenty feet in a straight line, much less hundreds of yards. Her ears hurt from the constant whistling that pierced them. She drooped the fuzzy lobes back and gazed straight at the earth beneath her, as if praying for a break in the wind so that she could continue her journey.

It was then that she noticed something, a contrasting sight that broke through the emerald canvas of the landscape that was drowning her. Crawling across one particular blade of high grass was a golden speck, like a star that had fallen into her midst. Daring blinked, squinting her eyes. It was too windy to even bother trying to pull her eyeglasses out of their case. She mentally cursed her own farsightedness.

Nevertheless, the image eventually came into focus. It was a golden beetle, and it crawled and crawled until it reached the very tip of the swaying blade of grass upon which it was perched. Once it ran out of a surface to scale, it opened its shell and spread its wings from underneath.

Daring winced, already expecting the inevitable.

Alas, the beetle took off, soaring into the air above... and it did not get knocked over by the wind.

Daring gasped, watching quizzically.

The golden beetle became a yellow speck, winding its way erratically into the air, climbing higher and higher towards the dark clouds, until eventually bending right and heading in an eastward glide.

The pegasus blinked, for she sensed several more golden dots in her peripheral vision. She stood up straight, watching breathlessly as multiple clusters of golden beetles ascended from the sea of grass. They all took off in one accord, forming a platinum stream as they wound their way through the air and headed east after the first beetle.

With her brow furrowed, Daring rubbed her chin. She reached back with her teeth and plucked a golden feather loose from her wings. The mare winced at the brief spike a pain; a pegasus would never quite get used to that. Still, she tilted her muzzle up, timed the moment right, and spat the feather into the air.

She watched in mute wonder as the soft golden sliver spun in the air, rotated, then shot skyward in a dramatic arc. To her amazement, it followed the path that the beetles had made, taking a winding course eastward, as if navigating an invisible tunnel through the merciless winds.

Daring Do bit her lip. Pivoting about, she took a deep breath, flexed her wings like the beetles before her, and shot skyward. She regretted it immediately; her body spun like an orange bowling pin in the air. Thunder and lightning rolled around her, and it took all her energy to resist the urge to scream. Then, just as quickly as the flailing happened, the wind died.

She knew better, though. After all, she still heard the whistling howl in her ears. It just so happened that, where she was, the gale was almost nonexistent. She evened her body almost instantly, pivoting eastward and staring at the rolling horizon.

A thin stream of golden objects flitted ahead of her, worming their way with a chaotic pattern, easily breaching a niche within the valley's atmosphere: a pocket.

Daring smirked. With one thrust of her wings, she glided down the invisible tunnel. She easily caught up with her feather, the beetles, and even more golden swarms ahead of them. Soon she was flying with the insects, easily threading her way across the swaying grasslands that suddenly felt like they were miles and miles beneath her.

Without warning, the beetles surged upwards. She surged with them, scaling an invisible roller coaster that then followed the golden stream in a downward spiral. Lighting flashed around them, but they were untouchable, like golden orbs glinting in a cosmic void. Together, the pony and insects navigated a translucent tornado, streaking towards the ground with unchallenged grace. As bizarre as the air pattern was, it allowed the mare to cross more ground in far less time than her last two hours of flight combined.

Daring almost giggled to herself, if it wasn't for the sight of something looming ahead. The whistling in the air was suddenly accompanied by a clattering sound, like wooden limbs skittering across an oaken bosom. The adventurer squinted to see a drop in the hilly landscape. There was a tiny valley just ahead, and seven objects stretched dozens of feet high into the air. Six of them were wooden wind fans, their blades facing eastward as they rotated with loud rattling cadence. In the center of the fans, placed equidistantly from every single one of them, was a tall metal pole with a golden globe positioned at the top. The pole's base had a grass-covered mound for a foundation; otherwise the seven towers stuck out like sore hooves amidst the otherwise natural environment.

So busy was Daring in studying this sight that she almost didn't realize that she was hurtling directly towards it. That could only mean one thing: the beetles were hurtling towards it as well.

As she approached the valley, she coiled her wings towards her sides and dove out of the pocket of air. Her body broke free, and the wind beat her as punishment, but somehow it wasn't nearly as bad as the hilltops west of that location. When she landed, lightning flashed, illuminating the splintery surfaces of the wooden towers that supported the fans rotating above her. Her eyes traveled up the gnarled frames, observing the tall vertical axles that spun into the earth in direct relation to the blades' rotation above. The air was a mixture of whistling and grinding noises, and she spent a great deal of time pacing from one tower to the next, observing each with mutual interest.

At some point, Daring's gaze traveled skyward again. In the next flash of lightning, she saw the airborne beetles, only it was no longer just one stream of them. As she squinted, she made out not two... not three... but six separate swarms of insects floating towards the center of the valley. What was more, they came from completely opposite directions. If she stood in the center of the field, she could have sworn that they came from the same angles where the fan towers were positioned from the central pole.

The mare watched with awe as each golden beetle met in the center, swarming around the metal globe positioned high above her. One by one, they landed, perching on the sphere's reflective surface. A flash of lightning illuminated the glossy shells closing over their wings. Soon, there were so many of them clustered around the globe that it gave the thing a new golden polish. She couldn't tell anymore where the pole's metal ended and the insects' shiny exoskeletons began.

Daring stared fixedly at the perched beetles for the better part of five minutes. It was almost as if they were positioned there for a reason, waiting for some divine purpose. As thunder rolled, Daring gazed thoughtfully at the fans around them. All six sets of blades were pointed east, rotating against the continuous winds that pelted them from that end of the rolling plains. A thought crossed her mind, and she clenched her jaw in determination.

Pushing her pith helmet firmer atop her head so that it clung tight, the mare beat her wings and soared straight up. Immediately, the wind broke her trajectory, but she compensated by flying north, cutting across the currents, then breaking into a counterclockwise spin. This next part was going to be hard, but the mare wasn't about to back down. Gritting her teeth, she flapped her wings harder and harder, rotating her spin until she blurred around the pole in the center of the field at a steady distance.

Lightning flashed in Daring's peripheral vision, but she maintained her focus on the rotating fans below her. With each pass she made around the pole, she dipped lower and lower, until her wingtips were barely brushing past the spinning, rattling wooden blades. Soon, she was soaring past each of the six fans, gliding faster and faster until she passed one every five seconds... every four seconds... every three.

The whistle to the winds intensified. She swore that the thunder and lightning increased as well. Soon, however, Daring had to hone her thoughts on one thing and one thing alone: the fans as they surged beneath her cyclonic flight, violently nipping at her flesh and tail.

To her labored delight, she was making success; the fans were slowly rotating towards the center of the field, urged on by her tornadic movements in close proximity to them. As the fans faced the globe of beetles—one by one—they rattled into place with a rustic clicking sound, so that they were forced to face the pole indefinitely. Once each of the six fans locked in place, their blades spun faster and faster, fighting the wind with a loud whizzing sound.

Breathless, Daring flew down and perched—more like slumped—on the ground below. She looked up, panting, and watched as the fans' blades spun and spun to the breaking point. There was a flash of lightning... then another and another. The air became deafening with thunder as the bright branches surged closer. Then, there was a moment of silence, until...

With a mind-splitting crack, one blindingly thick bolt of lightning zapped the pole in the center of the facing fans. All of the beetles were incinerated instantly.

Daring gasped, falling back onto her flank and shivering. She watched as the ashes of burnt golden shells fell down the height of the metal pole in a perfect ring. Their descent was somehow immune to the winds, and when they landed, they formed a glowing halo of sorts. Daring watched in shock as the halo flickered, brimming with electrical energy. After a final flash, the ring turned dark, forming a deep, dark impression in the soil. Then the whole ground shook, for the mound of earth that acted as the pole's foundation was suddenly lifting from the niche that the burnt ring had formed.

In the span of a minute, the earthen cylinder had stretched a full fifteen feet above Daring, revealing a hollow interior with a winding staircase leading down into dank darkness. Once the rumbling had stopped, the pegasus now had a descending wooden path beckoning to her.

Daring gulped. She looked up at the dark clouds, her ears whistling to the bleeding point. She had definitely had her fill of this valley. So, without any further hesitation, she trotted forward and gingerly strolled down the rickety wooden steps. The platform creaked and groaned beneath her, forcing her to slow her trot even more as the shadows consumed her from below.

At last, the whistling noise decreased, though it was not completely gone. Daring assumed that her ears would be ringing from the sensation for another few hours. As it became unbearably dark, she opened her pocket and breathed into the enchanted glowstone. Her pale spotlight illuminated walls of craggy earth, with exposed weeds and grass roots dangling on all sides of her as she continued her trek down the winding, winding staircase. The flimsy wooden boards that formed the steps below greatly resembled the fan blades that had spun rattlingly on the surface, Daring thought. A cold chill ran through her body as she contemplated the pattern to this sojourn.

At last, Daring reached the staircase's bottom. A floor of compact soil embraced her, and it was as cold as granite to the touch. Breathing evenly, Daring trotted away from the base of the stairs and shown her light around. Through the pitch black darkness, her pale blue glow illuminated dozens upon dozens of tight, narrow tunnels.

She raised an eyebrow, slowly spinning about to shine the light in the opposite direction. The other end of the underground compartment revealed the same sight: dozens of dark tunnels stood like looming orifices. The entire chamber was a ring of entrances leading to even blacker destinations.

A sigh escaped her lips. She paced for a bit, pondering her situation, when she felt something brushing against her ears. The whistling returned, and then was gone again. Shuffling to a stop, Daring pivoted about. She gazed towards a certain cluster of tunnels. As she tilted her muzzle left and right, she became faintly aware of a gentle breeze, as if air was rushing down one of the many chambers. Cautiously, she approached a trio of dark tunnels, feeling the air rushing from their general vicinity. Still, she couldn't tell which entrance was the one producing the subterranean wind.

At last, she pivoted her right side towards the tunnels and stretched her wing out. She eyed the very tips of her feathers as she waved the wing slowly from the left to the right and back again. She determined that the feathery strands danced the most when she waved them before a tunnel to the far right.

With an ambitious smirk, she coiled her wing back to her side and trotted firmly down the corridor in question. The claustrophobic tunnel swallowed the little pony, and soon Daring’s glowing shard illuminated pale walls of dusty earth on either side of her. Every now and then, curtains of grainy sediment rained down on her gray mane. She grimaced, but kept marching, undaunted.

Soon, she was rewarded with a stronger gust of air. The wind was growing harder and harder, piercing her ears much like the gales above ground had for the past three hours. What was more, the rushing air wasn't alone. Daring became aware of flickering light at the end of the long, dark corridor. Eventually, she didn't even need the enchanted rock to guide her path, for she was greeted with amber torchlight.

At last, Daring trotted into a small chamber where an array of fans stood, aiming down her and the tunnel where she came from. What powered them to rotate—and with such swiftness—she couldn't even begin to guess. She was more intrigued by the bright torches flanking the round room, as well as the thin crevices built into the ceiling and beset with cobwebs. The floor and walls here were made of dense black stone, and she saw what looked to be a long dark corridor at the opposite end of the compartment, entreating her.

She didn't dare leave the room—not yet. She approached the fans as they moved with otherwordly animation. Her ears were attracted by a grating clicking noise that all four of them made. The mare walked behind the fans, staring at their mechanical parts with great interest. She saw a series of wooden gears rattling over curved levers. These levers were attached to a pulley system that was affixed to chains dangling deep into a hole in the floor. As the fans kept spinning, their wooden gears kept brushing past the levers, scraping against them loudly. The chains remained utterly motionless. Daring Do squinted at the sight, for if the fans were to spin in the opposite way...

With renewed energy, she bounded across the room and stood once more before the fans with her flank to the corridor from whence she came. She set her hooves apart, tightening her muscles and stretching her wings out. With a deep breath, she bowed low towards the fans and began flapping her wings faster and faster and faster and faster and...

The pegasus produced a mighty wind. It took much effort, but the air being beat by her wings pushed against the fans, finally ceasing their rotation. Slowly, with a creaking noise, the blades began spinning in the opposite direction. As they did so, the little wooden gears pushed against the tiny levers instead of just brushing past them. This activated the pulley system that gradually drew the lengths of chains straight up, filling the air with a rusted creaking noise.

Daring Do gritted her teeth. Curtains of sweat ran down her tan face as she blurred her wings faster and faster. She was rewarded with the sound of rattling chains for her efforts. Slowly, through the power of sheer endurance, she forced the fans' pulley system to hoist something up from the depths of the chamber. A large wooden box rose from the hole in the center of the stone floor. As Daring flapped her wings a few more times, she gasped to see a niche within the box. Something rectangular rested inside, bound in leather.

Instantly, the mare dotted forward. In the absence of her flapping wings, the fans spun back to their natural rotation. The chains went slack, and the box plunged back into the hole.

But Daring was quicker than lightning. She darted up to the box, reached her hooves in, and snatched the item out before the container could plunge back into the depths, taking her forelimbs in the process. She fell onto the floor, a sweating and heaving mess, her ears aching from the distant sound of the box crashing loudly somewhere below the room's stone foundation. The chains clattered, dangled, and drifted to a stop. All was once again silent, save for the rattling of fans and the flicker of torchlight.

It took Daring several minutes to compose herself. Her wings ached and her head throbbed from all the constant exercise. At last, she sat up and looked at the item in her grasp. It was a book, and its leather cover was as old as ever, with painted images fading off the worn brown surface. The title escaped her studying eyes, aside from a few bold words that read: “...the Whipping Winds.” Without wasting another second, Daring opened the book up. Dust flew through the torchlight as she flipped through the pages. She came upon the center of the tome, her eyes squinting.

She couldn't read the tiny words without her glasses; she wasn't even going to bother. Using the crook of her hoof, she gathered a thick cluster of paper leaves... then ripped them straight out of the tome, ruining the book entirely.

The fans clattered, rattled, then puttered to a stop. The torchlights flickered less, then dimmed to a dull amber glow. Even the whistling in Daring's fuzzy ears had stopped.

She dwelled on none of these things. Dropping the shredded book with a thud, she sat on her haunches and pulled her eyeglass case out. Opening the clamshell container, the "Professor Do – Neigh York Institute for History and Archaeology" inscription glistening in the firelight, she tilted the thing about until she was gazing at her reflection yet again. With quivering lips, she leaned in, focusing on the image in the mirror. She tilted the container left and right, running a hoof through her bangs. But before she could see anything, a cold drop of water splattered across the glass, refracting her image into a dozen gray blobs.

Daring Do blinked in confusion, only to hear a drop of water rattling off the lid of her pith helmet. She gazed up, then regretted it, for two more drops splattered across her face. She trotted backwards, rubbing her muzzle dry and squinting at the ceiling.

A trickle of water fell through the crevices in the stone. The cobwebs melted away as the trickles turned into steady currents. Suddenly, with unrelenting volume, several thick curtains of liquid were spewing out of every hole above her.

Daring's face grimaced. As she backed up, she heard plodding sounds. She looked down and gasped to see a thin curtain of water rolling up to her fetlocks with alarming speed. In a blur, she spun and ran towards the thin tunnel from whence she came.

A roaring sound greeted her—like thunder, only this time louder and angrier. A veritable mudslide vomited out of the tunnel, knocking Daring Do to her haunches. Slimy water pushed her across the chamber, shoving her back into the fans, shattering them to wooden bits. She tried standing up, but a second deluge of grime and sludge pelted her figure. The mare was soon finding it hard to stand. The torchlight dimmed as the fire was gradually extinguished by the rising floodwaters. The entire subterranean place shook and quaked, as if an entire ocean was bearing down on her location.

Gritting her teeth, Daring Do flapped her wings and shot out of the rising currents before she could be submerged. She shot down the only exit available: a deep dark corridor leading away from the claustrophobic chamber. As she barreled down the passageway, she sliced into utter darkness, which made her blind to the unrelenting fountain of water slamming into her from the opposite direction.

The pegasus did a literal backflip. She plunged into a nightmarish world of black bubbles and even blacker currents. She kicked against the waters and shot up—only to strike the floor instead. Panicking, she spun around, and kicked off the stone. Before her lungs could burst, her muzzle hit dry air. She gasped for breath, all the while being carried somewhere along the subterranean rapids. She tried to move, to leap, to fly out of the stream, but her face barely moved an inch before her nose scraped against a ceiling from beyond the blackness.

Daring whimpered. Before she could think, another wave of water sloshed over her. She flailed in the fathoms, spinning head over tail. The currents grew faster, carrying her down the blacker than black intestines of stone, shipping her drowning body to some unfathomable destination that was colder than ice.

Colder than death.

And the Dire Deluge

Daring's hooves scraped roughly across coarse stone, and the sharp pain woke her up from a temporary blackout. She tried screaming, but all was bubbles and madness. Her eyes darted left and right, but were useless against the dark depths. Following the churning sensation in her ears, she kicked and thrashed until the sound grew louder.

In a wet burst, she once more broke the surface of the stream. She gasped for breath, only to sputter in chaotic spasms. Daring flung her front legs up and felt the grinding surface of the tunnel's ceiling blurring above her. A warm trickle of liquid rolled down her forelimbs, causing her to jolt. She was bleeding.

The pegasus ignored the sting of the fresh cuts on her hooves. Treading water, she thrashed left and right, feeling for the walls of the flooded corridor. Her ears rang with the splashing currents. At last she paddled her way to the edge of the deluge. The whipping cobblestone wall stung to the touch, but she embraced it nevertheless. She needed to find a corner, a ledge, a partition—anything.

After having her head doused once or twice between the waves, she finally latched onto something. It was a niche in the wall where the mortar crumbled and allowed a stone to fall loose. She hung onto it with one hoof, her lower body flailing along with the currents. Her teeth chattered as she struggled to bring her opposite limb to her front shirt, feeling numbly for the pocket that held her enchanted shard. At last, she slid the rock partially out and wheezed into it.

She almost wished she hadn't done that; a pale blue beam glittered off dark waves violently rushing towards her in a tumult. She saw how dramatically the waterline was rising along the wall to her left, and it almost made her vomit. She tried pivoting around to see where the current was traveling in such a terrible hurry, when something floated straight into her and collided with her soaked muzzle.

Daring was in too much shock to flinch. She merely aimed her chest at the object, and her light illuminated her upside down pith helmet, bobbing in the water as it was constantly being pushed into her. Not realizing that she had lost it, the mare nevertheless grabbed the thing and plopped it back onto her skull. Squinting, she once more made a study of the currents.

The shard's enchanted light illuminated multiple paths. The tunnel split at a fork, branching off into three streams. She was grateful to have had this moment to pause and navigate, or else her body might have been battered blindly against the sharp rock partitions. After a near minute of looking, she saw that the water rushing down the rightmost path was travelling the fastest. She judged that wherever the river was going, the chamber beyond that point was the deepest, largest, and best choice for having breathable air.

She couldn't stay anchored for any longer; the water was rising up to her chin. She took a deep, deep breath... then plunged.

Daring's world turned into a sudsy dreamscape, illuminated by pale blue beams of enchantment. Streams of muck and dirty debris floated past her ruby eyes, but she paid them no mind. With deliberate, frog-like strokes, she threaded her way along with the current, kicking and kicking so that she took the rightmost past. To her shock, the water dipped, surging down what she could only flimsily make out to be a steep series of granite steps. She wasn't entirely sure she wanted to descend this deep into the sunken labyrinthe, but it was evidently no longer her choice. She lost control and flipped once or twice, her nostrils leaking a stream of bubbles. She was losing air even before she knew that she was losing air. Her vision spun; she glanced up for the surface of the rapids, but she was flowing too swiftly... flailing too wildly to make sense out of anything. What was more, the light was going out. Daring Do mentally cursed herself for not thinking to give the shard another quick breath for this part of her trip. All she could dwell on now was the sharp, knifing pain as her lungs began to quake for a gasp. She aimed her chest up, and finally caught a glimpse of a bulbous pocket of air. Above the stream was a cleft of rock hanging low from the ceiling. Her rear limbs met the ground, and she bucked hard, shooting herself up like a rocket.

With a spray of water, Daring Do pierced the churning waves. She flapped her wings without thinking, giving her the elevation she needed to leap up and grab the cleft with two strong hooves. There, she dangled, her body shivering as the water beat against her legs and tail, gradually rising up her thighs, her flank, then her waist.

She panted and panted for breath. Once her lungs were filled, and only then, did she decide to rekindle the dying light. She hung from one limb—quivering all the while—and used her other forelimb to raise the stone to her lips. She exhaled on it several times, increasing the luminosity to a blinding scale. Once the rock was burning hot, she slipped it back into shirt's pocket. It nearly scalded her skin, but now was no time to worry about that. The water was up to her shoulders. She took a breath of her own this time, filled her lungs to the breaking point, and finally let go of the rock cleft above.

As soon as Daring let go, she lost all sense of direction. She spun and spiraled like a tiny barrel in the stony esophagus around her. Thankfully, her shard shone like a miniature star, glowing with unmatched radiance. As a result, she could see the chambers through which she was submerged and tumbling. Her ruby eyes darted left and right, and she spotted several sharp obstructions ahead. The mare was throttling towards another series of thin tunnels; she could see their bone-shattering frames from miles away. She kicked to the left, aiming herself down the closest tunnel that hugged the chamber wall. She no longer took stake of where she might be going and why; she simply needed to survive. Threading through the corridor was a tight fit, and she curled her body into a fetal position to allow clearance. The current sped even faster as she roared through the stony capillary. Her lungs quaked while the pony's body somersaulted and somersaulted again. With a spray of bubbles, she sped through to a large chamber of sorts, only it wasn't a chamber. She saw fish darting left and right. Shrimp, plankton, and skittering minnows flew past her upside down gaze. Her eyes caught the bubbles from her own pent-up breathing tubes sailing towards a dimly-lit destination, and she pivoted her hollow body to face it. Far in front of her, a giant screen of glittering light and color danced in a nebulous spectrum full of green and greener hues and it beckoned to her as she kicked and thrashed with trembling pinprick hooves against the blackening shadows in her peripheral vision with each whimpering tremor that came from her imploding lungs in anticipation of the felicitous surface that now quivered ten feet and five feet and two feet and two inches away from her eyes her face her nose her mouth...

She broke through the surface, flinging her muzzle open in an inverse scream. Only a quarter of her lung's capacity refilled before she sank again. Her numb limbs kicked to life, and soon she was thrusting with renewed vigor, breaking the surface once more as she paddled and treaded water in desperation. Soon her struggles became less urgent, for more and more oxygen was being funneled deliciously through her organs, and she now lay back, bobbing slowly across the remarkably placid surface.

Once the blood stopped rushing through her head, she became aware of the bizarre senses surrounding her. The surface of the pond was viscous and slimy. She heard insects buzzing past her flicking ears, and the air smelled of algae, mildew, and moss. At last, her eyes fluttered open, and all she saw was branches, branches, and more branches. Adjusting her pith helmet, the pony treaded upright in the waters, getting a good look around.

She was floating in the center of a vast swamp, with lily pads and cattails and razor-sharp reeds lining the edges of countless islands where gnarled trees stood rooted, their many-many branches threading so densely through one another that they almost entirely blocked out the sky. Croaking frogs and buzzing cicadas scratched at Daring’s ear drums as she splashed and paddled her way towards the closest shore to her. At last, she trudged up a muddy embankment, crawled until she was on solid dirt, and collapsed outright. Her pith helmet slid forward, shading her eyes from the mosquitoes swarming around to inspect this fresh new source of heat.

After several minutes, Daring wheezed and began stirring. She crawled ashore and limply laid herself against the trunk of a brown tree covered in green algae. She felt her coat itching in several places by multiple bug bites, but she wasn't in the position to complain about them.

She was alive. She was soaked, battered, and even bloodied—but alive. In a numb haze, she glanced at her forelimbs, spotting two or three deep cuts where her hooves had been dragged against the flooded walls. A sigh escaped her lips, and she examined her shirt's pockets. The shard was still in place—so was her glasses case. As for the compass...

She pulled the thing loose, unclasped it, and looked at the arrows within. She found that she was currently facing southwest. Daring felt a twitch to her ears. Gulping, she closed the compass shut, stood up on wobbly legs, and trotted around the tree until she was facing east once again.

From there, the little pony quietly and slowly made her way across the submerged mounds of swampy vegetation. Her path was a sidewinding one, leaping over shallow ponds, wading through deep trenches, and scaling multiple logs in her sluggish attempt to continue her journey. Every now and then, she would glance up. The thin slivers of sky that would dare to peek through the branches were orange, tinged with a blood-red color. She had to guess that it was approaching evening, for the sun was setting. As the thick leaves and bushes around her started conducting choruses of crickets, she fully realized how much time had passed.

Daring Do was exhausted. When the thought of resting struck her mind, she in no way protested. She set up camp on a particularly large island, nestled in the center of three spreading trees. Halfway through building a campfire, she felt a few drops from above. Grumbling, she abandoned the fire when it was half-lit to create an impromptu shelter. Her expert hooves only took thirty minutes to accomplish this task. With use of multiple leaves and lily pads, along with several straight branches for a framework, she constructed a flimsy lean-to and propped it up over herself.

It was just in time; a steady downpour began. The rain blotted out whatever sight she could make of the stars above. Between the spreading tree branches and her humble "shelter," Daring remained remarkably dry. She only wished she could say the same about the fire.

The campfire lasted ten minutes at best, but was soon reduced to a smoldering pile of ashes. Daring shivered in the lingering cold of night, brought upon tenfold by the continuous deluge. She stripped of her green shirt completely and laid it over herself as a blanket. The mare had succeeded in drying it by the fire before this uncomfortable night began, and for that she was grateful.

Hours limped by. Daring couldn't sleep. It wasn't the discomfort of the moment that bothered her, nor was it the still-lingering sensation of having almost drowned. Her weary eyes remained locked on the eyeglass case in her grasp. She flipped the thing open, staring at her reflection, then snapped it shut. Just as soon as the clamshell container was closed, she opened it yet again, gazing at the mare with the monochromatic mane who looked back.

Every time she closed the container, she would open it again. On every occasion, it was her own face, unchanged, unwavering, unmistakably alive. She tried closing her eyes, but every time she surrendered to the darkness, she felt as though she was somewhere far away, somewhere lonesome and forsaken, with something roaring in the distance, receding, like waves, or the tearing of paper sheets in the wind.

With a gasp, Daring's eyes shot wide open. She saw twitching ruby pupils in the container's mirror. A whimper escaped her lips, its loathsome sound lost in the pitter-patter of rain all around her. At last, with more courage than it took to survive drowning, she shut the container close one last time. She hugged it to her chest and curled into a fetal position beneath her shirt. Her breaths came in rapid bursts, far too panicky for a pony trying to fall asleep.

Daring didn't invite slumber. She didn't invite anything except shivers. When the moldy, rain-swept swamp around her blurred into obscurity, she closed her eyes, as if turning her head away from something indescribably ugly—unimaginably frightening beyond it. She buried her face in her forelimbs and clenched her teeth. When the first sob came out, it was in a burst, like powder exploding from the muzzle of a gun. She quieted it with a labored breath, as well as the second and third salvos. At last, she found her equilibrium, and her weeping became a gentle thing, like the rippling of pondwater beneath dragonfly wings around her.

Daring sniffled. Daring shuddered. Daring cried. And somewhere in the midst of it all, as her mind hovered between labored breaths, slumber found her, and her dreams were a place far less dire.

And the Sweltering Swamp

There were no colors, but there were voices, laughing, giggling, chortling voices. Through the numbing silence, they beckoned, like six stars beyond a black velvet veil. And at the same time, they scampered away, their bodies zipping like foals' hooves across the hot tarp of a trampoline. Daring Do tried chasing after them, but every single step sent her bouncing, so that she floundered and rolled across the elastic darkness like a fish out of water.

For the moment she felt that if she moved her hooves faster, she might catch up to their friendly voices. When that proved fruitless, she tried flapping her wings for added speed. Suddenly, a sheet of rocky dirt brushed across her flank. The pegasus' ruby eyes opened in a flash, and she found herself sliding sideways towards the edge of the swamp's pond.

With a grunt, Daring stopped flapping her wings. She was rewarded with a wicked pratfall into a dancing bed of cattails. Her mouth spat out dirt and seedlings while mosquitoes flitt overhead, buzzing with a million tiny laughs.

She sat up, blinking blearily. On numb hooves, the mare spun, gazing at the flimsy lean-to that had soaked up most of the rainfall overnight. Beneath it lay her green shirt, tossed aside like a spoiled infant's blanket.

Daring Do sighed. She rubbed a tan hoof over her eyes. She saw stars beneath the lids, and just like in her dreams, those stars took on shapes, each of them smiling. She wanted to gouge her sockets to pulp.

Instead, she trotted back to her shelter in the middle of the grassy island and started collecting her belongings. After slipping her shirt back on and pointing herself east, she resumed her trot, her tail swishing left and right to fight back errant insects.

It was morning. Daring couldn't tell from the sunlight; the branches above blocked out almost all of the sky. However, she could judge from the heat that it was daytime, and it was not a good heat. It was a devastatingly stifling, humid, energy-sapping heat. With each step she took, she felt as if she was dripping her way through a moist sauna. Frightening bursts of the previous day's memories ricocheted through her mind, and with every other breath she had to convince herself that she wasn't drowning.

On several occasions, she contemplated flying straight up and continuing her trek through the air, above the foliage. However, for the life of her, Daring couldn't find a single spot where she was certain she could navigate the spaces in between the branches. Instead, she stayed on her hooves, navigating the swamp-laden islands slowly, careful not to overexert herself. At the rate at which she was perspiring, she figured it was only a matter of time before she stood the risk of dehydration.

The more she dwelled upon it, the more she realized that she was poorly equipped for the elements of the swamp, or any of the landscapes beyond for that matter. So, putting her journey on hold, she took the opportunity to collect some much-important things. Using a veteran's knowledge of botany, she found and collected plants and herbs she knew would be of aid to her in case of a gross injury. She found a few stalks of grass she knew were edible, several mushrooms she knew were poisonous, and several ropes of vine she knew nothing about. Gathering a bunch of lily pads, she used the fibrous materials from the vines to twist around the green leaves like string. Within the folds of the leaves, she stuffed all of the natural items she found. She strung these packets over each side of her flanks like miniature saddlebags, then continued on with her sojourn.

She thought the swamp was loud at night. The crickets and cicadas had given her no moment of rest from sundown to sunrise. She couldn't have been more wrong about her assumptions.

In the daytime, the bog was a veritable arena of noise. The trees buzzed with crawling, nameless little horrors. Things squirmed on either side of the mare's steps, causing the reeds and bushes to clatter like tambourines. Objects darted up and down in the ponds' surfaces, some larger than others, some with shadows that added a bass reverberation to the whole scene and made Daring keep a fair distance from the water's edge with trembling hooves.

As far as she could tell, most if not all of the pockets of water around here were shallower than a foal's front lawn swimming pool. Just beyond her glittering reflection was the same mare with the same red eyes and the same monochromatic mane. She found herself staring at one or two riverbanks for a little bit longer than she needed to. At last, she felt the shifting weight of the eyeglass container in her front pocket, and she forced herself to continue trotting with a sigh.

A few of the ponds, however, weren't entirely shallow. As a matter of fact, the blackness beneath their rippling surfaces absorbed any attempt Daring made to glance at her reflection. These were the boggy basins that she kept her distance from. The rain had long come and gone, and whatever glimpse she got from the sky above the branches suggested a bright and clear day. Still, she couldn't help but hear a nerve-wracking thunder beyond the foundation of that muddy, muddy place. She wasn't about to take any chances with anything.

Daring pressed on. She judged—as well as she could with all the trees in the way—that the swamp was more or less situated on an even plane. There were little to no dips in the topography, and though she had to meander left and right to avoid wading through the slimy ponds, there was no lake so huge that it broke the visible tree line for more than twenty feet across. Everything was dense—almost impossibly so.

Sniffling, Daring glanced down. The ground beneath her was grassy, but it wasn't exactly lengthy or springy vegetation. Much rather, a great deal of the earth lay exposed, yielding rich black soil. The clusters of dirt were overwrought with emerald granules of algae, which is what Daring blamed for the pungent smell that constantly tickled her nostrils.

Grumbling slightly, the pegasus climbed over exposed tree roots and waving bushes. She winced and stumbled to a stop at one point, finding several burs had clung to her fetlocks. It took a good twenty minutes of annoyance and fumbling to remove the starry seeds. After the task was done, Daring paused to stare up at the branching mess above her.

The leaves waved in a wind above the trees. The spreading branches kept any breeze from coming all the way down. Though it was nice to have a perpetual shade, Daring couldn't help but feel as though she was being deliberately baked by nature. She fidgeted, rubbing her chin and neck as rivulets of sweat ran down her muzzle. After a last glance at her compass, she stood back up, pivoted herself about, and set hoof to walk again.

She froze, however, upon seeing a peculiar brown sight about forty yards ahead of her. Between two trees, nestled amidst a cluster of fronds, several pale branches rested against each other in a geometric pattern. Slowly, pensively, Daring shuffled towards it. As the object came into focus, she realized that it was actual architecture, a shack of some sort.

Her hoofsteps hurried before she even noticed them. Soon, she was galloping towards the structure. She came to a stop, leaning forward with a squinting expression. The framework to the shack was loose and flimsy, to say the least. She could almost press half of her hoof through the spaces between the horizontal rungs of wooden slats. Still, she was at a loss to find a door. Trotting around the structure, she found herself walking the circumference of about thirty feet before she at last found the entrance. It was partially collapsed, with a leather flap dangling awkwardly off a rickety frame.

Ducking in, Daring gazed into the doubly-shadowed domain. The buzzing of insects was louder in here, and the place smelled of rust and decay. She saw a cot lying in the corner, and beside it a thick oaken trunk. Against the opposite wall there stood a case with several shelves.

Daring immediately flew towards it. Her hooves danced and fumbled across the shelves in desperation. At last, she sighed. There were no books to be found.

Adjusting her pith helmet, the sweat-soaked mare turned around. She blinked at the cot; the bed was too dilapidated to use comfortably, but that made it no less enticing. Instead, the adventurer shuffled over towards the brown oaken trunk and squatted down. She brought two hooves up and struggled with the latch. It took some effort, but she was able to unclasp the rusted thing. Lifting the trunk open with a loud creak, she was greeted by a cloud of dust, as well as a few flitting moths. The mare coughed and sputtered, waving the insects away with a tan hoof. She then squinted into the contents of the trunk.

In the dim swampy haze, she saw a tattered woolen blanket inside the container, along with something bundled in black burlap, a green bottle, a steel hammer, and a tiny metal object. She reached in and grabbed the metal case first. She turned it over in her hooves, blinking inquisitively. As her eyes focused on the object, she chuckled at her own stupidity and flicked the thing open: it was a lighter. Reaching into the trunk again she grabbed the bottle and looked it over. The words on the water-soaked label were faded, but she could make out what looked to be the illustration of burning flames. She popped the cap off the bottle's end and took a sniff, grimacing, confirming her suspicions. Next, she reached past the hammer and lifted the burlap bundle, unrolling the fabric. To her undeniable luck, she found a thick torch with a bulbous end made up of fibrous strands, dryer than bone.

After lightly juggling these many things in her grasp, she took one last lonesome look into the trunk. A shred of paper glinted in the scattered light. Daring's heart skipped a beat, and she yanked at the leaflet instantly. To her sighing dismay, it was just a single sheet of paper with nothing attached to it.

Still, there was something scrawled across the brown surface. No matter how hard she squinted, the pegasus couldn't tell what it was. So, for a good reason this time, she reached into her pocket and pulled out her container. She removed the glasses and planted them on the fuzzy bridge of her nose.

Able to see clearly, she read a line of hoofwriting that... wasn't quite so perfect. Nevertheless, in broken cursive, she was just barely able to discern: "Burn them from the weakest to the strongest."

Daring Do's brow furrowed. She lowered the glasses and tapped them to her chin in thought. Exhaling wearily, she pocketed the glasses away and stood up, gazing at her new acquisitions. After a moment of reflection, she walked out of the mostly barren wooden shack and stood outside. There, she took the bottle and doused the end of the torch with its pungent contents. Using the lighter, she ignited the fuel, and now she had a burning beacon in her possession.

Clasping it in her teeth, the pegasus continued trotting eastward. As she did so, she couldn't help but notice a glittering path laid obscurely before her. Tiny, polished rocks had been laid carefully in the muck and mud. If it weren't for the bright torch in her mouth, Daring realized she never would have picked up on the stones' reflective surfaces.

Taking this as something meaningful, she purposefully followed the line of shimmering objects. It took her down a remarkably beaten path, one that threaded through soft grass and soil, avoiding tree limbs and splotches of loose pebbles. Whoever or whatever had been there before must have purposed this path... purposed it for her, or else somepony like her.

She didn't realize it at first, but the path was descending. She looked to her left and right and realized that the trees and mounds of dirt were rising up, as if she was crawling into a ravine of sorts. The mare couldn't remember the last time she had seen a pond or a reservoir or even a single trickle of moisture. Everything was becoming drier, duller, deader.

Soon, the reflective clusters of polished stone ended altogether, giving way to what looked to be a solid plate of granite.

Curious, Daring brushed aside a curtain of low-hanging vines. She nearly dropped the torch from her mouth in a gasp. A courtyard loomed before her, perfectly square, with tall marble posts erected at each end, plastered all over in living and dying sheets of green algae.

At first, Daring was reticent to trot forward. She looked down to see a geometrically intricate array of tile plates. The adventurer and tile plates were sworn enemies. Through force of habit, she picked up one of the shiny, polished stones from the dirt path and tossed it hard onto the granite floor. The rock was brittle, and it shattered, its tiny pieces scattering like melted snow across the wide swath of unnatural floor.

Nothing happened; not even a single creaking noise.

Daring exhaled with relief. Slowly, she shuffled forward, glancing left and right across the courtyard. Leaves and seedlings lay scattered across the ancient platform like debris across a frozen pool. As if afraid the surface could actually break, Daring kept her hoofsteps soft and slow. She trotted until she was in the center and stared up, squinting.

She thought that the courtyard would afford a break in the trees, but she was wrong. A throng of tall trunks flanked the granite square on all sides, and their branches almost deliberately stretched over the space, acting as a sort of natural gazebo ceiling. But what struck her most curiously was something that was hardly natural: an object hung about twenty feet directly above her. It swayed in a humid breeze, its contents ensnared in a veritable iron maiden of wooden reeds and roots and twigs. When Daring squinted harder, she could have sworn she saw something smooth inside; something leathery.

Her ears twitched excitedly under her pith helmet. Looking around, Daring spotted a soft patch of dark earth besides the east edge of the courtyard. Dashing over, she lowered her muzzle and planted the dull end of the torch deep into the pliable soil. Once it was firmly secured, she stretched her wings and blurred up to the dangling object.

The cluster of wood literally formed a cage in midair, and it was suspended by a series of thick green vines dangling from an intersection of branches high above. As Daring hovered next to the object, she studied the vines carefully, determining that they stretched up into the lofty branches. She was less interested in the method of suspension than she was in what actually lingered inside the thick container of wood.

Clasping the thing with her hooves, she rotated and twisted it around as best as she was able to. Through the tiny spaces of the roots, she saw the unmistakable gloss of paper sheets and the worn edge of a book's burgundy cover. The pegasus gnashed her teeth. She tugged on the "cage." It refused to budge. She tugged and tugged and tugged on it some more. The air filled with a creaking noise, and the wooden cluster dangled about, but there was no giving in to her pull. Stifling a groan, Daring flew up and resorted to an animalistic gesture, chewing and gnawing at the support vines in angry futility. Spitting the detestable taste of algae out, she hovered backwards and folded her forelimbs, glaring daggers at the offensive thing.

Slowly, as her wits recollected, she gazed up at the vines and followed them into the tree branches. She realized that the intertwining fibers that held the object up actually split into four complete directions once they reached the canopy. Gazing back down, Daring watched as the vines traveled the length of four different trees before roping off and wrapping around the four separate granite columns positioned around each end of the courtyard. Somewhere beneath the columns, the vines were ultimately anchored into the ground, their gnarled bodies harder than rock.

Daring rubbed her chin. Slowly levitating back towards the ground, she landed lightly on her hooves and paced in a circle, wracking her brain. After a moment, she paused, then glanced up at the granite posts. She trotted towards one of them, gazing all along its stony surface.

There were multiple engravings along the height of the construction, and all of them depicted one thing: snakes.

Curious, Daring trotted over to the next corner and its respective column. Once more, there were engravings along the post, but it was of something else entirely: dragonflies. She studied the last two towers and found images of frogs and mosquitoes respectfully. Sitting down, she meditated on this, then remembered a phrase recently burned into her brain, imperative, eight words long.

She gave the posts one last look, observing how the vines looked dry and brittle as they ran up the various engravings of swamp creatures. Then, in a lively breath, she galloped over to her torch and picked it up. She paced in a circle, trotting past the snakes and dragonflies and frogs and mosquitoes. Then, remembering the words, she trotted over towards the post with the images of mosquitoes and raised the burning torch towards the length of vine surrounding it.

Right there, Daring Do paused. Her hooves squirmed beneath her. Narrowing her eyes, the mare leaned back, blinked, then glanced at the other three posts. Her nostrils flared, careful not to inhale too much of the burning fuel's fumes. At last, she spun around completely, trotted away from the mosquitoes, and set fire to the vine surrounding the post with dragonflies instead. The flame traveled halfway up the granite column, but did not go any further.

Daring wasn't done; in swift order, she trotted over and burned the vines around the post with frogs and then the tower with snakes. Last of all, she returned to the column with the mosquitoes and set fire to its vines too.

As soon as the vines around the mosquito engravings caught fire, the rest of the towers' vegetation burst with bright puffs of smoke, as if all in one accord. Daring jolted, sticking her torch back down into the soil as she gazed breathlessly up at the inflamed twine. Before her eyes, the fire traveled up the natural rope, wormed its way brightly into the trees, then converged in the center above the hanging cage. With another flash, the cable of intertwining vines ignited, sending a wave of flame shooting down the length of suspension like a bottle rocket. When the fire met the cage, the top of it ignited, and the whole thing burst open like a flower, dropping the book with the intensity of an anvil.

Holding back a shriek, Daring took wing, shooting madly for the book. She caught it in midair and landed in a tumble, her back resting up against one of the granite posts. As soon as she inhaled, she released a foalish giggle, hugging the book to her chest with amorous triumph. The moment she looked down at it, however, her smile left her. A pair of ruby eyes twitched involuntarily.

The book was latched shut. A rusted bolt held the burgundy leather binder closed, and it looked like it hadn't been unlocked in ages.

Daring bit on her lips. She pulled and tugged and fought to pry the tome open. It refused her every might. Growling, she smacked and punched the latch with her forelimb. A yelp of pain escaped the mare's hoof as she nearly broke blood with one hoof-strike too many. At last, she slumped back, emitting a long, soul-felt groan. Her lips locked into a perpetual frown. Sighing, she eventually stood up, trucked the book into one of her green-leafed "bags," and considered trotting back to the shack to see if there was some sharp tool lying around that she may have missed.

As soon as she picked up the torch, however, she heard a rustling sound from overhead. Curious, the mare looked straight up.

The burnt vine that had suspended the cage was swaying... but there was no wind.

Daring raised an eyebrow, squinting through the flickering tongues of her torch's flame.

Before her eyes, a line of bright orange flowers blossomed at the top of the dangling vine. They died within seconds after they magically grew, and Daring noticed the same thing happening just inches beneath them. In a straight line, flowers bloomed and withered to dust: a week's worth of growth transpiring in a single breath. Once the wave of life and death reached the end of the vine, its stubby ends spread apart, growing longer, greener, fuller. The air rustled even more as the vine came to life, twisted about itself, and suddenly grew so fast that it shot like a spear straight into the granite courtyard just besides Daring.

The pegasus flew back as a wave of noise and energy flew across the echoing swamp. She landed on her haunches, scrambling to pick up her torch as she scooted breathlessly away from the phenomenon.

The vine's burnt end wriggled and waved overhead like a serpent. At last, it snapped clean from the tree branches above, allowing its otherworldly body to worm maliciously down into the fresh hole the thing had made in the center of the granite slabs. Once it disappeared, all was quiet, but not for long. The stony floor shook and rumbled beneath Daring. She gasped as she saw weeds and grass blades and pools of algae seeping up through every seam and crevice. Then, with the cacophonous fury of a dozen cannon shots, the entire courtyard exploded with gnarled wooden vines, limbs, and thorns—and all of them flinging murderously towards Daring's airborne body.

And the Vicious Vines

Daring heard a shrieking voice, and it took her the space of three icy seconds to realize that it was the sound of her own screams catching up to her. A breath later, everything became the whiplashing whir of sharp green thorns lunging straight towards the mare from three directions at once. In the last shred of wind that she could afford, she spread her wings and spiraled upright, gliding across the sweltering swamp. Thorns scraped and branches scratched at her hooftips, but she successfully outflew the murderous vegetation. A loud snap echoed through the air.

Wheezing for spare oxygen, Daring forced herself to land. She stumbled, spun around, and clutched the book tighter in the leafed satchel hanging off her flank. With a quivering expression, she backtrotted from the writhing mess of vines, brambles, and grass roots.

In the center of the clearing—where the courtyard had been reduced to a shattered mess—one single worm with bright green bark thrashed and writhed about, surrounded by a razor sharp array of natural weaponry.

Gulping, Daring slumped onto her haunches, studying the scene from a safe distance. Slowly, the vines and thorns turned brown and went limp, as if whatever otherworldly power that had empowered them was now succumbing to natural release. With her wings drooped on either side of her, the mare bowed her head and bore a relieved smile.

As the last of the vines decayed to wrinkled black skin, the emerald rope in the middle spun, straightened, and drilled straight into the ground. It disappeared under the granite rubble, casting the swamp into buzzing silence.

Daring looked up. After a blink or two, she raised an eyebrow.

With a thunderous smash, the living vine shot out of the ground once more, this time at at a thirty degree angle sailing straight for Daring's fuzzy forehead.

The pegasus emitted a yelp and ducked low, covering her pith helmet. The vine shot over her, however, and drilled into the gnarled trunk of a spreading tree.

Daring Do turned and glanced quizzically over her shoulder.

She watched as the last length of the emerald rope disappeared beneath the structure's brown surface. All was silent yet again, until an immense groaning noise rumbled through the earth. Daring witnessed the tree become alive, twisting its entire body about like a spongy mushroom. One of its branches bloomed flowers in a dazing pattern; a swath of pale petals ran from the trunk to the wooden tips as the tree limb became a giant claw and lunged for the little pony.

Daring rolled to the side. A crater formed where her body had just been. Loose bark and lotus blossoms showered her figure as her hooves scraped and scampered for even hoofing. In a bursting breath, she was off, galloping west and up the steep ravine that had brought her to the ruins to begin with.

As the pegasus sped at a full sprint, she heard a shattering sound. Against her better judgement, she looked back past her flouncing tail. The living vine soared out of the lopsided tree, and it was busy jumping in and out of tall branches looming on either side of the fleeing pony, chasing after her like a sea serpent skimming the surface of a pond. With each jump the malicious vine made, it turned the trees alive, each of them flinging and smashing and slashing at the carrier of the leather-bound book.

Daring gnashed her teeth as she leapt from side to side, ducking and dodging the violent branches. She tried leaping over a fallen log, but instantly regretted it. The vine leapt into the trunk, forcing it to grow roots and lift straight up like a beam atop a tripod.

The adventurer took the blow with a high-pitched grunt. She toppled away from the blast like a tan domino. She heard snapping sounds, and flapped her wings before she could fall backwards into a gnarled thornbush. The cluster of brambles coiled, then shot a lash of barbed tentacles upwards at the pegasus. She dodged the serrated strings and flew straight up, panting, shredding her way towards the sunlight peaking through the treetops.

In Daring's peripheral vision, something green and slender darted up past her. The mare's heart skipped a beat, for she could already see the canopy above blocking out the sky, like thick arteries about to burst with venom. Following a spray of loose bark, four branches flew straight down, their twigs slicing sharply through the air.

Daring twirled to the left and glided to the right. The third branch grazed her, spilling warm blood in the air. Before Daring could shriek, the fourth branch of twigs encircled her like a python. She wheezed, struggling for breath, but found her ribs getting more and more constricted. Hissing for breath, she flung her mouth down to a shirt pocket and pulled loose the lighter she had pilfered from the shack earlier. Grasping the item in her teeth, she grinded its hoofpiece against the tree branch holding her until it produced sparks. She aimed the resulting flame against a cluster of dry limbs, and the vegetation caught fire immediately. A windy burst of air came from beneath the possessed tree like a shriek. Daring watched as a second branch reached over to snuff out the flames. With her last breath, she tossed the lighter into the limb's "palm." The tree blindly crunched the tool in its grip, spilling the remaining fuel over the fire. A bright burst of orange flame consumed the upper cluster of branches, and the thing let go of Daring entirely.

The pegasus fell like a sack of potatoes, splashing upside down into a deep pond at the tree's roots. She spun, flailed, and pony-paddled until she was even with the surface. After much splashing, she pulled herself ashore, gasped for breath, and broke into a limp canter.

She could hear the air slicing apart with a whipping noise. This time, she caught sight of the worm leaping down from the burning trees and sailing into the soil immediately beneath her. With a gasp, Daring watched as the grass beneath her hooves came alive. Flowers retracted and hardened into blades while weeds became suffocating nooses.

Breaking into a desperate gallop, she outran the very floor of the swamp trying to kill her. Tall grass reached for her throat. Razor-tipped reeds shot up like spears. Flytraps bloomed and spat acid at her fetlocks.

Daring hopped and skipped over every attack, ultimately choosing to charge down a length of shallow pond water. She heard the gnarled sound of grass and bushes curdling on either side of her, trying to outrace the mare across the swamp.

Once she made her way to a sandy island made of loose pebbles and twigs, she skidded to a stop. At her breath's limit, she ripped the book out from her homemade satchel and struggled desperately to open the rusted lock. All around her, the swamp groaned and hissed angrily. No matter how hard she fiddled with the lock, the ancient thing would not budge. She grunted in frustration and even resorted to slamming the book several times against the moist floor beneath her. No success.

An enormous tearing sound rang throughout the humid forest.

Frowning, Daring spun to look. Slowly, her face stretched and her ears drooped as a gargantuan shadow overcame her.

The living vine was leaping speedily from tree to tree, and in its animated wake, ropes upon ropes of wooden tubes connected between the massive trunks like bamboo. With a hideous salvo of crunches, three.. four... five... over eight trees conjoined like giant blobs, forming a cohesive quadruped figure with thorns for a coat and serrated branches for claws. A timberwolf, a construct of malevolent nature, roared violently into the air, shaking the remaining canopy and sending a vaporous blast of angry energy blowing at Daring's mane.

Biting her lip, the mare spun, spread her wings, and flew straight through the swamp. The pond exploded behind her, sending slime and muck sailing for hundreds of feet as the enormous tree-creature bounded in full pursuit. Daring veered from side to side, threading her way between inert trees and branches as the air filled with panicked insects and fleeing water fowl.

All she could hear behind her were explosions. She glanced back and saw—in one blink—a wave of pure chaos rolling after her, shoving massive trunks and mounds of earth aside like a giant dog's nose carving through a sandbox. In fitful breaths, she glanced up, but there was still no break in the canopy, plus she kept seeing darting glimpses of the green vine that was spawning this evil animation.

Daring's thoughts overwhelmed her for one second too long, and she bumped clumsily into the side of a tree. The blow sent her falling, skidding across a shallow pond. She grunted, floundered, hopped up to her hooves, and took off in a burst. Milliseconds later, the ground behind her exploded from the timberwolf’s lunging paw. The abomination shrieked, spitting sap and amber as it flung its other limb at the fleeing pony.

Daring dodged the blow, but the tree immediately beside her wasn't quite as lucky. The resulting explosion of bark caught her off-balance, and she fell again, this time collapsing before a beaten path lined with reflective stones.

She gasped before she could even think about it. Looking up, her twitching eyes saw the row of carefully-laid stones. They led directly towards the shack where she had acquired her tools to begin with.

The air behind her roared. She kicked off the ground and bounded forward in time to avoid a row full of wooden teeth. Plowing its splintery muzzle into the ground, the timberwolf bore a deep trench after her.

Daring ran, jumped, and dove straight into the shack. She barely landed on the cot in the far corner when the entire body of the structure tilted forty-five degrees. The muzzle of the wooden beast was stuck in the doorway, and yet its maw snapped and hissed and bit at the pony's sprawled limbs.

With firm grunts and kicks of her rear legs, Daring held the mouth of the creature back. Sweating profusely, she gripped the book with one forelimb and reached into the large wooden trunk with the other. Fishing around, she eventually felt the shape of the steel hammer she had left there during her first visit.

As soon as she gripped the thing in the crook of her hoof, the room spun. Daring yelped, feeling the cot fly out from underneath her as the whole shack lifted high into the air by the timberwolf’s writhing snout. Gravity spun loops in her stomach, and she dangled precariously, watching as the trunk and bookcase fell towards the flimsy entrance, only to be immediately crunched to mulch by the ravenous monster's mouth.

The creature howled and wriggled, struggling to untangle the pony from her grip, like a dumb puppy wanting to get a treat loose from the bottom of a cardboard box.

Hooking her lower limbs around the rungs of the wooden shack's walls, Daring gripped the hammer in her mouth and repeatedly slammed over the rusted trapper keeper of the infernal tome. The world danced around her. Hot breath and sap clung to her coat hairs. The massive wooden paws of the creature flew up and pressed against opposite ends of the shack, pushing inward. A chorus of crunching noises kissed Daring's ears. She felt her body pelted with splinters of wood as she hammered and hammered away at the book's latch, grunting with each desperate effort.

Just as the wall she was clinging to started to buckle and break, the book snapped open with a rustle of pages. Daring gasped for joy—then lost her grip. With a shriek, she twirled across the shack and plunged into the creature's maw. At the last second, she flung her hooves out, anchoring herself at the lashing mouth of the creature. Its teeth slashed and swung at her. Sweating, Daring looked left... then right. She saw the book balancing precariously on the monster's lips, about to teeter and fall into the swamp below.

Freeing one hoof, Daring grasped the book. She lost balance, flailed, then screamed. With a final lunge, she threw the weight of her body into the book's grip, slashing the pages across one of the timberwolf’s many teeth. In a single blink, half of the tome's contents were shredded.

The creature froze. The leaves lining its face stiffened, forming frost and icicles.

Daring blinked in breathless confusion, then winced as an overwhelming wave of frost bathed her figure. She fell back... and so did the shack, rolling loose from the creature's stiff jaws like a head from a guillotine.

When the building landed, it immediately went into a slide, gliding down a steep bank of snow. Daring collapsed hard with a grunt, rolling until she was propped up against the rear wall of the shack. Everything was grinding and vibrating around her. She sat up, wincing into a nail-bitingly cold wind. Her ruby eyes widened to see a bright blue sky with pale snow clouds hanging high above.

Just then, the building hit a bump and launched into thin air. Daring went weightless, and as she flew in the belly of the midair shack, she saw an immense mountainside looming below, sloping steeply into a breathtaking valley of pure powdery snow. The shack landed again, and so did Daring—though she was ready for it this time, spacing her hooves evenly apart like a foal might mount a sled. It was a sled. She stifled a prolonged shriek as the shack shifted left, shifted right, threw up a spray of sleet, then barreled straight towards an exposed cone of rock.

Daring flinched.

The shack struck, and it exploded. In a spray of wooden beams, swamp algae, and rope vines, the rickety building collapsed across the mountainside, throwing Daring Do loose so that she slid another twenty yards across the silk-slick snow. When she came to a stop, she lay there, panting for breath, bathed in the sunlight reflecting off the bright white hilltops surrounding her.

It took several minutes, but she eventually found the strength to sit up. She did so, shivering, for it was cold enough to see her own breath. The pegasus could have sworn she saw frozen droplets of swamp water clinging to her eyelashes.

Rubbing her body with her forelimbs, she sat on her haunches and looked behind her.

A line of dead wooden planks and tree branches stretched up the mountainside like the remnants of a horrific zeppelin crash. A howling wind dipped low, tickling the hairs on the ends of her ears before numbing them. Limply, Daring Do stood up and trotted back up the steep hill—an effort in and of itself. At last, she returned to the bulk of the crash. She gazed down at the remnants of the swamp's shack, at the many pieces of the timberwolf that had been torn off in the climactic struggled.

Bending down, Daring fished her hoof through the snow, muttering something unintelligible beneath her breath. She pulled a shiny object out, examining it closely, realizing it was the steel hammer. With a sigh, she pocketed it into one of the twin satchels made of green leaves and lily pads. Fishing some more, she finally caught a sight of burgundy. With a gasp, she yanked the item loose, beholding the ancient book in her grasp.

Daring paid no attention to the cover, instead examining the contents within. To her breathless approval, most if not every single leaf of paper had been shredded to bits.

Gulping, overcome by a wave of nervousness, the pegasus reached into her pocket. With shivering hooves, she fumbled to produce the eyeglass case. At last, she opened it, and immediately was stabbed with white light reflecting off the snowcaps around her. With a grunt, she tilted the container at an angle, then took a far more careful look at the mirror within. As her vision refocused from the sun's glare, her jaw dropped. The edges of her eyes moistened.

Her mane was gray, her every bang a monochromatic hue... except for one strand down the center...

A strand that was green... as green as grass.

Daring's lips began to quiver. She inhaled sharply, biting down on a tan hoof as her whole body quivered. Her cheeks bunched up in a bittersweet grin, and a tear rolled down her face as she rotated the case around. On every turn, she reexamined her hair, and on every flash of reflective light, it was still gray... and green.

Daring whimpered. That whimper turned into chortle and that chortle turned into a giggle, long and merry, foalish and whimsical. She tossed the container, her wings, and herself—falling down, sliding down the white frost and kicking up snow with hysterical laughter. She made snow angels and rolled about, hugging herself as the rapture took its course.

At last, when the euphoria had come and gone in waves, she sat up, staring down the face of the mountain with a bold smile. The hillside sloped into a soft valley, complete with babbling brooks of frozen ice and the hint of tundra clinging to exposed rock. Then, beyond the ivory plain, jagged and majestic, were rows upon rows of mountains, epic in scale, inviting in their grandeur.

And yet not a single one of those peaks dared to carve the sky like Miss Do's heart did.

And the Monumental Mountains

The rippling currents stopped briefly, just long enough for Daring Do's reflection to solidify across the surface. Her tan face leaned in, ruby eyes bright and blinking. She tilted the brim of her pith helmet up to glance at the singular streak of green in her mane hair, and the mare's lips curved again.

Daring stood, perched beside a break in the ice where a partially frozen river trickled down a mountain pass. Throwing a look back at her tail, she flicked the hairs and spun around until her flank faced the stream. She squinted at the reflection this time. A green streak showed with each shake in the frosted winds. When she cast her naked eyes upon the tail itself, she saw only monochromatic strands. She looked one last time into the stream's surface, and the green flicker looked back.

Exhaling slowly, Daring turned around completely from the river. She took a few crunching trots forward in the snow, then paused to glance at her compass. Once she determined where east was, she pocketed the device, spread her wings, and took to the air in a bounding leap.

Her feathers strained briefly, for Daring was considerably heavier than the last time she flew. This, of course, was from all of the extra materials that she had bundled up across each flank with loops of fibrous brown twine. Not long after the wooden shack had crashed upon the mountaintop, she scooped up all of the branches, beams, and scraps of tools she could find. This included the steel hammer, which she had to counterbalance with a thick bundle of splintery tubes that once formed the doorframe to the swamp hut she had taken refuge in.

However, no weight in the world had the potential of holding her down. A wave of energy throttled through her veins, making each flap of her wings easier than the last as she carved her way east through the blistering winds. Even the cold air was of little discomfort to her. As a matter of fact, it was invigorating. She hovered over the mountaintops in an almost casual fashion, veering north and south in gentle arcs to avoid the taller, more jagged peaks.

The world was enormous; Daring knew this because no matter how far or how high she flew, she still couldn't see enough of it. Suddenly, the horizon had become a jagged mural of massive, triangular rocks glued to a pearl-blue sky. For the first hour alone, Daring must have flown past three separate mountain ranges at full feathered speed, and over each rolling ridge of sundered granite there stood yet another promontory in waiting... and then another and another. It was as though some cosmic muzzle had bitten loose a chunk of the continent, and there the pegasus flew, skimming over the shattered threads of it.

Everything was beautifully crisp, beautifully bright, beautifully empty. Not a single bird or hint of intelligent movement did Daring observe in her travels. Every now and then, she thought she spotted something darting across the desolation, ultimately to realize that it was her shadow. On top of that, the constant glint of the reflective snow played tricks on her. The sun was gliding towards the broken horizon to her rear, and it brought an amber glisten to everything. Before long, the world caught fire from the platinum sigh of the dying day. If she squinted real hard, it looked almost as if she was gliding over frozen gold.

The repetitious topography could have taken its toll on Daring's psyche, but she didn't allow it. As the sun grew low to the edge of the world, so did she, playfully skimming at a hair's breath over the peaks that undulated like marble tidal waves beneath her. It became a game in a way, with Daring diving below the sun's angled shadow and darting back up to once again taste in that heavenly kiss of light that grew sparser and sparser into the early evening. Soon, it would be dark, and that held dangerous prospects in a place so high and frigid.

Daring didn't fear; she only flew. At last, the sun sank in the west, and the golden glow of daytime dissolved with it. All was shadow and more shadow, and Daring swiftly realized that she ran the risk of running into risks. With the warm colors of sunlight gone, all she could see to discern the mountains were bold shards of darkness cutting across the stars. It occurred to her that she could very easily ascend to a higher level. Above her, the pegasus spotted frosty clouds, drifting like gray silhouettes before the forming nebulae of night. She chose not to continue her journey up there, though. It wasn't because she was tired; she was simply bored by the darkness.

The pegasus found a niche in the crook of two converging mountains. There, she grinded together some of her scavenged sticks and started a campfire. The flames didn't ward off all the chill of the altitude, but she didn't mind. Daring knew she couldn't sleep right away, comfort or no comfort. She sat upon the bosom of the world, gazing straight up at the cosmos, marveling in mute wonderment at the degree to which she could unabashedly observe the universe's spectral paintbrush.

That high up, in the middle of absolute desolation, with absolutely zero pollution to tarnish the sky, Daring felt as though she was looking straight through a lens to witness the dawn of time. Bold swaths of milky white stardust ran across the stellar globe, and pinstreaks of gold and red comets burned their way across the tranquil masterpiece. It was the slowest, laziest, and most charming light show the mare had ever been bequeathed. She leaned her chin against her forelimbs and surrendered to gravity, though her eyes remained rolled up, locked on the glittering spectacle that hovered over her like thousands upon millions of candles.

When Daring fell asleep, it was like rolling downhill, with a warm world of fragrant breaths waiting to cradle her below. She felt like she was being carried somewhere, and when she arrived upon that destination, it was upon the crest of dawn, with the stabbing light of morning dissolving soft shapes that bobbed in the ether, soft shapes that had nuzzled her and cherished her, like lost loves amidst the spreading ocean of her subconscious. She awoke to a smile and a tear, and she rubbed them both off her muzzle as she got up, stretched her legs, and gathered her things for another long day of flight.

She knew that she would be flying for a while. As soon as she took off, she saw a hazy gray horizon devouring the sunlight in the east. She thought at first that it was simply cloudy mists, and she was partially right. Regardless, confusion sunk in, so she ascended swiftly, scaling the cold and colder atmosphere as she sought to fly high enough to gauge the landscape beyond the grayness. Soon enough, she realized that the grayness was the landscape. The adventurer was sailing directly towards an indescribably tall plateau, ripe with towering mountains that made the jagged peaks from the previous day's flight look like crumpled bed sheets.

As Daring Do glided her way towards the veritable wall of dense rock, several rows of rugged earth rose up like gigantic stagecoach tracks beneath her. She glanced down to see that she was flying parallel to indescribably long canyons. Their steepness was nearly impossible to measure; she judged that a pebble dropped at this point would take at least two minutes to reach the top of the ravines and another minute and a half to finish its plunge to the unfathomable bottoms.

Daring wondered, this high above the frosted mists, if there was life hidden away in those chasms—if anything or anyone there could look up and spot her, to see where she was going. Perhaps, then, somepony would be in the position to tell her.

Half a day of this speedy flight passed, and still the mountains kept rising, jabbing and slicing at the air until they skimmed past her peripheral vision in rugged clusters. For the first time in hours, Daring started to feel a lingering ache of concern. To compensate for the increasingly elevated topography, she had ascended higher and higher. At last, she flew at such an extreme altitude that she refused to blink, for fear that the frost clinging to her eyelashes might fuse her lids together. Daring rubbed the surface of her muzzle constantly, trying to ward off a deep numbness that only then she was starting to wake up to.

Daring was a pony of great athletic prowess and endurance, but even she had her limits. The day's journey was starting to take its toll on her. She could feel it in her wings, like throbbing currents of electric shock running into her feather tips and shooting violently back. She cursed her foolishness for not having taken a break sooner, for now that she was looking around for a place to land, she saw little to no piece of the rising plateau that could offer a hoof-hold.

Nevertheless, she chose a particular spot: a space of rock about ten by twenty feet that miraculously caught a piece of the sunlight peeking down through the impossibly tall summit east of there. When she landed, it was as if a mattress of rubbery bedsprings had collapsed beneath the pegasus in the form of her legs. She collapsed to her tan chest, only to feel her lungs evacuating in a sharp gasp. The stone surface of the mountain was colder than death, and Daring almost bit through her tongue from the anguishing chills rolling up and down her spine.

In spite of her sensations, she did her best to remain calm, something she was well gifted with. Slowly, she stood up, basking in the rays of light streaming from the morning sun above. She brought a hoof up to one of her shirt pockets, feeling the eyeglass case rattling within. Somehow, that alone was enough to bring the feeling back into her extremities.

Daring once more flexed her feathery appendages. This time, when she flew, it was in short bursts, navigating her way from one jutting rock cleft to another. The cold from the clouds sapped her of strength, but not of resolve. She didn't have the energy to start gliding high above the plateau again, but she had no need to. With nimble leaps, she scaled the craggy cliffs with relative ease, making almost as much progress on hoof as she did by wing.

The simplicity of the task, however, dissolved throughout the course of her ascent. By the time the sun had risen to its lofty, noonday position, Daring Do was having to make more and more progressively crazy leaps to reach her desired locations. At last, after two or three quick breaks, she stopped leaping altogether. Breathing hotly onto her hooves, she rubbed them against each other, gave the things a good stretch, then proceeded to claw her way patiently up the steeper and steeper mountain face.

This was when Daring's body truly started to ache. She didn't think it was possible, but she sweated openly in the freezing temperatures, all the while clambering her way up the rough granite wall like an insect skittering slowly across a shattered mirror. Every time she breathed, clouds of vapor rolled against the stone in front of her, glistening across a thin layer of permafrost. She saw kaleidoscopic reflections off the dangling flakes of snow, like microscopic flashes of gray and green and more gray. Undaunted, she kept climbing, one hoof swinging before the other, pulling her body and her belongings and her breaths upwards in persistent, trembling jerks.

A thin layer of powdery snow was collecting along her ears. She flicked her fuzzy lobes, curious what was rolling the sheets of frost over her body. Looking over her shoulder, she was both shocked and overjoyed to see a thick ceiling of mist looming directly above her. The shock came from just how high she was. The joy came from just how much height she had already traveled. Urged on by a sudden burst of charisma, she climbed faster and faster, clawing her way speedily up the jagged wall until the tips of her hooves bled.

It may have been another hour, perhaps two, but Daring eventually pierced her way through to a strikingly warm world. She realized that it was sunlight permeating the grayness; she had emerged from beyond the cloudline. Looking for the first solid cliff face, Daring scrambled eagerly towards it. Once her hooves met even ground, she threw herself sideways upon the ledge and lay there, panting for breath. A thin reserve was all that was granted her, and the pony took careful meditation to pace her inhales and exhales so as to receive the right amount of oxygen.

When she at last had enough strength to sit, she did so, peering immediately west. The resulting sight mesmerized Daring; she had to struggle not to let her breath be taken away. There was no sight of the world beyond the clouds—not remotely, at least. The horizon hid beneath a swirling curtain of mist, and only the most immediate mountain peaks were bold enough to pierce the haze, like gravestones standing stubbornly in the wake of a dismal fog. The very top of this cloudy bed glowed from the playful touch of the melting sunset. She couldn't tell if the sun was passing, already set, or if the world's atmospheric ceiling was merely projecting a refracted illusion of what had warmed Daring during the last two days of flight.

Whatever the case, it warmed her now, even if it was retreating, casting cold daggers of shadow across her squinting brow while skimming beyond oblivion's lease. Soon, it would be night, and the beauty of the previous evening would be lost to her—Daring knew—for half of the sky was utterly devoured by this alien slab of stone to which she pathetically clung. Nevertheless, like a dust mite rounding an anvil, she turned around and faithfully resumed her climb. The effluent haze of starlight was starting to blossom overhead, and she knew it was only a matter of time before she froze at this height. It came down to her having to choose practically any cliff within reach that was solid enough for her to lie down flat.

Luckily, another hour into this nocturnal ascent, she found a spot with a deep crevice carved into its side. It wasn't exactly a cave, but it did provide a modicum of shelter from the elements. Choosing practicality over luxury, Daring swiftly made camp, then not-so-swiftly started upon making a fire. It was too dark to see what she was doing, and her hooves were like limp noodles doing phantom dances in front of her bleary eyes. Thinking fast, she breathed on her enchanted crystal, and the glowstone in her pocket actually gave her enough heat to accomplish her task without too much mishap. A few minutes later, at the cost of her last few bundle of twigs, she managed to get another fire going. She sat between the blaze and a curved slab of stone, curling herself against the toasty heat radiating from the flames. Soon, she took no notice of the howling winds from beyond the edge of the plateau. The girth of the mountain behind her must have absorbed the bulk of the cold breezes, and she wasn't about to complain.

She wasn't about to sleep either. Daring lay her head upon her forelimbs in a slump, her eyes plastered to a thin curtain of snow draped across the rock face as it was lit by the golden tongues of dancing flame. Her mind spun in circles, trying to chase down the warm breaths that she had sensed in her sleep the evening before. With darting eyes amongst the powdery swirls, Daring's mind dared itself to drift out across invisible waves, beckoning whatever wharf the phantoms of her dreams took refuge in, hiding from her, almost playful in their incorporeal evasiveness.

Without realizing it, Daring had grabbed the first of several burnt sticks from the edge of the campfire. Holding the singed thing in the crook of her hoof, she brushed swaths of snow left and right, before pausing, contemplating, then slowly drawing lines across the crunchy surface, forming shapes, patterns, imprints of things more distant to her than the frozen stars above. When at last she was done, and her hoof was as tired as the rest of her shivering body, she squinted frightfully at the sudden mosaic of symbols. Like ivory silhouettes, they glistened in the firelight: a diamond, a decoration, an insect, a fruit, a star, and—at last—a thundercloud. The last image in particular forced Daring's heart rate to quicken with each pounding second, so that she felt like her throbbing eyes were being stabbed by a flash of merciless lightning.

Fear consumed confusion and anger consumed fear. Daring didn't realize she was snarling until she was halfway through swinging the stick left and right, shredding the symbols within the snowy bed to dust. The cliff face before her cleared to empty stone, and the clean slate brought brief solace to her, though it was swiftly devoured by an inexplicable curtain of melancholy drawing over the pony like a funeral shroud.

She heaved and shuddered, afraid of what her heart and mind were giving birth to. Before she could find out, she curled closer to the fire, drew the pith helmet over her tearing eyes, and surrendered to both darkness and exhaustion.

If she slept that night, Daring certainly didn't feel it. Morning came like a mace to the skull, and the weary adventurer sat up with a groaning wince, cracking loose miles of stiff joints out of her back and leg muscles. The shadow of the rising sun fell over the west end of the plateau like an onyx cape, making the dawn even colder than nightfall. As Daring Do prepared for the rest of the ascent, she nearly dropped her belongings three times, on account of the shivers.

At last, though, she recuperated, and resumed her ascent to the summit. With the penumbra of sunlight pulsing ahead of her from beyond the peaks, she could see the lengths she had yet to travel, the extent of the mountain she was blind to the evening before, and it was all horribly daunting. Nevertheless, she persisted, shifting the weight of the homemade satchels on her flanks, trying to keep a pace that was both strong and steady.

As the sun rose, gradually glaring down at her from above the mountain's steep edge, she became aware of a rising hiss, like hundreds of howling coyotes churning and stirring beneath her. She paused, hanging off a jutting rock, and glanced down. Her ruby eyes had to focus, but after a few moments she discovered that the clouds were scaling up the mountain beneath her. What was more, they were empowered by a horrible blizzard that scraped and chipped away at the rock face. At the rate at which the storm was rising after her, it would be less than an hour after she herself was consumed.

This sparked a state of panic in Daring's heart. Glancing up, she determined that she had at least another two hundred meters left to go. That high up, her wing muscles were numb, and her feathers were starting to congeal with a fine coat of frost. Still, if she didn't throw caution to that very wind, there was no telling how swiftly she would end up surrendering to the inclement weather climbing after her, threatening to blow the skin off her joints.

So, with the pin prick sting of the blizzard's frosty approach at her fetlocks, Daring clung to the rock and began flapping her wings hard, warming the muscles and shaking much of the moisture loose. It was a great deal more taxing than she had anticipated, and she couldn't escape the phantom sensation of her appendages threatening to rip off and leave her flightless with each successive motion.

This went on for minutes, and already she could sense the blizzard's winds whistling past her ears. She had stayed in place for too long, and there was no telling how soon the tempest would consume her. So, with a leap of faith, she kicked off the rock face, lunged into thin air, and flapped her wings even harder.

She fell.

With a shriek, Daring Do angled her body and spread her feathers wide. With a jolt, her body caught air, bobbed, then levitated slowly upwards. It was a grueling task, and she felt as if she was ripping muscles apart with each passing second. Fighting the pain, she ascended, skimming the flat face of the steep plateau. The mountain's edge loomed within one hundred and fifty meters... one hundred and twenty... one hundred...

Daring didn't realize she was sobbing until she felt the tears being plastered to her face in frosty streams. She grunted and squealed for added reserve, ripping past the torture as the glorious edge of the cliff loomed within a hoofball's punt, a stone's throw, a lunge of the hoof.

Gasping, Daring flung both forelimbs forward. She grasped the edge of the mountain... and slipped. Breathless, she hovered loosely in the whipping winds, twisted her whole body, and thrusted forward again. She gripped the cliff face, pulled hard, and rolled the rest of her body up and over like a wet blanket.

Twirling, she splayed herself across the top of the plateau, facing skyward as she panted with mixed relief and agony. The air screamed from below, where she had been clinging to the mountain like a roach on a brick wall. She could only imagine how violently she would have been swept to her death had she stayed down there. And yet, as she spent the minutes trying to recover in the thin atmosphere, she heard another whistling noise.

Wearily, Daring sat up, gazing eastward. The summit was flat, but that was a rough estimate at best. She couldn't see beyond three hundred feet of the snow-laden plateau, for a dense gray cloud hung over the impossibly high mesa. It was then that she realized that there were two blizzards to contend with, one behind her, climbing rapidly up the mountain face, and another dead-east, looming, waiting to consume her fragile figure.

Daring was alone with the elements on that lofty pedestal in the sky. In either direction, it was certain death. So she stood up, flexed her muscles, and chose one.

Trotting firmly east, Daring squinted into the thickening gray air. She folded her ears back, for the wind’s howl was starting to grow intolerable. After a full minute of charging into biting snow flurries, she bowed her head and thrust her shoulder forward. The next hour of trotting became a grinding ritual, with Daring slowly creeping into the sleet and swirls, her hooves crunching through a fragile stream of frozen river water, one that cracked and formed glossy spiderweb fractures beneath her hooves with each lurching step.

At some point, the wind relented, only to start up again, this time spinning from all angles. Daring found herself in a veritable cyclone of tornadic snow. She assumed that it was from the west blizzard finally creeping up the side of the mountain and colliding with the maelstrom that she was currently navigating.

Daring gritted her teeth to keep them from chattering. Her shoulders shook as she stumbled and shoved against the merciless gusts. She was aware of how much the gales were shoving her left and ride, veering her off course. Just what was her course?

The adventurer wasn't sure of anything anymore. For all she knew, she could have trotted a full circle while trying to pierce her way across this deathly cloud of cold. To stave off her fear, she hunkered down in the middle of the blizzard, reached for her shirt, and pulled out the compass.

The mare's hooves were too numb. She dropped the compass with a clatter to the stone floor. Cursing under her breath, Daring lunged forward to pick it back up.

The wind was beating her to it, shoving the compass across the rock face with a scraping slide. Daring fumbled and dashed and galloped after it, almost tripping once or twice as more gusts blew at her flanks. She widened her eyes to keep visual contact on the elusive tool as it rolled, rattled, and finally came to a stop against a slender black shadow in front of her.

Daring clumsily collided with the object. Her lungs emptied with a pained grunt as she slumped down what turned out to be a metal pole of sorts. Falling on her haunches, Daring rubbed her upper body with her forelimbs, gazing up at the structure in shock.

It looked to be a cluster of pipes, constructed out of shiny brass. Several porous holes punctured the smooth surface, seemingly impervious to the cyclonic elements. The entire thing stood about twenty feet tall, and Daring looked down to see that the pipes easily pierced the rocky floor, rooted in something unperceivably deep below the roof of the mesa.

What was more, there was a valve resting directly in front of her, about two feet wide. Daring blinked, gazing up at the swirling gray mists, then back at the alien structure in question. Reaching forward, she gripped both edges of the valve and attempted twisting it left. However, the thing was bound tight; it would not budge. After several frustrated attempts, she fell back on her haunches, shivering in the howling wind. Just then, the pegasus brightened. She reached into her satchel of things and produced the steel hammer. Wedging the object between the spokes of the valve, she threw all of her strength into the tool itself, using it like a lever as she forced the valve to turn.

With a deep, resonating squeak, the dial eventually rotated, becoming easier and easier to spin as Daring put her back into it. About ten seconds into the task, the mare heard a high-pitched noise piercing the air, driving back the cacophonous howl of the blizzard. Suddenly, with a burst of heat, a plume of steam billowed out from the many-many holes in the vertical pipes. She stepped back, panting, startled. The pegasus watched as whiter than white mists rippled out of the metal tubes, slicing the blizzard down the center and exposing the deep blue sky of the upper atmosphere.

To her undeniable joy, the air grew warmer. Whatever heat empowered the steam pipe, it transformed the top of the plateau from a nightmarish freeze to an autumnal chill and eventually to a comfortable coolness. If Daring was in another place and time, she could have sworn it was a warm spring afternoon.

The reach of this heat wasn't limitless, though. The mare watched with curiosity as a veritable circle was carved out of the blizzard, beating the gray mess back by a radius of about one hundred feet. Twirling around to gauge the clear landscape, Daring caught sight of another glinting object. A brand new shaft of brass pipes emerged from the ground just on the edge of the heated steam's reach, as if they were purposefully placed there to appear on the crux of the hazy weather.

Picking up her compass, Daring determined that the pipes were located due east. Briskly, with the steel hammer held in her teeth, the pegasus galloped over to the chilly edge of the warm air pocket. She found a valve attached to the structure, much like the pipes before it, and she slipped the tool into the rungs of it, giving it a good twist.

The warmth brought renewed energy to her muscles, so it was with little effort that she twisted the valve loose this time. Yet again, there was a burst of steam, hissing through the air with the unmitigated passion of a coal-powered sauna. The air tingled like a summer's day after a rain shower, and as Daring glanced east, another series of pipes appeared.

Daring rushed to the structure and repeated the process, as well as with the pipes after that, and the next two structures. Eventually, she had carved a straight line of conjoined circles across the mountain, ripping the entire blizzard apart and turning the roof of the plateau into a luxurious steam bath. At last, she stumbled upon a remarkably large cluster of pipes, about three times as tall and four times as wide as the previous array of brass obelisks that she had approached. There was something else different about these: they had several horizontal tubes affixed to them, leading towards some dark shadow that rested just beyond the curtain of undulating snow flurries to the east. The longer Daring squinted at the structure, the more she started to discern shapes beyond the mists, like rising columns and slanted roofs.

Undeniably curious, the mare twisted what turned out to be a trio of valves this time, starting with the smallest and ending with the largest. The air practically sang with the whistling steam, and she heard deep reverberations of bass noise echoing through the tubes that ran forward from her. The air cleared as the horizontal pipes emitted bursts of steam at every dozen meters. The grayness spread open before her like a receding tide, and she gawked at a huge chunk of ice looming like a mountain atop the mountain.

Within this translucent glacier, she saw marble pillars and granite platforms. An actual building lay frozen atop the attic of the world, encapsulated completely in ice like a ship within a bottle. As blazing hot steam from the mysterious heart of the mountain channeled into the glacier, Daring watched in awe as the enormous chunk of ice began to crack and dissolve. The air filled with a rushing sound, like river rapids were being spawned on either side of her. Daring felt the surface of the mesa vibrating, and she saw a thin curtain of icy water rushing towards her. The current was thin and harmless, at least from her angle. When she craned her neck, she could see that the north and south ends of the temple were looming above vicious drops, and veritable waterfalls were being born on either side.

The glacier was melting, and in swift order too. Daring watched as the icy tomb imploded slowly, being reduced to flowing liquid that splashed thinly across every square inch of the sun-kissed summit. Casually, the mare strolled forward, her hooves plodding and splashing through the tingly streams. The sensation brought as much mirth to her heart as it did mystery, for it was not unlike trotting barehoof across a wet sidewalk on a summer's day.

Daring looked down, and her reflection smiled back across the rippling puddles. A streak of green dangled beneath her pith helmet, and she looked up, breathing with renewed vigor as she followed the thunder of distant waterfalls and slowly trotted up the soaked granite steps and through the miraculously exposed temple gates.

And the Tempestuous Temple

Daring Do felt as though she was taking a relaxing shower, or perhaps a steam bath. The mare's nostrils flared, drinking in the warm misty air and bringing a tranquil smile to her face. She trotted evenly, her hoofsteps plodding through puddles, making wet echoes across the spacious hollow of the lofty temple entrance.

On either side of her, thick round columns stood tall and pale, drenched in continuously melting ice water. The pegasus peered through the splashing liquid in an attempt to study the composition of the vertical pillars. The cylinders were ridged, notched in well over twenty places around the side, like ancient pegasus architecture. The beams appeared to be constructed out of some sort of dense marble, or a polished granite of sorts. The stone material was glossy, smooth, with the color of shiny blue eggshells.

Glancing down, Daring studied the floor, noticing finely crafted mosaics of geometric circles and octagons. This elaborate collection of shapes—all bathed in dark blues and greens and silvers—stretched for as far as she could see, weaving in and around the rows upon rows of marble columns. The entire temple was flat, almost a solid plane of granite, with a horizontal space of about thirty feet from floor to ceiling.

She tried staring at the temple's far end, but all she could make out was a pale silver glow: the hint of a snow-swept world lingering beyond the rows upon rows of drenched, glittering columns. She guessed that the distance between the entrance and the far end of the open temple was something along the lines of five... maybe ten hoofball fields. There was no real way to tell for certain. Besides, the constant streams of water trickling over the walls and floors of the place were playing tricks with her eyes, refracting both light and shadow.

Daring Do paused to drink in the moment; not literally. With melted water still bathing every surface of the place, the air inside was thick with moisture. It was very humid: cool, but humid. She feared catching ill if she stayed in one place for too long. Not only that, but there was an entire temple to navigate, one that had actually been excavated from a thick glacier. Some hidden, natural gland inside Daring's skull started clicking, and she went off in a seemingly random direction to explore.

The adventurer trotted to her right, heading south, as she determined was the case from a swift glance at her compass. Trotting in a singular direction, she looked left and right. All of the columns looked the same to her. There was no telling how old they were, for the coating of ice that had previously entombed them left the architecture looking untouched and immaculate. When she gazed down at her hooves, she was amazed to see that the geometric patterns in the floor continued nonstop, showcasing the same elaborate detail as the designs on the marble platform did several hundreds of feet back where she first entered the building.

For a moment, she was yet again distracted by the green reflection in the center of her mane, peaking out from under her pith helmet. Before her mind could drift, Daring heard the loud rushing of water. The pony's heart skipped a beat, but then she remembered something she had seen earlier, and she slowed her canter to a cautious trot. She was approaching the edge of the temple, just looming above the southern cliff of the plateau. Here, the water puddles had formed a babbling brook and then a penultimate cluster of bubbling rapids, gushing over the edge of the marble floor as they dumped the entire temple's load of melted liquid into the misty depths below.

Daring peered her head, but she couldn't see well enough from where she stood. After a moment, she decided to stretch her wings, testing if they were still sore from her previous efforts to scale the mountain face. She judged that she was safe, and then she flapped her wings so that she hovered directly over the roaring waterfall. Gazing straight down, she marveled at the sheer plunge that the melted glacier's water was taking. It was as if some giant cleaver had sliced a deep, deep cut in the surface of the world, and the temple had the misfortune of being built on the supreme edge of it. There were nearly a hundred waterfalls total, each formed by the marble pillars dividing the trickling water into dozens upon dozens of separate streams. Daring hovered leisurely past all of them, her ears twitching from the clouds of mist continuously tickling her lobes.

It was hard to believe that, just minutes ago, this entire mountain summit was colder than a polar ice cap. Daring glanced south of where she flew, beyond the mountain, and saw a thick wall of gray clouds lingering just beyond the reach of the steam pipes' scalding jets. The high altitude blizzards ripped and tore at the invisible halo of heat, and Daring feared that the pipes' emissions wouldn't be enough to hold the natural elements back forever.

So, with a tilt to her wings, Daring flew back into the temple, threading her way through the pale columns. Once she was about twenty rows in, she coiled her wings to her sides and touched down.

To her shock, her hooves didn't splash into any puddles this time. She looked down to see that she had landed on a dry stretch of marble floor. No doubt the liquid had finally trickled away, joining the violent cascades of water along the north and south edges of the temple. With the moisture gone, she could better concentrate on the texture of the floor beneath her hooves. There appeared to be tiny partitions—minute holes that were somehow etched into the marble surface with near-microscopic precision. It occurred to her that the holes could possibly have been drains of some sort, which explained why the floor dried so swiftly. Perhaps the water had filtered down there as well as they did along the sides of the unfrozen domain.

Rubbing her chin in thought, Daring struck upon an idea. She plopped down on her haunches and reached back for her tail. Pulling the gray strands around, she pulled a few flimsy hairs away from the rest and held them straight out, dangling directly above the tiny-tiny holes. She noticed that the hairs danced upwards, swaying towards the ceiling whenever they were waved above the partitions.

The pegasus narrowed her ruby eyes. Reaching into her shirt's pocket, she pulled out her eyeglass container. Ignoring the mirror for the time being, she lifted her bifocals and planted them over her fuzzy nose. With her vision restored, she squatted low on all fours and studied the notches more closely.

The holes were spaced about five centimeters apart. Some of them ran along the paths of the swirling circles and octagon motifs etched into the floor. The holes were most densely packed—however—in solid lines that ran in between the columns stretching from the floor to the ceiling of the place.

Daring rubbed her chin some more, following the lines between the pale columns. She performed this meticulous study, crawling low like a spotless leopard on the prowl, for perhaps a few minutes longer than she actually needed to. It was somewhere in the middle of this process that she noticed yet another pattern. Her glasses had fogged up from tiny breaths of steam billowing from the holes, so she sat up, removed her bifocals, and rubbed them dry as she squinted hard at the floor at a much broader angle.

She noticed that there was a subtle difference in colorization, most evident in the circular shapes that stretched before her. At first, she thought that the shapes were all uniform. Such a presumption was merely an effect of the water current distorting her vision. Now that she looked at the circles, it became clear to her that they were sporting three different colors. For instance, the circles immediately beneath and around her were blue. But then there were some circles that were yellow. Then, beyond two rows of columns, she swore she saw green spheres in addition.

The variation between these three colors was seemingly randomized. Daring trotted around for the better part of half an hour, and she couldn't discern a predictable pattern. All she knew was that the color of the circles changed specifically from one row of columns to another. One part of the floor may have been green, but then just beyond a pair of pale pillars, the circles immediately turned blue, and the ones after the next row of columns were yellow, and then either green or blue again.

Daring couldn't explain why she was so adamant about finding a meaning behind this; all she knew was that it gave her a terrible headache. She wouldn't have to focus on it for that much longer, however, for as she passed yet another row of columns, she noticed a small shadowy structure poking up out of the floor about ten spaces down.

The mare's heart skipped a beat; her hooves scraped to a stop. Daring spun and squinted towards the east end of the spacious temple. Something stood two-thirds of the way across the remaining length of the interior, its body making a perfect black silhouette against the gray mists that lingered beyond the far edge of the building.

Without delay, Daring swiftly trotted over to the structure. Her lips pursed as she came to a scuffling stop in front of it and sat down.

There stood before her a podium made out of polished brass, not unlike the conjoined tubes of piping hot air that she had seen erected before the temple entrance. The structure was hollow, and she could hear the faint sound of hissing steam jetting up from a deep dark chute built into the central frame of the thing. Bravely—or perhaps stupidly—she leaned forward and peered down the body of the chute. Everything was dark; everything echoed. She slapped her hoof against the lid of the chute once, and she heard constant reverberations dancing up and down its metallic core over the space of a minute.

Clenching her jaw, Daring stepped back from the device. She saw a shiny object poking out at about forty-five degrees from the podium, and it made her perform a comical double-take. It was quite obviously a lever, and its handle lingered just a sneeze from Daring's muzzle, beckoning her.

The mare tilted back the brim of her pith helmet without thinking. After a nervous gulp, she rubbed her hooves together, squinted one eye, and nervously reached out to grasp the lever in the crook of her right forelimb.

At last, she pulled the handle, filling the air with the crackle of cold, metallic joints. She instantly winced, shrinking away from the podium, as if fearful that some horrible explosion would be her reward for such blatant fiddling.

However, nothing out of the ordinary happened, save for the innocuous venting of steam from the podium's lower joints. As the lever slowly clicked backwards by about ninety degrees, a hiss of misty air roared out of the hollow chute. Then, something emerged at the top of the black brass structure. Daring watched with twitching eyes as a large metal box slid up from the depths like a golden slice of bread popping out of a toaster.

The box was a rectangular solid, yellow in color, and about half the size of Daring's upper body. It rested on the top of the podium now like a tin wafer, and Daring could see that the thing was hollow. Its surface was porous, comprised of dozens upon hundreds of tiny little holes, like the end of a stallion's electric beard trimmer. As she leaned forward to examine it closer, she could see through the outer layer and spot an inner layer: a metallic blue shell that was just as full of holes as the frame outside of it.

Daring Do arched an eyebrow in confusion, her lips mouthing three blatantly frustrated words. Rotating her pith helmet around, she nevertheless reached forward and lifted the large metal box off its foundation. She almost wished that she hadn't; it was far heavier than the little pony had anticipated. She fell on her haunches with a high-pitched grunt, clumsily hugging the hulking container to her chest. The box was actually quite hot, not to the point of burning, but still uncomfortably so. She sweated like a marathon runner every second that she spent gripping it. Standing up, she stretched her tan wings towards the floor, using them as extra legs as she fumbled with the object in her forelimbs.

However, before she could examine the artifact anymore, she became aware of a whistling noise. Blinking, she craned her neck, looking over the translucent body of the yellow box.

The podium was sinking into the floor, slowly, with a dull bass menace. As it did so, a fine mist poured out of the tiny-tiny holes etched into the floor's circular mosaic.

Daring blinked, then looked straight down. She felt her hooves warming up, and she wished to know why. As the heat turned into a scalding burn, that curiosity swiftly morphed into alarm. With a wincing expression, she flapped her wings, carrying the heavy container in between two forelimbs as she lifted towards the ceiling. Even though her hooves were no longer making contact, she felt unbearably hot. The coat hairs along the surface of her limbs started curling. In a panic, she flew towards a pair of pillars, making for the far end of the temple.

Just milliseconds before she could soar her way through the nearest columns, however, a solid white of nightmarishly hot steam blew up in her face, jetting violently out of the floor. Gasping, Daring hovered to a stop, the yellow metal container dangling in her grip like a massive pendulum. She looked up at the ceiling; there was no space for her to fly over the scalding hot jets of air. From the degree to which her wing tips were molting from just hovering next to the phenomenon, she didn't want to want to risk darting on through.

In the meantime, Daring's ears were being deafened by waves of concussive air bursts. Sweating profusely from the heat, Daring spun around, seeing that the jets of burning mists surrounded her on all sides—save for just one. Between two columns, at least twenty feet away, there stretched a space of tile flooring that wasn't emitting boiling steam.

She flew there in a bullet's blink. Once on the other side, she was blessed with a curtain of cool air, sandwiched albeit precarious between twin rows of burning gray mists. Slumping down to the floor, Daring leaned against the massive metal container, panting for breath. Slicking her wet bangs back beneath her helmet, she threw a glance over her shoulder.

Three successive clusters of tile floor were emitting deathly-hot steam, like a solid line of boiling cauldrons. The mare judged that their temperature and force were enough to rip the pegasus' skin off her bones if she levitated above the vents for more than five seconds. She squinted from where she sat, noticing a common pattern to the tile panels where the small holes were gushing their blistering contents.

All of the marble panels were yellow.

Daring's lips pursed. She glanced at the golden container in her grasp, then back at the matching yellow vents. After a few seconds, she looked down to see that the safe cluster of tile beneath her was covered in green and blue circles.

Warm air whistled behind her. Daring gasped, spinning around to look. A cloud of billowing white steam was coalescing in the center of one section of yellow tile. Tornadic streams of boiling hot mist streamed into the bulbous, egg-shaped frame. Then, as if empowered by some malevolent heart hidden deep in the temple, the mist took the form of a pale gray blade and flew after her.

Daring felt as if her tail hairs were catching fire. Without hesitation, she darted forward, flying down an invisible trench of cold air, clinging the yellow metal container to her chest. As the cloud of burning mists flew after her, she made for a pair of marble pillars. Yet again, when she was inches from piercing her way beyond the columns' invisible line, a gust of hot steam formed a deadly wall in front of her. She stopped in mid-air, panting. Glancing down, she saw that the floor of the temple just beyond the gust of steam was colored yellow.

The air billowed behind her. Before Daring could be roasted alive by the pursuing cloud of steam, she jerked to the side, dove, and skidded across the blue and green floor tiles. Sweating, she looked up and witnessed the gust of gray air being absorbed into the burning chamber beyond. To her dumbfounded shock, the cloud hovered in place, grew larger as it was fed more steam from the temple's malicious depths, and then shot at her again, this time coming in the opposite direction.

Gritting her teeth, Daring kicked off the floor and spun away from the bullet of compressed air. It grazed past the pegasus, and she held up the large yellow container in a last ditch effort to shield her airborne body. Tiny gusts of steam nevertheless threaded their way through the metal box's miniature holes, and it turned a small length of Daring's belly red. She fell with a grunt this time, wincing as she delicately clutched the patch of raw skin.

Looking up and around, she gasped to see a dark object about two steam-baths away. From the size and shape of it, the thing looked to be another podium, much like the one that she had retrieved the yellow box from earlier.

Air whistled behind Daring again. She knew that the steam vents were firing another "volley" at her. Jumping back onto her hooves, she ran, galloped, and took off, gliding with the artifact down a twisting and turning maze of cool air. The steam vents turned into burning walls on either side of her as she navigated a serpentine path of blue and green tiles, whizzing past any pairs of harmless white pillars she could find. All the while, the steamy corridors fired the death cloud at her body like missiles of pure mist. She had to dart up and down between the floor and ceiling to avoid the closer and closer shots.

At last, after making a ridiculously curved detour, Daring found the path of safely-colored tiles that would bring her to the podium. She landed, slid, and skidded to a stop in front of it. The spot was a dead end, surrounded on three sides by venting gusts of steam. Clenching her teeth, Daring studied the podium for a clue, an answer, or any kind of mechanical solution to her predicament. All she saw was a series of clasps—like a docking station. She glanced at the yellow box in her grasp and realized that the porous container's frame was exactly the same size. Without thinking twice, she raised the container up onto the podium and slid it between the brass metal prongs.

With a hiss of cool air, the clasps became alive, snapping into place along the bottom end of the golden container. The podium echoed with a mechanical ratcheting sound.

Daring spun around, her ruby eyes twitching. She saw the missile of burning white mist flying straight towards her, shooting down a narrow trench of venting steam as it zeroed in on her helpless position.

Just then, a gust of cold wind flew out of the podium's chute. With a clap of noise, the yellow container fell apart, exposing a smaller metal box within. This one was also full of tiny holes, but it was smaller and made of blue metal.

Swiftly, Daring plucked it off the podium. As the brass platform sank into the floor, she glanced closely at the blue box. Through its porous holes, she could have sworn she spotted another layer of metal, this time green. And beyond that—

The temple around Daring roared. She spun around once again.

A line of mists shot up between two pillars, just a spit's reach away. It absorbed the incoming missile of white steam, stopping it just seconds before it would have reduced Daring to a smoking husk.

The mare didn't have time to rejoice, however, for the air immediately surrounding her was heating up by ten degrees per second. She looked down to see that every circle of holes was blue. Grunting, she hugged the box to her chest and swiftly dove beyond the nearest pair of columns, rolling away in time to escape an explosion of blue steam that spewed from floor to ceiling.

She jumped up into a hover, spinning around in a circle to gauge her situation. All of the yellow-colored tiles were powering down, and in place of hot vents there instead gathered puddles of condensed liquid.

Two roars of thunder echoed behind her. Daring glanced past her flapping wings and spotted—not one—but two clouds of dense air being summoned by the temple's vents. In a burst of air, both flew at her like vengeful falcons, slicing violently at her tan feathers.

Daring glided forward, ducking the air-powered projectiles and nearly colliding with the soaked surface of the floor. She had to pull hard to her left to fly out of range of the blue tiles' jetting streams. The maze had completely changed now, and she was having to fly zig-zags in a desperate bid to chart a new course, all the while juking and jiving to dodge the random return of both steaming missiles.

Her vision fogged from moisture and sweat. Rubbing her wet face with a forelimb, she feverishly looked all around for her next goal. While ducking another swing of the missiles, she spotted a dark shape towards the far end of the temple. She recalled a junction leading towards that section of the building a few turns back. Cursing under her breath, Daring spun around, kicked off the floor, nearly slipped on the puddles, and backtracked along the clear corridors of yellow and blue tiles. A swipe of the steam missiles nearly burned her pith helmet off. She clutched it in one hoof and held the blue box in another as she made half-a-dozen more turns, at last coming upon the next podium.

The two missiles were waiting for her. They flew at her in a converging "X" pattern, threatening to melt her wings to ribbons.

Daring backflipped, spun upside down, kicked her hooves off the temple ceiling, and propelled herself forward so as to barely escape the criss-crossing gusts of hot air. She had to reach out a hoof and clasp onto the edge of the podium, anchoring herself in place before flying into the murderous jets beyond. With two hooves, she slapped the blue container into place, rapping her hooves impatiently against the wet tile floor as she waited for the podium's metal clasps to do their task. She heard the whining noise of the returning missiles, and her lips produced a high-pitched whimper to match.

Just as the air heated up, the blue container fell apart, and an even smaller box of green metal popped out like toasted bread. Daring grabbed it, flipped over the podium, and slid forward across the green tile before they had a chance to explode right behind her.

The resulting thunder curled the fuzz on the end of her earlobes. She slid into a patch of blue tile and took off just as the holes in the floor stopped venting. Drifting backwards across the moist corridor, she hugged the box to her chest and looked closely at it. Through the metal's porous surface, something bound and leathery hid inside. She gave the green container a shake, and she heard the rustling of paper—

The air screamed like a train whistle. Daring looked straight ahead.

Over the burning patches of green tile, three missiles coalesced this time. They flew through one another like synchronized dancers, split once again into three gray lances, and they shot at her little body from random angles.

Daring gnashed her teeth. She dove, ducked, and forward-flipped to avoid the bursts of cloudy projectiles. In so doing, she nearly flew muzzle-first into a column of venting steam. Flapping her wings cautiously, she backed up, twirled to avoid another stream of intersecting clouds, then tore off in a brave new direction.

Glancing through her peripheral vision, she made out the image of a final podium, looming just before the bright, sun-lit edge of the lofty temple. The structure was incalculably far away; Daring couldn't even see any clear paths on account of all the spewing geysers between her and her goal.

The air screamed again. Yelling for added courage, Daring flapped her wings harder, outflying and dodging the cloud bursts as she rounded a copious amount of snake-like ravines. They seemed to wind farther and deeper than ever, throwing the pegasus for literal loops.

At last, following a pair of sharp turns, she felt as though she was making headway. However, to her chagrin, she realized that it was yet another neck in a forever-meandering maze. She could barely see through the misty barricades, but there had to have been another ten minutes of hellish flight left before her path would feasibly take her to the podium. For a moment, she lingered in the middle of the corridor, brooding over how close she'd be to the structure if she could just fly straight across the burning mess.

Just then, both of her ears rang from opposite directions. She looked left and right, grimacing at the realization that the burning clouds were now soaring at her from both sides at once. Within seconds, she would be sandwiched between scalding gusts of air.

She looked straight ahead. Within a stone's throw—through the burning mists—was her goal. Gritting her teeth, Daring decided to do the impossible. With a wet plop, she dropped the metal green box onto the floor. She unbuttoned her shirt, stripped it off, and wrapped it around her bare front hooves. The air danced with cacophonous noise as the two clouds flew in from either side, but Daring wasn't looking at them. Instead, she backed up, took a breath, then charged straight forward. Then, with a savage leap, she landed on the metal box and allowed her body's weight and momentum to propel it forward.

Just as the container carried her into the mists, she held her breath and performed a hoof-stand. Her body went vertical, squeezing into a space of air as tight as the box beneath her could afford. In such an absurd position, she nevertheless slid through the venting gusts, clearing the burning green tile, and emerging safely on the other side. She fell like a sack of potatoes, covered from head to tail in drenching moisture, and though her green shirt was singed in spots from where the steam had blown through the porous box, her hooves and flesh were in one piece.

Daring ended her slide with a jolt, bumping backwards into the podium. She sat up, wincing, and watched in awe as the two clouds crashed into each other from across the wall of steam. The third one joined the quivering blob, and soon the whole cluster of steam was boiling into a larger and larger sphere of hot mists, rumbling with otherworldly thunder.

Daring hopped up, spun around, and slapped the green box onto the podium. She shuffled around it, putting the container between her and the humongous cloud of steam. As the clasps took the box and disassembled it, a leather-bound book at last fell into her hooves. She looked at it, breathless, and froze upon seeing a legible title, somehow preserved after countless eons of ice and darkness within the heart of the mountain.

"Daring Do and the Tempestuous Temple."

The whole building roared, surrounding her with gusts of piping hot air. Daring looked up.

The clouds rocketed towards her fragile figure.

She clenched her eyes shut and lifted the book out, opening it directly towards the incoming burst of steam. The pages dissolved instantly, and yet the pegasus herself did not melt. Instead, every gust of steam, every blast of hot air, every wave of burning mist cycled into the book, as if the tome was somehow absorbing it. And just when it couldn't get any fuller, the brown leather binding exploded with a burst of dark sand.

Daring Do was thrown backwards instantly. The steam walls lining the edge of the temple had disappeared, so that she was thrown clear off the building's side and into a pale amber sky. To her breathless shock, she landed in something almost immediately. Instead of snow, it was a landslide of shifting desert sands that caught her. She rolled and tumbled down the warm dune, joined by her sweat-stained shirt and a spinning pith helmet. Her satchel of twigs and natural tools was nowhere to be found, presumably blown to the apathetic winds. As she came to a sliding stop, the world around her shook with sporadic salvos, and she opened her eyes just long enough to see chunks of marble and temple columns flying over her head, like shards tossed from an unimaginably large explosion. The building pieces landed far away, making deep craters in a smooth horizon of vast brown sand.

Then, blissfully so, all was silent. Daring heard nothing but the sound of her own wheezing breaths. Slowly—achingly—she sat up, brushing the fresh sand out of her mane and ear lobes. It took her twice as long to summon the strength to stand. The first thing she did was reach over to pick up her shirt. With a disgusted expression, she whipped and tossed the thing in the wind, trying to shake loose all the desert grit. She succeeded, but her eyeglass case fell out.

Taking the moment to first slip on and button up her shirt, Daring eventually bent down and picked up the container. It fell open as she lifted it, and the mare froze upon seeing her reflection. Slowly, she tilted the container's mirror in one direction and cocked her head in the other. Her ruby eyes narrowed on the reflection of her bangs. The green streak was still there, only now it was joined by two more bands of color—one on each side, blue and yellow respectfully.

After a blink, Daring's lips slowly curved into a soft smile. She slapped the container shut, and its snapping sound was like delicious thunder. Trotting across the dune, she picked up her white hat, shook it clean, and slapped it over her head with a proud breath.

Pivoting east, Daring squinted into a bright beam of light. An orange sun rose over the otherworldly outline of a mile-tall mountain. Several other peaks rose in the distance, some just as slender, some more so. An impossibly jagged desert horizon stretched before her, its angled surfaces playing painterly tricks with the reflective beams of light coursing through the dry atmosphere.

Daring trotted over the soft earth until she stood besides a singular chunk of marble column that had been tossed loose from the temple. As she squinted, she could have sworn she saw structures submerged in the plains of sand, like ships lost at sea. She saw the broken segments of archways, of jagged stone structures drowned by orange dunes. Then, towards the northeast, she spotted enormous circular objects, hundreds of feet in diameter, their sun-kissed surfaces rusted to match the amber haze of the dead and desolate landscape enshrouding them.

They were gigantic cog-wheels; there was simply no other way Daring could describe them. Their geometrically perfect teeth hung with shadows, dark with decay, and even more of these herculean objects dotted the rolling landscape of dead earth in random craters as far as the pegasus could see. And beyond it all, like the claws of a gigantic palm within which the whole desert was poured, a forest of mountainous spikes loomed, their titanic bodies carving the sunlight into eerie shadows that swept over the vastness like black spectres.

Daring Do gazed at all of this mystery and desolation, and she smiled. A leathery object lingered in her peripheral vision. She looked to the right, spotting the frayed remains of the book she had just destroyed in the temple. It lay folded shut, its cover indiscernible, its title lost to everyone and everything.

Everything but Daring.

With a renewed breath, the adventurer tilted her hat forward, shaded her smirking muzzle, and trotted into the valley below.

And the Desert of Desolation

Daring was hot, sweaty, and miserable; she barely noticed.

Her first four hours through the desert were spent leisurely, or as leisurely as she could afford, with the pegasus adventurer gazing left and right as she alternated between trotting across the shifting dunes and flying over sporadically dispersed scraps of metal. The sense of awe that overcame her upon seeing those rusted ruins was too intense to shrug off, and Daring found herself gliding in literal circles over one piece of half-submerged structure or another.

Chunks of abandoned machinery were lying everywhere. No matter how many rolling hills of sand Daring scaled, she found more and more of the materials dotting the landscape. Some of the pieces were destroyed beyond repair, yielding nothing but scraps of sundered plates with the rivets spilling loose in the amber sand. Others were eerily intact: giant cogwheels, broken pistons, bent levers, and crooked conveyor belts. Daring even once flew along the spilled length of massive chains, each link four times the size of her body, as they roped on and on for hundreds of meters.

All the while, a bright golden sun baked her from above. Unlike the swamp, this desert punished with a dry heat, and Daring would travel for miles without realizing the extent to which she was being sapped of strength. Thankfully, there were enough pieces of scrap to cast a shade, and she sat herself beneath them every other hour, squatting on folded legs as she recollected her breaths as well as her senses.

At some point, around noontime, Daring relaxed beneath a pair of enormous gears leaning against each other along the southeast edge of a sloping sand dune. From where the mare sat, she scanned the horizon, trying to make sense of the enormous spires shooting up like missiles of rock. They were unlike any mountains Daring had seen, and the shadows that they cast from the roaming sun were otherworldly and slender, like rigid black tentacles knifing coldly across the nebulous orange world.

The desert was not the same in one blink as it was in the next. Daring watched steadily as curtains of sand rose and fell, being blown across the arid realm like a second skin. She concentrated on a specific section of landscape, witnessing heaps of rusted chain—hidden just half-an-hour ago—become exposed to the glittering sunlight as the dune they were sunk in rolled south, blown to obscurity by a wayward wind.

Whatever could have made those gnarled intestines of forsaken junk, the pegasus was at a loss to speculate. She cast her thoughts off with a shrug of her wings, focusing instead on the clamshell eyeglass container that she was rolling over and over in her hooves. She lost count of how many glances she took at the mirror, at her reflection, at the three colors that dangled off her brow like an alien brand. She examined her tail hairs with equal vigor, and again the yellow and green and blue hues flickered to her.

She looked back at her tail without the aid of the mirror; her hairs were just as gray as the day she was foaled. The mare's nostrils flared. She closed the container with finality and moved to drop it back into her shirt's pocket.

Something about the slender little box stood out, stabbing her in her peripheral vision. Curious, the mare squinted at the box, her eyes focusing on the name plastered across the silver surface: "Professor Do – ... Institute for ...."

The pony groaned. She ran a hoof over her face and shook her head, as if overcome by a dizzying sensation. Once more, she glanced at the container. She saw her name, but the words after the title were fuzzy for some reason, like they had been etched out by the swamp water and snow and sand that had punished Daring for hours throughout her journey.

It's not as though she absolutely had to see the words on that box. Daring knew that she taught classes at the Neigh York Institute. She knew that she had a professional doctorate in History and Archaeology. However, the more she tried looking at the box, the more it made her dizzy, sick even. Rather than throw up, Daring pocketed the container away, and left her troubling thoughts like she left that shady spot, with a gallop that broke into a swift flight, sending her east against the warm winds.

As the sun sloped towards the western horizon, Daring threaded past the bizarre, thin spires of stone that she had previously gawked at from a distance. Up close, the formations turned out to be even stranger, with stone diameters so thin that the mare couldn't comprehend how they stood against their own weight. As she flew past their eastern sides, she found possible explanations as to why. The spires were attached to other similar steeples of rock. Bridges of taut metal chains and iron plates fused the mountainous shards together, so that they resembled a series of enormous poles connected by rusted telephone wires.

Daring looked to her left and right, to the north and to the south, and she saw that the horizons were chock full of jutting formations—hundreds of them—and every single one connected by thin bridges of metal reinforcement in various degrees of decay and disrepair. She even had to duck low to dodge a dangling structure or two. At one point, she slowed her flight, hovering fixedly around a series of interconnected spires, awed at their decrepit complexity. Daring spun around, and she felt as though she was in a forest of shattered earth. Some civilization at some point in time must have gone through an extraordinary amount of effort to patch it all back together, like amateur surgeons trying to sew up a horrendously gaping wound.

Daring flew east again, this time gazing straight down as she passed over a series of thin ravines sandwiched between the jutting shards of rock. She saw more machine parts there, bent levers and rusted gears, all collecting thickly in the steep canyons. The chunks lay randomly on their side like giant-sized coins having rattled slid down between a wall and a couch. These chasm junkyards were untouched by sand, guarded as they were by the jutting spires all around them. Daring dipped low enough to closely skim a trench running from west to east. Here, she spotted loose, threadbare conveyor belts and oxidized nuts and bolts the size of cattle.

Gaining altitude once again, Daring cleared a final wall of spires, and felt herself blinded by a deep valley of smooth, polished granite. She squinted her eyes against the reflected light of the sunset, and as her vision cleared, she realized that the horizon ahead of her was completely flat, save for one rigid shadow emerging in the east, dozens of miles away. She judged that it must have been a structure of sorts; something of extreme importance, even though the enormous distance between her and the edifice obfuscated its true scale.

She slowed her flight to look behind her. Not only had the jutting spires stopped completely, but they formed a nearly perfect wall that stretched in a curved fashion from the north to south, bleeding far beyond the visible vanishing point. The pegasus' jaw dropped as she realized that the jagged mountains must have been the edge of some unbelievably huge crater, and she was just now entering the body of such an epic circle.

Curious, Daring flapped her wings harder and harder. She ascended, flying above the misty clouds that stretched over the desolate world, reintroducing her to comfortably cool air as she took a grand survey of the landscape. To her amazement, she detected a noticeable curve in the wall of spiked peaks. Even at her height, it was impossible to see how far the spires went, but it was obvious to her that they formed a nearly perfect ring around the landscape she was now entering. Yet again, in the center of this arid nothingness, Daring spotted the single structure. It was a tall six-sided monstrosity, looming like an black tumor in the middle of so much brown wasteland.

Taking a deep breath, Daring dove steeply towards the flat earth below. She anticipated a warm blast of air to welcome her back to sea level; instead it was cold as a grave. She realized that the sun had set so far that it was currently below the line of mountain peaks to the west. For miles, she glided in the dim penumbra of the dying day, and when she reached the edge of the afternoon's last light, the golden rays had at last dwindled.

The desert after dark was like a bone-chilling kiss. Daring's wings were getting numb just trying to keep herself aloft in the frigid air. She needed a place to land and take shelter for the night. With chattering teeth, she surveyed the black world beneath her. Shadows shifted against the desolation, and she detected the hint of rigid shapes. Descending upon them, she could smell rust in the air. Her hooves landed on glacier-cold rock, and she trotted anxiously towards the structures. She discovered in the blossoming starlight what appeared to be a hollow box of sorts, half-collapsed, as if having landed from an enormous height. She pondered if something had somehow tossed it there, as it had tossed every single piece of machinery spread all throughout the forsaken wasteland.

Nevertheless, she found a niche between the earth and a slanted wall of the metal machinery. There, she lay down, trying to warm her hooves. She had lost all of her flammable materials during her ordeal in the mountaintop temple, and the only thing of use at her disposal was the enchanted glowstone in her pocket. So, desperate for anything that might bring the feeling back to her limbs, she held the thing in between both hooves and breathed on the little blue shard.

When it lit up, it nearly blinded her. Daring hissed in pain and surprise. After a few blinks, she realized that the stone wasn't the only thing glowing. Curious, she glanced around, seeing that the glow was spreading away from her in all directions like moisture from an overturned bucket. It took her a minute or two to realize that it was the sand itself that was glowing, colored with the same pale blue aura as the shard, as if the enchanted rock had magically sparked the sediment to life somehow.

What's more, the glow had a warming sensation to it. Daring spotted pinpricks of light, brighter than the rest, nestled in the sand like seeds waiting to bloom. When the dust blew in the wind, it made effluent bands of swirling sapphiric light, spiraling through the air like wayward comets.

Curiosity overwhelmed her weariness, and eventually Daring stood up, holding the glowing shard upwards in the crook of her hoof. As she waved the enchanted rock around, the luminescent sand spread even further, eventually taking on a shifting path that swooped north, then bent eastward in a formation that was far too deliberate to be natural.

Furrowing her brow, Daring took wing and slowly flew over the landscape, waving her shard left and right like a flashlight. More and more dust caught "aflame" before her in a wide, rolling band. It occurred to her that she must have ignited some sort of leyline hidden within the desert, something that was waiting for an ingredient such as her glowstone to come back to life. As she slowly exposed the hidden path in gentle sweeping motions, it swam like a snake east, coasting up and over the dunes and threading through fallen chunks of rusted machinery.

For hours, Daring followed the glowing path, quietly marveling as it rivaled the tranquil shine of the nebulous stars hanging overhead. She felt for a moment as though she was flying between two cosmic spheres, with a milky river of lazy stars carrying her towards some fateful dreamscape.

It wasn't long before she noticed shimmering bands in her peripheral vision. Gasping, Daring looked to her left and right. More and more lines of enchanted dust were converging on her path, ignited by the proximity of her stone as she flew closer to whatever destination was looming dimly ahead of her. She flew higher to get a better look at the phenomenon, discovering an interconnecting web of dusty bands, like cold blue octopus limbs coming together for some otherworldly purpose.

At last, she reached what must have been the destination, judging from how brightly the intersecting bands of sand shimmered against the dark of night. Like pale blue shark fins emerging from the depth, a village of concrete slabs shifted into view. The enchanted sands glimmered off their pallid surfaces, as if they were made of moon dust, perfect for catching the shine of a passing meteorite. Daring touched down before them, her hooves sinking into the glowing dust, her skin tingling from the luminescent powder settling all around her.

She stood stock still, curiously observing the veritable graveyard of a town that had appeared in the middle of that onyx wasteland. After a few minutes, she trotted forward, her ruby eyes darting across the shifting floor as she saw the sand dancing in response to each of her hoofsteps. Eventually, she rounded the nearest structure, discovering another, far taller slab of concrete standing straight like a tombstone in the center of the abandoned settlement. The monolithic wall was curved, and Daring was just then facing the bent side. She trotted around until she met up with the concave end, and there she spotted something that contrasted with the rest of the bizarre landscape.

A lean-to of petrified wood stood within the starshade of the curved slab, erected countless eons ago, or so Daring estimated. Splintery bits of weathered oak hung loosely off the edges where the porous beams met, with bent nails doing their damnedest to keep the whole mess together. She was afraid to even breathe on the thing, or else the whole shack might fall apart.

Nevertheless, with brave steps, she trotted forward, ducking under a loose rafter or two as she waved her enchanted shard into the interior of the windswept hovel. The sand that made up the floor lit up in swirling bands, filling the tiny niche with a pale glow. She saw the remnants of a chair, a bookcase, two cots, and several wooden containers. All of the boxes had fallen into utter disrepair over the centuries, and she had every reason to believe that there were more trunks and crates at that location once, but time and desert wind had swept them out from under the shade of both the wood and concrete.

Daring's nostrils flared. In blank thought, she found herself peering into a dusty corner of the lean-two. She fixated on a patch of sandy floor for over a minute, at first not knowing why she was doing so. Then, as she snapped out of it, Daring discovered that she was staring at a half-crumbled soup bowl. Not long after that, she realized why she was staring.

The mare wasn't hungry, not even remotely. As she brought a hoof up to rub her belly, she realized that she couldn't even remember the last time that she craved food. Had it been days? Weeks? Months?

The pony tongued her cheeks and the roof of her mouth. She opened and closed her jaws several times, pursing her lips.

She wasn't thirsty either. She hadn't eaten or drank anything because she had no desire to, no need. She remembered sleeping, or at least having tried to sleep, and even those were hectic experiences at best, something hounded by fitful visions of bodies in the darkness, accompanied with voices, laughing and cheering and giggling voices. Did Daring even manage sleeping at all? Did she even dream? Was she dreaming then?

Daring trotted in a full circle, waving her enchanted stone around, studying the way in which the ethereal bands of light spun cyclonic patterns in the sand beneath her. Everything was too fantastical to be real, but before Daring could panic, she came to realize that she knew nothing more and nothing less, and that was what had carried her for such a grand distance to begin with.

With a determined expression, Daring clenched her jaw, pivoted until she was facing east, and marched straight out of the dark enclosure. Accompanied by serpentine bands of enchanted dust, she continued trotting towards the thick black horizon beyond. The darkness didn't last long, for her bold trot pierced straight through it, splitting the empty vacuum in two as she continued her restless sojourn. There was no sleeping, no resting, no dreaming; only the trek.

As she walked along, she passed by more and more pale concrete slabs. They rolled past her like skeletons in black mist. They almost outnumbered the rusted heaps of junk that had been dotting the landscape up until that point. She paid both sights little mind, instead allowing herself to be mesmerized by the luminescent waves of powder streaming alongside her. The mare managed a weak smile, stifling a chortle as she likened the phenomenon to flaming schools of fish, or glowing dolphins that darted up and down just beneath the surface of the rolling brown dunes.

After two hours of lighting her way across the bleak night, Daring came upon a clearing of gray walls. Here, another settlement stood, made completely out of wooden shacks and crooked one-story structures. She spotted the age-worn scraps of canvas tents, as well as remnants of shattered wagons and collapsed chariots. The site suggested an expedition of sorts, abandoned for a purpose so dire that it filled the air above the place with a chill that persisted to that day.

For the first time in minutes, Daring paused, catching her breath as she glanced at the building closest to her and chose to enter it. The glowing sand wafted up against the structure's surface, but it did not follow the pony. The building had a thick wooden foundation, which partially explained why it hadn't collapsed like so many of the other lean-tos she had stumbled across.

Inside, she saw a table, remarkably well preserved, with a fallen pair of metal lanterns scattered like rusted eggshells across a series of faded maps and sheets of paper with sun-worn hoofwriting.

Wasting very little time, Daring galloped up to the table, propped her glowing shard on the corner, and began furiously rummaging through the sheets and sheets of cartographer notes. She found several leaflets illustrating the same basic shape, that of a thick ring of mountains surrounding a black, hexagonal figure located in the very center of the enormous crater. Within the body of this circle, placed at sporadic intervals, were curved hash marks, all of which formed the rough outline of layers upon layers of concentric rings.

Daring raised an eyebrow. Curious, she fished through more and more scraps of old, moth-eaten sheets. At last, she came upon a rather large map plastered to a wooden backboard. Turning the thing over until its compass rose presented itself legibly to her eyes, she finally got a true sense of bearings. Whoever had drawn the map had done so with meticulous detail, regardless of the less-than-luxurious circumstances that must have beset the weary cartographer. While Daring studied both the outer circle and the central hexagon, she was most taken back by three points—sketched in bleached red—located in the south, northeast, and northwest portions of the inner crater.

Daring rubbed her chin in thought. Her eyes wandered down towards the bottom of the page. Several words had been sketched across an ornate legend, but only one line of characters was produced in faded, red ink. She pulled her bifocals out of her eyeglass case just long enough to read the words: "Key Leylines of Animation."

The pony placed the map back down onto the table. She may not have felt hungry or sleepy, but it didn't change the fact that she felt unbelievably tired. Daring needed to think, and in order to think, the explorer had to pace.

She trotted back and forth in elliptical little paths across the interior of the shack, her hooves clopping dustily against the creaking wooden floor. She speculated on the meaning of the three points, and of the label attributed to them.

It was about twenty minutes into her obtuse attempt at a brainstorming session when the pale light spun the shadows of the room in a merry-go-round glide. Daring jerked, startled, then relaxed upon realizing that her wing had knocked over her glowstone positioned on the edge of the table. She picked it back up, breathed against it to give it more glow, and pondered pocketing it back up in her shirt.

In the middle of doing this, however, the adventurer froze, for she noticed something about the map that was lying before her. In answer to the proximity of her shard and its glow, the map had... changed somehow. She crept closer to the table, waving the enchanted rock directly above the map. She realized that a fine coat of desert sand had been fused with some of the cartographer's brushstrokes, and they caused the three highlighted points to glimmer. What was more, a solid ring of arrow-sharp points could now be seen, and they glittered in such a way as to imply a counter-clockwise movement around the central hexagon.

Daring blinked. After a few seconds, her teeth formed a wicked grin. She snatched the map up off the table, gripped it in her muzzle, and bounded out into the darkness. The glowing sand lit up once more in her presence, but she plowed through it, stretching her wings out and gliding southeast as swiftly as she could.

Gaining altitude, she coasted over the starkissed landscape. Having separated herself and her glowstone from the earth below, the sand had ceased glowing altogether, dimming into black obscurity along with the rest of the world. She wasn't entirely lost, however. Due east, beyond a crooked line of shark-toothed peaks, the faintest glow of morning light loomed. She used this as her guide, positioning it to her left as she flew southward in a gentle glide.

At last, between the rising sun and the indicators of her map, she found the south point within the thick of the crater. There, amidst a throng of sharply jutting concrete partitions, Daring found what looked to be an obelisk of sorts, jutting over a hundred feet out of the dark brown sands. The smaller concrete structures formed tiny rings around it, which struck the winged adventurer as a delicious piece of irony.

Touching down, she planted her hooves against the shifting sands. A fine dust kicked up around her in the morning haze as she approached the base of the tower. The obelisk was almost perfectly cylindrical, and it appeared to be constructed out of dense, smooth ivory. Fine lines were etched along the surface of it, forming three sloped curves that spiraled their way up the grand height of the pallid stalk.

Daring trotted slowly around it, squinting to catch a better sight of the outer shell in the blossoming sunlight. At last, she spotted a single imperfection within the smooth surface. There was a hole, a notch of some sort, and it rested within the northern side of the tower, twenty feet up and directly facing the large black structure that loomed in the center of the gargantuan crater.

Immediately, Daring floated up towards it. She narrowed her eyes, studying the size and depth of the notch. At last, she pulled the glowstone out from her breast pocket, sizing it up to the hole. With only a little bit of hesitance, the pegasus slid the shard so that it fit snugly inside the miniature partition.

Nothing happened.

Daring scratched her mane. With a gasp of intuition, she took a deep breath, leaned forward, and exhaled her entire lung's worth against the enchanted rock.

The shard glowed, and that glow spread as easily through the tower as it did through the sands beneath her. Daring witnessed bright lines rivering out from the notch like electric octopus limbs. The wind immediately surrounding the tower died down, and the air tasted like cold steel and melted ice. Upon hearing a rumbling sound, Daring nervously clutched the shard and tried pulling it loose. It wouldn't budge. She tried yanking at it with both hooves, but gasped in alarm; the shard was sinking into the cylinder.

The pegasus watched with bulging ruby eyes as her trusty rock disappeared entirely within the body of the obelisk. After a few seconds of stillness, the entire cylinder lit up—strobing with effluent blue energy. As if in response, the sand around the base of the obelisk caught aflame with blue fury. There was another rumbling, and something shifted in the corner of Daring's eyes.

She spun one hundred and eighty degrees, then froze upon seeing the multiple slabs of concrete shifting, jerking, then sliding smoothly through the dunes of sand. Like pale sailboats, they swam opposite circles around the body of the tower, growing faster and faster in momentum. At first, it looked as though they were simply churning the sand into liquified paste, but as the slabs started rotating even faster, approaching impossible speeds, the sand lifted up on its own accord, floating like a magical bed canopy over the dark black bedrock beneath.

Daring chewed on her lip, floating higher and higher to avoid the rising waves of sand. Then, just as the bizarre situation was starting to overwhelm her, another crack of thunder rolled through the tower. Daring watched as a beam of mana light shot straight down, pulsed into the earth, then rocketed northward like a bright blue torpedo. The sands caught fire, rippling in a northeasterly curve, arcing counter-clockwise around the body of the huge black structure in the center of the crater.

The mare didn't waste two breaths; she darted quickly after the runaway beam of light, darting left and right while fountains of glimmering sand were tossed into her face. As she rocketed over the exploding sediment, she flung a glance behind her and saw that it wasn't falling down. The dust levitated ever-upwards, sliding towards the sky like reverse molasses, not once losing its glow.

Daring panted, putting every effort into flapping her wings, trying her best to catch up to the submerged missile of light surging ahead of her. The path it took was furious, but also extraordinarily lengthy. It swam in between dormant slabs of concrete wall and pillars, slowly animating them as it passed by, so that they shifted in concentric patterns around the hexagonal monolith in the heart of the valley. All around her, the grand crater was coming to life, set ablaze by both the rising sun and the enchanted sand in equal turn.

It took the better part of an hour, but the glowing wave of mana reached a structure positioned in the northeast, and so did Daring. A tall pillar, much like the cylinder down south, stood boldly against the horizon, casting a shadow across the dead sands in the brightening dawnlight. Daring watched as the luminescent line of sand soared directly into the foundation of the tower. To her mute astonishment, nothing happened, at least not at first. She caught the faintest hint of glowing lines traveling up the body of the tower, but nothing outright significant. Even the sand immediately around the tower was too lazy and dormant to levitate like the veritable mountains own south.

But then, something pulsed halfway up the body of the pale stalk. Daring saw, and she immediately flew down to levitate beside it. What she found was a tiny notch, facing southwest towards the hexagonal structure, and it was precisely there that her very own glowstone slid out.

She reached for it, gripping it with two hooves. Suddenly, she stopped, studying the faintly glowing aura around her. Then, with a knowing expression, she leaned in and breathed a new wave of life into the enchanted rock.

Just like the first one, tributaries of bright blue light wormed through the body of the tower. The shard slid back in, pulsing as it shot like a comet down into the earth. This time, the sand surrounding the concrete slabs practically exploded, lifting high into the sky with such force that Daring was nearly knocked unconscious.

Catching her balance, Daring dove down, piercing wave after wave of enchanted dust that pelted her figure. When she emerged, she saw nothing but blackness. It was only after her vision came into focus that she spotted shapes sliding and grinding against each other. Beneath the carpet of sand, now lifting above her like rain clouds, she spotted an endless array of rusted black discs, rotating in opposite directions around each other and simultaneously around the structure in the crater's center. There was no bedrock beneath that desert; instead there were countless layers of panels that spun around one another like some infernal piece of onion ring clockwork. The concrete slabs were merely the pale fin-tips of enormous black blades protruding at random intervals from the larger discs rotating around each other.

As Daring glanced up from this revolving phenomenon, she saw what she once thought was a desert: now a slowly levitating swath of sand, all glittering and alive with otherworldly enchantment, powered by a lone mare's single breath. She had to veer left and right to dodge broad curtains of loose sand, or else risk becoming one with the tapestry of burning dust all around. Daring diligently chased the beam of manalight, curving around the north bend of the crater.

Anticipating the light's path, she shot directly west, skirting the northern face of the black metal hexagon. Glancing to the left, Daring spotted large hanging plates of rusted iron, looming dull and brown in even the brightest beams that the sun had to toss at it. While the black and pale fins swam circles around the crater's center, churning up dust like an enormous taffy machine, the hexagon remained perfectly still, like the dead relic that it was.

Daring's attention once more focused straight ahead. It took about forty-five minutes of speedy flight, but she made it to the northwest target: a stalk of pale concrete identical to the first two. She levitated down and waited at a notch aimed towards the black hexagon whose shadow was now wafting over her. As the glowing sand and light arrived, her stone slid out. She breathed on it, but just as quickly snatched the thing loose as her life-energy shot into the spiraling bands etched into the tower.

Immediately below, the sands shook and lifted up like smoke from a cannon. Daring was prepared for it. She held her breath, covered her face, and pressed her body tightly to the shimmering cylinder before her. When the sand blew past her, her body nearly went airborne. It took a great deal of strength and determination, but she remained anchored in place. She waited several seconds before giving into her lungs. When she breathed, the air was cold, like night over the desert. She looked up, squinting in expectation of a bright morning sun. She wasn't awarded with such.

The sands were lifting up, up, and up, blotting out the light of day. Daring watched in awe as the glowing sediment coalesced in the air, forming a solid dome. Her ears popped, for the pressure in the air was shifting. Things had become unbelievably noisy. She looked down to see that the concentric bands of black discs were spinning far too fast to measure. As if that wasn't enough, the air whistled with the sound of black bodies whizzing towards and past her like bullets.

Daring gasped. With a foalish squeak, she pressed her back against the body of the tower, using it as a shield while various chunks of shrapnel zipped past her body, nipping at her coat, skin, and mane. She curled up into a little pony ball, protecting her body, all the while casting fitful glances at the crater around her.

As the sandy ceiling afforded only a sliver of light from beyond the horizon, Daring spotted the shapes of countless metal bodies floating out from the jagged mountain ranges surrounding the crater. They came from all angles, filling the air with blackness, an apocalyptic murder of crows. Some massive magnetic attraction pulled them towards the center of the crater, and as they all reached the center, the center reached back.

With a groaning noise, the hexagon began rotating clockwise—slowly at first—then with greater speed, revolving with energy unheard of for a monolith of that size. Then, like an enormous flower, the hanging iron plates lifted up, unfolded, and spread out majestically. Before Daring's breathless gaze, the hexagon became a dodecagon, with layers upon layers of vertically placed platforms extending above and below her. Each of these stories became a factory floor, to which the metal pieces flew, landed, and joined together, forming structure and purpose for the first time in millennia. The sound of groaning metal gave way to clicking springs and clattering gears. The world was suddenly a submerged masterpiece of clockwork antiquity, magnified even more as the solid dome of enchanted sand levitated down, freezing in place over the entire circumference of the crater, sealing the outside world off with a massive clap of continental thunder.

It was almost noon, but the world was blacker than death. Even with her glowstone shimmering at its brightest, Daring could only tell that the mechanical monolith was moving from the sheer sound of its infinitely spinning parts.

Entombed in the magically transformed belly of the desert, Daring had nowhere else to go but into the onyx heart of the matter. So she did, flying briskly southeast and approaching the abyss with a goofy smile.

She couldn't think of anything else to bless the situation with.

And the Madness Machine

Daring's hooves touched down before she expected them to. The pitch-black platform swayed beneath her, and for a moment she feared that the panel would teeter off into the darkness entirely. Then, as the mare regained her balance, she simply realized that the floor was undulating from the motions of countless mechanisms creaking all around her. Daring's ears rang with clicking levers, rattling chains, rotating gears, and whirling pulleys.

Breathing on her pocketed shard, she brought a fresh charge to the glowstone, and its pale light glistened off rows upon rows of twirling black bodies. A forest of metal clockwork loomed all around her, the rusted organs of which continuously clattered without slowing down for one measly second.

With a calm disposition, the adventurer aimed her glowing rock straight down. The metal floor was essentially a grate, and through its porous surface she could see several more metal platforms—nearly a dozen total—looming for hundreds of meters below her, all filled to the brim with moving metal parts.

Tilting her chest the opposite way, Daring shone the light straight up. Likewise, she spotted numerous platforms stretched out above her through the slitted holes in the ceiling. Every single floor of the rotating machine was populated by impossibly intricate arrays of factory work. What powered the apparatuses, the mare was at a loss to guess, and yet they spun and rattled on, forming layers of cacophonous clutter between where the pegasus stood and where the black domed ceiling of sand hung above the rotating machine tower.

With a placid breath, Daring cracked the joints in her nimble limbs, then trotted forward. She kept her pace slow and cautious, aiming her glowstone left and right, not knowing when an errant machine part might decide to whip out and pummel her from the shadows. A bouncing spotlight of loomed ahead of her, carving a moon-pale path through the onyx mess. She kept her trek as straight as possible, heading to what she judged to be the central vertical stalk of the mammoth machine.

During her sojourn towards the tower's spine, the factory parts grew closer and closer together, packed more densely the further that the mare pierced the center of the circular platform. Her light caught images of blurring conveyor belts, with black metal pendulums swinging low and heavy above them with the force to decapitate elephants. She glanced to the right to see massive cylinders pistoning up and down, with jagged gears grinding against each other in the distance. Looking to the left, Daring illuminated an array of chains rattling up and down a series of holes positioned within the surface of several platforms above and below.

Taking a sharp turn to the left, Daring flapped her wings and soared towards the chains. Pulling up, she threaded her way through the holes where the metal links ran, ascending two floors, four floors, six. Layers of metal factory work swished past her windblown ears in staccato bursts as she scaled the body of the tower.

At last, she stumbled upon an elaborate pulley system suspended from the ceiling of the topmost floor. Here, the ceiling was solid as stone, save for a few thin seams through which Daring could spot the blacker-than-black surface of the sand dome above.

She touched down, only to find her hooves landing on a moving conveyor belt. The pony's heart skipped a beat, and she ducked in time to avoid a swinging pendulum. Rolling to the side, she collapsed with more or less grace on a solid floor, catching her breath. She shone her light in a circular swath, illuminating her nearest surroundings. The platform was far more densely populated with randomly rotating machinery here; if she wasn't careful, a single step would lead her into a bloody, pulverising fate. Grinding gears and undulating levers loomed on either side of her with a sort of cold, clandestine hunger. The mare's heart beat a little bit faster; she got the paranoid sensation that, if she didn't watch herself, a swinging metal limb from the machine would deliberately stab her from the shadows.

However, the more she shone her light on the various apparatuses, the more they clicked and clanked on with utter indifference. A divine purpose seemingly empowered the forsaken tools. Though Daring was at a loss to determine the nature of that purpose, she judged that it had absolutely nothing to do with her. If she died or suffered an injury in this infernal place, she would only have herself to blame.

Once more, the explorer turned until she faced the vertical axis of the rotating machine. The path towards the central stalk was far more difficult to reach on this floor, on account of all the factory pieces densely blocking her path. She decided to navigate through them anyways, approaching the heart of the immense contraption with as much caution as curiosity.

As she trotted over the metal platform, she became aware of a hissing noise. Daring spread her wings, allowing her feathers to kiss the air. There certainly wasn't any steam billowing out from any metal crevice. The pony hadn't seen a single pipe since she landed on those darkened panels.

Slowing her canter even further, Daring shone the light around, searching for the source of the hissing. At last, she discovered it, though she was at a loss to explain it.

At the front end of a long conveyor belt, a nozzle in the ceiling was affixed to a series of gears and pulleys. The machine parts caused the nozzle to open and shut like an aperture. Each time it did so, a black blob of sand shifted down like ink-black rain, making a tiny rattling noise—more like a hissing noise—as it did so. Daring stood still for a while, mesmerized by the clumps of onyx sand being deposited continuously upon the speedy belt of tight canvas that then blurred past her.

Curious, Daring decided for the moment to abandon her trek towards the machine's center altogether. Instead, she focused her energies on studying the complex assemblage taking place before her. On swift hooves, she followed the separate piles of sand along the conveyor belt. She watched as they dropped down through a hole in the floor, depositing themselves upon a lower platform where another conveyor belt carried them—slowly—towards an array of spinning metal arms. At the end of these arms were round clamps, like black crescent moons, and they rotated in a timely fashion to sweep the blobs of dirt into tighter piles. Watching and following the movement through the grated floor above, Daring witnessed as the belt next took the piles towards a series of suspended metal stamps. With stomping motions, these metal frames forced the sand piles into compact little cylinders. The pegasus couldn't proceed any further, due to a pile of apparatuses positioned on the floor in front of her, but her glowing light caught the faint image of further machine limbs picking up and depositing the cylinders of tightly packed sand towards other parts of the tower below.

Scratching her brow beneath her pith helmet, Daring looked up and shone her light on the floor around her. Squinting into the rusted lengths of the platform, the mare realized that there were numerous other spots along the panel where similar conveyor belts were performing this massive task of depositing, reshaping, and redistributing cylinders of sand throughout the body of the machine, like cells being funneled through the tower's invisible bloodstream. All of the gritty material came from the dome above, and Daring couldn't help but wonder if ever there was an end to all of the hissing trickles of night-black sediment.

No longer distracted, Daring made for the center of the tower again. As she did so, she narrowed her eyes, for she thought she saw something glistening ahead. Experimentally, she slid her glowstone down into the depths of her shirt pocket and clasped the thing shut altogether. Indeed, the clattering factory world did not turn pitch-black; there was a light source ahead, cold and blue, like liquid lighting.

Using the light as a beacon, Daring slowly navigated her way through the rattling mess. She had to hop over thrusting pistons, duck a mess of jagged gears, and side-step criss-crossing chainlinks before she even got close to her destination. Once within spitting distance of the light, she realized that the entire vertical stalk that made up the spine of the tower was just as porous as the platforms below her. The slits in the round metal cylinder were lengthy, but still too thin for the little pony to slip her tan hooves in.

She stepped up to the metal grate and tried looking through it. What she saw nearly blinded her. Daring flinched as beams of bright blue light flickered immediately in front of her, then dissipated. As her eyes struggled to regain focus, she gazed down the body of the stalk. From her angle, she could almost see the entirety of the tower's height. The hollow neck of the machine plunged straight down for nearly two dozen stories, and something incredibly bright was shooting up and down the central vertical space, animated with otherworldly kineticism, like a bright bouncing electron from beyond.

Daring pursed her lips. There was something in the center of the electrical anomaly, something that had shape, like a solid nucleus of sorts. She waited there at the top of the tower, watching with squinting vision as the thing bounced up and down the stalk no less than six times. By the seventh occasion it streaked by her vision, she was almost certain she got a good look at the energy source of the surging mess.

It was a book.

Daring immediately gripped the metal spine, giving it a shake. She wished that she didn't; a violent shock coursed through her as soon as the glowing tome bounced its way back up to the top of the tower. She jolted back, grunting, waving her aching hooves. Sitting back on her haunches, the pony folded her forelimbs in a foalish pout. After several moments of deep thought, she allowed her eyes to wander.

The floor immediately surrounding the spine of the machine was completely barren of machinery. Curious, the pegasus got up and trotted slowly around the central cylinder. Her search was ultimately rewarded: on the opposite end, a lever stood, propped up against the body of the massive machine's spine. A brief smile crossed Daring's lips. She trotted forward and gripped the handle of the lever with two hooves.

Suddenly, however, she froze. Her smile left her. Biting her lip in a pensive manner, she looked over her shoulder at the grinding gears and swinging levers. She glanced over her other shoulder, gazing at the conveyor belts and squeaking cogwork. After a few seconds, she sighed long and hard, then clenched her eyes shut as she anxiously gave the lever a pull.

Metal scraped against metal. There was a clanking noise, a rattling, and then silence.

Slowly, Daring squinted one ruby eye open, then the other. She blinked, and yet still nothing happened. She couldn't decided whether to groan in frustration or sigh with relief.

Ultimately, she didn't have to do either. With an explosive jolt, the stalk before her shook. She watched with nervous anticipation as something lowered from a rusted opening at the top of the cylinder. Through the metal slits of the stalk, Daring spied a bifurcated claw sliding down. At first, she was confused, but then she watched as the glowing book bounced straight up. As soon as the cold blue tome met the prongs of the claw, it stopped completely with a splash of electrical sparks. Several pale beams spat out of the grated spine of the tower, nearly roasting Daring alive. She flinched, crouching down low as forked lightning vomited outward at multiple angle, singing the metal factory work around her and filling the air with the smell of burning rust.

In spite of the unwarranted lightshow, the pegasus maintained calm. She squinted at the sparkling sight in front of her. Hissing fountains of black sand trickled down around the spine as the claw continued to slide down the thing's hollow neck. Its movement was gradual, unwavering, and it continued to carry the bright book trapped in its prongs down, down, down the stalk, until it descended beyond the surface of the topmost floor altogether.

Daring gasped. Spinning around, she breathed into her glowstone and illuminated a galloping path towards the outer layers of the platform. After a bit of frantic searching, she once again found the vertical lengths of twirling chain that pierced the multiple floors through which she had first ascended. Dropping down, she looked towards the tower's heart. It was a little hard to tell through all of the moving machinery, but she spotted the glowing book in its descent, situated two stories below her.

Swiftly, twirling with the grace of an acrobat, Daring leveled out on a platform full of cyclonically arranged conveyor belts. She flew over phalanxes of densely packed columns of sand being shipped left and right, making her way towards the center of the tower. Once there, she pressed herself up against the grate, watching as the claw continued slowly to carry the glowing book down. The mare was powerless to reach in and grab the tome, and she wasn't sure her flesh would survive contact with it even if she could. Nevertheless, her eyes followed the descending path the hook was taking. She guessed that, in a matter of minutes, the claw could bring the sparkling book to the very base of the tower. Perhaps somewhere down there, situated around the infernal machine's very foundation, she might find a way to access the item, Daring thought.

So, turning around, Daring mentally sketched an innocent flight plan that would take her down to the very base of the tower. It was with a foalish shriek that she answered the monstrous bolt of lightning suddenly booming past her. Throwing herself down onto a moving platform, she covered her helmeted head and shivered. The air crackled with electrical energy, making her tan coat hairs stand on end. When the thunder cleared, and her blood stopped rushing through her pained ears, she looked up beyond the brim of her hat to see a stream of blue energy shooting from the spine of the machine and straight out into the black ether beyond.

The dark world beneath the sand dome lit up with pale luminescence. A tall spike of bone-white granite caught ablaze, pulsating like a ghostly supernova within the depths of space. Piercing the veil of her own shock, Daring realized that the structure was merely one of the three pale obelisks that her glowstone had empowered to lift the opaque sands around the animated machine to begin with.

Standing up, her panting breaths evening out, Daring stared at the glowing monolith from afar. Its haunting shine permeated the platforms of machinery, casting shadows from their many, many moving parts. Then, as if in answer to the exchange of electrical energy, two things happened.

Firstly, the wind picked up. The fuzz of Daring's earlobes felt a curious tickle, and her spleen swayed suddenly as if she was riding a stagecoach downhill. At last, when she spotted the pale obelisk speeding swiftly to the left, she understood what was going on: the rotation of the machine tower was accelerating.

Secondly, a crackle of energy filled the air. The pegasus wondered if the stalk was about to shoot another beam out into the blackness, but somehow this was less explosive, more subtle. Still, the sensation felt highly uncomfortable, and Daring sensed bolts of static electricity jumping between her hooves and the conveyor belts beneath her. The adventurer's tongue burned, as if sparks were dancing from tooth to tooth inside her mouth.

Grimacing, she backed up, only to bump into one of the tightly packed cylinders of sand. The static shock she received from such contact nearly made her heart stop. She jumped off the conveyor belt and spun around, rubbing her aching flank. Just then, Daring froze, her every joint stiff as icicles.

The cylinder of sand was vibrating, shaking, then splitting down the center. At last, it shattered completely, and yet the clumps of black sediment did not fall straight down into a pile atop the conveyor belt. Instead, the onyx dust hovered, as if suspended in a frozen sneeze. Then, it reformed, but not taking on the shape of a cylinder. The thing sprouted a head, a tail, and four limbs. With the hissing shift of dark sand, a powdery pony came to life, rotating its head around in the pale glow until it faced Daring with malevolent intent.

The mare backtrotted from this sight, her mouth hanging in shock. Her ears twitched from hissing sounds on either side. Daring glanced left and right. To her horror, two more cylinders of sand were morphing into equine shape. Then she spotted four more... and eight more... sixteen. Every clump of sand on every conveyor belt on every platform was morphing, their metamorphosis empowered by the same energy that was presently spinning the structure until it was getting difficult to stand upright.

So Daring didn't. With a flap of her wings, she hovered straight up. Two ponies made of black sand lurched about, rattled like jars full of pebbles, and leapt at her.

With a gasp, she flew over their pouncing bodies. Four more jumped at her flank, and she had to spin about to avoid them. With another flap of her wings, she hovered until her head was nearly hitting the ceiling. Below her, an entire army of sand ponies gazed up. After a few seconds, their necks and legs shrunk, becoming thinner. At first, Daring couldn't understand why, until the sedimentary equines sprouted wings.

The mare cursed quietly under her breath.

They all bolted up at her at once, bursting like a solid sandstorm of hooves, jaws, and angry wings. Daring shot past them, or at least as well as she could afford to. One or two pairs of forelimbs grabbed her rear fetlocks, encircling the mare's limbs like viscous slime. She grunted and bucked the ponies off, dashing them into clouds of exploding sand. Several more bodies blazed through the mess, tackling her flanks. Spinning about, Daring threw them off and accelerated towards the edge of the spinning platform.

Beneath her, more and more sandy cylinders hatched atop the conveyor belts, morphing into mindless drones. Daring ignored them, focusing all effort on speeding towards the edge of the platform lingering before her like an ink black horizon. Just as she reached the outer side of the twirling floor, the pale glowing obelisk surged left into view again. It spouted lightning across the hollow black vacuum that made up the world beneath the dome. Bright bolts of blue electricity ripped their way towards Daring's wings.

The adventurer gasped, plunging instantly. She crashed into the metal floor, bounced, and rolled off the edge. Swinging a hoof out, she caught metal grating and anchored herself at the last second. Her body flailed awkwardly off the very precipice of the floor, propelled by the speedy clockwise motion. She watched in horror as the tongues of lightning lashed barely a dozen feet below the ends of her dangling hooves. The pursuing sand ponies were less lucky, and several of them plunged into the blackness beyond her, where their bodies burned into vulcanized glass from the otherworldly blue bolts.

Daring gritted her teeth. There was no way she could fly out into that maelstrom and survive. So, with a grunt, she spun her body about and climbed her way back along the platform, facing the center of the spinning machine. She didn't like what she saw: a battalion of stomping sand cretins surged violently towards her. Glancing down, she spotted the distant blue speck of the energized book being carried down the spine several floors below.

With a flap of her wings, Daring leapt over the charging bodies, glided over the conveyor belts, and searched desperately for a hole in the revolving floor that would lead her down to the base of the tower. Between the rotating shadows and the malevolent figures of sand, it was getting increasingly difficult to make anything out. At last, she saw a length of blurring chain, at the bottom of which was a cavity leading straight down the many-many metal stories.

Daring pulled up, dodged the flying swipes of several sand ponies, and plunged straight through the aperture. She blurred successfully down three whole platforms before something yanked at her tail. Gasping, she looked back to see that two creatures were biting onto her monochromatic hairs with gravel jaws. She tried shaking them loose, but the effort threw her off balance, so that she slammed into the next floor instead of threading through the hole.

Grunting, Daring crashed and slid across a space of rusted metal. She stopped somewhere between two large rattling gearboxes. Sitting up and shaking her head, Daring realized that she was blind. The mare spun around, panting, until she noticed that her glowstone had landed in the niche of a rotating lever array. Waiting until she could reach through the spinning metal bars without one of them dismembering her limbs, she snatched the enchanted rock up and breathed into it. As soon as she did, the shapes of half-a-dozen ponies loomed within the penumbra of the strobing light, and all of them pouncing towards her.

Shrieking, Daring kicked and bucked at the floor, sliding out of reach of the leaping fiends. Two of them plowed into her chest, and she had to spin, thrashing, to knock them loose. Flapping her wings, she shot straight past a swinging pendulum, breathing in relief as it smashed three ponies to cloudy bits.

Flinging her feathers to the point of bleeding, she surged ahead. Daring didn't care that she was flying away from the cavity that she could have descended; for the time being she needed to shake off these ponies and she needed to shake them off now. On onyx wings, they pursued her, their bodies collectively filling the electrified air with a menacing hiss of loose dust and grit.

Daring couldn't afford to look back at them. She kept her eyes locked ahead, and that was a haunting endeavor at best, with each shadow that lingered beyond the edges of her spotlight promising one body or another waiting to leap out at her. Instead, she found herself having to navigate far greater dangers, weaving left and right to avoid sharp rusted levers or pulverizing pistons jutting in and out of her flight path.

When at last she found another cavity leading down, she had to squeeze through the teeth of two enormous cogwheels. She didn't realize how closely her pursuers were tailing her until she felt her body pelted from bits of shattered sand on either side of her plunge. There was very little time to celebrate, for no less than five seconds after descending to the next platform, a second burst of thunder exploded against her eardrums, accompanied by a flash of brilliant blue light.

Daring winced in pain, spinning loops through the air of the platform before slamming into the grimy surface of a huge, vertically rotating gear. She tried kicking off of it, but failed, feeling as if she was glued to the thing by sheer centripedal force. The reason for this became evident as soon as the thunder and lightning cleared, and Daring realized that another beam of electrical energy had surged out from the machine's stalk and impacted the second of the three pale obelisks beyond. The world outside the tower sparkled even brighter with violent blue beams, and the machine all around Daring accelerated, spinning even faster.

The blood beneath the surface of Daring's face bubbled. Wincing from every strained sinew, she somehow manage to unpeel herself from the surface of the large gear. She wished she hadn't, for suddenly she felt herself plunging across the spinning platform, being flung towards the edge like a loose cannonball rolling across the deck of a careening ship. She solved her predicament by no longer thinking that up was up and down was down. Angling her wings, she spun herself sideways, making the spine of the machine her center of gravity. Thus, Daring found herself threading through a blazing canyon of dangerously moving machine parts. Looking all about, she spotted the distant glow of the descending book, and she used that as her reference guide for what was actually "down."

She had barely gotten her bearings when the sand army was once more upon her, charging through the thunderous air like black falcons seeping from metal intestines. Daring held her breath and rocketed forward. The tower's floors rolled beneath her like a tiny globe, with metal chasms full of death machines lurching beneath a spinning sky of undulating sparks and blue plasma. She looked to her left—towards the ground—and saw the claw carrying the book from beyond several densely grated floors. She looked for a cavity, finally finding one from a spotlight cast by an errant splash of lightning. Jerking left, she spun through the spaces, an angry train of winged sand fiends barreling after her six.

Several of them caught up, flying abreast of her. They slammed into the pegasus from both sides, attempting to sandwich the hapless mare. She grunted and struggled, ultimately sagging in her flight, so that she plunged helplessly towards the spinning stalk below her. Two more sand ponies grabbed ahold of her hooves, clawing and biting at her tan coat. She wrestled with the four creatures, all the while blazing down a rusted trench of deadly, moving parts.

Her ruby eyes reflected the image of a massively swinging lever. She pushed a pony out at forelimb's length so that it took the brunt of the blow. The creature dissolved to loose powder, freeing the mare of some weight. Daring twirled uncontrollably, thrown off balance by the other three sand monsters still clinging to her. Veering to the side, she made contact with the ceiling. With a burst of muscle power, she shoved two of the ponies’ bodies against it. She watched as the blurring metal surfaces chipped and filed away at them, ripping them to cushions of lifeless dust. Finally, it was just Daring and one other bogey, but the creature was already getting the best of her. Gripping her from behind, the sand pony kicked against the spinning platform and flung the mare like a melon from a black catapult.

Daring spun through the madness. She lost all sense of gravity, and she was terrified of something randomly grinding her to a pulp. Ten seconds into this dizzying free-fall, she finally made contact with something. Her body rattled—with a savage vibration running down from her skull to her hooves. When the stars stopped dancing beneath her eyelids, she blinked to see that she was sprawled out across a spinning gear, somewhere near the central stalk.

As soon as she tried getting up, three ponies pounced on her. With a stifled grunt, she slid back, and her head hit solid metal so hard that her pith helmet rattled off. Gasping, Daring found her skull being shoved violently into the space between two massive cog-teeth. She couldn't move from the weight of all the creatures pressed on top of her. She was at a loss to understand what they were doing, until she heard a loud grinding noise. A second gear was rotating perpendicular to the cog she was lying against, and in a matter of seconds one of its hulking teeth would be puncturing the space in which her cranium was being forced to dangle. Her brain matter would soon be a puddle, a paltry red stain against the rotating machine of madness.

Daring Do struggled and fought, but the attackers would not budge. As a matter of fact, more of them caught up, forming a tight huddle around her and waiting for the large gears to do their bloody work. Lightning flashed from beyond, illuminating the proximity of the looming cog tooth. But the flicker illuminated something else: Daring's pith helmet lay just inches from her rear legs.

Panting, eyes darting about in desperation, Daring kicked and thrashed her leg towards the helmet. She couldn't make it budge through the forest of heavy pony limbs. Nevertheless, she writhed and hissed, trying to scoop the disc-like article in her lower fetlocks. At last, she took a deep breath, flexed her lower muscles, and flicked her tail at the thing. She succeeded in knocking the helmet towards her. The hat slid across metal, ping-pong'd off a sandy hoof or two, and ended just half an inch from the mare's mouth.

Daring bit onto it, tilted her neck up, and used the knifing brim of the hat as if it was a ring blade. In savage swaths, she rendered the dull heads of the foremost ponies to dust. Their bodies imploded, and those behind them leapt to take their place, but Daring was ready. She bucked them off, then successfully kicked another line of advancing creatures. Once she had space to breathe, she kipped up and rolled out of the crushing space between massive cogs just seconds before her cranium would have been turned to mush.

The remaining ponies tried tackling her, but suddenly they were flying away. Daring was as confused as she was breathless, and then she found herself plunging along with them. A third bolt of lightning was surging past her the whole while, branching from the machine stalk to the last obelisk beneath the dome. Impossibly, the tower was spinning even faster, accelerating to the breaking point. She and every equine thing situated on the twirling floors were being flung towards the anomalous furnace of lightning outside.

In desperation, Daring lashed out, grabbing a length of dangling chain. The thing had snapped loose from whatever pulley system had previously empowered it, and now it twirled outward in a manner befitting a windsock, with her puny body clinging to the far end like a Hearth's Warming ornament, suspended heartlessly before the hungry tongues of lightning that crackled beyond.

Daring ached as she kept gripping to the flimsy metal links. The tower groaned and groaned louder. With loud cracks of brittle metal, she witnessed several factory parts giving into the centripetal punishment, ripping clean off their foundations with showers of loose bolts and bright sparks. The pegasus gasped and spun her body left and right to avoid clumps of metal machinery flinging past her like black missiles. The huge shards flew into the electrical array and soon started floating and spinning in opposite motion to the cyclonic tower, empowered like magnetic meteorites whose very presence spelled doom for the entire wobbling structure.

Squinting, Daring Do's head turned towards the source of a massive groaning sound. She spotted a cluster of humongous gears ahead of her, rattling on their axes, threatening to break at any second. As the tower rotated even faster, they finally buckled. Two cogs soared past her like enormous buzz saws. Daring was too busy awaiting the fate of the largest gear to bother counting her blessings. At last, it too broke, and its hulking teeth caused it to "walk" down the length of the metal platform to her left, shredding several holes through it. When the cog reached her, it snapped the chain she was hanging from as if it was tinfoil.

Daring was momentarily airborne. In deft-defying flare, she lunged forward, kicked off the teeth of the gear as it grinded past her, and tossed herself towards one of the many holes the cog had gouged into the factory floor. There, she clung to the jagged niche, her body struggling to climb against the centripetal force that constantly yearned to fling the mare's body into the electrical storm behind her.

Somewhere through the strain, rust, and tears, Daring spotted a flicker of light. She looked to the left, the whipping winds stretching her facial muscles to the breaking point. She saw the hook with the tome in its claws, and its glowing path was almost reaching the bottom of the machine.

A surge of adrenaline ran through Daring's arteries. Angling her wings in courageous fashion, she skittered through the niche, coiled her lower muscles, and sprang forward. She surged slightly in the air, but nevertheless made it to the panel on the far side. Spotting an open cavity up ahead, halfway towards the central stalk, she climbed and pulled and tugged her way towards it, fighting sheer inertia with every hoof step.

Her "ascent" took her over and around chunks of metal and the dangling framework of rickety conveyor belts. Many structures tore loose and flew past her, several of them almost seconds after her hooves had utilized them as platforms. Deep cracks started to form in the grated metal, running rusty rivulets past her as pieces of the platform started peeling and breaking off one by one. She was running out of space to grab a hoofhold, but finally made it to the niche. Here, she discovered only three floors left between her and her destination. They were barely intact.

Preparing for a massive leap, Daring stretched her every muscle. The metal beneath her began dissolving just as she jumped forward. She shot through the niche, glided through the second platform, and barely latched onto the framework of the last. The glowing book was within smelling distance, and the hook carrying it down the central shaft was just then grinding to a halt. From where Daring dangled, she saw several metal hatches located at the base of the spinning machine's spine, situated above a flimsy, circular platform that was the only thing in the universe that wasn't currently spinning. As the hook's claws settled to a stop, a buzzing sound emanated through the hatches situated around the glowing book.

Daring prepared for the final leap, hoping to time it well from her spinning platform. She heard a groaning sound directly above her. Against her better judgement, she turned and looked behind.

All of the remaining sand ponies were sailing at her as one gelatinous blob of dust. They ignored the spinning metal platforms, instead choosing to file their way through the remaining grates, conjoining as one serpentine tentacle of sand. With a surge of onyx mass, they all launched themselves at Daring's flank.

She stifled a yelp, spun to face forward, and risked everything with a single, random leap. She spun, spiraled, and miraculously fell through half-a-dozen rotating pieces, collapsing safely across the steadfast circular platform at the base of the tower. As her world stopped spinning, her mind took up the slack, throwing her senses into nauseating dizziness. She recovered just in time to hear the buzzing of the hatches ending. With a combined hiss, all of them opened. The book stopped glowing, its sparks instead charging up the body of the machine's stalk, lighting the whole thing up like a holiday tree.

Daring reached in and grabbed the book. She pulled it out, and her ruby eyes twitched to read the cover: "Daring Do and the Madness Machine." She flung the covers open, bit onto a chunk of pages, and ripped them straight out. The pages flew into the air like loose feathers, only to be consumed by the tidal wave of sand surging homicidally towards the pony's body.

With a yelp, the pegasus bit another chunk of the pages loose, tossed the book aside, then dove into the only place she could to avoid the fountain of sand: straight into the hollow stalk of the machine's spine. The black dust splashed all around her, piling on more and more densely in some desperate attempt to spill in through the gaps in the stalk and drown the pony in sediment. With nowhere else to go, the pony climbed up, feeling the torrential winds of the machine's crackling levels flying apart all around her. She knocked aside the dormant claw, galloped, then flew straight up.

The hollow tube echoed deafeningly as she rocketed up the axis. Gazing down, she saw the fountain of sand rising up, hurdling like volcanic ash, clambering to envelope her. She flapped her wings with as much space as the stalk could afford. Meanwhile, the three obelisks from beyond strobed brighter and brighter. The rusted metal was flying into the magnetized storm. The dome collapsed, causing walls of chaos to close in around the mare. When Daring finally flew her way to the summit of the stalk, she was blinded by the imploding world. Nevertheless, she pressed her shoulder and pushed on through. For several suffocating seconds, it felt like swimming upstream.

At last, with an explosion of gray light, she emerged from the top of the black dome, soaring straight up.

Only, she was soaring straight down. The pony gasped to find herself plummeting towards the spiked building tops of over a hundred towering skyscrapers, all of which formed the dense downtown heart of a sprawling city. Daring yanked her wings to the side, spiraling about just in time to avoid smashing into the edge of a glass building top. In a corkscrew fashion, she circled the spire, easing herself down to street level.

Several explosions echoed overhead like gun bursts. Daring looked up in time to see a vomitous fountain of sand and metal factory parts falling from a fixed point in the sky, as if a closing portal was spewing out the skeletonized remnants of the machine that had almost claimed her. Waves of sand pelted multiple skyscrapers, shattering the glass and sending bright, reflective shards pelting the avenues below like giant knives. On top of that, huge rusted gears and cogwork also spilled everywhere, smashing buildings to dust and even causing an entire twenty-story skyscraper to implode. Waves of metal and debris surged everywhere in a gray curtain. Soon, Daring found herself having to fly straight down a lengthy street, weaving her way past overturned stagecoaches and crumpled chariots left abandoned along the sidewalks.

At last, she skidded to a stop, collapsing upon a rickety wooden bench besides a dilapidated bus stop. She lay there, panting, watching as the debris clouds settled, along with the cloudy dust storm that swam somewhere northeast, pushed along by a wayward wind.

After several minutes, Daring finally gained control of her breaths. She repositioned herself, sitting atop the bench on folded limbs. Her sweat had dried by the time she removed her pith helmet to straighten her gray bangs. Pausing, she glanced at the edge of her mane just beyond the visual frame of her eyesight. Hesitant at first, she reached into her pocket and pulled out the eyeglass container. As she did so, she grimaced, for the left lens of her glasses had cracked from all the turbulence.

Sighing, Daring Do looked at the reflection. She almost vomited from the instant dizzy spell she suffered. There was no reflection to be seen—nothing but a bold, blue blur. She clasped the clamshell container shut before she could collapse from nausea. Shaking her head, she squinted curiously at the outside of the case. Her heart froze.

Her name was there, and yet it wasn't. She couldn't see her title or her doctorate. For that matter, despite how hard she squinted her eyes, she couldn't make out anything save for a middle name, and it read: "Danger."

More than once, Daring mouthed that word, clicking the feel of it against the tip of her tongue. Confusion formed hard lines across her tan face. Pocketing the eyeglass container away, she turned around and looked about the city block.

The place was abandoned. There was no movement in the street; not even a single bird or a rolling piece of garbage. The entire maretropolis was abandoned, and judging from the grime and decay, Daring suspected that it had been for a long time. Even without the cataclysmic impact of the spewing portal, the surrounding buildings had seen their fair share of wear and tear. She spotted several skyscrapers with entire sheets of windows cracked down the center, or with fractures forming along their glossy entrances.

The building closest to her, Daring noticed, was relatively intact, or at least its front entrance was. Stepping off the bench, limping a little from strained muscles, she nevertheless walked up to the front line of windows, observing the reflection there that the eyeglass container somehow refused to afford her. The sky was overcast, wrought with perpetual gray clouds, and as Daring trotted within breathing distance of the shiny windows, she could see how it affected her visage, adding a mute tone to her tan coat.

She stripped of her helmet again, tossing her mane into the desolate winds blowing through the cold street. As the hairs settled, she focused on them. Breathlessly, she noticed two new colors added to the mix. Aside from the green streak in the center and the yellow and blue bangs that bordered it, she saw a strip of orange and a strip of indigo. As a matter of fact, the only parts of her reflection still gray and lifeless were the outer fringes of her mane and tail. Her mouth hung open in wonder, and her eyes traveled down to her coat.

It was then that she noticed something in greater detail. Her coat wasn't tan, but it wasn't gray either. The dull sky wasn't responsible for this cold sheen. As a matter of fact, upon closer inspection, Daring could have sworn her reflection's coat was blue as the ocean.

A confused look swam over Daring's face. She knew this, because her expression was all that she focused on at this point. She looked more intently, leaning in, realizing that there was a strange glint, almost a sparkle to her ruby eyes.

Just then, those ruby eyes blinked, and a devilish smirk came to life beneath them.

Daring did a double-take, her blood freezing cold.

The reflection took off on flapping wings, turned to the side, and flew up the length of the glossy building side.

Standing alone, Daring gasped. Witless, she flapped her wings, perhaps a little too late, and she darted up into the desolate sky, skimming the edge of the skyscraper in desperate pursuit of the glossy phantom. One by one, both disappeared around the building's rigid corner, lost like ghosts amongst the urban grayness.

And the Silent Streets

Daring's eyes were tearing; she tried chalking it up to the biting winds high above the city. In jagged loops, she darted around the tallest skyscraper, encircling it like a tan electron. All the while, the mare's eyes were locked on a darting sight shooting along the glossy window panes several meters ahead of her. It darted like a blue streak amidst the reflected gray clouds, accelerating madly across the building's surface in a mute attempt to elude the adventurer.

The thing's velocity shifted dramatically, almost playfully. Every half-a-minute, when Daring would get within a sneeze's distance of the reflection's colorful tail, the image would twirl around, its forelimbs rested behind its head like it was reclining in mid-glide. A tongue would stick out, followed by a ruby-eyed wink, and then the figure would burst forward as a primastic lightning bolt, accelerating beyond the crest of Daring's strained eyesight.

Daring gnashed her teeth and beat her wings even harder. She spun around the building an uncountable number of times, feeling the left side of her body aching from the constant spin, putting pressure almost exclusively on one wing alone. As sweat ran through her shirt and her fur, she found that her path had spiraled up to the very top of the skyscraper. A solid ring of concrete cornerstones laced the topmost level of the building. The windows ended on the forty-fifth floor; there was no reflective surface left to go.

Undaunted, the glossy blue blur shot skyward, its body dancing like a mirage with each shutter-fast seam of joint window panes warbling by. As the reflection reached the summit, it twirled, and a pair of blue wings surrounded the entire image like a foggy cocoon. In a blink, the reflection was gone.

Daring gasped. She hovered to a stop, blinking awkwardly at the skyscraper before her. She floated directly up to one of the many windows, nervously planting a trembling hoof against the cool glass. There was no reflection to be had; Daring's panting breaths couldn't even fog the shiny surface.

Just then, the pony heard something that made her right ear twitch, something like the distant groan of settling steel reinforcements. Daring flashed a glance to her right, gasping. She saw the reflection again, only this time a city block away from her, hovering "backstrokes" across an entire face of window panes. Its ruby eyes locked on Daring's own from afar. Tossing another wink, the reflection twirled acrobatically and shot off with a toss of its five-colored.

Daring spun about, planted her hooves against the nearest window, and cracked the surface slightly as she kicked off in a mighty boost. She shot towards the building across the way like a tan cannonball.

The reflection glided away, flying to the right and disappearing off the edge of the building's tight corner. Daring drifted past the skyscraper, looking down the crossroads of towering structures in the middle of the abandoned maretropolis. Through the corner of her eyes, she saw the blue blur rocketing northward, gliding from one shiny buildingfront to another, bobbing and weaving around balconies, fire escapes, and other structures that blockaded the otherwise steady, vertical sea of reflective sheets.

Daring cut a straight path down the middle. From where the mare soared directly over the empty streets below, she looked to her left. At matching speed, the figure swam up and down exterior elevators, flew loops around hotel ledges, and threaded its way through a dazzling array of suspended billboards.

With a jerk to her wings, Daring swerved left, hoping to cause a dent in the windows just an inch ahead of the reflection, effectively stopping its tracks. As soon as she approached the buildingfronts, however, the figure immediately darted down, disappearing into the concrete and asphalt of the sea before it.

Daring’s face gaped. The pony was too confused to allow herself to decelerate from the shock of that moment. At the sound of windows rattling, she glanced to her right. The reflection was darting straight up from the street, pausing to backflip within a rectangular set of windows, its bright blue wings full and straight as it sported a devilish smirk.

Twirling about, Daring flew straight at it. The figure tossed its bright mane, spun like a dancer, and shotted around the building's north side. Daring flew over the intersection, banked right, and shot east, discovering that the figure was gliding two blocks ahead of her, dipping and climbing as if in a game to avoid the darker backdrops of clouds rolling across the sun-lit glass.

Not long after, Daring caught up. The reflection must have sensed this, for its figure was diving up and down, taking merry, meandering paths around the surfaces of a city court building, a town hall, a subway station, and even the domed top to a banking consortium's lavish lobby.

All the while, Daring matched the equine blur's movements, soaring after it with utmost finesse, so that soon both figures were seemingly mimicking each other, performing an anxious yet tantalizing tango through the heart of the urbanscape, with the gray clouds as their wind and the glistening windows as their sea.

Soon, however, the mysterious blur kicked off the surface of its reflection, disappearing almost entirely. Confused and breathless, Daring looked straight ahead. She saw that she was flying straight towards a broad building with its epic array of windows reflecting the bright, western sky. The figure, her target, was enormous, about eight stories tall at that present moment. Its ruby eyes winked thunderously at Daring as it smirked, gave a salute, and hovered casually in place.

Gritting her teeth in anger, Daring increased her velocity until the blood beneath her facial muscles boiled. The figure ahead of her simply shrank, its size decreasing at a rate equal to the adventurer's swift approach. By the time Daring was within punching distance of the glass, the reflection backflipped, cartwheeled in mid-air, and seemingly disappeared through a single window pane situated above a balcony, replete with mildew and long-dried plants.

With a grunt, Daring kicked the window open. Its hinges squeaked loudly as Daring touched down inside a dank hallway ripe with dust and scattered bits of paper. A cold wind blew in through the open balcony, kicking at the mare's helmet hair as she slowly trotted into a long hallway, squinting to make out the very end of it.

A hot white aura loomed from the far end. Bands of light shifted and swayed at a distance, as if a shadow was darting briefly across the source, trying its damnedest not to be sene. Daring galloped straight ahead, running towards the light. Her hooves kicked up tattered shreds of forsaken files and documents. Framed plaques and posters rattled on either side of her. At last, she made it to the far end of the hallway, where a brightly-lit window loomed. There was the faint hint of a smirking face, then a blue shadow, then feathers and feathers and nothing.

Daring burst through, practically headbutting the pane open. As she did so, she inadvertently knocked over two large ceramic pots. The containers fell over the balcony's edge. As they did so, countless months' worth of rainwater was tossed out into the city like translucent vomit. Through the thin, refracting bands, Daring saw a single blue figure being projected a thousand times. Then, with a hiss of wind, the water fell all the way down to street level, making a distant splash, like the death rattle of a phantom, or a feathered prankster's foalish giggle.

Daring stared down at the street dumbly, chewing on her lip in confusion. She heard that ghostly giggle again, only this time it was accompanied by the rattle of broken shards. She looked up, then towards the left. North of where she hovered, an apartment building loomed, its southern face wracked with weather damage. As Daring watched, a pane or two hung loosely, only to fall as a blue figure "trotted" across them, its hooves planted tightly against the glossy surface as if from the other side. After kicking a sheet or two of glass down towards the abandoned streets, the figure paused, then looked straight down past its forelimbs, facing directly at Daring. The figure grinned, its expression framed by a lion's mane of colored hairs as it stuck its tongue out, making an adorably ugly face.

In a burst, Daring threw herself towards the apartment. The figure backflipped off the pane, shifted gravity from within the glass, and flew straight up into the dull metal of the apartment's roof.

Daring ascended, hoping to scale the building and close the distance between her and the reflection on the other side. Instead, the mare flew directly into the mouth of the unexpected. Assaulted with the smell of musk and mildew, the pegasus skidded to a stop, gasping at her surroundings.

She stood at the front entrance to a rooftop greenhouse, its walls and ceiling covered with precariously hanging sheets of transparent glass. The air tingled, like miniscule bells in the distance, or the trickle of snowflakes against a brass sheet. Beyond that, the world was dead silent, aside from the haunting inhale of a ghost from deep within the greenhouse, threatening to burst at a moment's sneeze.

Daring bit her lip. She turned to look at the streets between looming skyscrapers behind her. All was still; all was silent. With a determined scowl, the pony looked ahead, flexed her limbs, and trotted forward.

She brushed past overturned pots filled with petrified flowers and withered plants. The skeletonous vinework of brown ferns, thornbare rosebushes, and jaded azaleas rested on shelf after shelf, many of them dangling in a lazy wind that occasionally breathed through that hollow, hollow place. Every now and then, a jolting crunch would reverberate off the transparent house's framework. Daring froze, only to realize that her hoof had shattered a fallen shard of glass. Sighing, she proceeded once more, slowly this time.

Her ruby eyes squinted left and right. Daring saw loops of partially unraveled hoses, their green rubber bodies cracked along the joints like decaying intestines. Water dribbled off the edge of the roof's bent frame; the explorer judged that it must have been from occasional rain showers. However, the air was so dry and thin that she couldn't imagine a single fluff from the thick silver clouds overhead ever releasing their moisture. It was as though somepony had drawn a sepulcher-gray tarp over the entire maretropolis.

With a sigh, Daring shuffled to a stop. She adjusted the shirt around her upper body and gazed at the nearest shelf. Lying on the corner, leaning slightly ajar, was a watering can, and it was full to the brim with moisture. Daring stared at the glass-smooth surface of the liquid. She gazed for what must have been a full, lonesome minute, and still no reflection would show.

Her nostrils flared. She brought her left hoof up and waved it between herself and the watering can. Nothing happened. Curious, Daring reached into her pocket and pulled out her glowstone. Breathing into it, she enchanted the object so that it shimmered once again with a bright blue pulse. Though this wasn't the interior of a dome of black sand, the shard still radiated with intense brilliance within the heart of that greenhouse.

What's more, Daring could actually see the glint of the shard against the liquid surface within the can. She waved the object in and out of view, allowing the illumination to dominate the puddle with a silver sheen, then disappear, then brighten again. It looked to her as if a ghost was waving the bright beacon around in an invisible hoof; the liquid reflected Daring's glowstone, but not Daring herself.

Tonguing the inside of her mouth in thought, Daring gave the can one long look, then reluctantly pocketed the object away. Something shimmered with dramatic color in the corner of her eyes. Daring flashed the can a look, and a blue face atop the surface of the water looked back. The reflection giggled mutely, then spun in a bucking motion.

The water within the can launched out and soaked Daring's muzzle all over. The pegasus gasped, sputtered, then snarled in anger. She yanked the watering can up off the shelf and gave it a vigorous sake. Ten seconds later, her grip of the container went limp. Daring blushed at the foolishness of the gesture.

Just then, directly above, there was a cracking sound.

Daring looked up. Another mare looked down, bright and blue against the gray miasma beyond the top of the greenhouse. The reflection saluted, then spun until its hooves—and not its flank—was facing the adventurer below. The image took a big leap, flipping, and landing with a heavy thud. The heavy sheet of glass instantly sailed down at Daring, carrying the mischievous reflection twirling along with it.

With a stifled shriek, Daring dove forward. The plate of glass exploded just inches behind her, showering her with hail of tiny white shards. She crouched there, hyperventilating, gazing all around the greenhouse. Less than half-a-second later, the panes above rattled. Daring glanced skyward, just in time to catch the tail end of a blue reflection galloping across two sheets of glass and kicking them off their frames.

She slithered forward a little too late. Only through the grace of a metal tray full of dead flowers did she find any shelter from the rain of translucent shards. The greenhouse clattered all around her. Everywhere Daring looked, hailstones of exploding glass swarmed like mosquitoes. She was afraid of breathing through her mouth, for fear she might inhale sharp slivers down her trachea.

The tray sheltering the pony bore wheels, Daring noticed. Thinking fast, she grabbed the front legs of the thing in her forelimbs and pushed off the ground with her rear hooves. Slowly, like a battalion of shield-bearers creeping their way through a shower of arrows, Daring crawled towards the closest exit from the greenhouse. She heard a groaning noise, loud enough to ache against her eardrums. She braved a look up.

Of the last few flimsy glass sheets that were left, Daring could make out the blue reflection spinning across them, orbiting the center of the room faster and faster. As if channeling an intense cyclone from the inside out, the image morphed into a literal blur, and the entire building buckled from the sheer magnitude of the revolutions. The frame was starting to cave in, like an imploding sardine can.

Daring still had several feet to cross. She decided to brave it in a single leap. Launching herself forward, she glided for as long as her wings could carry her, then galloped the rest of the way, heroically braving a cascade of glass and metal. When the building collapsed immediately behind her, Daring was thankful she had feathers, because the sheer concussive blast of the implosion flung her straight out into the looming grayness.

It took a little bit of finesse, but Daring swiftly uprighted herself. She spun around, hovering in place, watching breathlessly as smoke and dust settled from the glass-strewn rooftop.

As for the blue blur, it appeared, then disappeared again, flying bright streaks from building to building, drifting completely past Daring in wide swaths of multi-colored bands.

Gritting her teeth, Daring flexed her wings to soar after the image... but she stopped. Her muscles went slack, and she descended a few stories, sighing heavily. With a bored expression, she watched as the image flitted about in erratic orbit, with the glossy buildingfaces as its perpetual arena.

Exhaustion overcame Daring, as did ennui. She floated down to the street's surface, allowing her feathers to relax as she coiled her wings tightly to her side. Her pulse slowed to a comfortable rate as she trotted leisurely through the streets of the maretropolis, sidestepping left and right to avoid heaps of junk or abandoned vehicles.

The only damage to the streets that Daring could see was the result of urban decay. Storefront awnings hung in tatters, battered by the wind. Sidewalks were occasionally littered with the broken metal and glass of buildingfaces peeling away. Signs and street lamps had bent under time and weight, and there was the pungent smell of rust lingering in the air.

All in all, there was no sign of concrete scarring or broken edifices that might suggest that a battle of some sort had happened there, or that some other malevolent force had purposefully driven everypony out of the city altogether. When Daring saw stagecoaches, they were mostly parked to the side, as if they had been carefully and politely placed there, almost like some calm evacuation had gone underway.

As Daring fixated on these sights, she became aware of a body trotting several feet to her left. She glanced aside; about twenty yards away, at street level, the blue figure trotted evenly with her, appearing from one store front or another. Daring could make out the queer look of confusion across the reflection's face, even from that distance.

Turning her shoulders against the image, Daring instead looked to her right. She saw the faded patio of an abandoned cafe. No matter how long she stared at it, her stomach didn't grumble. Even as she looked at the artistically sketched images of smoking hot mugs of espresso, her mouth didn't water, not once. The city wasn't the only thing that was empty; her body was still completely devoid of both hunger and thirst. All Daring wanted was progression, and this place was doing everything it could—or at least everything the blue figure could—to prevent that.

As if on cue, the reflection appeared once again, this time trotting across windows that stood tantalizingly close to where Daring rambled past a partially shattered post office.

Nostrils flaring, Daring looked away from the figure, even as it hopped and flipped and jumped in a dramatic fashion. At one point, the figure resorted to "banging" on the glass from the far side, causing the windows to rattle. Stifling a growl, Daring trotted deep into a thick intersection made from two six-lane streets. She stood where it was the furthest distance possible from any buildingfaces and reached into her shirt pocket. Pulling out her compass, she endeavored to gather her bearings, hoping to find east again.

It was then that Daring heard something that didn't belong to a phantom imbecile rattling window panes in indignation. Blinking, the pegasus looked up. Down one of the streets, several streetlamps were dangling bright red banners. They flickered lonesomely in the wind, as did many large canvas flags hanging from successive flagpoles stretched across the building faces about ten stories up. The air rippled with the many colors stretching and dancing in the wind, and all of them bore a single image, painted in orange and black against crimson fabric.

It was the image of the Sun, brimming with solar flares and long bands of gold. Every building and sidewalk panel was shadowed by the multitude of banners, all bearing this one image. Curious, Daring's gaze followed the path of wind-blown fabric. They stretched over the city street as far as she could see, almost as if they were leading somewhere.

With a furrowed brow, Daring glanced at her compass, then back at the street full of flags. The bannered path ran northwest. Pocketing the compass away, Daring broke into a canter. Impatient, the explorer lifted off and flew, this time invigorated by the sudden puzzle unraveling before her. If the reflection was still tailing her, she paid it no mind.

After a few minutes and at least six city blocks of flight, Daring came upon a courtyard positioned tightly within the the junction of two criss-crossing avenues. The streets curved into a circular roundabout, and it was in the center of this that a statue stood before her.

Curious, Daring touched down, gazing intently at the edifice. Before her rested a marble dome, almost like the top half of a sphere that had been sunk in the asphalt. Positioned to the left side of this sphere was the granite statue of an earth pony. The equine mounted the edge of the dome like a filly perched upon a turtle shell. What was more, it held a large bastard sword in its grasp: a very real sword, with a sheen to its razor sharp edges that was just as brilliant if not more so than the building faces surrounding the courtyard. The sword was presently being "stabbed" into the left side of the marble dome, as if the earth pony was so intent on settling that little piece of real estate that it had signed its name with a blade.

Daring's eyes ran up and down the immaculate steel. She trotted forward and—more out of mirth than out of necessity—gave the hilt of the sword a good shake. Nothing happened; the sword didn't budge. Exhaling hard, Daring dropped back down to all four hooves and stared lethargically at the statue. At one moment, her eyes brushed past the sword's hilt, and she caught something familiar. The pommel had a round piece planted at the end of it, and upon its circular surface was the emblem of a golden sun.

Daring rubbed her chin in thought. She looked back down at the marble dome. Apart from where the earth pony statue was stabbing the sphere, there were two other slits, each about as wide as the one sword's width. Turning around, Daring looked southeast, the direction from which she came. She saw the same orange-on-red banners depicting a solar crest. She then turned due east, and a breath escaped her.

The city street ran towards the darkening horizon, and not only was it lined with wind-blown flag, but every banner bore the image of a silver crescent moon. Giving the dome and its statue one last look, Daring took off and flew briskly down the long trench of buildingfaces, gliding east past banner after banner of wrinkled lunar emblems.

The grayness in the sky dulled to a stone colored malaise just when Daring's flight reached another courtyard with another statue. She flew down and hovered in place above the structure. It depicted a pegasus with another steel sword, this time positioned on the right side of a marble dome, stabbing it just like its earth pony sibling had far west of that location. The left and topmost portions of the sphere had slits, and all of them empty. The pommel on the sword stabbing the right side of the dome bore the image of a crescent moon, and its silver edges reflected the hint of a burning sunset peaking through the looming skyscrapers.

Wasting very little time, Daring twirled around. It wasn't until she was looking southwest that she saw a long street marked by a new series of flags, this time bearing a dark circle full of twinkling constellations. Holding her breath, Daring flew swiftly down the canyon of buildings. Their shadows grew darker around her as the sun set on this peculiar, gray world.

At last, she came upon a third statue. This time, the dome was being mounted on top. A stone unicorn stabbed the bulk of a heavy steel bastard sword into the topmost slit of the structure. When Daring flew up to the steel blade, a blue face with colorful bangs glanced out, trying to make a foalish face.

Daring angrily ignored it, instead flying tight circles around the structure, struggling to come up with some sort of meaning behind the cryptic presentation. Suddenly, a gasp escaped her lips. With several strong wingflaps, she propelled herself upwards, blurring past windows and balconies and flagpoles. She ascended past the rooftops of apartments, past the spires of skyscrapers, until she hovered just below the blanket of dull gray clouds above.

Looking down, Daring gazed at the city in its entirety. She tried her best not to get distracted by how mesmerizingly huge the entire maretropolis was. Squinting carefully, she focused on the straight streets she had traversed to find all three equidistant statues. Even from afar, she could spot the red banners dancing in the wind. A scarlet triangle of interconnecting avenues appeared. They had edges to them, and they also had a center.

That spot also happened to be the site of what was undoubtedly the largest skyscraper Daring had seen in the whole urbanscape. She glided towards it, her jaw dropping with each minute it took to descend past the structure's rigid, stone-gray height. The sun was disappearing below the western horizon around the time she finally reached street level again. When she stood in front of the building, it was like perching on the dark side of the moon; the skyscraper's shadow was so absolutely permeating.

Breathing her glowstone to life, Daring illuminated a bone-pale entrance flanked with equine statues. A banner hung over the front doors, depicting a black dome with three swords stabbed into it. Quietly, Daring trotted ahead, raising a hoof to pull the door open by its handle. There was a brief blur of blue across the door's glass, but she paid it no mind.

When she entered the lobby, it was like tossing a can full of pins across the floor of a coffin. The echo of her hooves magnified the place's sheer eeriness, reverberating off every marble pillar and wooden panel with pristine tonality. Daring felt as though she had entered the bowels of a concert hall, and yet as she flashed her light back and forth, she saw the tell-tale furniture of what once must have been the first floor of a massive banking consortium. Teller windows and iron-thick money vaults stretched across a granite wall as she shuffled her way down an ever-darkening corridor.

Eventually, she stumbled upon a marble flight of steps. The stairs were thick, with rusted metal railings threading down them at equal intervals. When Daring descended, she felt as though an immense black canyon was swallowing her up, when in reality she was traversing what seemed to be a vast basement lobby. The air there was strangely cold, icily complementing the pale bands of light coming out of the adventurer's glowing shard.

Finally, the stairs ended, and she reached an open floor of marble tile, stretching blackly beyond the limits of her light's shine. Nevertheless, she proceeded forward, piercing the shadows with her enchanted spotlight. This carried on for about a minute until she finally came upon a shape emerging from the inkiness like the crest of a humpback whale.

Daring slowed to a slow shuffle, her lips pursing in awe. It was most definitely a dome rising up out of the center of the floor, However, unlike the statues in the streets above—or on the banners outside the skyscraper—this sphere was not pierced by any bladed weapon. What was more, the dome was made out of metal. She couldn't tell what element or alloy; the surface had a copper hue, and yet it was interlaced with bands of red, almost bloodlike in color, with dark black rivets fastening them each in place.

Alone in that dark, dark place, Daring curiously trotted around the metal sphere. One seam in particular ran thickly across the curved surface of the structure like an equator, and it had three equidistant slits in it: one on the left side, one on the top, and one on the opposite end from the first.

Daring's eyes twitched as she imagined the glint of the steel swords high above, located at the ends of the "triangle" of flag-bearing streets. She had tried tugging the one in the earth pony statue's grisp, but with no luck. Perhaps the others would have budged if she pulled on them too.

She was about to leave and test this hypothesis when she noticed a particular clue for the first time. Turning back towards the dome, she squinted at a circular emblem that was located just beneath the front end, positioned right below the topmost slit in the sphere. It was the image of an open book, and the circle itself was almost too perfectly the size of an average pony's hoof.

Daring bit her lip. She clenched her eyes shut for a few seconds, seethed, then sighed. Relaxing, she reopened her eyes and limply performed the inevitable. Placing her hoof over the image of the book, she took a breath and pressed firmly.

With sickening ease, the emblem sunk into the body of the sphere. A whirring noise filled the basement, growing in both volume and in pitch. The air heated up with a shrill whistling sound. Like clockwork, the outer shell of the sphere rotated, clattered, and slid open like a gecko's eyelid.

Daring gasped immediately. Beneath the outer shell, the dome was built out of a porous metal framework. Concentric steel bars encircled a glowing book plastered to a rusted surface via tightly bound chains. The source of the book's glow was a mystery to Daring, but it didn't stop her from sliding down onto her knees and struggling to reach a forelimb through the bars.

She strained and struggled, her face awash in sweat and the pale penumbra of her glowstone. As hard as she tried, she couldn't reach her hoof far enough to grab the book; she couldn't even touch its silver pages. She tried yanking at the chains that held the book loosely within the domed cage, but with even less luck.

Grumbling, Daring stood up, once more pacing around the dome. She gave the thing an angry glare, and somehow in the process she observed that there was still a single thick metal bar running directly over the body of the sphere. This seam retained the same three slits as did all the granite domes that the mare had spotted on the streets.

Before she could ponder long on this, the dome began to shake. Daring blinked, gawking at the sight of the wildly vibrating sphere. Then, on a whim, she flapped her wings and hovered a mere inch above the floor. That was how she realized that the dome wasn't the only thing shaking; the entire basement and the building above her were.

Daring started to panic. Gnashing her teeth, feeling trickles of dust and plaster raining down from the ceiling of the basement above, the mare rushed down and grabbed a few bars of the dome, pulling with all her might. Naturally, the framework refused to come loose. Not so naturally, they also gave Daring a heavy jolt of electricity.

Yelping, Daring hovered back, blowing foalishly on her hooves. She froze in mid-air, her jaw hanging open as the sphere lit up from the inside like a teslacoil. The book jumped and rattled on the ends of its chains, as if empowered by some unseemly force. No less than ten seconds later, thick cracks formed in the marble floor, and each of them hissing with scalding jets of steam.

Daring felt the ends of her feathers curling. Not wanting a repeat of the mountain temple escapade, she hovered back, flinching with each thunderous crack that roared through the floor of that place. Soon, all was steam and bedlam. Daring caught the hint of a huge brown mass emerging from the ground, but she was too busy flying away at this point to find out what it was.

Panting, the pegasus rocketed up over the steps, slicing the air opposite from whence she came. With alarming swiftness, the corridor grew thick with mist and fog. The temperature rose dramatically by the second, turning the whole foundation of the massive skyscraper into a blistering sauna. If that wasn't enough, several concussive bursts emanated directly behind the explorer's gray tail, as if she was being chased by a living earthquake.

Daring shot her way forward, seemingly piercing a monsoon of fog billowing down against her with otherworldly purpose. She reached the edge of the first floor without knowing it, and she was rewarded with a comical head-butt against the doorframe beyond the mist. Cursing under her breath, she fiddled with the door handle. Glass glinted, and a blue face laughed at her. She almost punched it, choosing instead to fling herself through the building's entrance like a bat out of Tartarus.

Without hesitation, she ascended to about thirty stories and hovered safely above a neighboring skyscraper's rooftop, or at least as "safely" as she could conceivably afford. The hulking tower in the center of the city shook and wobbled, like an ancient tree threatening to come down at any moment. Long plumes of white mist were channeling down from the overcast sky and into the bottom of the building, like the structure had become a smokestack in reverse. Daring's head nearly collapsed from a series of explosive bursts rising up from the foundation of the skyscraper below. Following cannon blasts to her eardrums, the skin of the city shot chunks of gravel and steel sky high, sending them through the shattering faces of several structures surrounding the site. Beyond the breaking of glass, Daring watched, breathlessly witnessing as a huge body rose up out of the roots of the building.

Climbing out of the very crater it had made, one massive metal hoof tearing past another, a giant equine automaton emerged in the dying sunlight. It was sealed together from head to tail with dark rusted rivets that bled boiling tufts of steam. In the center of its skull—planted between a pair of sharply bladed earlobes—was the very same dome containing the very same book that Daring had sought. The tome danced and sparked, sending bands of energy down the hydraulic-reinforced frame of the leering golem. As it stood its massive height of ten stories on groaning haunches, Daring again noticed the gray clouds above funneling down past the buildings, magically sliding in through the grooves along the robot's scaled hull.

When at last every thread of the gray overcast sky was drawn into the equine's mammoth metal body, it leered about under blossoming starlight, its skull like an enormous brown tree branch swaying in slow motion, until it finally trained a pair of glowing lantern-eyes on Daring's hovering form. Its nostrils shot forth bursts of steam, and when it opened its oil-dipping jaws, the sound produced was such that it shattered windows for three blocks in every direction.

The number it did on Daring's head was biblical. The mare whimpered, clutching her skull as she drifted aimlessly amidst the cascade of loose glass shards. She bumped into a flagpole, her wings getting entangled in a banner bearing a sword-stabbed dome.

It was precisely the position she didn't want to be in when the hulking monstrosity thundered towards her on asphalt-tearing hooves, ending its charge with the swing of a meteor-thick forelimb right into her puny muzzle.

And the Gargantuan Guardian

Daring flapped both wings and shot herself backwards. The giant pony golem's forelimb ate its way towards her, closing the distance between the automaton's metal hoof and her fragile dangling legs. Unable to outfly the swing, she pulled her wings in tight and simply fell. Daring dropped out of range of the robot's punch just milliseconds before it plowed into the building face behind her.

The air filled with steam and glass. Daring landed and immediately broke into a gallop, speeding past the massive length of the lumbering creature. She barely outran the cascade of crashing shards filling the street behind her. Skirting the edge of the crater where the creature had emerged, the explorer spread her wings and took to the sky. A rear leg bucked through the air with a ripple of thunder. The skyscraper before her exploded, its fifth to seventh stories being devoured in a massive hole made by the iron-wrought hoof.

As the building buckled under its own weight, Daring had to bank hard to her right to avoid the collapse of twenty full stories of steel and mortar. Through the rising dust of the spectacle, she spun around in time to see the golem's burning muzzle charging through the clouds like a metal demon. Its eyes flickered with red torchlight as the robot's nostrils reopened with whirring apertures, expelling a condensed burst of scalding steam.

The boiling jets flew at Daring like bone-white bullets. She gnashed her teeth while dodging and juking the blasts. The mare smelled burning steel from the steam bursts making contact with the skyscrapers behind her, literally melting the concrete through to their foundations. She barely had any strength left when the golem's head reached for her, its gaping jaws hissing with mad hydraulics. Daring kicked off the gearheads operating the hinges of its mouth. She flew sideways like a tan comet, landing with little grace on the street before rolling against a fallen bed of powdery rubble.

With lumbering thuds, the ten-story golem turned around to face her. Its every limb groaned from the automaton's agonizing weight, and several joints spat loose gusts of skin-bubbling steam. To Daring's shock, it didn't immediately charge her. Instead, it flung about its tail: a prehensile length of metallic fibers, at the end of which was a bulbous disc fitted with an array of brass pipes around the black circumference.

Breathless, Daring squinted at the curious tail-end being lifted high above street level. Suddenly, it aimed towards her, and the brass pipes spat out tongues of burning flame. The disc then rotated like a napalm buzzsaw, and the metallic stalk of the tail shot the infernal weapon straight at Daring's prone body.

With a shriek, she dove to the side. The sidewalk and street corner behind her melted, as if the robot's burning tail was a hot knife slicing through butter. The metal creature's weapon retracted and shot out again, this time lashing deep into the skyscraper above Daring and raining debris down on her petite figure. She outran the mess as best as she could, hopping at random to scale shattered newsstands and the steaming shells of inflamed stagecoaches. Through this chaos, the tail swung immediately into view, its burning disc rotating towards her like an out-of-control comet.

Daring's ruby eyes twitched. She noticed a dark hole in the streetside to her left: a subway entrance. Without a second thought, she dove straight in, her body gliding just underneath the burning tail's next swing. Her green shirt was singed in spots and her coat hairs curled up from the heat, but she was alive. Wheezing from the smoke and dust, she swiftly twirled down the elaborate stairwell, descending into the comforting darkness of the city's subway.

Soon, it became too dark to see an inch in front of her. She pressed herself up against a cold wall somewhere and fumbled for her glowstone. It took her the better part of a minute to summon a breath full enough to enchant the shard to life. All the while, booms and cracks of thunder rolled through the concrete abyss. The golem was somewhere directly above, stomping angrily through the streets in search of its elusive prey. Daring wasn't about to give it any satisfaction.

At last, she exhaled fitfully against the glowstone. The pale spotlight illuminated a tight chamber leading several feet forward, where a turnstile lay bright and abandoned. All along the walls, tiles of plaster fell loose from each tremor that the robot's hooves produced above. As the rumbling grew duller and duller, Daring wiped the sweat from beneath her pit helmet and trotted forward.

There was no longer a steadiness to Daring's canter, but rather a fitful twitch that broke the solid tone of her echoing hoofsteps. She hopped over the turnstile and descended another row of stairs. As her spotlight swam across the rattling tiles, she came upon the darkest chasm yet. Blowing on her stone to increase the illumination, she found that she was on the edge of the subway tracks. She looked left and saw nothing. She looked right and saw an abandoned train, halfway submerged through the tight tunnel that would have carried it towards another district of the city.

Daring had lost all of her bearings. If she was to take one of the tunnels, then she would very much want to know where she was headed. So, with a steady breath, she reached deep into her shirt's pocket for her compass—

The ceiling above blew apart as a giant metal hoof slammed down before her.

Daring fell back on her flanks, ruby eyes wide with horror. There was a gust of hot air as the hoof retracted back into the surface world from whence it came. Daring's helmet was blown off as she scooted backwards in fright. She tilted her chest up to shine her light through the fresh new hole.

The ceiling broke again, this time directly above her. Hulking slabs of concrete devoured her light as they fell on top of her.

With a grunt, Daring rolled to the side, barely escaping the cave-in. She covered her gray mane as a vomitous spray of pebbles and metal bits rained all over. Hyperventilating, she eventually looked up and saw her hat lying just inches away. She reached for it—

A hoof slammed down again, pulverizing the pith helmet to dust, along with the entire edge of the tracks. Daring was too busy being tossed across the subway from the concussive blast to bother with screaming. She slammed backwards into the rear of the parked train, then slumped down to the ground, collapsed over the rattling subway rails.

The automaton roared from overhead. Daring could spot its gaping maw from a pulsating light source. As the seconds shredded by, that same light grew bright red and hot. With a twirl of shadows, the robot's tail shot down. The flaming disc on the end of it swept left and right across the claustrophobic domain, blindly seeking pony flesh to sear to smoking ribbons.

Daring sweated bullets as she hopped up, spun around, and galloped straight down the nearest tunnel. The golem must have somehow sensed her movement, for its burning disc swam along the length of its prehensile tail, spitting flames as it surged after her. A long swath was sliced across the train, and each car crumpled and exploded like silver firecrackers, chasing the pony with mammoth sprays of glass and shrapnel.

Daring gritted her teeth, headbutted through the raining debris, and spread her wings. She outflew the burning appendage and shot down the tunnel, her glowstone illuminating the winding intestine of brick and concrete ahead of her as she otherwise flew blind.

The disc ceased its pursuit. Daring assumed that it was because the tail had reached the ends of its metallic rope. Nevertheless, she glanced back in mid-flight, having to squint past the shadows of her wind-swept mane. The subway tunnel behind her was pitch black, the most inviting color she had seen in ages.

Glancing ahead, Daring accelerated, hoping to make it to the next station and take to the clear skies. However, as she glided along, the earth rumbled louder and louder all around her. Her fuzzy ears twitched at the woesome sound of thunder rolling behind her, above her, and then directly before her. Dust fell in a solid curtain about twenty meters ahead, and when the realization of the moment hit the hapless mare, it was already too late to do an about-face.

With a heavy bass roar, the golem's jaws burst down through the subway's ceiling and lunged at the pony. The hole it smashed in the street was remarkably huge this time, and through the sundered layers of concrete Daring could spot starlight. Before the creature's metal muzzle could devour all of her perspective, Daring darted courageously ahead, twirling to avoid the thing's mouth as she threaded through the thin space available between the hole and the monster's razor-sharp earlobes.

Out of the corner of her eyes, Daring spotted the electrocuted sight of the caged book. It almost distracted her too much to notice the next swing of the golem's tail. She spun out of the way of the burning disc, but was slapped across the spine by the elastic metal stalk. Exhaling in pain, Daring flew sideways through the dusty street, struck the edge of a seventh-story balcony, and fell down like a sack of potatoes.

Somewhere during the plunge, she got caught in a flapping length of fabric. The ripping material slowed her fall somewhat, and she landed across the back of a stagecoach with a minor thud instead of a bone-splitting crunch. As the creature lumbered about several yards away to her right, Daring tried getting up, only to find herself encumbered with the large blanket. Upon close inspection, she discovered that she was actually wrestling with a scarlet banner, specifically one bearing an orange sun emblem.

Gasping, she looked up and to her left. Just twenty yards away stood the courtyard with the statue of an earth pony stabbing a bastard sword into a concrete dome. The steel of the weapon reflected the glint of the adventurer's glowstone from afar.

Before the wheels in Daring's head could turn, she heard the grinding of giant metal hooves. To her right, the ten story golem had reoriented itself. It expelled angry wisps of steam as it stormed towards her, one hulking hoof after another.

Kicking and thrashing, Daring finally disentangled herself from the banner and flew to her left. Seconds later, the golem charged over the stagecoach, smashing it to metal and wooden slivers. Daring struggled to flap her wings against the reverberations in the air caused by the pursuing monster's heavy hoofstomps. Nevertheless, she managed to gain some altitude, and she flew directly over the earth pony statue in a desperate attempt to get away from her foe.

Suddenly, a different kind of thunder boomed through the air. Daring couldn't help it; she stopped and turned around in mid-hover to observe the source of a pained groaning sound.

The golem had slumped to a stop just yards before the courtyard. Bolts of electricity were inexplicably bouncing outward from the caged book on its skull. Daring's eyes followed their dramatic blue arcs, and she noticed that every single tongue of lightning was shooting into the concrete dome beneath the earth pony statue.

The eyes of the stone equine lit up. Something about the electrical energy triggered a mechanism inside. The statue's front hooves spread apart, and almost immediately the concrete dome spat the bastard sword loose. Daring watched, dumbfounded, as the blade shot up and out of the sphere like a steel slice of bread from a sunken toaster. As it clattered several feet away on the edge of the courtyard, Daring bit her lip. She glanced at the golem, then back at the sword.

The electrical bolts stopped dancing. As if coming out of a dizzy spell, the giant metal automaton shook its muzzle, stood up straight, and resumed galloping after Daring.

Holding her breath in tight, Daring suicidally flew straight for the hulking robot.

With a bombastic roar, the creature swung its iron-wrought forelimb at her. She ducked past it as it smashed a storefront to bits. Flying low past the thing's thrashing tail, she landed on the courtyard and tried picking the bastard sword up in her hooves. It proved too heavy a thing to do easily... or at least swiftly. As the golem reared about and bore down on her, she resorted to biting onto the hilt with her mouth, her teeth scraping against the rounded pommel with the sun emblem. She took off, her body flying sideways from the weight of the blade. She nevertheless veered around a tail-slash and dove madly towards the creature's skull.

Her hooves landed, scraping against the iron rivets as she struggled for an even stance atop the monster's head. The ears made hideous ringing sounds as they sliced through the air, the serrated tips of the lobes attempting to slice her skull off.

Daring wasted little time. She spat the hilt out of her mouth, spun the whole blade until its tip was aiming down, then—mimicking the earth pony statue—she sliced it through the leftmost slit positioned within the frame of the metal cage. The steel length grazed the electrified book, but the magical tome remained intact. With a pulse of bright blue light, the blade fastened in place, becoming one with the bulbous metal cage. Steam erupted from every crevice along the monster's plated hull, filling the air with a sound not unlike the screaming death of boiled crustaceans.

There was no time to celebrate; the creature reared its metal skull back, flinging Daring off like a loose tick. She spun in the air, uprighted herself, and immediately bolted east, flying straight down the starlit trench of looming buildingfaces, all waving with the banner of a crescent moon. As she predicted, the monster was not far behind. It chased mindlessly after her, stomping deep craters into the ground and unearthing panels of sidewalk with every bound.

Daring Do was exhausted, but at least now she had her head in the game. The adventurer kept her breaths evenly apart, allowing her lungs to expand and contract comfortably as she soared towards her goal. In spite of the sweat and the heat of the moment, she was focused; the puzzle was unraveling itself. At some point or another, it always did.

Something flickered in Daring Do's peripheral vision. Against her better judgment, she looked right. Her blood ran cold as a blue figure flew alongside her, streaking against window gloss and starlight. The reflection looked back, winked with an evil grin, and made a throat-slitting motion with its hoof.

Just then, the temperature of the air heated up violently. Daring twirled and flew upwards without looking back. Two jets of hot steam flew past her, melting a balcony off its foundation so that it fell noisily to the sundered streets below.

The pursuing golem fired more and more jets of scalding mist. Daring jerked left and right in mid-flight to avoid the blasts, until ultimately resorting to a sharp climb. She ascended several stories, looking down from the summits of the skyscrapers blurring by her.

Below, the automaton's eyes flickered. It vented steam out from its sides as its stomping hooves somehow accelerated. Then, before Daring's twitching eyes, the hulking beast galloped left, smashed a path sideways up three rows of building faces, jumped off, hopped off a skyscraper to its right, and used it as a collapsing springboard to launch itself like a metal mountain at Daring.

Suppressing a shriek, Daring dove low. She dodged the monster's jaws, but now the full weight of the creature was bearing down on her. Both equines fell, plummeting twenty stories in naked silence. Daring's hooves scraped the ground, and she kicked against the asphalt, giving herself a boost as she spread her wings and prepared for the inevitable.

When the monster slammed back down into the street behind her, the sheer force of its impact sent a wave of energy rippling out in every direction. When the blast wave hit Daring, she caught as much of it as she could in her feathers, using it to propel herself ahead like a sailboat. It was anything but graceful; she flopped around an arena of shattering windows before pinballing off a storefront and rolling to a bruised stop against an overturned wagon.

Daring sobbed in pain, but heard nothing... nothing but ringing. She felt trickles of warm blood coming out of her ear canals. Her eyes opened, piercing the fog of pain that encompassed her. Something loomed ahead, a dull and gray blob. After a blink or two, the statue of a pegasus stabbing a sword into a gray dome came into focus. Daring dragged herself ahead with her forelimbs, then stood on quivering hooves. When hearing returned to her ears, she wished that it hadn't, for the guttural roars of the golem were almost upon her.

The robot's thick shadow washed over her figure in the starlight. Bolts of electricity shot overhead, threading into the statue. The stone pegasus' hooves parted, and the bastard sword shot out at a forty-five degree angle.

Daring could smell rust and burning napalm. Coiling and uncoiling her limbs, she sprang forward like a tan grasshopper, barely avoiding the golem's lashing tail as it burned through the concrete. Flying up, she forward-flipped and snatched the sword's hilt in her mouth. The emblem of a crescent moon glistened in her peripheral vision, and she used it as encouragement as she spun widely in the air, galloped sideways across a building face, and jumped towards the lumbering golem's head.

The tail's flaming disc intercepted her. Grunting through her teeth, she twisted her neck and miraculously deflected the weapon once... twice. Sparks flew from her blade, and so did Daring, plummeting past the robot's attack and landing firmly on the creature's skull. With heroic grace, she propped the sword into the rightmost slit of the book's cage and stabbed it in deep.

The tome brimmed with bright blue energy. The metal monster roared, swinging its tail up like an angry scorpion's. Daring dodged the blow, but in so doing she forgot about the golem's flicking earlobes, and one of them grazed her shoulder, ripping through her shirt and spilling blood. Daring shrieked in pain, and the next time that the golem tossed its head back, she wasn't prepared for it. Her body flew for several feet before smashing through the wide windows of a fourth story office building. She tumbled against a series of desks and cubicles, wincing from multiple cuts and glass slivers across her sensitive skin.

Two bright red spotlights pierced the dusty confines of the office. Daring's moist eyes flew open as she gnashed her teeth.

The golem's head was bending down to peer through the shattered window. Rearing its metal neck back like a cobra, the automaton roared and plunged mercilessly into the body of the skyscraper. Both the floor and the ceiling of the fourth story buckled at once, sending waves of debris flying at the prone pegasus. She flew up from tsunami of desolation, ultimately using it as a boost, flapping her wings and slicing through the narrow space of collapsing steel girders that was afforded her.

Daring emerged into a street full of flames and chaos. Metal chunks rained down from every direction. She dodged them the best that she could, all the while trying to bank southwest in order to soar down the final path: a street lined with red banners of twinkling starlight. With her eyes on the goal, she couldn't see the glint of shiny metal soaring at her from her right, glistening with a gasping blue face.

The shard slammed into Daring at full force. She couldn't hear her own grunts from the sickening crunch of her wing muscles ripping down the middle. When she struck dead asphalt below, it was almost a welcome reprieve from the knifing pain that was soaring all through her right side. She rolled onto her left haunches, howling to the stars, tossing her mane back in white-hot agony. After her breath was sucked back in, she curled into a fetal position, tossing a spastic glance towards her right wing. The thing hung in tatters, blood dribbling off the crooked and bent feathers.

From beyond the crimson outlines of her wound, the metallic foe loomed, its steaming plates coming into focus as it bore down on the lamed flier. Hissing in agony, Daring tumbled onto all four hooves and limped ahead, feeling blood leaking and squirting out of her with each bounding gallop. Instinctively, she jumped several times, only to remember in mid-lunge that her right wing had been reduced to a scarlet rag.

The street shook and split underneath her. Each successive step grew more perilous than the last. There was no outrunning the monster on hoof; it would overtake her in no time.

Hyperventilating, Daring flashed a look to her right. She chose a building—any building—and immediately sped towards its front entrance. A blue face in the glass door gaped at her in faux shock, but she headbutted the panel open and stumbled on through, limping her way across the marble-floored lobby. Chairs rattled and chandeliers swayed overhead. The red light of the automaton's eyes followed swiftly, making shadows bounce along the fringes of Daring’s agonized senses. With a resounding smash, the monster stomped after her, charging through the ten stories above as if they were made of tinfoil.

Daring desperately outran the cacophonous wave. Chunks of tile exploded behind her hooves; clumps of plaster and ceiling insulation rolled after her gray tail hairs. She reached the center of the building, its central pillars falling like oak trees on either side. The dense heart of the skyscraper was finally slowing the automaton's charge, but it mattered little. Daring sprinted forward, not stopping until she ran into an opaque dead end.

Whimpering, her eyes darted feverishly about. She saw a stairway and ran towards it without a second thought. She burst through the door with her good shoulder just as the frame crumbled. She galloped up collapsing steps, jumping from one teetering plank of concrete to the next. When she reached the third floor, she saw a hint of starlight, and she burst through to the adjacent corridor. Only one path led away from imminent collapse, and it was a window pane exposing a narrow alleyway beyond. Daring kicked the window open, perched atop the fire escape, and leapt desperately across the thin alley. She landed on the opposite building's window ledge, dangled, then pulled herself up just as the skyscraper behind her imploded completely.

Opening the window, she collapsed through, somersaulted, and limped back up to her hooves. The whole building shook as its sister fell the full length of its battered thirty stories. At some point, the weight of it must have collided with that building, because Daring could feel the entire floor shifting forward as its walls tilted back. Doors shattered into wooden splinters while the ceiling panels bulged and split.

On a whim, Daring hung a left, tumbled down a series of steps, and spotted the glossy hint of a marble-paneled lobby. Jumping down a whole story, she landed on the bottom floor, and fled towards the closest series of glass doors she could find. She emerged upon a side street, full of tables and benches that were falling over from the tremors echoing throughout the entire city. She was barely half a block away when a gigantic explosion rippled across the streets, shaking the asphalt loose. She looked backwards in mid-limp to see two... three... four entire buildings sinking down into the earth. In the center of this dusty cloud of destruction was the thrashing metal figure of her nemesis, rearing its sparkling skull as it roared in frustration. Its flaming tail jerked around in wide circles, shining a spotlight across the rubble in search of a wounded pegasus.

Sweating and bleeding, Daring looked for the first niche she could find. She ducked in between the crook of two tall apartment buildings and slumped down to her haunches, panting for breath. She wasn't aware of the tears streaming from her eyes until she felt them dribbling onto her knees. She breathed—more like hissed—into her glowstone, summoning a faint light. It was enough for her to examine her injury by, though she didn't want to.

The pony's right wing was struggling to dangle in either direction. It was obviously a compound fracture, and Daring didn't even know where to begin with it. Hearing the distant roars of the metal monstrosity, she realized she couldn't afford to decide where to begin... or if to begin at all. Nevertheless, she grasped the hem of her shirt in the crook of two hooves and pulled in opposite directions. Thankfully, the material was aptly soaked with sweat, and it split down the middle, allowing her to rope loose two lengths of jungle-green cloth.

She looked around and found a pile of debris thrown loose from the destruction a few blocks away. From this, she found two strips of bent metal, both of which were roughly the same length. Utilizing them and her strips of cloth, she formed a very basic tourniquet, just enough to hold her wing joints in place and nothing else. It felt as though it weighed a ton, and she could feel her torn muscles throbbing with each heartbeat.

Nevertheless, there was no waiting in one place. She sensed the bright crimson swaths of the monster's tail looming closer and closer. Soon, she would be in the golem's spotlight, and she couldn't afford a long-distance sprint—not anymore.

Daring didn't waste any time with fumbling for her compass. She had grown accustomed to the city's skyline after so many flyby's. With an esteemed guess, she headed south and away from the creature, limping down alleyways and past immense skyscrapers as she searched for the courtyard with the final statue.

Minutes bled by, as did her injured wing. She felt her right side gradually going numb, but it didn't stop her from rushing ahead, stumbling through shadowed spaces with abandoned dumpsters and shipping crates. So long as the monster didn't know where she was, Daring had the upper hoof.

But even this was about to change. With a deafening roar of thunder, the sky lit up with a red beacon. Daring's pained ears twitched to hear an unearthly crunching sound echoing everywhere in all directions. She glanced back over her shoulder and saw the hulking golem literally climbing up the southern face of a fifty-story skyscraper. The robot perched somewhere below the stalk of the building, rotating its tail about as it shone its spotlight across the roofs, spires, and summits of its towering neighbors. The crimson light bled through spaces between buildings, illuminating every nook and cranny that lined the streets.

Inevitably, the monster's face froze as its torchlit eyes pulsated. Daring Do knew, deep down inside, that the mechanical beast had somehow seen her. Sure enough, with a resounding roar, the automaton retracted its tail and leapt south from the skyscraper, knocking it back into its sibling so that an entire block collapsed like titanic dominoes. The destruction spread further as the golem leapt and bounded its way from rooftop to rooftop, sending thick shards of concrete flying every which way. Soon, the shadow of the beast would be looming over the pegasus once again.

Daring gulped a whimper down her throat and galloped swiftly ahead. To her surprise, she almost instantly broke free from the alleyways and emerged upon an open street. Six lanes afforded an aura of silver-sweet starlight to dip down and illuminate every rigid shape, including that of a stone unicorn stabbing a sword into the topmost slit of a concrete dome.

The felicitous sound of rippling banners resonated above the pony as she galloped forward and stood behind the unicorn statue. Daring chewed anxiously on her bottom lip, looking at the blade stuck in the frozen pony's grip. Wincing from the pain in her right side, she nevertheless climbed up the tail and flank of the statue, mounting it from behind as she wrapped two hooves around its horn and fought, struggled, and strained to pull the sword loose.

No success.

Buildings exploded in successive clouds of dust and debris. Daring looked up to see the thunderous approach of the angry golem. Squeaking beneath her breath, she tugged and tugged on the sword's hilt again. No matter how hard she tried, the star-emblemed pommel did not budge.

A blur of blue rippled before Daring. She looked down. Across the glossy steel blade, a sapphiric muzzle smirked up at her. The reflection winked a ruby eye, then tilted its head up, as if looking through itself at the incoming threat.

As the courtyard shook viciously around Daring from the golem's approach, she took a deep breath, her tan face taking on the same glaring expression as the alien reflection. She relaxed her lower muscles, never once losing her firm grip of the sword's hilt. In such a calm fashion, she awaited her fate, and her fate bore down on her with steaming limbs.

Leaping from the last line of buildings, the robot equine landed a hundred feet away, forming a ginormous crater in the asphalt. Metal nostrils snorting, it grinded its hooves and charged like a mammoth rhino. Windows shattered and benches collapsed from the ruthless tremors.

Daring stood her ground. Her eyes reflected the torchlight set within the golem's iron-wrought skull, as well as the lunging forelimbs that flew down to crush her to a pulp.

At last, bolts of blue electricity shot from the cage atop the monster's ten story high skull. The energy streams flew into the concrete dome below Daring. On command, the unicorn's hooves let go of the hilt, but Daring's never did.

Thus, when the sword shot up, so did Daring. She and the blade flew skyward, becoming one with the stars, lost from the golem's sight as it tried in vain to smash her propelled body, only to catch pure air instead.

When the sword reached the apex of its launch, Daring spun herself sideways and bit onto the hilt. Then—bearing the pain through her clenched teeth—she shot her one good wing out. Hanging off the weight of the blade, she twirled left in a wide arc, swirling circles around the confused golem until she landed expertly on its skull.

At that point, it was all over; the robot just didn't know it. Its ears lashed at Daring, but she covered herself with the blade, spun in a circle, nicked their serrated tips off, and then aimed the tip of the blade into the topmost slit of the caged dome. With a growling shriek, the pegasus stabbed the final sword in. At last, all three blades criss-crossed around the tome. Their steel bodies absorbed the electrical energy, and the book itself dulled, its pages becoming fragile and moth-eaten. The chains holding the tome in place shattered completely, as did the entire cage for that matter.

With a creaking groan, the monster spontaneously collapsed. The sheer motion threw Daring off and onto the courtyard, along with the shattered bars that once made up its skull-cage. Among the many metal bits that tumbled past Daring's wincing body, one wasn't metal at all. Daring gasped, for the book sat naked just a few feet from her. She scrambled towards it and spun the cover around: "Daring Do and the Gargantuan Guardian."

Through her peripheral vision, she saw the monster groaning and straining to get back up. Its lantern eyes came to life, as did its flaming tail.

Ravenously, Daring launched her muzzle into the thick of the book's pages, ripping its paper heart out with gnashing teeth. As she did so, the world stung with something akin to a crack of thunder. Every building rattled on its foundation, adding to a spiraling vibration that swam into the heart of the metropolis, ultimately settling beneath the quivering frame of the downed automaton.

The creature's tail fell limp. Its lantern eyes danced one last time, and soon it was rearing back on its spine, several plates popping loose as plumes of steam burst randomly out of its cracking hull. Its limbs stretched straight, steel girders popping out of the hooves and embedding into the ground like tree roots. Its metal mouth opened towards the heavens, and suddenly it was vomiting loose a cluster of brass pipes, ribboning swiftly skyward like a magical beanstalk. Along the length of this industrial stalk of madness, several platforms mushroomed out, shooting metal beams down towards the sundered city and adding to the spontaneous megastructure that was blossoming before Daring's eyes, growing out of the gut of the defeated monster.

As this new and epic tower rocketed towards the stars, the world grew dark beyond the veil of Daring's heavy eyelids. She heard the cacophonous cannon shots of the remaining buildings falling one by one. Like a house of cards, the entire city was being reduced to rubble around her. Red banners flew in tattered streaks, like frightened bats, and disappeared beyond the fogginess of her exhausted consciousness.

There was nothing left in this world or the last that was capable of surprising the pegasus. At least, that's what Daring thought. It was something of minor comfort, lulling her into the sweet darkness as she collapsed limply to the uneven concrete, hugging the tattered bits of the tome to her chest as the pain finally dwindled to nothing. There was a flicker of something blue, like a laughing face shining off her eyelids, then everything was blissfully colorless.

And the Space Spire

Daring Do couldn't remember a time when she wasn't lonely.

Even now, as tingling feathers of pain floated around her like lazy electrons, Daring huddled alone in the darkness, mesmerized by the sheer vastness of the murky depths.

The world always had a habit of unfolding before her, like a bed of tangled laundry fresh from the wash, growing more and more fragrant with each inch her little foal limbs climbed across it. The secrets behind every mountain, every ocean, and every continent held bigger and bolder treasures, tantalizing her, leading her forward into adulthood, with the crest of one golden horizon promising yet another brilliant landscape beyond.

And then, one day, a day like any other, that lustre disappeared. The world no longer rolled or rippled like golden silk. Something knifed through it, knifed through her, shredding everything in one tearing motion, tickling her ears with the heartless hiss of sepulcher sighs. When she discovered that such cold breaths belonged to herself, she stopped, and yet she didn't.

In a way, her life accelerated, aging and plummeting in one singular direction, something chosen at random, like following the only light she could constantly depend on, and even that was wavering. Each dawn greeted her like a firecracker, and the echo died with each hour of the decaying day, darkening to her rear as she pressed on forward, trotting and galloping and flying east without looking back.

The world stopped being the world, and instead turned into something else, something different, something twisted, yet painted with all of the mesmerizing colors of the previous facade. It was hard not to get jaded by so much clutter, epic or not. There were less and less things to mourn with each passing day. The continents were growing thicker, yet emptier, like so many heavy books with so few words inside that were still worth reading. Even the titles were growing less and less discernible. Daring struggled to so much as see her own name, until she ultimately gave up on reading altogether. She was far-sighted, after all.

All the pony could do was rip and tear, and the world kept on splitting, dividing itself perpetually in half before her. By speeding down the shrinking hole, Daring was going everywhere and yet nowhere at once. And deep down into the depths of the abyss that she had made, the pit she couldn't escape nor desired to, she found one breath, a lonesome one, and it had only one wish, one dare:

To go deeper.

Daring plunged, and she shouldn't have been surprised that the fall would eventually brake her. The pain magnified, waking her to a foggy world of twitches and tears. She inhaled sharply, wincing like a pregnant mare from the agonizing waves coursing through her right side. She sat up, rubbed her eyes, and stared at her tattered wing. The haphazard splint had fallen loose overnight; disgustingly bent feathers spread over a pair of flimsily wrapped metal planks. Much of the blood had dried up, but it was obvious she had lost a lot of it overnight. She pondered if her need to eat or drink was somehow related to her need to respirate, but it mattered little. She was alive—painfully alive—and that torture-induced slumber did nothing to settle her pulsating nerves.

Daring ripped off more strips of cloth from her shirt and used it to tie her wings tighter to the metal spokes. She wanted to sob from the pain, but held it in. When she was done, she barely had a shirt left. It was more of a tattered green cape than anything else, and she kept wearing it solely for having pockets to hold her compass, glowstone, and eyeglass case.

Eventually, she finished her task. The pain lingered, but it was gradually numbing, thanks in small part to her having reset the wingbones as best as she could. Catching her breaths, Daring stood up straight, reaching up for a pith helmet that wasn't there. Fidgeting, she pulled loose her eyeglass case. The bifocals inside had gained two new fractures from the recent battle with the golem. She ignored it and glanced instead at the mirror inside the lid of the case.

The reflection was nowhere to be seen. Daring saw nothing but twinkling stars beyond a gray soup of looming mists. Curious, Daring looked up, gawking at her surroundings for the first time since she woke up from fitful slumber.

There was no city left. There was barely even a single hint of the skyscrapers that had filled the landscape like a dense concrete forest before. All that was left was a thick sea of gray rubble lying around Daring Do in dry powdery clumps. A brisk wind blew over the plain in random bursts, kicking up dust and sediment but otherwise affecting little. Squinting towards the distance, Daring tried to make sense of the dull horizon, but it was difficult to discern anything from the immense shadow looming over her.

The pegasus blinked, then looked straight up. At last, her jaw dropped in awe as she took in the source of that shadow. The tower that had begun sprouting out of the golem's dying body when she collapsed was still there, and sometime during her slumber it had morphed into an impossibly tall superstructure.

The stalk was comprised of a twisting assortment of brass pipes and cyclonically interweaving steel bulkheads. On occasion, shallow platforms jutted out of the tower, flimsy and porous. Daring also spotted randomly sprouting copper antennae and jagged spokes of red rust. At some points, the diameter of the tower's stalk thickened, revealing dense cages of superfluous bars that formed spiraling patterns around themselves before closing up once more. Aside from two or three dozen paper-thin support struts running forty-five degrees from the ground to the lower lengths of the stalk, the enormous structure ran lonesomely towards the heavens, like a straight and narrow radio tower of absurd proportions.

As hard as she squinted, she couldn't see the summit of the tower. It wasn't that clouds were obscuring her vision; aside from a thin mist, there was nothing to block a clear view of the night's sky and the glistening stars beyond. The tower was literally a needle piercing its way into space, dwindling boldly beyond the perceivable vanishing point. How the stupidly slender thing didn't somehow collapse from its own weight or topple from the relentless winds blowing at it, the mare was powerless to guess.

With a shudder, she tore her eyes away from the eerily looming megastructure. Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out her compass so that she might continue the next leg of her trek. The rose rotated, settled, and pointed her east. Daring blinked, curiously following the path of the arrow in question. It led somewhere beyond the tower. Daring Do knew that she had undergone a great deal of duress, and her body was still coping with both pain and a severe case of disorientation. Regardless, a part of her could have sworn that the golem's body—and the tower in turn—had somehow sprouted north of her.

Ultimately she pocketed the compass away and trotted over the gray sheets of rubble, heading east along a path that took her past the very base of the megastructure. As she strolled along in close proximity to the tower's foundation, she noticed that there was no sign left of the ten story automaton whose bowels had given birth to the otherworldly stalk. In a way, this was something of relief to Daring, and she breathed easier once the image of the tower had vanished altogether from her peripheral vision.

Ten minutes into her stroll, Daring shivered from the chilling winds. Glancing left and right, she felt overwhelmed by how uniform and desolate the flat plains of compacted rubble looked. Gazing out for miles, she saw no discernible hilltop, mountain, plateau, or any other sort of dramatic change to the overall topography. Perhaps it was her weary imagination, but she felt as if there was a point where the horizon completely dropped out from the perceivable world, and that horizon seemed strangely closer than what the veteran explorer was used to. Her mind played tricks, filling her with the sensation of trotting atop the very summit of a gray dome possessing shallow, sloping edges.

Reluctantly, Daring Do came to a stop. She stood in place, her tan brow furrowed. Her confusion out washed the waves of pain still throbbing in her right side. Almost instinctively, she reached for her compass yet again. Popping the case open, she glanced at the compass rose, then let loose an audible gasp.

The thing was pointing in the exact opposite direction. East was behind her.

With a quivering expression, Daring trotted slowly around, all the while staring at her faithful guide. The compass remained pointing in the same direction, and the east arrow was positioned exactly along the path from whence she came, straight pass the base of the stalk.

The mare felt her heart beating straight through to her throat. On nervous hooves, she trotted back, retracing her steps, watching as the needle wobbled with every shift of her limbs, but otherwise stayed stubbornly pointed in the same direction. She arrived at the megastructure's stalk once again, brushing past it like a mailpony might casually approach a post box. Then, as she passed it, the compass twirled dramatically like a spinning top.

Daring froze, as did every blood vessel in her body. As the compass rose rotated to a stop, everything became clear. The east needle was pointing at the tower.

She lifted her eyes to gawk at the structure. Then, with more or less grace, she trotted a full circle around the thing. It frightened her just how little effort it took; if she didn't know better, she would have imagined herself orbiting a perfectly innocuous lamppost, or maybe a flagpole or a spreading oak tree or just about anything but an impossibly tall tower breaking through the veil of the heavens.

All the while, her eyes twitched at the phenomenon that she was witnessing. The compass kept rotating so that its east arrow was constantly, perpetually, and faithfully pointed at the heart of the megastructure looming before her. Daring felt her spine grow cold, as if freezing from the inside out. She stopped and looked at the west horizon behind her—only it wasn't the west horizon, or was it?

The mare was familiar with the concept of not being able to tell up from down; not once did she think she'd ever have to live it. It left her feeling vulnerable. With no cardinal directions to judge anything from, she was the very definition of powerless. She might as well have not had a cutie mark to begin with.

Stifling a foalish whimper, Daring hugged the compass to her chest and clenched her eyes shut. It took her several minutes to compose herself, to not feel as though she had suddenly become a puny flea crawling atop the round handle of a pale gray broomstick, lost in some forsaken starlit ether. When she reopened her eyes, they were moist, but determined. She stared up at the absurd tower, for suddenly it's many bars, spokes, and shallow hoofholds looked indescribably inviting.

With a shudder, Daring prepared once again to do the unthinkable. She pocketed the compass into a pocket of the flimsy neckerchief that her shirt had become, and then she crawled up to the base of the tower like a cat preparing to scratch a narrow post. When she touched a hoof to a row of vertical pipes, the coldness made her jolt. She felt her heart beating, so she threw herself into the motions, wrapping here forelimbs around any beams that she could find, scaling the stalk with as much grace as she could afford. Almost immediately, she could feel the dangerous kiss of the gusting winds, and her feathers twitched, sending a torturous stab through her right side. She paused to weather the pain, hissing through her teeth. Mentally, she reminded herself to leave her wing muscles alone. There was no flying away from this if she were to fall; she might as well erase all concepts of it from her already beleaguered mind.

In patient silence, Daring Do climbed the tower. It proved to be an awkward exercise at first, for the manner in which the beams of metal jutted out of the stalk appeared to be completely random. But, as her climb continued, the pegasus realized that the structure was essentially giving her a hearty cornucopia of handy things to latch onto. The trick was finding a swift and safe path through it all to ascend. She did so with extreme caution initially, weaving her way through cages of bent bars and wobbly antennae. But, as the minutes bled into hours, she increased her pace, not because the task was becoming easier, but rather its tedium was turning into something more manageable, almost even boring.

As a matter of fact, it swiftly occurred to Daring that this was ultimately going to be a severe task in endurance. This came to light with each passing hour, as she glanced down on a fitful impulse, only to see that the world below her had shrunk to a distant sheet of flat gray streaks, all swirling around her as if the bottom of the megastructure was actually rotating, whimsically stirring a shallow bowl of oatmeal.

Daring Do was fearless about a lot of things, the most essential of which was heights. If she couldn't afford to sail for miles above sea level, carried through the clouds by her naked wings alone, then she might as well have hung her archaeology doctorate out to dry.

But this—this was different. She was rapidly climbing up an unimaginably tall structure with no summit in sight. What was more, she was lame; her right wing was utterly useless. One slip of the hoof, and she would plummet like an anvil to the gray butcher's slab below, where she would surely be reduced to something too flimsy to be called "paste."

Daring gnashed at her teeth. She clung now to the tower as if it was a mother's coat. Her head pressed closed to the intricate, insane pipework, just short of nuzzling it. After several deep breaths, she clenched her jaw and resumed her climb, thrusting herself upward with swift, determine tugs of her upper and lower limb muscles.

To her delight, the tower—for as tall as it was—didn't sway a single inch in the intense winds. To her chagrin, however, there were still intense winds. They came in momentary spurts, their frigid gales rippling her mane and tail hairs, threatening to blow the strands straight off their roots. Every so often, she would have to pause, gripping tightly to the mess of metal planks and bars as she waited for the tempests to take their toll.

In a way, it was an inviting sensation, for it eased the throbbing pain in her right side. But such consolation was small. As soon as the drafts dissipated, Daring still had a long way to climb, if even there was something to climb to.

It was perilous looking down, but it was almost just as worse looking up. Everytime Daring tried to squint towards the zenith of her ascent, she saw nothing but the straight and narrow stalk of the tower gliding off into eternity. If there was a ceiling to this mess, it was so far away that she couldn't see it, or perhaps it was not there at all. She pondered over what sort of a cruel and malicious joke it would have been for a path to have been assigned to her, and yet with no perceivable destination.

It didn't help that every time Daring gazed at the stalk above her, it felt to her weary mind as if she was looking upon some sort of inverse horizon. She saw the world as a cylindrical mess of desolate skies all bleeding in a circle around her, and the stalk was the axis upon which the whole universe spun. If she stared too hard, she might go dizzy, and plummet backwards into the oblivion that she knew awaited her below.

The only substance she had to go by was the stars. They twinkled ahead of her, always in sight, always keeping a uniform shape and design. As the pipework and the metal mesh along her ascent constantly changed and morphed, the stars—at least—stayed the same. They became liken unto companions to Daring, and they accompanied her throughout the long haul.

And indeed it was a very, very long haul. Daring knew she had been climbing for an extraordinary amount of time; she simply couldn't tell because there was no change to the daylight. As a matter of fact, it wasn't exactly day or night. If nothing else, Daring could describe the sky hanging around her as perpetual twilight. The heavens hung in dull blue silence, and the stars never hid away or grew any brighter. The pony had long lost the desire to eat, drink, or sleep, so as far as Daring could tell, she was climbing the tower for longer than just a dozen hours. Time rattled together like brittle stones in the bottom of a glass jar, and soon she could no longer measure the rate at which minutes, hours, or even days passed by.

At one point, the comprehension of this alarmed her. She clung to a flimsy platform, somewhere above a cage and below a jutting array of antennae. She had nothing else to mark the moment by. Looking down, she knew the earth lingered below, but all she could make out was a splotch of gray haze, like the faint hint of clouds beyond clouds beyond even more clouds.

Daring's mind spun in circles, attempting to calculate the situation at hoof. Her ascent was steady, albeit slow. She guessed that she was crawling up the tower at the rate of two miles per hour at best. Assuming that she had actually only climbed for no more than twelve hours, then that meant she would have scaled twenty-four miles in less than a day. The troposphere only existed no further than eleven miles from the earth's surface.

Daring wondered how she was even able to breathe. She felt heavy winds and blistering cold air currents, but it was nothing like the unlivable conditions of the stratosphere. On top of that, she knew in her gut that she was going at this for far longer than twelve hours, or even a day. As much as she dreaded the thought of it, she somehow knew that she had been climbing for the better part of a week.

She felt the strong urge to throw up. Blood pumped through her arteries, adrenalized by confusion and panic. Her mind spun just like the compass had paradoxically done far below, ushering her into this frightful venture to begin with. Taking even breaths, she closed her eyes, calmed her nerves as best as she could, and proceeded to do the only thing that made any sense whatsoever at the moment: she continued climbing.

There were times when Daring felt as though she had become one with the tower, as if she was some sort of mechanized unit that was being magnetically pulled towards a nebulous source beyond the vanishing point. It was a queer thought, but one that helped her, in that it kept her hooves clinging faithfully to the metal spokes at all times.

Even that was becoming a frightfully tough venture. Hunger and thirst probably had no meaning, and time itself had vanished from her consciousness, but the mare was still closely acquainted with her senses. And, at the moment, she was starting to lose every one of them. Brought on by the constant tug of gravity, the chilling kiss of the cold winds, and the numbing strain of constant hoofholds, every feeling in her body started to dwindle. Soon, the only thing that held any meaning was pain, specifically that which torturously throbbed through her right side. Apart from the stars, it was the only constant companion to her agonized sojourn.

At some point, days or weeks or perhaps even months into the climb, Daring paused for a much needed respite. This was difficult at best; the widest platform she could find only afforded her less than eighteen inches of wobbling porous metal to perch on. Nevertheless, she planted her rear hooves against it and squatted, clinging to a jutting brass pipe, nuzzling it like a parent's fuzzy fetlock.

Her gray tail danced like a windsock. She couldn't feel it anymore—her scalp and her mane hairs even less so. The shirt was struggling to stay bound around her neck, and it was a miracle that her glowstone and other belongings hadn't plunged to the depths below.

She glanced down at the surface world in question, but could see nothing but lingering grayness, like a sea of spoiled milk churning onwards into infinity. Daring was literally stuck in limbo, clinging to a taut metal tendon between two halves of nothing. The sensation wasn't half as eerie as it was disgustingly familiar.

One sniffle, and the pony's face contorted. A second shudder, and her muzzle caved in completely, grimacing as a tear ran down her cheek, followed by another. She clenched her eyes shut and burrowed her face into the emotionless pipework, crying quietly into the spaces where no echoes would return. She clenched her teeth hard together, shuddering as the urge to hyperventilate ripped through her like an embalmer's knife. When she allowed herself to breathe, everything came in and out of her like merciless gunshots. She bit her bottom lip until it bled, and that finally magnified the pain from her shattered wing. Daring focused on this, drawing it out of her insides like venom from a snake bite. Slowly, the pony's sorrow morphed into anger, and it fed a spark hidden deep inside the darkness that she had known all her life, because that colorless void was the only thing she ever had the affordability to call a "friend."

When her ruby eyes reopened, they were as hard as sharp rocks against a crashing sea. She reached blindly forward and pulled herself up the metal intestine, scaling the rafters of eternity, for it was all she knew how to deal with the end and the beginning of everything, like bookends that had always encapsulated her life, but needed to be spread apart, torn through and exposed, now and forever.

The next length of tower metal that Daring scaled was done so at a feverish pace. She nearly slipped once or twice from the sheer perspiration coating the ends of her hooves, but the stabs of fright only urged her to accelerate further. Eventually, she was leaping from hoofhold to hoofhold, practically throwing herself up the tower in ruthless defiance of gravity. Her vision blurred and refocused, brought upon by the pulsating throb of the blood vessels in her eyes.

Maybe it was her distorted vision, or perhaps it was some deep and innate desire for an end, but Daring swore she saw the hint of a black shape looming lonesomely within the fabric of starlight above. She could make out something solid and round, like the blooming petals of an enormous flower.

Soon, she couldn't make out anything at all, for the world around her was darkening. For so long, there was the faintest hint of an atmospheric haze about the place, but soon even that vanished, replaced instead by stark black inkiness within which the stars swam, constellations that were now brimming all around her, as if whatever semblance of an earth there was underneath Daring vanished altogether, dropping into a bottomless void that always was and yet never was.

How many days, weeks, or even months did it take Daring to get here? She couldn't tell; she could only climb. Thus, it was with complete and utter surprise that she found herself staring into the glossy outline of a scorpion.

The adventurer did a double-take, her serious face scrunching up into an adorable expression of utter confusion. Her ruby eyes blinked. With her hooves hooked over a separate dangling antenna, she leaned her body forward, squinting up close to what turned out to be a sheet of polished granite built into the stalk of the tower. It was a plaque, complete with dark lines engraved to form the rough image of a scorpion.

But it wasn't just some mere illustration. There were dots formed along the engraving, bulbous points that the arachnid design roughly followed. The pony's mind ultimately clicked forth an explanation: it was a star pattern. However, as hazy as her knowledge of astrology was compared to her archaeological gifts, she couldn't recognize it as Scorpio. The arrangement of stars were vastly unique, which appropriated a radically different pose to the scorpion's claw and tails than that which the pony was familiar with. Her only conclusion was that this was supposed to be a different constellation altogether—but... one that didn't exist?

She was so engrossed in thought that she didn't notice the floating blue muzzle until it was laughing at her from beyond the plaque's glossy surface.

With a shriek, Daring's hooves slipped and she fell back. Her left wing shot out, flapping, balancing her body for a few heart-stopping seconds. Then, with a grunt, she lunged forward and clasped onto the metal antennae again. She hung there, limp and panting, until she summoned the strength to launch an angry glare at the granite plate.

The reflection smiled, waving playfully at her. As it's giggling head tossed mutely back and forth, Daring noticed something. She blinked, then squinted harder. Indeed, there was no hint of gray left to be found in the reflection's flowing mane. From bang to bang, the figure's hair shone with every color of the rainbow, from red to yellow to green to blue to violet. For something so unkempt, it was remarkably beautiful, and it shone off her tail as the figure spun about and soared out of view of the scorpion plaque's reflective surface.

Daring gasped, jolting from where she hung off the tower. She looked to her left and above, instinctively following the movement that the blue figure had made. Before she could punish herself for such a blatantly stupid gesture, she saw the sliver of something reflective just forty feet above her and towards the far end of the cylindrical stalk.

Curious and breathless, Daring scurried up. She roped her way through a bush of metal bars and past an erratic array of porous platforms. At last, she made it to the level where the silver of reflective material still glinted in the starlight. Propping her rear limbs atop two crooked pipes, she stared evenly with the plaque.

The engraving depicted a slithering snake, its scaled body intertwining about a mess of tiny stars, with a large one positioned at the serpent's head. These designs were not alone; a smirking blue face had been waiting patiently, its ruby eyes matching Daring's own.

The pegasus blinked curiously, hanging before the plaque in silence.

The blue figure lost the waiting game. Rolling its ruby eyes, it suffered through a cute yawn, gazed at Daring with a bored expression, then pointed directly up. With a flurry of blue feathers, the reflection shot heavenward.

Daring tilted her head up. She saw another plaque, this time fifty feet up and slightly to the right. She climbed briskly, as if afraid the sapphiric phantom would somehow be gone before she got a chance to reach her next destination.

When she reached the plaque, she saw the image of a bear rearing up on its hindquarters while stretching two savage paws up to strike some unseen foe. Once more, it was nothing at all like Ursa Major, Minor, or any other constellation Daring could recall. She looked at the constellation illustrated across the granite surface, then glanced behind her at the stars hanging all around. She could spot no discernible pattern from the cosmos wrapping around her and the tower.

When she glanced back at the plaque, she again nearly jumped. The reflection was there, leaning a lethargic chin against its hoof. Upon noticing Daring's attention, the figure smirked, spun circles with its other hoof, then floated gently upwards.

Daring took this as a far softer invitation than before. She crawled towards where she saw the next plaque, however much more slowly this time. She found that the blue figure in the reflection was keeping an even pace with her from granite slab to granite slab, as if the two of them were no longer alone but rather scaling the tower together, working towards each destination in tandem. In such a fashion, Daring came upon several more constellations, each marked by seemingly random creatures: a dragon, a sea serpent, a pair of wolves, a hydra, and a lion.

One plaque, however, made her pause, so much so that the blue reflection had to swim back and tap silently against the other side of the slab, frowning with utter impatience. Daring couldn't help it, though, for the plaque's stars were mapping out the rough outline of a winged pony, a pegasus, much like herself. A nervous knot formed in the base of Daring's throat.

When she resumed climbing, she was startled to bump her head into something. With a grunt, she rubbed her scalp through her mane, then looked directly up.

There were no stars to be seen; the sky was utterly black. This startled the breath completely out of Daring Do until she came to realize something: she had reached the bottom of a grand, circular platform. Looking out at both ends from where she hung, she saw where the field of bright stars completely ceased, as if running into a blacker-than-black shape that loomed over the explorer's fuzzy ears, or the entirety of the tower's stalk for that matter.

Chewing anxiously on her lip, she glanced down at the plaque. The blue figure was there again, smiling mischievously as it pointed "up" and "up" and "up" before flitting off in that direction. Fumbling, Daring hung onto the stalk with one hoof and felt directly above with another. Her hoof struck cold, dead metal. The underside of the structure—whatever it could have been—was beset with many rungs and vertical antennae and loose pipes that jutted into the pegasus' blind reach.

She huddled there in the dark shadow of the unexplained, attempting to wrack her brain. Then, with a heavy wince, she remembered her glowstone. She pondered if she had indeed been climbing that tower for weeks. If so, perhaps it could have explained her sudden absent-mindedness.

Not wasting anymore time, the pegasus grabbed the glowstone from her shirt's pocket and breathed into it. A pale shine glinted off a glossy black ceiling looming above her. Daring shone the light around, and she discovered with mixed relief that the round structure stretched no further than a hundred feet in diameter. Whatever the thing was—a platform or a floor or a dome—it was almost anticlimactically small. She wasn't about to complain, however, because judging from the hanging forest of metal rungs and pipes stretched all across the thing's underside, there was only one way to make her way to the edge.

Gulping, Daring breathed onto the glowstone one last time, pocketed it into her raggedy shirt, and began flexing her forelimbs. Still clinging her rear limbs to a mess of antennae positioned below the "pegasus" plaque, she boldly reached out—practically lunging into the black air.

Her hooves slapped over a pair of dangling pipes, and her lower half swung loose. She shrieked, a little too girlishly for her own comfort, but ultimately found herself dangling with relative security from the tower's looming ceiling above. Taking deep, even breaths, she timed her muscles with the swings of her body and flung her left hoof out, followed by her right. In such a daredevilish fashion, the pony monkey-climbed her way from rung to rung, pipe to pipe, antenna to antenna.

She resembled a brown beetle crawling upside down across the underside of a blooming black daisy. She only wished that it felt quite so charming. An entire eon's worth of vertically climbing the epic tower was only now starting to take its toll on her, for this was the one and only true test of Daring's upper body strength.

The fact of the matter was: she had gone beyond exercising for this. The days and days of agonizing ascension had only weakened her, and she could feel her shoulder muscles starting to buckle and tear. Her entire body shook, and she felt as though she could slip at any second.

Panic wracked through her body. Her wings flexed and unflexed on instinct, which only made the situation worse on account of the horrid pain. Hyperventilating, she twisted completely around, deciding to crawl back towards the stalk from which she came. It was then that the pegasus truly, truly had a reason to shriek.

The stalk was gone. All of the pipework, all of the metal framework, all of the intestines of copper and steel—even the granite plaques with their cryptic constellations—had completely and utterly vanished. She was clinging to the underside of a black, black disc floating loosely in the cosmic ether. And yet still, gravity bit at her hooves, making the blood in her aching limbs bubble and spurt.

Daring Do suppressed a whimper. Gritting her teeth past an onslaught of cold sweat and terror, she pivoted around, almost slipping twice as her doubly numb hooves struggled to cling to the flimsy rungs above. One forelimb at a time, she swung herself towards what she perceived to be an edge to the suddenly floating platform. Each movement was made in spastic little jerks, lacking the grace of a true adventurer. Daring didn't care; she fled towards the dark, upside-down horizon like a frightened child, swinging as swiftly as her pulsating hooves could carry her. Her glowstone was starting to dim; she felt like she would end up falling into that ravenous void of stars forever.

At last, she reached the end, and she didn't know quite what to do with herself. She had only one rung far enough to cling from and yet somehow get within reaching distance of the platform's edge. Defying all odds, she wrapped the crooks of both hooves around the one metal pipe. Then, with nostrils flaring, she let loose a long growl for fortitude, then let go of one hoof. Hanging from a single limb, Daring twisted around, and acrobatically re-gripped the rung with her free leg so that she was dangling in such a way to pull herself evenly with the platform's edge, facing it.

This next step she performed with a psychotic burst of energy. She wasn't entirely sure how her body was capable of doing it, but she vaguely recalled flinging herself upwards with both forelimbs, like a leaping orangutan. Somehow, her hooves caught the edge of the platform, and to her immeasurable joy, the metal surface was thin enough to afford her a hoofhold. Not wasting any time with thinking twice about her luck, she eagerly pulled, tugged, and ultimately hoisted herself up on what turned out to be even ground. As she did so, her body was assaulted by a pale light, forcing her eyes to squint.

She didn't reopen them immediately, but rather she stayed there, lying on her back, feeling immeasurable relief as blood circulated back to her exhausted extremities. For once, gravity afforded her a chance to relax, and she relished every second of it, murmuring soundless prayers of thanks to the cosmos looming above.

At last, the pegasus sat up, opening her eyes to take in the nature of her surroundings.

What Daring saw nearly made her jaw fall all the way back to the unseen earth below.

And the Hellish Heavens

The round metal platform floated amidst a black fabric of stars, and situated in the very middle of this platform was a round seat, a sunken throne of sorts, affixed with a pair of thick levers about half the size of an average pony. Surrounding this seat was a ring of brightly shimmering stones, numbering eleven in total. Each lit stone possessed a different emblem, each matching the "constellations" that Daring had seen engraved across the plaques during her last three hundred feet of climbing the now-nonexistent tower to get there.

Daring paced across the platform until she stood in the center of the bright stones. A pale glow also emanated from the sunken seat in the middle of the platform, and it shone with otherworldly luster across the glossy surfaces of the slabs and their various engravings. Daring paused to look at the familiar images, spaced apart seemingly at random: a lion, a sea serpent, a pair of wolves, a dragon, a scorpion, a bear, a snake, a pegasus, and a hydra. However, she did take notice of two emblems on the platform that she had not seen before during her climb up the tower. One was that of a moth, a stone that seemed to be glowing particularly brighter than the rest, and the other was the illustration of a book.

The coat hairs on the back of Daring Do's neck stood on end. She immediately scampered towards this last stone and slid onto her knees to examine it closely. Unlike the other ten slabs, the book emblem was not glowing. Furthermore, the chiseled lines didn't appear to possess any deep, starry points to suggest that the book represented a constellation of any kind. It was simply the outline of an open tome, as inviting and as insulting as ever to Daring's quivering eyes.

The mare flared her nostrils and stood up, rubbing her chin in thought. She glanced repeatedly between the dull book and the ten bright stones. Twirling around, she once again studied how equidistantly spaced the slabs were from the seat in the platform's very center.

Inevitably, she trotted towards the throne. Her curiosity outweighed the throbbing pain of her wing as she knelt down and gazed at the seat closely. The chair was plush, with velvety cushions that didn't appear to belong there, surrounded by so much garrish metal and marble. Daring Do's eyes traveled along the pair of thick metal levers situated directly in front of the throne.

The explorer had always been surviving off of impulse, and this case was no different. Easing her aching limbs, she slid down into the seat, wincing a little bit in expectation of an uncomfortable sensation. However, as Daring sat down upon the plush throne, she was relieved at how perfectly it fit her, as if she was the only pony in the universe that this contraption was built for. She flexed her lower limbs, feeling as they reached all the way towards the bottom of the alcove in which she was positioned. From the pony's perspective, the surface of the platform was at about shoulder height, and she could look about in three-hundred-and-sixty degrees to see all eleven of the lit and unlit slabs facing her.

Next, Daring focused on the levers in front of her. She slid one hoof out, then the other. Nervously, she felt along the metal rods until the crooks of her forelimbs fit snugly around the grips at the end. She did nothing at that point; she simply felt the apparatuses at her disposal. Just like the chair, they were seemingly built to her individual specifications.

Daring's ruby eyes traveled up. She noticed for the first time that the chair was currently facing one slab in particular: the stone with the constellation of a moth. From her perspective, both levers appeared to frame the image, and the moth engraving glowed considerably brighter than the rest of the slabs.

The adventurer sat there, suspended in the womb of utter silence, letting the inky seconds limp by as she tongued her lips in thought. With a deep breath of resolve, she pushed forward on the levers.

Nothing happened.

With a raised eyebrow, she tugged at the levers, attempting to yank them left and right.

Again, nothing happened.

Stifling an annoyed growl, she pulled back. Both levers gave way at once with a rattling of gears, forcing the mare to gasp in surprise. She flew back into her seat, shuddering from the pain in her right wing. As her agonized vision came back into focus, she saw the slab in front of her fluctuating. With the sound of ringing bells, the bright image of a moth dimmed, its lights draining completely from the starry engraving situated before the pony's seat.

Simultaneously, something was happening in the heavens. Daring Do looked up, and her jaw dropped in surprise.

Several of the stars had clustered together and were moving about... flitting about... flapping about the heavens. A nebulous array of cosmic light had come to life, and it was darting lazy, playful circles around the black horizon of the circular platform with almost childish whimsy.

Daring turned and stared as much as her position in the seat would allow her. While the giant, glowing "moth" continued its erratic pattern, a strange thought struck the mare. She turned back to look at the stone with the insect's engraving on it. The slab was as dead as a grave marker, but there was something else of interest. The cosmos situated just above the stone—directly in front of Daring from where she was seated—was completely devoid of stars. It was as if a giant black swath had been sliced in a perfectly vertical fashion from the majestic horizon, turning that portion of the sky into beautiful, barren nothingness.

Curious, Daring leaned to her side in thought. Without meaning to, she had yanked the left lever aside, and almost immediately the sunken seat rotated left with a dull grinding noise. Daring gasped, watching fitfully as she passed the image of a lion, a pegasus, and a pair of wolves. Panicking slightly, she yanked the left lever back into an upright position. The revolving seat stopped on a dime, and once more everything was quiet.

She sat still, fidgeting, watching as the starry image of a moth fluttered above her. Chewing on her lip, Daring stood up in her seat and looked behind. The slab of a book rested, and there was something different about it. Immensely curious, Daring experimentally twisted the right lever aside. On command, the seat rotated to its right, grinding on otherworldly gears. She waited as it slowly spun one hundred and eighty degrees. When she was at last facing the slab with the book, she yanked the right lever upright. The throne froze, facing the book.

Leaning forward, Daring studied the slab from where she sat. Indeed, there was something different about the book's engraving: it glowed ever so slightly now. It was very hard to tell from the combined light of the chair, slabs, and stars, but a smidgen of dimness has funneled up into the surface of the stone, crawling across the lower lines of the tome's engravings like tiny luminescent ants.

Not one to waste time, Daring gripped the twin levers tighter and thrusted both of them forward towards the book engraving.

Nothing happened.

Remembering how the moth constellation was "freed," Daring yanked both levers back. She was immediately punished by the cacophonous sound of cracking gears. Fearing that the platform might buckle and explode, she swiftly tossed both levers back into their upright positions. She sat there, panting, glaring at the book with angry eyes.

After a few seconds, she calmed down, and she allowed her thoughts to pierce the present moment of frustration. She looked over her left shoulder, once again catching the stars of the moth dancing amidst other stars. After a minute of heavy contemplation, Daring looked over her right shoulder, this time glancing along the many glowing faces of slabs. At last, she yanked the right lever aside again.

The chair rotated right, gliding her perspective slowly across the galleria of constellations. When, at last, she stumbled upon the image of a scorpion—like she had seen earlier along her climb—she slid both levers upright. As the throne stopped, she took a breath and yanked both instruments forward, straight at the scorpion.

The slab in question lit up brighter than the others, as if it somehow knew that it had been "selected" by the machine.

Daring paused. She looked to her left, catching the fluttering moth in her peripheral vision. Then, in one methodical motion, she yanked both levers back.

The scorpion emblem pulsed brightly. With the sound of bells, all light wormed out of the engraving entirely. Daring watched as the sky before her shook and shifted. With giant arachnid limbs of gas clouds and swirling galaxies, an enormous scorpion crawled out of a niche in the sky. It immediately hung a left, skittering across the glittering canvas of night, until it found its way to where the moth was innocently perched. All it took was one swing of its barbed tail, and the moth was punctured down the center. Several stars quivered, then faded. One wing at a time, the moth dissipated, vomiting its gases into the ether beyond the pony's frame of vision.

As the constellation completely died, Daring heard a loud noise. She flung a glance behind her, only to find that a beam of bright blue light had shot out of the top of the moth slab. The pulsing pale beam sliced towards the heavens, piercing some unfathomably distant spot where no stars dared to shine. The sudden illumination almost made up for the blackness that was left in the moth constellation's absence, but it was hard to tell from all of the motions that the ravenous scorpion was making as it cavorted across the heavens in the insect's absence.

Daring eventually stopped staring at the infinitely stretched beam of blue light. Glancing back at the scorpion slab, she noticed that it was as dull as the moth stone had been just seconds ago. While her ears twitched with the sounds of distant thunder, Daring yanked left on her levers, forcing the chair to rotate slowly in that direction. She passed slab after slab, until she at last faced one in particular: the snake engraving.

Stopping the throne there, she flung both levers forward. The snake lines lit up brightly, their starry points shivering with anticipation. Holding her breath, Daring yanked both levers back. Almost immediately, a vertical panel of bright scaley stars coalesced above her view of the slab, then slithered around the heavens until they found the scorpion. With one savage thrust, the serpent sunk its fangs into the arachnid, crumpling its cosmic carapace before gobbling the thing whole.

Daring heard a crack of thunder to her right. She glanced over and saw the scorpion slab shooting a pale blue beam skyward, joining its insect sibling's as it stabbed the heavens. The sound of thunder intensified, and for a moment there, Daring thought that some horrid thing or another was coming to life from beneath the surface of the platform.

However, as the rumbling continued, intensifying to a frightening degree, the pony realized that the sound was coming from directly above her. She tilted her head up, staring straight into the zenith. Her breath left her as she caught sight of something glowing, something burning, something... falling.

The twin beams of light weren't stabbing; they were attracting. Whatever possessed the stones to shoot their energy into the sky was also commanding them to tug something towards the lonely platform floating in the heavens, and it was tugging the object at a dramatically increasing rate. Daring couldn't tell whether it was a meteor or a comet or something worse. Furthermore, she didn't have the affordability to tell, for she knew that she was now stuck in some sort of infernal race against time.

She looked all around, craning her neck feverishly. At last, Daring saw the "book" stone. She rotated the platform towards it, noticing as she came about that the slab with the tome engraving was glowing a bit brighter than before. Unleashing the scorpion on the moth and the snake on the scorpion was evidently having some sort of inexplicable effect.

On a whim, Daring flung both levers at the book, then yanked them back. Again, she was punished with the ear-splitting sound of disagreeable gears. Grunting, she relaxed the levers and tried to ease her panting breaths. The rumbling grew louder from above, and she felt a faint vibration running through the grips of her instruments.

Standing up in her seat, head darting around, Daring studied each slab fitfully, one by one. She eventually settled on the image of a bear. Rotating around, she came to a stop before it, then activated the stone with both levers. The slab dissipated, giving way to an alternative ursa constellation that rolled loose, roared, and stomped its way across the cosmos until it snatched the serpent up in its jaws and tore it to starry strips. The sky blackened even further, replaced only by the snake's stone shooting a bright beam into the distant object above.

Daring's ears shook from the vibrations, but she didn't let up. Rotating slowly, she gazed at each of the slabs until she settled upon the image of a lion. She threw both levers at it, then yanked them back. Her breath left her in a gasp as the gears inside the platform rattled angrily, just like both times with the book.

The pony's face grew pale with panic. She looked in disbelief at the lion engraving, then glanced to her sides for other options. She saw the image of a pegasus and decided to take her chances. Rotating towards it, she gave the roaming bear-of-stars a nervous glance, then activated the equine engraving.

Again, the machine refused to work. Daring Do cursed under her breath, her heart racing with each bass reverberation that swam down from the plummeting object. Fidgeting, she looked around, then studied the dull image of a bear once again. Her mind struck a placid note, dreaming up images of coniferous forests and snowy hilltops and animal tracks. Then, with a knowing breath, she rotated the seat around until she faced the engraving of two wolves. Flinging both levers forward and back, she activated the slab.

With success, the engraving dimmed, and the stars gave birth to twin canines who howled before sprinting in opposite directions across the heavens. They came together on either side of the bear, launching themselves at its legs and flanks, tearing it to nebulous bits. A beam of light shot victoriously into the air, announcing the bear's death, but Daring wasn't wasting any time. She was already coming to a stop in front of the lion, activating it with careful jerks of her lever.

The lion roared to life, leaping across the black chasms in the sky until it ripped through the throat of one wolf and slashed open the intestines of another. As it bathed in the starry blood of its prey, Daring lingered once more on the image of a pegasus. She chewed on the edge of a tan hoof, glancing fitfully every now and then at the "book" slab. The engravings that made up the tome were halfway lit, though she could barely see from how much the platform was starting to vibrate.

The meteor up above was screaming closer and closer. The air heated up as Daring swiveled the chair around and round. At last, she settled upon the Hydra. With twin levers, she brought it to life. The creature with many heads lumbered around the darkening horizon, much too slowly for Daring's comfort. Nevertheless, its multiple snouts snatched up a separate leg of the lion and ripped the poor feline into quarters, spilling cosmos up into the ether along with a beam of bright light.

It was getting hard to spot the constellations from the sheer brightness of the sapphiric columns all around her, each of which pulled and tugged on the malevolent shard above with greater intensity. Nevertheless, Daring spun, flinging both levers at the sea serpent and then flinging them back.

The gears rattled, refusing to budge. Daring grunted, slapping the instrument panel in frustration. The pain of her impacting hoof was nothing compared to the ache of her eardrums, for the meteor was only a few hoofball lengths away now. The entire platform lit up with crimson light as Daring fumbled over the nature of her latest error. She looked at her last available options: the sea serpent, the dragon, and the pegasus.

Fitfully, she rotated once more towards the equine shape, but somewhere between the heated air and the deafening thunder, she changed her mind, instead deciding to roll past it until she fixated on the dragon. She flung the levers forward and back. Success: the dragon flapped its glimmering wings and swept briskly over the dark sky, snatching the hydra up in its talons before eating its eight-chambered heart out.

The air was heating up to a hellish degree, almost melting the tourniquet off of Daring's injured wings. Sweating profusely, she swung towards the sea serpent, all the while keeping the pegasus curiously in her peripheral vision. When she next activated the slab, a gigantic leviathan burst out of the starry depths, snatching the dragon easily in its jaws and splashing back into the rolling darkness.

By now, all was fire and insanity. The seat was starting to steam in a foggy circle around her. It burned her to remain seated, so she perched on the edge of the cushion with the tips of her hooves, gripping the levers in spite of their scalding touch. Gritting her teeth, she swiveled once more towards the pegasus, watching as bright humps of the sea serpent flickered and splashed all around her and just beyond the penumbra of the falling meteor's blight.

Daring's heart stopped. She gnashed her teeth, her tears evaporating as soon as they came loose. Living up to her name, she brazenly abandoned the pegasus engraving, spinning the chair on what was left of its gears towards the brightly-lit book, and activating it instead.

For half-a-second, she hung in nervous silence, but then the tome's engraving drained blissfully. The stars unfolded like a giant manuscript, sucking everything out of the remaining heavens with the power of an enormous vortex. The sea serpent had nowhere left to swim; it thrashed and writhed in panic as it was ultimately swallowed up by the book. Daring couldn't see the starry clusters closing from all of the flames and debris shooting down from above, but by this time she had already swiveled the chair towards the pegasus and flung the levers about before they could snap off their hinges.

The final beams of light shot towards the sky, enveloping the incoming meteor in a cocoon of blue energy. She couldn't spot what was happening to the pegasus engraving, but it no longer mattered. In a world without stars, she was the constellation, and she flung herself out of the seat with renewed purpose, darting across the red hot metal platform towards where she last saw the book slab.

She was rewarded for her faith, for the stone had opened like an enormous nutshell. A book lay on its side, and its cover was already catching fire from the heat of the moment. Daring barely saw a title before singe marks overcame it: "Daring Do and the Hellish Heavens." She flung the book open, but she didn't even have to shred the pages apart this time. She simply sat there and held the open novel overhead, allowing the descending heat to burn its pages into brittle ash.

As it did so, the book exploded in her grasp, firing one final beam of powerful blue light into the heart of the falling stone. Just meters before it could have crushed the pony into a pulp, the meteor exploded. Daring shrieked, for she was caught up in the catastrophe, flying amidst the remaining shards of a metal platform and an alien mountain. All gravity was gone, along with direction and meaning.

With no stars left, the only place Daring had to go was everywhere and nowhere. The sheer terror of the moment washed over her, but she was no longer drowning in it. Instead, she curled that darkness around her like a duvet and allowed her eyelids to mimic the emptiness that the universe had stripped out from underneath her hooves.

And the Void of Voices

"...I'm afraid that the Neigh York Archaeology Foundation simply cannot support this new expedition of yours, Professor Do..."

With a gasp, Daring's ruby eyes flew open.

Loose islands of rock floated in the void, their blacker-than-black outlines illuminated briefly by branching lightning.

Then all was dark again.

The mare shivered. Her gaze darted left and right.

A thin veil of purple nebulae hung over a bleak environment. Stone and jagged rock stretched around her while the horizon rolled over and over itself.

She moved her limbs, only to discover that she was lying on her side. The floor felt cold, smooth, like obsidian glass. When she stood up, she could only tell she was upright from a flash of lightning illuminating the shadow of her slender body.

Her fuzzy ears twitched as thunder rumbled across the formless skies. When the noise finally reached her, it carried with it the haunting semblance of structure:

"...What's gotten into you lately? What's with this obsessive need to make a blind trek east? The Scientific Quorum of Field Study is most worried..."

Daring spun around, panting, hyperventilating.

All was stone and chaos. Not a single shape was to be seen, aside from the jagged horizon of sundered rock. There wasn't even enough gloss along the surfaces to afford a reflection.

Daring Do was alone.

She was always alone.

She trotted limply forward, her numb hooves taking a serpentine path through the craggy spires. She was beyond exhaustion, beyond pain, beyond balance.

"...Speak to us, Professor Do. You've been rather quiet lately. Please, explain all of this behavior. Just what was it that you discovered in that ancient library during your last expedition...?"

Daring stumbled. She fell forward, and her right side grazed a throng of rocks. She fell to her knees, trembling all over. Her tourniquet had torn loose, spreading shattered feathers wide, exposing her injury to the battered universe. She felt streams of blood trickling out, and when she opened her eyes, she couldn't help but gasp.

Goblets of red levitated in front of her, bouncing and conjoining together in the static air. Trembling, Daring raised a hoof forward, staining the tip of her forelimb with her own blood. She gazed up at the sky, and as her eyes focused past the floating bloodstream, she once more saw mountains of rock twirling in the ether.

"...What was in that strange book that you found...?"

Daring plunged forward. She gasped, flailing about, trying in vain to flap her wings. Her body twirled against bands of lightning ripping past her in opposite directions. Her body hurled towards the nearest plateau of rock, accelerating like a tan missile.

She landed softly. Daring's body stiffened, and yet it wasn't shattered. She blinked as she felt herself standing upright on what was previously the bottom of a floating platform, as if all she had done from one chunk of stone to another was take a simple step.

Twirling about, Daring gawked at the landscape, at the blatant randomosity of everything. She gnashed at her teeth and wrung two hooves through her monochromatic mane. With a seething expression, Daring ultimately fumbled through the pockets of her tattered shirt, ripping out her compass and clutching it to her fuzzy chest as if it was a worry stone. Gulping, she flipped the thing open and gazed at the arrows.

The compass rose spun constantly, like a buzzsaw threatening to break off its hinges.

Slamming the thing shut, Daring hugged it again while staring skyward at another flash of lightning.

The thunder hissed down at her:

"...This is it, Professor Do. I'm afraid the Foundation didn't pay me for enough gas to fly you any further..."

Trembling, Daring limped ahead, navigating a steep ravine flanked by ragged teeth of rock. With each crevice that she passed, the echoes of thunder rolled on through, shaking her to her bones with their combined resonance.

"...Are you sure you're gonna to be safe on your own, Miss? This is No Mare's Land, Professor. There's been no recorded expedition east of this territory..."

Daring paused to rub her forelimbs. The temperature dropped with each step she took. The cold heart of the abyss digested her with each forlorn glance she gave the environment.

Lighting flashed, casting shadows of the jagged rocks over her like demon arms. She stifled a whimper and fell prone to the rock face, curling into a fetal position.

"...Well, if you insist. Just don't die alone out there, Professor Do..."

Daring gnashed her teeth, clenching her eyes shut as the shivers intensified.

"...Don't die alone... Don't die alone..."

She covered her forelimbs as the first of many quiet sobs threatened to burst from her lips. The glossy stone below collected a puddle of trickling tears.

"...Is she serious? Who doesn't like to read a bang-up tale from time to time...?"

Daring gasped; her moist eyes flew open. She sat up like a startled cat, her ears twitching as she shot an anxious glance across every square inch of the ravine.

"...Why, a good book is almost as magnificent as silk pajamas on a Sunday morning..."

Panting, Daring galloped in the first direction that the lightning revealed to her. She sprinted down thin chasms, over craggy mounds of gravel, and along steep embankments of stone.

All was desolation and darkness beyond the rumbling of thunder. At last, Daring stood upon the precipice of a twirling plateau, gazing into an array of floating mountains that hung like pebbles floating across a purple pond's surface.

"...Yeah, I love reading! And my head isn't even close to the shape of an egg..."

Daring's breaths came in quick bursts. Her muscles tightened, heating up and chasing away the cold as she perched upon the edge of nothingness. With a heavy grunt, she leapt off, spiraling through the strobing heavens with fearless ambition.

She somehow uprighted just in time to land all four hooves upon a tiny, spinning rock. Wasting no time, she leapt again as soon as she saw another plateau. Balancing on it, she jumped and jumped again, leapfrogging her way from jagged platform to platform as a large granite shadow loomed against the lightning ahead.

"...Reading is for everypony, Rainbow Dash..."

Daring shrieked, losing her balance upon the last crack of thunder. She shot forward, mindless and weightless, her ears still aching with the haunting words as she reached a tiny rock's outer edge. The mare struck the stone hard; all of the oxygen evacuated her lungs. Nevertheless, she clung to the knifing surface—dangling—and ultimately fought her way to even hoofing.

Coughing through blood and sweat, she stood up straight and reached into her pocket. Pulling out her eyeglass container, she looked upon the stained surface. Her name was completely gone, and in its place was a phantom phrase, a series of words she knew yet didn't know, that she felt yet couldn't feel.

Something inside Daring's face twitched. A frown scowled across her muzzle, ending in an angry hiss as she spun her whole body and flung the personal heirloom deep into the gaping nothingness. Lightning splashed together, consuming the shard from both ends, and the resulting blast wave flew vaporously into Daring from afar. The stone platform beneath her shattered, and she was flung—terrified—into the shadow of the looming granite mountain beyond.

The darkness consumed her just like everything else. She embraced it this time, for somehow she knew it would be a welcome respite from all the thunder:

"...I think you'd like Daring, she's a lot like you: adventurous, fierce, and undeniably, unquestionably..."

With a shuddering breath, the adventurer hugged herself and sailed into the rumbling continent.


And the Eternal Emptiness

Daring Do had seen the building before; she simply didn't want to believe it was there.

She sat, slumped upon the crest of glossy black granite, bathed in amber torchlight. In panting breaths, Daring gazed at the enormous stone structure before her. The cold steps that ran up to the front entrance matched the bone pale surface of the structure as a whole. It stretched majestically for six looming stories above her, its outer framework sloping inward like the bastions to some ancient bunker.

Gulping, Daring stood up and trotted forward. As the building loomed closer, the void's flicker of lightning highlighted the grand immensity of the entire thing. It stretched from end to end of the floating plateau, its rooftop dotted with large, burning basins at equal intervals.

Just then, a ripping sound echoed from behind the mare, like tearing paper. With a gasp, she looked behind herself, witnessing as slivers of the rock where she was just standing cracked apart and flew away like dust into the thunderous void.

She lingered, wincing, then resumed her steady trot forward. As she pressed further on, the rock broke away behind her, gradually reducing the plateau to a flimsy platform upon which the enormous building precariously perched.

With feather-light taps, Daring's hooves scaled the steep steps. She tilted her gaping face up as she approached a ridiculously tall pair of doors, fashioned out of solid oak. Within the wooden framework, complex engravings illustrated a dense crowd of ponies forming a living pyramid, and upon the end of their outstretched hooves there rested an open book. Within the tome's open pages, a torch was inserted, casting further brilliance upon the alabaster surface of this lonesome mausoleum.

At last, Daring reached the front gate. Reaching forward, she tensed her weary muscles and pushed... then pushed harder.

With loud, echoing creaks, the oaken panels gave way. They opened slowly, kicking up dust and sediment in the process. Once a space was wide enough to accommodate her, Daring slid through, entering the mysterious domain and allowing the enormous doors to close on their own weight behind.

As they ultimately slapped together, a cacophonous thud echoed throughout the arena. This noise would have stunned Daring, if only she wasn't being floored by something else entirely. With a breathless whimper, the mare slumped to her knees, falling back until her flank rested limply against the shut entrance. Her ruby eyes twitched with disbelief.

It was a library, and an immense one at that. The walls were no less than fifty feet high, and they stretched outward for hundreds of yards. Large partitions dotted the interior, bathed in torchlight, forming long columns that occupied the lengths and widths of that labyrinthine place. At last, along the corners, several hoofball lengths away, steps led up and up towards enormous balconies that overlooked the vast, dusty interior.

Every single square inch of every single wall and nook and cranny of that place was covered in shelves, and every single shelf within sight and out of sight contained books. Hundreds of books. Thousands of books. Millions upon millions of them: dusty tomes, thick encyclopedias, thin novellas, almanacs and journals and periodicals and ledgers. The air smelled of paper and age and death, and Daring was drowning in it.

She tried to step forward, but she collapsed instead, sprawling across the ancient stone floor like a tired infant anchored to a bed mattress. It took several minutes of fighting the aching pulse in her heart before Daring summoned the strength to stand up again. When she trotted forward, it was in a zombified lurch, wincing with each hundred feet of leather bound clusters that she passed.

The place was deathly quiet. Her hooves were like softs mountains crumbling against the emotionless walls looming over her. Aside from the flicker of torches, there wasn't even the smallest hint of rustling to accompany Daring's steps.

The mare trotted forward without thinking. She didn't bear giving any of the books a single glance. Instead, she kept her eyes locked towards the floor beneath her, and eventually she found a winding staircase. Following the stone steps up the central chamber of the library, she noticed a change in the air. The amber flicker of torches was giving away to other colors... albeit muted and condensed.

Curious, Daring glanced up, and only then did she catch sight of her destination.

The staircase was leading up to a raised platform, positioned within the nape of a grand dome that made up that section of the library's ceiling. Framed by whalebone beams of bent granite, several stained glass windows made up the majority of the dome's shell. As lightning flickered through the void outside, the mosaic of splattered color cast an ethereal haze over the flimsy platform, highlighting a raised podium situated in the very center.

Daring approached this bench, her eyes squinting.

A single book lay open, its pages pale and bright beneath the vomit of refracted light color. When Daring nervously placed a hoof against its wafer-thin edges, she felt a jolt of energy wafting through her, something as familiar as the taste of her own tongue, a fluid that had been coursing through her heart and brain since the day of her foaling.

She didn't want to, but she had to. With one swift heave, she closed the massive book shut, lifting its title to the light so she could read across its dusty words:

"Daring Do: The Friendless Filly."

The pony was silent. Her brow twitched, then furrowed as her jaws clenched. A deep tremor swam through her body, shaking tears loose from her eyes. In liquid motion, she draped herself against the podium, nuzzling the leather binding closely as she let loose sob after muffled sob, each disquieting sound devoured by the immense emptiness of that place, by the emptiness in everything.

For far too long, she had been acquainted with the smell and taste of that void, a world where thirst and hunger and exhaustion could not be satiated. It didn't have to take an epic journey to bring Daring to a place where she had actually been living all her life, if she had ever lived at all. Even with so much danger and adventure and discovery, none of it meant anything if she wasn't risking something precious to begin with.

Daring brought her face up from the tear-stained bookcover. When she stared up at the messy colors of the stained glass windows, it was with a frown. That expression buckled, and soon she was snarling, throwing her hooves forward, heaving the podium completely off its foundation.

The thing crashed through the brittle granite railing that surrounded the platform, littering the rows of bookcases below. The one book—"The Friendless Filly"—fell to a rattling stop within the penumbra of torchlight, which led Daring to leap up, perch upon the remaining railing of the platform, and reach for a torch dangling from a brass handle above. As she did so, something reflected off the glossy surface, something blue and dashing, like a panicked falcon.

Daring ignored it; she ignored everything. Snapping the torch off its foundation, she flew back down, spread the one book open, and slammed the burning end of the stick into the thick of its pages.

The novel went up in flames like a pile of matches.

But Daring wasn't done. Hopping over the smoldering pile, she perched upon the shattered railing, held her breath, spun, and tossed the flickering torch down into the sea of bookcases.

One line of densely packed books caught the flame along the way down. The many bound bodies lit up, their papery innards shriveling up and spouting smoke towards the dome overhead. Daring jumped through the gray curtain, hopping from bookcase to bookcase until she reached the opposite wall. There, she yanked the next torch off its foundation, spun, and dragged the tongues of flame across five full rows of manuscripts.

The library burned like a smoldering forest from the inside out. Daring added more fuel, darting from torch to torch and tossing them violently into the middle of the fray. The amber light within that domain intensified, sending waves of ash spouting upward, giving color and vibrancy to the holocaustal display.

For over half an hour, Daring punished the tomes around her, sprinting left and right to the full extent of her panting lungs, grabbing torches and flinging them into the ensuing bonfire. Soon, the air was thick with the musk of burning canvas and leather. Shreds of paper flew along a gusting wind, and yet Daring had no trouble breathing. She sat still within the center of the heated maelstrom, watching with twitching feathers as the last shred of substance withered away to fizzling embers.

Try as he might to revel in the destruction, Daring couldn't stop the tears streaming down her face. She hissed through clenched teeth, trying to keep her eyes open while the smoke pelted her face time and time again. As the heat grew to intolerable levels, she heard a violent crack behind her. Turning to look over her injured wing, she saw deep fractures forming along the library's front entrance, worming outward from the oaken doors as they rattled along their vast hinges.

A tiny shard bounced off of Daring's head. As deep cracks formed in the floor below, she looked straight up.

The stained-glass dome above was buckling, bending. As all the smoke collectively rose to coat its glossy surface, Daring saw the glow from beyond intensifying. The void's lightning strikes grew more and more frequent, ardently punishing the library from the outside. The resulting thunder had its toll on the dome, warping the structure violently. As the distortions met the cracks running up through the surface of the granite building, everything finally collapsed. The stained glass panels contorted, briefly summoning every color of the rainbow, then raining down on Daring's body like a merciless sea of knives.

The mare immediately tumbled back from the nightmarish salvo, her screams swallowed up by a sea of chaos surging through.

And the Calamitous Collapse

Daring Do's fuzzy ears twitched to a rustling sound, as if long sheets of paper were being burned in the dark confines of an abandoned library. Soon, that rustling became a gentle roar, coming and going in sequence. Then her shoulders shifted with the sound, and she opened her mouth to breathe, producing nothing but bubbles.

Daring Do lifted her face, sputtering. Her ruby eyes opened to a flash of gray stone, then immediately clenched shut to squeeze out the stabbing smoke. She curled up with a foalish whimper, only to hear the rippling of water all around her. Bobbing liquid surrounded the mare's body, soaking her, christening her tan coat with cool suds in the smoldering heat.

It took a great deal of courage, but Daring opened her eyes again. Her pupils stung from the gritty dust and burning embers dancing off her muzzle. At best, she could barely make out a fallen chunk of stained glass window looming before her. As she tried focusing on the void beyond, she heard a skittering sound. Looking to her right, she saw four crabs, each of them walking sideways in a clockwise circle around a palm tree.

With a stifled gasp, Daring stood up and trotted backwards out of the ocean surf. Her eyes traveled along cracked stone walls, pale mountain rock, and crumpled newspaper stands. With a resounding groan, a large rusted gear rolled past her, rattling to a stop atop a field of windswept grass blades.

Daring's mouth and lips quivered. Golden beetles swarmed past her billowing mane along a strong gust of wind. She spun around, her shadow grazing a pale obelisk as pendulums swam between gnarled trees entrenched in swamp water. Thick blizzard winds pelted her injured wing with snow. Wincing, she stumbled past a street corner and leaned against a slab of stone engraved with twin wolves battling a bear.

Fumbling with her shirt, she ultimately ripped the damn thing off with a frustrated grunt. Standing naked against the burning light, she pulled her compass out and braced the thing between two hooves. When she opened the case, a ribbon of living green vines splashed out, slamming her across the face.

Daring fell back, rolling down a sand dune until she came to a stop against a pair of dormant wooden fans. The air was filled with the smoldering of burning pages. She looked up, eyes tearing against the rust and decay as shapes rolled against the void like a murder of crows. They clustered tighter together, weaving tight knots with the grace of seagulls and dragonflies, until spreading outward like the burning end of a rope, dissipating into the thunder and lightning.

Daring battled her farsightedness, and ultimately the objects came into focus. They were words... her words. She reached a hoof out, desperate to stop them, desperate to form something with them that was succulent, that she could make a shape out of.

But it was too late. All was nebulous and crumbling. Daring's ears echoed with it, with the thunder, with the collapse.

She spun, gasping, for skyscrapers and bookshelves and mountains were crumbling into the void. The horizon was eating its way towards her, glinting with the angry spark of a sunrise in every direction. The heat kissed her hooves like a torch to paper, and she found herself scrambling helplessly away from the blackness, tripping over a collapsed conveyor belts and a brass podiums.

As she stood up and prepared to gallop towards the center of the remaining world, the library wall exploded with a runaway subway car. On screeching metal wheels, it careened towards her, spilling loose army ants and desert sand. Daring scampered away from it, panting as her body was pelted with tufts of steam and swamp leaves. She finally broke into a sprint, hopping over rusted antennae and constellation plaques. She tripped once or twice, nearly falling into the jagged teeth of a golem's gaping jaws, but nevertheless threaded her way forward, pushing against the stormy winds as she scaled the last remaining square feet of a porous metal platform.

At last, she threw herself upon the sandy shores of the beach, crawling her way up the snow and grass until she rested against a tall, glossy monument. A huge chunk of the library's dome had fallen deep in the swampy soil, its stained glass surface reflecting the madness deteriorating all around her. As each shred of landscape fell one by one into the void, the air matched the dismal gray malaise of Daring Do's mane. The darkness encompassed everything in a tight circle, leaving the adventurer alone on her little island with the mirror of muted colors behind her.

She sat there upon the crest of oblivion, sniffing the air, smelling the faint traces of fire thinning into stale nothingness. There were no more books; there was no more running. In a lonesome flicker, the last light of a sunrise melted away before it had a chance to blossom. Daring Do hugged herself and allowed the shudders to consume her, hanging her head almost apologetically as she bowed to the shadows.

And the Mare in the Mirror

Something rattled—like a window pane outside a foal's bedroom during a thunder storm.

Daring sniffled. With a melancholic expression, she slowly turned around.

As darkness fell, the colors across the stained glass window shard morphed together, coalescing into ink-black shadows, like they were reflecting the implosion of the universe all around.

Weathering spasms of pent-up sorrow, Daring wiped her cheek and stared even further into the glossy surface.

At last, a shape came into focus—a blue shape. It flew lonesomely in the darkness like a dim flame, gazing curiously... almost anxiously at the emptiness falling all around it, all around them.

Daring hiccuped on a sob. After two more shuddering breaths, something cracked, but it wasn't the mirror. She blinked her wet eyes and produced the softest of smiles, something blissful and bright, reintroducing a faint hint of light into the domain.

The reflection floated closer, as if reeled in by that expression. Its suspicious eyes glared sideways at Daring with a ruby squint. The world buckled with thunder, and it flinched. It was afraid.

Daring wasn't.

On graceful limbs, she turned around completely. Sand and rock broke away beneath her, falling into endless darkness. She shuffled slowly from it, fearless and frail, until she sat facing the glass like a mother kneeling before a foal.

The reflection settled down on light blue hooves, coiling its wings up in a pensive manner.

Tilting her head to the side, Daring bore a tearful smile. With each breath that calmly exited her lungs, she relaxed, her heart cradled by a gentle warmth that pushed her forward, so that she leaned towards the shard and raised one hoof until it pressed squarely against the glass.

The mare in the mirror flinched away, raising a forelimb in protest. But the strength of its recoil was outweighed by the immeasurably bright expression crossing its muzzle, flowing through its prismatic mane, twitching through its curious eyes.

The stained-glass window was frigid to the touch, but Daring barely noticed. The warmth from her smile had run its course through her body, setting her on fire like a torched book. She kept her mouth closed, all words shielded behind smiling jaws. No embers escaped. With her pain and fear and frustration exhausted, she had very few things left to give. All that remained of her was lonesome and weak and empty.

Daring gave it anyways, not because it made sense, but because, in the face of absolute nothingness, it was simply courageous to do so.

And she never backed down from a dare.

The mare in the mirror saw it. Whether it was from the challenge, or urged on by something heartier... and softer, she trotted forward, like a nervous animal desperate for a bite of bread.

Daring placed her second hoof against the glass, for the offering was still there. All the stone and grit was gone from below; the mirror was all that was supporting her now. She held her forelimbs forward in invitation and penitence all at once.

The mare looked at the mare, and in that fragile slice of silence, they shared the same breath. It fogged up the surface between them, but soon that mist parted when the blue hoof connected to the gray from the other side.

A single sharp breath left Daring. She sobbed and giggled all at once, her eyes tearing with a quiet gesture of gratitude. She leaned forward, planting her forehead against the cold surface of the blackening universe around her, and closed her eyes. Immediately, the inky ether spun, but it was just as swiftly anchored into place by the second hoof contacting with her other forelimb.

Daring hung there in pitch black, pressed up against the first and last wall that bound her there. When she shrugged her shoulders, the mare knew there'd be nothing left.

She fell forward, but it was without fear, for she knew what would catch her.

The forelimbs wrapped around her in a nervous tremor. She hugged her back tighter, feeling the warmth like a stab to the gut, burning her and emptying her all at once. She sobbed again, but this time it was a tender squeak. On an infant whim, she leaned forward and nuzzled her, enraptured by her scent, by her flinching nerves and sweet shivers all at once. She was both timid and tempestuous, frightened and furious, a damsel and a devil.

She was just like somepony Daring always knew... and just like somepony she could have gotten to know.

When she gave her last breath, it was through a smile, and she whispered the words that were finally ripped out from the deepest of her pages.

She wasn't allowed to even finish one sentence.

"Whoah!" a voice cracked like thunder into her fuzzy ears. "Where in the hay did you come from, lady?!"

And the Wordless World

Daring Do's eyes flashed open.

Blinding gold sunlight.

Sea blue skies.

A fluff of white mist and a rainbow colored tail and the flicker of a brown leather book.

"Hey! H-hey, watch it—!" Athletic forelimbs flung through a warm, warm world to catch her. "Don't—!"

They failed; Daring plummeted through the clouds.

She burst out the other side, plunging towards emerald plains dotted with rustic brown cottages and calico farm fields. Babbling brooks and crystal-clear streams threaded under antique bridges and past dirt roads. In the center of a sprawling little village, colorful pastel shapes paused in mid-frolic, gawking up at the plummeting figure with gaping muzzles. The land was alive with emotion, warmth, and color; Daring sailed towards it like a runaway steamship.

She hyperventilated, watching as the rock-hard earth flew closer at an alarming rate. She flung her hooves about like a fish out of water, flinching as her eyes rolled towards the heavens. A pulse of color was streaking down towards her like a missile.

"Are you crazy?!" the pegasus' voice rasped from above. "Flap your wings, ya hay-brained idiot! Flap those wings that your momma gave ya!"

The mare flinched. She saw the horizon flying hungrily up into her peripheral vision, and she curled her body up tight, wincing. Seconds passed as she hung there, and she realized her body hadn't been pulverized into a pile of orange paste. Her nose twitched against a whipping wind, and she noticed that she had two healthy wings levitating her in place. Her injury was gone, and in its place was a perfectly intact green shirt as well as a pale pith helmet.

Dumbfounded, Daring Do touched down onto soft, springy earth. The ground felt smoothing to the touch, as if everything was made out of little electrical bolts that chased away any ounce of pain from her tan coat. No sooner was she dwelling on this when a book plopped down innocuously before her. She looked down at the novel, and her mouth pursed open.

"Daring Do and the East Edge Archives."

Four blue hooves plopped down on either edge of the book. Daring looked up, only to have an angry pegasus growling in her face.

"What's the big idea?! Do you even look where you're flying?!" Rainbow Dash hissed at her, marching into the mare’s face and forcing the speechless adventurer to stumble backwards. "I was just sitting on a spare cloud, spending my day off with a nice read! Since when was that an open invitation for blind fliers to slam... into... me...?" Rainbow Dash's words dripped off the edge of her tongue. Her eyes had grown wide as ruby saucers.

Daring Do blinked back at her. She twitched upon seeing her perfectly tan reflection standing clearly in the flier's gaze.

"Whoah..." Rainbow Dash plopped numbly back on her haunches. "No way..." One eyebrow twitched higher than the other as she stammered, "You look just like... y-you look j-just like..."

"Rainbow Dash!" Applejack tore over a nearby hilltop at breakneck speed. She skidded to a stop, sweating and panting. "Land's sakes! Is everythang okay?! Everypony in town is screamin' about a pegasus havin' fallen from the skies! We thought it was you!"

"Uhhh... Huh?" Rainbow Dash snapped out of it, tearing her gaze off of Daring to look at the farm mare. "Take a chill pill, AJ! It wasn't me!" She pointed. "It was this pony right here! She just up and appeared out of nowhere!"

"Knocking ponies out of the sky, Dashie?!" A pink figure bounced up out of nowhere and stood between the two. "Now, that isn't very nice, unless of course you're keeping score!" Pinkie giggled. "'Pedestrian Pegasus Polo!' Heeheehee... I need to write these things down someday." She turned and gawked at Daring. "OoOoOoOoOh... Who ordered the safari mare?"

"Uhhh..." Applejack straightened the brim of her hat, squinting in sudden confusion at the newcomer. "Rainbow? What in tarnation... I-I mean... who in the hay is—?"

"Yeah, uh, about that..." Rainbow Dash leaned in, pretending to whisper aside. "I was just minding my own business with a novel of you-know-what when she just happened to—"

"Is there something the matter?" an eloquent voice chirped. With a gasp, Daring turned to see two demure ponies trotting up from a distant blanket spread. "Fluttershy and I were enjoying a fine little picnic when all of this confounded chatter started for no good reason," Rarity said, adjusting a yellow sun hat atop her pale crown. "Why, hello... Who do we have here?"

"Rarity..." Fluttershy slid up to her companion, hiding behind a thick lock of hair. "Look at her! Doesn't she look just like—?"

"Ahem, no need to make this any more awkward than it is, darling," Rarity said, gently patting Fluttershy's shoulder. She glanced over at the others. "Rainbow Dash, be a dear and let us know what's going on here."

"That's what I'm trying to figure out!" Rainbow Dash squawked, waving her hooves dramatically. "I swear! I think I'm starting to lose it!"

"And we all know how much you hate losing, Dashie!"

"Pinkie Pie..."

"Will everypony just hold their horses?!" Applejack growled, waving her hat. "No need to get our manes in a tangle. We've run into weirder things before."

"Oh dear, are you alright?" Fluttershy said, bravely trotting up to Daring's shivering figure. "You look so frightened, like you've seen a ghost."

"Uhm, Fluttershy?" Rainbow Dash winced. "I'm not sure if that's a good idea—"

"Don't be ridiculous!" Fluttershy flashed her an angry look before rolling a melancholic gaze back towards Daring. "Look at her! She's frightened speechless!" She placed a gentle hoof on Daring's shoulder. "It's okay. You can trust us." She smiled gently. "You're around friends here..."

Daring's head jerked towards her. With a warm breath, her eyes began to water.

"But Twilight! It could be anything!" A young male voice rolled over the grassy knoll, followed by frantic hoofsteps. "Did we really, really need to interrupt spring cleaning to investigate ... investigate... whatever this is?!"

"Spiiiike, I'm telling you! This is like nothing I've ever sensed before!" Twilight Sparkle trotted around the bend, her wings flexing by her side as she faced forward with a sigh. "Laws of Equestrian physics maintain that matter cannot be created nor destroyed. The type of surge my horn just registered, though, was so intense that it would be a crime not to measure it up close and—" She skidded to a stop, and a waddling dragon bumped awkwardly into her parked rear. As Spike dizzily regained focus, Twilight fell limply to her haunches, blinking brightly. "Oh... uhm... hello there..."

Daring limply waved. Then, with a nervous jolt, she looked at both of her forelimbs as bulbs of sweat formed along her forehead. A deep tremor wracked through her form.

"Twilight..." Applejack turned to face the alicorn in question. "According to Rainbow here, this pony just appeared out of the bright blue yonder!"

"Which is weird, cuz she looks neither bright or blue!" Pinkie added.

"Rainbow?" Twilight Sparkle squinted in one direction as she paced over to her dumbstruck friend. "Why are we standing on a hilltop next to Daring Do?"

"I'm telling you guys!" Rainbow spun, tossing her hooves. "I was just reading this book here, minding my own business, when she pops up out of nowhere, hugging me!"

"Hugging you?" Rarity leaned forward with a furrowed brow. "You neglected to mention that fine detail." She stole Daring a dainty smile. "Adore the chapeau, by the way. Very elegant, yet rugged."

"Er... well... uhm..." Rainbow Dash's cheeks burned as she fidgeted to say, "It was... like... sh-she leapt clear out of the pages and was clinging to me. It's hard to describe—that's why I think she really just flew into me without looking where she was going and—"

"Rainbow Dash, random pegasi simply don't appear out of nowhere," Twilight droned. "Especially ones dressed like your favorite literary hero." Her violet eyes made cute squeaking noises as they darted back and forth from the two winged ponies in question. "Is this another one of your silly pranks?"

"No!" Rainbow Dash stomped her hooves, flustered. "It so totally isn't!" She spun and planted her hooves on Applejack's shoulders. "Look, you're honest! Gaze into my face and tell me that I'm lying!"

"Simmer down there, sugarcube." Applejack placed Rainbow's forelimbs down and smiled in Twilight's direction. "She's shaken somethin' fierce, Twilight. I reckon she's tellin' us the truth."

"Or what she thinks is the truth," Spike grumbled, folding his scaled arms. "Seriously, how crazy is this?"

"Everypony, please, just calm down so I can think this over!" Twilight exclaimed, rubbing her lavender head.

"Yeah, Twilight!" Pinkie pumped a forelimb and chanted. "You use that righteous royal melon of yours! Go melony mental on us!"

"Uhm..." Fluttershy, in the meantime, was leaning in, observing as Daring's shivers grew more and more intense. "Are you alright? You look sick..."

Daring's ruby eyes were locked on the book that entire time. Suddenly, in a savage leap, she pounced upon the tome, flew its pages open, and tore the sheets out with her teeth.

"Whoah nelly!" Applejack gasped.

"Hey!" Rainbow Dash hissed in anger. "My book!" She flew forward in a blue blur.

Pinkie spun from her friend's inertia. "Wowsers! Somepony is hungry!"

Daring had utterly demolished the contents of the book by the time Rainbow rushed in and snatched the bindings out of her grasp. "That's mine! Seriously, what's wrong with you?! Now you had better buy me a new... erm..." She glanced back and forth from the book's illustrated cover to the familiar equine figure standing next to her. "Well, now that I think about it, that’s one way to get an autograph..."

In the meantime, Daring spat out the pages and stood dead-still, her eyes shut as she breathed in and out peacefully.

"What in Celestia's name is she doing now?" Rarity remarked. "What a curious character..."

"It seems like she's bein' all meditative-like," Applejack said.

"Ma'am?" Fluttershy asked, pressing her shoulder again. "Is everything alright?"

Daring Do's eyes fluttered open. The rustle of papers faded in the wind. The afternoon remained warm, the world remained rich, and the colors continued glistening.

Nothing had changed. Nothing.

She sniffled, bringing a pair of hooves to her face as the dam finally burst. Tear after tear sprang from her sockets, christening a deliriously grinning face.

The mare friends gazed curiously at one another. Pinkie Pie's face twisted in confusion while Applejack fanned herself with a hat. Rainbow Dash bit her lip while Rarity leaned in to exchange glances with Fluttershy. At last, Twilight trotted past the group, cleared her throat, and addressed Daring personally. "Ma'am, all of this is just... so sudden, for us as well as for you. You seem to have a lot on your mind, but please, we're dying to know." She leaned forward with an ardent expression. "Just... who are you?"

Daring Do sniffled. She looked up at them, smiled wider, and spoke.

"I am happy."

She breathed; she buckled. Before she could collapse, Fluttershy leaned in, nuzzling the mare with a sympathetic smile and giving her a shoulder to sob into. Rarity and Applejack shared mutual shrugs before trotting forward to rest comforting hooves on the adventurer's quaking shoulders. All the while, Twilight, Spike, and Rainbow Dash stared in mute wonder.

"Woohooo!" Pinkie bounced a happy orbit around the group hug. "Happy 'I'm a Happy Mare' Day! Let's go celebrate the new holiday at Sugarcube Corner?! Huh? Huh?! Cupcakes and sarsaparilla are on me!"

"Heh..." Rainbow Dash blew her bangs back and cracked a relaxed smile. "Now that might just do the trick. Anypony else down for that?"


"Most certainly."

"Shucks, why not?"

"You heard the girls!" Pinkie bounced past Daring and hoisted her along with a fluffy tail. "Hop along, new friend! We’ll fill that silly hat of yours with sprinkles! See if we don’t! Heehee!"

Daring chuckled and stumbled down the hillside with them, supported by Fluttershy and flanked by Applejack and Rarity. Spike hopped atop Twilight's backside as she glided down to reach the village ahead of the group.

Alone for a brief moment, Rainbow Dash hovered on limp blue wings. She paused, looked east towards the hilltop, then shrugged before briskly flying down the opposite way to join the welcoming party.

In the wake of her windy departure, a shattered book lay buried amongst loose blades of grass, its shadowed brown binding obscured by sunlight. It was nothing but a remnant of the past, like words turned foggy with time, glazed over with the felicitous sounds of laughter and life.

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