by shortskirtsandexplosions

Chapter 1: And the Shifting Sands

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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.

Next Chapter: And the Whipping Winds Estimated time remaining: 4 Hours, 24 Minutes
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