Series 2) Daring Do and the Caballeron Chronicles
by AlmanacPony
Categories:
Characters: Original Character(s), Other BG Pony
Canon: None
Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Suspense, Tragedy
Pairing: None
POV: 3rd
Status: In Progress
Warnings: None
• Everypony •

This is the second series of Daring Do's adventures. Here she battles the concept of friendship, the plots of the evil Ahuizotl, and perhaps a shadowy figure, deep in the darkness, pulling some strings.


Series: None
Chapters: 5
Word count: 56360 Read count: 2446
Published: 10 Nov 2015 Updated: 02 Dec 2016

1. 1) Daring Do and the Amulet of Atonement by AlmanacPony

2. 2) Daring Do and the Tenochtitlan Prophecy by AlmanacPony

3. 3) Daring Do and the Radiant Shield of Razdon by AlmanacPony

4. 4) Daring Do and the Razor of Dreams by AlmanacPony

5. 5) Daring Do and the Trail of the Old Stone by AlmanacPony

1) Daring Do and the Amulet of Atonement by AlmanacPony
Author's Notes:

Book 1 of the Caballeron Chronicles

Thus starts a new adventure for Daring Do. Has her life changed since the Terrifying Tower? It might have. Her companionship might have changed as well. But sometimes having those friends mean sacrifices, and sometimes, it can mean pain.

Daring Do and the Amulet of Atonement

 


 

The mud below splashed about her hooves. The wind rustled through her grey-scale mane as the mare dashed round a tree. A fallen tree blocked her path but with a single high leap she cleared it gracefully, landing on the ground, rolling on her hunches and slipping to a halt at the end of a cliff. The other side was close by but it was also high up, but as she looked up a vine was tossed to her with the words, “here ya go,” punctuating the air.

Daring Do looked up into the smiling face of Cloud Zapper. His green eyes looked down at her with fondness, and it was a look of friendship that brought a smile to the mare’s face. She grasped the vine, made sure it was strong and jumped, flying to the Cliffside, landing on it with her hooves and slowly walking up the sheer rock, pulling herself with the vine. Once over the top, her hoof was grabbed and she was aided by Cloud.

“You really need to start flying more.” He sighed.

“Told you, can’t see as much from up there.” She smiled, walking past him.

The two of them had been in this forest for two days now, and she had to admit they made a good team. They’d managed to canvass more of the area than Daring had ever usually managed on her own when in such places. She glanced at her companion, his stark golden armour glistening in the tropical light as though it were freshly polished. Which it was, he polished it every night…and every morning…and just after they stopped for food each day. She found it a little annoying how obsessive compulsive the stallion could be.

She sighed, turning her magenta eyes up to the sky, the macaw’s cried out above them, and as a cooling breeze ripped through the otherwise stifling air, she smiled, closing her eyes and enjoying it for a moment. The mare was golden coated and grey-scale maned, wearing her usual olivine vest and her trusty pith helmet.

Daring opened her eyes and lifted her hooves, removing her pith helmet she gently ran her hoof over it. It looked almost knew. It had once been pockmarked, it had been damaged and a large claw-mark had been gouged into the front of it. But now it was flawless repaired, thanks to a particular item she had discovered on her last adventure.

“Thinking about something?” Cloud asked.

She turned to him and looked him over. Not too long ago he’d been cold to her after he’d found out what she’d done. She thought she’d lost him as a friend, but then everything had changed when the adventure at the Terrifying Tower had concluded. She gulped, and turned away from him, forcing herself not to think about that day.

The Terrifying Tower had gotten its name because those that went in either didn’t come out, or were forced to experience their worst fears by the magic within. She’d been asked about that when she’d went back to the princesses, asked about her experiences in the tower. They didn’t understand why the Tower hadn’t made her experience her worst fear. She hadn’t answered them; it was an answer that was too painful.

“Daring?” Cloud’s voice broke through her reverie the world came rushing back and she seemed almost startled with the stallion that stood close to her, looking concerned.

“S-sorry, distracted.” She smiled nervously before turning away and looking around.

“You got any idea where it could be?” He asked curiously, speaking about the temple they’d been hunting down for a while now.

“I dunno.” She said with a shrug, walking past him towards a clearing. The trees began to encroach on them as they walked, the sound of the jungle slowly gaining in volume as the silence seemed to close around them.

“How do you usually find them?” Cloud asked. He wasn’t too big on jungles, but he seemed to be managing without too much complaint.

“Well to be honest.” Daring Do began with a nervous smile. “I usually just end up stumbling into the-EEEEM!” She screamed as the floor gave way and she began to fall through. The darkness rushed up to her and with a loud THUD she struck the dusty ground.

“DARING, ARE YOU ALRIGHT?” Cloud’s voice called down into the echoing chamber and seemed to be met with silence. A single pause impregnated the air as the silence seemed to fall, broken only by the call of a bird somewhere off in the distance. Cloud almost held his breath as the dust settled before finally the words-

“I’m okay.”

-called up to him. He let out the breath he held and sighed.

“You hurt?” He asked, his voice carrying on the echo.

“Nah.” She coughed, shaking the dust from herself as she looked around. “I think I’m in a cave.” She said, flipping out a glow stick from her saddlebag, snapping the chemicals inside and lighting the area with an eerie green glow. The ground seemed to be tiled with shapes running along it, making a pattern on the ground of a circle going outwards. There was a fallen pillar to her left and as she approached the wall, Ancient Equestrian writing became visible, decorating the surface in curving texts that had somehow survived the tests of time. Shrugging she began to mark them down in her notepad, humming as she worked. She’d begun to get into the habit of writing stuff down in an attempt to get better at her job.

In the centre of the texts was a mock-up of some kind of talisman. She looked over it and found it familiar, but she couldn’t say where it was from. She pressed some paper to the image and used a wax crayon to rub over it, creating a rubbed likeness of the image on the paper that she could analyse later. Behind her there was some grunting as Cloud lowered himself down on some rope.

“Wow, it’s dusty down here.” He coughed, shaking his head in an attempt to free himself from the stifling sensation.

“You get used to it.” She grinned as she began moving along the walls, looking at the other depictions.

“Is this what you usually do then? Just explore?” He asked curiously.

Daring just shrugged. “There’s a group at the Clopsdale university that research things in old books, looking for lost and ancient places, they forward them to me, I check them out and try to bring back a piece of history. Sometimes what I find turns out to be dangerous.”

“And Ahuizotl, how does he fit into all of this?” Cloud asked, studying a piece of tile that had fallen from the wall that was covered in the ancient equestrian markings.

“He’s…part of something else.” She sighed. “From what I’ve been able to discern, he’s from a very old time, and a very far off place. Kinda used to power and riches kinda guy.” She shrugged. “He likes having the most power, and if he can find something sinister to do to an area, he will.”

“But why?” Cloud asked curiously.

“Fear.” She answered simply. “The more afraid a populace is of him, the more control he has. And he really likes control.”

Her hoof knocked against something that glittered in the darkness. Looking down she glanced closely at the dirt before pulling her head back, and kicking at it with her hoof until the dirt came loose and the object came into view.

The object jingled across the floor, coming to a rest with some dust clouding the air around it slightly, the glint of blue crystals made Daring even more curious when she approached it. It was a blue amulet, attached to a golden chain. The amulet sported a bright jewel at its centre, with a head poking out the top harbouring a large unicorn horn, but on both its edges it also had blue jewel encrusted wings. The image of an Alicorn.

“This is interesting.” She said, reaching for the necklace. The moment she touched it, the blue shifted to a blood red, glowing brightly and it felt like energy ran up her hoof and over her wings. She pulled her hoof back sharply and the amulet once again returned to its dormant blue.

“Maybe you shouldn’t touch that.” Cloud Zapper said beside her, looking cautious.

Daring Do nodded and pulled out a rag, wrapping it around the amulet and stashing it away in her satchel bag.

“Let’s get back to the university, maybe we can figure out what this is there.”

*

Back at the Clopsdale University, the university Daring Do studied at in her youth, the brave adventurer huddled over a book, looking at a few depictions.

“Okay, I’ve found out what it is, but the origins of the Amulet aren’t listed. So I get the feeling this is a later entry.” She sighed.

“So?” Cloud asked, looking up from his book. He’d only managed to go through three, while Daring Do had managed to go through seven. Cloud had proven to not be the most expedient researcher.

“Sometimes old items like this get rediscovered before they get lost again. They get found, their powers are discovered, they’re named and the ponies that found it think they know what it really does, often they’re wrong. I mean, look at this.” She picked up the book she was looking at and trotted over to Cloud, showing him the page.

“‘The’ something ‘Amulet’,” he read, the book slightly damaged and the full name of the amulet illegible, “grants great magical power to any pony that wields it, regardless of race, enhancing all natural magical abilities.” He read, shrugging. “Sounds pretty powerful. It says it can only be removed by the pony that wears it.”

“Yeah, but now look at this reference.” She said, showing a smaller book.

“The Unicharm.” He looked confused as the pictures of the amulets were identical; different artists, same amulet.

“A magical corruption device.” He read. “Taps into wild energy magic to enhance the wearer, whilst corrupting their mind. A magical trap used to enslave a pony to the darkness, addictive in its use and can only be removed by the wearer.” His leaned back and sighed. “Okay, now it just sounds scary.”

“Yeah it does, but none of these legends say where it came from.” She sighed. “And without knowing where it came from, there’s no point in really doing anything with it.” She shrugged and leaned back. “Let’s just put it in the vault. I have dinner plans.” The mare said softly and passed the Amulet to Cloud who opened up the picture on the wall, put in the combination to the safe and slipped the amulet inside, so it sat beside the other assorted goods in the safe.

“Wait.” Cloud began, the grey stallion turning to look at Daring with a confused look, “a dinner?” He asked suspiciously. “Do you have a date?”

Daring Do chuckled and shook her head, taking off her hat and shaking out her mane. “No, it’s just Caffeine.” She smiled. “Though he probably wishes it was a date.” She chuckled wryly as she left.

She considered wearing something different but she decided not to. Her trademark outfit was likely going to stay the best bet; she wasn’t exactly the ‘dress and sparkly horseshoe’s’ kind of mare.

Walking into the cafeteria, she approached the till and got herself a muffin, before looking to the middle of the room where a table laid waiting amongst the others, most were empty, this one was occupied. At one side of the table sat a blue and grey maned pony wearing large glasses that were reminiscent of goggles. His back was half covered by an auburn red vest, and his posture was that of someone in concentration. Arching her head a little, Daring saw he had a book in front of him, and he seemed quite intent on what he was reading. She chuckled at this.

Caffeine Kick was a stallion of rare companionship. He was smart, loyal, kind, and he had been harbouring a massive crush on her for many years, which probably helped a little when sweet talking him into getting her a latte with sprinkles every once in a while. He could be formal at times, but that was more a learned behaviour due to his job. He was the go-to substitute professor at the university. He was capable in most subjects and masterful in a few particular ones, and when a teacher couldn’t quite manage their lessons, he was always there to fill in; on off days when he wasn’t subbing or researching anything, he would hold advanced classes for those that wished to increase their grades.

He was also her best friend.

Daring approached and stopped near his chair, looking over his shoulder.

“What ya readin’?” She asked loudly, making the stallion yelp and almost spill his drink.

“Don’t sneak up on me.” He said, the fright causing his tone to become higher pitched, belying his usual professional demeanour.

“Sorry.” She smiled, sitting down opposite him, relaxing back. She looked the unicorn over and smiled to herself. “I really am sorry.” She said a little softer.

“It’s okay, it was just a joke.” He shrugged, closing the book and placing it to the side.

“No, I mean…I’m sorry for…being me.” She said, looking slightly sheepish as she leaned back.

Caffeine Kick gave her a curious look and pushed the book to the side. He pushed her plate with the muffin on it slightly closer to her, encouraging her to take a bite.

“Go on.” He invited curiously.

“Lately I’ve been running around, going on adventures, almost getting myself killed, and in the last three months I’ve barely spent any time with you. We used to have dinner together every week, swap stories about adventures and classroom antics, and talk about ancient civilisations, and you’d always try to correct me on something that I was getting wrong or overthinking and I’d argue back and pretend to get annoyed.” She said, giving him a slight smile. “I miss it.”

Caffeine Kick looked her over curiously.

“Who are you, and what have you done with Daring Do?” The way he said the line with a straight face almost made the mare in front of him burst out with laughter, but at the same time it was also quite annoying.

“I’m serious.” She said, leaning over and punching him in the arm playfully.

He rubbed his arm and still eyed her suspiciously. “I’m serious too. You look like Daring, hit like Daring,” He said, rubbing his arm. “But you don’t sound like Daring. The Daring I know wouldn’t have used those kinds of words, they’d be far too touchy feely.” He grinned.

Daring folded her hooves and looked away grumpily. “I’m trying to be honest and open here.” She said, sounding annoyed.

“I know which is why I think you’re an imposter.” He said, grinning. She knew he was teasing her, and that alone tugged the corners of her mouth into a slight smile, even as she tried to fight it.

“Hey.” He said, smiling as she turned to face him, her face still a mask of grumpiness, but his soft smile almost melted that grumpiness instantly, even as she tried her best to hold onto it. “It’s okay, I forgive you. Besides, you’re here now.”

She nodded. “Yeah, I am.” She said with a sigh. “And I’m still the same Daring Do; I’m still the most awesome adventurer extraordinaire around.”

“‘Extraordinaire’ huh.” He smirked, obviously amused at the choice of word. “And what are you an ‘Extraordinaire’ at? Falling flat on your face down holes?”

Daring all but puffed up with indignation.

“Who told you?”

He smirked at her tone and shrugged. “Why that stallion you’ve been dragging around, of course. He and I have been chatting a bit, he likes to talk.”

“I’m gonna kill him.” She said dryly.

His amused grin was the kind that he saved only for her. It was like she was his vent, and the professional aspects of him only came out when they were talking business. But for personal situations, he was soft, warm and quite wonderful as a conversational companion.

“What happened to your new pension for taking notes and doing research?” He asked wryly, taking a bite of an apple he produced from his bag beside the chair.

She let out a frustrated sigh.

“I tried.” She grumbled out, taking a large munch of her muffin. “The place had little to no details, only a vague reference point, so I figured I’d do it the old fashioned way.” She said, spraying bits of muffin as she spoke.

“Falling down a hole is the old fashioned way?” He teased a little, the corners of his lips sliding up in an amused smirk.

Daring sighed. “Okay, can I not be the butt of every joke right now?” She said, finally thinking enough was enough.

“Alright, alright.” He smiled, relaxing back, visibly altering his demeanour so it wouldn’t be too mocking. “Shall we go to dinner?” He asked with a smile.

“I thought this was us at dinner?” She asked, looking at him curiously, her eyes glancing around them. The cafeteria was okay in her eyes. Its stark white walls decorated only with a single yellow line that ran like a band across the middle of the wallpaper around the room. The floor was a green-grey tile that echoed with every clop of a hoof and the seating wasn’t at all uncomfortable, so long as one didn’t stay for extended periods of time.

“Oh please, like I would keep you in this place. We’re going somewhere nice.” He grinned, picking up his bag and standing, taking another bite of his apple with a mischievous glint in his eye.

Daring Do’s eyes narrowed and her hooves folded again. “I’m not going on a date with you, I’ve told you that.” Despite the reprimand and refusal, his mischievous smirk didn’t alter in the slightest. She sighed and grumbled, feeling like she might regret this decision she got up and grabbed her stuff.

“Perfect.” He said, smirking brightly.

“It’s not a date.” She reminded him, not that he seemed to take any notice of her words. He led her out and walked through the corridors with her, they got out of the university, headed for the road and he hailed a carriage. They were soon on their way, the carriage bouncing along the cobbled streets and turning down a few roads. He didn’t even say where they were going, he’d told the pullers an address and they were soon on their way, but it was sadly an address that Daring did not recognise, which in itself wasn’t at all surprising. She barely spent any time in the city, and her sense of direction in city-scapes wasn’t the best. She could navigate most jungles blindfolded, but put a building in front of her and she’d get lost trying to find the front door.

The building that loomed ahead of her was tall with white brick, the old windows and the stylish front said the building was old and well kept, and quite expensive by the look of it. It was also a proper high style restaurant. She got out of the carriage and looked the place up and down, soon joined at her side by Caffeine who was simply smirking.

“Oh no,” she said, her eyes wide, shaking her head. “Nope, nope, I am NOT this kind of mare.”

“Oh come on, give it a try?” He asked in a sweet voice.

“What, I…erm…I’m not even wearing the right outfit! I need a dress or something...” Her ears flattened at a sudden realisation. “I don’t even OWN a dress!” She yelled at him, her breath coming in gasps as she began almost hyperventilating. This was the first time any stallion had pulled something like this on her, and she wasn’t really sure what she was supposed to do in this situation.

His hooves suddenly found her shoulders and forced her to face him, his eyes looking at her intently. The mare’s eyes scanned his face and found nothing but kind warmth.

“I’ve been your friend for longer than any other pony, I’ve been there for you when you’ve broken, and I’ve seen you at your worst.” He said gently, a soft smile spreading across his features. “I’ve also seen you at your best, and you’ve always known how I’ve felt. I’m not asking for anything big, and I’m not asking to become your special some-pony. I’m not asking for you to make more room in your life for me.” He shrugged and leaned in, giving her a kiss on the cheek that caused a flush to boil up under her skin. He chuckled lightly at the sight and smiled sweetly. “I’m just asking to take you on ‘one’ date.”

Daring sat there, not entirely sure how to proceed, but her body gave her the answer when she felt herself nodding to him in agreement, without really understanding why she was agreeing. She let his hoof hook in hers and she was escorted into the building.

The shiny glass doors made way to a large interior that was slashed with deep reds and auburn colours. The hard dark grain of the wooden beams on the ceiling gave it an old and classy look while the plush red carpet below gave the room a warm feeling. There were tables and chairs everywhere with menus on them, as well as small candles. He led her to one and sat down, but not before he pulled out her chair for her, before sitting into his own, a gesture that caused another rise of flush to creep under her cheeks.

Daring Do felt nervous. Here she was, on a date with her best friend, and she was wearing her khaki clothing that was stained with grass, mud and what could possibly be a little blood –not that she could remember when she’d bled onto her clothing, but cuts and bruises WERE an unfortunate hazard of her job-. She reached up and tried to self-consciously do something with her mane, a futile effort as the grey-scale locks refused to be placed into any style other than messy.

“Stop fidgeting. You look fine.” Caffeine Kick said with an adoring smile.

She hadn’t even noticed he’d been watching her, the knowledge that he had, once again brought a flush to her cheeks. She was starting to hate how much blushing she was doing. She gave him a half-hearted smile, but couldn’t shake the feeling that the other patrons of the restaurant were looking at her. It certainly seemed the kind of high class place she wouldn’t usually be invited to.

They both ordered their food –Daring picking something that she couldn’t quite pronounce but certainly hoped was edible- and they waited. The usual fast food places she went to were quite quick with orders, but after twenty minutes waiting for the food had begun to grate on the mare. Not that she was particularly hungry, but sitting there in silence for twenty minutes was awkward, and though Caffeine tried for a little conversation, she was far too nervous to reciprocate.

She sighed with relief when the food arrived and without much care for manners or discourse she dug in, eating happily. She was pleased to find that the food quality was fantastic, if the quantity was menial. The plate was barely half full and after finishing it she was tempted to go for another before she remembered guiltily that Caffeine was expecting to pay for it, with that in mind she figured she’d settle for the one plate and nibble on something when she got back.

“Are you almost done?” She asked when she noticed he was starting to finish off his plate.

“Wanting to leave so soon?” He asked, the slightly hurt look in his eyes belying the smile that spread across his muzzle.

“No, I suppose not, it’s just-” She froze when she heard something. She wasn’t sure what it was, it was a singular sound that touched the very edges of her hearing, and yet it was so familiar her body took instant notice. Her fur stood up on end down her spine, her wings tensed, and her body felt poised.

“Diane?” Caffeine asked, looking concerned, reaching for her before she suddenly dived at him.

“GET DOWN!”

She tackled him to the floor just as the wall nearby exploded, glass and rubble erupted out to the sound of screams that echoed in the building around her. Dust filled the air, blocking out her sight. She grabbed the table cloth and yanked hard, managing to slip it from under the plates without knocking anything to the floor. Spinning the sheet above her head rapidly, she created a slight wind that was strong enough to blow away the dust and reveal the room around her.

Daring was about to turn and survey the wall when something grabbed her hoof. Looking up in shock, she came face to face with the being known as Ahuizotl!

“Hello there, Daring Do.” He said, his foul breath permeating the air around her, making her cough in disgust. His face was stretched into a menacing grin. “I bet you thought you’d seen the last of me.”

He flung his arm and threw her hard, sending her crashing into a nearby table, the couple of ponies at the table now standing back in surprise as their dinner was ruined.

The ape-like creature began walking towards her, his paws crashing down on the floor in fists, punctuated by the cracking of the ground and the shaking of the floor beneath her with every step. Noticing the impending danger, the rest of the patrons began running from the restaurant, a fact that Daring was pleased about because it meant she wouldn’t have to worry about them.

“Where is it, my dear?” His melodic voice demanded. His accent was all tongue and rolls, his gaze sharp and even slightly amused as his shadow fell over the golden mare.

“Get away from her!” Shouted a voice from behind him as a chair crashed against his back with enough force that it sent the large deep blue creature sprawling to the side. The chair broke apart on the impact, the stallion wielding it now only holding a single leg of the furniture. The blue unicorn approached, his hooves raised, ready to smash the chair leg down on the beast, but its rapid descent was halted by a claw reaching out and catching it deftly. Yanking the chair leg away with a single hard wrench, Ahuizotl suddenly lashed out, cracking the stallion across the face with the piece of wood, sending him sprawling to the floor.

“What’s this?” He asked, an amused tone touching the edges of his voice as he approached the stallion, the initial attack from the chair not seeming to have wounded him at all. “When did you get a colt-friend, Daring Do?” He said, a malicious grin touching his features. “You should have told me sooner, I’d have bought you flowers.” He cackled, making a grab for the stallion.

Daring launched herself at Ahuizotl, intent on protecting Caffeine, but she was forced to halt when the beast turned, yanking the stallion with him, holding him like a shield with his sharp blade like claws aimed at Caffeine’s throat.

“Ah, ah, ah.” He tutted mirthfully, “stand back.” He warned, the claw poised in such a way that Daring feared to make a single wrong move. She knew all too well how sharp and dangerous those claws could be.  “You would do well to pay attention to my demands. You have in your possession an Amulet, and it is an Amulet that I want.” He said darkly, his voice punctuating the air with malicious tones. “You will give it to me, or you will never see your precious colt-friend again.”

Daring watched in horror as he turned, holding Caffeine tightly as though the unicorn were a ragdoll, pony-handling him easily, showing off his strength as he burst through one of the windows and began running away through the streets.

Daring could only watch helplessly as her best friend was foal-napped. She was fast enough and skilled enough to catch up, but she didn’t have her tools, or a weapon, and while she might be able to take on Ahuizotl single-hoofed, she couldn’t do that AND rescue Caffeine at the same time.

She needed help. It was a good thing these days she had a partner.

*

“This is a bad idea.” Cloud reiterated for the hundredth time.

“We’re still doing it.” She informed him again.

“Since when were you two dating anyway?” He asked curiously, giving her curious glances.

“We’re not.” She grumbled. “It was one date; he’s my best friend, that’s IT.” She said, stamping a hoof pointedly.

The both of them were already out of Clopsdale, and heading towards the mountainous regions. Ahuizotl had not given her a location to bring the amulet, but Daring Do knew Ahuizotl far too well. That monster would choose the highest point, looking down on any pony. He’d choose it because it was of the greatest advantage. He’d see them coming a mile away, from any height.

“If that amulet gives amazing power to those that wear it, what makes you think giving it to him is a good idea?” Cloud Zapper demanded, climbing up the hill. They wanted to get closer before using their wings, at that steep of a climb to the top; they’d need all their energy.

“It’s not!” She rounded on him. “It’s a stupid, idiotic and selfish idea. But it’s the only one I’ve got.” She turned away from him, and despite the plan to walk halfway before flying, she flapped her wings and took off, the mare soaring into the sky.

Cloud watched her and sighed, he made sure his sword was secure in its sheath, spread his wings, and flew up into the air in pursuit.

They flew for almost an hour, but only just managed to reach the base of the mountain. Daring landed in a clearing and approached it, looking over the rock-face curiously.

Cloud Zapper landed nearby and approached, sighing softly.

“You can’t run into this, Daring.”

She turned to face him and surprisingly there was a smirk on her face.

“Oh Cloud, it’s like you have no faith in me.” She said in a mocking tone, giving him a few tuts before approaching the cliff face. She looked over a few segments, tapping her hooves on them before she smirked in triumph. She was acting like she’d found something, but the secti8on of rock she was looking at looked no different than any other to the royal guard Daring Do pushed at a stone which surprisingly slid into the wall. Suddenly a large doorway opened in the rock that had otherwise been hidden.

Cloud turned to the mare who stood there with a wry grin He was feeling quite gobsmacked. The rush of air from inside the cave was stale and old, and inside the fires of torches were alight, giving the place a slightly eerie glow.

“What is this place?” He asked, walking in, following the mare. She seemed to walk around the area confidently, walking into the first room, only to head towards a crevice in the wall.

The place itself was domed and ragged, cut crudely into the earth, there were some writings and drawings over one side of the wall, but the rest were bare. At the bottom of the wall, on the left side was a chest that was quite large and old, oaken, but it didn’t have a lock.

“I found it in my second year at the academy. It was my pride and joy.” She said wistfully. “I figured this place must have been part of some ancient city or something, but, no such luck. Neanderthal ponies must have just used it as a basic home, I cleared out the skeletons, studied them of course, but the drawings and writings don’t mean much, just some words about growing crops and hunting.” She sighed, her body pressed to the wall, fishing around inside the crevice with a single hoof blindly, as though looking for something very specific.

Cloud just looked around the area still. He noticed that on one side there was a single passage that ascended upwards at an incline. Cloud figured it must lead to more rooms that were further up.

“So why are we in here then?” He asked, finding the place interesting. But as much as he enjoyed Daring’s company, he wasn’t the kind of pony that such dark and dank places benefitted. His armour lately had been seeing its fair share of wear and tear, even more so than combat often wrought; simply because of the places this mare had been dragging him. He reminisced on their adventures as of late. There has been that whole fiasco with Ahuizotl and the Terrifying Tower, a situation that still made him shudder sometimes when he thought about it, the other month there had been that cave that turned out to be the home of a dragon, all for some mystical opal. Then there had been the altercation with the Ursa Major…that one hadn’t been pretty, as well as many other incidents.

He was awoken from his musings by Daring answering his question.

“These passages form kind of ‘stairs’ –more like ramps really- that lead all the way to the top.” She informed. “Ahuizotl will be up there, but he’ll expect us to fly up, not walk up behind him.” She smirked, finally pulling out a satchel. “Here we go.”

The sound of creaking hinges met her ears and she turned to see Cloud opening the chest at the far end of the room. She dived at him.

“No!” She shouted, managing to slam herself down on the chest causing him to yelp and step back.

“Whoa, sorry, I was just curious.” He explained with his eyes wide in shock.

Daring looked him over and grumbled. “Come on you.” She said, moving behind him and pushing him towards the corridor that would lead them upwards. He chuckled a little at her pushiness and began trotting in front of her.

The way up was surprisingly narrow, sometimes he would have to be on his hind hooves and slip between rocks just to make it over into the next area. There were many rooms, but none were occupied by any possessions.

Daring, for her part, directed Cloud most of the way, she didn’t trust him not to go back and look in the chest, so she decided to stay behind him, which considering the space, half the time ended up with her getting a face full of tail-hair.

Not very pleasant.

The journey took them almost forty minutes, but eventually they reached the top. The roof was covered by what seemed to be a large slab of rock, but it was on a pulley system. Daring gripped it in her teeth and yanked on it hard, dragging it down and causing the stone above to open with a grinding sound that Cloud certainly hoped wasn’t going to get them caught.

Daring peaked her eyes over the lid of the opening cautiously, and sure enough, there, stood before the backdrop of open skies and forests below, with the town of Clopsdale sat snugly to the left, was Ahuizotl. The wind blew his deep blue fur and his mane rippled in the breeze. Beside him was a bound and gagged Caffeine Kick and, from what Daring could see, her stallion friend was unconscious.

Daring could only smirk. She knew she wasn’t going to get a better chance, so at that thought, the mare reached into the bag she had brought with her from the room down in the cave, and pulled out a circular device with a wick. She struck the wick on the rock nearby and rolled it towards Ahuizotl, She ducked down fast, smirking. Cloud was about to question when it exploded in a flash of light and sound. A ringing suddenly burned through all their ears, all except Daring who had prepared by shielding the sound with her hooves. The moment the flash went off she jumped up, ready to attack before a claw lashed out, stopping her mid jump.

“Hello, my dear.” Ahuizotl said as his claw clenched. It was wrapped around her throat and Daring Do felt the constricting claw cutting off her airway, her body panicked and she grasped at his paw with her hooves, trying to pull herself from his clutches.

“How nice of you to come.” His melodious tones rang out as a smirk spread across his features. He turned and threw her hard, she struck the ground, rolled and was almost flung from the edge of the cliff but her quick reflexes allowed her to grasp her hat in her teeth, flick it up and have it latch onto a rock. She clung to it with her jaw, hanging off the edge of the cliff, with a hundred foot drop below.

A drop was not usually a problem. She was a Pegasus. But there was very little wind, if she fell from this angle she’d be upside down, and though the drop was a hundred foot, less than halfway down were the massive tree’s that lined the forest. She’d hit them before she could gain any momentum with her wings. Even for a Pegasus, this was not a good situation to be in.

Ahuizotl walked to the edge and looked down, a mirthful chuckle sounding from his throat as he looked on at the helpless mare.

“Come out here, gleaming stallion.” He said, looking over his shoulder as Cloud poked his head out of the cave entrance.

“I know you are there.” The ape-like creature chuckled. “Enough games. Bring me what I want, or I shall throw Daring Do to her doom.”

Cloud weighed his options, gulped and stepped out with a saddlebag in his mouth. He trotted over and laid it down, stepping away slightly.

“Here.” He said firmly. “Let her go.”

Ahuizotl’s paw lashed out and struck Cloud’s face, sending him sprawling to the ground. The ape-like creature chuckled as he looked down at the fallen stallion before grabbing the satchel.

“A pathetic excuse for a Royal Guard, and a much mistaken choice for a companion, Daring Do.” He moved over to the ledge and looked down at the struggling mare that was still holding on just by her teeth. By now she had managed to swing herself to gather purchase on the rocks with her hooves, giving her aching jaw a break.

“Why, I heard the clinking of his armour before you even opened the cave, I saw the glint of it strike the ground beside me when his head poked out. He was your only indication that you were there, and the only reason you had not caught me by surprise.” He cackled manically. “Your aid was your doom!” He reached into the bag and pulled out the amulet, smirking. He held it aloft and watched it glint the sun. “The Amulet of Atonement is mine!”

He looked down at the helpless mare and smirked.

“And you, my dear, are no longer a thorn in my side.” He grinned evilly as his fist suddenly struck down, crashing into the ground and causing rocks to slip loose. Daring Do yelled out in panic as she clung to the side of the cliff for dear life, trying to scramble up for better purchase, but before she could, the rocks came loose. For a singular moment she experienced the sensation of vertigo, and then she was falling.

Daring tried beating her wings hard, attempting to slow her fall. The golden mare watched as the cliff rushed away from her at high speed, she turned halfway down, beating her wings hard until her eyes widened at the approaching trees. Daring Do struck them hard, there was a lash of pain from her left wing, a snapping sound and then it felt like she was slowing down. The branches and leaves cleared, the ground rushed to meet her, and with a thud, everything went black.

*

The cawing of birds above her pierced through the veil of darkness that fogged the mind of the adventurous mare. Her eyes opened an inch, and for a moment she was blinded by a ray of bright yellow sunshine that burst through the leaves above. She sat up groggily, her memory faulty for a moment about what happened, before it all rushed back.

Caffeine Kick!

She bolted to her feet and spread her wings. Or at least, to her credit, she tried to. Her left wing suddenly lurched with violent pain that lashed up the forearm of the wing and down her back that was painful enough to have the mare biting her lip to stop herself from yelling out. When the white hot pain finally ceased to a small mind numbing throb, she looked at her wing slowly, bracing herself for what she might see.

Yup, it was broken.

Daring Do was grounded.

“CLOUD?!” She called out, looking up the cliff, hoping he could hear her. But she was getting no response.

Ahuizotl had taken the amulet, what had he called it? The Amulet of Atonement? Where had that come from? That name wasn’t in any of the books she’d looked in, and it wasn’t a name she had ever heard associated with any object before. But if she had of identified it properly, then it was a device that was capable of greatly enhancing the powers and capabilities of any that wore it. It was initially made for ponies, but if it worked for Ahuizotl, then she wasn’t sure how powerful he’d become. And she wasn’t sure she wanted to find out.

She needed to get that amulet back, but first she had to make sure her friends were okay.

Daring looked at the cliff face and sighed. She padded to a tree, reached up and yanked down several of the large leaves, tearing them into strips and using those strips like bandages, she wrapped them around her wing to make sure it wouldn’t get further damage. She then turned her attention to the cliff, spitting on her hooves she let out a sigh and braced herself for the effort to come. She jumped and latched onto the wall, grasping onto the rock hoof-holds so that she could clamber up. She wasn’t really used to climbing cliffs, but it wasn’t exactly something that was new to her. She could remember a few times in past adventures when she’d had to do such a thing, so she had some minor expertise. Grasping hold of a higher rock with her hoof she pulled herself up, making her way slowly up the sheer rock face.

It took her almost an hour, sweating and panting heavily when she finally reached the top, once or twice almost slipping. She grasped the edge, and pulled herself up and finally on top, panting and shaking a little.

There, still on the floor and unconscious, was Caffeine Kick, and Cloud was near him, still unconscious.

She picked up Caffeine and Cloud, knowing that they would likely be in need of medical attention, she used the other entrance and made her way down, carrying her stallion friends on her back.

Daring got them out of the cave, out of the area, and back onto the streets of Clopsdale.

*

The hospital was surprised at Daring and her companion’s arrival, questioning why a Royal Guard would even be in these parts, let alone getting injured. They took both of them, and fussed over Daring Do until she demanded that they leave her alone. She was unable to stop them at least binding her wing properly, though that was probably a good thing. Daring was given some medicine to stave off any infections to her wing, and allowed to go after that. Cloud Zapper, it seemed, had a concussion and was knocked out cold, while Caffeine Kick had been knocked unconscious via other means. And so far, efforts to wake him had yielded no result. The best that they could surmise was that he was being kept under by some sort of spell. There were unicorns in the medical ward trying to break it, but it didn’t seem they were having much luck.

Daring Do tried to think of a reason Ahuizotl would do this, but if she had to guess, it was likely just in case she had survived the fall. If so, he knew that caring for her friends would be her first priority, and this would slow her down.

Daring went into Cloud’s room, having been told that he would be woken up soon. She was by his bedside when the grey Pegasus finally opened his eyes.

“Daring?” He asked in a gravelly voice. “What happened?”

“You were knocked out.” She answered, looking tense. “I need to know which direction Ahuizotl went, Cloud.”

He shook his head.

“I wish I knew.” He said, looking sad. But Daring could only narrow her eyes.

“I need you to think. You might not have been out entirely, you might have seen something. You HAVE to think.” She said firmly, making Clouds eyes widen in worry at how she was acting. But Daring didn’t care. Caffeine Kick was in trouble, and he wasn’t waking up anytime soon, and if she ever wanted him to wake up again at all, then she needed to get hold of whatever it was that Ahuizotl had used on him.

“I…I really don’t know, Daring.”

She lashed out, bucking her back legs hard against a nearby table and smashing it against the wall in anger.

“I’ll find him myself!” She shouted at him before storming out, Cloud called after her as she left but she paid him no mind. She had a few ways of tracking people down. Well, just one actually.

*

The beautiful sunny day had been nice for the Pegasus known as Swiftcall. His blond mane hung down from his head with bright enough colours that his red eyes stood out starkly. His purple coat was a light enough shade to pass for almost blue in most lights, but otherwise he seemed unremarkable. His only noticeable feature was how skittish he seemed to be.

He heard the sound of approaching hooves behind him. The gait of the hooves upon the ground had him groaning outwardly in dismay. It was annoyingly familiar.

"Daring, do we have to do this today?” He said, turning to the grey-scale maned mare. But he was slightly shocked at how dishevelled she looked. Her wing was damaged, she looked wide eyed, tired, but also wired with stress. It wasn’t a pleasant sight.

“What happened to you?” He asked in a worried tone. He’d worked with her for years when it came to tracking and information gathering, but lately things between them had seemed…strained.

“Never mind that, Ahuizotl has a base somewhere, and I need to know where he is.” She said rapidly.

“He has bases everywhere; I need a few more specifics than that.” He said, looking nervous now.

“His last one! The one he’s most recently used, ANYTHING, maybe a sighting of him, somewhere, anything you can give me.” She all but yelled at him, looking distraught.

Swiftcall looked her over and sighed.

“I-Ironhoof Hill.” He said with a gulp. “I last heard he was at Ironhoof Hill.” He revealed, looking down as though he were ashamed.

“Thank you.” Daring said, paying him almost no mind as she turned away and ran, leaving the Pegasus sighing to himself.

Daring managed to hitch a ride in a balloon; the guy that ran the place owed her a favour so it wasn’t hard for her to get passage. Ironhoof Hill was around three miles away, and even running at top speed she was worried she wouldn’t make it fast enough. So this was the next fastest way, also she doubted Ahuizotl would expect a balloon. More than that, if luck was on her side, he thought she had perished in that fall. If he wasn’t worried about her coming back, then that might give her the element of surprise. And this time, without Cloud to mess it up-she stopped her thoughts there and shook her head. It wasn’t REALLY Cloud’s fault…well it was. But not by much, and it wasn’t malicious. She shouldn’t blame him.

Turning her attention back to the task at hoof, she guided the balloon to its destination. Landing the balloon nearby, she approached the hill. It was a wonderful patch of hilled field that was quite a picnic destination for days out in the wild and camping, but it was otherwise unremarkable.

Reaching the hill she looked around, finding no sign of any such place that Ahuizotl could be. She began circling the hill and it took her almost an hour to find it, and even then, it was by accident. Her hoof got stuck on a rock and lodged it out of place; it opened up a secret door in the side of the hill with steps leading down.

A small twinge of pride burst through her dam of worry in her mind as she found the entrance to Ahuizotl’s latest hideout. Climbing down the steps she descended into the darkness below. The place was lit with torches, so her way was not entirely engulfed in the blackness, but it was dark enough that she had to squint to see distinct shapes in the gloom.

Nearing the bottom she started to hear voices.

The first one echoed and was sadly indistinct, but the way it spoke sounded almost like a song.

“I understand.” Replied Ahuizotl’s deep voice. “It will not be long now, as soon as I find it, I will control it, and then the world shall know my wrath.” He said, his sneer becoming a chuckle.

Daring Do poked her head in cautiously to see what was going on. There was a crystal ball on a pedestal with an indistinct pale face in it, and Ahuizotl was standing in front of it. He brought out the Amulet of Atonement, and slipped it over the orb, and Daring watched as a bright light suddenly erupted before it shone on the floor, seeming to search for something, from her position she could see the carvings in the floor were almost like a map. Ahuizotl’s eyes widened and his face broke into a grin.

“Ah, so there it is.” He chuckled mirthfully.

He was just about to take the amulet back when a giant boulder crashed into him from the side and pinned him against a wall with a comical thud.

Daring stood by the entrance, her hoof holding down a small slab in the wall.

“Gotta love these old booby-traps.” She chuckled, galloping for the amulet. She skidded to a halt as the boulder that had struck Ahuizotl was suddenly thrown at her by the beast. She screeched and ducked under it as it smashed into a wall, sending rubble and ancient glyphs falling to the floor.

“That was close.” She remarked breathlessly. A roar from nearby drew her attention as Ahuizotl swiped at her. She ducked, his swipe connecting with the orb and the amulet, sending them both to the floor. The orb shattered and sent pieces strewn across the ground and the Amulet skidded away, and any information that Ahuizotl had found out, was suddenly lost from Daring’s ability to discern. Cursing the situation she jumped out of the way of another swipe, only to jump at him, her hooves lashing out, sending him sprawling back.

“I’d love to do this dance a little more Ahuizotl, but this ain’t really my song. So why don’t you just tell me how to wake up my friend.” She said, picking up the amulet, looking at him warningly.

The blue ape-lick creature slowly pulled himself to his feet and looked her over, chuckling.

“And why should I tell you Daring Do, you do not even know what it is I seek. But it will be your doom, my dear. It will be everypony’s doom, and when you wretched ponies are defeated, I will make you all my slaves and rule you like you were meant to be ruled!” He shouted and charged at her, his claw lashing out hard. But Daring had already used this time to put on the amulet. It went from dormant blue to a suddenly powerful red. Her eyes closed as the power rushed through her, her eyes opened, a red glow shone around them and she ducked with speed that made Ahuizotl shocked. She span, her hooves lashing out at his legs sending him spinning in mid-air for a moment before her hooves lashed out into his chest, sending him flying back against the wall. She panted, grinning at the power.

“Oh year, I could get used to this!” She chuckled, approaching him with a malevolent look in her gaze. He tried to get up but she knocked him down again, only to grab him and throw him, smashing him against a wall. She ran up, reared up her legs and was about to finish the job.

“DIANE!” A voice shouted out behind her, momentarily making freeze. She turned her head and saw Cloud Zapper approaching, he looked worse for wear, but otherwise, he seemed okay, though, she did notice that his mane was very dishevelled.

“Stop.” He said softly. “Don’t go too far.” He said carefully, looking almost afraid of her. She looked down and saw Ahuizotl, looking for once, scared.

This alone shocked her. She’d never seen Ahuizotl scared before, not of anything. And now he was scared of HER. She backed off, her body shaking.

“Take off the amulet, Daring.” Cloud’s even voice said gently, his manner and tone were calm and warm. She nodded and knew he was right. She reached up; gripping the amulet and pulled it over her head, and dropped it to the floor. The amulet stayed red for what seemed like forever before it finally dulled to its dormant blue. Cloud wrapped it up in a cloth and held it close, putting it into his saddlebag.

Daring shook herself, suddenly feeling strangely tired. She looked to Ahuizotl.

“Please, tell me how to save Caffeine.”

He didn’t say anything; he simply reached below him and pulled out a vial. She took it from him, and turned away, not needing to say anything else. She’d won, but it hardly felt like a victory at all. She’d felt like she’d lost herself a little back there.

But the deed was done, and they could now save Caffeine Kick. The trip back was quiet in the balloon, Daring spent most of it staring out into the countryside below.

“Thank you.” She said softly, turning to him. “I don’t know what I’d have done without you.” She said gently before turning back to the view. Cloud’s only response was a smile.

The medicine in the vial worked. It was administered to Caffeine and within moments he woke up, his weary eyes looking around. He was told that Daring Do had managed to save him. He saw her in the doorway. His eyes closed and he took a deep breath before opening them again to thank her. But when he looked again she was walking away, and she looked…defeated somehow.

Daring Do left the hospital, and she left Caffeine Kick. He would be fine without her, and he was probably better off anyway. Ahuizotl would always use those she cared about against her, so it wasn’t like she could really find a special somepony anyway.

Looking up into the blue sky she wondered what was going to happen now. Ahuizotl wasn’t in the habit of going after big things one day, and trinkets the next. He always upped his game. The price always got higher. So whatever he was doing now could be worse than his attempts with the Terrifying Tower.

The thought made her shudder.

She had no idea what was to come, but she knew that she would face them. She had Cloud by her side, and she wasn’t going to let Ahuizotl win.

She was Daring Do. And for now, the day was saved.

She only hoped she could save tomorrow as well.

The End

2) Daring Do and the Tenochtitlan Prophecy by AlmanacPony
Author's Notes:

Book 2 of the Caballeron Chronicles

Daring Do is breaking.
The loss of her mentor and lifelong friend, the betrayals of those close to her, and the many trials that she has endured start to weigh on the soul of our intrepid hero.
Is our hero in any shape to save the world?
Can she even save herself?

Daring Do and the Tenochtitlan Prophecy

 


 

The Amulet of Atonement glinted in the light of the sun. The beams of Celestia’s Sun shone through the window and struck a prism of magnificent colours dashing across the walls as the magical device hung there in the mares hooves. The golden mare had her hoof wrapped in a cloth as she held the chain of the item. Even the chain couldn’t be touched directly.

The Amulet of Atonement, the Unicharm, and many other names had been given to this device, many of them stricken from records and ponies memories. It was a powerful device. It had the ability to magnify the innate capabilities of any pony that wielded it. Unicorns would have immense magical power, Earth Ponies would become enormously strong, and Pegasus would move faster and more powerfully than before. She was sure that by wearing it there were many other natural skills it would be able to enhance, like maybe it would alter Pegasus cloud magic to even greater heights. Maybe it would allow a single Pegasus to rain a thunderstorm down on her opponents. Such a power was tempting…too tempting.

But that’s what the Unicharm did. It was temptation.

Everypony wanted power.

It was natural.

Power to control was the biggest prize for everypony, no matter how noble they thought they were. Whether it is the control of their own lives, of their own fates, or the lives and fates of others, even if their desires were entirely selfless, the desire for power to save somepony else, it was all just the thinly veiled desire for power and control.

And that’s just what the Unicharm offered. The Amulet of Atonement. Atonement was the key. The power to take back mistakes, the power to set things right, the power to become a better pony. It promised so many things, it promised the power to change lives. And while a pony may wear it, and try to use said power for the greater good of Equestria, inside, it would do evil work.

The Amulet of Atonement was temptation in raw form.

It was with this in mind that Daring Do, the intrepid adventurous mare that she was, ignored the screaming in the back of her head, and placed the Amulet in the vault along with the other dangerous items littered therein.

She was tempted of course. A voice screamed in her head about how easy it would be to stop Ahuizotl’s plans with that amulet, about how she could find ALL the artefacts ever hidden, and keep them away from those that might sell or abuse them. She could solve so many problems, save so many pony lives.

But the cost was too great, the cost of herself, and her own soul. Through her the Amulet would weave a great evil, and corrupt her from the inside out, taking her down a dark path that she could never escape from.

Closing the door to the vault, Daring Do locked the Amulet away, and left.

*

The brightness of the sky outside seemed blinding at first to the young mare.

Young.

It was interesting that she was still considered a young mare, even though she felt many years older than she actually was. Many years of worry, heartache and difficulty had put her body through the wringer, and these days she ached all over, her reactions were slow, and she was beginning to wonder if it wasn’t going to be time to retire soon.

It was an interesting and appealing though, even if it was in vain. Entertaining such an idea lasted for less than a minute before the mare chuckled to herself and shook her head. She couldn’t possibly stop when the world needed her, and she was starting to get the feeling something was coming on the horizon, and the world would certainly need her again.

“Daring.” A voice called out happily from nearby. It was the light-hearted voice of Cloud Zapper, a grey stallion from the Royal Guard Inquisitors. The Inquisitors, as he’d explained it to her, were a regiment of Royal Guard that were not confined to the Castle or protection duty of the Princesses. They were a bit like detectives and investigators, used as a patrolling unit that took down threats before they could pose a problem for the Princesses empires. Every Guard variation had an Inquisitor section. Inquisitors were noted as different by the slight alterations to their armour. While a standard Royal Guard wore a coat dye as a sign of unity and solidarity among the ranks, an Inquisitor was encouraged into their uniqueness, allowing their natural coat to be shown, as well as their own mane. The helmets of Royal Guards often sported fake manes in the standard Mohawk guard style, whole this was removed for Inquisitors so their own mane could flow freely from the top of the helm.

Daring looked Cloud over now, he was in full armour and his own blue and white mane cascaded down one side of his face in an attractive style that showed just how long it had gotten in these recent months together.

“Hey Cloud.” She greeted, smiling to him.

“You put away the Amulet?” He asked her immediately, his smile not at all softening the irked feeling that fluttered through the mare. The LEAST he could do was ask how she was rather than worrying about the Amulet.

“Yes.” She answered him. “I’ve put it away in the vault.” She sighed, looking around her.

Clopsdale University was one of the largest Universities in Equestria; it was also, academically, one of the best. Daring Do had learned her trade from here, under her mentor at the time, Bravely Blue. A steadfast mare of great ability that was sadly no longer with her, the circumstances around her death were still the stuff of nightmares for the golden mare.

“Daring, are you alright?” Cloud asked, his voice of concern breaking through her reverie.

“Oh, y-yes. I’m gonna go visit Caffeine.” She said, turning and trotting away, leaving Cloud standing there. He watched her go, shrugged and turned away, taking off into the air.

The Pegasus mare entered the local housing area and went to door number sixteen. Raising a hoof to the door, she was about to knock before something seemed to grip her in her chest. Only a few weeks ago, Caffeine had been in something of a magical coma, unable to be awoken except by a vial of antidote that Ahuizotl had. For a short time there, she had been terrified she’d lose him. Gulping softly she knocked steadily on the door, almost hoping he wouldn’t answer, but of course, he did.

The door opened and the gentle smile of the Caffeine Kick met her worried face. He had a brown coat with a blue and grey two-toned mane. Aboard his nose sat a pair of glasses that were big and yet suitable for his stature. He usually wore a vest, but it seemed he’d recently come from the shower, if the state of moisture on his coat and mane were anything to go by. He also looked tired.

“H-hey…I just wanted to see how you were.” She said softly, feeling a little self-conscious.

Before everything had went to hell, he’d talked her into going on a date with him, and it made things now feel very awkward. She cared for him, but…she wasn’t sure it could be anything more.

“I’m fine, just been resting like the doctor ordered.” He sighed, stepping away from the door and letting her in. He trotted to the side of the room and picked up a towel, working on his mane before wrapping it around his shoulders.

The apartment he had was that of a typical bachelor. This front room contained and exercise trotting machine, a several bookshelves filled with books and odd assortments. There were a few items of clothing strewn about, though it wasn’t dirty or anything, just typically untidy as most stallions places were want to go.

“I…I heard you were considering going back to teaching?” She asked, not entirely sure HWERE she had heard it, probably some random conversation picked up at the cafeteria.

“Yeah.” He sighed. “Only because the boredom here is killing me.” He smirked, looking over his shoulder.

There was an awkward silence between them that seemed to span several minutes as neither knew quite what to say to each other.

It was a sigh that broke the silence. It was from Caffeine, and he looked…defeated.

“You’re gonna give me a speech, aren’t you.” He said softly, though despite the structure of the sentence, Daring had a strong suspicion it wasn’t meant as a question. “You’re gonna start telling me how you have too many enemies, and what happened to me is the exact reason you don’t have a special somepony.” He said, turning to her.

Daring’s voice had caught in her throat, she couldn’t refuse his accusation. It was true.

“It’s not me, it’s you right?” He asked dryly, before shaking his head. “Sorry, I guess I’m a bit tired.” He said, the bitterness in his voice having left and seemed to be replaced with sadness.

“Don’t worry.” He began, giving her a light chuckle. “I figured that date was a one-time thing anyway, can’t blame a guy for trying.” He said, turning away and walking out of the room.

Daring turned and left, closing the door behind her, fighting tears that threatened to break free from her eyes.

She had cried far too much recently, and now every time the tears threatened to break free, she just felt full of shame. Shameful that she wasn’t stronger. She hadn’t cried in years, and it felt like majority of the time she’d spent ‘saving the world’ from Ahuizotl had been spent in a dream…all until that last time. All until she had lost Bravely Blue. It felt like all her strength had gone that day, and now it just felt like she was drowning.

Forcing her face into a mask of apathy, she walked out of the building and into the courtyard, over the path, round the building and back into the front of the University. She needed to lose herself for a while.

Heading back to her own dorm, Daring Do sought out her research materials, deciding to do a little reading. Not on anything in particular, but research for the sake of research.

*

Her reprieve was a well sought one. She dove into the books and breathed in their musty old scent that always felt slightly comforting. Not having a particular mystery to solve, she decided to dive into the research of the item she had procured in the ruins of the Terrifying Tower. Looking over the box that sat on her desk, she tried to find any markings that might give way to what was inside. It seemed unassuming, the outside was a simple wooden nailed shut box that to any other pony wouldn’t be spared a second glance, but when it was touched with hooves, it felt like it would hum, and sometimes, it would feel a little warm. Daring Do thought back to when she had found the box, buried in the rubble of the dark place where all her nightmares had been born. That island where she had…

No, now was not the time to think about that. She needed to focus on something else. She brought up her research notes, there were archaic descriptions and designs covering the many scrolls and book pages she was perusing, all pertaining to protection spells.

Magical research wasn’t exactly alien to her, as many old objects of the past, that she had uncovered, had some level of magical property to it. But this box was different. She had tried to open it, first with hooves, then teeth, and then a crowbar, but it just wouldn’t. It didn’t even budge an inch no matter how much she tried. Daring had to assume it was magically protected, and whatever was inside, was far too important to be let out. And that alone might have been enough to dissuade any other sensible mare from trying further to reach those hidden contents, but this was Daring Do. She wasn’t about to give up just because something might be dangerous, that would be like being defeated. Also...the curiosity was eating her up inside.

The books referred to several spells that might accomplish the kind of sealing magic that had been implemented with the box, but that fruit seemed to come bearing problems of its own. Every single one of those spells were very high quality, nothing the average unicorn would be able to disentangle. This meant Daring Do would need a specialist.

She knew just the pony.

“You’re going WHERE?” Cloud Zappers voice was loud enough to echo in the small courtyard outside of the University. Students milled around them, giving them furtive glances as they hurried to their respective classes.

“I’m going to the Crystal Empire.” Daring repeated herself, rummaging through her packed saddle-bags, making sure she had managed to pack everything she would need. She had.

“And why are you going alone?” He asked, looking somewhat annoyed at the news that she was leaving. His expression was one that made her feel irritable; she didn’t feel she deserved any animosity for wanting to go on a trip.

“Because I have friends there that…might get awkward if you were with me.” She said, looking anywhere but right at him.

It wasn’t like it would be a huge problem. But she and the pony she was heading out to see had some…history.

The day was then spent deal with Cloud Zapper telling her all the reasons why he should come along. It was an irksome and round-table sort of conversation where when he couldn’t make one point stick; He’d fall back to another. She was starting to get annoyed just by him being there. So it was with a level of relief that she spread her wings that evening and headed off. She wanted to arrive at night, it would be easier that way, and she was more likely to find the pony she was seeking, off duty.

The soft vibrations of the train rattled under-hoof as Daring Do looked out the window at the passing countryside. Her tickets into the city had been procured by her friend Melody Hollow. Melody was a traveling Cellist, and through her journeys had become quite adept in procuring travel arrangements and incognito establishments to stay in. She was usually the first person Daring went to whenever she needed to get into towns or cities without being seen or recognised. And this particular situation did call for those talents.

Daring Do had first seen the city a year ago and to this day could still stare and marvel at the gleaming towers for hours.

The city was unlike any other. Beautiful tall spires of the palace towering high and mighty, scraping and spearing the clouds with the backdrop of mountains to add to the grandeur.

The centre of the city was the Sacred Heart, a magical gemstone of unknown origin that gave a magical protection to the land. The buildings, no matter what material they were made out of, were rapidly crystallised, and fortified against dark magic’s. Likewise, any pony in the city when the Heart would release magical bursts of energy (which it did around once a day), or simply who lived in its vicinity for too long, could become a Crystal pony themselves. This didn’t change the ponies too dramatically, simply added a crystalline sheen to their appearance and gave them extra protection and resistance from dark magic’s, which considering their proximity to certain nasty areas, was quite welcome.

The train slowed down and pulled into the station, and Daring Do padded out in disguise. She was wearing a shawl and glasses, a common disguise that she liked to adorn as it made her look a tad more elderly than she was, and so also had the benefit of ponies underestimating her.

Stepping off the platform she trotted off. Glancing at a note that Melody had given her, she began searching for a particular address. Melody’s note directed her to a cheap hotel about a mile from the centre of town. It was nice, out of the way, and quite inconspicuous, just as she liked it.

The inside was sparsely furnished, adorned in colours of burgundy and sallow with a smell that suggested it could use with a bit of a wash down.

“Yes?” The clerk asked curiously as he looked up. He was a blue coated stallion with a white bushy beard. His facial hair was all he had left, his head being quite bald of any mane.

“I have a reservation.” She said, passing along her information. He checked his records to make sure she was telling the truth, nodded and hoofed over some keys.

Daring Do trotted up the stairs after that, found her room, closed it and walked into a room that could only be described as ‘grungy’.

But it would do.

The bed was at least moderately comfortable, so she placed her saddlebags down and laid herself into the duvet, needing to take a minute to relax herself. Tomorrow she was going to head up to the palace, but not to see the Prince and Princess, no, she would be heading round to the barracks in the hopes of meeting a particular pony there.

If all went well, she’d finish her work in less than an hour after arriving there, and manage to be on her way back to Clopsdale before Cloud could grumble anymore about her leaving. But considering the pony she was here to see, she knew that hoping for it to go ‘well’ was likely not going to happen.

Closing her eyes, breathing in a deep breath and trying to relax herself, Daring Do let her mind wander and sleep to slowly take her.

“I taught you everything, Diane.” The voice called out from the darkness. There was a rushing sound, a grunt, something slamming and the feel of pressure on her body, like somepony had tackled her.

“That’s going to cost you darling.” She heard, it was the same voice again, buried within the darkness, from a point in her past. It was a voice she knew well, a voice that incited a deep pain to flare in her chest, but for the life of her…suddenly she couldn’t remember the name of the speaker.

And that hurt more than anything.

“You’re stupid!” The words lashed out, seeming disjointed, like they were pulled out of context of a longer sentence.

“One day I shall die!” The voice sounded in pain suddenly, distraught, like she was terrified. “I won’t let that happen to me!” It screamed, the scream sending terror through her as she tried to frantically chase down the voice. To stop it from doing whatever it was going to do.

There was a pinprick in the darkness, a singular spot of light that rose before Daring, and she pushed towards it with all her might. It felt like she were wading through syrup, trying to push through this great barrier of pressure and the closer she got, the brighter the light got, and even when it burned her eyes she felt like she still needed to reach it.

“BEATRICE!” Daring Do screamed at the top of her lungs as she shot up from her bed, her hooves extended as though to try and grasp something in the distance. She had almost reached the light, she had touched it for just a moment, and she could tell something beyond there was something she needed…but as quick as that feeling and realisation came, it also left her, her memory of the dream dimming as she sat there shivering on the bed. There was the soft patter of something against the blanket, and she looked down to see a few wet spots caused by something that had dripped onto the blanket. She reached up to her face and found her cheeks soaked with tears.

She hadn’t even realised she’d been crying.

*

The city was beautiful.

With every tap of her hooves, the cobbles below her seemed to almost sing in low hums as they vibrated from the impact. It was known as the “Musical Path” by some of the locals; it was the main street that led towards the palace in the city.

There are few places like the Crystal Kingdom in the lands, both far and wide. The shining buildings reflected Celestia’s Sun in beautiful kaleidoscopic rays that caused every street and alley to dance with light. It was truly breath-taking, and Daring had a hard time thinking of anypony able to ever get used to it, just by living here. She wasn’t sure she could live here and grow numb to such beauty, and she hoped that in her travels and adventures, she would never become numb to such beauty in the future.

The Palace, if at all possible, was even more of splendour. Pink and yellow in design, its gorgeous spires touched the sky and every brick was inlaid with jewels and precious stones.

Trying not to become too transfixed, the grey-scale maned mare moved her way around the gorgeous building and travelled along its outer path, leading round to the other sides where the barracks and guards were kept.

There, training in the courtyards, were the Crystal Guards.

Shining examples of military might, the crystal ponies donned gorgeous silver armour that gleamed and sparkled like their coats. She watched from the side-lines as they trained, sparred and combatted each other, keeping them in the peak of physical ability. It was certainly quite…interesting sight.

Forcing herself to stop staring at the sweating stallions, she moved on.

The Crystal Guard had modelled themselves after the Royal Guard, adopting their regimental disciplines and sections, as well as some coordination ideals. For example, while Royal Guard Militia wore gold and dyed their coats variations of white and grey, the Crystal Guard in turn, wore silver armour and dyed their coats a gorgeous lilac that complimented the silver very nicely.

Daring made her away beyond this area, and headed for one of the local offices.

“Hey you!” The voice of a young stallion called out, making Daring halt in her movements and supress an irritated groan at being stopped.

“What are you doing back here?” The stallion asked authoritatively -even though his voice didn’t suit the tone- as he approaching her from behind.

Daring turned to greet him and was met with a familiar face.

She was met with kind blue eyes, a flowing white mane that wasn’t quite tucked properly beneath its helm, and a shiny crystal blue coat, adorned by the intricate silver armour of the Crystal Guard.

Dhey.

No last name that she could recall, no understanding of where the first name came from. He had introduced himself as ‘Dhey’, and she had accepted that readily. His name was his business. They had met last year on an adventure, back then he had been this awkward and shy colt that wasn’t sure on what to do with his life, but at the insistence of Daring Do had promised to join the Crystal Guard. It looked like he’d actually done it.

“Dhey?” She asked curiously. Her eyes ran over him before something struck her that didn’t before. His coat was blue…this in itself wasn’t remarkable, except that it SHOULD have been dyed lilac.

Both the Militia and Aerial guard of the Crystal Guard would have to dye their coats lilac. The only ones that didn’t were the Mystic Guard, and the Inquisitors. The Mystic Guard wouldn’t be right as they were always Unicorns and were given slightly different armour and Dhey was a Pegasus, but the Inquisitors…

An Inquisitor was what Cloud Zapper was in the Royal Guard. And like the Royal Guard, an Inquisitor could wear his or her (as they allowed female Inquisitors) normal colour coat and show their cutie-mark. They could also have their mane showing underneath their helmet, not out of the helmet like the Royal Guard, if only because the Crystal Guard helmets were designed without a fake mane, and instead had a solid Mohawk as part of the metal design.

Dhey stood before her with his mane showing and his normal coat on show, which meant he was either an Inquisitor now, or had just lazily not sorted himself out for duty that day. She suspected the later, after all, Inquisitors were not applied for, they were CHOSEN. A pony had to show exceptional talent and capability to be chosen as an Inquisitor, and to her knowledge, Dhey had only joined the Guard a year ago, the chances of him proving himself to such an extent already were slim, especially as she remembered how shy and nervous he used to be.

“You know me?” He asked, looking at her curiously, his brow at an angle as he studied her. It was an inquisitive look and she found it a little cute on the young stallion. She pulled down her shawl and removed her glasses, letting him see her grey-scale mane and red eyes.

“Daring?” He asked with his eyes wide. She probably should have expected what happened next, but didn’t.

Dhey hugged her, launching himself at her, wrapping his hooves around her and almost picking her up. For a stallion that was around the same size as herself, he had proven surprisingly strong; she could feel the muscle under his coat where he had once been soft. His training had certainly defined him physically.

She pushed herself away.

“Yeah, good to see you too.” Daring chuckled, scratching the back of her neck with her left forehoof. “You seem to be doing good for yourself.” She remarked, waving a hoof in gesture.

He seemed to puff up at the compliment, unable to keep a slight cute and happy wriggle of his hindquarters from showing.

“Eyup.” He said, practically beaming. “I’m an apprenticed Inquisitor now.”

Daring felt her eyes widen in surprise as she looked him over again.

“Inquisitor? That happened fast? And here I thought you’d just been lazy and forgot the coat dye.” She smirked.

“Hey, I was never THAT bad.” He remarked indignantly, looking slightly offended, which in turn caused Daring to chuckle.

“And yes, I’m an Inquisitor now, sort of, apprentice, they needed more and I showed promise so…they erm, assigned me to another Inquisitor to oversee my training on the job.” He said, trying to make it sound grander, when Daring could plainly see it was a trial run. But as desperate as the Crystal Empire might be to fill their Guard Ranks, she knew they would never have picked Dhey unless they were sure he could do the job. So she was proud of him all the same.

“Well I’m glad.” She said, smiling warmly at him.

“So…what are you doing here?” He asked curiously, raising a single brow.

“Oh!” Daring exclaimed, feeling stupid for forgetting the reason she’d come here in the first place. “I’m here to see…Shamrock.” She said, finishing the sentence with a nervous laugh.

Dhey’s face fell at the name.

“Really?” He asked, his face deadpanned.

“Y-yeah.” She said, her hooves shuffling nervously on the ground.

Dhey looked thoughtful and nodded.

“Follow me.” He instructed. He turned and began walking in the opposite direction to where she had assumed Shamrock would be. Daring shrugged and followed anyway, figuring he’d know where she needed to be better than she did. She wasn’t exactly well versed in the layout of this place.

They walked for only five minutes before reaching the outside of some offices out back that were close to the Aerial barracks.

“She’s in here.” Dhey informed, looking remarkably nervous. “I’m…I’m gonna go in and try to remove all sharp objects before you need to go in.”

Daring nodded readily. “Th-thanks, I’d appreciate that.”

Dhey cleared his throat and straightened himself before heading through the door. He closed it partially, slipped inside and the sound of muffled voices could be heard. There was a little rustling.

“Where are you going with my spear?!” A female voice called out as Dhey suddenly rushed out of the room with a spear in his maw.

Daring gulped and took that moment to step into the room. The mare she came to see was stood behind her desk, looking both confused, and shocked…that is until her eyes fell on daring.

“You.” She said, deadpanned, her eyes wide and the room suddenly seemed very quiet.

“Erm...yeah, it’s me. Hey Shamrock, I...I was wondering-AAHH!” Daring ducked rapidly as a quill shot over her head and buried itself in door by its sharp tip.

“N-now Shamrock…listen to me…we can talk about this.” She stuttered and yelped as a paperweight flew through the air. Daring had to dive out of the way rapidly as it struck the wall with enough force to embed there and stay there. She looked at it with her eyes wide.

“Are you crazy?! That could have killed me!” She said, jumping to her hooves.

“GOOD!” The mare shouted and Daring’s eyes widened, her ears dropped and her heart felt like it was going to jump out of her throat as the entire desk the mare had been behind was suddenly hurled through the air at her.

This could have gone better.

The room was a mess, both the mares inhabiting it were on the floor with their backs to walls, staring at each other and panting. A soft sheen of sweat made Daring’s own coat glisten almost as much as the pony in front of her’s did naturally.

“Are…we done?” She asked, breathing heavily, worried that the answer might be a no. She wasn’t sure she would be able to dodge anything else. She found herself eternally grateful they Dhey had taken the spear away; she made a mental note to thank him somehow later, probably with a pastry of some kind.

“Yeah…we’re done.” The mare said after an awkward silence. Despite her words, every time she glanced at Daring, her brow furrowed and she looked almost ready to start throwing stuff again. And each look twisted Daring’s gut inside with a twinge of fear.

The mare in front of her was Shamrock Luck. She was a Crystal Pony of course, and a Unicorn. She had a white coat and a stark green mane with a singular purple streak spreading down one the left side that ended at the bottom of her tresses. Her eyes were a heterochromic mismatch, with the left being a lime green and the right being a purple that matched the strip of her mane. Otherwise, her frame was pretty average. It only held the basic definition of a mare that kept in shape, but wasn’t the kind of body one would often associate with a Guard, though that was likely due to the nature of Guard that she was.

Shamrock Luck was a member of the Mystic Guard.

Her armour was a light blue rather than silver, but otherwise designed pretty much the same as the others. Though Shamrock wasn’t wearing her helmet and Daring couldn’t see it around the office.

“So.” The mare began, slicing through the silence that had filled the room like an uncomfortable haze. “What can I do for the great Daring Do?” She asked, mockingly.

“Do I really deserve that?” Daring asked with a sigh.

“YES.” Shamrock suddenly shouted. “You broke into our stores, stole several Crystal Empire relics, lead a dangerous band of mercenaries into the palace and ruined my favourite outfit!” She stomped a hoof in exclamation.

“It’s not like you were really gonna wear it again, since when were you into dresses?” Daring asked reasonably, knowing the mare preferred either no clothes or armour.

“I WAS ON A DATE!” She demanded. “I’m supposed to be Lucky, it’s my special talent, but somehow, destroyed my dress permanently, ruined my date, undermined me in front of the other guards, and left me with so much paperwork I’M STILL HAVING TO FILE SOME OF IT!”

“Now there’s no need to exaggerate…” Daring’s voice dwindled to nothing and her ears fell as Shamrock pointed to a fallen ‘IN’ box that had been on the desk that was still quite full of papers. The ‘IN’ box was affectionately titled ‘Last Year’s Daring Do fiasco’. Daring decided it might be best if she didn’t speak after that.

There were a few more moments of pregnant silence before Shamrock sighed. She picked up the desk telekinetically and placed it where it was supposed to go. She began tidying the room, her lime green shroud of magic placing things where they were supposed to be.

Daring eeped slightly when bits of plaster rained down as the paperweight was pulled from the wall, scared for a moment that it might be thrown at her again. Shamrock glanced at her as she held the heavy objects, and her gaze narrowed. Daring could almost HEAR her mentally considering it. But thankfully, the mare just placed it back on the desk.

Feeling the mood of the room turning from a hostile environment to a more docile one, Daring let out a relieved breath she didn’t realise she was holding.

“So,” she began, righting a chair that was still on its side before sitting down.

“What do you need?” Shamrock asked, her voice the picture of civility as though she hadn’t just been destroying the room trying to kill the intruding mare.

“I need your help.” Daring said the words at a careful pace, needing to seem contrite so as not to upset the mare again. At the mention of such a request, Shamrock’s brow could only rise.

“My help?”

Daring nodded, hoping she could make this situation work, even if Shamrock’s voice was sceptic.

“I have a box.”

“A box?” Shamrock asked with a deadpanned expression.

“Yes, a box.” Daring confirmed, nodding her head.

Shamrock raised a singular brow.

“Fair enough.” The Crystal Unicorn said, letting out a breath and clapping her hooves together with a thoughtful expression. “And what’s in the box?”

“No idea.” Daring replied, biting her bottom lip. “Okay, let me explain.”

“Please do.” Shamrocks voice took on a slight hard edge, making Daring Do nervous.

“Alright, look, it has some magic on it. I can’t open it, and I was hoping you could help me?”

Daring Do had no idea if she was explaining herself properly, but she was certainly doing her best. Shamrock, for her part, simply sat in silence for the moment, seeming to consider the proposition.

“Did you steal this too?” Her accusation was punctuated with her narrowed gaze, it was a look that made Daring puff up slightly in indignation.

“You make me sound like a thief!”

A thud cut off her rebuttal as a large file was slapped onto the table from a draw. Shamrock opened it up and cleared her throat.

“Two counts of archaeological theft from Cloudsdale.”

“I had to.” Daring began explaining. “It was being hunted down by the Mercenaries of the Five Stars. They would have used its powers to control all the volcanoes in Equestria.”

“Two counts of archaeological theft from Aerie-”

“That was to keep it from the Brothers of Necromancy-” Daring hastily interrupted.

“-as well as one count of vehicle theft.” Shamrock finished, glancing up at Daring whose sentence was cut short and she began to sweat.

“I…I returned it?” Daring attempted with a nervous smile.

“Yes you did…in three pieces.” The guard said flatly, her face looking unimpressed.

Daring had no explanation for that, and seemed to visibly deflate.

“Five counts of theft from an Inquisitor armoury near Appleloosa.” Shamrock continued, seeming unperturbed by Daring’s increasing depression.

“We needed gear; there was a massive war raging in the San Talomino Desert.” Daring mumbled in excuse.

“Didn’t return them, did you?” Shamrock glared before looking back to the file. “Let’s continue. We have three theft counts reported by the dragons in the Badlands, one in Baltimare, another vehicle theft in Manehatten, and of course there was that theft a year ago right here in the Crystal Empire.” She said, glancing up and narrowing her eyes at that one, a look that made Daring gulp. “And lest we forget to include,” she continued, looking back to the folder. “The Canterlot theft from the Royal Tombs.” Her words fell heavy on Daring’s shoulders. “Where you desecrated the body of ancient royalty.”

Shamrock’s eyes narrowed darkly at that, and while Daring had already given up trying to explain away each situation brought up, this was one she wasn’t even going to broach. It was too close of a situation to her heart, too tightly coiled around the darkest pits of her despair, and for a single moment…Daring almost felt broken again.

But it was only for a fraction of a second before the Pegasus mare pulled herself together again, crossed her hooves and huffed.

“Yeah well, each and every time I did those things, it was to save Equestria from something nasty.” She said, turning her nose up at the Unicorn.

Shamrock’s expression, for her part, had softened slightly around the edges. The way she gazed at Daring showed she had caught that single moment of frailty in Daring Do, but like Daring, her concern seemed to only last for a moment. But it was long enough for her to make up her mind.

The heavy folder snapped shut.

“Yes, well, such a fact is the only reason you are permitted to walk around, rather than being thrown into a dungeon.” The mare sighed, leaning back, her hooves rubbing her temples as though she was feeling quite stressed. “Fine.”

The single word had Daring’s ears perking up.

“Fine?” The adventurous mare asked, hoping she wasn’t mishearing.

“I’ll look at your box, and help if I can. But the Mystic Guard and myself is not your ‘go to’ shop for your magical solutions.” She glared. “This is a one-time thing.”

The room was dark and forbidding, with the surrounding walls lined with mirrors.

“What are the mirrors for?” Daring asked curiously.

“Shh.” Shamrock hissed, sitting near the centre of the room with what seemed to be a complex design inlaid into the floor. The very centre of the room was taken up by a small bowl of water.

“What’s with the symbol on the floor? I didn’t think archaic designs were used by Unicorns anymore.”

“SHH.” Shamrock hissed more sharply. The box was slowly placed on the water, and despite not seeming like it would be buoyant, it floated anyway, barely causing a ripple in the surface of the water. It stayed there for a moment before the water seemed to start reacting. It vibrated for a moment before a bubble rose in the surface, then another, and another, before suddenly the water began bubbling as though it were boiling…no…there was steam rising now.

It WAS boiling!

Shamrock’s eyes were wide.

“Is that meant to be happening?” Daring asked curiously, a trace of worry touching her tone of voice.”

“SHUT UP!” Shamrock barked in reply before her horn began to glow. The lime green of her magic wrapped around the box and sweat furrowed her brow. She seemed to be struggling with something, grunting with the effort. It was almost ten seconds later when a flash of light erupted and patterns began to spiral through the air from the box. But they didn’t dissipate; they crisscrossed and created intricate patterns that wove together in a kaleidoscope of colour. Shamrock grunted before a singular line of the patterns began to glow with her signature lime green before it snapped away, and everything else seemed to suddenly fall apart. Everything stopped.

It was quite anticlimactic really, but the lights stopped and her magic stopped and the boiling stopped. The box even stopped floating, singing down into the water with a thud as it hit the basin.

Daring stood there, watching Shamrock pant as she sat there, still leaned over the basin, though she looked like she was about to throw up.

“Are you alright? Is it done?”

Shamrock didn’t answer, she just nodded. She telekinetically lifted the box from the water and laid it at Daring Do’s hooves.

“Here.” She grunted.

Daring looked from her to the box, and then back to her.

“Are you alright?” She asked with concern, looking over the mare with a worried expression.

Shamrock Luck just scowled, at the question, shaking her head.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” She slipped into a corner and picked up a glass of water she had placed there ready. Lifting it to her muzzle she drank with loud thirsty gulps, downing it in little more than three swallows.

“You look like you just went five rounds with a Minotaur in a wrestling competition.” Daring Do remarked, noting how Shamrock’s mane looked slightly messed up now as though it hadn’t been washed in days, and how the sheen of the mares coat showed she was visibly sweating.

“It was a Complexion spell.” She grunted.

Daring looked a little lost at the vague explanation. “Complexion? As in…beauty and…stuff?”

Shamrock shook her head and sighed.

“Complexion spells are what we call multi-tiered complex spell weaves.” She sighed.

Daring stared at her for a minute before shaking her head.

“Nope, still lost. Pegasus over here, remember.” She said, smiling apologetically at the Crystal Unicorn.

She sighed. “Imagine a single spell like a single thread. Alone its basic, does the job you need it too, but it can be broken. A multi-tiered spell is what it’s called when a skilled Unicorn weaves many spells together like layers./ Like taking another string and binding it around the first one, and then another, looping them through each other, until you don’t really have just a piece of string anymore, you’ve bound them into a strong rope. Many layers making up one thing.”

This explanation made a little more sense to the adventurous mare, who nodded in understanding.

“And this is difficult to undo?” Daring Do asked, simply out of curiosity. It was never a bad idea to learn something new.

Shamrock nodded in reply. “You can’t just tug on it and hope it’ll break. You need to unravel it. But if there are lots of spells, that can take a very long time.”

“But you did this in like…a minute.” Daring chuckled, smiling. “You must be pretty powerful, I’m glad I came to you.

Shamrock smiled a little but shook her head. “No, I’m not that powerful…just Lucky.” She said, the word bringing a warm smile to the mares face.

“Lucky?”

Shamrock chuckled. “This is where the rope analogy falls a little short, because magic also has shatter points, like rocks or gems do. Individual strings that are used as simple binding, really easy to break spells that are small and hidden throughout the weave that keep the rest of the big spells together. Very difficult to find and distinguish, especially if there are a LOT of big spells. But if you can find them and break them, then there’s nothing holding the other layers to each other, and the entire spell just unravels.” She chuckled.

“Ah.” Daring began, getting to grips with the situation finally. “And you just happen to be ‘Lucky’ enough to find those threads.” She grinned; it was a grin that Shamrock quickly shared.

The Crystal Guard mare seemed to suddenly realise they were having a moment of ‘friendship’ and ‘bonding’ because it was less than a second later that she was clearing her throat and standing a little taller and less casually than before, and also suddenly not meeting Daring’s gaze.

“Yes well, I’ve done what you asked; I would like you to leave now.” She said simply.

Daring cocked her head curiously, unperturbed by the change in mannerism.

“Don’t you wanna see what’s in the box with me?”

Her offer seemed to make the Crystal Unicorn hesitate for a moment before shaking her head.

“Considering your track record I think I’d prefer it if you opened it up somewhere out of the city, I’d rather you didn’t blow up a building.”

Daring sighed. “You make it sound like that happens a lot.” She grumbled.

Shamrock’s gaze deadpanned. “Do I NEED to get out your file again?”

“I’m gone.” Daring said, smiling sheepishly as she picked up the now unsealed box. She noticed that strangely it seemed to have gained a significant amount of weight, and while she could lift it with a single hoof, it might be a strain if she needed to lift it high or for long periods of time. Obviously one of those entwined spells had been something to lighten its weight. The urge to open it right there and then struck the mare, but she managed to resist and packed the unopened box into her saddleback before rushing to the door. She stopped just short and turned back to The Crystal Guard Unicorn.

“Hey, thanks for helping me.” She said with a smile. “And…for not arresting me.”

Shamrock didn’t say anything, though her facial expression and bodily mannerisms made Daring feel like the mare was between either saying she ‘shouldn’t worry about it’ and ‘leave before I change my mind’. Either way she felt it would be less awkward for them if she left. So she did, exiting the door and spreading her wings, flying away from the barracks, offices and Shamrock, away from the Crystal Palace and back to her hotel room. She’d need some rest for the journey back. It had been a fruitful visit, and who knew, maybe she’d gained a begrudging friend.

Daring Do stared out of the window at the passing countryside. The dull rumble of the engines and the vibrations under-hoof were all hallmarks of the travel, and sensations she had gotten used to over many years. Contrary to popular Earth Pony and Unicorn belief, a Pegasus didn’t just fly everywhere…that would be exhausting. One might as well ask an Earth Pony to run everywhere, or a Unicorn to teleport the entire distance. So instead she took the train, her eyes watching the countryside as it whizzed by at high speeds, sighing softly to herself.

Her mind drifted, wondering about what she had seen and complexion spells. The amount of time and effort and work that had went into creating such a sealing spell must have taken a lot of power. It was a massive task to undertake to protect such a small box; which only made the adventurous mare’s heart burn with curiosity even more.

What WAS in that box?

There was only one way to find out.

Rummaging around inside her saddlebag, Daring Do found the box and brought it out, once again noting the increased weight compared to how it used to be when it was sealed. Taking furtive glances around to make sure no pony was watching, Daring Do opened the lid a single crack.

A glow of golden light rushed out that was warm on her face, a glow that made the mare squint slightly before her eyes grew accustomed to what she was seeing.

There, within the box, lay a golden ring of large size. It was large enough to be hooped around a pony’s head if needed to be carried in that way, the gold was beautifully reflective, and upon closer inspection, appeared perfectly smooth. Daring had expected inscriptions or some sort of ancient language ingrained along the signs that might speak of forebodings to come, but it was completely blank and clean. Just a ring, sitting there, bathing in a strangely warm glow.

Daring was just reaching into the box to bring out the ring for a closer inspection, when the train suddenly lurched. She eeped and looked around before a screeching sound was heard and the train lurched again, this time violently. The world seemed to be shifting slightly for her eyes, but her brain understood. The train was being derailed.

Daring Do snapped the box shut and threw it into her saddlebag, holding onto the seat as the world began to spin. Looking out of a window her eyes widened, a cliff was nearby, and they were going to topple over it!

She gritted her teeth and held on for dear life, until her ears pricked up at a sound among the cacophony of screeching metal.

It was the screaming of a foal.

Daring reacted instantly, lurching herself from her seat, the world now on its side so the floor became a wall and the seats stepping stones. She galloped over them confidently; a Foal was ahead of her, hanging from his failing seatbelt, about to fall down. The window across from him had shattered in a shower of glass, and if he fell, he would fall right out of the train onto the scraping rocks below.

The seatbelt finally broke, the foal screamed and the poor colt began to fall. Daring spread her wings and launched herself, catching the colt at the last moment, tucking into a ball and landing in a nearby seat as the world suddenly became weightless.

They’d gone over the edge and were now airborne.

The colt screamed in Daring Do’s arms, the world span and suddenly they were falling, she fell out of the train struck a rock, but despite the pain that lanced up her spine, she kept herself curled around that foal, desperate to keep him safe. They landed on the ground with a thud, the sound of screeching metal slowly dying out.

Everything seemed still for a moment.

Daring Do didn’t move. She stayed where she was and kept herself curled around the foal. For now she felt numb, though her back felt like it was sticky, but considering the ground was dry that likely meant the sticky substance was coming from HER. It wasn’t a thought she wanted to have so she shoved it from her mind rapidly as the colt began to stir.

Slowly and gently, she began to straighten herself out, carefully testing the waters of movement to make sure she wasn’t going to get any spikes of pain. From what she could tell, she’d hurt her back badly, and a cold feeling was spreading along her spine, but if she could move, then she wasn’t TOO badly damaged.

“Are you alright?” She asked softly, the colt stepping back, shaking and nodding, tears in his eyes. “Good.” She said gently, a breath of relief escaping, coupled by a hiss of pain that shot up her spine.

“Ouch…that’s gonna hurt in the morning.” She began, grunting as she forced herself to her hooves, shaking slightly.

“What happened?” The colt asked, his small voice punctuating the silence. It was a good question, Daring had to admit.

She looked up at the wreckage, seeing the train on its side at the bottom of this cliff, bent metal and broken windows now dominated the husk of the train as it lay there, battered and damaged, but at the very least, mostly intact. Considering the nature of the crash, Daring had half expected it to be on fire, she was very glad it wasn’t as there were still ponies strewn about. The ponies from the train were groaning, majority of the laying on the ground where they had landed, but while some looked hurt, thankfully, there didn’t seem to be any void of movement. So there didn’t seem to be any fatalities.

“Were your parents on the train?” She asked the foal curiously, to which the colt nodded in reply. She nodded and picked the colt up, placing him on her back, gasping at the slight pain where he sat. The colt gave a whimper.

“Y-you’re bleeding!” He said, staring down at her back where a nasty cut had begun to bruise purple.

“D-don’t worry about it. I’m fine.” She answered softly, trying to give him a reassuring smile. They began walking towards the other ponies, looking wherever they went for the foals parents, taking note that some ponies seemed badly injured and others had managed to get away unscathed, but otherwise, she was pleased to see they were all still alive. It was a miracle really; she’d have expected more damage from a crash like that.

What HAD made them crash anyway?

Her thought was cut off by someponies yell nearby.

“Light Sprint!” The voice was female, coming from a mare that ran up to her and quickly took the colt from Daring’s back.

“Mummy!” The foal squealed happily, hugging his mother around the neck with all hooves, as though he couldn’t possibly hug her tight enough. A stallion ran up too.

“Oh thank Celestia, Thank you so much, you found him.” The stallion ranted, hugging the colt and his wife closely.

“She saved me, mummy.” The colt said happily, Daring smiled kindly at his words, and the grateful look the mother gave her. She nodded to them both, and made to tip her pith helmet, until she remembered that she wasn’t wearing it. She’d left it back at Clopsdale, anticipating the need for a disguise while traveling. Getting into cities was all nice and easy, but for a celebrity such as herself, it was nicer to go unnoticed. It allowed her to actually get some work done.

“You keep the little guy safe.” She instructed the family, smiling at them warmly. “I’m gonna go find the driver, maybe he can shed some light on what happened.”

Heading off to do just that, she walked the length of the train and turned walked around the end, finding the stallion that had been driving the train leaning against the side, panting, and his hat skewed on his head and his right hind leg looking hurt.

“Are you alright?” She asked, padding up to him.

“Yeah.” He grunted. “I think it’s broken.”

She looked at the leg and nodded, thinking he might be right.

“What happened?” She asked, trying not to sound accusatory.

“Ugh.” He grunted, holding his leg with his fore-hooves. “There was something on the tracks, and then a flash of light and suddenly we were flipped.”

Daring looked him over. It seemed like he was telling the truth, and it didn’t look like he had a reason to lie.

“What did you see on the tracks?” She asked curiously.

“It was some big blue thing.”

Daring Do’s heart stopped for a moment.

“Big blue thing?” She asked hesitantly.

“Yeah.” He sighed. “Big thing, walked like a monkey on his knuckles.” He grunted. “Blue, with lots of teeth, and a long tail.”

Ahuizotl.

Everything seemed to go cold for Daring Do. She sat there in shock, looking around. She looked up at the train and jumped, flapping her wings and grunting at a spike of pain that almost made her fall back down. But she managed to hold her altitude and fly a bit up; looking down at the train she saw something on the door of the train’s driver compartment. She glided down and landed on it, her hooves making a metallic thud on the side trains upturned side.

Claw marks were embedded deep into the metal.

Daring traced them gently with her hoof and then looked around; trying to find any sign of her nemesis. Her ears pricked up, listening for any sign that he might be close. Her gaze narrowed as her eyes ran across the forest edge that sprawled out below us. The cliff they had fallen down fell at a forty degree angle, so they had rolled a little ways to the edge of a forest that had lined the right side of the track. Now the tree’s stood like sentries, closing them in from all sides, warding off any escape. The forest was dark and anything could be hiding within those trees. It was a notion that unsettled her.

“Everypony needs to get out of here.” She said softly.

“What?” Asked the voice from below her, the voice belonging to the train driver, his voice tinted with worry. Daring hadn’t really expected him to be able to hear her. She turned to him now.

“Everypony needs to get out of here, now.” She said firmly.

There was a sudden roar from the forest, and the shaking of trees, as something began approaching.

“NOW!” She cried out as the tree’s suddenly burst open, and a giant Hydra suddenly erupted from the treeline with a rope around its neck. And there sat on its back was Ahuizotl.

Daring’s heart jumped into her throat and she turned to make sure everypony was running. Many were screaming, but thankfully at the corner of her eyes she spotted the couple and their little foal, managing to get back on the tracks. They were all running down the tracks, heading where the train would have stopped if its journey hadn’t been so violently interrupted.

Besides Ahuizotl, out of the forest, also emerged his pets. The Lynx, Cheetah, and panther rushed out, clawing and yowling at any ponies that couldn’t run fast enough. Daring galloped to help.

Her hooves struck along the metal of the side of the train, and when she got close enough, she dived. Her wings spread for a moment, only to push back, giving her extra speed as she hurtled towards the Cheetah. The beasts claws were raised, his yellowing teeth bore as a mare laid beneath him, cowering and squealing for help.

Daring Do was but a blur, striking the cheetah hard and bowling him into the floor, rolling with him, her hooves slipped under and launched. The cheetah flew hard and struck a tree, falling down with a soft thud to the ground.

“RUN!” She shouted to the mare, watching as she scrambled into a gallop.

Daring Do turned back to the aggressors and yelped, diving out of the way as a head full of jaws leaned down and snapped at her.

The Hydra had four heads, a light brown body of scales with a yellow stomach. The faces were all smiling with jagged jaws and narrowed eyes with malicious intent. How Ahuizotl had gained the aid of such a beast she couldn’t fathom.

“Greeting’s Daring Do.” His melodic voice called out with a mirthful cackle following his words.

“What do you want Ahuizotl?!” She called out to him, backing away as the panther and Lynx slowly encroached ever closer. The cheetah had shook off the dazing attack she had dealt him and joined the fray once again, now standing beside the other animals, slowly approaching Daring Do with murderous intent in their eyes.

“Why Daring Do, I want your help.”

His words confused her, and also made her terrified. His cackle rang out with villainous intent.

Daring Do hung from the room upside down. Her wings and hooves were tightly bound to her body with rope that wound around her tight midsection. The world swung back and forth as she hung there, making her feel slightly queasy, and all the more irritated.

Ahuizotl stood there watching her, his face in a wide grin.

“Is this the part where you try and kill me?” Daring asked, her eyes narrowing.

“Usually yes.” Ahuizotl shrugged, his paws behind his back in an almost dignified manner, his pets beside him staring at her like she was a meal they would soon get to feast upon.

“But…?” She asked curiously.

“I need your help.”

“You said that already.” Daring retorted, her eyes narrowing more in mistrust, struggling in her binds. “How is tying me up gonna help you, other than, ya know, getting me out of the way?”

Ahuizotl sighed.

“I have bound you, my dear, because you would otherwise not listen. And I really need you to listen.” He said sternly.

“I don’t trust you.” Daring remarked, struggling all the more in her bindings.

“You do not trust me to do anything good, but I have not said what I need you for is nice, my dear.” He chuckled, his baritone voice vibrating around the chamber they were in.

He had brought her to this underground temple; Equestria was full of them, filled with ancient buried cities and archaeological wonders.

“Do you like this place?” He asked, gesturing around them. Daring do was hanging from the roof; the walls were lined with hieroglyphs and ancient writings that she didn’t quite recognise.

“What do you want from me?” She demanded, glaring daggers down at him, wishing she was free so she could wipe that smirk from his face.

“How good is your ancient Equestrian?”

Ahuizotl’s question confused her, making her wonder what it was he was getting at.

“Pretty good, I mean, it wasn’t but I’ve been studying more.” She answered carefully.

“I have uncovered something, a prophecy my dear.” His grin spread across his face eagerly, and Daring Do’s heart somehow dropped into her stomach, despite gravity trying to lodge it in her throat.

“Ugh.” She grumbled. “Not more prophecies.”

Ahuizotl could only chuckle.

“I thought you enjoyed relics of the past, my dear, and how they could grant things of great worth to those that wield them.” He said, his mirthful grin starting to seriously tick the mare off.

“From my experience, they are never worth the price they take.” Daring said softly, her voice cracking slightly before she could stop it.

Ahuizotl’s ears pricked up when he heard it.

“Oh my.” His voice was soft and gentle, as a chuckle began to escape his lips. “Is the mighty Daring Do feeling sore about something?” He turned to her, his gaze narrowing and a mischievous glint got caught in his eyes…it was a glint that made what felt like a stone in her chest grow three times the size.

“Shut up.” She said, trying to sound threatening, when all she could manage was to croak the words out as though she were breaking.

“Is something keeping you up at night, dear? You do seem quite tired, not at all as capable as you used to be. Tell me Diane, where is your fire?” He asked, his voice almost sounding concerned, where it not for his ever present grin.

Daring tried to turn away, refusing to look at him, but suddenly something gripped her mane and turned her head forcefully, she yelped in pain and saw he was using his prehensile tail that had a paw on the end of it, holding her and forcing her to look the ape-like beast in the eyes.

He seemed to study her for a moment, staring into her eyes before finally letting go of her mane, sighing softly.

“The mighty Daring Do is broken.” He said it as though it were a simple fact, and a saddening one at that.

“I’m not broken.” She demanded, or at least tried to. The words came out small, and she wasn’t sure they were true.

“There is no joy in defeating an opponent that is already beaten.” Ahuizotl said firmly, sighing. “But, perhaps you can still help me.” He moved to the back of the room, and came back with some tablets. These were not solid gold like the ones about Queen Serra and the Alicorn’s objects; instead these were solid silver, gleaming under their light dust and dirt that scattered over their surface. But neither the dust nor the dirt could diminish the glorious sheen that made them glimmer in the light of the nearby torches.

“I shall not ask you to read them; I will simply tell you what they say.” Ahuizotl said, his voice seeming almost…kind. And Daring Do hated it. He was looking at her like somepony might a wounded animal.

His voice cleared and Ahuizotl began to recite:

“Beast of primal hue,

Lay the ground to ash.

A gathering of rings,

Two forces that then clash.

The winner not yet shown to eyes,

But the one that seeks it most.

Power over many lives,

A strength that none can boast.

Eight centuries long,

A blazing heat,

The ground in burning brand.

Rings and Shields,

An Empress Heart,

Tenochtitlan be the land.” His voice ended, and his face grinned for a singular moment before it fell and he sighed.

“Do you understand it, Diane?” He asked, still speaking softly.

“No I don’t.” She said, managing to summon a little strength while he had been reciting, so her voice no longer wavered so much.

He cocked his head at her and nodded.

“You still have at least some fire in you I see, good, I like that. I will need that.”

He padded over to her and with a swipe of his tail paw, the rope was cut and Daring suddenly fell to the ground with a yelp and a hard thud. She was still bound though, so she was by no means free, just no longer feeling the blood rush to her head.

“The prophecy speaks of the Rings of Scorchero.” He said gently, leaning down, looking at her, his accent giving his words a slightly melodic sound to the way they were spoken. “It speaks of the Shield of Razdon and of the Ketztwctl Empress. It speaks of an ancient power, to extend my life eight centuries…me, personally. I am of primal hue, I am its beast. I am destined for this Daring Do, and I need you to help me achieve it.” He said softly, reaching out, his right paw stroking the side of her face in a kindly, yet all out creepy sort of way.

“Why would I ever do something like that?” She said, her eyes narrowing.

“Because,” he began softly, sighing gently, his eyes burning into hers. He leaned in close, his breath caressing her ear as he spoke words that tore open a chasm within Daring Do. Her eyes widened, her breathing stopped and a single tear rolled down from her left eye as his words burned right through her soul.

“I know how to save Bravely Blue.”

Daring Do walked out of the cave in a daze. She could have flown, but she needed the walk. She stepped one hoof in front of the other; one, two, three and four. And then again, one, two, three and four. And again, one, two, three and four.”

She just walked.

The world passed her by and the day turned to night by the time Daring Do reached Clopsdale, she climbed up a hill and made it onto a carriageway, crossing without looking if it was safe to cross, and jumping the railing on the side, heading in a straight line for the university. When she finally reached the outskirts of the University, somepony shouted, and there was a flutter of wings. A glint of gold appeared in her peripheral and a Pegasus landed nearby.

“Daring!” Cloud Zapper called, rushing up to her. “Are you okay? There was a train crash and some ponies said you were on it. Everypony seems safe though, apparently you saved them.” He said, looking like he was happy at the news. “Don’t worry; I made sure they were all okay.”

She didn’t answer him, she looked at him, but she couldn’t quite see him. It was like he was far away from her, and she were looking from behind a glass wall at the world. Here…but not quite here.

“Daring?” The Royal Guard Pegasus asked, looking concerned that his friend was being distant. She looked banged up, her mane was a mess, her clothing was torn in places and she was looking at him as though…no…she was looking THROUGH him.

She turned away from him and began walking, heading for the dorm.

“Daring.” He said, trying to catch up. “What’s wrong? Talk to me.”

“Not now.” She said, the first words she had spoken, and her voice felt cracked and damaged from the attempt to speak.

“What’s wrong?” He asked, reaching out for her shoulder. The moment he came into contact with her, she seemed to freeze before it was like there was a snap in her eyes.

“LEAVE ME ALONE!” She screamed violently, turning rapidly and bucking her legs out hard. She struck Cloud Zapper in the chest hard, his eyes widened and he flew back, striking a wall. Where it not for his armour, that could have done some serious damage. As it was, he was winded and panting, looking up at her.

Daring stood there, panting, her eyes wide with streaks that said she’d been crying raw. She looked down at herself, looked horrified for a moment before rushing past him, galloping as fast as she could to her room.

She was feeling tight chested, there was a rushing in her ears, and nothing made sense. She felt like her body was being broken again and again with every breath she took.

Daring Do charged into her room and slammed the door shut hard, locking it before she backed herself into a corner. She was shaking, hugging herself.

Something caught her eyes; to her left was her pith helmet. It was the helmet Bravely Blue had given to her; it was the symbol of her adventures, and her life.

Diane Daring Danger Do reached for that helmet, and looked down at it, before pulling it to her chest.

Her mind drifted back to when she and Bravely Blue had first met, that first day at the University.

*

Diane Do looked up at the University of Clopsdale. The large buildings of classic Edmaredian style seemed to almost brim with knowledge that the filly could scarcely contain.

No, she was not a filly. Not anymore, now she was a Mare. Now she had responsibilities, and stuff. Now she had a real future ahead of her.

Her chosen subject had of course been Archaeology, she could have chosen some other minor subjects but she wanted to devote every inch of her time to this singular pursuit. Her teacher, she had heard, was the exceptionally experienced R B Ravenhoof. He was supposed to be one of the best in the business, and the chance to learn from such a figure had Diane almost dancing on the tips of her hooves.

Walking into the main building and heading to the classroom, she passed a notice board with big letters on it.

‘NOTICE TO CLASS 4B OF ARCHAEOLOGY’

That was her class, so she padded over to it, wondering what the notice was about, and if it was important.

‘Class 4B of Archaeology. A change in tutor is required due to the unforeseen and sudden retirement of R B Ravenhoof…’

Diane felt her stomach sink as she read the words, and her drive to rush to the classroom significantly dwindled.

Sighing to herself, the grey-scale maned mare decided to read on in case it had any other relevant information.

‘…Fortunately, the position of tutor has already been filled at short notice by the esteemed B B Blue.’

B B Blue? Daring had no idea who that could mean. She turned and headed towards the classroom, finding the door open and waiting for her.

She peered inside.

It was lecture designed, with a stage at the bottom and rows upon rows of semi-circular pews above for students to sit at and take notes. It was just as she imagined a University classroom to be. Many students where already there, some of which bustling about the place in tides and droves, each with friends and chatting merrily about something or other, but it wasn’t the students that made Diane stop. It wasn’t the vibrant air of learning, or the array of coursework books on shelves that lined the walls just waiting to be perused by curious minds.

It was a single mare behind the desk at the bottom where the teacher would sit.

She had a yellow-golden mane, dazzling blue eyes and a blue coat of sky colour. Atop her head sat a pith helmet, beige and bound in green fabric, her rump sporting a silver compass topped with a deep crown.

B B Blue. Beatrice Bravely Blue.

Her foalhood idol.

Daring remembered that at the time, it had taken every ounce of will she had to try and control herself, but a young Diane was brash and eager to please. The young mare, barely more than a filly galloped down steps and right up to the blue mare.

Bravely Blue for her part was simply sat there, perusing over some paperwork that might have something to do with the first lesson of the school year, but stopped immediately and looked over at the little one that stood nearby. Well, not so little, Diane at that age had been a tad short for her age, the little Pegasus half a head shorter than Bravely Blue at the time and held a look in her eyes that told of youth and future promise.

“Can I help you?” Bravely asked, her voice filled with a motherly concern.

“Omygoshohmygoshohmygosh!” Daring squealed, practically dancing up and down on the spot. “You’re Bravely Blue!”

Diane dropped her saddlebags and began emptying them rapidly, pulling out five books, stacking them on top of each other.

“I have ALL your books, and I’ve read them like, a bazillion times, and I’ve followed all of your adventures. I made a scrapbook!” She announced happily, bringing out red leather bound large book and slapping it onto the desk, with Bravely Blue giving the overactive fan a startled look. The book was opened and it was filled with newspaper clippings, and many mouth written notes from Diane herself. There were also pictures of her as a filly, dressed in makeshift adventure gear and badly cut out and taped to pose her alongside Bravely Blue.

“See this one?! This is where you faced that Hydra to get to the Fortress of Emanzipal, and this one is where you saved that town from that tidal wave that was summoned by the King of Amac run Doh!”

Sometime during this tirade and emotional fan-worship of Bravely Blue, the blue mare’s gaze had softened and she was smiling a little, like she was lightly amused.

“And this one,” Diane continued, “is a picture of me, when I faced off an entire pack of Timberwolves. I didn’t win; I got hurt and fell down a hill and into a hole.” She explained, giving a sheepish smile. “But the hole turned out to be an underground temple, I found this coin though, that was solid gold and had cool writing on it. And that’s when I got my cutiemark, see?” She turned excitingly, showing off her hindquarters and the star based golden compass that adorned her flank.

Bravely Blue seemed quite interested in the cutiemark, regarding Diane with curiosity. Daring let Bravely Blue look for a moment before she seemed to remember something else.

“OH! I want to give you something!” She dived into her bag again, rummaging around before coming out, producing a box. Diane pushed the box towards Bravely Blue who studied it curiously.

Bravely Blue glanced from the box to Diane, the little mare’s face bright and expectant. Bravely Blue sighed softly and slowly opened the box, her eyes widening at the contents.

It was a coin.

Golden and worn from age, but no less gleaming, and covered in ancient scripture that Diane couldn’t read, but Bravely Blue seemed fascinated.

Bravely Blue closed the box and looked thoughtful, turning to her fan.

“What is your name?” She asked curiously.

Diane felt silly for not having mentioned it before.

“I’m Diane…Diane Do.”

Bravely Blue nodded and smiled. “Well then Diane, to face off a pack of Timberwolves is a very brave thing indeed. Brave or silly.” She said softly. “You must be quite daring.”

Diane giggled. “Daring is my middle name.” She smiled before her face fell. “I mean that literally, not dramatically.” She quickly corrected, feeling her cheeks glow with a light flush.

Bravely Blue could only chuckle, smiling at the little one.

“Daring Do.” She smiled. “A fitting name for an adventurer.”

They were words that made Diane’s heart more than any wind or spread wings ever could.

“And a good adventurer.” Bravely Blue began, reaching up and taking off her pith helmet. “Needs a good hat.”

Diane gasped as the pith helmet was sat upon her head, barely able to fit.

“Consider it a trade.” Bravely Blue said, smiling. “You’d best take a seat.”

Daring Do nodded rapidly. It was the best day of her life, and she had never been happier. It was the start of a new lift.

It was the start of a beautiful friendship between mentor and student.

It was the start of Daring Do.

*

It was at these thoughts that the present Daring Do no longer felt like Daring Do. She felt like that little filly once again, barely an adult mare. Barely anything more than little Diane.

It was at these thoughts that Diane Do broke.

The End

3) Daring Do and the Radiant Shield of Razdon by AlmanacPony
Author's Notes:

Book 3 of the Caballeron Chronicles

Daring Do is broken, but she knows a way to fix herself.
There is a quest she must undertake, a decision she must make, and within her choices, the lines of morality become a blur. What must she do to rise above her failures? How can she save the pony she cares about?
And what will her choices cost her?

Daring Do and the Radiant Shield of Razdon

 


 

She hadn’t left her room for weeks.

Daring Do was an adventurous mare. Able to face the odds, beat the bad guys, and save the world countless times in a single week. She had faced down Hydras; she had beaten monsters, fought off curses and defeated ancient foes. But Daring Do wasn’t really there anymore.

Diane Daring Do lay curled up in her bed, scattered plates surrounded the sparse furniture and the papers of mysteries and work related research lay unsolved on her desk, strewn about and gathering dust in their lack of use. The air smelt faintly rotten, a bath was likely needed for the mare and a thorough clean for the area. But she didn’t care.

The intrepid, once adventurous mare stayed curled up in her blankets, her safe haven away from life and reality that she had cocooned herself into, and had thus far refused to leave.

Her depression and wallowing was all encompassing. For the first few days she had received knocks and bangs on her door variously by either Cloud Zapper, the Royal Guard that had befriended her, Caffeine Kick, her childhood friend, and even once by R B Ravenhoof, the Head Professor of Archaeology there at Clopsdale University. She had turned them all away, him especially. He was the original mentor of Bravely Blue.

Beatrice Bravely Blue was once considered the greatest adventurer in the field. Facing the odds, doing the most daring of deeds, saving the world from powerful artefacts falling into the wrong hooves…and then she’d stopped.

Like most in the field that reach such levels of fame, she chose to step back from active work so much as her age began to become an issue, and instead chose to pass on what she knew to the younger generation. She became a teacher.

Daring Do’s first class at Clopsdale University, so many years ago, was where they had both met, where things between them had blossomed as student and tutor. Bravely Blue became Daring’s personal mentor after seeing a spark in Daring. Together they had accomplished so much.

The first adventure Daring had been on, was with Bravely Blue by her side. Daring had thought it wise to prepare for every contingency, and as such, had packed several saddlebags filled with everything from climbing gear, to digging gear, to weapons and even a camping stove if they wanted to cook up some food.

Bravely Blue hadn’t said a word. She didn’t correct Daring, she allowed the filly to choose whatever she wanted to bring, simply smiling at any suggestion and giving no indication if the choice was right or wrong.

This was a lesson of course. Everything was a lesson with Bravely Blue.

“Learn through experience.” She would say nonchalantly whenever pressed or questioned on her methods of teaching. And she stuck to that creed.

Daring remembered wearing two full saddle bags that were heavier than her, full to the brim with assorted equipment’s, whilst trying to hike up a mountain trail, heading for a cave at the top. Bravely Blue had decided to pack lightly herself, and was pulling ahead of Daring, trotting merrily as though the incline of the path meant little to nothing for her stamina.

Daring, however, was panting, sweating, taking a single step at a time. She was almost at the top before she collapsed, but the incline at this point was quite a bit more than it was most of the way up, and thus, without realising it, she began to topple backwards. She was about to grasp hold of anything before hooves lashed out and grabbed her own, halting her on the precipice of falling backwards, over the edge of the trail, and down into the trees below. It would have been a very nasty fall.

“Are you okay?” Bravely Blue had asked, her eyes looking concerned, warm, and almost motherly in nature.

“Y-yeah.” Daring gulped, panting. The adrenaline was turning to hysteria and she couldn’t help but chuckle to herself. “I…erm…guess I shouldn’t have packed so much, huh?”

“And now you know for the future.” Bravely Blue smiled softly, seeming satisfied that a lesson had been learnt.

The entire day was like this, filled with tests and turns. They came across a cavern that would require them crossing a large gorge, and just as Daring was getting out the climbing equipment, Bravely Blue took it from her. She placed it off to the side and folded her hooves.

“Cross.” She said simply, watching Daring Do with expectant eyes.

“But, you just took away the climbing gear.” Daring looked at her accusingly, wondering what the older mare was playing at.

Bravely Blue shook her head.

“You won’t always have climbing gear. You can’t pack everything, as you’ve already found, and you can’t prepare for every eventuality. You need to learn to be creative.” The blue mare padded up and slipped the pith helmet off of Daring’s head, ignoring the girl’s protests. She slipped a rope around the helmet, tying it tightly so it wouldn’t come loose. She then held the helmet in both hooves and pulled back with one of them, stretching the helmet.

Daring Do watched with wide eyes at the surprising elasticity of the hat before her mentor let it go. The hat careened towards a wall, struck it, bounded off and slipped through some stalagmites that hung low from the ceiling, wrapping around one of the stalactites over at the other ledge they needed to get too, giving them a rope to use to get across.

“That hat may or may not be designed differently to other helmets.” She shrugged, tying off the other end of the rope and grasping hold of the rope while Daring just stood with her mouth agape.

Every turn was a new experience. There were traps, at every corner. Daring would step forward and Bravely Blue would stop her with a single hoof, pointing to the ground where a trip wire or a stone would lay. She would push the stone in and show the trap that would be set off, often it would be fast and deadly, other times it might have just been nasty. Each lesson Daring took to heart, making note of positions, and timings, how long traps could take to set off. Daring remembered spending hours a night, constantly setting traps up in her own room, trying to get through them. She would wire the place full of strings with bells, trying her best to navigate them without setting off a single ring. And she would time herself, getting faster and faster each time. Daring would lay down fragile paper and learn to step on it and cross it without breaking it (it had taken her months). She would learn to navigate in the dark, setting obstacles for herself, and made meticulous notes in her classes and lectures. And on the weekends, every Sunday, she and Bravely Blue would have a personal class. These were often filled with anecdotes and examples of how stuff she had learned and experience had taught her how to navigate and perform certain tasks. Often she would be tested, learning to undo knots, learning how to wield weapons.

To anypony else outside, this would be seen as excess, this would be seen as too much time devoted to this one singular cause and ideal. But for Daring Do, it was living the dream; it was working towards what felt like her destiny.

Daring’s home life between her and her parents hadn’t been anything special. She’d always been a wayward filly, getting into trouble, constantly going out exploring and trying to find adventure. And her parents had encouraged it…kind of. Or more accurately, they had figured out they couldn’t stop her, as each time they’d tried, like grounding her, she’d sneak out of her bedroom window to go find adventure regardless. At least under Bravely Blue they knew she was being taught to be safe by a professional.

There was a bit of distance between her and her mother though, despite all the support. Daring Do had never been a family oriented mare; she had never been one to have deep connections with those that were blood kin. She loved them, of course. But she didn’t feel any special duty towards them, and thus her four years at the university had passed by with little interaction with her family, and not much care as to changing that.

After her four years of learning, Diane Daring Do had entered the field for the first time, stepping out of the shadow of Bravely Blue’s tutorship onto her first solo escapade.

The newspapers had already picked up her name thanks to Bravely Blue herself. A press conference had been held, and Bravely Blue had introduced her to the world, with details about the upcoming trek, straight into the heart of Pirate Cove, some of the most deadly waters in Equestria, to enter a cave in the ocean cliff side, and find the Opal of Tethys. It was an ancient stone said to be able to control the very ocean itself, and the dreaded pirate, Black Mare, was said to be after it.

Famously, Bravely Blue had actually been asked personally to go retrieve the opal, and protect the world from it falling into the wrong hooves, but she had instead declined, claiming that Daring Do would do it in her place as her debut.

Daring remembered being terrified of the approaching mission.

Looking back on it, she supposed it hadn’t really been that hard.

Black Mare turned out to be withered with age and with less swords and weapons among her crew than she had teeth in her mouth. The crew had been challenging due to their numbers, with Daring Do being captured at first. She’d been starved for almost three days, in their hold before being subjected to water torture. She could still remember the feeling of drowning as they had subjected it to her. In the end she had submitted, and they had used her to help them find the opal. Bravely Blue had said she would save her though. Those were her last words, that if it got too bad, she would be there for her, and help her. And throughout it all…she hadn’t. There had been no sign of her mentor.

Daring had led them through the cave, avoiding all the twists and traps easily. She was surprised at how easy avoiding them came to her now, she had been half terrified that her training would have been for nought, and she would never master the same skills Bravely Blue claimed. But she had, and they ventured deeper and deeper into the cave, only to find the Opal upon a pedestal, sitting there under an arc of light. And it was at this time, that Daring realised a chance had been sprung upon her. There was a basic rule in this line of work. Bravely Blue had told it to her only once, but it was one that sprung to mind in an instant.

“Now remember, all those traps before the pedestal are just to keep you away, but they can be gotten past with a bit of timing and skill.” Bravely Blue had begun. “But at the end of the day, those that built the places to house those items really don’t want it to be taken away. So there is always one final trap, one you really can’t avoid.” She had finished this sentence with a sad smile. “For those traps, you grab the artefact, and you do the only thing you can.” She shrugged. “You run, you run as fast as your hooves can carry you.”

Daring had used that advice that day. Allowing Black Mare to step forward, the old crone’s shaky hooves wrapped around the artefact and lifted it up, grinning at the power it could grant her. But she was not expecting the place to suddenly start shaking like an earthquake had suddenly begun racking the cave.

In the confusion Daring Do had broken free of her bonds, taken the opal from the protesting pirate, and galloped off, barely making it out of the cave in time for the entire place to collapse into itself, burying the pirates that had proven too slow to escape.

After she had made her way back to Bravely Blue, she had confronted her mentor, demanding why she hadn’t come to her aid, through the capture, through the torture, through it all, why she had been left alone. Bravely Blue’s answer to these questions had echoed in her head for years to come.

“Because out there, you will always be alone.” She said softly, but with a touch of warmth to her voice. “And I knew that you could do it. And you did.”

That faith had given her strength. But it was those first words that had really stuck into her heart. ‘…out there, you will always be alone…’

And she had been. Always. Every time Cloud Zapper had joined her, he’d barely been of any help, occupying the enemy whilst she herself had saved the day. Often he had just gotten in the way, and that damn armour of his had almost cost the life of her closest friend.

Bravely Blue had left her to be alone on every mission, not matter how dangerous, but she had always been there afterwards, to nurse her when she was sick or hurt, to help her with the research if she needed it, to be there as encouragement. She had encouraged Daring Do to become independent and strong, to revel in being alone and to trust in herself and her own capabilities.

But Cloud Zapper was the opposite.

And the more Daring thought about it, the weaker she realised Cloud Zapper had made her.

If she tried to go on a mission or adventure, Cloud Zapper would come with her, if she tried to stop him, he would demand it, just in case Ahuizotl would turn up, just in case Shadow was there, just in case she needed HELP.

It wasn’t her pride that was the issue. It was his faith. He believed she needed help, and he believed it wasn’t safe for her if she went alone. But it had never been safe; she couldn’t remember a single adventure she’d ever been on where ‘safe’ was a factor.

He had started making her believe she needed him. That she needed help.

Would things have been different without him? Could she have taken on Shadow, Ahuizotl, and Bravely Blue at the Terrifying Tower all alone? Would she have fought harder if she hadn’t had help? Would she have thought faster? More creatively? Would she have been able to save…

…could she have saved Bravely Blue’s life?

The sight of Bravely Blue rose in her mind again, standing in the water, standing there as she held the Griffon’s Goblet. Standing there as her body turned grey, as her legs turned to stone, as she solidified. As she died.

The Terrifying Tower was said to show ponies their worst fears. But Cloud and Daring had seemingly been unaffected. She wasn’t sure about her foes, but there were no hallucinations for them, there were no dreams or visions of dreadful sorrows. There was just the task, there was just the adventure. There was just the mission.

But that was only because the Tower didn’t need to do anything.

Cloud Zapper, who was a stalwart Royal Guard officer that was obsessed with bringing Shadow to justice, had lost his adversary; He had lost Shadow, and failed the princesses’ order. For a guard such as Cloud, it must have been his own version of Tartarus.

And Daring Do, Daring Do had watched Bravely Blue die. Worse than that, she had all but killed the mare herself. Her lack of speed, her inability to react fast enough, and her slowness in reading ancient writing had all contributed to her being unable to save Bravely Blue in time. And it had been her own hooves that had knocked the Griffon’s Goblet into the water of the pool, the water where Bravely Blue had stood. The water where she had drank from the Goblet. The water that was the one place she wasn’t supposed to stand when taking that drink. The water that had granted Bravely Blue the immortality that she had sought. Immortality as a statue.

Daring had carried on, of course, like it had barely affected her. She had cried, and she had mourned. But she had continued her adventures, she had tried her best to not let herself break. But she had anyway. She had broken.

She didn’t know when it had happened, she had no clue. It could have been that night, or a few nights after, but inside something had broken and now the world, a once fascinating place filled with adventure, felt like the darkest void, and the most terrifying nightmare.

She had become weak.

And she needed to be strong again.

Daring Do knew what she needed to do.

*

Eyes watched her.

Prying pupils staring out of classroom windows looked down into the courtyard of the university as for the first time in weeks; Daring Do left her dorm, and the building.

Her mane was freshly brushed, she was showered, dressed in clean clothing, and for all purposes, she looked well. Except her pith helmet was stored in a saddlebag that was strung over her back, and not sat upon her head. She didn’t feel deserving enough to wear it yet.

“Daring!”

The voice called out from above and behind her, and with the soft clop of hooves on the ground she knew that Cloud Zapper had landed just a few short feet away.

“I’m so glad to see you up and about.” He said chirpily, showing that playful personality he often wore around the university.

It wasn’t really HIS personality, or maybe it was, whether it was this or the other one, Daring wasn’t quite sure which was the real Cloud Zapper, or if there even was one. The Royal Guard had a few layers to him that even she had not yet puzzled out. Often he seemed silly, and even stupid. He could be brash, playful and jokey; the very description of anypony that she would never associate with being a Royal Guard, let alone an Inquisitor. But there was another side to him, buried under it that was called in when the need arose for it, a side almost directly opposite to his smiling demeanour. It was cold, it was serious, and it was strong. It always gave him a look in his eyes that somehow made the stallion seem taller and more powerfully built than he actually was. She had seen this in him when he would go hunt for an enemy, when they were in territory he knew foes were lurking, and she had seen this personality rise whenever a certain Pegasus came into the picture. A Pegasus stallion that called himself ‘Shadow’.

Daring knew it wasn’t his real name. Shadow wasn’t the kind of name any pony gave to their children. It was a self-styled name that had been forged in his past, and whoever that stallion had been, he was Shadow now, a master thief, and a master manipulator, and Cloud Zappers current target.

For now though, such deeper and darker regions of Cloud’s personality were buried, and his smiling carefree nature shone fourth. If asked, Daring would always claim such a carefree and smiling nature irked her, but in the secret confines of her own mind, she could not help but find it charming at times and sometimes she had to admit to herself that she needed his smile. Though today was not one of those times, and today she did not need him.

“I’m going away.” She responded simply, knowing it would broach questions. But she had answers ready for when he asked them, which predictably, he did.

“Away? Where?” His confused face gave away nothing of his internal feelings. Daring Do had studied his face before, and had seen both personalities, and both reactions he could muster up. She had quickly become aware of something about Cloud Zapper.

He had no reactions he did not fully control.

Even now, she knew he would likely be worried about her, weighing the pros and cons of her going, checking her attire and what she was carrying, trying to decipher what it was she might be thinking up, and thinking of all the excuses he could make to manipulate her into allowing him to join her wherever she was going. Whether that was for her sake or the sake of his hunt for Shadow, she couldn’t be sure. But despite how certain she was of what was going through his mind, his eyes never left her’s, there wasn’t a twitch of worry that crossed his face, only the look of curiosity. He was to any onlooker that didn’t know him, oblivious, innocent, and quite gullible. She knew he was anything but.

“I’m going to track down Ahuizotl.” She said honestly, she was being short and to the point as usual. She knew Cloud would focus on the journey, and not the reasoning behind the journey, so it was of no surprise to Daring Do when he answered with, “oh, I’ll get my stuff then.”

“I’m going alone.” She said rapidly. Cloud had already turned his back and spread his wings, preparing to take off and head back to his dorm so that he could gather supplies for the journey, so it was good that she spoke as swiftly as she did, stopping him in his tracks.

“What?”

“I’m going alone.” She repeated herself, not bothering to look at him. She needed her strength…and he made her weak.

“Why?” He asked, looking carefully curious. Not indignant. Not offended. Not accusatory. Just carefully curious. Did this stallion have no reactions or emotions that were not carefully controlled or concealed?

Daring was surprised she had never seen it before, surprised that his mannerisms had ever even seemed natural and genuine to her. Cloud Zapper played the fool to make everypony forget that he was in fact a Royal Guard. An Inquisitor. He’d said so himself to her when she had asked, early on in their adventures together. He admitted that he played the fool to fool everypony else. And for a short time, even after knowing the truth, he had somehow begun to fool her as well.

Cloud Zapper was a Royal Guard. Heavily trained and experienced in the field, chosen for the Inquisitors, the elite fighting force of the Royal Guard, and designated solely for the seeking and destruction of chosen targets.

She would not forget who he was again.

“I’m going alone. You are not to come with. This is not up for discussion. If you try to follow me, I will never aid you again, and you will have to find Shadow without my help.” She said this firmly, this time looking directly into his eyes.

Cloud was facing her now, having turned when she had been talking. He was facing away from majority of the onlookers, so the expression on his face was more-or-less privately reserved for her. And she saw the switch, the change in those features and the spark in his eyes that seemed to alter and almost change in tone with the way he gazed at her. His cheeks hardened, his eyes shifted to less of an emotive personality to one that was slightly cold, and even though his eyes stayed their piercing green, there was a kind of fire inside them, that changed from a warm red…to a cold shade of silver.

“Shadow is with Ahuizotl, finding him could happen if I followed you anyway.” His voice was a challenging tone as he spoke to her. It was a challenge to her reasoning. It was a tone that said ‘I could just follow you anyway, and you couldn’t stop me’.

“Shadow wasn’t with Ahuizotl the last two times either of us saw and faced him. Not when the Amulet of Atonement was the target, and not when he attacked the train I was on. Logic dictates Shadow is off doing something else, and whether or not he is even still working with Ahuizotl remains to be seen. He is sly, and manipulative, as you yourself have said, there is every chance that he is off on some mission for Ahuizotl, either stirring up trouble or bringing beasts to their side.” She reasoned. “Clopsdale University gets all the latest news; this is a prime location for you to gather information of happenings around Equestria. Should his antics crop up, you will be able to investigate them yourself, rather than being absent if the news arises because you were out gallivanting with me.” She turned to him and looked him up and down. “Besides, I work better alone.”

“Since when?” He said in an almost mocking tone, any degree of warmth he usually had in his voice, now seemed suddenly absent.

She turned to him sharply and stepped closer so her voice wouldn’t carry to those around them. “Since all you did in the Tower was let Shadow escape while I fought and defeated a strength-enhanced Ahuizotl, and stopped Bravely Blue.” She said firmly, for once her voice not cracking when saying that name. “Since you almost got my friend killed with your clunky and shiny armour.” She said accusingly.

“And what about the train?” He inquired with narrowed eyes. “Was you getting captured my fault too? How did you get away again? You never did say.” He said, this time his voice was accusatory, and a slightly mirthful smirk adorning his features. It was the first time she had ever known him to use malice in his voice.

“I escaped.” She answered vaguely. “Like I always do.” She turned away from him. “And if you follow me, I’ll never help you again.”

With that, Daring Do spread her wings and gave a single hard flap, launching herself up into the cool blue sky. The adventurous mare shot forward, heading towards the cave that Ahuizotl had taken her to when he had captured her. It was as good a place to start as any on her hunt, and it was so far the only lead she had. But she knew that something there would point her in the right direction. Ahuizotl had wanted her help after all. He would have left her a way to find him.

A heavy weight in her chest reminded her that emotions were still not necessarily on her side these days. She longed for company, and cool air felt surprisingly lonely, while once such a thing had never bothered her. The gentle breeze caressed the tips of her wings as the Pegasus soared on air currents high in the sky, watching the landscape below pass her by, with a few littering’s of ponies here and there that looked as small as ants from her position above them.

The train she had been on that had derailed did so a mile and a half from the Clopsdale station, so it didn’t take her long to reach the location. Since then everything had been cleaned up, but even as she stood on the barren field between the tracks and the forest, she couldn’t help but relive the moment. The ground was still uprooted and scarred from where the train had dug into the soil as it had skidded along the ground, and from those lines and paths alone she could see the route the train had taken, the way it had been wrenched off the rails by a fierce blow. Likely from that Hydra that Ahuizotl had managed to befriend.

How did he manage to get such a beast anyway?

It was certainly a mystery. Dogs would growl and bark at Ahuizotl, and other animals seemed to shrink away from his presence. It often felt like Ahuizotl was something other animals greatly feared. Truly he wasn’t like any other creature Daring had ever faced, and she didn’t have a clue about where he was originally from. But one thing was always certain, animals did not like him.

So how did he end up with a pet cat, a lynx, a cheetah, a panther and now hydra?

Ahuizotl was full of mysteries, and she wondered if it would ever be a mystery she would solve. She wasn’t even sure if she wanted to solve it at all.

Pulling herself from her thoughts, Daring Do looked around, trying to find some evidence of where he had taken her. When he had captured her, he had bound her here on the field, and then had her carried on the back of the hydra, the problem was, she had been forced to face upwards at the time. And her head had been bound too to stop her biting at the ropes. She had only seen sky the entire time they had moved, so judging a direction was difficult.

She knew they had been in an underground temple of sorts, and many such things were built into mountainsides. There were two mountains nearby, both in opposite directions. Standing where she had been captured in the first place, she laid down onto her back, trying to recreate the moment. She THOUGHT she might have been taken east, if that was true, then it would be the mountain to her left. She decided she would check that one first, and if it was wrong, she’d simply go to the other one. They weren’t that far away. She took off and headed in her chosen direction, coming upon the mountain after almost an hour of flying.

The mountain wasn’t that big, small compared to most mountains in the area, and if measured, would only come halfway up the side of the mountain that Canterlot sat upon. Daring Do landed at the base and began walking around it, trying to find some evidence of the secret cave. She had walked out of this place and walked back home, she should have known where it was, and she should have recognised something. But she had to admit, at the time of her walking out, she hadn’t been in the deftest frame of mind. She hadn’t been focusing on directions or landmarks, her brain had barely been working and her hooves had simply carried her home with little conscious will of her own to guide them. It was all something of a haze.

Though, she could hardly blame her past self. The words of Ahuizotl still hung in her mind, rattling up and over in her head daily and nightly, sounding out like a mantra, like a spell or a chant that might try to woo her to the monsters will. Well it had worked, hadn’t it?

‘I know how to save Bravely Blue.’

Those words haunted her.

Bravely Blue was dead. She was turned to stone and there was no way she could be turned back. But Discord was turned to stone too right? And he had come back. But that was a god, or a spirit of chaos, or whatever he was supposed to be. But then again, Bravely Blue couldn’t help but remember how the Terrifying Tower had crumbled around them, falling down and rubble crashing around them, how the entire building and all underground passages had collapsed in on themselves and become nothing but rubble. And there in the centre of the damage, untouched and unharmed, was Bravely Blue as a statue. In fact, if the Unicorns of the Royal Guard Mystic Guard Division that had been telling the truth of it, every spell they had tried on the statue had failed, and it seemed that Brave4ly Blue as a statue could not only NOT be saved or changed back, but it couldn’t even be damaged or affected. She was an immortal statue. Indestructible.

Why would the magic make her indestructible if it simply only made her stone?

Was there really a way to save her?

These thoughts burned through Diane’s mind as she moved around the mountain. A second voice in her head, more rational than the first, openly chastised her for her train of thought. Whenever she was focused on the task, she called herself Daring Do in her mind, the moment Bravely Blue came into her thoughts, suddenly she was Diane again. She could hear the voice telling her she was going mad, that she was disassociating herself with who she had always been. That she doubted herself.

Good.

She had reason to doubt herself. She had failed. She had failed her mentor, gotten her likely killed, or at least trapped, and like a good student, like a good adventurer, she would do what she could to save Bravely Blue.

Whatever it took.

Even if it meant helping Ahuizotl.

She found the entrance.

A crevice in the wall that was barely big enough to squeeze into –Celestia knows how Ahuizotl managed- that led down to some stairs. They were basic steps, hewn into the rock a millennia ago, leading down into the depths of the mountain. She expected twist and turns, but that wasn’t the case. It led only to a single room, the same room she had been kept in after being captured.

Why build a temple that only had a single room?

Her brain started to work and thoughts of Bravely Blue and her failures were for a time, pushed to the side, as Daring Do stepped into the role she had played for all of her adult life.

“What's going on here?” She asked herself as she looked over the decorated walls.

The chamber only had three walls, a ceiling and a floor, the back of the entrance with the stairs was basic jagged rock, as though this room had been carved out of the inside of the mountain. She’d taken it for a temple because such decorations and effort put into designs, were often reserved in the past for those places of great value, which more oft than not, were places of worship. The three walls were all filled with ancient equestrian writing and hieroglyphs that barely made sense to anyone that had not been studying such things for a lifetime.

The left wall was a depiction of ponies bowing to another. A singular figure stood high and mighty with lines of power surrounding them, with the symbol of a jewel above its head. The centre wall had the depiction of a temple, and a powerful pony inside it, with what seemed a bubble around the temple that was keeping the other pony figures from entering. Daring turned to the wall on the right. This one seemed to depict a strange image. It was a large cylinder that was at the top of a set of stairs inside of the depiction of a temple. And around the depiction was surrounded with thirteen rings. The rings seemed plain, but there were power lines around them, giving them a visage importance in the picture.

Stepping back from the picture she looked down at the floor. The cylinder was there, but it seemed the rings had been slid onto it in order of size, largest first. There were power lines here too, and above, where the temple the rings and cylinder were housed, were eight suns. Each of the suns was surrounded by ten smaller suns that ran around them in a ring. And below the suns, around the temple were ponies…they looked like they were being burned alive.

A shiver ran up Daring Do spine.

What was it Ahuizotl had said?

Daring turned her attention back to the centre wall, where it depicted the circular field that kept every other pony out. ‘It speaks of the Shield of Razdon…’ Ahuizotl’s melodious voice rang in her head unbidden as she looked over the depiction. She turned to the wall on the left; the one depicted the pony that had gained great power via a jewel.

“The Amulet of Atonement.” She surmised as she looked at the way the pony figure seemed to rule over the other ponies from on high. ‘…and of the Ketztwctl Empress.’ His voice came to her again. Her eyes turned to the wall on the right, and then from there, to the floor. Its eight suns, each sun surrounded by another ten smaller suns. ‘It speaks of an ancient power to extend my life eight centuries…’ The ghost of Ahuizotl in her head seemed to say. And it came one last time as she looked down at the rings on their cylinder mount. And below the alter where they stood, she gazed at the writhing bodies of those ponies that were being burnt alive. ‘The prophecy speaks of…’

“…The Rings of Scorchero.” She finished the sentence herself aloud. Ahuizotl had found yet another way to extend his life. Yet another way to gain power.

Daring Do gazed down at the depiction thoughtfully before turning her attention to the right wall. She approached it, wondering if it somehow held some clue as to where to find the other rings. She had some inkling she already had one of them, in a particular box left in a satchel she had kept secure in her room. The golden ring in the wooden box that had been protected so fervently with layers and layers of spells that were interweaved to make sure nopony would ever retrieve its contents. She was glad, not for the first time, to have such contacts as Shamrock Luck of the Mystic Guard to aid her in breaking such enchantments.

The depictions on the wall were very detailed on the right side, showing mountains and hillsides in the background and it seemed that each ring that circled the temple in a semi-circle above it had a little something behind it that could be seen through its centre. One seemed across an ocean above an island that was strangely shaped like the island of the Terrifying Tower where she had found her first one. And one of them, the centre one and the smallest ring, was right over a mountain that looked a little like this own one. She reached up and ran a hoof across the ring for a moment, feeling the ridges that had been carved into the stone. But as she moved her hoof over it, something clicked strangely. There was a whirring sound and suddenly the ring itself jutted out of the wall with a click, sending ancient dust into Daring’s face. The mare stumbled back for a moment, and sneezed; she shook her head and grumbled before looking back up at the ring, she reached up and it came loose into her hooves. The stone around it began to flake off and there was a glinting underneath. It was gold. Daring Do began to scrape away the rock that had been cemented onto the ring and eventually it was clean and gleaming in her hooves, the passage of time having had no effect on its gleaming surface.

Her hooves travelled over its surface, stroking over the curved gold that was shaped like a large hoof or a horn ring. It was strange that such an unassuming object could be something as devastating as the Rings of Scorchero. She now had two of them. Two of ?. And where the others were, she could only discover in time. Daring looked up at the right wall again, looking at the depictions of the other rings, and where they lay. It was difficult to understand, after all, it wasn’t like they were placed on a scale map; there were only vague depictions in their centre. The first one drew her eye, she had the ? and the ?, but she figured she had best start in order. The first one seemed very small. If the depiction on the floor was anything to go by, it was the one that was supposed to be on the top of the cylinder. According to the image, it seemed to be over a collection of mountain rangers, two particular peaks that were above a lake that ran between them.

Daring Do stepped back from the wall, pulling out a map of Equestria from her backpack; she began searching the different mountain ranges around the land for any that looked similar. Many of the places were labelled, but when she found what she was looking for, there was no listed name for the area. It was beyond the Smokey Mountain, part of the same ranges, not that it being part of the same ranges meant anything, the Smokey Mountain ranges were over a hundred miles along alone, and the twin peaks she found that resembled the depiction on the carved walls seemed still half a day’s train ride away from the Smokey Mountain territories. This was a going to be a long journey, which meant she’d need the help of a particular pony.

*

Melody Hollow had a particular skill with her Cello. She was a musical Pegasus, a talent that wasn’t very common in the flying breed of ponies, not that Melody herself much cared for the curiosity, though her lack of attention to this fact did not deter others from finding it interesting. In fact, it was such an oddity that it was this fact alone that drew most of her crowds, entirely because she could apparently play with her wings.

Melody Hollow’s talent was music. She had a lime coloured coat and a two toned green mane and tail, and a stylised semi-quaver as a cutie-mark. Though playing the Cello wasn’t as deep as her talent went. Her talent was love.

When Melody began to play with her wings, holding the bow in the soft tendrils of her feathers, it produced such a soft adoring music that those that listened to it could not help but fall in love with her and her music. It was a strange talent, and one that Melody had to use carefully and sparingly. It was also quite dangerous.

Love made fools out of everypony.

It was because of this talent that despite this strange talent, Melody refused to allow her-self to become too famous, never allowing herself to even be seen outside, let alone revealing aspects of her private life. Concerts and shows were done sporadically, with the town she was playing in only hearing of her performance the very day she set to perform. Because she conducted business this way, she was both successful, and also not very well known. This was exactly as she liked it.

Daring had known Melody from school when they were just fillies. She’d always been a rambunctious child, seemingly loving the attention of anypony that cared to give her even a lick of notice. It was funny how she’d changed into such a recluse that avoided the concept of fame as though it were a plague. But because of their acquaintance when Daring Do was younger, it was only fitting that they’d stayed in touch. Over the years Daring had discovered that Melody had a second talent, one that Daring had used a few times now. The ability to hide.

Melody was so accomplished at not being found and followed by paparazzi, that she knew the best places in almost any town to stay in that was out of the way and unseen, and all of the easy ways into any town that were away from prying eyes. Both of these were attributes that Daring had a use for right now.

Using her contacts she had, Daring had discovered where the latest Concert was being held.

Vanhoover.

Vanhoover was shortly west of the Smokey Mountain, which was convenient for Daring Do, and certainly a turn of luck.

Daring decided to make the journey by train rather than try to fly the entire way. Though what she didn’t expect was to suddenly feel extremely nervous around trains. Completely understandable of course, she’d recently been in one that had derailed. It was not an experience that one soon forgot, and certainly not one Daring had any intention of reliving. But it WAS the fastest way to get there, so she grit her teeth, smiled awkwardly at the ticket master and got on; hoping that this train ride would be uneventful.

It WAS uneventful. And extremely boring.

So boring that Daring had nothing to do but think.

Daring Do was a solitary mare, the concept of time to just sit and think pleased her usually. It was great to run through mysteries in her mind and work on puzzles and generally just let her brain work on things that she otherwise might not have time to work on. Any alone time could be really useful when she wanted to be productive in her work.

This was not a productive time though.

It wasn’t that she didn’t have things to work on of course. She’d taken rubbings of all the surfaces of that chamber, and could easily go through them in this time and work out where the other rings might be buried, as well as spend her time deciphering the writing that were also around the depictions in the hope of gaining more information than what Ahuizotl had told her. But she didn’t.

She didn’t because she was on a train.

And the train was loud.

And it creaked.

And its wheels squealed.

And it lurched, and jumped and with every corner the train took she would be pushed either right or left in her seat from the force and speed of the corner, her teeth would clench even tighter and her eyes would close, shutting out the world as she stiffened in her seat, holding on with her hooves for dear life.

She was being silly. She knew that. The trains were safe. She’d been on hundreds, possibly thousands of train rides and only that once had anything gone wrong, and that wasn’t the trains fault. It was Ahuizotl’s. He’s the one that derailed it. But with every lurch and corner, Daring’s mind ran a million miles per hour through scenarios that were each in turn both more vivid and more ridiculous than there last. The train could hit a stone on the tracks and it could slip under one of the wheels, shattering into one of the pumps underneath and letting out the pressure, causing the front of the train to suddenly lose momentum. The sudden loss in momentum could cause the rest of the carts to crash into the front of the train, knocking it off the rails, the sparks that would occur could ignite damaged gas and pressure valves that would explode the front of the cart and they’d find themselves not only tumbling and derailing off the side BUT IN FLAMES!

Or at least…that’s what Daring’s brain told her.

The moment the train stopped in the Vanhoover station, she dived out of the doors as far from the train as possible and snuck herself into a corner to calm her racing heartbeat.

‘Great.’ She thought to herself. ‘The great Daring Do has grown a fear of trains.’ Her mental voice was sour and unimpressed, while her racing heart and burning lungs that gasped for air told that mental voice to shut up; and to NEVER TRUST TRAINS EVER AGAIN!

The city of Vanhoover was one of the few places Daring had never visited on her travels. She’d had the opportunity of course, but never the inclination. Daring Do had places that she could settle down all over Equestria. Little safe houses and hovels and cottages that were rented, bought or given to her by those she helped that gave her places to stay when her need arose for it. In this particular area, her closest place was a small cottage in White Tail Woods. She COULD stay there and not bother Melody, but White Tail Woods was a bit further away, and she had promised Melody last time that she’d come see at least one of her shows soon. Both of those were really good reasons and it certainly had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that it’d take another train ride to get there.

Melody’s concert was scheduled for that night, and only just now did the city have fliers up so ponies could actually attend. It was a sound practice for the mare if she didn’t want to get accosted during her travels, but Daring had to wonder how many ponies actually were capable of turning up to these things on short notice. She hoped her friend was doing okay financially.

The place Daring had been told to go through her contacts was a pretty nice hotel that was just out of the main town area, so Daring Do found herself trotting the streets to reach the place, taking the time to look around as she did.

Vanhoover was a bit like Manehatten in that it was a large bustling city. But the aesthetic was quite different.

While Manehatten prided itself on its large square cloudscrapers, Vanhoover preferred a kinda, rounded edge to their designs. The city was built in a circular pattern and seemed to have a great adoration and appreciation for art of the statuesque and architectural variety. Buildings were ornately designed and built beautifully out of stone, while statues hewn from rocks such as granite and marble littered the squares and market places and street junctions like so many stone sentinels guarding the city. Each one was designed after a historic figure of the area, including many of the cities founder, Vanhoover himself. Always seemingly depicted with an admirals outfit –complete with hat- and a scroll in his maw or jutting out of a saddle pack.

The place was very beautiful, and Daring found herself wondering why she had never taken the time to visit before.

The road she was on intersected with another so she was forced to cross the street, but once she did, it was only another corner before she saw the hotel she had been looking for.

The Bitz.

It was quite the famous hotel, which was curious for Daring as it was usually the opposite kind of place Melody would go to. But she had to admit it made sense if only a little. It might be a bit high class for Melody, but the place had a reputation for discretion. At least if anypony asked at the desk they were likely not to get an answer as to if Melody was there or not.

Daring walked in, keenly aware of the well-dressed ponies around her and their high class manner. She always felt slightly out of place wearing her khaki’s when around such ponies. Approaching the desk Daring saw that a friendly looking, yellow coated unicorn secretary sat talking on a phone.

“I know. I know. Yes. He did seem the type.” The secretary giggled. She glanced up when Daring approached, her eyes quickly looking over the grey-scale maned mare and turned back to her phone. “Darling I’m going to have to call you back. Yes. I know.” She giggled again at something said on the other side of the phone. “Okay, okay, I’ll see you tomorrow. Ciao.” She hung up the phone and turned to Daring Do. “How may I help you?”

“I’m here to see Mrs Cello.” She said simply. The name ‘Mrs Cello’ had been told to her specifically, it was a code name given for Melody for any that had legitimate right to see her. The secretary gave Daring another appraising look before checking her paperwork, glanced at Daring again and nodded. “Second elevator, fourteenth floor, room 363B.” Her eyes narrowed for a moment. “Don’t wander.”

Daring gulped and nodded, heading for the elevator.

Once inside the small box and ascending floors Daring thought she might be feeling a little less on edge, but the elevator itself had a pony there dressed in a suit. It seemed to be his job to just stand in the elevator as ponies went up and down. He didn’t do anything; he barely looked at her, and never said a word. But he unnerved Daring all the same. High society types always did.

When the elevator finally pinged and the doors opened, she stepped out and breathed a sigh of relief. She began walking down the halls, marvelling at the deep red carpeting, the cream panelling and the golden wallpaper that seemed quite expensive that lined the walls. It was like the entire theme of this hotel was cream, white and gold. It smelled expensive.

She scanned the door numbers.

352

353

354

370

370? She checked again, she’d reached a crossroads in the hallway and found that the rest of the numbers went down one side rather than straight on, so she turned down the second hallway.

361

362

363A

363B

Daring wasn’t sure why this room number had a second ‘B’ room but she wasn’t about to question it. She knocked on the door.

The door sprang open and hooves flew at her. For a single moment she thought she might be being attacked, but instead the hooves encircled her neck and a cute lime coloured pony hugged her tightly.

“Diane!” Melody squealed as she hugged Daring so tightly that the mare was wondering if her circulation might be cut off. But before it became a problem, the lime pony let go and dragged Daring into the room by a hoof.

The room was well furnished and quite big. There was a big double bed in on the far wall with dishevelled sheets, the carpet was a gorgeous shade of red that was slightly romantic, and the walls were a chocolate brown. But it was lit with orange lights so despite the dark colours in the place, it had a bright vibrant atmosphere that was…romantic?

Daring looked to Melody and cocked an eyebrow.

“Why are you staying in a place like this?” Daring asked suspiciously. It was a question that had Melody’s ear tips turning a shade of pink.

“Why, whatever do you mean?” She smiled nervously.

“This place, it’s...romantic.” She said the word like it was dirty. Daring Do was not the kind of mare that was big on romance. It all just seemed a little too corny for her. She noted a door on the left wall and trotted to it. It turned out to be a lengthways bathroom, with a shower and a bath…and a door that led right to the next room which she assumed would be room 363A. The rooms were joined by the bathroom.

“And why is your bathroom connected to another room?” She asked with her brow raised. Looking back at Melody, she found the mare shuffling shyly with her cheeks burning a bright pink. “Do you have a special somepony staying in the other room?”

The question made Melody meep. “I...erm...maybe?”

Daring thought about it for the moment. “If you have a special somepony, why not just share a room?” She asked casually.

A fierce blush flared up in Melody’s cheeks that momentarily made her quite adorable.

“I…I didn’t want the attention. He’s kinda big in his field.”

Daring accepted this answer, shrugging. “Well fair enough. I’m happy you found a pony that makes you happy.” She said studiously, chewing the inside of her cheek a bit as thoughts of Caffeine Kick ran through her mind. He was just a friend. She only wanted him as a friend. But he was also the only pony that ever really wanted her as anything more than a friend. Even if she didn’t want him romantically, it was nice to be wanted at all. Daring Do shook her head, clearing the thoughts from her brain. Now was not the time to consider romances.

“So,” Daring continued. “I was hoping to see your show later and maybe if you could help me get a place to stay –not this place- that would be really gr-”

She never managed to finish because at that moment, the door from the bathroom opened up and a stallion walked in, obviously from the conjoined room.

“I’m afraid my dear, I cannot find what you asked me to find, embarrassing, considering this is me.” He chuckled cockily, taking a few steps into the room before he noticed Daring Do.

Daring’s eyes widened at the sight of the stallion as recognition spun through her mind. Her eyes darted to that pallid shirt, those startling grass green eyes and that deep grey coat, taking them all in as indicators of who this stallion was. Even as his mane fell around his eyes in a mess that was certainly not its usual state –if pictures she’d seen of him in newspapers were evidence-, she could not deny his identity.

“Doctor Caballeron?”

The stallion froze where he stood, looking Daring Do up and down before his features brightened.

“Daring Do?” He asked, seeming quite pleased to see her. “A pleasure to meet such a mare of repute, in this humble hotel room no less.” He said, his eyes lidding slightly with a sultry gaze that had Daring’s insides turning uncomfortably.

Doctor René Caballeron was in the same field as her, so to speak, but for entirely different reasons, and with methods that most found questionable. He wasn’t so much an archaeologist, as he was a treasure hunter. From what Daring heard, he barely did much temple and tomb raiding and preferred to send in a bunch of lackeys that he would hire to do most of the dirty work for him. He would then take whatever was found, regardless of how dangerous it may be, and sell it to the highest bidder. His methods really ticked Daring off.

The stallion reached up, stroking the goatee he so proudly sported on his chin, running his hoof through the course hairs as he considered Daring Do for a moment.

“You two know each other?” The awkward question sliced through the silence that had descended between everyone. Daring had barely noticed the silence though. She and Caballeron had just been staring at each other, considering each other, challenging each other with their eyes. It was like a silent form of communication, and within that moment, so much information had passed between them. She knew Caballeron was here for something, and it was not a coincidence that he was in this area, and she bet it probably had something to do with Ahuizotl and those rings.

She also knew that he likely knew that she knew that. As well as knowing that she was here because she knew of Ahuizotl’s plan. That is of course, assuming that this wasn’t a coincidence, and he really knew about Ahuizotl, and if that was the case then he would know that she knew, and likely that she knew that he knew that she knew. But if this was a coincidence, then he wouldn’t know anything.

Daring Do thought that made perfect sense.

“O-only by reputation.” Caballeron’s voice cut through her thoughts as he answered Melody’s question, seeming for the entire world a gentlecolt in his politeness. “We work in the same field after all, archaeology is such a small stage, and there are very few players of note, we quickly learn each other’s lines.” His words had a slight flick to them, it was subtle, and barely noticeable to the casual listener, but Daring heard it. She heard the slight lilt in his words that spoke of smugness that spoke of boasting. Yes, he certainly knew all about Ahuizotl and Daring’s reason for being in the area.

Daring Do’s eyes narrowed for a moment before a smirk slipped across her muzzle. She shuffled her hoof on the floor, looking down at it absently. “Yeah, that’s true, though last I heard you prefer to coach others in your lines, hey Caballeron?”

Melody looked between them, obviously lost, which was, of course, the intention. She had no idea that Daring Do and Caballeron were duelling with wit. Caballeron had obviously boasted that he knew of Daring’s situation, his line about knowing each other’s lines was about knowing each other’s intentions, and maybe even their secrets. Her response had been a little bit more of a bite than his opening had been. It was the equivalent of bared fangs within words, and the result was Caballeron betraying a small flash of anger that lasted barely a blink of an eye. It was fast, unnoticed by Melody, but very obvious to Daring Do. Her words about him coaching others in his lines was a jibe at him not playing his part at all, his pension for hiring others, unwilling to get his own hooves dirty. She was, in essence, calling him a coward.

She admitted, it might be a bit premature for such harshness and maybe even unfair; they had never met before this, and despite his bad practice in the field, Caballeron could easily be as nice a colt as he claimed he was…but Daring doubted it. He knew about Ahuizotl, and his first instinct had been to gloat about it. Good ponies don’t gloat.

“Perhaps I should go.” Caballeron began, narrowing his brow at Daring for a moment before extending a hoof, his face becoming a mask of smugness and smiles. “It was a pleasure, Miss Do.”

Daring Do watched as the stallion turned his tail and walked out of the room, leaving the place feeling somewhat chilly from his attitude.

“Erm…” Melody began. Daring could tell by the hesitation in her voice, that she was about to ask what was wrong, so before the young mare could, Daring turned back to her with a wide and warm smile.

“I really can’t wait to come to one of your shows.” She said with genuine warmth. It was enough to halt Melody’s question and make the mare smile.

“Well it starts in three hours so let’s get going.” She grinned, pulling Daring out of the room.

*

The concert was amazing.

The sights and sounds, the crowd and the deafening roar that drowned out all thought. Daring Do was often awkward in social situations, she worked better alone, always did, and she found comfort in her own solitude. But despite that, she was only awkward being in the crowd, surrounded by thousands, for a few short minutes. Once the music had started, she became one with the mob. She was screaming and held in rapture by the music as much as anypony around her. Three hours passed, her hooves ached from holding her in one place, and her throat was hoarse from her squeals of joy, but she was exhilarated and blissfully happy.

Melody’s music was not what it had been reported to be. The reports were an insult to the reality of how gorgeous the sounds she brought to life really were, and how they wove in the mind and couldn’t help but drown all worry, fear and anxiety, replacing it with joy, love and hope for a better future. Daring Do wasn’t big into the music scene, but she knew classical was popular, she also knew that there were some underground bands that had caught hold of the youth that were a bit…heavier. But these crowds put to shame any that could have come from somewhere else.

Despite Melody’s decision to advertise only on the day of the actual concert, to enter towns anonymously and leave just as anonymously, to keep herself out of the sight of anypony else so she could lead a normal life, it was apparent to Daring just how big that mare could become, if she wanted. She could rival Sapphire Shores, if she desired to.

The music of the evening rang through Daring’s mind as she snuggled into the soft pillow of the hotel room. She was staying a few blocks from Melody, in a small place that wasn’t very well known, perfect for what Daring needed, and thanks to Melody the room was free.

The music in her mind rolled on and on, slowly penetrating her dreams when she slipped into a peaceful slumber and, for the first time in a while, Diane felt more like Daring Do, and a little less broken.

*

The Tenochtitlan Basin.

The map showed it as a crevice between the two mountain peaks north of the Smokey Mountain, and only a few miles from Vanhoover. The trek was uneventful, but despite the quietness, Daring Do decided to go slowly as she neared the location.

The Tenochtitlan Basin was the remnants of an old lakebed, which in the olden days would have been above water level and populated, seemingly by the same kind of ancient ponies that thought creating magical items that could destroy the world, was a good idea.

These days it was home to a few uncovered temples, and Daring Do had no idea which one of these would be the right one.

She approached from the east, pushing her way through the foliage. A nearby sound drew her attention, so she approached it, her belly to the ground as she shuffled quietly through the undergrowth in an attempt to stay out of sight.

“How’s the hoof?” A stallion’s voice asked from nearby. Daring peaked over a small ledge in the dirt down onto a group of three stallions, all wearing khaki outfits and looking quite uncomfortable. One of them had stubble over his muzzle, and another wore a cheap pith helmet that looked like it had seen better days. All three were crème coloured, but the one that was speaking had a grey mane while the others had black manes.

The one with the pith helmet was the one to answer, his right forehoof in a sling. “Not as bad as I made out, but it got me out of doing all that digging.”

“You shouldn’t o’ lied.” The white maned stallion said with a sigh, he began looking around as though worried about being overheard. “That enchantress’ll probably know you bin skiving.”

“Nah, she’s all smoke ‘n’ mirrors.” The pith helmet wearing stallion responded, chuckling softly. “I bet she and the big blue are all too busy about those rings they’re lookin’ for.”

“Yeah, I heard they found another one.” The quiet black maned pony chimed in beside them. The pith helmeted pony’s eyes widened at the news.

“Another? They’re doin’ good with those.” He mumbled.

“Well, not found, but they know where it is, I hear they’re gonna be sendin’ a load of us to go get it, I hear it’s in a town of some sort.” He said with a grin.

“A town?” The white maned stallion asked curiously before his face became a sinister grin. “Great, I figure I could find myself some fun there, lotsa them town folk have some good stuff ya can trade in.”

The pith helmet pony seemed giddy at that. “Aww yeah, I love a good lootin’.”

Daring Do had heard enough. These three ponies were terrible, and while she could sneak around them, she found she didn’t really want to.

“Hey!” Her voice yelled down at them, making their heads snap up to where she had been, but they wouldn’t see her. She was up in the trees, but not for long. Suddenly she was in front of them, approaching fast, swinging down, and clutching a vine in her hooves. Her body struck all three of them, her hooves striking their faces as she swooped down onto the three startled stallions. They all went down in a single blow.

Daring Do landed on the ground with a thud, and behind her the stallions own thud joined hers, as their unconscious bodies struck the soft earth.

Ahuizotl was not the usual kind of person to hire goons, so the fact that these three seemed to be here was worrying for her. And who was this enchantress? Could she be the Empress that Ahuizotl had spoken of?

She wasn’t going to find any answers here, so Daring Do decided to move on, crawling through the undergrowth again as she got closer to her destination.

Mossy undergrowth gave way to rocky dirt as she approached a large cliff edge. She knew this area was littered with temples, but she also knew it wasn’t quite safe, and her travels had never really taken her out this way. Daring’s personal excavations were often tailored towards items that were rumoured to be magical and dangerous, but the Tenochtitlan area had never been a place on the list that was especially important in the way of ancient finds. But rumours and old writings weren’t always right, and this place obviously housed something if Ahuizotl wanted a piece of it.

The Temples below lit Daring’s eyes up wide. There were eight of them, all of them littered around the place with barely intact roads that connected them. They were in surprisingly good shape, and there seemed to be even more that were being uncovered in the cliff faces but ponies digging into the rock. The workers, the hired goons, they were everywhere, and getting close to Ahuizotl and this Enchantress was going to be extremely difficult. But she was Daring Do, she’d managed worse.

Her attempts at her usual cocky attitude that would on most days be considered a strong part of her personality, only gave way to what ‘worse’ things she HAD managed. The chief of which would be getting her long time mentor and friend killed. Diane Do pushed away those feelings, ignoring the pain that blossomed in her chest as she stole herself for the moment.

The grey-scale maned mare jumped down into the basin, skidding along the side of the dirt bank before coming to a skilful stop at the bottom, rolling behind a large set of stones at the base of one of the temples as a patrol of hired goons trotted by, talking animatedly about something that Daring didn’t quite catch.

She slipped behind them when they passed, dogged their heels for a few seconds before slipping up the steps of a temple and into one of the alcoves, finding herself in a room that had three exits. She slipped through one, finding herself on the other side overlooking limestone steps. Daring Do slipped down them, back into the rock and sand below. She looked around her before glancing up; wondering if she could get around by flying, but as she looked up a few Pegasus flew overhead, forcing her to duck behind the nearest rock that was out of their view. She’d be a sitting flying duck if she were to try flying around.

Slipping along the outside of the temples proved her best bet, they contained alcoves she could slip into that would shield her from, flying eyes, as well as rooms she could dart into to hide from patrolling ponies. As she got further into the basin, the sound of picks and the clinking of rocks on shovels met her ears. The dig site was nearby, and that’s where they needed to be. Ahuizotl was many things, but he was not patient. Daring Do knew he’d be as close to the dig site as possible, wanting to be right there when they found what they were digging for.

When Daring got a good look, she found that they were trying to cut out the ruins of an old temple that seemed in far worse repair than any of the others littered about. It had slowly been swallowed by the rocky cliff over the centuries, and now it seemed they were trying to find a way inside it. Thankfully, Daring had a talent for this.

Daring Do slipped around them, walking a wide birth away from them so she didn’t get caught before moving to the Cliffside. She was slightly round a corner, barely able to be seen and over ten meters from the actual dig site.

Daring breathed out a sigh to steady herself as she stood there; she looked over her shoulder at her own rump, her cutie-mark clear and blazed upon her flank. It was simply the points of a compass, dressed in golden colours. To many it seemed obvious, her talent being her adventuring. But did that really make sense?

An adventure by definition was the unknown. It was something one could not predict. To set out to complete a task was a quest, but an adventure was a journey with no sure ending, with no sure outcome or discovery. So why a compass? Why a tool that told you for certain where you were going?

Her cutie-mark was nothing about adventuring, it was in fact, the reason she kept falling into holes. Not that she’d ever admit that.

The compass was a symbol, a symbol that meant she had a talent for always being where she needed to be. Always moving in the direction she needed to go.

Daring Do could never get lost.

This wasn’t just about getting home, or knowing where she was going, it was simply that she would always find what she needed to find, often by accident (like falling in holes).

She trusted in this talent now, ignoring where they were digging and just running her hooves against the rocks round this corner. She began walking the length, tempted to run and rush, but trusting that it would all play out. As she moved around, she would give the rocks a soft tap every once in a while. After only a few minutes of doing this, her hoof reached up and tapped at a space on the Cliffside as she had before, but this time her hoof went through, knocking rock down into the inside of the cliff.

Success!

Daring Do began pushing at the rock, digging out her entrance. This part of the temple was buried deep and the insides had caved in, leaving this little pocket of loose rock. Once the hole was big enough, she crawled inside. If all went to plan, she could search the temple and find whatever there was to find before Ahuizotl and his goons could even finish digging out their own entrance.

The inside was dark and dusty, so Daring Do took off her saddlebags to rummage through it. Her hooves pushed her pith helmet out of the way. She looked down at it for a moment, biting her bottom lip. Her head had felt strangely naked without the familiar hat, but this wasn’t the time, not yet. She pushed it aside and brought out a headlamp, strapped the straps over her forehead and switched it on with a hoof tap. She slipped her saddlebag back on and looked down the corridor she was in.

The bright light of the headlamp illuminated the walls with a dull yellow glow that gave everything a sallow and almost sepia glow, though it didn’t help that a lot of the walls were carved yellow sandstone. She’d expected designs and ancient equestrian writing, as usually such temples that housed great objects of power were also used for decorations of prophecy and tales that ancient ponies wanted to be etched in stone so they could last for all time. But strangely, these walls were smooth, or at least, not carved. She trotted through, the sound of her hooves seemed dull without much echo, which told her, that the walls were thick and there was likely a lot of cave-ins. More stone meant less places for the sound to reverberate through.

She moved down the corridor and turned left, not bothering to really think about where she was going. She let her experience guide her. She moved down the corridor and found a ramp that led down, she decided to turn away from it, going down the right side of a corridor instead, letting her hooves do all the walking without much thought to direction. She found a set of stairs that headed downwards rather than a ramp, so she began trotting, but stopped halfway.

Her head cocked to the side before she dropped her hoof down one more step, before suddenly dropping herself to the stone steps, a loud bang echoed around her and she looked up to find a stone slab, that had once been a brick in the wall, had erupted out and struck the other side of the stairs. That would have hit her if she’d stayed upright.

A slight grin began to travel up her muzzle before she moved forward, jumping as a stone step collapsed in, she jumped up, planting her-self on the wall, spikes lashing up, barely missing her tail.  She jumped from the wall and landed round the corner, galloping down the steps. There was a loud creaking and a large bladed pendulum swung down in front of her. She jumped up, latching herself onto its handle, it swung up the steps and then back down, and she kicked off, flipped down and landed with a roll on the ground, dust kicking up about her, her mane cascading down around her as she stopped for a moment, her breath slow and steady as she looked down at her hooves.

Slowly she looked up. She was in a large room. There was a path in front of her, with grooves and holes sliced into the ground that spoke of traps littering that path before her. One either side of the path were large pools of bubbling sludge that smelled rotten, permeating the room with an ungodly stench that made Daring instinctively never want to touch that water. At the very end of the room stood, of course, on a pedestal was a golden disc etched with designs. In the centre of the disc was a ruby red jewel. The item looked like the kind that would be magical; Daring by now could tell the type.

She closed her eyes and breathed a deep breath. A singular image flashed in her mind, the image of her task and her determination. She knew exactly what she was doing. Daring Do was an adventurous mare, but for once this was not an adventure, this was a Quest, and she had to trust and have faith that she wouldn’t stray from the path she needed to set herself on, that she would do what she needed to do to achieve her goal.

Daring Do opened her eyes fiercely and dashed forward. She jumped high over the first set of holes, spikes lashing up that almost caught her. She rolled, dashed to the side as darts lashed out from one of the walls, missing her by inches. She kept moving, not stopping for an instant. Another pendulum sliced down, she dodged to the side to find floor beginning to rumble. The stones in front of her began rising, the floor re-arranging itself. She jumped, climbing up the first, jumping to the next, diving over another, even as they moved and changed, making it difficult to concentrate on where she was jumping, Daring Do kept moving. In front of her it seemed an entire wall was rising up to block her, but the stones were rising at different rates. She dived, tucked her wings in tight and span in the air, slipping through a small crack in the stones before they closed shut behind her. She landed on the floor with a thud, rolling and panting, looking up at the ceiling.

The room became still, she took a deep breath and sat up, looking at the pedestal. The pedestal was shaped differently, it seemed like the jewelled golden disc had once been set in some part of the stone that rose from the back, behind the prize Daring sought. It seemed it had been inserted into the stone, but time and maybe damage of some sort had dislodged it. She wondered if that was significant.

Daring Do slowly walked up the steps, one hoof in front of the other she reached the pedestal, reached up with her fore-hooves and took down the jewelled disc.

The moment she lifted it from the pedestal, the raised wall behind her began to lower, the rocks slid back into place, and instead of setting off a trap, all previous traps slotted themselves away. The torches suddenly flared into life, around her the fires burst out. It was like the temple had been waiting for the item to be taken.

She stared down at it, running her hoof over the unique design. It was thin, but the jewel in the centre was big, and seemed to have an iridescent glow.

There was a noise behind her, but she didn’t turn to look at it, the sound of hooves could be heard, and the steps of something that sounded like claws on stone.

The steps stopped nearby, and silence filled the room. She reached up to her forehead and tapped her forehead torch, switching it off. She didn’t need it anymore now that the fires had been lit.

Daring Do let out a soft sight and turned around. There, in the centre of the room, was Ahuizotl. Beside him was a Unicorn mare that was dressed in exotic items, she had a large headdress, piercing green eyes and a crème coloured coat. Her eyes were decorated with a blue lining, and her outfit was spun from purples and gold’s, covering her beautifully. She also looked dangerous, taller than most ponies Daring had ever known and something about her spoke of both dangerous magic, and royalty.

Daring just eyed them, before slowly taking a few steps before them. Her hooves clopping on the ground, letting out soft echoes as she approached those that had long since been her foes.

Daring stood before Ahuizotl, looking up at him. They shared a look, her’s was solemn, his was curious, and for a while it seemed only silence could span between them.

“Here.” Her voice was soft as she reached out and offered Ahuizotl the temples treasure.

“Is this it?” He asked, a single brow rose as he studied her.

And Daring Do nodded.

“The Radiant Shield of Razdon. As long as you hold this, it can’t be used against you. It’s the only thing that could stop you.”

Her words echoed around the room and Ahuizotl reached out, taking it from her hooves casually without any hesitation, as though he knew she wouldn’t resist.

“I knew you would come.” He said, his melodious voice sounded out with complete confidence.

“I know.” She answered, and she had, she knew all along.

“Can you do it?” She asked, trying to keep her voice steady, but a slight break in her tone could be heard. “Can you really bring her back?”

Ahuizotl looked down at her, his eyes traveling from the treasure in his paws to Diane’s face.

“Yes.”

Daring felt something in her tighten at that single word, and slowly she lowered her head.

“Then tell me what I need to do.”

4) Daring Do and the Razor of Dreams by AlmanacPony
Author's Notes:

When you search for all that may desire, only to find the price too high to pay, how do you handle that?
How can Daring Do do what's right, when it involves leaving those she cares for behind?
Is a fantasy better than reality?

Daring Do and the Razor of Dreams

 

 

 

The boiling heat from the lava seared and singed her coat as Daring Do did her best not to fall from the high precipice. She was stood on a high pillar of stone, boiling lava below her, and a golden ring around her neck. The ring shined in the red glow of the room, and its gold glinting surface reflected a rainbow of colours over the detailed walls that had been carved with pictures in times long ago. The pictures told a story. A story of death.

Daring Do turned and rummaged her nose into her saddlebag, pulled out a rope and flung it up high. She managed to capture it onto the large golden chandelier that hung from the ceiling. Pulling sharply, she found it was secured and jumped. Holding on with hooves and teeth alike, she swung across the river of lava that threatened to swallow her should she fall. But the heat proved too much. The rope began to burn and fray and suddenly it snapped. She was falling. Daring Do reached out and just managed to catch herself on the ledge of the opening she had been aiming for.

Curling her tail up against herself as the tips began to smoke lightly, Daring Do tried her best to pull herself to safety, but the ring upon her neck was weighing her down. The heavy gold pulled her towards the lava and towards her death.

The sound of clopping hooves reached her ears over the bubbling of the lava below. “Well Daring Do,” a familiar voice said. “Wonderful to see you hanging around.” The lilt of his voice, the manner of his tone. She knew only one stallion such a voice could belong to.

Caballeron?” She asked, looking up at him in confusion. “What are YOU doing here?”

'Doctor' Caballeron.” He corrected with a narrowed gaze. “And I am here on request of course, of our mutual friend.” He grinned.

Ahuizotl is no friend to me!” She spat back at him, trying in vain to pull herself up, even as she felt her hooves starting to slip.

Then why are you working for him?” He laughed before he looked down at her, and then looking at the lava. “Tell me, you are a Pegasus, no? Why you hang there like that? Why not just fly?”

The ring.” She replied, yelping as a rock shifted and fell off at her grip. She slipped and suddenly only a single hoof held her from falling to her death. “It's too heavy.”

Caballeron nodded at that and reached down, slipping the ring from her neck and smiling down at her. “There you go.” He turned and began walking off. Without the added weight, Daring Do began to pull herself over the ledge, grunting from the effort. She rolled over to safety and stared up at the ceiling as she panted, turning to watch the stallion walk away from her.

Hey,” she called to him, “why help me?” Her only reply from the stallion was a mirthful chuckle.

 

The sun was bright outside. Stepping from the darkness and the heat of the temple made her eyes sting. But even as her eyes watered slightly from the bright light, she felt a cool breeze over some of her singed coat, and began to relax a little.

I present to you, another Ring of Scorchero, Ahuizotl.” Daring heard the sly smile in his voice as he presented the ring to the large blue apelike creature that stood nearby. Daring looked over and saw Ahuizotl, her great enemy, standing there with his gang of pets about him. The white cat rubbed herself against his leg, the lynx sat nearby glaring at Daring Do, the panther stalked behind him back and fourth, the tiger was curled up on the floor purring to itself, and the cheetah sat on the branch of a tree above its master.

Excellent.” Ahuizotl turned to Daring and narrowed his gaze. “You should pick up the pace, Daring Do,” he chastised, “if you do not pull your weight, I shall call our deal into question. Do you not wish to save your friend from everlasting stone? I should think so.” He turned from Daring Do and stalked away, his pets following him as he stepped away. Caballeron turned to Daring Do with a smirk.

They'd collected a total of seven rings thus far, out of thirteen. Daring Do herself had found all of them, but only delivered three of them. Because each time she was even in a spot of bother, before she could get herself out of it, Caballeron would swoop in and take the ring for himself to offer. At first she didn't seem to have an issue with it, he was helping her it seemed. But now she was starting to understand. He wasn't helping her at all, he was sabotaging her. She was supposed to be the one getting the rings for Ahuizotl, if he felt she hadn't done her part of the deal enough, he wouldn't live up to his. He wouldn't save... he wouldn't save Bravely Blue.

 

*

 

The water ripples spread out before Daring Do. Her eyes following each one as it spread from their source, to the edge of the small basin pool. She looked up from the water, back to the source. The moving mare that gripped a silver chalice. The Griffon's Goblet. She heard her voice, ethereal as it was, echoing like it were being spoken in the vastest of empty spaces; “It's done... I'm immortal...”

The sky-blue mare before her, laughed and giggled mirthfully, staring at the Goblet as she began to shake. She cackled even as her body turned grey, and as her eyes glassed over, and her whole form turned to stone.

Daring was screaming when she woke up, bolting to an upright position and staring at the foot of her bed. The laughter continued in her head. A laughter that Bravely Blue had never uttered, and certainly had never bellowed out upon her death. Dreams were stupid. She shook her head, and wiped her eyes of tears that had begun to spread down her cheeks.

There was the slightest creek from the floor nearby. Daring Do's trained instincts acted before she could even think. She dove for her saddlebags, yanked out her whip and lashed it out powerfully, the length wrapping around the figure that stood in the darkness and with a heavy thud, Caballeron fell from the shadows to the floor, bound tight.

Ouch. Well... hello there.” The grey stallion greeted with his usual suave smile. “Could you, perhaps, let me go?”

What are you doing in my room?” Daring Do asked with a threatening gaze.

This wasn't necessarily her room. It was a room in on the second floor of the Temple. The temple was an old one, it belonged to the Ketztwctl Empress, the current consort of Ahuizotl. Her power was vast, and Daring was not entirely sure whether she was its original owner or not. With power such as hers, she might very well be immortal.

The room was cold, it had a bad draft, the floors creaked and groaned under-hoof, and she had none of the things she needed that she could find in her own room back at the University. She hated it. But it would have to do for now... she couldn't go back yet.

Why Daring Do, I only came to make sure you were alright. Us adventurers have to stick together, no?” He grinned slyly. Daring Do slowly unbound him, and stepped back to her bed.

I'm fine, now get out.” She said gruffly, wrapping up her whip and putting it away.

Are you sure? You don't seem to be sleeping well. Perhaps I could help?” She could hear the grin in his voice.

She turned to him with a glare. “That better not mean what I think it does.”

His eyes widened and he laughed, clopping a hoof on the ground. “Oh no, I wouldn't dream of it. I merely come to lift your spirits. You see, I have a deal in mind.”

No thanks.” She said, crawling back into bed and turning away from him, staring at the wall with the internal hope the stallion would just leave.

But you haven't heard it yet. It is quite lucrative for both of us. You see, after we have found all of these rings for Ahuizotl, I will be taking another job. I could use someone of your talents. Wouldn't you prefer to be getting more than burns on that nice coat of yours.”

She felt a hoof lay on her shoulder and start stroking down her back. Daring Do turned and hit him hard. Her hoof crashed into his nose and sent him sprawling to the floor. “Get out.” She said warningly.

The stallion pulled himself to his hooves and rubbed his nose before chuckling. “You disappoint me. But decisions can change. I'll ask again later.” With that he left the room.

Daring stared at the doorway, almost expecting him to come back. Grumbling to herself lightly, she rolled over, wrapped the covers over her and tried to get more sleep.

She wanted to go home.

 

*

 

Daring Do,” said the maniacal voice of Ahuizotl, “come here.” His voice echoed out, reverberating off of the old stone walls.

Daring had been about to step outside of the temple. She was generally allowed to go where she wanted, but there were always eyes on her. Caballeron's services came with a great many goons that he seemed to have no short supply of. They were stationed and guarding most entrances except to the central chamber. That area was guarded by the Empresses personal guard, a nasty bunch of ponies adorned in golden jewellery. Daring knew fighters when she saw them, and she was not looking forward to ever being in a tumble with those guys.

She turned back to Ahuizotl, grit her teeth and went to him... like a called dog.

The location of the next Ring,” he growled at her, pointing to a map he had on a stone table, “where is the next one?”

Daring Do fished around in her saddlebags and pulled out the chalk rubbing's of the walls and floor and ceiling she'd taken in the temple that was hidden in the rock of the mountain. She laid them on the table and looked them over, finding the location for the next item. She found that this one was set in a body of water. This body of water, according to the topographical maps she had of Equestria, was most likely to be the lake that flowed from the Neighagra Falls waterfall. She explained as much to Ahuizotl.

Good,” he responded with glee, his cruel eyes narrowed as he turned to Daring Do. “You embark immediately.”

 

*

 

The thick brambles pulled at Daring Do's hide, the birds cried above, and the sickly feeling in Daring's stomach did nothing to dissuade the adventurous mare from the task at hoof.

Daring Do flew down into the gorge below slowly and carefully. Circling on her descent she landed on the shoreline of the lake. Looking up at the torrential waterfall, it was plain to see why this was a popular tourist spot. The waterfall was loud and powerful, but also impossibly large. Half the size of the Canterlot mountain itself, the water rushed down in a roaring powerful spray that was extremely beautiful. The light caught the water in such a way an almost constant rainbow graced the waters edge, turning the water into shades of white, blue and gold. She should have visited before this, and probably on legitimate tourist terms. But then again, Daring had never been much of a tourist.

Looking around the water-bank she found the forest had grown close to the waters edge, and nearby areas where anything might be hidden seemed few and far between. But Daring knew she'd find what she was looking for eventually.

Daring Do, we meet again.” The voice was thick with an accent and a vulgar amount of bravado.

What are you doing here, Caballeron?” She asked firmly, turning around to face the stallion. He walked towards her and stopped a few meters away; he wore his usually ensemble of hat and coat, and behind him, trailing his every step, were two henchponies, each looked as generically bulky as the last. She couldn't tell them apart really, not that she was ever inclined to.

You never do seem pleased to see me, am I really that unpleasant? Your friend doesn't seem to think so.” Caballeron flashed her a smirk. Daring remembered how she'd walked in on her friend Melody sharing a romantic hotel room with this stallion. It made her want to barf. Who her friend dated romantically was none of her business, but when it came to slime-balls such as Caballeron? She wanted to grab her friend and shake some sense into her.

Daring grit her teeth and simply repeated herself, “what are you doing here?”

Dr Caballeron sighed, “always down to business. I am here for the same reason you are, to ensure that my employer gets what he desires. Isn't that what you want?”

Dearing Do wanted to tell him 'no'. She wanted to shout at him that she wanted nothing more than for Ahuizotl to get nothing more than a swift buck up the face. But she couldn't, because there WAS one thing that that she wanted more than that.

Bravely Blue.

Daring Do decided not to answer him. She turned away and began to walk, intent on ignoring the stallion as best she could.

Daring!” She froze at the voice. That wasn't the voice of Caballeron, that was the voice of someone she really didn't want to see right now. “Daring!” It called again and the thud of hooves and the flap of folding wings caught her ear.

What have we here?” Caballeron commented behind her. She knew what he was seeing, but she refused to face it. She refused to acknowledge its presence. She kept walking.

Diane,” the voice said, this time using her first name, but this time, as he spoke the tone was different. At first it had been friendly, then it had been full of worry... now it was stern, devoid of warmth. Now it was the demand for attention from somepony that would attack her if it he needed to. Daring Do slowly turned to face him.

Cloud Zapper.” She greeted the grey pegasus. He was fully armour glad, the golden sheen to his garb glinting light over the ground. But as showy and clunky as it was, it had its uses. She'd seen Cloud Zapper have many expressions on his face, but she'd only ever seen the expression he wore now pointed at her once. The first time they'd met and fought. This wasn't her friend in front of her, it was Inquisitor Cloud Zapper of the 45th Squadron.

What are you doing here, Diane?” He asked firmly, steadfastly ignoring Caballeron and his henchponies who simply watched the scene unfold with curiosity.

Daring made a point of looking around her. “This is a tourist spot, right? I'm taking in the sights. That's not illegal.” She turned from him with the intention of walking away.

No but aiding a maniacal villain, is.” She froze at his words. “We know what you've been doing. What we don't know, is why?” He took a step towards her. “Why did you leave the university like that? Why won't you tell me what's going on? And why are you aiding a beast you always swore to stand up to?”

Daring gulped at the lump in her throat. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Bravely Blue.” She said firmly.

Cloud shrugged. “What about her?” He asked, not understanding.

He can bring her back, save her.” She informed him.

So that is it?” Caballeron remarked behind them, chuckling to himself. “You price yourself so cheap, Daring. I expected better.”

Shut it.” Cloud snapped firmly. The tone he had actually shut Caballeron up, making the stallion jump slightly. His henchponies however, stepped forward warningly. The tension in the air was getting higher, and Daring could feel a fight brewing beneath the barely swallowed tempers and stress of everypony involved. Cloud turned back to her and sighed softly. “Whatever he's told you is a lie. I have friends in the Mystic Guard, trust me, there is no way to save her. Come home.” His warmth was back, as though he could appeal to her with it. He was wrong, it only made her resolve stronger.

I know he can do it.” She lied. She didn't know, but if there was even the most remote possible chance, she had to try and take it.

I don't know what he's told you, Diane. But if you are here under his orders, I can only assume it's for nefarious reasons... and I'll have to stop you.”

Aren't you supposed to be hunting Shadow, instead of me?” She shot back at him, seriously not wanting to get into a fight.

He's gone off the radar. Only Ahuizotl knows where he is most likely, so until he surfaces again I can only deal with Ahuizotl, and whatever plans he might have. Don't do this Diane...”

My name is Daring Do.” She said firmly and lashed up the whip from her saddlebags as she turned to face him.

He seemed shocked at her actions, his eyes running over her body and posture, noting her combat stance. “Don't do this,” he urged.

Daring shook her head. “I've made my choice,” she said solemnly, committing herself to what she was about to do. “Make yours.” She demanded, her head lashing out, the whip cracking forward and wrapped around Clouds throat. He raised a hoof just before it went taut, giving himself breathing room as he struggled.

Oh my.” Caballeron commented nearby with a small chuckle, “this should be interesting.”

Daring Do ignored him. She yanked hard on whip and forced Cloud forward. On three legs she thought he'd trip, but his back hooves stamped forward and dug into the dirt firmly, his free foreleg raised and slammed down hard on the whip's taut length, yanking it to the ground and sending her almost off balance from the sudden tug. The whip was wrenched from her mouth forcefully in a manner that had her jaw aching. She saw him looked down to unwrap his neck from the entangled length, and she saw this as an opportunity. She rushed him.

Daring Do bounded forward and lashed out with her hoof, aiming to strike Cloud Zapper round the face in an effort to render him unconscious and out of her way. But he moved before her hoof made contact. He seemed to spin, his wing lashing out. Contrary to the popular belief of non-pegasus, wings are not weak. The strong muscle in what was called the 'marginal coverts', the foremost part of the wing that was made of bone and muscle before it branched off into feathers, were in fact extremely strong. Cloud's seemed to be especially powerful, as the crack against Daring's back sent her back arching and her body sprawling to the floor.

Don't try it, Daring.” Cloud said above her, looking down at his former ally. “You can't beat me.”

Daring wasn't listening, her hooves lashed up and kicked his from out of him. The moment he fell, she grasped his neck and began to squeeze, choke-holding him from behind. If she could just make him pass out- WHACK!

The ground smacked against her spine as Cloud Zapper's strong neck lifted her up and slammed her back onto the floor again and again. She let go when the wind was knocked from her and she was seeing stars.

Cloud stood back up, coughing to regain his breath. “I... told you, Diane... you cant-UGH.” He fell to the floor unconscious.

Caballeron stood behind him with a large rock in his hoof. “I believe the lady asked to to be called 'Daring Do'.” He turned to Daring with what he probably thought was a charming smile, but it just came off sickly. “A shame, because 'Diane' is such a sweet name.” He offered his hoof to her. She glared at it and slapped it away, pulling herself to her hooves.

I don't need your help.” She grumbled, turning away and heading towards the waterfall. “Stay out of my way.”

Her wings unfurled and Daring Do soared into the sky towards the spray of water. She landed on a nearby rocky outcrop and looked behind the tumbling water, before slipping herself behind it.

She'd found a cave.

Really it was kind of obvious. If there was ever a waterfall, the entrance to somewhere secret was usually behind it. But even as she looked now, the cave seemed bereft of anything. It wasn't very deep, and the light from outside was more than enough to see that there was nothing here.

Ahem, Miss Do?” Caballeron's voice said from nearby. She wasn't sure when he'd followed her, or how he'd got up here so quickly, but she didn't much care anyway. He was standing by a nearby wall. He raised his hoof, pushed in a stone and a secret door opened up, revealing a long corridor that instantly became alight in fire from torches lining the walls. “Are you quite certain you do not need my help?”

She really didn't like him.

Not bothering to answer his query, she moved past him and into the corridor. Caballeron just chuckled as he followed her.

The corridor opened up into a chamber. They were high above the floor though, with spikes below them. Across this room was a doorway, at the same level as them, halfway up the wall, and no bridge to cross. She jumped on the spot and flapped her wings, only to find no purchase on the air.

You can't fly across?” Her unwanted companion asked curiously.

No, something's stopping me. It's probably magic.” She mumbled, looking up at the ceiling. If she could find something to latch onto, she could swing across... but there was nothing. The roof was perfectly smooth.

Hmm... I have an idea.” Caballeron said and quickly trotted back the way they'd come. “Don't try anything without me now.” He chuckled.

Almost a full ten minutes had passed since he'd left, and Daring was starting to get extremely bored of just sitting around. Eventually she heard the clip-clop of hooves on stone, and Caballeron stepped into the corridor and approached with a henchpony at his side. This henchpony sported a beard, and was very muscular, but the look in his eyes betrayed how dull witted he likely was.

Who's this?” Daring asked with a single raised brow, blowing a strand of her grey-scale mane from her eyes in a grumpy huff.

A volunteer.” Caballeron replied happily.

Wait,” the henchpony began, “what?” He seemed surprised and a little distressed by Caballeron's words before letting out a distressed whinny as Caballeron pushed him off the edge. Daring Do's eyes widened and she launched forward to catch the pony before he could fall, but she missed... and she watched as though in slow motion the pony began to fall over the edge until... he didn't. He landed on something that glowed and ripple.

The henchpony was still yelling though, like an idiot, flailing as he sat on the rippling air, flailing as though he were falling.

You aren't falling, you idiot.” Caballeron said with a sigh, stepping forward off the edge casually, the air rippled with every step as he stepped over his henchpony and began walking the length of the bridge.

Because that's what it was. Daring Do stepped forward and felt the firmness of the air, and how it could easily support her weight. It was a bridge of invisible magic. It was a trick, a deterrent to go any further inside. Quite impressive.

She looked to the henchpony who had stopped flailing and yelling at Caballeron's words and now just looked sheepish and embarrassed. Daring was about to ask him if he was okay, but then again, he was one of Caballeron's men, as long as he wasn't dead, she didn't much care. She stepped over him too and followed Caballeron.

Sh-should I go?” The henchpony asked dumbly.

No,” Caballeron answered, “I may need you to volunteer again.” The henchpony gulped audibly.

Go.” Daring Do told the henchpony firmly, motioning for him to go back the way he came. Caballeron raised his brow as she dismissed HIS henchpony. The henchpony looked concerned for a moment before he obeyed and ran back down the corridor and back the way he'd come, leaving Daring Do and Caballeron to their lonesome.

We may have needed him.” Caballeron said firmly as she walked past him and into the (thankfully) stone corridor on the either side of the room. She didn't mind magic, but magical bridges you couldn't see under-hoof, were not fun to walk on.

Daring Do snorted at Caballeron's words, “you may have needed him, I don't.”

She kept moving. This place seemed to radiate magic, she could feel it vibrating the tips of her wings. As she approached, torches on the walls would light themselves, so she was never left in the dark. She wondered about something... moving to one of the torches, she pulled out a flask of water and doused it. The flame went out, she waited, but it didn't light again. These were not everfire flames. They were not made by the Sapphire Stone. And why would they be? They were on the other side of Equestria, dealing with forces and ancient powers much different than that of the Alicorn Secrets. She shouldn't expect them to mean anything here. She didn't know why... but it hurt her to realise that. Maybe because the connection to such ancient powers were a connection to what happened to Bravely Blue. She swallowed those feelings down, turned away and continued walking, ignoring the curious looks Caballeron was giving her as she stepped past him.

The next room was unlike what Daring had ever encountered before. The room was long with crystals protruding from the wall in regular patterns. She looked at it critically, wondering where the trap was, because surely there was one.

Caballeron seemed impatient. He moved past her.

Wait!” She called out, stopping him in his tracks.

We do not have time to dawdle, Daring Do.” He said, stepping forward. He yelped and suddenly jumped back, looking at his hoof. His fur was burned and he was cut. “What the-”

Daring Do looked at the room quizzically before picking up a nearby pebble. She threw it into the room and watched it get sliced in half by something unseen.

Hold on a sec.” She said, more to herself than to Caballeron. She pulled out a decanter from her saddlebags.

A drink? Don't mind if I do.” Caballeron said with a delighted expression, reaching for the decanter.

It's not a drink,” she chastised quickly, watching his expression fall, “it's a cloud in a bottle.” She opened the lid and pulled out a cloud. The fluffy mass of water vapour was held securely in her hooves. It was an interesting little device, developed by a particular friend of hers named Silent Water's. Though she was now out of them and would probably need to stock up on the ponies well made gadgets at some point.

Caballeron looked at the cloud with a huff, “pegasus.” He grumbled.

She ignored him and blew slowly on the cloud, it began to disperse and spread like a mist around the room, slowly but surely, bright red and blue beams of light became visible. They were being emitted from the crystals in a network of beams that criss'ed and crossed in front of them. Like tripwires... but everywhere.

Magical security beams.” She noted. “Get hit by them, you're fried.” She informed, slipping the decanter back into her saddlebag.

Well, I'll go get a henchpony then.”

No you wont.” She barked. “This is dangerous, we're doing this ourselves, coward.”

He didn't seem to like being called that. He glared at her darkly. “What is the point of having henchponies, if I do not get to use them.”

She ignored him. Daring do pulled out a band and tied up her mane so it wouldn't get in the way. She looked across the room, slipped off her saddlebags and threw them hard, they flew over the beams and to the other side of the room skilfully.

Follow me, do what I do. That or leave.” She shrugged, not caring which he chose.

Daring Do leapt forward over the first beam and ducked under the next. These next were close together, so she flattened herself into her back and slid underneath them. The next one she stepped over, the one after that required her legs to be raised higher than normal, her belly almost grazing the blue line as she made it over. She panted softly. She was halfway now. She leapt over the next, rolled under the other, jumped and span in the air, landing over the last with perfect poise. She grinned to herself. Damn she was good... an alarm blared.

An alarm sounded out in the form of a loud screech and a rumbling of the walls. She looked over her shoulder and saw Caballeron, standing there, hugging a burned hoof that he'd caught in one of the wires. The wires shut off and the walls began to close, the doorway out of the room, suddenly slamming closed with a thick slab of stone.

Daring Do glared at Caballeron.

He-eh... oops?” He remarked nervously.

She didn't say a word. Because if she did, she might resort to words that were not so nice.

She turned away and looked around them as the walls slowly began to close in on them. “There must be a way out.”

I don't think there is,” Caballeron said with a heavy sigh, “I think this is where our journey comes to an end... but if that be so, Daring, may I ask a favour?”

She looked to him quizzically. “A favour?”

Yes, we might die in here today, and I cannot help but notice your beauty,” he wriggled his eyebrows, and Daring Do's stomach did a twist in her gut, “If I am not being too bold, I would like a kiss, from a beautiful mare.”

She stared at him, before putting on what she hoped was a bashful and seductive smile. “Sure... I was kinda hoping you'd ask.”

His eyes lit up. “Really?”

Why of course.. you're the perfect stallion for me.” She leaned in slowly, “handsome, adventurous... and an utterly.. wonderful,” she moved closer, “spineless, and disgusting coward.” His eyes widened, and her hoof struck him right on the nose, sending him sprawling to the floor. She looked down at him in disgust. “I'd rather kiss Ahuizotl,” she glared, “at least he's not spineless.”

Daring Do turned away from Caballeron and began moving her hoof over the walls, trying to move quickly while the side walls continued to close in on them. “When building these places, they liked to test the traps, to make sure they worked, so they'd put ponies inside. But always with a way to get out,” she said firmly, trying to forget what had just happened. Caballeron seemed to have recovered, though he was now sporting a nosebleed.

Daring Do found the stone she was looking for and pushed it on, a secret door opened up, and she grabbed Caballeron and dived through it into the darkness of the corridor beyond. The walls slamming shut behind them.

Daring Do pulled a lamp from her saddlebags, turned it on and lit up the corridor they were in. The walls were lined with glyphs and writings in ancient equestrian, she'd usually have tried reading them, but she neither had the time, nor the patience at this point. “Come on,” she barked at Caballeron through the lamp handle she held in her teeth. They began to moved down the corridor in silence. Caballeron, thankfully, saw fit to keep his mouth shut the entire time. Probably a wise decision. Honestly, asking for a kiss, Daring was tempted to punch him again at the thought of it.

The corridor opened up to a final room. There at the end was what they'd been hoping for. One of the Ring's of Scorchero. It was held in the nose like a piercing of a giant Minotaur statue. The room seemed void of anything though, no traps. The ground was gridded with squares, but they were large boxes rather than simple tiles. And Daring did not trust them.

Hmm, there's bound to be some kind of trap here.” Caballeron mumbled, looking over the floor and walls.

So you aren't entirely incompetent.” Daring remarked.

Of course not,” he answered, “I may not be as, if you'll excuse the pun, 'Daring' as you are.” She glared at him for the joke. “But I am still a veteran of the field, and have raided many a tomb in my day... just, I admit not for a while.” That made Daring wonder just how long it really had, and how many ponies he'd sacrificed for the treasures he'd acquired rather than taking the risks himself since such days.

Daring Do decided to use the tried and true tested method, of throwing a rock to see what happens. She did just that, the rock bouncing on the floor and seemingly unharmed. No traps tripped, no shots were fired from holes in the walls, no lava erupted from the ground. The room remained still and silent, which in itself, was more worrying than anything.

Well, I guess there's only one way to deal with this.” She stepped forward.

Immediately the ground erupted in light. A large cube of magic surrounded her. The squares on the ground became boxes and cubes and small one meter rooms for her to stand in, and from what Daring Do could see, they were turning. A magical maze puzzle. She reached a hoof for the magic and touched one of the walls, this rotated her cube, as well as others it was connected to. She would have to rotate the cubes in the correct sequence to make it through the maze. One wall of the cube wasn't filled in on each cube, she stepped into the next one, when Caballeron stepped into the one she'd previously occupied.

Daring Do began slowly navigating, turning and backtracking, moving left and then right, moving from square to square. As she opened up paths for herself, she would also open up paths for Caballeron. Until she made a mistake. She turned right, ended up in a cube on the far end, and found that she was indeed, on the wrong cube. She could see the path now, but that would involve going back through twelve other cubes. She began to make her way back, only to watch the path open up for Caballeron. He stepped through and looked back at her smirking. She was stuck in the magical confines of the puzzle, and he'd already reached the prize, once again, by her help.

Wait there, Caballeron.” She ordered sternly as she continued to backtrack until she could get on the right path.

Oh I would Daring Do, but you sere, I do not like you, and with each of these I offer to Ahuizotl, the more money he pays me. So, ta-ta.” He yanked the ring down from the nose of the stone Minotaur.

Something began to creek.

The Minotaur took a step forward. It's fist lashed down for Caballeron but the quick stallion managed to dodge, run around it and dive through a doorway to his left. He left behind a small round orb that fizzed... a bomb.

It erupted and the way out collapsed, sending the Minotaur back, one of its arms being blown off. The magical puzzle fizzed out, freeing Daring Do from it's confines. The Minotaur stood up, looked at the rubble that now blocked it's pursuit of Caballeron, before turning to look at Daring Do.

She was trapped in there with a stone Minotaur, and he looked upset.

Daring Do sighed to herself and lowered her head, she closed her eyes, steeling herself to the moment before she opened them and charged, the Minotaur charged at her in turn.

Never back down.

 

*

 

The latest Ring of Scorchero.” Caballeron offered Ahuizotl, wearing a large grin.

Ahuizotl took the ring and looked it over, his face adorned with a grin. They were outside the Temple, and Ahuizotl had been waiting for them both. But for some reason, only Caballeron had returned. “Soon I shall have them all.” He looked back to Caballeron, “and where is Daring Do?”

Here!” Her yell pierced the sky as she flew down on a rope, her hooves pulling the golden Ring from Ahuizotl's paws. She landed nearby and looked back at them with a grin.

What is the meaning of this, Daring Do.” Ahuizotl growled darkly. “Give me-”

I'm sorry, Ahuizotl,” Daring Do began with a sigh. “I think I'm done taking orders from you.”

What?!”

Yeah, I had a bit of time to think...” She reached into her saddlebag and pulled out her pith helmet, her hoof stroking over it gently. “I want her back,” she admitted, “but the I'm starting to think the cost is too high.” She looked to Ahuizotl and Caballeron's shocked faces. “You've always been trying to go for immortality, Ahuizotl. Bravely Blue used you when she sided with you, to save herself. But she probably never planned to give you a drink of the Griffon's Goblet.” She chuckled. “And she'd never forgive me if I saved her, by granting you your wish.” She slowly put the pith helmet back on her head, feeling much more like herself than she had in a long time.

Ahuizotl yelled in rage. He charged at her, his fists raised before they slammed down powerfully. Daring Do waited till the last moment, dived to the side, and bucked out with her hind legs, slamming her hooves into the side of Ahuizotl's face, knocking him into the nearby wall with a loud thump.

Daring turned and ran. There was Ahuizotl, Caballeron, and Caballeron's guards to deal with. A loud growl and a yell from Ahuizotl reminded her of one other set of foe's she'd have to deal with... Ahuizotl's pets. She couldn't face them all alone.

The Panther jumped down from somewhere high. Daring Do barely avoided its swipe with a dive and a role before she took to forest. Diving and jumping over roots and logs, moving through the tree's, changing direction every so often and diving into streams to wash away her scent. She ran for almost a full twenty minutes before she finally slowed her pace to catch her breath.

She looked back towards the direction she'd ran from, listening closely to the whispers of the forest. Trying to determine if she'd been followed. But thankfully, it looked like she was safe for now. Daring Do breathed a sigh of relief, the ordeal had taken a lot out of her, and now she was unsure of what to do. She had sabotaged any chance of resurrecting Bravely Blue, but she knew it had been the right choice. It was the choice Bravely would have made. But now she had to stop Ahuizotl, she had to stop his dastardly plan. If she allowed him to invoke the power of the Rings of Scorchero, Ahuizotl would extend his life eight times over, and in such a time, he could wreak great havoc upon Equestria.

You look deep in thought.” A familiar voice called behind her. She turned to see Cloud Zapper, the Royal Guard, adorned in his gleaming armour, he laid casually on the branches of a tree above her. “So, does this mean you're no longer helping Ahuizotl?”

The cost was too high.” She answered him, turning away from him.

Good, then let me help you.” He jumped from the branch onto the ground with a skilful landing.

No.”

No?” He looked confused at her answer.

No,” she repeated, “I don't want your help, and I don't need it.” She said firmly.

Cloud's almost friendly demeanour began to grow colder. “You can't defeat them by yourself.”

Daring Do chuckled. “I've faced worse odds, way before you ever came into the picture. I'll be fine.”

I'm not leaving you, Diane.”

Daring's wings flared in anger. “My name is Daring Do, USE IT!” She demanded, Cloud seemed genuinely surprised at her anger. She turned from him. “You just want Shadow, right?” She glared at him over her shoulder. He nodded in answer. “Then I'll help you get information on his whereabouts, you help me get to the Amulet of Atonement and the Shield of Razdon, and when this is all done... we go our separate ways.” She began to turn and head back towards Ahuizotl's temple.

Why?” Cloud seemed genuinely upset. “Why are you pushing me away, I thought we were friends.”

Daring Do paused mid-step and sighed to herself. “We were.” She said gently. “But being your friend made me rely on you... and relying on you made me weak.” She looked over her shoulder at him, her eyes haunted with the sadness of her own mistakes. “And being weak killed Bravely Blue.”

Daring Do continued walking, and Cloud, to his credit, didn't respond. He just fell into step with her, silent. She was grateful for that.

They approached the Temple again. The Empresses guards were out in full force. Ponies in ancient golden armour that seemed far too bulky to ever be of practical use in combat, but the way they stood and moved told her they were powerful. Being twice the size of her was also an intimidating aspect.

Caballeron was there with Ahuizotl, the stallions henchponies around the area, twice as many as the Empress had guards, but at least they were stupid and easy to overcome. Their danger was in their numbers, not their skill.

And as for Ahuizotl himself, well he looked extremely upset.

Cloud Zapper sighed at the sight. “There's too many of them. If I had a platoon with me... we might need to get out of here and come back with some friends.”

Daring Do heard the telltale sound of something approaching. Bipedal hoof-steps. “No need, I brought one.” She grinned.

Suddenly from the tree's erupted the giant stone Minotaur.

Caballeron's scream was satisfyingly mareish.

Daring Do looked smug. “Lets go.” She grinned, seeing at the corner of her eye, Cloud Zapper's shocked face as the one-armed stone Minotaur flung ponies off into the tree's of the forest when they tried to attack it.

They made their way into the Temple while the commotion happened outside.

Where did that thing come from?” Cloud hissed at her.

Daring Do shrugged. “A temple behind the waterfall. Caballeron trapped me with the thing, I managed to get out. It gave me time to think about what I was doing and the price I was paying for helping Ahuizotl, it helped me make a decision.” She put a hoof to her chin thoughtfully. “Remind me to thank Caballeron at some point. But yeah, instead of beating the thing, I led it back here, put enough distance with flying so I could use it as a distraction after I'd already grabbed this.” She tapped the Ring of Scorchero that still hung gleaming around her neck.

So, what first?” Cloud asked as they stepped through into the main area.

The information on Shadow will probably be in Ahuizotl's room, he shares it with the Empress so that'll be guarded. We need to dispel her magic and defeat Ahuizotl, then we'll be free to get what you need.”

And how do we do that?” He asked curiously.

Well,” she began, “first we need to get past the guards blocking the central magical chamber. That houses the Shield of Razdon, which is the only thing that can stop the Ketztwctl Empress.”

They both peaked round the corner and saw the guards standing there. Huge Clydesdale ponies in magical armour. “And how do we get past them, they look a bit dangerous.” Cloud Zapper muttered.

A great Royal Guard Inquisitor like you can't handle them?” Daring Do asked with a playful smirk.

Maybe one.” He mumbled, “but probably not both. Can you take the other?”

Daring Do sized up the guard before smirking. “Not yet.” She turned and ran down the corridor towards a different area. Cloud Zapper followed her stealthily, wondering where she was going.

The adventurous mare headed towards a different corridor and looked round. This one held the entrance to a room that was also guarded, but this time only by Caballeron's guards. She smirked and stepped out, padding up to them casually.

I'm gonna need you fine gentle-colts to let me past.” She said in a sickly sweet manner.

Erm... we can't do that.” The left one answered. He had an orange coat and a deep brown mane. His colours were utterly boring, and his brown eyes were betrayed a dull-witted personality.

Daring Do leaned in close and nuzzled the side of his face. “Surely you can skirt the rules, just a little. I only need one thing... it's for your boss anyway.” They obviously had not yet heard about her defection from the ranks.

We ain't supposed to let no-pony in.” The other one said, in a gruff voice, looking at her with a glare.

Daring Do turned to him with big eyes, looking desperately and cutely pathetic. “You... don't trust me? But... I try so hard.” She leaned in and nuzzled his chest, looking up at him. “Is there anything I can do to change your mind?” She asked, biting her bottom lip and looking up at him with a lidded seductive expression. The pony looked from her to his friend, obviously unsure of what to do.

I... well... I suppose... I mean... we really shouldn't...”

What if,” Daring Do began, giving him a somewhat naughty smile. “What if I made it worth your while?”

R-really?” He asked, his eyes wide, obviously interested. “How?” He asked, a stupid grin spreading across his face.

Daring Do thought for a moment. She leaned in and whispered something into his ear. His cheeks burned a bright red, before his face contorted suddenly with pain as her hooves lashed out for a particularly sensitive area. He fell to the floor, and before the other one could react, she bucked out with her hind legs and struck his face hard enough to send it back against the wall. Both ponies fell to the floor, one unconscious, the other one probably wishing he was unconscious.

Stallions.” Daring Do smirked, “always with only one thing on their mind.” She stepped over them into the room and grabbed what she needed before walking out. Cloud Zapper was stood there waiting for her, his eyes wide as he looked at the poor ponies still on the ground, one of them writhing in pain.

I've met many a mare in my time, even fought beside a few.” He remarked, “you're by far the scariest.”

I'll take that as a compliment.” Daring Do smirked as she led them back to the corridor with the empresses guards.

Is that what I think it is?” He asked looking at the amulet she held in her hooves. It was blue right now, but would turn red if she put it on. It was a special amulet that went by many names. It was the depiction of an Alicorn around a bright colour-changing jewel. When she put it on, it would enhance her natural pegasus magic immensely, providing her with more power than ever before. The problem, was that the power was seductive, and only she could remove it, willingly. And the Amulet had ways to convince the wearer not to do that.

The Amulet of Atonement, yes.”

Is that safe?” He asked, sounding concerned.

No, but as Bravely Blue once told me, 'safe is never in the job description'.” She slipped the amulet around her neck and the jewel began to glow a bright red. She suddenly felt power rush through her hooves and feet. It felt like she was walking on lightning.

You take the one on the right, lefties mine.” She grinned at Cloud Zapper, and before waiting for his response, she suddenly burst around the corner.

Daring Do's wings flared, and a stream of charged lightning magic following her in a trail as she flew at a speed she'd never been capable of before. The guards seemed surprised, barely having time to react as her hooves suddenly struck into the guard on the left, driving him into the wall. He managed to just block her with his staff, his hooves lashed out and struck her in the side, she struck the wall. The sound of a scuffle nearby told her Cloud had engaged his opponent. Daring Do dropped to the floor, flapped her wings hard and the rush of wind from them smashed her opponent against the wall in turn. Her wings began to flap faster until the wind swirled together to form black clouds. With a crack of her hooves, lightning erupted from the clouds and struck the pony. He yelled out in pain, but his yells did not last. Daring Do watched as the stallion's teeth grit and his staff pushed forward, the lightning striking the staff, him resisting it with all his might. He lashed out with the staff and the lightning was redirected against the wall, exploding stone into rubble. When the smoke cleared, he and Daring Do were at a stand-off, waiting for the other to make a move. He moved first, his staff smashing down, the magic erupting through the stone floor, erupting it below her hooves. She leapt to the air, and smashed down with all her speed and might, something popped and erupted and suddenly a shock-wave erupted from her in a sonic shock-boom. A black electric monochrome shock-wave erupted and knocked both Cloud Zapper and his opponent, as well as her own, across the corridor violently, her own opponents flying through the door he'd been guarding, lying unconscious on the ground. Everypony outside would likely have heard that, so she had to move quickly. She dashed with amazing speed through the room till she found what she was looking for.

There it stood, on its own pedestal. The disc shaped shield, with the power to dispel the great magic of the Ketztwctl Empress.

Daring Do reached out her hooves to grasp the shield, only to be met with a blast of lightning up her hoof. She yelled out before her vision began to become dark, and soon it felt like she were falling.

Everything went dark.

 

*

 

Diane Do awoke with a groan, rubbing her head. The bright light of the sun streamed in through the windows and hurt her eyes, so she grabbed the covers of her bed and wrapped them around herself, covering her face in the blanket to shield herself from the suns harsh glare.

Come on, Daring.” Bravely Blue chirped from nearby, poking her playfully. Daring... she loved that name. It wasn't even her name, it was a nickname her uncle had given her because of how adventurous she'd been as a foal. But she'd liked it so much, she often introduced it as a middle name and her mentor, Bravely Blue, had taken to calling her 'Daring' rather than Diane.

The adventurous mare loved it. Every time she heard Bravely call her that name, it felt like lightning up her spine, like the motivation to always do justice to the name.

DARING!” Daring almost yelped and fell out of her bed as she heard somepony shout in her ear. It sounded like a stallion.

Ouch, what was that for?” She mumbled, pulling the covers from her head and looking grumpily around the room. There was no stallion, that was weird.

You weren't getting up.” Bravely Blue answered, the mare standing nearby with a smirk. Oh, so it had just been Bravely yelling... but she never yelled. Well, Daring had been a bit lazy lately. Maybe she deserved it.

Daring pulled herself from the bed and stretched, looking for her school shirt. She found it and slipped it on, doing up the buttons. “Okay, I'm ready.” She told Bravely Blue.

The sky blue mare with a golden mane smiled warmly at Daring Do and led her out of the dorm room. Beatrice Bravely Blue was the head professor of Archaeology and Excavation Exploration at the Clopsdale University. She was also the personal private tutor of Diane Daring Do. Not because she could afford one or asked for one, but because Bravely Blue had taken Daring Do under her tutelage voluntarily.

Together they made their way to the classroom. Daring Do took her place at the back of the class where her seat was, ignoring the looks of the other students as the 'favourite' student took her place. She pulled out her notes, and as the lecture began Daring began to write down her notes by mouth, paying diligent attention. Her attention, half way through the lecture, shifted to the window. It was a gorgeous day outside, with fluffy white clouds and a gorgeous blue open sky. It was perfect weather for flying. She grinned to herself at the thought, and figured maybe she'd find one of her friends and they could go enjoy some races today.

Diane?” Bravely Blue's stern voice cut through her musings. She eeped after realising everypony was looking at her.

S-sorry, I was distracted.” She admitted, biting her bottom lip habitually.

Were you distracted last night too?” Bravely asked curiously.

M-miss?” Daring replied, feeling confused at the question.

Because if you weren't, I'm going to assume you did the assigned reading and can answer the five main causes of excavation degradation.” Oh, Daring knew this one.

I did the reading.” She slipped from her seat to go down to the board to answer the question, but she slipped on one of the steps and knocked a few papers to the floor from another students desk by mistake. “Sorry.” She eeped, helping her pick up the papers.

'WAKE UP!' The words were big and bold on the paper in front of her before the student snatched it back. She looked to the student... but couldn't find any description for them. They were there but... what colour was their coat?

Hey Daring.” Swiftcall said from beside her. “Wanna go play?”

Yeah sure.” She found herself answering happily, her broad smile directed at the purple pegasus... but Swiftcall dropped out of these classes... he became one of the fastest message deliverers, and lately he'd been skittish and afraid of something... when was lately? When did he play? He'd never been very social.

Daring Do looked back to the students and found all of them featureless... but surely they weren't really featureless...

...this wasn't real.

Of course it's real.” Bravely Blue was suddenly there, and water sloshed around both of their hooves. Daring Do looked around them.

They were back in the Terrifying Tower. Back in the place that... that... Bravely Blue was there, the Griffon's Goblet in her hooves. “I've drank it. now I'm immortal, so now we can destroy the thing, and I'll never leave you. Okay?”

Daring Do started to nod, the thought of Bravely Blue never leaving her...

...but she had left her. Bravely Blue was dead. This was all a trick.

Daring Do closed her eyes. She bit her lip, concentrated. “This isn't real.”

It could be.” A different voice spoke this time. Daring Do looked up, and found herself alone in a dark place. The floor didn't seem to exist but she wasn't falling. It was like she were in a room of nothingness. She looked in the direction of the voice, and slowly from the darkness, green eyes of fire appeared, soon followed by a crème coated mare.

The Ketztwctl Empress.

This is my greatest power.” She said softly, presenting this dark place. “It is called, the Razor of Dreams.” She said warmly. “This is where I make fantasies reality. I can bring anything fourth from your mind and make it real for you, I can give you any life you wish.” She smiled in a manner that was almost kind. “Many never figure out that what I have shown isn't the real world, but your mind is strong. So I decided to be honest.”

Let me out of here.” Daring Do said, but was surprised when her voice lacked conviction.

Back where? Back to where you fight every day to survive? Knowing that your mentor, the one you valued most in the world, is dead? Where your own friends despise you for walking away from them, when they were just trying to help you? You are a stain on their lives Daring Do.” She chuckled. “Surely they'd be better off without you, so why not stay here? Where you can have everything you could ever want, and their lives will no longer be hurt by your actions.”

Daring Do closed her eyes. She was right probably. She'd only hurt Cloud, hurt Caffeine, she'd probably somehow hurt Swiftcall at some point which is why he seemed so afraid of her last time she'd seen him.

DARING! DON'T LISTEN TO HER!” The voice of a stallion burst through the darkness, but soon vanished.

What was that?” Daring asked, looking around.

The empresses eye twitched in annoyance, but she tried to keep her smiling face kindly. “That was nothing, an echo of... something. No need to pay it any mind. So tell me, what fantasy should my Razor give you?”

How real are the fantasies?” Daring asked, looking around her.

Real.” She said softly. “The Razor is a great magic that forges a world just for you and your mind. This darkness here is the nexus, a place for our minds to connect. Everything I build for you is real in here.” She informed. “There is no trickery.”

Daring Do thought for a minute and nodded. “I want the box... the box from Bravely Blue's room. The one from under her bed.” She said softly.

It appeared right before her. “What's in it?” The Empress asked curiously.

Daring Do picked up the box. “Let me show you.” She said warmly. “Bravely Blue found this in an ancient cave that had once been the dungeon of a great temple, but the temple had been destroyed aeons ago. But this was in perfect condition.”

The Empress leaned in. Daring Do reached into the box and suddenly pulled out a long glinting sword. She lashed out and drove the sword deep into the Empresses body.

The Empress's eyes widened. “W-why?”

Daring Do looked up into her eyes. “Because the price... was too high.” Tears ran down her own cheeks as the entire world around her cracked and exploded.

 

*

 

Daring Do found herself waking up to screams.

The Ketztwctl Empress stood before her, Cloud Zapper yelling at her from within a powerful bubble of magic, desperate for her to wake up. It had been his voice she'd heard in the dream. The screaming was from the Empress, she was clutching her head in pain. Daring took the chance and grabbed the Shield of Razdon from nearby. She turned back to the Empress only to find her face to face with her, the green-eyed mare looking enraged.

You shall not take my victory from me!” Her magic suddenly rushed out. It erupted in bright beams and began to swirl around Daring Do powerfully, the room began to shake and Daring Do began to understand just how powerful this mare was. Ahuizotl was dangerous, but this mare... she was a different kind of dangerous. Daring Do raised the shield aloft her head, the magic from the shield began to glow and suddenly the purple magic of the empress began to become gold, the magic began to swirl around the unicorn. And she began to yell curses as the Radiant Shield of Razdon's magic bathed her in a bright golden glow. Suddenly it erupted, the magic blast apart the roof and then everything went silent.

The Ketztwctl Empress stood there, seemingly unharmed. “What?” She asked curiously. “Am I so powerful that the Shield cannot touch me... FOOLS!” She cackled loudly, she pointed her horn at Daring Do, and our adventurous mare waited in horror, waiting for whatever ghastly spell this mare might cast, what dangers and horrors she might conjure. Would she turn her to stone? Would she resurrect the dead and have them tear Daring Do apart? No? Nothing? Eh?

Daring Do opened a single eye after realising she'd closed them, but not entirely sure when she had done so. Before her stood a very curious mare, her tongue out slightly, her face screwed up in concentration... and nothing happening.

Erm,” Daring Do began, “you okay?”

The Ketztwctl Empress opened her eyes with a confused look. “It's not working? Why isn't it working?!”

Daring Do shrugged. “Well you know, performance anxiety, one in three-”

I AM THE KETZTWCTL EMPRESS!” She screeched, and really, it was a screech, high pitched enough to hurt Daring Do's ears. It reminded her of a school filly throwing a tantrum... which it then began to mimic more, complete with stamping of the hooves and guttural grunts of frustration and, oh look, more whining about it not working. Huh.

Daring Do clapped her hooves, rain-clouds appeared and she smirked at the empress who's eyes widened in fear. Lightning struck her rump. She squealed and began to run with Daring Do chasing her.

She chased the Empress outside, Ahuizotl watching her. “Where are you going, come back my empress, let us defeat them together!” He growled, before turning back to the temple. “I will destroy you, Daring Do-” He went silent. Daring Do stood there, lightning clouds beside her. Cloud Zapper stood there, now wielding a cool magical staff he'd taken from one of the empress's guards. He glared and seemed ready to attack despite being outnumbered and out-matched, but a roar from nearby changed his mind. The stone Minotaur charged at him.

Ahuizotl began to run, everypony began to run, lightning from Daring Do's clouds striking the rumps of any that lagged behind. The roars of the chasing Minotaur slowly descended off into the distance.

And don't come back!” Cloud Zapper laughed loudly.

All went silent.

Cloud Zapper turned to Daring Do, and watched as she pulled the Amulet from over her head, apparently with some difficulty and concentration; the lightning on her hooves and the clouds above dissipating. The amulet returning to its blue colour. Daring Do breathed a sigh of relief. “I heard you.” Cloud looked to her curiously. “She use a spell, that could give me the perfect life. And I could only tell it wasn't real, because I heard you.” She smiled warmly, raising her hoof, looking the Amulet of Atonement over. “Here.” She offered it to him. “Make sure it ends up in a safe place.” He nodded, promising he would.

Daring Do and Cloud Zapper headed back into the Temple, they rummaged through Ahuizotl's things and found a piece of paper listing where Shadow had went. He was off in the Badlands, trying to gather dragons to Ahuizotl's cause.

Here you go.” She gave it to him.

He and Daring Do looked at each other before embracing in a friendly hug.

Take care of yourself,” the royal guard asked her. Daring Do could only chuckle at the request.

You too.” She said softly.

 

*

 

Daring Do watched as the only partner she'd ever had spread his wings and took off to the sky.

They'd done it. They'd defeated the Ketztwctl Empress with the Radiant Shield of Razdon, they'd removed her control of the Amulet of Atonement, and halted Ahuizotl's plan, keeping at least a couple of the rings from his grasp, and without all of them, he couldn't activate the Rings of Scorchero.

It was supposed to be a good day, a victory was supposed to make you feel fulfilled. But all Daring Do felt was empty.

Her only chance at saving her mentor from an eternity as a statue, had gone the moment she'd decided her morals were more valuable than the life of Bravely Blue.

Had she made the right choice?

Daring Do hoped so.

She reached up and lifted the Pith Helmet from her head, looking over it, her hoof stroking it gently.

Was it worth it...

 

 

5) Daring Do and the Trail of the Old Stone by AlmanacPony

Daring Do and the Trail of the Old Stone

 

 

 

The stars twinkled in the sky above. Soft wisps of white clouds slowly drifted across the surface of the sky, obscuring a few stars here and there, their edges bathed silver in the moons glow. The sight was accompanied by the soft twittering of nocturnal birds nearby, and the hoot of owls from a distance.

All manner of creatures called the night ‘home’. They swam and slithered, crawled and climbed, walked and scampered through the underbrush in search of nourishment, companionship, and family.

Family.

Daring Do didn’t have any family now. She had tried to make a family out of those around her, her friends. Caffeine Kick, Swiftcall… Cloud Zapper.

So many had passed through her life and touched upon her heart, that she felt the ache of their absence now. Reaching up her hoof, she slowly traced the constellations in the sky; first Canis Major, then Canis Minor. Her musings were interrupted by a colony of bats that flew above, passing between her, the moon and the stars. She followed their path with her eyes, lowering her hoof as she listened to their calls that sang out into the night.

Daring Do sighed to herself and rolled over, turning her attention away from the skies above. The earth below was cold enough and the air frigid enough that she shivered, and considered pitching up her tent… but it was an early start tomorrow, and she didn’t want to have to waste time putting it away again in the morning.

Daring Do was in a forest, north of the Canterlot mountains and far away from anything life threatening, or trying to take over Equestria. The world could do without her for a week. She needed the solitude. In an effort to get her mind off things, she’d taken a boring job that involved a little trekking and excavation in a region of little interest. It was only a three-day trek and then a little temple excavation, and likely wouldn’t be very exciting; but after what had happened recently, Daring Do could use a little ‘boring’ for a while.

She wasn’t quite sure when sleep had taken her, one moment she had been thinking about things back home, and the next thing she knew birds were twittering in the tree’s as mornings glow bathed the area in the warmth of Celestia’s light.

Rolling to her hooves, Daring Do stretched and yawned. She grabbed her belongings and slipped the bags over her back before pulling out her compass and map, she checked her location and the direction on the compass and then nodded to herself in satisfaction. Daring rolled up the map, stowed it and the compass away, spread her wings and took off.

The wind soared through her mane as she flew up through the tree’s and into the sky. She didn’t go very high, barely flying above the treetops as she flew northward. The trees were cramped together, their branches intertwining and their leaves dense enough that seeing the floor of the forest was difficult majority of the time, save a few small gaps here and there. It was the perfect place for ruins to remain undiscovered for centuries, and in fact, these forests had yielded more than one discovery in the recent years. The latest place that had been found was an old ritual temple. Thankfully, this one didn’t seem to be home to more than pyramid steps, a stained alter, and an underground cavern that had yet to be explored. No monsters or spells of ancient power, or world threatening artefacts to yet be found per the reports. It was positively mundane. And that made Daring Do smile.

Daring let her mind wander as she flew, thinking about the measurements she’d have to take when she got to the temple. She needed to date the temple of course, for that she’d need to measure the stone blocks used to make the pyramid, and check what material they’d- her train of thought stopped.

Diving down into the tree’s, she plummeted, zigzagging through the branches, spinning in the air and landing on all hooves, skidding through the dirt leaving a trail of upturned earth in her wake before coming to a posed stop. Daring Do looked around frantically

She had seen him! She knew she had. Where did he go? Why was he here? That flash of purple, that paw-print cutiemark… she had definitely seen him below the tree’s. Shadow.

Looking around herself and listening carefully, she saw and heard nothing. Only the natural sound of the forest met her ears; the distant rustling of animals, the twittering of birds, the far-off calls of other creatures. But not a hint of hooves on dirt.

She turned to her left and ran through the underbrush to the spot she had saw him in. The place was slightly muddy, that was good… but as she looked around her on the ground, there were no hoof-prints to be seen. Had she imagined it? Shadow was supposed to be in the Badlands… was she so stressed she was seeing things now?

Shaking her head, Daring Do decided to put it out of her mind. If he was here, she’d see him again. If not… she’d rather not think about it.

Daring Do flew back up above the tree’s and continued her journey. She reached the temple in just under half an hour. The main building, despite being large, barely poked above the tree’s. Leaves scrapped the top in a fashion that almost covered it, and only the breeze that swayed the tops of those branches revealed the Temples tip. Made sense why it hadn’t been found for so long, you had to really be looking for it to find it.

She slipped below the tree line and glided herself to the forest floor. Pushing herself through the foliage, Daring stepped out onto a large clearing below the base of a tall step pyramid. What immediately struck her as weird… was the clearing itself. It was entirely spare of any trees in what she could only describe as a ‘perfect circle’ on the forest floor. The treetops she’d seen before were of the tree’s circling the large clearing, for some reason they were bent to form a dome of branches that hid the temple from view.

Okay… so maybe this place did have a few secrets… she was going to have words with her informants. This was probably a detail they should have mentioned before her trip began.

“This better not be another world threatening… thing.” She grumbled aloud to herself, looking sourly at the temple. Though, she had to admit, she was curious as to what had made the trees grow in that fashion.

Stepping forward, she trotted up to the base of the temple. Littered around the clearing were a few large limestone pillars that were rooted into the ground. She approached one and looked over the imagery depicted. A smile spread across her features. “Ah, good.”

The pictures showed ponies bending the branches and shaping the trees over time with hooves and telekinesis. So, it wasn’t created by a device of amazing power, just some skilful design. That made Daring Do feel much better about the place.

Smiling to herself, Daring Do began her work. Pulling out a tape measure, she measured one of the base stones and made a note in a little book about its length.

 

*

 

THIS was real archaeology. None of the death defying adventure, none of the villains, just Daring Do and the old stone.

Daring Do stood beside such a stone that she’d been looking over for the better part of an hour. She’d made a rubbing of the markings, she’d measured it, weighed it, checked how solid and strong it was, and measured the angle of its placement in comparison to nearby stones. All of which told her these were at least six thousand years old. The building techniques matched those of the period, and matched references to other discoveries in the area. Maybe this had been a thriving populace once and the many temples had been part of one big city.

Celestia this was boring work. But so therapeutic. Daring hadn’t felt this relaxed in a very long time. She smiled to herself, letting out a happy sigh before turning to work on the next stone. Until she stopped…

There was a susurrus. A rustling. A whisper. The smallest hint of a hoof on soil. The distant sound of shallow breath. Daring Do was not alone.

Daring turned on the spot and lashed out, her whip slipping from her saddlebag, the handle in her maw and the cord lashing towards the tree’s. There was a yelp, a firm tug, and then Daring was yanking. From the depths of the foliage tumbled a stallion with a bright purple coat and a dishevelled blond mane, his hooves and wings bound tightly to his body from the cord of the whip.

“Swiftcall?”

The stallion looked up with a pained expression before giving her a nervous smile. “Oh... erm… hi Diane.”

 

*

 

“Don’t care.”

“But Diane...”

“Don’t ‘Diane’ me,” she said firmly, “I’m not having it. I needed to get away, and that’s what I’m doing. And it’s ‘Daring’.”

“But what about the-”

“That’s what the guards are there for.” She countered, knowing what he was going to say. “They need to protect people from this kind of thing, I can’t always do it on my own! Now stop wriggling.” She looked over his wing, her hooves gently feeling over the appendage, noting the swelling. Her whip had bound it to his body at an odd angle, and she was worried it’d been damaged when she’d tugged on the cord.

“You weren’t alone until you chose to be.” Said Swiftcall sombrely.

His words sent a flash of pain through her chest and Daring looked away quickly. She took a deep breath, thinking about what to say next before turning back to her companion. His red eyes looked over his shoulder at her pleadingly. He really wanted her to help them. Caballeron had been sending hench-ponies into towns to shake them down for bits. Likely to fund whatever nefarious scheme Ahuizotl had planned. But Daring Do didn’t want to deal with the big brute just to solve some theft issues. The guards were there for that very reason.

“I’m a hero.” Daring began, her tone of voice as soft and gentle as she could make it. She wanted Swiftcall to understand. “That means I have to be strong. And relying on others was making me… not as strong as I needed to be.” Daring let out a soft sigh. “But that doesn’t mean I can take care of every problem. The Guards need to be able to do their jobs, and I need time to not always have to do mine, or at least, what everyone thinks mine is.”

“What do you mean?” Swiftcall asked. His voice was soft and filled with worry. He had always been a sensitive stallion, enough that it worried her sometimes. He turned around, his wing now bound with the hope that it’d feel better in the morning.

“I’m an archaeologist. I’m adventurous, and good at solving puzzles, I can fight with the best of them and I want to save Equestria from the likes of Ahuizotl and I always will. I’ll never abandon ponies in need… but… I am just an archaeologist, and sometimes I just wanna put my hooves in dirt and dig up something cool.

“It’s hard always being a hero. I deserve a break once in a while, ya know?” She said, giving him a soft, hopeful smile.

After a moment of silence, Swiftcall nodded in understanding. Daring breathed a sigh of relief and leaned back on her hooves.

“Your wing alright?” She asked softly. He nodded, his lips drawn into a pout. “Ya know, you panicked me back there.”

Swiftcall raised his brow. “When?”

“About three hours ago, flying through the forest. I saw you through the trees. The shade must have made your coat look a darker shade, because you looked a lot like Shadow and scared me to Tartarus.”

“I didn’t fly through the forest.” He replied, looking confused. “I flew above it, I landed in the bushes only a minute before you found me.” The Pegasus fluttered his good wing a little.

“Oh…” Daring said, feeling weird about this revelation. “I guess I was seeing things.” She grinned. “Maybe I’ve taken too many knocks to the head in my days.”

Swiftcall managed a nervous chuckle, “y-yeah.”

Glancing up at the sky as it dulled to an afternoon glow, Daring yawned and stretched. “Well, we can crash early if you want.” She said, grabbing her sleeping bag from her saddle-bags. “Oh, Swiftcall, I’ve been meaning to ask.” She began, laying the sleeping bag down and nestling herself inside as Swiftcall did the same with his own, giving light grunts whenever his wing got caught a little uncomfortably.

“Yeah?”

“Back when we last spoke. I know it was months ago, but it was when I was looking for Ahuizotl and you told me they were in the Alps… why were you so jittery and illusive when I spoke to you? You seemed terrified.”

“What?” He replied, scratching behind his head nervously. “No I didn’t, nothing was wrong, it’s fine.” He flipped himself over and looked away from her, staring at the forest.

Daring wasn’t sure how to take his skittish nature so she turned around, curled herself up and let sleep take her. It was early, but they had a very early start waiting for them in the morning, they were gonna need plenty of sleep.

 

*

 

Swiftcall woke up to the smell of food as Daring laboured over a camping pot. She hummed to herself as she chopped up some onions. “Good morning.” She greeted, dropping them into the pot that already housed some sweet potatoes. “How’s the wing?”

Swiftcall stood up and rubbed his eyes. “M-morning, and erm… eeek.” He seethed as he tried to flex his wing and found it too painful. “Not good. It’s not broken, I don’t think… but hurts.”

Daring Do sighed before giving him a dismissive shrug. “Guess you’ll be sticking around.”

“Aren’t you gonna apologise?” He asked curiously, eyeing her from head to hoof.

“Hey, you should have announced yourself. I was only protecting myself, and I will not apologise for that.” She dropped a bowl of stew down in front of him. “Now eat, we got a lot of work to do.”

Swiftcall almost choked on his first bite of the food. “We do?”

Daring chuckled and nodded, “of course. If you have to stick around you can at least help me out here.”

“B-but… my wing…”

“Your hooves are fine.” Daring smirked, downing the last of her own stew. “I’ll get started, meet me when you’ve finished.”

With that, Daring Do stood up and trotted to the base of the step-pyramid temple. The birds overhead cawed and whistled their morning songs as the bright morning light permeated the canopy cover, bathing the ground in bright colours of golds and greens. Daring Do ran her hoof over one of the stones and began taking a rubbing of the images it depicted. Her hoof ran the charcoal over the paper expertly, the patterns and shapes showing up on the page. The image was of a pony figure, with a swirl over them that seemed to follow them everywhere they went. Every action the pony took, the swirl got larger in each picture, until at the bottom of the stone, the pony figure seemed to fall into a chasm, to its death. Interesting imagery.

Daring Do grabbed her measuring wheel and began running it along the outside of the pyramid. It was one-hundred-eighty-one feet across on each side. By the time she had finished measuring all sides of it, Swiftcall was finally done with his stew. Together, he and Daring Do spent the next two hours measuring the angle of the temples corners, and the height all the way to the top. When Swiftcall saw the alter at the top, he didn’t want to go near it. Daring had to assure him that according to the markings, this alter had not been used for sacrifices. In fact, it had been used to prepare ponies to go on what she could only find being referred to as ‘The Pilgrimage’. Which involved them traveling under the temple to never be seen from again.

She showed him the ‘Well’, as it had been called. It was a set of narrow stairs on the left side of the pyramid that went under it. It was so dark down there that the light of the morning sun could only reach the fourth step down.

“Are we going in there?” Swiftcall asked, looking worried.

“Yup.” Daring smirked, her grin stretching from ear-to-ear as she grabbed her pith helmet and sat it on her head, she attached a torch to it and flicked it on.

“Do I have to come with?”

Daring Do shrugged. “If you want.” She stepped forward into the darkness, her torch lighting the way.

Swiftcall looked around himself, alone by the temple, the forest surrounding the area and the distant yowls and cries of creatures greeting the mornings light. “Wait for me!” He yelped and bound after the rapidly fading light of Daring Do’s torch in the darkness. Daring Do could only chuckle as he caught up.

The darkness engulfed them both. Critters scurried in the dark, long forgotten bones crunched under-hoof and Daring Do pressed forward, eager to see where this all led. The walls were stone, marred by the ancient inscriptions of civilisations long since dead. The images represented an ancient passage, a test that would befall any that entered the inner parts of the temple. From what she could read, it was known as the ‘Trail of the Old Stone’.

Daring Do made a note of that in a notebook before she stashed it away, walking ever deeper into the depths of the passage.

“S-so… what do you usually do in these kinds of places?” Swiftcall asked, glancing around him, ducking under overgrown roots that had somehow grown through the stone above them in various places. It was as though the forest had attempted to reclaim the temple back into the earth from whence the stone came.

“I map it.” She said simply, showing him her notepad that had their current route plotted. “I explore it all, check out the finds and map it. Then we call an excavation team to round up the artefacts.”

“I thought you handed artefacts yourself?”

“Only if they’re extremely valuable and in danger of being stolen. Or magical, those I get too because the big-wigs at the university don’t want to get too close to them.” She chuckled. “This one likely won’t be either.”

“What makes you so sure?” He asked, looking over some of the images inscribed deep into the stone walls.

“Because if it were in danger of being stolen, we wouldn’t be the only ones here.”

The sound of laughing echoed around them. The voice was strong and confident; it was a voice she’d heard before, the sound made Daring Do stiffen as a shiver ran down her spine.

“Diane? What’s going on?” Swiftcall’s expression was one of concern.

Daring narrowed her eyes as she looked around her. The subtle change in the air pressure, the way the sound reverberated off the walls… they were not alone.

“Shadow.”

 

*

 

“Who’s Shadow?” Swiftcall’s voice echoed around her, it was filled with worry.

“He’s a thief. And a good one.” She replied, looking around her, the beam of light from her torch shining into the darkness. But all it revealed were the dark stone walls and ceilings.

Swiftcall stepped up close, looking around himself, seemingly hoping his eyes alone could pierce the dark and see the danger. “He’s here?”

“Don’t worry, I can deal with him.” Daring said, allowing a small smirk to ride its way along her features.

Daring Do stepped forward into the darkness, remembering the previous times she had faced Shadow. She wished she could be as confident in her own abilities against him as she assured Swiftcall she was. The truth of the matter was; she’d never fought him. Cloud Zapper, her Royal Pegasus friend had always taken that honour. She had no idea what Shadow was capable of.

The darkness swallowed them both as they stepped deeper into the tunnels. They came to an intersection, directly ahead of them led to more darkness, the right led around a corner, and the left led downwards. A cold breeze was coming from down there. Daring Do decided to follow it.

“We’re going deeper?” Swiftcall whimpered behind her. Daring Do couldn’t help but role her eyes, this made her wish for Cloud Zapper’s company rather than Swiftcall’s. At least Cloud never complained.

The steps finally touched down after several meters of decent. The flicker of some glinting light was in the distance whenever she shined her torch down into the darkness. Daring Do stepped forward and into the mouth of an archway. Her torch struck the far wall, it was so shiny that it reflected the light all around, revealing the chamber. The walls were a polished stone that reflected the light of her torch around like mirrors. The floors were tiles and embedded into the tiles were tall mirrors. In the centre of the room, on a stone pedestal, was Shadow.

“What are you doing here, Shadow?!” Daring Do demanded, stamping her hoof.

That wide cocky smile spread itself across the dark purple stallion, his coat looking almost black in the darkness. “Why Daring Do, funny I should be seeing you here.”

“Diane?” Swiftcall looked at Daring, his face plastered with worry. “What’s going on?”

Daring Do snorted, “that’s just what I want to know.”

Shadow could only chuckle, “oh I can see this is going to be fun.” He smirked, “come on then, catch me if you can.” He rolled off the stone and into the maze of mirrors and away from view.

“Come on!”

Swiftcall let out a squeak as he was yanked by Daring Do into the mirrors.

Daring headed down the first set of mirrors and turned right, all the while pulling Swiftcall in her wake. She moved left, and then to the second right, only to come to a dead end. She backtracked, turned left, then went right, then right again, and then left again. But it was another dead end. No matter how she tried, Daring Do kept finding dead ends. The adventurous mare attempted to map the maze in her head, but it was becoming increasingly confusing.

As Daring Do backtracked around a corridor, she found herself facing yet another dead-end. “Didn’t we just come this way?” Commented Swiftcall behind her. Daring had to agree, they had definitely come this way. It was like the maze was… moving.

“What’s wrong Daring Do, can’t find your way?” Shadow’s voice called out from the other end of the room. The smug laughter that followed grated on her nerves.

“I am so gonna kick his flank.” Daring Do said, gritting her teeth as she spoke.

“Diane, are you okay?” The concern in Swiftcall’s voice was palpable. It was enough to make Daring Do pause and take a deep breath. She turned to him and gave what she hoped was a warm smile.

“Hey, relax Swift. I’m alright, I’m just a little frustrated with this bozo. He’s throwing me off my game a little.” She said, trying a light-hearted chuckle.

He didn’t look convinced. She turned back to the maze and looked around curiously. She moved to a corner, looked around it, before turning away and walking back towards Swift for a moment. She paused, before suddenly rushing around the corner again.

“Aha!”

Swiftcall ran to join her and yelped as he almost galloped headfirst into a wall. “W-when did this get here?”

“It’s changing based on observation!” Daring Do looked to Swiftcall with a wide grin that made him feel uncomfortable. “When we see something and look away, it changes immediately. This entire place is magically made to be impossible to navigate!”

“So…” Swiftcall began, “how ARE we supposed to navigate it?”

“By not observing it.”

Swiftcall wasn’t sure he liked her tone of voice. She dipped her head into her bag and pulled out a strip of cloth. She tore it with her hooves and teeth and fashioned some rags that she then began to tie around Swiftcall’s head as a makeshift blindfold.

“D-Diane… Daring… are you sure about this? What if it’s that Shadow guy you keep talking about? What if he’s controlling the walls, or what if it’s just changing randomly?” He didn’t much like the thought of running into a wall.

“I got a good look at the maze before we slipped down into it. I mapped out a basic route but we met a dead end, and when we backtracked, the route back had changed. And when I checked around the corner, it had changed again, but only in specific ways. Ways that had opened before, showing other paths, showed me that the only places that had changed were the paths that I had mapped out. Everything else was staying the same. Trust me on this, I know what I’m doing.” Daring said, grinning broadly as she wrapped the blindfold over her own eyes, blinding herself.

She reached out and took Swiftcall’s hoof and guided him forward. She walked in the direction of the exit, and in the direction of what had been a dead-end before they’d put the blindfold on.

Two steps, three steps, five steps, eight steps… they should have met the wall by now. Daring Do smirked as they walked forward, meeting no resistance from the maze.

The echo of their hooves sounded different as they stepped up near the end of the room. She could tell by the echo bounce they were right next to a wall. Slowly and carefully, she reached up and lifted her blindfold, glancing back at the maze.

It was still there, solid as ever, but she was now on the other side of it.

She nudged Swiftcall with a smirk and watched as he lifted his own blindfold. “Wow… it worked.”

“Told ya.” She grinned, “trust me, this is what I do.” She took the make-shift blindfolds and shoved them into her saddlebags before looking around. “Now where did he go.”

She looked around the room, but couldn’t find Shadow anywhere. No sign or trace of him. The ground was dusty from centuries of isolation and their hooves scuffed the dirt as they trod forward. However, just like in the forest, no hoofprints belonging to Shadow were found. She couldn’t track him if she couldn’t find a trace of him, her only option was to keep moving and hope he’d either make a mistake, or voluntarily make himself known again.

The walls around them both were smooth apart from an archway that led into a dark set of stairs descending downwards. Daring Do began walking, her hoof-steps echoing out around them as they ventured further into the black.

The darkness encompassed them completely like thick tendrils that clung to their coats. Daring Do tried activating her torch, but its bright beam could not penetrate the thick blackness that encroached on them, the beam meeting neither floor nor wall. The dark felt thick, like the air was heavy. Daring wondered if this was another test of the temple. She looked to her right and pressed her torch almost up to the walls entirely, the smallest feints of light showed marking, and a touch of her hooves proved the walls were littered with them. From what she could tell they weren’t pictures but symbols made up of many lines, and each step she took down was followed by a new symbol.

“D-Diane… I don’t like this place.” Swiftcall was crouched on the stairs nearby, his outline barely visible in the black at all. In fright, he seemed to be standing stiffly, sweat was visible on his brow, his wings flat against his back as he looked to Daring Do with an expression of concern. She too was starting to get worried. This place was getting heavier and harder to move through, the further they went down the heavier it got… like they were wading through syrup.

Daring tried moving lower, her hooves stepping from step to step as her companion did his best to keep pace with her. But he was starting to fall behind. The descent had begun to feel like tar, and it was becoming hard to breathe as the pressure on her body and chest increased.

Daring let out a groan from the effort, trying to push herself down, but the mare was quickly reaching her limit. This tar like atmosphere was threatening to drown her.

The darkness seemed closer… somehow. Daring Do couldn’t help but stumble. She collapsed to her right, leaning against the wall for support. As her hoof moved over the surface, she felt the symbols and noticed a significant difference.

“D-Diane, please... can we go back.” He was shaking and panting now; this was harder for him than it was for her. She was at least hardened by her own adventures; he was just a messenger, and the look in his eyes told her he was afraid for his life.

“Wait…” She began, looking closer to the wall, trying to see the symbols. “The marks. Less lines.”

“What?”

“They’re numbers. They’re counting down. We’re almost to the bottom I promise!”

She heard him whimper at her words as she steeled herself to keep moving, forcing herself to take another step… and then another… and then another. She kept her hoof on the symbols, fumbling to mark the number of lines in each one.

Twelve lines… ten lines… eight lines… five lines…

“Almost there….”

Swiftcall collapsed with a thud. His unconscious form began to fall forward on the stairs. He barely made it a step before Daring Do managed to catch him, not wanting him to fall into the darkness. She sighed to herself, biting her lip hard enough to break the skin as she hoisted him onto her back, aiming to carry him. He was clammy and sweaty, this had taken a big toll on him.

Daring Do, friend on her back and darkness surrounding her, the pressure of sludge and tar in the air pressing down at her enough to stifle her breath and movements… she moved. The adventurous mare began walking.

Needing all hooves for balance, she could no longer keep track of the number of lines on each symbol. She could only work with memory. Each two steps were another line gone. Daring Do counted under her breath.

“Three lines… two lines… one last line…”

Immediately everything changed. One minute Daring Do was struggling, on the verge of passing out as the weight and pressure encompassed her… and then it was over.

The change was sudden enough that Daring Do fell. The air pressure was normal again, and with her breath no longer constructed, she let out a heavy gasp, a gasp that was forced out of her lungs sharply when she fell to the floor. Coughing and sputtering, Daring Do curled up, shaking as she tried to breathe normally.

Daring laid there for a moment, and when her breathing had calmed, she looked to where Swiftcall had fallen from her back. Thankfully he was stirring, so he was alright.

Trying to push themselves to their hooves, both groaned from their bruises. Swiftcall hissed at the feeling of his damaged wing which had been hurt more in the fall.

“Are you okay?”

He nodded, rubbing his head with his left hoof in discomfort, probably from the same headache she was experiencing.

A piercing laughter pulled them from the moment.

Daring Do turned quickly and stood between Swiftcall and the entrance to the next room. The stairs they had descended were to their right, and a quick glance shocked her. They were brightly lit and she could see all the way up them… no darkness.

Before the adventurous mare was a large stone archway in the wall, the room beyond was a large corridor, pillars on either side and a set of doors awaited them at the end. The walls were made from orange stone, much like the temple above. Daring had no idea how far down they were, or how far down it would reach by the end.

Stepping forward into the room, Daring Do looked carefully for any sign of her foe. The air was so thick with dust she could see it swirling in the rays of light that lit the room. Keeping her breath shallow, she moved forward into the middle of the room.

“Are we okay?” Said Swiftcall from behind her, having pulling himself up and moved over to join her in the room.

Daring mumbled, “I think so.”

“OUCH!”

Daring Do turned to see Swiftcall looking down at his hoof. The ground seems to have cracked open and locked onto his hoof, probably just an accident. “Come here.” She sighed, reaching for his hoof. She began pulling it, but he seemed to be stuck. “How did you do this to yourself?”

“Sorry.” He mumbled looking down at his hoof in shame.

Daring Do could only chuckle, “It’s alright, on my first ever adventure, I got captured by pirates.” She said, giving him a small smirk, trying to wriggle his hoof free.

A sound behind her made her pause. She heard hoof-steps.

“Daring?” Swiftcall asked curiously as Daring Do turned around. They were no longer alone in the room, and the presence of the other pony made a shiver run down her spine.

Shadow.

He stood a few feet from her, looking at her with a wide smirk. “Hello Diane.”

Daring stepped away from Swiftcall, glaring at Shadow as she moved into a better position. She tried her best to stay somewhat close to Swiftcall though, in case Shadow chose him as a target. She had forgotten how dark his coat was. The stallion had a dark purple mane and coat, a pawprint cutiemark, and his mane and tail harboured a darker purple streak that slid through with a colour that looked almost black in the dull flickering light of the torches. His eyes were a bright violet and they shone with a cocky malevolence that stiffened the fur on the back of Daring’s neck.

“Shadow.” She said under her breath, his name like a hiss from her mouth.

“Diane?” Swiftcall asked, looking confused.

“Stay out of this, I’ll protect you.” She said firmly, glancing to Swiftcall as she spoke. He looked worriedly at her, and somewhat confused.

Shadow began chuckling before he turned and walked to the edge of the room casually, as though she were no threat. “It’s so nice of you to drop in here, and to have found the entrance for me, but I’m afraid it’s going to have to come to an end now.” His hoof reached out and pushed in a stone on the wall. Everything began to shake.

“AH! Snake!” Swiftcall yelled.

‘Darn right he’s a snake!’ Daring thought venomously as she dived forward towards Shadow. The ground cracked open beneath her, the tiles of the floor starting to separate and boiling hot lava suddenly erupted from below.

Daring Do yelled out as she felt hot burning pain sear over her back leg as she hit the ground and rolled. The floor was in pieces now, islands of floating stone floor in a sea of molten rock. She glanced to Swiftcall and saw him yelling as he looked down at the floor, his area still gratefully secure above the lava.

Shadow looked to her and smiled. “This is where your adventure ends Daring Do.”

“Not yet!” She yelled, diving at Shadow. She tried to use the hot air to lift her as her wings stretched wide, but found herself having to flap harder than she expected. Figuring she must still be tired from the staircase, she forced herself forward at break-neck speeds, Daring Do struck Shadow and forced him back against the far wall, pinning him. “Why are you here?!”

Shadow could only laugh. “To see you suffer of course.”

“DIANE!” Swiftcall yelled out in terror. Daring Do turned to see the rock of his perch starting to melt away under the extreme heat.

“What’s it going to be, Diane?” Shadow asked with a wide smirk, “stop me, or save your friend?”

Daring turned to him and glared before she dived away, Shadow cackling as she dove for her friend. Just as the floor swallowed up the last inch of his perch, she scooped him up and pulled him away. The heat rose, Daring Do found herself losing altitude. She must have been more tired than she thought. They looped and flew towards a stone arch on the opposite end of the room, the door of the arch slowly starting to lower, threatening to trap them in with the lava that would surely spell their demise before long. Daring through Swiftcall as hard as she could, sending him yelping as he landed on the floor and skidded under the arch, Daring Do striking the floor and rolling fast just as the door came down.

They made it through, Daring Do lying on her back, bruised and panting, sweat pouring from her brow as she stared at the ceiling.

Daring Do laid there for a moment, trying to regain her breath. This room was nice and cool; it was a little drafty in fact, which was good in her opinion. It soothed her singed coat… well, not singed, she seemed to be unharmed, but dehydrated for sure.

She turned her head and watched as Swiftcall stood up shakily, holding his wing.

“Is your wing okay?” She asked, hoping throwing him hadn’t hurt it even more.

“Is my wing okay?” He asked, looking at her confused. “WHAT DO YOU THINK?!”

Daring Do’s eyes widened at his sudden outburst. “What-”

“WHAT HAPPENED IN THERE?!” He seemed furious, Daring watched as tears filled the stallion’s eyes as his gaze turned into an expression of hurt and betrayal.

“What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong?” He let out a bark of laughter. “How about you tell me what’s wrong with you!? How dare you fly off and around the room like a maniac and leave me to deal with the snakes! You know I hate snakes!”

Snakes?

“W-what-” She began to say.

“Screaming about some guy named ‘Shadow’! Talking to yourself!”

Talking to herself?

“What are you talking about?” She yelled back, standing up. “What snakes?”

Swiftcall looked at her as though she were crazy. “THE SNAKES! The room was filled with snakes! They almost had me before you pulled me out and threw me in here! And they wouldn’t have even gotten close if you had of just yelped me get my hoof unstuck in the beginning!”

“There was lava… and there was Shadow…”

“WHO IS SHADOW?!”

Daring Do’s eyes widened and she took a step back, shaking her head. “This… this is all wrong… I… we… Shadow was there… he pressed a button and the ground broke up, and there was lots of lava. And I tried to stop him but he got away when I had to save you…” Daring Do was visually distressed. Nothing was making any sense.

“Diane.” Swiftcall said, looking at her with accusing eyes. “There was no Shadow. And there was no lava. There was just you, and me, and a lot of snakes. And between the snakes and those burning stairs, I’ve had quite enough of this adventure.”

“Burning?” She asked softly, “the stares were dark and… heavy… not hot.”

Swiftcall looked just as confused, “they weren’t dark… they were just very hot.”

Daring Do sat down, leaning against a wall as she collected her thoughts. “So… you’ve never seen Shadow? Back in the other room with the maze?” She paused, “it WAS a maze for you, right?”

He nodded, “yeah… it was a maze, and it changed because of how we saw it. You figured that out.” He spoke sullenly, but he’d at least calmed down now. He was idly stroking his damaged wing.

“So, the maze played on our perceptions, and then we found the stairs and I saw darkness and pressure, and for you it was hot. And in that room, I saw lava and Shadow, and you saw snakes. We’ve been experiencing different things. And Shadow…”

“I haven’t seen him,” said Swiftcall, sighing softly, “I don’t think he’s been here at all.”

“But, he felt real. He felt there. I touched him.” She shook her head.

“The heat of the stairs felt real for me too.”

She nodded to him. “This place… I don’t like it.”

“Me neither.”

Daring Do sighed and leaned back, staring up at the ceiling. “So, all this time he hasn’t been here at all.” She closed her eyes and let out a deep breath. “I guess that’s one last problem I have to deal with.” She said, trying to give Swiftcall a confident smile. He returned with a soft smile of his own, though it still held the slightest vestige of a grimace.

“Well we know one thing; I’m not burned at all, so the lava definitely wasn’t real, no matter how real it felt. So, we can’t be hurt by these things, if we keep moving and just remember that what we see isn’t real, I’m sure we can make it out of here.” Said Daring, speaking with a tone of confidence.

He smiled to her. “I hope you’re right.”

So do I,’ she thought to herself as they stood up and looked around.

Daring Do and Swiftcall were in a corridor that led down and to the left. Following it slowly, Daring Do kept her eyes out for anything that might be dangerous. Even if this place WAS playing tricks on them, it was still best to be vigilant. But Daring Do had to wonder. What was the purpose of this place? If the lava couldn’t hurt her and her enemy wasn’t there, why be shown it at all? Why force infiltrators to fight something that isn’t there? Maybe it was just to drive them both mad.

Daring Do and her trusted companion stepped from the corridor into a small room. The flame of two torches bathed the area in a golden glow, highlighting the markings over the walls and the gold trimmings of the archway that stood before them. The archway was blocked off with sheer stone. The stone was smooth to the touch, and would likely require a puzzle to open the path. Daring Do turned to Swiftcall and raised a brow.

“You seeing an archway with a big slab of stone blocking the way?”

He nodded in reply.

Satisfied that this was real, she reached out and ran her hoof over the stone carefully. It was smoother than she had expected, but just from the texture she could tell it was heavy. Breaking through it was likely not going to be an option.

Turning to the depictions she began to look for any clues. Instead she found something that was… obvious. Keys.

Embedded into the walls were a set of three keys. A light touch of them freed them from the walls. She looked them over, turned back to the slab of stone, and there in the middle right hoof corner was a keyhole that she was sure had not been there before.

“Which one?” Swiftcall asked, looking over the keys curiously.

“That’s a good question,” said Daring Do, inspecting them. The keys looked the same. They were made of stone, but still smooth despite the centuries passing them by. The keyhole look standard as well, and from what she could visually tell, there wasn’t any difference from one key to the next. “We can’t just try them one by one. Two of them are likely traps.” She mumbled.

“What if they’re not?” Swiftcall ventured.

“What?”

“What if all three work.”

“Why would they do that?” She asked, giving him a raised brow at his suggestion.

“Well think about it, what else in this place has been expected?”

He had a point. She’d usually argue that there was no point to giving three keys that all worked. Because whoever was breaking in would get to enter regardless of which one they chose… but then she thought back to the traps and tests. None of them were fatal. Uncomfortable, for sure, but never fatal. None of them had hindered their passage, or in any way tried to harm them. It wasn’t like they were being hindered, more like they were being tested.

Daring Do looked to her friend, shrugged and picked a key at random. Slipping it into the lock she turned the key and the sound of ancient gears turning shook dust from the ceiling. Slowly but surely, the door began to rise.

“Good call.”

Swiftcall smiled at her words and followed her inside as they stepped through the now open archway.

The room beyond was quiet.

Daring Do stepped into the room and looked around. Pillars of stone ran from floor to ceiling in grand arches, the walls intricately designed, and in the centre of the room stood a single grey stone. A monolithic rock that was raw and natural in shape.

Stepping up to the rock she looked around its built base curiously. The rock seemed to be natural to the location, and the floor was built around it… or maybe the entire temple was built around the stone.

“This is interesting… Swift, what do you think?” Daring asked curiously, only to be met with silence. “Swift?” She turned to find herself alone.

A creepy chill ran up her spine as she looked around, finding no sign of her companion anywhere.

“Hello Diane.”

Daring turned on the spot, coming face to face with Shadow. The stallion leaned forward and gave her the smallest kiss on the lips. The contact froze her for a moment before she jumped back and spat on the ground. “What the…!?”

Shadow chuckled, grinning at her with a lecherous and villainous gaze. “Our first kiss, and by torchlight no less. Who says romance is dead?”

“You aren’t real!” Daring accused, closing her eyes. “Swift, I’m seeing him again…”

“You’re seeing me now?” Shadow asked, circling her slowly. “Does that mean we’re dating?”

Daring Do grit her teeth. “Shut up, and go away.”

The stallion pouted playfully at her words. “You don’t really mean that, do you?”

“You aren’t real,” she repeated, “you’re just this place getting into my head.”

“How do you know?” He asked curiously. “This place can make you hear me, and see me. How do you know Swiftcall was telling the truth? How do you know he even said that at all? Or better yet… how do you know he was ever here to begin with.”

Daring’s breath caught in her throat. Did she really have any proof? Had Swiftcall done anything? Pressed any buttons? Saved her from anything? Had he done anything other than stand there? she’d touched him, but she’d felt the lava too… real or not, it felt real to her. Did she have any solid evidence that anything she was seeing was real?

“This place really messes with ya, doesn’t it?” Shadow said, grinning. He was by the rock now, tapping on it. “It’s all this things fault.”

“It is?” Daring Do asked, looking at him cautiously, not sure about anything anymore.

“Of course, you know that. You’re at the deepest level of the Temple, and they built the whole thing around a big old rock. No pony ever does that unless its special.” He grinned at her.

He was right. In her experience, the stone was certain to be the cause.

“How do I know you’re real?” She asked with a glare, refusing to look away for a second. She knew that if she did, and he WAS real, it would be dangerous to let her guard down.

“You don’t.” Well that was anti-climactic. “But you can’t take the risk, can you?” He smirked and approached her confidently, forcing her to take a few steps back. She felt a stone pillar against her back. His hooves pressed either side of her head and he leaned in close, grinning broadly. “Maybe we should kiss again, maybe you’ll be able to tell then.” He said, leaning in. Her head snapped forward. She headbutted him hard, sending him falling onto his back.

“Ouch.” He grunted, rubbing his head. “Well... looks like you still got some fight in you!”

Suddenly he was up, his hoof lashing out. Daring Do reacted instinctively, ducking low under his blow and snapping her forehoof up into his ribs. The moment he stumbled from the blow, she turned and bucked out hard. The stallion grunted and flew back into a wall before falling to the floor, coughing. “Wow… you’re good.”

“Too good for you.” Daring Do said, glaring as she approached him. “I don’t know if you’re real or not, but I’m not gonna let you mess with my head.”

Shadow stood up on shaky legs and grinned, “haven’t you heard? That’s my speciality.” He snapped forward and struck out again. Daring Do’s head snapped to the side, her hoof came up and wrapped around his own, she twisted hard. His other hoof snapped out and struck her in the jaw though, the force sending her sprawling to the floor.

“Whoop! Dramatic!” Shadow said, grinning. “I can see why Cloud respected you. You fight as well as any Royal Guard, and they have all the cool toys and training.”

“I have toys too.” Daring said, spitting a little blood to the floor from her split lip. She reached into her saddlebag and lashed out with her whip. Shadow yelped as it wrapped around his leg and with a sharp tug, sent him sprawling to the floor.

Daring Do was on him quickly, binding his legs together. He struggled and snapped at her with his teeth, laughing as he did so. Daring moved away from the bites and struck him with her hooves hard, only to watch his dark purple coat flash to lighter shade and his dark mane turn to bright yellow.

“D-Diane…” Swiftcall said, looking bruised from the fight, looking up at her in fear.

Daring stepped back quickly, “Swift!” She looked down at her hooves and back to her friend, realising what she had done. But the moment her despair burned up in her chest, suddenly it was Shadow again, cackling loudly. Her chest tightened as the laughing continued, even as Swift lay there once again, looking at her as though she had betrayed him.

Daring Do turned away and clutched her head, shaking from head to hoof. “No, no, NO!” She yelled, slamming her hooves against her own temple to bore out the confusion somehow. This made no sense, was Shadow here or Swift? Were neither of them here at all?!

Her eyes turned to the stone. No more.

She ran up to it, turned and bucked out hard. Her hooves struck the rock and with a deafening crack, it split open.

A glow came from within the hollow interior. The world turned into a dark shade of grey, as though all colour drained from it. The stone had etchings along the inside, and there in the centre, held by a small metal holder, was a glowing blue stone, its ethereal visage the only mote of colour she could see. Daring Do scanned the inscriptions and found ancient equestrian words. She’d learned more since her last mess of translating things, so this she read easily:

 

“Perceptions heart, and ancients might,

From within the realm of mind they fight.

From darkest tales and courage shown,

Equestrian fall will soon be known.

Stripes of black, and stripes of white,

A reveal of those from out of sight.

Protection sought to hide the minds,

Cut through the dark and fog that blinds.

A trail of old stone to show the way,

A journey to test and seize the day.

Ready be ye, for what’s to come,

For the hardest days are yet begun.”

 

 

Daring Do, really hated prophesies.

Reaching out with her hoof, she grasped the stone and pulled it from its holding. A flash blinded her for a moment, and suddenly she was plunged into darkness. Not total darkness though. The room looked… different. The ground was cracked, vines and reeds were growing through everything, the walls where ancient intricate carvings had been were now crumbling, and the only light source was a large oculus hole in the ceiling. Because of course there had to be an oculus hole.

She looked around, and found herself very much alone. The place looked… as she had expected it to look before coming down here. Old.

Looking up to the Oculus, she spread her wings and flapped hard to soar towards it, only for hooves to grasp onto her leg. She yelped and looked down, seeing a bruised and hurt Swift.

“Diane!”

She yelped and flew up hard, pulling him with her. She almost made it through the hole, only to almost be dragged down again. She reached down to pry herself free, but Swift grasped her forehoof instead.

“You aren’t real!” She yelled, trying to shake him off.

“I am… I am… please... trust me… Shadow isn’t real but I am… Diane… Daring!”

Daring Do looked down into the eyes of her friend and bit her lip again. She needed to make a decision. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and pulled hard.

She pulled her friend up and together the rolled onto their backs, staring up at the canopy above.

They laid there in silence, getting their breath back, just watching the clouds drift over the blue sky from behind the reeds and branches that coloured their world with greens and golds.

“Diane?” Began Swiftcall.

“Huh?”

“Remind me never to join you on an adventure, ever again.”

Daring Do chuckled.

 

*

 

Daring Do thought about everything that had happened on the adventure. From what she could understand, the stone had been testing her, or preparing her for something. It seemed these prophesises were all about her and the trials she was to face in the future. She could tell something was missing, something beneath the surface, but she knew digging for it wouldn’t help.

Daring Do flew to the nearest encampment with Swiftcall holding onto her back, it took her two hours to reach it with the extra weight. As she landed, she saw in the distance, a group of ponies talking to a messenger. He noticed her and trotted over quickly. He had a light blue coat and pink eyes. He pulled out a letter and placed it by her hooves as he panted to catch his breath.

“Daring Do?” He enquired as he approached. “We have news!”

“What news?”

“Ahuizotl has gathered almost all the Rings of Scorchero. We managed to rescue one from your holdings.” He brought out the lockbox that had been crafted to hold the ring. “We need to keep this safe.”

Daring Do nodded in agreement.

There were plenty of trials ahead, and some things in the shadows that she needed to be wary of. But Daring Do knew one thing was certain.

 

This adventure wasn’t over, and there was a long road ahead to saving Equestria.

This story archived at http://www.ponyfictionarchive.net/viewstory.php?sid=2223