The ancient cavern was dank, and warm in an unsettling way. The incessant drip... drip... drip... of water from the stalactites looming precariously overhead echoed hollowly in the distance. The ground was damp and dirty, the remnants of ancient rocks that had been worn down to gravel, then sand then finally dust by countless aeons of relentless and unforgiving natural forces. Tiny rivulets wound their way across the dirty ground where the water found easier paths through the dirt here and there, drawing crooked lines that led down into the dark, lonely and forbidding bowels of Equestria.
But for the endless dripping of water, silence had reigned here for centuries. Nopony had set foot this far into the Root Cellar Caverns since the time of Nightmare Moon, or perhaps before. The first visitors the ancient tunnels had seen since time immemorial were even now winding their way into the cave complex, the clatter of three sets of hooves and the soft whispers of careful, experienced explorers barely breaking the silent spell that hung over the-
Sweetie Belle's cry caused her companions to come up short, and Apple Bloom and Scootaloo rushed to their friend's defense.
"You alright, Sweetie Belle?" Apple Bloom asked.
Sweetie winced as she reached up to gingerly examine her horn. "Yeah, I'm okay. I just bumped my horn on one of these stupid shelves."
The root cellar behind the barn at Sweet Apple Acres was Applejack's pride and joy, and after a season of work digging it out everypony understood why. Now Sweet Apple Acres would be able to set aside barrels of apples that would keep longer in the cool cellar, as well as jars of preserves, pickles, and even a few casks of Applejack's namesake, distilled by AJ and Big Mac during the off-season. Wooden shelves lined the hard-packed dirt walls laden with every kind of foodstuff, and sacks of grain and flour were laid along the walls on the floor, both for storage and to catch anything that might fall should the simple shelving collapse.
Today, though, three brave filly explorers had a singular goal in mind: The last, precious jar of Zap Apple Jam. From where the three young ponies stood the rainbow colors within the jar seemed to glow and shimmer with delicious promise from the shelf at the far end of the cellar.
"Would you two keep it down?" Scootaloo whispered urgently. "We'll get in big trouble if we get caught down here!"
With narrowed eyes and the momentary discomfort of her stubbed horn forgotten, Sweetie smiled cannily. "Well," she said. "It's not like anyone told us we couldn't be down here. Right?"
Scootaloo furrowed her brow, her tiny wings fluttering uncertainly. "Uh, I guess. What do you think, Apple Bloom?"
The duo looked at Apple Bloom, who suddenly seemed to have decided that the bag of rye chops she stood next to was terribly interesting.
"Um... Apple Bloom?" Sweetie asked, slowly.
"Well," the little earth pony said, equally slowly. "Actually, I mighta asked Applejack if we could jes' git the jar. An' she mighta said no."
The three adventurers stood at the edge of a chasm, deep within the mountain. The rent in the earth was massive, a gulf to swallow ponies whole. Nopony could say how many had been ponies had been lost and forgotten within the maw. Ancient piles were driven into the rock, testament to the ancient, rickety bridge that had until mere moments before provided the only passage across the black gulf. The trio stared numbly at the rotten and broken wooden pegs that had torn free of the piles, and at the passage on the other side of the cleft, the only pathway to their goal now rendered inaccessible. The flickering of the kerosene lantern that was their only source of light in the depths of the earth made shadows dance mockingly at the mouth of the unattainable entrance.
"Apple Bloom!" Sweetie squeaked in agitation. "We can't just go stealing the jam! Rarity would kill me!"
"We ain't gonna steal it!" Apple Bloom said, quickly. "We were jes' gonna get it, have some toast an' jam an' give Scootaloo a little to take home to 'er parents! The rest is jes' gonna go in the icebox! That ain't stealin', right?"
"I dunno, Apple Bloom, it's bad enough we're already down here," Scootaloo said. The little pegasus filly looked utterly crestfallen as she spoke, gazing longingly at the blessed jar.
"Look, it'll be alright," Apple Bloom said. She leaned down against a bag of grain. "Ah promise. We won't get in trouble. 'sides, Applejack does this every year. She sets aside the las' jar fer a 'special occasion' an' then we never use it an' it jes' goes bad. We're jes' keepin' AJ from wastin' food."
Sweetie nodded, perhaps a bit too eagerly. "Oh, okay! My parents always tell me it's bad to waste food."
"So we are gonna get the jar?" Scootaloo asked hopefully.
With a simple, quiet nod, the earth pony explorer pointed at a rock outcrop a short distance away from the nearby passage. Her keen eyes and infallible sense of direction had discovered something hidden from the sight of casual explorers: A second set of securement points. These were much older than the driven piles that had previously supported the rope bridge, a pair of stone pylons hewn from the living granite of the cave and set with a series of heavy metal rings, barely tarnished after countless decades or centuries.
The pegasus explorer immediately understood what she had to do and lofted into the air. She was the strongest flier in Equestria, after all, and this served her well as she sped across the chasm toward a matching pair of stone pylons on the far side of the gap. She flew expertly in the confined space of the cavern, undisturbed by the strange air flow and occasional gusts of foul air that blew along the chasm. After a bare moment of aerial expertise she lighted safely on the other side and waved a hoof across at her companions.
Finally it was the unicorn's turn. She flipped her mane and looked evenly at the fallen bridge suspended precariously at the opposite side. With the barest effort of will her horn flared to life, shedding a cool blue light over the cavern. The magical aura spread over the remains of the bridge, which quickly tore itself loose from the rotten pegs and floated toward the two ponies waiting to secure it. The might of the unicorn - the most powerful unicorn in all of Equestria! - was quickly bent to the task of knitting the ancient rope bridge back together while her friends tied off the ropes.
Within moments, it was as if the bridge had never fallen, and was stronger and more durable than it had been before. The unicorn and earth pony both gathered their spelunking gear and crossed. Their goal in this quest into the churning depths of the earth was in sight, and as long as the three brave explorers were together nothing could stop them.
"Yeah, alright," Sweetie said, brightly.
The three carefully and quietly picked their way through the cellar to the far end. The shelf at the rear was like all the others, laden with barely-identifiable jars and bottles, and at the center the coveted jam.
"So," Sweetie Belle said as she stood at the base of the wall, staring up at the shelf that hung high over her head. "How are we gonna get it down?"
"I'll get it!" Scootaloo said. Her wings buzzed furiously as she jumped into the air. The extra lift pushed her up... up... and her hoof barely brushed the shelf.
"Ah don't think that's gonna work," Apple Bloom said as her orange-coated friend jumped again and again. Scootaloo responded with a wordless grunt as yet another jump brought her just barely within reach of the shelf.
"Almost-" Scootaloo said as she swung a hoof, missing again. She gasped at the effort and her wings failed, dropping her heavily on her rump. She clambered to her hooves unsteadily and fluttered her wings to shake off the dust.
"Alright, now that Ah was right," Apple Bloom said. "All we gotta do is get up t' the shelf. Why don't we jes' climb on some o' these bags?"
The trio passed into the cavernous tunnel which shortly opened into another large chamber. This, however, was no natural formation. Ever stone surface was carved in bas reliefs and tall statues, huge stone alicorns with vast wingspans overlooking the entrance while rampant manticores and sinister dragons menaced miniature ponies on the walls. Even pocked with age and worn down by time and water, the vista was breathtaking.
The three explorers, however awed they might have been, however, scarcely stopped to investigate. A much greater treasure lay in store, that which they had come so far and risked so much to find: The Rainbow Idol.
It was a wondrous thing, an alicorn effigy carved from a single massive, rainbow-hued gemstone, roughly two hooves from wingtip to wingtip. It bent the flickering lantern light, casting beams of red and blue, purple and orange across the chamber. The Idol sat on a pedestal made of stacked stones, large flat pieces piled without mortar and cunningly set together so that, while it looked precarious, centuries of wear had not collapsed the pile. Nevertheless, the explorers did not wish to disturb it unnecessarily.
First, the unicorn. With a confident smirk she set her horn alight, and at first it seemed that simple telekinesis would bring them their prize. She reached out for it... and her "grip" simply slipped through the Idol. Again she tried, and again, but even to her awesomely powerful magic it was as if she were grabbing at air. She then tried other spells, sending a length of rope to wrap around the idol and pull it in, or trying to lift the large stone slab on which it sat. Nothing worked. The Idol sat, gazing unfathomably across the chamber, the powerful unicorn's magic having no more effect than if she were a filly with no magic at all.
With a scowl, the pegasus took a turn. She lifted into the air, but the moment she set her wings to move toward the idol, before she was able to even begin to fly forward powerful winds rose all around her. Nothing else was disturbed, neither her companions nor the chamber, but it was as if she had flown into Celestia's own hurricane. She was buffeted by the phantom winds, sent spinning nauseously and finally cast roughly to the ground like a discarded toy. The pegasus lay on the cool, filthy ground, hooves covering her eyes, waiting for the dizziness to fade.
There was nothing else for it. They would have to take the Idol by hoof.
The three fillies dragged some of the heavy bags of grain and flour from the walls and pushed them into a heap. Grunts of effort came from the Crusaders as they carefully levered large sacks together, first balanced against each other and then into a climbable heap. Soon the work was done and the girls looked in satisfaction at their makeshift hillock.
"Gimme a second," Apple Bloom said as she quickly clambered up the heap. She soon reached the top of the heap, her hooves slipping only once. Unsteadily, she rose to her hind hooves, balancing herself with a forehoof against the shelf. "Alright, girls!" she shouted, triumphantly. "I got it!" She reached a hoof out to pull the jar toward her...
And that's when the sacks shifted.
In trepidation, wondering what tricks and traps would be waiting for three ponies with the temerity to try and take the Idol by hoof, the trio approached the pedestal. It was not high, and with a small effort the earth pony was able to reach up and simply claim the prize.
They began cheering, but the elation at having reached the end of their quest was short-lived. First, there was a low, distant rumble, reminiscent in some ways of machinery. The rumble grew louder, and the chamber was soon shaking, dust rising up from the ground and shaking down from the ancient statuary. Flakes of stone began to fall from the reliefs on the walls, and still the rumbling got louder, the shaking more violent. A stalactite broke loose and crashed down to one side of the chamber.
The trio fled.
The rumbling grew to a roar behind them as the entire chamber was gradually shaken apart. Statues broke apart and collapsed, more of the ceiling fell. The rumbling seemed to pursue the trio as they ran from the chamber, prize clutched agonizingly in the earth pony's teeth. They ran as though Discord were at their heels, out of the cavern and then across the ancient rope bridge. They fled across the chasm which no longer held any terror for the trio in the face of the prospect of being crushed under millions of tons of ancient, pitiless stone.
"Oof!" Apple Bloom landed on her back with a thud. The sacks, too, fell from the heap, landing heavily on the hard packed dirt floor. The largest bag, a sack of fine flour, burst as it landed, sending a cloud of flour all over the root cellar and covering everything in a thin white film.
"Apple Bl-" Sweetie Belle said, then sneezed loudly, blowing the flour on her muzzle back into the air. After a few more false starts and sneezes, she finally reached up and covered her nose with a hoof, her eyes watering. "Apple Bloom, are you okay?"
The world had turned white for Apple Bloom, but after blinking her vision clear and rolling on her side, she determined that, yes, she was fine. More importantly, the prized jar of Zap Apple Jam, which she had finally managed to claim from its perch, was also fine, its fall cushioned by a small earth pony filly.
"What in tarnation," a muffled voice said from outside the root cellar. The shafts of light sneaking down between the slats of the cellar door darkened as a form walked in front of it. "Apple Bloom!" Applejack's voice called out. "Is that you down there? What's goin' on?"
The trio ran and ran. Shortly after they crossed the chasm falling rocks had smashed the rope bridge to bits, finally ending its long and useful life. The rumbling and collapse had followed them somewhat further down the darkened tunnels and eventually culminated in a cave in far behind them. Finally, the noise had stopped, but that hadn't slowed the ponies' furious retreat.
After long minutes, they finally slowed, gasping for air. The cavern they found themselves in was familiar, one of the dank, muggy chambers through which they had passed on the way down. This in itself was very good news; it meant they hadn't gotten lost in their flight from the collapsing cavern. This cheered the explorers, and they finally felt ready to stop, rearrange their supplies and stow the hard-won Idol in the earth pony's large saddlebags.
Moments after the unicorn had levitated the heavy Idol into the bags, however, the air began to be strangely obscured. The cloudiness was acrid and raked at the ponys' eyes, and the earth pony coughed. It was smoke, and smoke that reeked of sulfur and burning metal. A dragon's smoke.
A large, angular reptilian head with two burning red eyes loomed through the haze near the trio. The ponies screamed and the dragon roared.
The door creaked open, flooding the root cellar with sunlight, and Applejack stormed down the stairs, leaving hoofprints in the flour.
"Land sakes!" Applejack shouted as she surveyed the carnage. "What are y'all three doin' down here, any-" She stopped as she looked down at Apple Bloom who was smiling sheepishly, her legs still wrapped around the jar of jam. "Consarn it, Apple Bloom! Ah told you t' leave that alone!"
After a futile attempt to shake some of the flour loose from her mane and tail, Sweetie Belle spoke up. "Um, we're really sorry, Applejack, but-"
Applejack fixed Sweetie with an angry glare, her tail flicking sharply. "Sorry? Yer gonna be sorry when Ah tell yer sister what you been up to! Sneakin' around folks' cellars an stealin' jam! You girls oughtta be ashamed!"
"Well, you see, Applejack-"
"Was this yer idea, Scootaloo?" Applejack snapped at the little orange pegasus. Scootaloo cowered back, curling her tail around herself miserably. "Yer always gettin' mah sister into Celestia-knows-what kinda mischief! Well, Ah'll tell you somethin', little missy, Ah-"
"It was mah idea, Applejack! Stop yellin' at Scoot!"
Applejack turned, blinking. Apple Bloom had recovered her hooves and was glaring back at Applejack just as angrily as the elder pony had been glaring at her a moment before. "It was mah idea! Yer always lettin' the last jar o' Zap Apple Jam go to waste and Scootaloo's folks ain't never had none, so I was gonna give her a little to take home! That's it! If yer gonna yell at somepony y'all should yell at yerself fer wastin' good food!"
Suddenly finding herself unexpectedly on the defensive, Applejack took a step back, some of the anger washing out of her expression. "Well, ah... We were savin' that, Apple Bloom! You know that!"
"Savin' it fer when?" the younger sister retorted.
"A special occasion!"
"What special occasion?!" Apple Bloom barked as she advanced on Applejack. Applejack found herself backed against the packed dirt wall of the root cellar. She blinked as her brain finally caught up to the fact that she was being chided by a filly covered in flour.
"Apple Bloom!" AJ yelled, stamping her hoof. "Ah ain't havin' this argument! Now Ah want y'all three t' clean up this flour!"
The three fillies looked up at her beseechingly before they began to shuffle about, listlessly shifting the mess of flour around without making a dent in it as only recalcitrant, unhappy children can.
After a moment of watching this display, Applejack sighed. "Ah'll take the jar upstairs. When y'all are done cleanin' we can all have some jam. An' I'll set some aside fer yer parents, Scootaloo. Alright?"
The dragon glared down through the smoke, then blinked. It inhaled deeply, drawing the choking miasma from the chamber. The three ponies lay on the ground, gasping in the newly-clear air.
A shaft of sunlight pierced down from the ceiling, now no longer obscured by the smoke or blocked by rubble. The three ponies quickly recovered their hooves and cantered over to look up. A long chimney rose from the chamber and opened onto clear sky.
The earth pony and unicorn nodded sadly at the pegasus. The pegasus, in turn, set her mouth determinedly and folded her wings. She would not leave without her friends. They were going together or not at all.
A moment of this impasse later, the attention of the three pony explorers was drawn in fear to another roar from the dragon. This time, however, the roar was soft and friendly. The dragon sinuously crawled from the dark crack in the cave wall in which it made its den.
The three stepped back to give the enormous reptile room. It stepped into the chamber and spread its wings majestically, then crouched down and straightened its tail. The ponies watched this strange display in confusion until the dragon looked at them. A broad smile split its face and it gestured with its head toward the lowered tail. In wonder, the three slowly walked around behind the dragon to climb up its tail and on to the proferred back.
Moment later, the majestic beast erupted from the chimney, three ponies clinging to the large spines on its back. As the midday sun glittered from the dragon's scales and clean, fresh air filled their lungs, a sense of elation filled the trio, elation that they had once again triumphed against impossible odds. They had gone in search of the treasure together and came back together. They looked each to the others and smiled brightly. There was only one final thing that needed to be said.
"Cutie Mark Crusaders Treasure Hunters! Yay!"