Ember Flame sprinted across the field, spraying mud behind her as she ran. Ahead, a rope flapped in the wind. She jumped at the rope, but her teeth caught only air. The loose corner of the tarp flapped freely, allowing the driving rain to soak into the rolls of hay.
She jumped, snapping at the rope, but again she missed. Ember flung herself at it, catching her prize under her chest as she fell. She reached down and grabbed the rope, the taste of mud spreading across her tongue.
Ember grimaced, but she didn’t dare let go. Instead, she pulled the rope towards its anchor, taking up its slack. The filly, now more brown than turquoise, strained with all her might. Ember was fighting a game of tug-of-war against the wind and the rain. Every new second renewed her opponents’ attempt to extinguish her fiery mane and tail, which were beating against the back of her head. Overhead, streaks of lightning spectated the match. The earth pony held her ground, her hooves digging deep grooves into the mud.
Out of the corner of her eye, Ember saw the other rope holding her side of the tarp down begin to shift. Time slowed down for the filly as the rope broke free of its anchor. Her eyes went wide. The tarp swelled like a sail.
A mare lept over Ember, catching the loose rope in her teeth and dragging it to the ground. The pony tied her rope back to its anchor before taking Ember’s.
Ember spat the mud out of her mouth. “Thanks, Mom.” She spat again. “I almost lost it there.”
“Nonsense!” her mother replied. “You were doing great, Ember!”
Ember looked at the hay, now safe from the wind’s futile efforts. “Yeah, I did!” She shouted to the clouds, “Take that, weather!”
The weather responded by sending two billion volts to the ground a quarter mile away.
Ember chuckled nervously. “Let’s get inside and wash up. I got enough mud on me for one day.” She flicked some at her mother.
“But being covered in mud means...” the mare started.
Mother and daughter finished the sentence together: “...you did a good job!”
Ember Flame was laying in the bathtub, water up to her neck and covered in suds.
A pink hoof scrubbed some dirt from behind her ear. A quick breath from Ember sent some bubbles into her mother’s face.
“What do you say we get extra dessert tonight for saving our hay supply?”
Ember looked past her mother to see an aquamarine colored mare entering the bathroom. She was wearing her own share of mud, as well as a smile.
“I got the chicken coop’s roof nailed back down. A few of the birds got away, but I rounded them up, Strawberry.”
Ember cut in. “Mom Petal! Mom Strawberry and I got the hay all tarped down again and we’re having extra cupcakes for dessert!”
Strawberry Blossom chuckled. “Cupcakes? Sure, we can have cupcakes.” She lifted her daughter out of the tub. “I can’t make mud cupcakes though, so you’d better get dried while Petal and I wash up. Hop on in, Petal. I’ve scrubbed one pony I love, I might as well scrub two.”
Petal smiled at her daughter as the filly trotted out of the bathroom, then bounced into the tub, splashing water across the floor.
Strawberry closed her eyes as the small wave hit her. “Splash all you want, dewdrop; it’s your turn to mop tonight.”
Petal Shower grinned back at Strawberry. “You sure about that, sweetie?”
Strawberry thought for a moment. “Aw shoot.”
Ember Flame darted around beneath her bed covers. Her faithful companion, Sparky, guided her beyond the Folded Blanket of Mystery. Ember took care to avoid drawing the attention of whatever monsters awaited the unwary. On the far side of the Fold, she found the Pillow of Doom. She carefully lifted the Pillow, and extracted The Lint of Destiny. Ember triumphantly brought her prize back towards the Dust Bunny Tribe.
Suddenly, something bit Ember’s tail. “Aah! Run Sparky, the monster’s got me!” Ember dropped the plush firefly off of the side of the bed, nobly sacrificing herself so that he might live.
A hoof pulled the bedsheets back and Ember looked up into Petal Shower’s eyes.
Ember’s mother released her captive. “Your tail was sticking out. Did you finish your homework?”
Ember gazed up at Petal with her best impression of a puppy. “Maaaybe.”
“Strawberry hasn’t started dinner yet, so, maaaybe she might change her mind on those cupcakes.”
Strawberry entered the room, setting a bucket down by the door. “After what she did out there? No way!”
“Yeah!” Ember jumped a few inches. “No way!”
“And they’ll make up for having to help with the cleanup after the storm ends,” Strawberry said with a grin.
“Cleaning up? Aww. Do I have to?”
“You’re not getting out of it this time, Ember.”
“Oh wait! I just remembered!”
Ember jumped over to her backpack and rummaged through it. Petal and Strawberry just looked at each other. Ember triumphantly pulled out a sheet of paper and presented it to her parents.
Strawberry’s eyes swept over the page. “Release form?”
“The school’s going camping this weekend! Beautiful Ruacanter Falls! Me, the class, the open air...”
“...and no storm cleanup,” Strawberry finished.
“And only one parent needs to sign it!” Ember smiled at Petal.
Strawberry snickered. “I’ve seen this enough to know how it ends. All right you can go.” She put a foreleg around her wife’s neck. “I’ll just make Petal do your work, too. But you’re going to owe your poor mother some extra chores.”
Strawberry got an uneasy look from Petal Shower as she made for the door.
As Strawberry walked out, she called behind her, “Better get your rest, dewdrop. You have a long weekend coming up.”
Ember walked alongside her friend in the herd of fillies, their teacher at the lead.
“Raspberry, get back in line,” Honey Heart commanded.
“Yes, Miss Heart.”
“Emerald, put the gems away and keep with the group.”
“Yes, Miss Heart.”
“Thunderbolt, slow down. The train will still be there if we walk.”
The navy blue pegasus colt just rolled his eyes.
“Yeah, Thunderdolt,” Ember’s friend said.
“Stargazer, I don’t need your input,” Miss Heart responded.
Thunderbolt stuck his tongue out at his younger sister, and resumed entertaining himself with a series of slow barrel rolls just above her head.
While Honey Heart continued to corral her class, Ember continued her conversation with Stargazer.
“The falls sound so awesome. They say there’s a never-ending rainbow at the bottom.”
Stargazer flared her beige wings. “I’m looking forwards to the view. It must be so dark at night, I bet you can see everything in the sky. The Milky Way must be so bright out there.” She walked for a moment in silence. “I wonder how long the train ride will be.”
“Longer than it’d take me to fly there,” Thunderbolt cut in.
“No way; you’d get tired out way before you get there.”
“No I wouldn’t!”
“Yes you would!”
“No I wouldn’t!”
“Yes you would!”
“Children! Would you please stop arguing!”
“The dodo’s in trouble,” Thunderbolt teased.
“Thunderbolt, up front, on the ground, now.”
“Who’s in trouble now, Thunderdolt?”
“You too, Stargazer.”
“Awww.” The two siblings made their way to the front, away from Ember.
“Way to go, Thunderbolt.”
Outside of the train, Ember sheepishly took the toothbrush and toothpaste from Strawberry Blossom that she had forgotten to pack earlier. Next to her, a unicorn and a pegasus supplied Thunderbolt and Stargazer with a shedding rake and two extra blankets.
“Be safe out there, Thunderbolt,” the purple pegasus said, gripping him tightly.
The orange unicorn added, “And be nice to your sister. I don’t want to hear that you fought with her the whole trip.”
Stargazer’s mother moved to add her daughter to the embrace, too.
Ember got a nuzzle from Strawberry. “You be good, too. If you see any flowers that’ll look good on the farm, go ahead and pick some up. You owe Petal for making her clean up, after all.”
“I will, Mom.” She turned to her neighbors’ father. “And I’ll try to keep your kids in line, but no promises, Uncle Spyglass.”
“Do what you can,” the unicorn replied. “Stormy, dear, you have to let go of them so they can get on the train.”
“Yeah Mom.” Thunderbolt squirmed in his mother’s grasp. “You’re embarrassing me.”
Stormy reluctantly released her children, who boarded the train. Honey Heart herded the remaining students on, before turning away from the train with a sigh.
Stormy Nights turned to Strawberry. “Since when did you need help cleaning up after my weather?”
Strawberry didn’t look away from the train. “Never. I just make Ember help to show her the value of hard work.”
“I know that. Why are you making Petal Shower do it, then?”
“I’m not. I’m just saying that to get more chores out of Ember.”
Several dozen brakes hissed, releasing puffs of steam. The train lurched into motion among the cheers of its passengers, and the sighs of relief from those watching it. After a few moments, the train cars vanished into the distance.
Ember was awe-stuck at the sight of the Ruacanter Falls. Trees dangled over the edge of the cliff just beside the constant torrent of water. The water spraying at the base even produced the promised rainbow. The campsite itself was a short distance from the river.
Ember Flame joined her schoolmates in largely ignoring the briefing, which was being given by an earth stallion with “Tree” in his name or something. She picked up the crucial information, namely which bunkhouse was for the fillies, where the bathrooms were, and that the forest near the camp was safe to explore, provided that she wasn’t alone.
After unpacking, Ember loaded up her survival kit and sought out her friend.
“Ready to roam?”
Stargazer looked at Ember’s pack. “Do you think we got everything? I just threw in what looked important.”
“Yeah, I packed up blankets, tinder, rope, the magic flares, the tent, extra food and water, everything we need.”
“Oh, did you actually pay attention to the guy?”
Ember puffed out her chest. “Heck no! You know all those mountain trips our parents take us on? While you’re playing with those telescopes, Mom Strawberry’s been showing me this stuff. I can pitch a tent with my eyes closed while reciting the instructions backwards. Come on, I want to see the base of the cliffs.”
Ember walked beneath the leafy canopy, the towering cliffs above only visible in the tiny gaps between the greenery. She closed her eyes. Around her, she heard the chirps of the birds. She smelled the living dirt beneath her hooves. She left the life surrounding her.
Near the edge of the forest, Ember Flame found a young beech tree. It had a yellow tinge to its leaves. The pony looked up around the forest canopy, and spotted a patch of sky. Below, a tree lay on its side, the victim of some unknown calamity.
Ember closed her eyes again and placed her hoof on the young beech. She could feel the sap flow beneath its bark. She moved her hoof along the trunk, and up a branch, feeling her way along the tree’s lifestream. Ember opened her eyes and watched several leaves sprout from the end of the nearby limb. This tree would find the light.
The circle of life continued, from the trees, to the animals, to the soil, and through, if only temporarily, Ember Flame.
Nearby, a pegasus tried her best not to look bored.
“You done with the trees, Ember?”
Ember smiled back. “Yup! This tree’s going to be a strong one when it grows up. Let’s look at some cliff foliage.”
Two fillies looked up the cliff face. A few straggling plants stuck out from crevices in the rocks above.
“The view from the top must be incredible!” Stargazer said.
“I bet. It’d be a tough climb though.” Ember glanced around the cliff. Instead of a path up, a collection of purple foxglove flowers caught her eye.
The earth filly trotted over to the plant. “Hm, I bet Mom Petal would appreciate these.” As Ember placed a hoof by the flowers’ base, she hesitated. The feeling of life in this plant was fuzzy, chaotic, wild. Ember looked around, trying to get a better feel for the area.
“Uh Stargazer, I think we wandered a little too far away from camp. This place feels like the wilderness. Let’s head back.”
The pegasus turned away. “Sounds like a plan,” she said, beginning her walk along the base of the cliff. “I’m getting hungry anywaaaAA!”
The ground beneath Stargazer’s hooves gave way. The filly vanished into the earth. Ember rushed to the edge of the freshly-revealed pit. The remains of several rotten wood planks stuck out as a testament to how the pit had been concealed.
“Stargazer! Are you all right?” Ember looked over the edge, careful of her footing.
Seven feet below her, two dark green eyes looked back up.
“I’m all right; I was able to brake.” She spread her wings. “But I’m kind of stuck down here.”
Ember rummaged through her saddlebag. “Here, tie this rope around your chest,” she said, lowering it down. “I’ll pull you up.”
After a moment, Stargazer called back up, “Go ahead.”
Ember gripped the rope as tightly as she could in her teeth. Bracing herself against the ground, the earth pony pulled with all her might. The rope moved slowly, scraping against the rotten wood at the edge of the pit.
Ember relaxed and the rope fell slack. “It’s fraying; this won’t work.”
“Guess we should send up one of those magic flares of yours and let the grown-ups get me out.”
“We should... but we’d get in trouble for getting too far away from camp. Here, uh, lemme lower down some extra food and water for you. If I’m not back in an hour or something bad happens, point the flare’s tube up, away from the cliff face, and squeeze it with your mouth as hard as you can.”
“All right. I’ll just... stay here I guess.”
Ember Flame cantered away. She knew what she was after.
Ember plodded along the trail. She was running out of places to look. She glanced over her shoulder in the direction of the cliffs. It had been over an hour, and yet Stargazer still hadn’t lit the flare. She was about to give up and head back to the pit when she spotted a blue and white trail in the sky. It turned to overfly Ember. She jumped up and waved her forelegs.
The pegasus colt pulled to a halt in front of Ember. “What do you want? I was practising my racing.”
“Stargazer’s stuck by the cliff! I need your help!”
“What? Is she all right? Where is she?”
“She’s fine. Just fly along the base of the cliff and you’ll find a pit. Stay above it so I can spot you easier.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Thunderbolt turned and rocketed off towards the cliff.
Ember found the pit by looking for the hovering pegasus. She did not need the sound of his laughter to guide her.
“Look at you! A pegasus stuck in a hole!” Thunderbolt laughed. “Hey, hey maybe today’s the day those wings of yours will work!” He flipped over backwards. “Come on up, the air’s just fine!”
Ember looked up at the colt. “Not what I had in mind, Thunderbolt.”
Ember heard a voice below her: “You brought him here, Ember?”
“Hey, I needed somepony who could fly. And keep a secret.”
Thunderbolt turned to Ember. “A secret? I never promised to keep this secret. Just wait until I tell my friends about the dodo in the pit!”
“Hey!” Stargazer shouted, before pausing. “Wait, I get it. Since Ember and I aren’t supposed to be here, neither are you! If you tell anypony about this, you’ll get in trouble, too!”
“But... I was... you...” Thunderbolt finally groaned through gritted teeth. “Fine, I’ll get the dodo out of the hole and forget about this. But you’ll owe me one.”
Ember tossed Thunderbolt the rope. “Here, tie this around the both of you and lift her out. I’m sure you’ll be able to get her out in no time, right mister future Wonderbolt?”
Thunderbolt scoffed. “Ten seconds.”
Ninety seconds later, Stargazer was on the grass.
“There, I did my community service for the day,” Thunderbolt said. “I’m out of here.” He turned, flicked his tail, and zoomed away.
“You all right?” Ember asked. “You didn’t light the flare like I told you to. I was starting to get worried.”
“Oh, that. I guess I lost track of time,” Stargazer said.
“Doing what, counting the roots?”
“Reading this.” Stargazer opened her saddlebag to produce a scroll, yellow and tattered around the edges. “It was in this jar down there. It was hard to read in the dark, something about a treasure."
Ember was at Stargazer's side in a single jump. "A treasure? What kind of treasure? Is it something valuable?"
Stargazer pulled the scroll away. "I don't know; it was hard to read. But it's treasure, of course it's valuable."
"Lemme see, lemme see!"
"We can see in the bunkhouse. It's getting dark. We need to head back before we do get in trouble."
The shadow of the cliffs grew across the two fillies.
Ember and Stargazer unrolled the scroll on a desk in the corner of the fillies’ bunkhouse.
“Here, look at this part.” The pegasus indicated a passage with her hoof.
Ember began to read. “Masked by the watery curtain of the Ruacanter Falls, a concealed passage lies in wait. ‘Lies in wait’? What is it, an animal?” She cleared her throat. “Within, you will find a great treasure, placed by The Ruler of the Heavens, Mightiest of all Ponies, Sovereign Princess of the Great Eternal Lamp of the Sky. What?”
“I think it means Princess Celestia.”
“I guess. Beyond the secret passageways is a treasure with value beyond imagining. Not gold nor silver nor gems will you find, but the Princess’s Orb. Bestowed with the power of the Sun, the Princess’s Orb will grant the power and abilities of a Princess to any pony who grasps it. The Princess’s Orb- sheesh can’t he shorten this thing’s name just once? The Princess’s Orb is guarded well, so be wary any who seek it.” Ember blinked. “Huh.”
“A lot of this doesn’t make sense.” Stargazer scratched her head. “I mean, why would Princess Celestia put something that powerful out in the middle of nowhere? Wouldn’t some vault in Canterlot work better? And who wrote this? How did this guy know where the orb is and why didn’t he get it himself? He even made a map to the place.” She pointed at a crude drawing of the falls, the cave’s location circled.
“Who knows,” Ember said. “But I know one way to find out: let’s see if it’s real!”
“Really now? I find an old scroll written by some kook and you want to go spelunking?”
“But if it’s real, one of us can become a princess! Isn’t that worth a try?”
“I don’t know...” Stargazer paused. “It sounds dangerous...”
“It’ll be worth it. And it can’t hurt to take a look behind the falls. It’s starting to get dark; we can sneak out after lights-out and go when nopony’s looking.”
“Just a look. But if we get in trouble I’m telling them you came up with it.”
Ember smiled. “That’s the spirit!”
The Ruacanter Falls scattered the moonlight across the cliff face. The air was thick with the spray, as well as the roar, of the falling water.
“If the map was right,” Ember yelled over the sound of the falls, “the cave should be up there.”
“See? There’s nothing there.”
“Wait. Look at that outcropping, where that bush is sticking out. Doesn’t it kind of look like a cave?”
“No, it... it can’t be a cave. Can it?”
“It is! The scroll was right! There’s a cave there! The orb must be inside!”
“But there’s no path. How are we supposed to get up there?”
The two fillies snuck towards the boys’ bunkhouse. Around back, a blue colt was sleeping on a cloud about six feet off the ground.
“He knows how much I hate it when he sleeps in the air like that,” Stargazer whispered. “How are we going to wake him up?”
“I have a plan...”
Stargazer, rearing up on Ember’s back, gingerly grasped Thunderbolt’s cloud, and pulled it down to ground level.
Ember cleared her throat. “Thunderbolt,” she whispered.
The colt groaned and rolled over.
“Thunderbolt, it’s me... Rainbow Dash.”
“Mmrh... Rainbow... Dash...”
Stargazer suppressed some giggles.
“That’s right, the captain of the Wonderbolts. I saw your flying, and I’m really impressed. In fact, I think I’ve found my newest Wonderbolt. Why don’t you come over here and let me sign you up...?”
“Rainbow...” Thunderbolt slid towards Ember, and off the side of the cloud. He hit the ground with a thud.
“Ow! Wha? Where?” He looked up at two giggling fillies. “Why you! I was having a good dream, too!”
“Really? I wouldn’t know anything about that.” Ember smiled, triggering another fit of giggles from Stargazer. “Anyways, we need wings. And you did such a good job last time.”
Thunderbolt climbed back onto the cloud. “Find somepony else.”
“I’ll give you my allowance for next week,” Stargazer offered.
“I’ll have Mom Strawberry bake some apple cookies and I’ll give you a quarter, no, half of them,” Ember said.
“I’ll tell Mom and Dad about that trick you did with the cumulonimbus.”
Thunderbolt’s eyes widened. “What? When did you find out about my quadruple electric backflip?”
“Just now. But now I really can tell them.”
Thunderbolt shut his eyes and gritted his teeth. “All right, fine. I’ll help you with whatever if you keep your mouth shut about the quadruple electric backflip. Promise?”
Three foals stood just inside a cave. The moon’s light reached only a short distance in, but Ember could tell that the floor was unnaturally smooth. A series of extinguished torches lined the rough wall, leading further into the dark passage.
Thunderbolt panted heavily. “Remind me to never carry an earth pony again.”
Ember Flame scoffed. “Don’t you know it’s rude to comment on a mare’s weight? But that’s all we needed from you. We can find the treasure on our own from here.”
“Treasure? What treasure?”
Stargazer didn’t look at him. “The Princess’s Orb. Anypony who takes it becomes a princess.”
Ember finished, “But it’ll be dangerous, so we’ll understand if you want to just go back to the camp where it’s safe.”
Thunderbolt quickly glanced at his sister. “Are you calling me a coward? I’m as brave as any pony. I’m coming with you. Besides if I don’t, you’ll just have to wake me up when the dodo gets stuck again.”
“Fine. But it’s dark, so we’ll need light.”
Ember took a pair of torches off of their holsters on the cave wall. She tossed one to the pegasus pair. A few sparks from her tinderbox had her torch lit without issue. She turned to the siblings.
“I can’t get this lousy tinderbox to work!” Stargazer said.
“You’re lighting a torch with a tinderbox?” Thunderbolt commented. “And you call yourself a pegasus? Give me your water.”
He swooped down, snatching Stargazer’s canteen and dumping it out on the ground.
“Hey! What was that for?”
Thunderbolt stuck his hoof into the puddle, pulling out a small cloud. He compressed it into a wad of black fluff. “See? What you do is put it by the torch and hit it like this.” He hit the cloud, but nothing happened.
Stargazer just glared at him.
“Like... this...” He kept punching the cloud. “Come on... spark... geez, Mom makes this look so easy. Just... light...”
Ember walked over and lit their torch with hers.
“I was going to get it eventually!” Thunderbolt said.
“And what about my water?” Stargazer pointed out.
“The waterfall, duh.” Thunderbolt took the empty canteen, and flew it over to the wall of water. He held it under the flow. In an instant, the force of the falling water ripped the canteen out of his hooves, sending it out of sight.
“Way to go, Thunderdolt,” Stargazer said. “Now what are we going to do for water?”
Ember moved between the siblings. “Knock it off. My canteen will still last for the three of us, as long as we don’t take too long in here.”
“Because somepony left his supplies at camp.”
Ember waved her hoof. “Settle down. We have a cave to explore, remember?”
She picked up her torch and walked deeper into the passage.
Stargazer glared at her brother. “You’d better not do anything stupid and get us into trouble, Thunderdolt.”
“So what? Like Mom says, it’s easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission.”
“She said that? Our mom?”
After a short walk, the rough cave transitioned into a carved corridor, big enough for adult ponies to walk single-file, or for two foals to walk side-by-side. The foals walked through the pool of torchlight, the only thing they could see.
A short distance ahead, a glimmer caught Ember’s eye. Walking up to it, she saw several vertical sheets of rusted metal protruding from the walls. Each was about a foot tall, and spanned nearly the width of the corridor. Ember could see several rust-lined holes that years of neglect had eaten away. She extended a hoof towards the sharp edge lining the bottom of the nearest sheet, but thought better of it.
Stargazer held her torch up; each blade jutted out of a slot in the stone wall.
“A trap... Ember, maybe this isn’t a good idea. I don’t think we should be here.”
Ember turned around. “Are you kidding? This just means there’s something worth protecting in here! Something old! Look at these things!” Ember bucked the nearest blade, which snapped off, sending a clattering sound echoing throughout the tunnel. “We can’t stop now!”
Ember hopped onto the blunt top edge of the next, still intact, wall blade. Using her tail to balance, she gingerly sprang from one to the next. Stargazer hesitantly followed her across the tops of the trap pieces. Thunderbolt rolled his eyes and flew over the arrangement.
The trio rounded a corner and entered a sizeable room. Etched lines crisscrossed the floor. Strange carvings adorned the walls. Along the far wall, five passageways awaited them.
Stargazer looked from one to another. “What do we do now?”
Ember walked to the second passageway from the right, briefly sticking her head in. She walked to the one on the far left, looking down it. She returned to the room, paused, and fell back onto her haunches. “I... don’t know. We can’t split up, and these are probably full of traps and pits and things.”
Stargazer looked at the mess of lines carved into the floor. “This has to be a clue... but I can’t make sense of it. We’re in way over our heads. And I was starting to think that we just might have been able to find the Princess’s Orb, too. Urgh!” She walked to the nearby wall, grunted in frustration, and bucked it as hard as she could.
The stonework crumbled. Stargazer lept out of the way as the blocks fell, revealing a series of large stationary gears. The largest exposed gear fell out of the wall and shattered against the floor.
“Good work, Stargazer!” Ember said.
“Must have gotten that from Dad,” Thunderbolt commented under his breath. He spoke up, “All right, let me take care of part two.” He flew over to where the gear used to sit, wound up, and bucked the remaining wall. A coat of dust fell, but the stonework stood. Thunderbolt bucked again and again to no avail.
Meanwhile, Ember climbed the remains of the gear and situated herself below the pegasus colt. She kicked with her left hind leg, and the wall fell away.
“Bah,” Thunderbolt scoffed. “It’s only because you’re an earth pony that you were able to do it. And I softened it up too, yeah.”
Ember retrieved her torch. “Just come on, I think this is the other end of the maze.”
The corridor opened up into a large room, its walls and far end too distant for the foals’ torches to reach. Away in the darkness, they heard the unmistakable noise of falling water. A narrow, yet winding bridge marked the way through. On either side was a short fall onto long spikes. Among the bases of these spikes were pieces of sheet rock, adorned with unusual symbols. Similarly indecipherable symbols were also carved into the path through the room.
Stargazer looked along the path, and over its edge. “There used to be a whole floor here... the symbols must have some pattern to them. Get it wrong, and you fall through. I think we’re getting close.”
Ember piped up. “Good thing this one’s been solved for us. Thunderbolt, you go first.”
“‘Cause you can fly around and make sure we’re on the right path. Now get going.”
“All right I’ll check the place out.”
“Not what I had in mi—”
Thunderbolt flew off into the darkness. Soon, the fillies could only see the spot of light from the torch he was carrying.
“Hey there’s this waterfall here and a busted waterwheel!”
Stargazer called out, “Thunderbolt!”
“Huh, there are these nets on the wall, I wonder what these are for.”
Stargazer’s eyes widened a little. “They must... Thunderbolt! Get back here!”
“Think about it, Thunderdolt! If you made a room like this, how would you stop a pegasus from cheating?”
“I dunno, launch a net... at...”
Two seconds later, Thunderbolt skidded to a stop next to the two fillies.
“Way to go, Thunderdolt.” Stargazer smacked him on the back of his head. “Try thinking before you go zooming through a trap-filled room next time!”
Ember cut in, “I’m sure the trip lines are all rotted away anyways. Come on, the Orb can’t be too much farther.”
The three foals carefully made their way across the room.
Ember Flame helped Stargazer down from on top of a large boulder that had somehow become lodged in the passageway. A short way’s forward the path opened into another large room. A field of spikes greeted the foals. Only the first few feet of floor next to each wall offered safe footing.
“We have to go around, I guess,” Ember said.
Stargazer held up her torch. “I don’t think we do...”
Ember noticed a yellow sparkle in the center of the room. “Is that it? Thunderbolt, go check it out. And watch for trip wires!”
Thunderbolt flew to the object. “Score! It totally is! And since I’m the only one who can fly to it, the Princess’s Orb should be mine.”
“What?” Stargazer said. “How is that fair?”
“Well if you want it, fly on over here and get it, dodo.”
Stargazer buzzed her wings. “Why you...!”
Ember spoke up, “Now, now, Stargazer, if he wants the orb, he should have it.”
Stargazer looked wide-eyed at Ember. “What?! How can you say that?”
“Because it makes a pony into a princess. And if Thunderbolt wants to be a princess, then he can be one.”
Stargazer laughed. “Yeah, Thunderbolt! You can be a pretty pony princess! Princess Thunderbolt!”
Ember joined in, “Princess Thunderbolt, you can be so pretty! We can have a sleepover and give you a makeover and have pillowfights! Pretty Pony Princess Thunderbolt!”
The two fillies broke down laughing.
Thunderbolt flew back to the room’s entrance, sat down, and crossed his forelegs. “Fine! I didn’t want that stupid rock anyways.”
“So much for Princess Thunderbolt.” Ember giggled. “How do we get the Orb though?”
“Hm... There has to be a way through...” Stargazer began walking around the edge of the room, Ember close behind. Ember stepped over a broken floor tile, glancing down as she passed. A set of gears sat in their mountings, leading to some mechanism attached to a nearby set of spikes. The gear chain continued out of sight, under the tiles beneath her hooves.
Stargazer interrupted Ember’s observation. “Look!”
Ember noticed a strip of floor free of spikes, leading from the wall directly opposite the entrance to the pedestal holding the Princess’s Orb. The strip of empty floor had a pattern of holes in it. Stargazer leaned over, looking down the holes.
“Ha!” She jumped onto the floor. “Come here Ember and look, no spikes in these! I bet whoever made this little pressure-plate spike trap didn’t expect anypony to try a straight line right in the back!”
The two approached the pedestal. Atop sat a smooth black granite sphere the size of a bowling ball. Ember turned the Orb around. On its face was an inlaid gold circle, with eight spirals in bronze around it.
“That’s Princess Celestia’s cutie mark... this has to be it.”
Stargazer looked at Ember. “So... which one of us gets it?” She paused. “I think you should, Ember. Since you’re, you know, an earth pony.”
“So?” Ember turned to Stargazer. “I like being an earth pony.”
“But if I get it, I’ll only get a horn. You’ll get a horn and wings.”
“Princesses are part earth pony, too.” She reared up and spread her forelegs. “You’ll be able to lay on your back in the fields with me, and feel the sun on the grass like I do.”
“But I’ll be old enough to fly one day on my own. You’ll be able to fly with me, up in the clouds, and see the stars from higher than you can as an earth pony. Also... you’ve had a harder life than I have. You lost your parents, after all.”
“I have Moms Petal and Strawberry.”
“I mean, your real parents.”
“They’re real enough for me.”
“I just.. can’t imagine losing Mom and Dad and having to spend my life in an orphanage like you did. You deserve it more than I do, Ember. Go ahead.”
“All right. If you really mean it.”
Ember swallowed. The orb sat on its pedestal, waiting to be claimed. Ember slowly reached out. She gently lifted the orb, hooking her foreleg around it and pulling it to her chest.
Ember closed her eyes and waited. She still felt like herself. She opened her eyes and looked at her back. It was still bare. She set down the Orb and felt her forehead. It was still smooth. Ember gave the Princess’s Orb a tap with her hoof. The Orb rolled a short distance across the floor.
Ember picked up the Orb, holding it in front of her. Celestia’s cutie mark shimmered in the torch light.
"I wonder why it isn't working,” Stargazer said. “The scroll said you would become a Princess."
"I don't know either. Maybe we should just get back to camp before anypony wonders where we went, or Thunderbolt gets too bored. Ready to go back through all those deadly traps?"
"Yeah, let's get out of here."
The train chugged its way through the valley, carrying a school’s worth of foals and their memories, including three with a very unique memory. One filly sat in a train car, watching the landscape pass by. In addition to her backpack, she was accompanied by a pot with a collection of purple flowers, and a ball wrapped in a cloth.
As the train began to slow on its approach to Baltimare, the valley walls fell away, letting the rays of the rising sun shine onto Ember’s seat. On a whim, Ember unwrapped the Princess’s Orb, allowing the sun emblazoned on it to meet the sun in the sky. Princess Celestia’s greatest possession shone its power into the rocky sphere. Ember held the Orb close, but she remained an earth pony.
The squeal of the train’s brakes quieted, and an array of waiting parents appeared outside the window. Ember wrapped the Princess’s Orb up again, gathered her things, and left.
Outside, two pegasus foals jumped into their mother’s waiting hooves. Ember found the ponies she was looking for.
“Mom Petal! Mom Strawberry!” Ember ran to Strawberry’s side. Her mother wrapped a foreleg around her.
“Hey there,” Strawberry Blossom said. “How was camp?”
“It was the greatest camping trip ever! I even got you some purple foxtails for the farm, Mom Petal.”
Strawberry looked at the sphere under the cloth. “And what do you have there?”
Ember looked at the Princess’s Orb, bestowed with the power of the Sun, the greatest treasure of the Ruacanter Falls, and perhaps of all Equestria.
“Nothing much, just a souvenir I found and decided to pick up.”