Daring Do stood in the swinging cage that captured her. Below, the temple was collapsing into eternally shifting sand. Daring knew from experience that anything that fell into the sands would be quickly dragged down and lost forever. The pegasus checked the bearings of the cage's lock. She had seen this very model of cage trap many times, and could break it blindfolded. Unfortunately, it would take time to disengage, and under normal circumstances she'd have plenty of time to grab the mythical topaz, The Eastern Star, from its pedestal, and make a namesake escape. However, Squab had followed the adventurer, and was in her own cage, much nearer to the ground, and the shifting sands. Daring Do knew, once she broke the lock and pried open the Dor, she'd have time to save only one.
But which one?
The precious artifact?
Or her doting sidekick?
The Sand climbed higher.
Daring Do fiddled with her bow tie. She hated these events. Nothing but rich, civilized ponies in fancy clothes parading around as they pretended to care for education and the future of the university, sipping carbonated cider. She'd much rather be out on another adventure: dodging dangers, securing artifacts for museums, rescuing damsels. Unfortunately, grouchy old dean Starswirl had it quite clear she was to stop rushing off on mad adventures and leaving her classes in the care of the nearest staff member. Even if the janitor did give an excellent lector on proper dig maintenance and hygiene, it still wasn't right.
Daring slumped on an armchair, eyeing the myths and legends section of the library. Each book seemed to mock the brave adventurer, taunting her with the many gems and lost civilizations the pegasus had yet to find and receive credit for. "Would you like a drink, Professor Do?" A wide eyed and eager grey pegasus asked.
Daring looked at her most loyal student. "No thanks, Squab." Daring answered dismissively, "It's hard enough keeping quiet sober. It's best if I don't tell everypony what I really think of them."
The young pegasus's actual name was Turtledove. Squab was a rather unfair nickname, but it was the sort that caught on quickly. Squab didn't seem to mind it, at least not from her idol. "Well, is there anything else I can do for you?"
"Not tonight, Squab." Daring answered, "Why don't you go have some of those unicorns with the gaudy pearls lighten your load? They look like they're about to give their whole estate to the Dean."
Squab saluted quickly, "Right away, Professor Do!" and rushed off.
Daring smiled at the filly's eagerness, and returned to gazing longingly at the shelves. She carefully selected a tome. Legend of the Eastern Star it read. The bold pegasus cracked it open a page, and looked lovingly upon a woodcut of the gem. Around it, ponies groveled. From right to left (as that is how the artist read) fields turned from dead and barren to bright and plentiful. Above it was the moon, accompanied by three stars.
"And here it our most noteworthy staff member, the head of our archeology department: Professor Do." The Dean present to a small band of benefactors.
"The Daring Do?" one asked, "Oh, what a treat."
"Yeah yeah, I know." Daring said, still awestruck at the book she held, "Modern legend, it's a pleasure to meet me, yada yada."
Dean Starswirl cleared his throat pointedly.
Daring rolled her eyes and shut the book, "I mean, hello. Do you have any pressing questions?"
The cluster of rich ponies eagerly shot questions forth.
"What is it like out in the untamed jungles?"
"When's your next outing?"
"Where'd you get the sweet hat?"
"Zapp apple jam tart?"
"I would love to personally finance your next dig."
Daring waved her hooves to indicate the inquisitors should slow down as she relieved Squab of a tart. "Whoa, whoa, one at a time, one at a time."
"Ah, is this the famous retriever of long lost precious artifacts of myth? The Raider of the lost Lark of the Testament? Rescurer of the Sacred Lingam Rock? Crusader of the Holy Bale?"
"Yes yes, it's all true." Daring replied, forgoing all pretense of modesty.
"Funny how nopony's actually seen any of those things." The inquirer noted, kneeing his way to the front. It was Dr. Thorny Tick, rival archeology professor. He had been gunning for Daring's job for years. He lived up to his namesakes in the field of irksomeness.
"What exactly are you getting at here, Thorn?" Daring asked, eyeing her critic.
"I am calling you a liar and a fraud!" Thorny announced, loud enough for the whole library to hear the challenge.
"That's not true!" Daring's voiced cracked, "I retrieved each and every one of those items, and more!"
"Oh yeah? Then where are they?"
Daring's eyes shifted, "Places."
"Where's that Lark statue?"
"Government lost it in their warehouse?"
"Returned them to their rightful owners." Daring quickly added, "Along with their enslaved foals!" in hopes of winning sympathy from the others.
"It fell into a hole on the way out." The adventurer said this in a defeated whisper.
"And yet you, Daring Do, with no evidence to support your claims, consider yourself worthy of teaching at this fine establishment?"
"Now hold on a minute." Dean Starswirl interjecting, fearing his authority would be called into question, "She may no longer have the more famous of her finds, be she is still is the best archeologist in Equestria!"
"What sort of archeologist breaks every temple she comes across?" Doctor Tick asked.
"What pony gets a Doctorate in Clocks?" Daring grumbled.
"It's in 'Chronological Studies' and don't you forget it." Thorny shot back.
"Everypony just calm down!" Dean Starswirl barked, then, in a more calm tone, went on, "Now, Doctor, what exactly are you proposing here?"
"I am suggesting a wager." Thorny said, pacing the area that had become the staging area for this drama. The various guests had crowded around, watching history unfold eagerly. "I will provide funding and objective, Daring Do will provide her," he smirked defiantly at the next word "'Expertise' and talent for overcoming impossible quests."
"The stakes?" Daring smiled one of her patent smirks.
"If you somehow return with the artifact, then I will finance all of your future endeavors and make the proper arrangements, even if it means I have to actually teach." The present professors shuddered at this prospect. "However, when you fail, then you will step down from your position at this university, and stop spreading those awful lies of yours."
Daring liked the sound of the stakes. It would be such a blessing to finally do archeology on her own terms. "You're on!"
"Not so fast." Doctor Tick said, "I'm afraid I must insist on coming with you, to make sure you don't cheat and forge the item."
"No way, you'll just sabotage me at the first opportunity!"
"How dare you question my honor!" Doctor Tick shot back.
In the crowd, somepony had managed to find a bowl and disassembled the popcorn balls, passing it around.
"Perhaps we need an unbiased third-party." The dean interjected, "As such, I would be more than willing to act as judge for this event, and will pack immediately."
"Uh, no offense, Dean." Daring said, placing a leg around his neck and indicating the beard, "But I'm afraid you'll just slow me down and hurt yourself."
The Dean wished this wasn't a valid point, but conceded. "In the interest of fairness, I'll just assign you an assistant." The Dean looked into the crowd, and pointed at the filly munching on the popcorn, "You miss!"
Squab's eyes shone with an internal glow of joy. "Really? Yes."
Daring looked nervously at the young pegasus. Poor thing couldn't even fly, and her she was getting dragged into this mess. However, Daring couldn't bear to break Squab's heart. "I accept your selection, Dean." Squab passed the bowl to the next pony and rushed to her idol's side. Daring Do gave her a reassuring smile. "Now, if you'll excuse me, everypony, me and Squab have to select our target."
Doctor Tick cleared his throat.
What now? Daring Do thought.
"I would like to remind Professor Do that, per our agreement, I get to select the artifact."
"Oh, come on!" Daring turned to a higher authority.
"Hey, he did say as such." The Dean said, "Don't look at me to fix all your problem, young lady."
"Fine." Daring Do conceded, "What'll it be?"
Thorny Tick looked to the armchair Daring had been lounging in, and picked up the book that had been left there. "I, Doctor Thorny Tick, hereby challenge Daring Do to locate, retrieve, and return with the Eastern Star!"
With that, the educators had an accord.
Daring Do stifled a yawn. She hated book work. Squab, always the resilient and excited one, arrived balancing a serving tray on her head, with held a coffee pot and mug, ""Coffee, Professor?"
"Thanks, Squirt." Daring replied as she accepted a cup, "By the way, please, call me Daring. It's the right of my companions."
Squab verbally squealed at the honor. "So, Daring, where are we going?"
The pegasus adventurer sipped her coffee, "To be honest kid, I don't know. This blasted book only refers to 'eastern cultures' or 'eastern societies', and some pony named 'Short Round', but no concrete locations."
Squab tilted the serving platter onto the table, and reached for the book. "May I?"
Daring slid the tome into the waiting hoof, "Knock yourself out."
Squab took the book, and flipped through quickly to the back, her eyes darting down the page. Discovery lit the filly's face, and she raced off, returning with two books, one from the hippopological section, and one from geography, dropping them onto the table. Squab opened the book of 'Cultures of the Shoe Sea', find a page, and tore through it. Squab flipped open the atlas, and planted a hoof onto a spot. "There!" Squab beamed, "The Temple of the Eastern Star can be found right there!"
Daring looked at the map, moving Squab's hoof aside. Sure enough, clearly labeled, the map indicated the temple. Daring looked at her protégée. "How'd you do that?"
"Well, sometimes when I have to cite my sources, and I'm too lazy to read more than one book, I just take extra titles from the bibliography." Squab confessed, "You know, make it looked like I did more work than I actually did?"
Daring wish she had thought to do as such while she was a student. Would've extended nap time exponentially. She was not, however, going to admit this to Squab. "Of course. I was only testing you. One should always check the back of the book." Blasted books, outwitting her once again. "Unfortunately, we cannot be sure this is where the Star is."
"The Eastern Star wouldn't be in 'The Temple of the Eastern Star'?" Squab asked innocently.
Daring eyed the filly critically. She was searching for a reasonable reply. "Well, if it was in such an obvious location, then everypony would be paying two bits to see it, now wouldn't they?" Daring crossed her front legs triumphantly, "Ergo, it will not be that simple."
"Oh…" Squab looked crestfallen, "I should've known you'd have already ruled it out." She began to walked off, head downturned.
"Well, we can't say there's nothing we could learn from the temple." Daring called after Squab.
Squab stopped, and perked up.
"However, for the sake of conserving funds, perhaps we should insure we have all possible locations and points of investigation planned out so we may pursue them more efficiently." Daring went on, reading the book on Eastern Culture, "That way, we don't waste money going back and forth."
Squab considered the instructions. "Isn't Doctor Tick hoofing the bill?"
Daring Do eyes paused in its place on the page. Slowly, she placed her pith helmet on her head. "Adventure ho it is!"
Normally, on these longer trips, Daring Do would fly, resting on the occasional cloud. Unfortunately, Squab had earned her nickname, so they chartered the SB Dew to the Shoe Sea, purchasing first class accommodations in Thorny Tick's name. The voyage was uneventful, and they arrived refreshed and raring to win the bet.
The temple was easy enough to find, much to Daring's disappointment. She had looked forward to slicing through the untamed jungles, climbing cliff sides, and fleeing angry natives, not following the carefully painted signs up the well beaten and paved path to the steps of the temple, where booths and kiosks were set up invitingly. Daring had to trounce about the nearby river to get the urge out of her system. Squab was waiting politely at the information booth for her instructor, taking photos with the camera she brought.
Daring pounded her hoof on the counter, "What is the meaning of all this?" she demanded.
The lilac-hued minder of the booth blinked nervously at the indignant pegasus. "Do you want me to give you the full history of this lovely piece of history, or do you have a more specific question?"
"Why are there shops, and signs, and paid tours? Isn't this a lost temple?"
"Well, our lawyers advised us to no longer refer to it as 'lost'." The tour guide said, "Said we no longer fit the legal parameters, and we didn't want to get sued by any, uh, tourists." The pony rubbed his hooves together, "And since this is public property, we can't kick the merchants out; only from setting up shop in the, heh, temple itself."
Daring Do rubbed her forehead. Tourists. She hated tourists. "So, may I ask, does this temple actually contain the Eastern Star?"
"Ah, yes, interesting thing, the star." The guide said, releasing a cold sweat, "As far as we know, the temple still contains the topaz, but no pony has managed to locate it."
"Right. Is there anypony in there right now?" Daring asked.
"Uh, no, not at the moment, m'am." The pony answered, "The next tour will start at…"
Daring Do presented identification, "I am an archeologist, and I demand this temple be closed off while I investigate it!"
The pony guide looked unsure, "Well, Miss Archeologist, m'am, we can't exactly…"
"Don't you know who this is?" Squab demanded, "This is only the Daring Do, dashing archeological adventurer!" Daring made a mental note to change her business cards to that quote.
The tour guide smiled, "Oh really! Well, golly, that would be great! We can add 'explored by world renowned Daring Do' to the brochure!"
"So… can we go in?" Daring asked.
"I'll lead the way." The tour guide said, beginning to climb the steps.
"That's alright." Daring said, fluttering up, "It'd be better if you let me handle this alone." She motioned Squab to follow.
The entry chamber was well lit by degraded ceilings, the wide Dorway, and strategically placed firefly lanterns. Various poles and wedges held back traps, and signs warned of pressure points. One sign, in big red letters and too many exclamations points than healthy, indicated the way to open the 'secret passage'. Squab gave Daring an inquiring grin.
"Go ahead." Daring permitted.
Squab trotted over to the indicated point, and pressed the poorly disguised button. Daring sighed. Someone had already defanged the place. Where was the fun in that?
The passage led down a story into another room, lit by bright torches for ambiance, and more lanterns. There were less signs here, and more warnings. "End of explored area." Squab read, "Temple ends here. Please visit the gift shops on the way out." Squab took a picture of the sign. "Well, Pro- Daring, what do we do now?"
Daring studied the walls carefully, searching for a pattern in the carvings and architecture. It was good to know some mysteries were still left to professional adventurers to handle. "What if we activated all the traps?" Daring suggested.
Squab regarded this nervously. "Sorry, professor, but last week in class, didn't you say-?"
"Oh, you can't learn anything in a mere class." Daring dismissed, "Especially when you have to preach useless things like 'ethics', or 'proper procedure', or 'safety procedures'. Nope, the best way to do our jobs, Squabby-girl, is to press every button and see what happens!"
"Daring, are you sure you're an archeologist?" Squab asked nervously.
Daring ignored the question and began tapping about the wall until she found a loose brick near the ceiling, which she pressed. Beneath her, stone scraped across each other and Squab let out a yelp. The adventurer abruptly turned and watched her assistant fall into the opening floor. "Don't worry, Squab! I'm coming!" She shot forward after the filly, following the marble tube Squab slid on, into the oncoming darkness. The trip took an eternity, until, finally, the two pegasi were deposited into a new, much larger chamber. Here, there were no lanterns or torches, nor holes in the stone. It was lit, quiet brilliantly, by a large topaz sitting upon a stone pedestal in the center of the room
Squab took a photograph.
"We did it, Daring! We found the Eastern Star!"
"As expected!" Daring said haughtily.
Less expected, though, was the sudden blow to the back of her head.
Daring Do woke woozily within her cage, hung from the ceiling. On the ground, the tour guide was locking Squab's cage, and attaching it to a chain. "Hey you! What do you think you're doing?" Daring shouted.
The tour guide looked up, "Oh, you're awake, ha, I was worried I did more damage than I intended to."
"What's going on here?" Daring Do demanded.
"Well, unfortunately, you've managed to find the, uh, Star, and, well, I'm afraid I can't let you leave with it." The tour guide said, "It's very important that it stays where it is, and you stop touching things."
"So you clubbed me and stuffed me into a cage."
"Well, you know, we ancient cultists and shrine maintainers can get kind of, um, bored. So we started up this newsletter and, uh, well, you've become well known for, uh, taking stuff and breaking temples." The tour guide shrugged, "So, well, I figure it'd be best to, uh, just lock you up, and, er, let you sort of hang around."
Daring gritted her teeth, "So you're just going to let me starve to death."
"Uh, no, no, that'd be cruel, wouldn't it?" The tour guide said, "But, uh, perhaps if you agree to just, er, leave and not tell anypony, then we'd be okay."
Daring considered this. A lot was at stake. On one hoof, if she agreed and gave up, she and Squab could just leave and keep living their lives. On the other hoof, her honor and value as an archeological adventurer was on the line. "Never!" She decided quickly, and picked up a stone that had made its way into the cage with her, throwing it the tour guide, who took it to the head, and stumbled backwards, upsetting the Star.
"Oh my, oh dear." He said, as the temple began to rumble, "Don't know why I didn't disengage this trap." The stones that made up the floor began to crumble away, and the tour guide ran to what appeared to be an insignificant portion of wall, sliding open a Dor and escaping, closing the exit behind him.
Daring Do watched as the floor turned into eternally shifting sand, while further sand poured from opening apertures on the wall. Squab had finally woken up, and was getting to her feet. The Eastern Star lay inert upon the ground, as sand slowly encroached.
Daring looked at the lock on her cage. She'd seen it many times before, and could break it blindfolded. Unfortunately, that would still take time, and she had both the Artifact and Squab to worry about, each on opposite sides of the room. Daring would have time to save only one. She started to work on the Dor of her own cage, removing the pins and bearings of the hinges until, with a clock, the bars slid down. Daring flew out and hovered, looking between the Eastern Star, and defenseless Squab, banging against the bars of her own cage.
Daring Do made a lightning fast decision.
"Well, Daring, it seem I've won." Doctor Tick gloated.
"Now hold on, Squab got a picture of it!" Daring protested, pointing at the picture.
The Doctor snorted dismissively, "Please, as if a photograph can't be faked. I have been to the art department, you know."
Daring, a long standing member of the faculty, eyed Thorny. No academic figure would willingly adventure to the hippy lair.
"Besides, the agreement was that'd you bring it back, which you failed to do." Thorny Tick looked to the Dean, "Sir, I demand you dismiss Daring Do immediately."
"Legally, I cannot do that." The dean said, looking at the photograph, "She has tenure." The Dean put the photograph down, "Unfortunately, as per the agreement, I will have to rule that Doctor Tick is, indeed, the victor in this case."
Daring stood up, and placed her Pith Helmet upon her head. "Fair enough, I will honor our agreement, and step down from my position." The pegasus left the smug new head of archeology, and entered the dean's waiting room, where Squab sat.
"How'd it go?"
Daring fought back tears, and forced a smile. "You now, Squab, the book mentioned that Topaz is one of a set of four."
1 Daring had yet to do this last one, and in fact was unsure as to what a damsel was, but adding it to the list got approving winks from the stallions, so it stayed on the mission statement. It helped get funding.
2 Named for its distinctive curved shape. It is also the namesake for its main culinary export.
3 Shoo Bee