• Published 27th Oct 2013
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The Celestia Code - iisaw



Princess Twilight Sparkle discovers a centuries-old mystery hidden in the Royal Archives.

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10 Uninvited Guests

Chapter Ten
Uninvited Guests

"It all fits," I said, pointing to the ruts worn in the floor. "The grooves on this side of the turret are deeper than the other."

Jigsaw nodded sadly. "Empty wagons coming in, loaded wagons going out. It must have been an amazingly powerful artifact."

"Well, the cornucopia may be gone now, but we still have the magic weapon to find. 'Seek it beneath the cornucopia,' was what the code said. So..." I examined the granite slab closely. It seemed to be set into the wall as well as connected to the pedestal beneath it. There was no obvious way to lift it without destroying the surrounding mosaic. "Maybe we can access the space underneath from outside the building, or maybe there's a tunnel."

"Or maybe there are instructions written on the wall?" She seemed awfully cheerful all of a sudden.

"Not funny, Jigsaw."

She just smirked at me. And kept on smirking. I looked at the mosaic. I looked at the walls to ether side. No obvious text, no coded suns—well there was one sun, but it was part of the picture, and all of its eight rays were nearly identical. But Jigsaw definitely had noticed something I hadn't.

"I don't see it," I finally admitted.

"I never would have noticed it if we hadn't discovered the sun code first," Jigsaw admitted. "Take a closer look at the two bunches of grapes just above the slab."

"Mhn... twelve grapes in each cluster and..." I squinted, trying to see any other differences. "The highlights are on different sides of the grapes?"

Jigsaw couldn't contain herself any longer. "Yes! The little bits of diamond are either correct for the overall lighting of the piece or they're wrong: one binary difference! The sapphires are not a range of colors but two distinct shades: second difference! And the stones are slightly oval... not in varying orientations, but either exactly vertical or horizontal!"

I had to look very closely to see the differences, but she was right. It had to be another code. I turned and smiled at her. "You're a genius, Daring Do!"

"Oh, please! I'm way better than that slash-and-burn cowpony!" she said, ostentatiously polishing a hoof against her chest. "Now that I've done the hard part, would you like to decode the message?"

I already had my notebook and quill out. I started with the same sequence for the letters as before, and I assumed that the grapes would be read top to bottom and left to right. I just needed to discover which order the three differences came in. It took about ten minutes.

PRESSTHEPEAR THENTHELEMON

There were lots of pears and lemons in the mosaic but only one of each on the pedestal.

"Dibs on the lemon," Jigsaw said.

"Wait." I held out a wing to block her path. "I want us to be very careful here. Let's get out of the building and then start pushing buttons that are connected to Celestia knows what."

"They'd never set a trap that might damage that amazing mosaic!" Jigsaw protested.

"How much damage would, say, poison gas do to the gemstones?"

"Oh, all right!" She rolled her eyes. "But I'm pretty sure that from the door to the pedestal is out of range of my horn."

"Well, I'll have to do the heavy lifting, then. You can have the honor of... uh-oh."

"What is it?"

We had just emerged into the sunlight when I felt a little twinge of my tracking spell. "Changelings. Quick, let's get to the plaza!" I swung the large doors shut and smoothed the dust flat behind us as I trotted away from the cornucopia building. Jigsaw understood immediately what I was doing and kept close by my side without any questions.

When we reached the plaza, Jigsaw got out her journal and began sketching the rather dull pediment of the no-hash-mark building, and I surreptitiously searched the sky as I moved rubble away from the base of the wall. "The password is 'banana,'" I hissed to her out of the side of my mouth.

She frowned in puzzlement for a second before nodding. "Right," she replied. "Banana."

There were six of them flying in a ragged formation toward the city. At least they weren't trying to sneak up on us. As they got closer, I could see that two of them were in armor and that the leader was considerably larger than the others—about the same size as me, actually.

I made a show of noticing them and telling Jigsaw when they were about a furlong out. They landed a respectful distance away, advanced a few paces, and then bowed to me.

"Please rise," I said, with a gracious little nod that I'd perfected after closely watching Celestia do it for years.[1]
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[1] I had yet to master Luna's You've Got Exactly One Minute to Convince Me Not to Trample You nod. Fortunately, I've never had much use for it.
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It was impossible for me to tell the drones[2] apart, but I was pretty sure the smaller one in armor was the officer I'd talked with the day before. One of the others must still have had a remnant of my tracking spell attached. I'd have to try to renew it on them if possible.
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[2] Or maybe they were workers? I still hadn't gotten the divisions of the changeling hive figured out.
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The larger, armored changeling rose and spoke, "Good morning, Your Serene Highness. Queen Chrysalis sends her regards."

I gave her the #1 Celestia nod again and said, "I hope Her Majesty is well."

"She is, indeed, ma'am."

O—kay, then. This changeling knew Equestrian protocol pretty well and was making sure to be on her best behavior. Sad to say, it made me instantly suspicious. "I'm glad to hear it. May I know your name?" I said it without thinking. In court it was often all but impossible to know the names of every supplicant that came to be heard, even with an aide or seneschal whispering in my ear, and there were lots of clever circumlocutions that would let me get through a session without ever having to refer to a pony directly. But Celestia always asked the names of the ponies that came before her, and she always seemed to remember them.

"I am proud to be the General of the Swarm, ma'am."

Ah. No given names, then. We were keeping this formal. Or changelings didn't have given names. I really didn't know. Maybe—I mentally headed myself off, took a deep breath and said, "General of the Swarm, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance."

"And an honor for me, ma'am."

"Thank you for saying so, general."

"Not at all, ma'am."

I wanted to scream, but I didn't. "I would offer you some refreshment, but my assistant and I are, unfortunately, poorly provisioned while at work."[3]
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[3] Translation from Toffee-Nosed to Plain Equuish: "We're busy! Take a hike, sister!"
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"I wouldn't dream of imposing on you, ma'am," the general replied. "In fact, Her Majesty has sent us here with direct orders to aid you in your endeavors by whatever means possible."[4]
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[4] "We're staying. Get used to it."
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So we were stuck with a half-dozen changelings tagging after us, with a big, tough, and, worst of all, clever leader.

Damn.

= = =

Of course, we didn't go back to the cornucopia building. There was no way I'd risk a hint of the powerful magical weapon getting back to Chrysalis. But I wasn't going to pretend to examine buildings I knew were empty all day, either. That would just be a contest to see who would snap first, me or Jigsaw.

So, I decided we would poke around a cluster of two-hash-mark buildings a few blocks from the main plaza. I let the drones move stones and clear away debris, and gave the honor of entering the structures to the general. None of them were marked as dangerous, or I couldn't, in good conscience, have let her walk blindly in. But you never know, right?

We actually uncovered quite a bit of interesting stuff, including a couple of small books! I carefully wrapped them up and stowed them away, intending to work as many restorative spells into them as I could manage before attempting to read them.

Then there was a large carving in deep relief of two unicorn stallions, locked in savage combat, which was quite unexpected. Weren't all of the master race supposed to be unified in their superiority? It certainly wasn't anything as ritualized as horn-fencing or wrestling. They were obviously battling to the death. There might have been names carved into the base of the wall at one time, but they were sand-blasted and worn into illegibility. Their cutie marks were in decent shape, but without some sort of reference, those weren't much help. Jigsaw plopped herself down in front of it and began a serious drawing.

I wanted to explore what appeared to be a large underground vault, but Jigsaw was lost in her work and wasn't going to finish any time soon. I was going to have to cool my hooves or take a risk. Considering all that had gone before, I was nearly 100% certain that the changelings wouldn't dare to hurt either one of us—but a little reminder wouldn't hurt.

"General?"

"Yes, ma'am?"

"I wish to take a look down those stairs, but I hesitate to leave my companion alone here." I gave the general a look that I'm sure Luna would have pulled off much more effectively,[5] and said, "She is very important to me, you understand."
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[5] Really. I once saw Luna give Prince Blueblood a case of the cold sweats just by raising an eyebrow at him.
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"Of course, princess! I will remain here to watch over her."

I have to admit, I hadn't expected that. I took the precaution of trailing a light tracking spell across the back of the general's armor under disguise of levitating a water bottle over to Jigsaw. If the big changeling made any sudden moves, I'd know and be able to react instantly.

I still hesitated. "General, I would like to speak frankly with you for a moment." I motioned her over to a place where the others wouldn't overhear.

"I would welcome it, ma'am."

"I'm sure you have your orders concerning us that you won't be sharing. Perhaps those orders include trying to replace Jigsaw or holding her hostage against my good behavior. If you try to carry out any such orders, you will fail. You saw what happened to the mountain I used as an example. Let me assure you that I am just as subtle, precise, and clever as I am powerful. I am not boasting, and I am not threatening, I just want you to get some idea of what an appalling price you and your kind will pay for an attempted betrayal."

The general broke out into a broad grin. As her teeth were the jagged fangs of a carnivore, the expression was not a reassuring one. "Since we're speaking freely, I'd just like to say that I like you a lot better when you're being a cold-hearted bitch... ma'am."

I actually didn't know whether to be pleased or not. "Just so long as we understand one another."

"Alright, then. Since we're not playing pretend nicey-nice any more, I will tell you straight out that my Queen has sent us here to spy on you. Big surprise, huh? She didn't believe you could be interested in all this old trash..." She swept a perforated hoof around at the ruins in general. "And she thought you were here as some sort of prelude to an attack on the hive. After the mountain, she changed her mind. Why be sneaky when you could just turn our home into a smoking crater? She still doesn't know what you're up to but is entertaining the idea that you might not be hostile. So she wants to know more about you, generally and specifically. One of her direct orders was to do absolutely no harm to either of you, whatsoever, for any reason... not even to defend our own lives. You can believe that or not. Your choice, princess."

I held her gaze for a while before I answered, "I believe you, General."

She nodded and turned to the other armored changeling, shouting, "Captain! Escort the princess!"

I still kept all my defensive spells on a hair-trigger as we descended into the vault. It was right next to a marked building but had no mark itself, which could mean that it hadn't been explored and might be dangerous.

It was a storeroom of some sort, that had several side bays with intricately intersecting, pointed-arched ceilings. All the niches set into the walls that had been meant to hold goods were empty or had only mounds of unidentifiable rubble in them. I sifted through the detritus with a sieve-like web of magic, looking for anything slightly interesting and grinding my teeth at the thought of the real treasure waiting for me just a few blocks away.

I stopped at the end of the main hall and realized that something was off. There had been a bay on each side of the room all the way to the end, but where the vault stopped, there was only one bay to my left. On the other side was relatively smooth wall.

But the stones were a slightly different color than the rest.

I hesitated, debating with myself whether to go and get Jigsaw to share in my moment of discovery, but finally decided to go ahead without her.

"Captain," I said to my escort. "Please come over here and stand next to me."

The changeling had given a little start when I'd spoken and was hesitant about approaching me. I realized that she was scared of me! "It's all right, "I reassured her. "I'm going to open up this wall, and I want you near me so I can teleport us both away if there's any trouble."

She moved over to my side, not quite touching me, and I turned my attention to the wall.

I took hold of the stones in a triangular patch and moved them all together, leaving a hole that I thought would be unlikely to collapse. I set the stones aside in a neat pile and directed a beam of light from my horn into the dark space beyond.

The first thing I saw was the pony skeleton.

I didn't scream. Okay, I took in a big gasp of air that would be the perfect thing to scream with, but I let it out again in more of an outragey-sound. The skeleton was a bad one. Poorly made, I mean. It was bits of white-washed wood strung together with wire, and had a board hung around its neck with a message scrawled on it in charcoal:

GOTCHA!

Crinet College Chargers

Class of '37

Oh, ha-ha-ha. Pranked by some two-hundred-year-old Sophomores! I stomped in embarrassment. Still—I was going to have to tell Rainbow Dash about this when I got back. Setting up a practical joke that might not pay off for centuries? That was dedication. On second thought, knowing how Rainbow hated to be outdone, I felt that maybe I shouldn't tell her. Who knew what it might lead to?

I carefully replaced the stones in the hole so that it appeared pretty much as it had when I'd found it. Why waste a good prank? The changeling was looking at me.

"Did you have a question, captain?" I asked her.

"This—" she pointed at the wall I'd just replaced "—is a sort of joke?"

"Yes, we call it a practical joke or a prank. Not very subtle, I admit."

"Ponies would plan such a thing so many years in advance? Just to imagine the humor of an event they would never witness?" Her expression was hard to read, but the tilt of her head suggested puzzlement.

"Oh, we usually like to be around for the pay-off, but there's a certain style to this one, I have to admit."

"I see," was all she said.

We climbed back up to the daylight to discover Jigsaw in close conversation with the general. There's a certain body language when two ponies are having a casual talk and a very different one when they are discussing something very important. They didn't seem to be chatting about the weather.

"Well," I called out to them, "that was a waste of time!"

Jigsaw gave a little jump. A guilty little jump, it seemed to me. The general merely looked up and nodded a greeting.

Maybe I was imagining things. Maybe.

But that didn't stop me from getting Jigsaw off to one side as soon as possible and whispering to her, "Password?"

"Banana," she replied without hesitation.

So she was the real Jigsaw. I was just being paranoid. But the last time I had been paranoid around a changeling, I had also been right. I was determined to shake off our watchers as soon as possible and ask Jigsaw some questions.

That turned out to be harder than I thought, for reasons I would never have imagined.

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