• Published 5th Jun 2018
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Meliora - Starscribe

Earth is only just recovering from a war that almost wiped out the pony descendants of humankind. But when the Alicorns fail them, the survivors turn to an unlikely source for aid: Jackie the bat pony.

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Chapter 8: Fuscus

Jackie knew Mundi hadn’t forgotten them. She got her confirmation about six months later, when it was time to cut the ribbon on her most ambitious structure yet.

She’d wanted to name the incredible thaumic ash Hometree, but most of her ponies didn’t understand the reference, and the ones who did weren’t keen on that. They didn’t like Das Kapital either. So it was that one of the most impressive achievements of modern magical engineering received the drabbest name.

“City Hall” stood nearly four hundred feet tall, towering so far above the others of its kind that its outline was visible from space. With Eureka’s help, three direct lines to the Arcane Network had been grafted directly into its roots, ensuring that the single structure holding all their services would have abundant power so long as the fading wisps of the Arcane Network persisted.

The tree’s leaves grew purple, with glowing shimmers whenever they were damaged. Somehow—as a surprise even to Jackie herself—“City Hall” grew into the Dreamlands themselves, forming a shining beacon of stability and safety as impossible for bats to miss as a burning oil well on the horizon. Though dreamers could not interact with anything on the physical side, they could still see it.

And Jackie could see them, assembled before her. Not just the thousands of her own new citizens clustered in the branches, or resting on the canopies of lower trees to watch.

They were dwarfed by the attention of dreamers. Jackie wondered how many of the thousands were conscious of their trip here, and how many more were bats who did not yet even understand their powers, who would see the events of this day and forget them as quickly as any other dream.

I can’t win them all over. I don’t even have a way to get most of them out of Mundi right now. Maybe she could hope that their flight would’ve inspired reform over there, to avoid repeating it. Or maybe she could hope that ponies everywhere would abandon war forever and live in peace as Archive had imagined.

The days of fighting bats skeptical of Jackie’s plans for the city were long gone. Everypony had either been convinced to join them, or else wandered off to join the rebels on the other end of the jungle.

“Looks like everyone,” Liz muttered, slipping back in from the balcony. “They’re all waiting for you out there, Jackie. Showtime.”

This was the governor’s office, a room at the end of a long hallway that put it near the living Heartwood of the tree. It felt a little like walking in Mystic Rune’s dead Alexandrian lab—except instead of turning to crystal, living here too long was likely to send you sideways into the Dream. Most of the building clung to the sides of the tree rather than burrowing inside it, or else warped the living wood to create the classrooms and shops and parks where ponies now lived. But this room was an exception—whoever took the office of Governor in the future would need a way to tend to the health of this building, and by extension the rest of the forest beneath them.

“Guess so.” She rose onto her hooves, stretching and shifting in the uncomfortable governor’s coat that Emile had given her. It was all invented ceremony of course—but ceremony would give their newly minted nation some sense of unity. “It’s not the bats I’m worried about watching us.” She started walking down the long hallway.

Liz hurried to catch up, meaty tail swinging behind her. Her exploration-suit was beginning to show signs of wear-and tear, most obviously around one of the false hind legs, which had begun to corrode and took an extra second whenever she tried to walk. The seapony no longer looked perpetually dried-up, now that she had a treetop pool to sleep in instead of her suit. But the days of trafficking with land ponies this way were obviously running out.

Another few months and that suit is gonna go. I wonder if you’ll want to go back to Alex’s colony, or…

“Don’t look at me like that,” the seapony muttered, uncomfortable. “I don’t like where your brain is going right now.”

“I’m not going to ask you out again,” Jackie muttered, wings twitching uncomfortably on her back as she said it. “At least, not on land I’m not. You’re not the only seapony who has trouble finding land ponies attractive.”

But it was mostly teasing. Jackie hadn’t been very serious with her flirting. Liz was Alex’s sister. I don’t want to go to those family reunions, no thanks.

They stepped out together onto a sweeping balcony, made from groomed wood and lined with shimmering glass. There were perhaps two dozen ponies here—mostly the administrators who had made this possible, though there were some exceptions. A few ponies who had accomplished particularly impressive feats, like Umber there off to the side, who’d saved a dozen students from their first school to catch fire.

They still didn’t have much of a textile industry, so these ponies showed their wealth and importance with hats woven of rare leaves and flowers. There was also a table of refreshments, prepared from the finest chilled fruit. At least there wasn’t a live band, or else Jackie might’ve lept right off the balcony herself.

She sensed something was wrong the instant she saw them. There was an eddy in the crowd, a single person here whose dreams grated on her nerves. An intruder. But are you a spy, or an assassin?

She couldn’t find them at first—whoever they were, they were excellent at blending in. Every little clique of guests seemed comfortable and relaxed. But they couldn’t hide their imprint on the subconscious world, and Jackie felt it.

“Stay away from me,” Jackie whispered into Liz’s ear. “We have an uninvited guest.”

“I’m wearing powered armor,” the seapony whispered back, ignoring her instruction and following her right up to the podium.

From down below came the cheers—thousands and thousands of voices all raised in gratitude. She didn’t intend to keep them waiting long. But she would have to keep her eyes open for the intruder. Whoever they were, they couldn’t be hiding much. Only Liz and Jackie herself wore any significant amount of clothing. Nudity was natural when you were poor and lived in a jungle.

“Ponies of New Thestralia!” she called, amplifying her voice across both realms.

She waited for the cheers to subside. “You’ll have to forgive me—I’m not much for speeches. But you all deserve to celebrate. The reward of all our hard work is here—every one of you now has a roof over your head, enough to eat, and some of the amenities we enjoyed back in Mundi.” She glanced briefly over her shoulder, which would probably look like she was giving attention and deference to one of her assistants. She could feel the intruder, but where were they? Closer to her than before. Definitely an assassin, then.

“Survival is a great first step, and it’s been my goal since we arrived here. Congratulations, we’re there. We don’t have to sleep in tents or boil water to drink. You’ve achieved civilization.”

It wasn’t a very good speech. But they cheered anyway, as she explained that this was only the first step, that they would have to make themselves happy as well as healthy. That they needed to create a place for ponies all over the world who felt like they didn’t belong.

There, in the group of engineers just behind her, with their table closest to the edge. It was the waiter—a pegasus whose face she didn’t know, carrying a tray of food. He’d moved to cross the balcony behind her, but Jackie bet her good knife on him not stopping.

If you actually managed to kill me like this, it would be as good as a declaration of war. Liz hadn’t noticed—for all her armor was tough, she was almost as inexperienced as she looked.

“So celebrate today,” Jackie finished. “We’ve been stockpiling mango beer, and it’s pretty great. But when you’ve slept off your hangovers, know that there’s a long road before us. A road that leads to a city better for its citizens than Mundi ever was.”

More cheers went up, rising so loud that many of the surrounding trees shook with their voices. Jackie might be lousy at giving speeches, but these ponies were eager for a reason to celebrate. And free booze never hurt anything.

That was the moment that the asshole dressed like a waiter finally made his move. The pegasus moved like lightning, cutting across the intervening distance in a blur Jackie’s eyes couldn’t focus on. He had a knife ready, a knife that buzzed with dark energy from the red jewel set into its hilt.

But she didn’t need to see her enemy to be able to stop him.

His jump carried him through the open gateway and onto the polished stone floor of a library. He slid a few feet, knocking over tables and chairs and scattering the books that had been piled there.

The roar of the crowd was replaced with stark silence as Jackie straightened, turning slowly to face the would-be assassin. “I didn’t know anyone in Mundi still knew how to make Entropic weapons. I hope if you wanted kids you didn’t sheathe that thing anywhere near your balls, because all those little soldiers have two heads.”

The pegasus shook himself free of the fallen books, ripping pages as he did so. Mercy is gonna be so pissed at me for this.

Jackie had to hand it to the assassin—he was persistent. Already standing, waving the dagger at her as though it were a gun. But it wasn’t—the magic only worked if it had a soul to leach from. And a good thing too, or else all the Alicorns in the world would’ve been assassinated by now.

“What is this place? You aren’t a unicorn—return us to the podium, so your citizens can witness justice!”

She couldn’t help it—Jackie laughed. “I did think about killing you in front of everyone. If it makes you feel better, Alex probably would’ve. Or one of the other Alicorns. They do have their egos, and they love drama.”

The dagger drooped a little in his hoof. “You can’t stop me from killing you,” he said. “This is the end of your rebellion. Order will be restored.” Then he lunged at her again. Jackie willed the air in front of her into clear gelatin, and he stopped short. The slime around his knife caught fire instantly, forming an angry bubble around the blade. But there was too much water for it to burn long, and the assassin couldn’t swing it.

“It was a mistake to send someone who couldn’t dreamwalk,” she said, walking slowly around the block. She drew out her own blade, with the edge that was so sharp it hurt, and held it up so he could see. “How did you think you were going to fight me, anyway? Did they tell you how old I was?”

Only a muffled mumbling answered her—his face was stuck in the slime. “No, no one’s going to see you here,” Jackie said, holding the knife right up to him. “No one would see you die. That war you wanted, we aren’t ready for it. Your people know that. I’m surprised they were stupid enough to think they could kill me.”

She brought the knife down, right into the gemstone on his dagger. It shattered with a flash of angry light, shards embedding themselves in the slime. It stopped burning. Then Jackie waved her own blade away, and turned to leave. “I hope you like to read, kid. I’d count it as a favor if you apologize to Mercy for me.”

She banished the gelatin at the same instant she stepped back through into the physical world. An angry, confused crowd waited below. Soldiers had rushed the balcony, clearing space around the podium. Jackie’s little militia. But they would have no one to fight tonight.

Liz was the only one who seemed to understand. She looked disappointed, ashamed. She was staring down at the accelerator rifle built into one arm. ‘No problem,’ Jackie mouthed, before turning back to the crowd. “Sorry to keep you all waiting!” she shouted. “What was I… right! Everypony get into your new capital. All this booze won’t drink itself.”