• Published 6th Sep 2018
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The Sunset Campaign - Starscribe

Sunset Shimmer dreamed of bringing her knowledge back to Equestria, but not as an invader. If she wants Equestria to survive, she's going to have to help the humans save it—without helping them become its new rulers.

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Chapter 17: Password

“A moment, Natasha,” Starlight called, before Sunset could disperse with the other diplomats. She hesitated under the covered roof.

Brad did too, but she waved him away. “Whatever this is, I can tell you about it once I know.”

“Come with me, ‘Natasha,’” Starlight said, and together they walked towards the city. Around the meeting area they passed a gathering of ponies, who’d apparently been waiting for Alexi to be finished.

“When can they change us back?” someone asked, his voice carrying above so many others. “We have our freedom now, yes? We can have our bodies back next.”

Alexi shook her head. “General Maxwell, Equestria is at war. They don’t have the resources to develop new schools of magic while their homeland is threatened. We will have to be as helpful as we can until we can get reinforcements from home. Which… we’re doing, aren’t we Ada?”

Sunset stopped listening as they got further away. Starlight Glimmer didn’t seem to be in a hurry to say anything, and she waited until they’d made their way out of the refugee camp. To her surprise, there was somepony waiting there—Trixie.

“Starlight Glimmer—I’m quite cross with you.”

“Trixie!” Starlight ignored her apparent anger and pulled her close for a hug. “I’m sorry I didn’t take you with me.”

“Trixie will not forget about it just because you apologized.”

“Maybe not.” Starlight let go of her. “But I’m still sorry. And maybe you’ll learn to forgive me, eventually.”

“Eventually,” Trixie said. “But right now, Trixie is more worried about what you are doing out here. She doesn’t like the look of these ‘new’ ponies. Humans were dangerous enough when you could tell them apart. Eghh…” She seemed to notice Sunset Shimmer standing there, and her ears flattened. “No offence.”

“This isn’t a human,” Starlight Glimmer corrected. “This is the one I was telling you about, Sunset Shimmer.”

“The criminal?” Trixie’s eyes went wide, and she took a step back. “You’re really her? You… defied Celestia’s will, stole Equestrian magic, ran off to another universe…”

“Sure did,” she said, and this time she didn’t even bother keeping the bitterness from her voice. “Because we knew this was going to happen.” She gestured all around them—at the refugee camps, the terrified, huddling ponies trying to cling to their clothes or else struggling to even walk.

“If Princess Celestia had listened to me, we wouldn’t be in this position. Clover saw this coming, and we did nothing. I planned on taking matters into my own hooves, but…” She sighed. “You see how well that went. The Builders weren’t the ones we thought they were.”

“That’s part of why I wanted to talk to you.” Starlight started walking again, gesturing for Trixie to follow. The city was getting close now, its transparent parapets armed with crystal pony guards. There were stranger things set up on those towers. She couldn’t have said exactly what they were, but they looked like human-made defenses of some kind. Guns, with crystal guards operating them, not the transformed humans with their scraps of clothes.

Maybe I’ll get to see the city today after all. “If it’s to put me in jail, I think Equestria has bigger problems. I don’t think King Richard would like that.”

“If it was about putting you in jail, I’d be one to talk,” Starlight Glimmer muttered, grinning ruefully. “You only hurt yourself with what you did, Sunset. I hurt… lots of other ponies. Trixie did too, actually. Remember the Alicorn Amulet?”

Trixie whispered back in an angry hiss, but that didn’t stop Sunset from hearing her. “Trixie was hoping you wouldn’t mention that.”

“I’m just trying to make things clear to Sunset. Equestria’s a different place than the one she remembers. Maybe Celestia was harsh on criminals once, but that was a different pony. Her sister coming back… was good for everypony. Celestia most of all.”

“Fine,” Sunset said though she wasn’t convinced. “If this about reconciling us, I’m not sure I’m quite ready for that.”

“Well Celestia’s not here right now, so that would be a little hard anyway. Lots of Equestria to be evacuated… lots of little battles to fight. Celestia and Luna can win against almost anything, so keeping them back here just doesn’t make sense. So Celestia’s evacuating, and Luna is protecting the Empire from attack. Cadance is here, but… I don’t think she’d even come to power yet, and she certainly has no reason to dislike you.”

They passed through the city gates. Guards stared—mostly at Sunset, but before they could get close enough to accost them Starlight waved them away.

The streets of the Empire were… less regal than Sunset Shimmer would’ve imagined. The buildings were beautiful, obviously planned in their arrangements, with the glow of light coming from the windows. But the wide streets were packed with dirty carts, tiny tents and hovels, and slow-moving crowds of dour ponies. The sense of hopelessness was a physical pressure, one that practically smacked her in the mouth as she stepped inside.

“You aren’t imagining that,” Starlight Glimmer said, her voice noticeably weaker, her own ears drooping a little. “It only started a few hours ago, around the time your refugees arrived. A little surprising that you can feel it, though. The Federation claims you aren’t alive, which would mean you’d be immune to emotional manipulation. It doesn’t work on undead.”

Sunset actually laughed. “You think we’re… undead?”

Trixie eyed her suspiciously, as though she wasn’t so sure. But she didn’t actually say anything.

Starlight shook her head vigorously. “You were a powerful wizard, weren’t you? The central dictum of the Arcanum…”

“The magic of ponies is not in their horns, wings, or hooves, but in their hearts. Magic is rooted in their love for each other, their hatred, their fear. The physical organs are only accessories,” Sunset recited as though she were still a first-year in Celestia’s academy, finding the memory returned easily to her. But that might be from how rigorously the Tower had interrogated her about Equestria and its magic. “Propaganda breaks down quickly with that standard. The Tower has ‘empty’ people… Forks, they’re called. They would be immune. But not the rest.”

There was a carriage waiting for them. Starlight gestured, but then seemed to realize halfway through climbing in that Sunset wouldn’t fit inside, and hopped back to the pavement.

“How much do you know about the Crystal Empire and its magic?”

“Probably less than you,” she answered honestly. “It was still a myth. Most respectable mages were still calling the idea it was sent forward in time to be a folktale—a virtue allegory. So everything I learned from them is probably bunk too.”

“Here’s a quick primer then. The Crystal Heart is an immensely powerful artifact—without any of the danger of exploding us. It powers the city, and its defenses. Defenses against the cold too, warming the surrounding environment and making it possible to grow crops, and… have refugee camps. But ever since the Ponyville refugees arrived, something changed.”

“Not the Ponyville refugees,” Sunset whispered darkly. “The humans. Nopony in Ponyville would want this to happen.”

“Well if she’s going to go out and say it…” Trixie muttered. “I’m glad at least somepony is brave enough. We shouldn’t be trusting them. If we didn’t let them live here, the Empire would still be safe.”

“It makes sense—” Starlight said, her voice cautious. “But they were only just transformed. Whatever is affecting the city, it’s powerful magic. You saw those refugees, they’re just as scared as everypony in the city, without the feedback of the Crystal Heart reflecting their fear back on them.”

“This is… a strange way to call me a suspect,” Sunset Shimmer said. “I see where this is going. None of the transformed humans would have the magical power to do it, but maybe an evil sorceress from Equestria’s past.”

“The thought had crossed my mind,” Starlight began.

Sunset cut her off, raising her voice just a little. Loud enough that even more ponies in the marketplace were staring at them now. “I guess you forgot that mind-magic was outside her domain. She was a worldgating expert, not some… evil sorceress hiding out in the hills.”

“She shouldn’t steal my gimmick,” Trixie muttered, apparently not even listening to what she was saying.

“I know!” Starlight exclaimed, exasperated. “I didn’t bring you here to accuse you of anything. We already know what you’re hiding, so we can skip that part. Skip wasting time with blame and focus on the fact that you might be helpful.”

They were still moving—and now they were close. The palace was in the center of the city, a crystal spire as impressive as anything the humans had built. Well, maybe except one thing. The Steel Tower had survived even the end of the world. Its metallic superstructure might be missing skin, but it jutted far further up into the sky.

But where the Tower was defiance to nature, the curves of the crystal palace blended with it, mixing the soft shades of the crystal buildings all around it and glowing with internal light. There was no damage from war here, no rubble and blasted buildings. The Crystal Empire was untouched.

Sunset folded her arms suspiciously. “Helpful how? I can’t help in a magical investigation. If there’s an… if there’s an evil sorceress hiding in the ranks, who’s brave enough to start cursing the Empire the instant she gets here… I don’t have any magic of my own. That’s the real reason it couldn’t be me, and it’s also why I can’t investigate for you. Plus the Federation people all hate me and they’d never answer my questions.”

“We don’t expect you to do something you can’t.” A little group of guards hurried over as they neared the palace, surrounding them. Sunset couldn’t hold back the instinct to stare—these were mythical creatures, as much as any of the others attacking Equestria. Semitransparent, fully mineral ponies. Now probably wasn’t a good time to ask which of the rumors about them were true.

“You sure you want to bring one of them into the palace?” one of the guards asked. A brown-colored transparent earth pony from the look of it. Or were all crystal ponies earth ponies? She found it hard to imagine something made of rock able to fly, but if dragons could do it…

“Yes,” Starlight said. “There’s going to be more of them soon, probably. This one is trustworthy.”

“If you say so.” The soldier saluted. “If you would come with us, ma’am.” He opened a door, leading into the side of one of the supports instead of under the massive domed section that contained the glowing heart. Sunset had to stoop a little to fit inside, and the hallways were uncomfortably close to her, but at least initially she found she could fit.

“We’re running out of resources to fight this war with, Sunset. I don’t know the specifics, because I’m not in charge. But I know that our army just got cut in half. Losing all those humans… the Tower in hiding… it’s not good. Equestria won’t last long on its own without changing things. We can’t fight on the enemy’s terms.”

The earth pressed in above them, and Sunset had to drop onto all fours to make it further. This forced the ponies to walk in front or behind her—she was just too big to fit down here comfortably. Thank Celestia I don’t get claustrophobic. But unless this hall led to somewhere bigger, she would have to crawl out backwards.

It did as it turned out. Not much further was a massive metal door, with the look of something Sunset might’ve seen in a bank. There were several more guards outside it, these wearing Celestial gold and carrying rifles of human design.

“Open it,” Starlight instructed, levitating over a key before turning slightly to Sunset. “You’re the best at worldgating magic there is. We couldn’t do better unless we could bring Clover the Clever back from the dead. But she’s ashes now, and we have you right here.”

The guards started moving, twisting the complicated cylinder with a series of loud metallic clicks.

“Worldgating magic…” Sunset repeated. Suddenly she knew where she was being taken. “Star Swirl’s mirror is in there, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Starlight said. “Hasn’t been used since… well, never. Honestly, there were ponies who thought we should just throw it out. Didn’t work. I was always more for… illegal dark magic… and less about worldgates. But maybe you can figure this one.”

The vault slid open, and it took several guards all pushing together to get it to swing out towards them. The interior was filled with wealth—bars of precious metal, containers of jewels, well-preserved carvings and paintings and other artistic wonders. More importantly, it was also tall enough that Sunset could walk again, albeit with her hair brushing up against the flat stone ceiling.

Trixie slowed down, falling behind as she stared at all the valuables stored here. But Sunset stopped watching her.

And there in the back, tucked away from all the other shelves on its own little raised plinth, the mirror sat.

It was barely even large enough to fit a human while standing, though she thought she could’ve fit. King Richard might’ve had a little trouble though.

Sunset advanced slowly, reaching out one hand and feeling the intricately wrought metal. Despite the evenness of the vault’s temperature, it felt icy cold against her bare skin, probably cold enough that it would’ve hurt if she were still a pony. But her new body was a little sturdier than that.

“Tell us what you see,” Starlight said. “And more importantly, tell us if the Federation’s plan is safe. I’ll give your advice to princess Cadance. I expect she’ll take it.”

“I want to say no then,” Sunset said, her voice rueful. “It sounds like it was Ada’s idea, and she’s awful. But… we do need help, so…” She started pacing, like an archeologist who’d just been permitted a few minutes to study the most valuable artifact of her career.

The knowledge was still in there, somewhere. Whatever fears Sunset had once had that she might’ve forgotten everything about her old life, those were obviously in vain. She could practically follow the lines of intent in the spell around the portal, branching together as they rose along its sides up towards a central point above it. A smaller version of the mirror sat up there, like a glass prison in which something like liquid metal floated.

Sunset’s eyes widened as she saw it, moving up and down like a slowly beating heart. “You know how it works?” Starlight asked.

“Do I…” Sunset looked away. “We’ve only been here five minutes.”

“Yes, but… presumably you already did, right? This was a focus of yours.”

Sunset folded her arms. “I need to know precisely what was tried to get it to activate. You can’t be vague with me if you still want to know if it works.”

Starlight shrugged her shoulders impassively. “We have no reason to keep secrets from you, Sunset. Well… I guess we have lots of reasons, but none of them have anything to do with the portal. It was Twilight who tinkered with it, without success. I’m sure she would be careful enough not to damage it. If there’s one thing she knows her way around, it’s magical artifacts.”

Sunset circled the mirror one last time, then nodded. “It isn’t broken, you’re right about that. The spell is still active, and the portal is still connected to the other side. You were right about it needing energy too. As to whether or not anti… anti-something… can be used, I have no idea. Equestria doesn’t have any of that, so it’s not like I ever had to know.”

Starlight chuckled nervously, then looked away. “Give us an educated guess. Princess Cadance knows even less about artifacts than either of us do, and it isn’t like this portal really matters much to her. It’s a priceless heirloom, but there are other ways to cross. I think both human factions have their own methods.”

“Makes you think, though…” Sunset trailed off, tracing the lines of the spell with two fingers. The metal still felt chillingly cold, but her body still didn’t care much about that. “Star Swirl built a way to cross consistently back and forth between worlds. Presumably there’s another mirror on the other end of this thing. I wonder if the Builders might’ve known about it. Maybe that’s how they found their way here, all those years later. Studying his designs.”

“That sounds like an unpopular view,” Starlight said. “The way I hear it around Equestria, most ponies think the Builders are all evil geniuses. With all their love and friendship replaced with brains. Ponies seem eager to forget that most of them gave up their bodies rather than fighting us. But there’s that army now…” She looked away. “Do you think you’ll need time to study it to give us an answer? I can get you any equipment you need.”

Sunset shook her head. “I don’t know how to make it accept energy from that source. But if they can figure that out, the spell is stable otherwise. Doesn’t look like it’s aged a few thousand years to me, looks fresh.”

“Because it didn’t. The Crystal Empire skipped all those years. All this stuff…” She flicked her tail around them, at all the ancient art, the sculpture. “It’s authentic and unaged. You should’ve seen what happened to Equestria’s archeological community when the Empire returned. And Twilight and her friends got to take credit for it, even though they barely did anything.”

“Except beat Sombra,” Trixie added helpfully, arriving with two of their escort just behind, glowering at her as though she’d just been caught. But what she’d just done, they didn’t say. “It was all over the papers.”

“Yeah.” Starlight looked away. “Makes me feel a little guilty, really. I never imagined they could be this important. Then I wished something would happen to show them that six ponies can’t save the whole world… that they can’t just make friends with every problem or blast it with magic. But now that we’re here, I think I’d rather they could just discover some secret buried artifact and blast some friendship at the dragons. Even if it did mean a few more parades…”

Sunset’s eyebrows went up. “You’re joking, right? They didn’t get…”

“Trixie can vouch for Starlight,” Trixie said. “They got parades twice. And Twilight’s coronation was worse.”

Sunset couldn’t even think about that without feeling hurt. Whatever part of her still cared about Celestia was relieved that she wouldn’t have to face her for some time to come. “I think it will work,” she said. “I’m not sure what good it will do to have this portal working… the only advantage I can think of is that it’s supposed to have some kind of… disguise built in? It’s living transfiguration of some kind. I hoped I’d find it so I could pretend to be one of the builders and study their magic without identifying myself. Obviously that… didn’t work out the way I planned.” She held out one hand, flexing each of the fingers in turn. “The mirror is supposed to change you back when you return to Equestria. Obviously that didn’t happen with the way I traveled.”

Jackie could see nothing at all of consequence through the jungle. This was the third time she’d been told they were on the right path, and the third time that she wandered away from the railing disappointed. Even her heightened mechanical eyes—or the one that was still working all the way—couldn’t see anything down there but trees.

“This magical city of yours must be well hidden,” she said to Sea Legs, who’d been with her by the edge for most of the trip. She couldn’t tell if he was watching her with pity or disgust, but at least he hadn’t shoved her over the side.

“It is,” he said. “You must understand, Moire—we’ve got a long tradition of hiding. Did Evening Star share our history with you during that meeting of yours? Few ponies remember it.”

“She didn’t,” Jackie answered. “There wasn’t… a whole lot of opportunity. I wasn’t a very good listener on my way out.” She glanced over her shoulder, down the hallway that led to their quarters. She hadn’t so much as set hoof inside it since they arrived. If she was going to look like a freak anyway, then she might as well stop pretending to be organic. Sitting around and doing nothing while she was supposed to be sleeping was awful with no data connection.

“Well, I can give you the short version. I’d… give you more if you were one of us. But there’s long tradition—Equestria rejected us, so it ain’t good luck to share everything.”

“I didn’t reject you,” Jackie said. She pulled up the torn cloth on her replacement leg, exposing the cables and pulleys there. Bree had reconnected that foreleg, restoring her ability to walk with it at least. “I’m not even from your world, Sea Legs. I’m an alien so strange that you’d probably reject me if you could.”

The bat laughed, exposing pointed teeth. “Maybe so, miss. But Evening Star isn’t that kind of pony. She didn’t leave you behind here even though it would’ve been better if she had. She’s always that way.” He leaned over the edge of the balcony with his forelegs, staring off into the night. Those bat ears were still alert despite everything, twitching in the wind and to every little permutation of the engine. It was all the life that Jackie herself couldn’t manifest.

“Well, I’ll be real brief. Long time ago, there weren’t any bats at all. Equestria was just three tribes, three types of ponies. Then one day bats were born—from Princess Luna’s magic, they say. We’re a little like her, share a little of the way she thinks. No moving the moon around, we’re not unicorns… but that part doesn’t matter.”

“Genetic engineering,” Jackie suggested. “You were some kind of… self-modified people. Changed yourself to be nocturnal?”

Sea Legs shrugged. “I don’t know what that is exactly, so I can’t say yes or no. What I can say is that the first generation didn’t come out right. They were… contagious. If a bat pony spent too much time with a pegasus, they would wake up a bat too. That scared Equestria really good. So it banished all of us up north, and left us to die. Princess Celestia hoped we would just go away. And we would have, if it wasn’t for her. Evening Star, she’s not just one of us. She’s the first bat ever born—and she was looking out for us. So she took us away, somewhere Equestria could forget about us. It was a little like what Celestia wanted… except we’d still be living.”

Now Jackie could see something different about their environment after all—the Nightbreeze was descending. Trees rose up around them in a gradual arc, without any obvious breaks below that she could see. Are we going to crash? No, she’s not stupid. Maybe they were about to vanish behind a mountain trail, then pass into a waterfall where they could haunt the night from the shadows.

“Life was hard back then. The jungle was a dangerous place, full of monsters. But we fought them, hunted them, carved out a place for ourselves. It got bigger, we got safer… and there wasn’t as much reason to miss Equestria anymore. Most of the bat ponies in the whole world live in Excellus, Moire. Equestria recognized us a month or so after Luna returned… but we just didn’t see any reason to leave. This is our home, and it’s much better suited.

Almost the instant before they should’ve hit the trees, they parted around them. The effect was clearly mechanical—but then, Jackie wouldn’t have known what to look for if it wasn’t.

The canopy was no canopy of trees at all, it was a roof. And now that they were through it—her eyes went wide. It was like passing inside a roofed sports stadium, except that instead of seats Jackie could see buildings. The ground here wasn’t flat, and each hill was covered with its own little blanket of structures.

It was much of what she might’ve imagined for the ancient Inca, if they’d had another few centuries and a few modern engineers to help them build. The buildings weren’t that tall individually, maybe five stories at the most, but they were tiered and stacked on each other to use almost all the available space. Water had been channeled into aqueducts that flowed over everything, lifting from a single gigantic, slow-turning wheel she could see on the far side. Her heat and humidity sensors instantly went off, and some part of her remembered that should probably be uncomfortable, but it wouldn’t matter to her now that she was dead.

“My god,” she whispered. “Those are… electric lights glowing in the windows down there, aren’t they?”

“That’s right! Twenty years ago, an Equestrian wouldn’t have known them if they saw them. But we’ve been living here a long time—lots of our inventions aren’t known in Equestria even still.”

A flock of bat ponies passed them in the air—wearing little green vests and big open saddlebags.

“Farmers,” Sea Legs supplied, apparently satisfied with her shock. “The ceiling isn’t just for show. It’s all fruit, cultivated that way for a thousand years now. Mangos, papayas, bananas, durian…”

Jackie finally tore her eyes from the city. They were headed towards the very center of the opening, where the buildings rose higher than the others to meet the ceiling in a massive, hollow torus. That building had to be at least fifty stories, its curves as much bits of flowing steel as they were the wood that wrapped around it. “How? How could this planet be so advanced and so primitive at the same time? This is… where I come from, we’d call this an arcology. Looks like you’ve got population densities around…”

“A million,” Sea Legs cut her off. “There are a million bats in Excellus. Most of them you can’t even see from here. For every bat living aboveground, there are two more in the limestone under our hooves.”

The massive building in the center had a dozen landing pads, each one just about big enough for the Nightbreeze. Only one was empty, and that was where they steered. “How?”

“Because we thought Equestria would kill us if they saw us again,” Evening Star said from behind them. She’d switched from her armored uniform to the one in formal dark cloth, along with the silly hat. Jackie still had to force herself to look away, or else get tormented with the strange standards of attraction Sunset had given her. “We weren’t every bat in the world, there were stragglers. We saw how Equestria treated them. Helped when we could, but… we couldn’t change their hearts. Only Luna could do that.”

“The dragons don’t know about all this?” Jackie asked, as the airship slid into place with an exaggerated thump. “This whole operation seems… precarious.”

“It is.” Evening Star said. “Our growth has never outstripped our supply of food or water, but ponies need more than to eat and drink. If Equestria burns, we will burn with her in time.”

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