• Published 18th Nov 2020
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Hand of the Ancients - Starscribe



Lyra is convinced that the ancient Horn of Celestia is the key to unlocking the true history of her race. But the tower isn't what it seems, and neither is she.

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Prologue

Lyra Heartstrings had worked her whole life to stand before this tower.

It had many names—the Horn of Celestia, the Dreaming Door, the Pillar of Winter, and strangest of all Windigos’ Bane. But for all its ancient names, an archeologist like Lyra knew it as something else: the oldest intact ruin in all of Equestria.

Or almost. To call it “in Equestria” was true only in the historical sense, given that the Crystal Empire’s territory had once extended so far north it almost reached the sea. Where once a land made fertile with the magic of the Crystal Heart had been, now there was only a windswept wasteland, so cold that their airship had nearly dropped from the air more than once during the trip over. If anything happened to the gasbag, Lyra wasn’t sure they would survive long enough to be rescued.

But none of that mattered—not the terrible weather, not the veritable hordes of bureaucrats she’d defeated by the might of pen and typewriter. They had arrived.

Equestria was a land of tall towers, but the Horn of Celestia certainly would’ve been a contender for the title if ponies still lived here. From where the Solaris had settled near a ridge overlooking the area, she could see the broken remains of an ancient settlement surrounding the tower, though much of it had been buried with snow and only the occasional tile roof was visible.

But the tower rose above it all, a tapering cylinder without windows or balconies stretching almost high enough for a pegasus to walk out of its roof and onto a cloud house, had there been any. Of course, their expedition had only the one pegasus, and she was more likely to go tumbling off the tower than jump gracefully onto any clouds.

“That’s good, Muffins.” Bon Bon was the one really doing the work back there, tying down the Solaris with ropes thicker than Lyra’s legs, down into pegs that she drove deep into the stone. Out here beyond the reach of any Equestrian weather team, they couldn’t just ask for clear weather for important historical research. They had to hunker down and cross their hooves that they wouldn’t be blown right out of existence. “Just… yeah, leave it right there. No, don’t pull it! Good, now freeze in place. Pretend a bee just landed on your nose.”

The gray pegasus didn’t wear nearly as many layers as the rest of them, thanks to her natural feathery insulation. Lyra pulled her own jacket tighter, letting the soft wool warm her as best it could. It would be dark in another hour or so—probably too soon to make the trip down. Maybe if they all had wings, but… the chance of damage to the tower was too high.

“Are we secure?”

Bon Bon turned, wincing slightly at being interrupted. “Almost! Another few minutes… Muffins and I have it almost taken care of.”

“Good.” Lyra slid past the mare closer than she had to on her way to the stairs—but Muffins wouldn’t notice, and wouldn’t care. “Get back inside as soon as you’re finished, alright? I don’t think we’ll get to investigate tonight.”

“Don’t get too cold without me.” But then she turned. “Wait, no! Muffins, there wasn’t really a bee! Nothing stung you!” The rope slid upward, and probably would’ve yanked free of the gasbag. Except that Lyra gripped it with her magic, pulling as hard as she could. Her legs strained under the force, and she settled the rope into place around the hook, tying it off with a tangled mess of knot.

“You’re a lifesaver, sweetie.”

Technically that’s your job…” But she didn’t stay to argue.

The Solaris had no proper dock, just cables and pegs to hold it down as securely as they could. They were using the loading ramp as their exit, since most Equestrian ships were meant to be boarded from the top. But that didn’t matter—since the Solaris didn’t have much cargo, they could wrap the room in insulation to try and hold some of their heat in.

Even once she’d passed through the doors and the hanging blankets, Lyra could still see her breath fogging in the air in front of her. Iron grates spaced along the floor carried hot air with them—the finest Equestrian engineering could build. Still only barely equal to the challenge of this desolate place.

Lyra marched straight to the engine room, and was unsurprised to see a tan earth pony hard at work, wearing only an apron and shoveling coal into the boiler. She went from shivering to sweating in a matter of seconds, and she pulled back her hood. “Doc, you busy?”

The stallion turned, flipping up the goggles over his eyes and kicking the boiler door closed. “Right now? No. How are things looking out there?”

“Tower’s intact,” Lyra answered, voice betraying a little of her wonder and surprise. “Ancient metal, out here all this time without rusting. How is that possible?”

“Some metals don’t rust,” Time Turner answered. The engine room had a single machining bench, with a variety of tools large and small they might use to fix things when they broke. The stallion settled a tiny gold watch down beside a hammer. “Could be gold. Or aluminium”

Lyra hesitated. “Does it… bother you… that ancient ponies were such skilled engineers that they could build things we still don’t understand today?”

Time Turner laughed. “No, but it should bother the other clockmakers. When we make it back, I’m going to have their designs before anypony else. The only shameful thing would be leaving ourselves ignorant even longer. No, there are secrets in that tower, and I can’t wait to help get them out again. Which… I’m assuming we won’t be doing tonight.”

“Not unless we want to do it in the dark. I thought about it, but… there’s something strange. There aren’t any trees around the tower, and there are some… shapes in the snow. I’m worried there might be… I know it sounds stupid, but… traps. Maybe the old ponies didn’t want their tower to be discovered.”

Time Turner only shrugged. “They were at war with each other, weren’t they? That was the whole point of coming to Equestria. It was a new, peaceful start. Maybe ponies were different in the old days. Daring Do’s books certainly suggest they were, with the way all those old temples end up shooting spikes, or collapsing, or sending boulders rolling after her.”

That was about the moment their other two expedition members arrived—Muffins with her mane half-drowning in snow somehow, which she was now tracking through the halls of their wooden airship. And Bon Bon just behind her, still clutching the mallet she’d used to drive in their anchoring spikes.

“We did it…” Muffins declared, obviously proud. “But I don’t really understand what we did.”

“Excellent!” Time Turner was perhaps the only pony in the world who didn’t seem to notice Muffins’s… unique talents. “Now we should be safe through the night—that’s what you’ve just done, tie us down so the winds won’t be able to send us away. These ancient ponies sure did pick a… bleak place to set down roots.”

Lyra guessed it was because of some kind of relationship between them, though she’d never seen anything to confirm it. If anything she pitied someone who had to somehow communicate attraction to a pegasus like her.

“It’s possible it wasn’t as hostile when it was built,” Lyra suggested. “They were coming here to escape the Windigos, after all.”

“Or… maybe they picked it because it would be hard for their children to return to.” Bon Bon paced right past them, back out the door and across the hall into the sitting room. There Lyra had collected all the expedition’s notes on the subject of the Horn of Celestia, pinning it up on the walls and connecting related items with string. Bon Bon hadn’t approved of how “crazy” the room looked, but she couldn’t deny how useful it was as a mind-mapping tool.

Lyra could tell the others were following, which didn’t surprise her much. Muffins wanted to be wherever ponies were doing things, so she could lend a hoof. And Time Turner was as interested in the tower as she was. Technically, Bon Bon was the only one who didn’t have a choice about joining the expedition, though she’d been attached for so long Lyra doubted she felt forced. Her best friend could’ve requested another assignment years ago, rather than shadowing an eccentric antiquarian like herself.

“This one, here. Witness of Flash Magnus.” She pointed at the sketch, along with its ancient inscription. There was a translation from ancient Ponish in Lyra’s own writing, scrawled onto a scrap of paper beside it. “And all who flew too near to the Spire fell from the air, their cries silent as they died. Neither pegasus nor mighty earth pony dared cross its enchantment.” Bon Bon stopped reading. “I think there’s a protection spell on it—a spell we’ll have to break.”

“That sounds… frightening,” Time Turner said from the doorway. “Magic that caused pegasi to fall from the sky—can you devise a counter spell to something so dark, Heartstrings?”

She couldn’t, though it felt like an inopportune thing to admit. She only glanced sidelong at Bon Bon, counting on her friend to have the solution. They’d already known what was waiting for them here—she’d said she could get them inside.

“I did a bit of reading in the archives before our trip,” she said. “It happens that all records of spells like that require the boundary be marked—a circle in the stone, for example. A more powerful spell will probably require metal. Once we find it, we just need a unicorn to break it, using her magic on objects already inside. Pony protection spells were never meant to be used against other ponies, so the barrier will be defenseless.”

“Break a circle,” Lyra said, relaxing. “With magic. No problem.” That was really just levitation, which was almost as far as her magic would go. There was no time to master complex spells when her world was overflowing with history ponies had no ideas about.

And the oldest of it all was here, protected in a magical tower ponies had not set hoof in since the Windigos had been defeated in ancient times.

“Why is the tower so important again?” Muffins asked, walking right up beside Lyra and staring at the sketch. It was one of the more gruesome records of this place, since it showed pegasi falling to their deaths as they flew overhead—but Muffins either didn’t notice or didn’t care. “We came out so far. I think the Crystal Empire has a taller tower than this.”

“It does,” Lyra admitted. “But there are already ponies digging up all the old magic in the Empire. This is even older—a thousand years older at least.”

“There’s magic in there?”

“Yes, Muffins,” Time Turner supplied. “Legend says this tower is all that’s left of a once great fortress, taken by the Windigos and swallowed by the ice. It was here that our ancestors came, before they were united into Equestria. Here they gave up all their most powerful magic. They had fought for so long that they knew Equestria was doomed, unless they left all their greatest powers behind.”

“Then…” She retreated from the wall, wandering towards the shelves full of books. The pegasus didn’t seem able to read their titles, though it was hard to be sure with her eyes. “Shouldn’t we leave it here? That seems like… maybe they knew best.”

“Equestria’s tribes are united now,” Bon Bon said, a little exasperated. It wasn’t the first time they’d had this conversation. “We don’t fight anymore. But attacks from outside are always a threat. After the Storm King, Celestia has started sponsoring all sorts of… expeditions. To dig up old powers and bring them back. Whatever is in that tower… we won’t use it to fight each other anymore. We’ll use it to keep Equestria safe.”

“Oh. That makes sense.” Muffins trailed off. “I’m hungry. I’ll make dinner.”

“I’ll help you.” Time Turner followed behind her, down the quiet halls towards the mess.

I hope you’re wrong, Muffins, Lyra thought, watching them go. It was hard to think that ponies who could build a whole tower out of metal wouldn’t know what they were doing, but… that was a bias. The ancients hadn’t been any smarter than ponies today, just more powerful. And tomorrow, we’ll get inside, and bring all their powers back.