• 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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Chapter 1

Lyra stared out across the ice sheet, down past blasted rocks and a howling, timeless wind. Some part of her wondered if the ancient ponies of this place had ever really escaped the Windigos of ancient legend—maybe they were still here, guarding over their final tomb.

But if that grim reality was waiting for them in the Horn of Celestia, they were going to have to discover it sooner or later. Sooner means that we can make their sacrifice count for something. If the secrets abandoned by our tribes are in that tower, we can bring them out again, share them with the world. The secrets of magic that had let unicorns move the sun instead of relying on Alicorns. The secrets of the earth that let earth ponies tear down whole mountains and raise them up again. The secrets of the sky that were the reason the sonic rainboom even had a name in the first place.

“It looks so peaceful down there,” she muttered, and her breath fogged on the air in front of her as she said it. “Are we sure there’s even a protection spell?”

“Positive.” Bon Bon didn’t hesitate with her response. “I took a few minutes before anypony woke up to study the outside edges. The boundaries of the spell are distinct. The snow inside actually falls slightly differently. Watch when it blows by.” Bon Bon offered her the binoculars, and she levitated them in front of her in her magical grip. Through the barrier, she watched a flurry of snow drift towards the tower. Then it got closer, and suddenly curved upward, spiraling in a complicated pattern.

“So how do we stop it?” She passed the binoculars back. “We better do something soon. Muffins already tried to fly over once.”

“I know,” Bon Bon said, a little annoyed. “Who do you think stopped her?” She removed something from a slim cloth case, a polished metal rod with a sliver of crystal set in at both ends. Lyra’s first imagination for it was that it might serve a very different purpose, but her face warmed with a blush and she didn’t actually say so. “I don’t think the barrier will stop us from crossing. But conditions over there could be lethal for other reasons. So we’re going to use this. You are, since you’re our only unicorn.”

Lyra levitated the tool up into the air in front of her, turning it over. There were tiny markings in the metal, but she didn’t recognize any of them. “I don’t know how to dispel a crazy magical trap.”

“I know.” Bon Bon took the rod back with a quick jerk, sliding it into its case before Lyra could protest. “But you won’t have to do much. Just one rune should do it—ground. Can you write that one? I can draw it for you if I need to.”

“I might not be Twilight Sparkle, but I can do all eight runes fine. Earth, got it. Because we’re…”

“Grounding it out,” Bon Bon supplied. “Cross the barrier with the thaumic conductor, then ground on our side. That should bleed out all the power leftover and break the spell.”

“That sounds easy!” Lyra straightened, flinging her head forward so the hood would rest over her horn. “Let’s go!”

“Together.” Her companion put out one leg. “The others are almost ready. You know everypony is going to want to get a look inside at the same time. Besides… barometer suggests we might see a really bad one in a few hours. Won’t be able to leave the Solaris. Would you settle for getting it open only to sit in place and do nothing?”

“Fine.” She slumped forward into a sitting position. “I’m guessing you have everything else we need.”

Bon Bon rolled her eyes, then kicked sideways at a large set of saddlebags. “Camera, film, emulsion, charcoal, clay, rope, chalk, torch, lunch. Anything I’m missing?”

Lyra had no idea, but in theory she was the one leading this expedition. But her actual knowledge was all historical. If they didn’t need an artifact identified, or a melody played on a rare instrument, there wasn’t much she could do. “That sounds perfect.”

Bon Bon nudged her affectionately in the side. “What would you do without me, Lyra?”

“I dunno, Sweets.” She returned the gesture. “Here? I’d freeze. Ten minutes in.”

They didn’t have ten minutes to wait before the other two members of their expedition finally emerged. Both had better protection from the elements than Lyra, having either pegasus cold-tolerance or earth pony endurance. Muffins wore only a scarf and a fluffy wool toque, while Time Turner had at least bothered with a jacket and some boots.

“Are we ready?” Muffins asked. “I tried to go early and see if there was anything inside for you, but Drops wouldn’t let me.”

“That was quite sensible of her,” Time Turner said. “But it does appear we’re prepared. To the Horn we go, eh? Allons-y.”

They crossed the windswept wasteland in about an hour’s time, slipping and sliding through snow covered with a thick icy crust. But eventually they made it, and Bon Bon produced the thaumic conductor again. She used a hoof to dig away at the snow around the edge of the circle, until they were on bare ground, then dumped out a vial of ash for Lyra to write in. She knows more about my magic than I do.

“Go on,” Bon Bon finally said, offering the tool. “The only hard part is that you have to write while the other end is already across, then hold it in your magic no matter what. The rest of us… might want to back up, just in case.”

Lyra chuckled nervously, but she wasn’t that worried. These were ancient ponies, after all. They hadn’t put these traps here to kill their descendants when they finally arrived to claim what had been theirs. That just wouldn’t make any sense.

She spread her legs a little, so that she wouldn’t be jostled around by the wind whipping up around them. But the dark powder Bon Bon had used wasn’t lifted up, even as her snow pile was eroded. The two others followed her back, with Time Turner lowering a set of goggles over his eyes to watch.

Lyra gritted her teeth and stuck the rod across the barrier. Let’s see what secrets you’ve been keeping, ancient ponies.

The rod began to glow faintly red in her magical grip, hot enough that little bits of snow touching it hissed away as steam. Part one done, and not even any explosions. She lowered the other end carefully, and drew.

She could feel the eyes of her companions on her, though only Bon Bon would’ve recognized if she got it wrong. She moved the rod exactly along the pattern of the rune, the same one every foal learned in magical kindergarten.

Then came the explosion.

Not the blast of heat and light that would’ve spelled instant death for her if she got in the way—nothing like the great disasters in magical history. It was, rather, a simple blast of air. The snow from all around them exploded outward as though under great pressure, making her ears ring and lifting up the powder around the tower in a perfect circle. Lyra was nearly lifted off her hooves. From Muffins’s squeal of surprise and confusion, the gray mare had been. But pegasus ponies landed soft, and Lyra couldn’t help her now.

The roar went on for almost a full minute before it finally died. Lyra crouched low the entire time, shielding her face against the blast of air around her. The conductor had gone from glowing red to a bright white, and the crystals on either end were actually burning.

Then the magic stopped. She could see the moment when it ended through her levitation—the conductor stopped getting hotter. The air around them was still a blizzard, with a slope of high snow spread out around a ground scoured bare except for the largest rocks and chunks of ice.

She glanced over her shoulder in time to see the rear end of her pegasus companion emerge from a distant snowdrift, and a muffled, “M’okay.”

The earth ponies had weathered the storm, though horizontal icicles had condensed along their coats facing away from the onslaught. Time Turner lifted his goggles, looking back with concern. “Did I hear you right, Muffins? I wanted to run for you, but…”

She emerged from the snow a moment later, shaking out huge clumps of it from her mane and coat. But she didn’t look hurt. Of course she isn’t. She flew out of snow into more snow. A selfish part of Lyra couldn’t help but be relieved—an injury would mean they wouldn’t be able to explore the tower in front of them.

A tower that no longer had any spells protecting it, at least not on the outside. What it did have, however, were corpses.

Around the base much of the snow had been blasted away, revealing the true identity of those lumps. They were birds, mostly, with a handful of larger creatures. She saw at least one deer in there, and a yak dressed in thick exploratory furs. All frozen as solid as the ice around the tower.

“It seems the spell claimed a few lives,” Bon Bon said from beside her. “None after today. We’ve just made the world safer. Assuming there isn’t some terrible horror we’re about to unleash trapped inside those walls.”

“Well you shouldn’t tempt fate,” Time Turner said, reaching sidelong as Muffins approached and wiping a little snow she’d missed away from her face. “There you are, sweetheart. Missed a spot there.”

“Can we go in now?” the mare asked, apparently not noticing the dead animals all around it. Probably for the best, you wouldn’t handle that so well.

“Yes!” Lyra said. “And… I don’t sense any more magic, Bon Bon. If there are ancient evils in there, they aren’t magic.”

“We hope.” She gestured at the snow. “Quench that conductor so we can put it away. Then we go in.” Lyra did so, and a few minutes later they had reached the massive doors. Solid metal, as with the rest of the structure. There was writing around the outside, one of the oldest scripts Lyra knew. She could still translate it, even if the Old Ponish would be lost on the others.

“It says… ‘That our errors might not be forever forgotten, and our example carried forward into a better age.’” She bounced from hoof to hoof, not taking her eyes away from the polished metal surface. The more she looked in this direction, the less she had to see the dead. “I think that’s confirmation! That’s as good as an admission that these were the ponies fleeing from the windigos. And if their homes were anywhere near here… it’s no wonder they wanted to leave. Feels like the windigos might still rule up here.”

“Is it locked?” Time Turner asked.

There were no knobs or other obvious mechanisms she could see. So Lyra shrugged, and reached forward to push.

The door moved on its own, with a sound like the hiss when they opened a fizzy drink at the soda fountain. Warm air hissed out from in front of them, misting on the ground at their hooves. The door didn’t swing so much as it rose into the ceiling, an unbelievably tight bit of casting in the metal wall with so little space she would’ve had trouble sliding a knife in.

And through the doorway, magical lights worked into the ceiling illuminated a space twice as tall as a pony, with metal walls and strange machines on every side. Lyra was the first inside, following the brightest lights right up to a plaque set into the wall, apparently worked from solid gold.

“ISS Equestria” it said, in the same ancient Ponish script. “Commissioned 2109 CE — Launched 2116” There was an image beside it, though Lyra couldn’t recognize what it was. Some kind of building that had fallen over, surrounded with little dots. Then on the other side, an image of Equus itself, worked into the metal with questionable accuracy. But a noble attempt from such an ancient culture.

“What does that one say?” Bon Bon asked from beside her, staring up in confusion. “Worth a picture?”

“Absolutely!” She didn’t even hesitate. “I, uh… think it says that they were going to find new land for a country? I’ll need to find more in here for context.” How did they already know it would be called Equestria?

Her companion had already removed the heavy wooden box from the saddlebags, and was fishing out a flashbulb to go with it. Lyra took the offered apparatus in her magic, took a few steps back, and a flash of smoke rose up from the bulb as it died.

“I think we’ve found what we were looking for, everypony,” Lyra said. “Let’s see what secrets our ancestors left us.”