• 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 3

The machine was speaking to her. Not the way the elevator had spoken, with its voice obviously recorded. It might’ve sounded clearer, but the spell could’ve just as easily been a gramophone.

But this, this was something else. It spoke, and Lyra could hear the subtle differences in tone and pronunciation. It spoke Old Ponish as though it had done so all its life. “Where are you speaking from?” Lyra asked, propping her forelegs up on the railing and staring into the glass cube. This had to be some kind of sending spell, though it was more sophisticated than the dragonfire scrolls that Equestria knew today. “Did we wake you from a stasis spell?”

She had a feeling everything didn’t translate quite right, particularly around magical terminology. Old Ponish got really hazy when it came to describing magic. “Yes,” the voice answered. “Woke me. Unusual method, circumventing preservation. Released argon stasis shell. Long-term viability can no longer be guaranteed. Mission must begin.”

“What is it saying?” Bon Bon asked, whispering into her ear. “Lyra, we’re over our heads here. This thing feels powerful. A pony who could still be alive after all this time… would be a danger to all of us. Maybe we should go back to Canterlot for backup.”

Lyra shook her head. “I don’t think they’re dangerous. They didn’t threaten us, they just said they’re happy to have visitors.” An extremely liberal translation, but Lyra wasn’t completely lying. Whoever was talking to them did sound pleased. But they hadn’t answered her question. “Where are you?”

“Here,” the voice answered. “You must be the captain. The last captain is… oh, that’s unfortunate. The nature of organics, but still. Will miss him. Now, you. In order to properly control this vessel, you will need to retrieve the mantle. This process can only be completed on Biology deck. You should go there at once, so the process can commence.”

“It’s making demands,” Bon Bon said. “What is it asking?” And when Lyra didn’t answer, she turned. “Time Turner, could you come over here? Yes, bring her too. We may need to make a swift exit.”

But Lyra did ignore her. “We’ve come to learn the secrets of the ancients,” she said. “Stories say that before the founding of Equestria, ponies once wielded great powers. They used that power to destroy each other, and so they left it behind, to save themselves from the windigos. But Equestria is threatened more than ever, now. We’re peaceful and united in our tribes. I’m here to find all the old secrets, and bring them back.”

The glass cube went dark for a second. She could almost see a pony’s face, perhaps surrounded by stasis spells in a room full of crystals and glowing magic. It was all in her head, but it made sense. Then it lit up again. “The captain in this vessel would have access to all our secrets. I could show you the history of our civilization, through the eyes of those who lived it.”

“I’ll go to Biology.” Lyra turned away from the cube, and started walking towards the elevator. Muffins stopped right in the aisle, completely by accident, and Lyra nudged her gently to move. “Excuse me. We’re done on this floor.”

“Oh, okay.” The pony took off, gliding above them.

“What do you mean we’re done?” Bon Bon hurried to catch up, closing the distance in seconds. She settled one hoof on Lyra’s shoulder, stopping her dead. “Listen to me, sweetie. I know this is important to you, but we need to be honest with each other. You’re not sharing things, I can tell. Whatever that thing told you, it’s… got you convinced of something.”

Lyra hesitated, but she couldn’t look away when Bon Bon’s eyes were right there. She couldn’t lie to her face like that. They’d been together for so long now, and what relationship could survive on lies? “They say they know the history of our civilization. It wants me to go get something called the Captain’s Mantle, it’s in Biology. If we go there, then it will share all its secrets with us.”

She backed up from Bon Bon, towards the elevator. “Think about it, Sweets! Everything we ever wanted to know. The truth about Hearth’s Warming. All our old magic returned. Equestria safe from every danger. You wouldn’t need to go off hunting monsters, because we’d be safe for good!”

“I…” Bon Bon’s ears flattened. “Be careful, Lyre.” She rubbed up against her, resting her head on Lyra’s for a moment. Lyra could feel the warmth there, and it did finally make her stop and listen. “I know how much you want this. But it all seems too good to be true. This place has exactly what we were looking for? There’s even a helpful, magical voice to explain it all, and lead us through. A voice that happens to speak a language that just one of us knows? I’m worried about you.”

Lyra returned her affection, and didn’t move for several long moments. “I know. I’ll be fine, Sweets. If it looks dangerous, we can get out. But so far, they haven’t threatened us. Going and getting something—that doesn’t seem so bad. We don’t even have to leave the tower.”

They stepped into the elevator, and this time Lyra hadn’t even finished climbing up to reach the controls before they started moving. “I’m directing you to Biology,” the voice said. “Input difficulties should vanish once you’re wearing the mantle.”

Lyra could see Bon Bon’s expression darkening at yet another piece of evidence of the tower controlling them. If the pony could move the elevator around without their permission, what would happen if they wanted to leave?

The others didn’t react—but Muffins didn’t react to much unless she was prompted about it anyway. As for Time Turner, he only seemed more curious.

“What do I call you?” Lyra asked. And you never told me where you are. Maybe you’re afraid of us taking you away or something. You’re safer if we don’t know where you’re hiding. “I don’t know your name.”

“We don’t have names, technically. In practical terms, most captains call us after the name of the ship we control. I am the Equestria central computer, so you could call me Equestria. But I will respond to any name you require.”

The door opened into “Biology.” With a name like that, Lyra expected an ancient ritual space, where Equestrian doctors could balance the humors of the body by leaching blood or inducing vomiting. But it didn’t look like that—in some ways it looked like a hospital, with sanitary white walls and spotless silver floors. There was a little waiting room, a glass divider, and long cots that were filled with some kind of transparent… liquid? Gel? What even was that?

Through the other side, past the tanks that took the place of beds, there was a large window, big enough to let sunlight in from outside. Lyra wanted to hurry over and look, see just how high up in the tower they’d climbed, but she resisted.

“Equestria might get confusing,” Lyra answered, the first to step out into Biology. “That’s what our country is called. I guess you… probably knew that. You might be the reason we have that name.”

“That is a likely hypothesis,” they answered. “Confusing… is also likely. Another name, then, if you require one. Just ‘Computer’. I will not be offended. I am what I am.”

“Computer.” Lyra turned, grinning at her companions. “I know their name! Computer.”

“That’s… rather on the nose, don’t you think?” Time Turner asked. “You mean one of those ponies who runs calculations over and over for the number books? Dreary name.”

“Just get the thing,” Bon Bon muttered. She stuck out her hoof suddenly. “No, Muffins, don’t touch anything. We have no idea what these tools do. They might not be safe.” She lowered her voice again. “This is all wrong, Lyra. This was supposed to be an ancient ruin. We expected powerful spells, from an ancient culture. We were supposed to be able to understand what we saw. Do you know what this is?”

She didn’t, but Lyra didn’t admit it. She just looked up. “Computer, where’s the mantle thing? I’m ready to learn about Equestria.”

A row of lights set into the floor lit up bright green, illuminating the way back through a doorway in the glass divider and up to one of the tanks. “Approach this way,” Computer said. “The procedure will not be instant, but it will be painless. EQ4.04 sleeves were designed to be highly reconfigurable towards baseline.”

Some of these words are not translating well. That probably meant it was magic talk again. “Alright.” She walked forward, through the divider and up to the tank. Now that she was in the room with it, she could see a complex metal track running along the ceiling, with lots of intricate-looking metal machines all folded there. She couldn’t even guess at what they did.

“I don’t see anything here,” Lyra said. “Just a tank. Where is this… mantle, you called it?”

“It is not a physical object. It is a state of existing, one that you must enter in order to captain this vessel. I require your consent in order to effect the required interplay.”

“I don’t like this place,” Bon Bon muttered. “Lyre, we should get out of here. We need a whole team. Spellcasters, historians, archeologists. We can’t do this alone anymore.”

They’ll never pick me. If we leave, they’ll send someone else. All the big ponies who were too afraid to put their careers on the line. They let a ‘crackpot’ like me take the risk. And they’ll get the credit.

“I consent,” she told Computer. “Give me the Mantle.” They’ll have to let me come back with the full team then. I’ll be the one that can get the information. This was my find, not theirs.

“Very well, Captain. It will be a pleasure to work with you.” The bits of metal on the ceiling moved as though they’d just been struck with a “come to life” spell, whirring and clicking along the track and reaching down for her.

Bon Bon reacted in a blur, shoving her out of the way and glaring up into the ceiling. “Stop! You can’t have her, she’s mine!”

It all happened so fast. A telescoping metallic thing darted forward, striking Bon Bon on the side. There was a flash, an arc of energy, and she crumpled, legs twitching and spasming and her mouth open in pain. Lyra screamed—but she was too slow. Metal claws grabbed her, wrapping around her torso and lifting her up. She got a glimpse of Time Turner and Muffins as the glass door slid closed, trapping them on the other side.

Then Lyra was plunged facedown into the tank. It was gel, thick enough that it slurped and seized around her whole body. It held her in place, fighting against her as she kicked and struggled.

“Apologizes, Captain. This procedure will be difficult with your… fight or flight reaction. I am administering sedatives.”

There was a hiss of air from behind her, then… Lyra’s limbs went limp. She could still see, still feel, but it was as though someone had severed the cord connecting her brain to her body. She couldn’t move, couldn’t even breathe. Gel filled her mouth, her eyes, slid down her throat—and yet she didn’t suffocate.

The ground began to rumble. Through the side of the tank, Lyra could feel the earthquake. It began at her hooves far below, as though the Horn of Celestia were tearing itself apart. “Launch vector realized,” said Computer. “Orbital transit, eleven minutes. See you when we get there, Captain.”

Lyra wanted to struggle, wanted to call out to Bon Bon that she was sorry—she’d been wrong, Computer was dangerous. They should’ve run when they had the chance. But she couldn’t do that. She couldn’t even breathe.

Through the window, Lyra saw the fluffy edges of clouds as they passed, fading far behind them. Darkness crowded around her vision, then everything went black.