• Published 30th Sep 2022
  • 1,917 Views, 174 Comments

Diplomatic Solution - Starscribe

Equestria joins the galactic community to discover an bloody eternal war. They resolve to find a solution in the pony way: diplomacy. All the Young Six have to do is negotiate an alliance with violent, xenophobic aliens. What could go wrong?

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Chapter 16

Ocellus watched from the back of the group as they advanced towards the scepter.

Smolder was not the first into the opening. With the Thronestone's powers not working on her, that meant clear danger for her to avoid—it meant the strange magical voice of the scepter could speak to her with every moment, whispering promises of power to her ears.

While they climbed, she kept her eyes on Sandbar's back, using the pony's outline to ground her in the real world. So long as she could see something real, she could push aside promises of the unknown.

The words it spoke were more tempting than any the Enti ambassador ever could say. This scepter knew her desires better than she did. It promised peace in the cosmos, an end to Enti aggression and safety for the Stellar Compact. And once that was achieved, there would be nothing stopping Ocellus from devoting her life to exploration.

With the scepter, she could ignore the boundaries of space, teleporting from planet to planet, trying the forms of every being in the cosmos. So long as she owned it, she would never need to fear old age—and her friends wouldn't either. The Alicorns had their immortality, so why shouldn't she have it? That was fair payment for saving the galaxy.

More than once, she bumped into a wall, and the shock reminded her of where she was and how she'd got there. I'm not here to take it for myself. I'm going to turn it over to one of the locals. I don't care about the scepter, this is just about proving that magic doesn't give creatures their souls.

She wasn't sure how long it took. Minutes? Hours? The next thing she knew, she was crawling up from the darkness, into a strangely light space despite their feeble flashlights. Her eyes took a moment to adjust, then finally she saw. She was at the bottom of a crater—the very bottom, the same one that formed the entire forsaken jungle that Zecrin feared to enter.

Many layers of ruin stood above, collapsed stone cities covered in vines and ancient moss. Yet the ruin remained intact, enough to highlight its basic shape. Instead of absorbing light, the walls looked almost polished to her eyes, focusing all light down at the bottom.

There stood the old emperor, covered in glittering golden armor. He stood frozen, with the scepter clutched in both claws, as though in the middle of a powerful casting.

His body was a strange mixture of decay and preservation. His scaly coat was intact, yet his eyes had rotted from his skull, and skin peeled back around his jaw to reveal polished white teeth. The course of ordinary decay should not permit a corpse to remain posed so well, yet from the back, Ocellus wouldn't have known the Zecrin was dead.

"I don't think we should get close," Silverstream said, catching Ocellus's leg with one of her claws. She hadn't even realized she was advancing on it. "Look at all the other creatures it killed. Don't you think there could be more defenses?"

Ocellus blinked, looking down sheepishly at her leg. "Y-yeah. You're probably right. Keep an eye on me until we get through this. The Thronestone isn't protecting me like it protects all of you."

What a strange paradox that the Thronestone—magic meant to cement the dominance of changelings by allowing them alone access to their magic—now made her vulnerable to attack.

Even so, Ocellus turned away from the scepter, looking at their surroundings.

It had once been a throne room, with fine metal pillars and ancient treasures now covered with jungle roots and creepers making their way down from above. There were other corpses here, many dressed with the same finery as the dead emperor.

None of those had escaped with as little decay, though. And none stood as close as they did. Had the tunnel given them a path past the deadly defenses? Or maybe the scepter was trying to kill them right now, and it couldn't get through?

"That scepter is an artifact, as powerful as anything we're carrying," Ocellus said. "The Thronestone can't stop it from working on whoever takes it. It should prevent anything like the disaster that created this crater in the first place—its power will be limited until I shut it down."

Even as she said it, she felt a sudden, powerful desire to put the stone away. The scepter demanded that she release its confined power. The dominion it had created was toothless now, its magic stolen from it until the stone was deactivated. How dare she violate its will?

Ocellus settled both hooves on the ground, facing the scepter stubbornly. She would not be compelled by an old golden stick. She had come for a higher purpose than anything it could understand, and would not be distracted from it.

"Someone has to take it. We don't know what that will do to them. You see what happened to the emperor. Whoever it is—needs to be strong enough to give it back to the Zecrin when we're done."

The group shared a nervous glance. Smolder, who had been closest to taking it herself, now backed away. "I know myself. Dragons don't like giving up shiny stuff. Easier if I don't take it."

"I don't like how... predatory it looks," Sandbar said. "I don't think it wants me to use it."

"Not me either," Yona said. "Same reasons. Those who made this think evil thoughts. Driven by their hunger. Ate others like barbarians. I will have no part."

That left three—three predators, though of very different kinds. In its way, this scepter would probably take all of them.

"I think it should be one of you," Ocellus finally said. "The Thronestone doesn't protect me. If it wants to influence me, I'll face its full force. It's trying to make me do things right now, and I'm not even touching it."

"Is it evil?" Gallus asked. "I know that sounds silly, but look. All these creatures dead. Maybe we should leave it here."

Ocellus felt satisfaction from it with those words. The artifact wanted to be left here. Somehow, this terrible jungle that killed all who entered was its desire. If they turned and walked away, it might even let them go without a fight.

"We can't do that," Silverstream said. "We have to show the Zecrin the truth. Someone has to take it. I think since—since I don't have an artifact with me, it should be me."

She had her piece of the pearl of course, though they hadn't used it during this trip. Being able to breathe underwater might serve them in many of the places Ocellus wanted to explore on her vacation, but it would do her little good bringing peace to a war-torn galaxy.

"It could kill you," Ocellus whispered. "Can you control it?"

Silverstream took a long time to answer. "I think—I think I might be the best creature for the job. I've seen what getting too much power does to someone. My whole... civilization was almost destroyed. I won't turn into another Storm King."

She stepped forward, reaching for the scepter with a claw.

The emperor's body moved. He lowered the scepter with one rotting claw, then drew a sword from his belt with the other. The scabbard fell away rotten as he did so, exposing empty ribs and broken body. Silverstream screamed, retreating from him with a flurry of feathers, though she didn't actually fly.

The body turned on Gallus, who happened to be closer—and he reacted. He met the dead emperor's blade with the flat of his own enchanted sword, then shoved back, running the corpse clean through. It passed through the body easily, letting out a hiss of dust and grave gas that made the body start to sag.

"No!" the corpse yelled. Its voice was thin, strangled even. "You defile! This proving ground was not yours!"

The corpse didn't seem to notice the sword piercing its chest, and it swung at Gallus with its own blade. Gallus might've taken a deadly blow, if Yona wasn't there to tackle him, sending them both rolling across the room.

"Your claws step where they are not wanted!" He advanced jerkily, flesh crumbling from old bones as he swung with one claw. The other clutched the scepter loosely, never trying to use it.

Smolder exhaled a burst of flame at the king—but with her magic suppressed, it didn't seem to do much but lightly char already rotten flesh, and start a few old scraps of torn cloth on fire.

It smacked her with its sword with several harsh blows, which sent her tumbling but couldn't pierce her scales.

Then it turned on Ocellus. Stay. She felt the command, louder than anything she'd sensed before. It glued her hooves to the ground. Her wings opened to try to fly, but buzzing them did nothing. The crater had stolen her magic, even if the Thronestone didn't suppress it. She whimpered, watching as the dead emperor raised his sword again.

Silverstream leaped at him from the other side. She ignored the blade and armor entirely, didn't try to use her powerful claws or beak on the rotten flesh—instead, she latched onto the scepter.

The emperor's rotten fingers gave way, torn free of the scepter as she yanked it out of his body.

The corpse dropped instantly, tumbling lifeless to the ground. Ocellus watched it disintegrate before her eyes, scales and tissue puffing away to nothing but bones and ancient armor. A pale skull gazed up at her from the ground, no longer twisted into a fury. She saw only the same emptiness that always came from death. It was over.

"Are you okay, Silverstream?" Sandbar asked, nudging her with one hoof. She stood frozen in place, the scepter clutched to her chest in one claw. Her eyes remained fixed on it.

Ocellus could see why someone might stare. It was worked of pale gold, unlike any that was commonly known to her. Tiny etchings ran along its length, with studs of thousands of little gemstones set perfectly into the metal. It glowed from within, light shining from each of the little cracks and lighting those gemstones like charged thaumic crystals.

Such stored power would have been snuffed out by the Thronestone, if they were contained in a thaumic apparatus. But an artifact was too powerful to be extinguished so easily.

Gallus made his way over, drawing Excalibird from the corpse, and cleaning it on his cloak before returning it to its scabbard. "Nice save, Yona. You don't expect someone to keep coming after you kabob them."

"I see what it was doing here..." Silverstream whispered. "The Zecrin—soft. They relied on magic so completely that they no longer needed to struggle. It hates what they became. Wanted to make the whole world back into a wilderness. Teach them to fight. Teach them with blood and death. Let them take back their magic through war."

Ocellus could see the logic now. The jungle wasn't random chaos—it was designed to kill. The scepter wanted a whole world that would cull the weak, and leave only the strongest and cleverest. It was evil beyond description—but also not. It could not comprehend life and death the same way people did.

"I d-don't know... how I can tell it no—" Silverstream whispered. Her body started to shake, her wings sticking violently open to either side.

Lighting arced along Silverstream's wings. Her eyes began to glow, suffused with the terrible power of the scepter. It couldn't do much with a dead wielder—but with a living one, how much greater harm could it cause? Maybe Silverstream really could change the whole planet. Instead of a new ally, they would cause a devastating genocide for one of the only other magical species in existence.

Sandbar and Gallus reacted, coming in from either side, trying to hold Silverstream down. They went flying seconds later, thrown backward. Without magic, an earth pony just wasn't strong enough.

Ocellus had only seconds to act, before Silverstream lost control.