// Story: To Be Remembered
// Chapter: Mors certa, hora incerta
// Author: MrSpartan
In the city of Canterlot, Twilight Sparkle and Spike the Dragon waited somewhat impatiently for their train. It was still relatively early and the meeting with Princess Celestia had been brief. Their destination? The deserted wastes past the badlands and beyond the southern borders. Spike and Twilight both tapped their feet on the empty platform. Finally, a train tugging a single car pulled into the station. A gruff looking black stallion sporting a full beard poked his head out of the conductor’s window.
“You the pair headin’ to the Badlands?” he barked.
“Yes, that would be us. Let me just get out our tickets,” said Twilight Sparkle.
She dug into one of the two saddlebags she was wearing with her snout. Normally she would have just levitated the items out, but her bags were so stuffed with archaeological tools, cases for samples, as well as emergency medical supplies and books for the journey ahead, that she had to find them first.
“No need fer that. I believe you. Nopony ever goes to the badlands except the occasional prospector or loony.” The train driver gave the pair a hard look. “You don’t look like either, though. I wouldn’t bother if I were you. Nothing much out there ‘cept buzzards and rocks.”
Spike stuck out his chest a little at the pony being rude to his adoptive big sister and best friend. “Darn right she’s not a loony! She’s Twilight Sparkle! The princess’ personal student! We’re on an expedition.”
Twilight smiled at the little dragon. Her heart swelled with appreciation when Spike took her offences as his own.
The stallion huffed in annoyance. “Okay, okay, just gid in. I don’t got all day.”
Ignoring the stallion’s attitude, the pair got into the passenger car. The hiss of steam and magic used to power the arcane engine could be heard as the train accelerated.
Twilight was practically bubbling with eagerness as she took a seat with her assistant. “Isn’t this so exciting, Spike? Assuming my research and hypothesis is correct, we’ll be discovering the remains of a heretofore unknown civilization!”
Spike smiled. The unicorn’s excitement was becoming contagious. “I have to admit, it does have a really cool sense of adventure to it. I wonder if we’ll have to fight off any monsters when we get there?”
Twilight put a hoof to her chin in thought. “I don’t believe so, Spike. Princess Celestia said almost nothing lives where we’re going. It has something to do with all the odd energy in the area. She said it isn't magical in nature, and no non-magical beings could hope to survive its effects. In fact, she seemed nervous even when she explained that a sufficiently magically infused being will be resistant to it's effects for a short time. I supported her with the "magically energized tissue-to-health superiority theory" drafted by Star Swirl the Bearded, but she didn't seem entirely sure about letting us go.”
In the end I had promise to turn back at the first sign of danger, Twilight thought, not wanting to worry Spike.
“Oh that reminds me, did the princess have any advise or instructions for us about the trip?” Spike asked.
“Not much,” the mare admitted. “Just the energy thing, and that any food or water would be toxic. She also said it was even more ancient than Discord or any other known entity, including herself. The land is rumored to be what the planet was like before life as we know it existed.”
“Wait,” Spike said, raising a claw. “I thought that you said the civilization was still a theory and that nopony had actually found it yet. How would Princess Celestia know its age if it might not even be real?”
“Huh, good question, Spike. Maybe others theorized this before, but never found any significant evidence. I’ll have to ask her about it after we get back.”
Time seemed to fly by. Before they knew it, the train came to a grinding halt.
“All right you two, last and only stop. I’ll be here every afternoon fer the next two weeks. After that, imma assuming you ain’t comin’ back,” the conductor said.
“Alright,” Twilight answered flatly, feeling more than a little bit irked by the driver's attitude.
The locomotive had come to a stop at a lonely raised platform constructed of cheap wood in the middle of nowhere. The only thing for miles was shrubbery and dry, loose dirt. Spike walked next to Twilight as they exited the train, not wanting to overburden her by adding his weight to what she already carried in her saddle bags. She was stronger than she looked, but still, it made the dragon feel like he wasn’t contributing enough. Spike looked at the bulging saddle bags, a slight twinge of guilt made his claws twitch. The train puffed out a white smoke trail as it left the tiny station.
“This is going to be the boring part now, isn’t it Twilight?” Spike asked.
Twilight sighed in response, taking in the barren land they stood on. “Afraid so. Come on, we better get started.”
The horizon beckoned them.
Sand, sand, and more sand. That was all there was to see, besides the occasional rock. The rare bits of plant and animal life had all but vanished a while back. The dreadfully tiresome scenery, coupled with the steadily rising heat, made for a very unpleasant trip, but Spike was suffering much more from his own boredom than the heat.
“Twiliiiiiiight, are we there yet? This is taking forever and my legs are starting to hurt.”
Twilight blew a strand of hair out of her eyes. Her mane was starting to tangle from sweat and it kept getting on her nerves. The patient pony made sure not to take that frustration out on her number one assistant and friend.
“I told you it would be a long journey, Spike. You still agreed to come along anyway.”
“Well yeah,” Spike said while shrugging, “but I thought it’d be an epic thrill ride, battling ancient monsters and finding lost treasure. Instead, all we’ve done is walk. Plus, Princess Celestia said either only you OR me and you could go. I’m not going to leave you hanging like that.”
Twilight blew that same length of hair away again before answering. “I know you wouldn’t. I’m sure we’ll get there soon. Unless I'm wrong."
The dragon’s ear fin twitched as he overheard that last part. He suddenly felt very guilty.
“I’m sorry, Twilight. I don't doubt you. I’m just tired. I won’t complain any more, I promise.”
Twilight stopped and gave the baby dragon the most sincere smile she could manage, before pulling him into a hug. “I’m not mad at you, Spike. I’m just starting to have my doubts about this whole thing.”
“Don’t,” Spike interrupted. “You’re the smartest unicorn in the entire world. If anypony is right about this extinct pony race, or whatever they were, it’s you.”
“Thanks, Spike. That means a lot. Why don’t we take a break for now to catch our breath and fill our stomachs?”
With that said, the unicorn levitated a red and white checkered blanket, as well as a pair of hay sandwiches -- one with an extra layer of amethysts -- out of her saddlebags. She laid the cloth on the sand and sat herself down, patting the spot next to her. Spike plopped down obediently, more than happy to give his aching legs a rest. They ate their meal and drank from an enchanted canteen, guaranteed to remain both pure and full, in relative leisure. In between bites, Spike inquired more about their expedition.
“So what do you think we’ll find when we get there, Twilight?”
“Honestly, I’m not expecting much. We’ll likely just see some old sturdy cottage walls or artifacts we’ll have to excavate. Still, even that should prove substantial evidence to support my academic findings, or should I say lack thereof...” she answered.
“What do you mean by that?” Spike asked.
“Well, what got my attention wasn’t so much the evidence, as the missing evidence,” Twilight said.
The dragon raised a scaly eyebrow in confusion.
Twilight elaborated. “While looking through the 'Geographical Locations and their Histories' book, the southern-most badlands was the only entry with nearly nothing in it. So naturally I looked through 'The Entire World Categorized' to see what it had to say instead. It had no entry on it at all. That got me curious. I read through book after book and still nothing!”
“And that’s when I came in and found you buried alive under an avalanche of books,” Spike finished.
Twilight blushed a little. “I wouldn’t say buried. Besides, I’m sure I could have dug my way out eventually.”
“It took two hours before I heard your muffled yells of, ‘Spike help! I’m running out of oxygen!' " Spike countered with a half lidded stare.
Twilight Sparkle suddenly looked at her foreleg and made a slightly exaggerated gasp. “Oh is that the time?! We better hoof it or we won’t get to the site before dark!”
“But Twilight, you don’t have a watch. Also, the sun is still in the middle of the sky,” Spike said, rolling his eyes.
“No time for that, Spike. We don’t want to be late!”
The unicorn speedily folded up the blanket, sending the lightweight dragon tumbling as she pulled it from underneath him. The little guy recovered quickly, then hurried after the mare, who was trotting away.
“Hey, wait for me!” Spike shouted.
Around six hours later, Twilight Sparkle stopped in her tracks, clutching her gut.
“Ooooh,” she moaned.
“Hey, Twilight, are you feeling okay?” Spike asked.
The unicorn sat on her haunches and grunted in pain. “I think there might have been something in my sandwich that shouldn’t have been there.”
“Really?” The baby dragon said disbelievingly, “I feel fine.”
She clutched her tummy harder. “I-I think I’m gonna-“
The poor mare was unable to finish as she violently released the contents of her stomach. Her body shuddering from the strain. Rather then stepping back in disgust, Spike rubbed Twilight’s back soothingly to help her feel better, not knowing what else to do.
With slight fatigue in her voice she said “Owe. I don’t think that was the sandwich. It must be the beginning effects of the dangerous energy field the Princess warned me about. Let me just…“ her horn glowed as she cast a magic ward of protection.
From the tip of her horn cascaded a clear shiny substance that resembled shrink wrap. Soon her entire body was coated. The protective spell vanished from sight.
“There. That should do it,” the magician said with a satisfied nod.
“W-wait, what about me?!” Spike asked, alarmed.
“Well this spell is kind of difficult and it can only be self-cast. Don’t worry Spike. One of the reasons only you out of my friends could come is because you’re a dragon. Your scales will keep you safe,” she explained.
The dragon put a claw up to his chest and sighed in relief. After that incident the walking began anew, the unicorn's highly magical nature allowing her to recover quickly. It wasn’t long though before the pair stopped again. Thankfully, this time it wasn’t due to sickness; just ahead of them was a twisted beam of metal protruding out of the sand and dust, like a sword of honor for the fallen.
Twilight was drooling over it in an instant. “OhmygoshSpike! Our first discovery! Quick, set up a digging perimeter with the stakes in my right saddle bag while I get out the excavation equipment! Spike? Spike!”
The happy little pony looked over to see her assistant standing as still as a statue. She was about to lecture him about the importance of focus, when she noticed his dumbfounded expression. She nudged his shoulder with her snout, starting to worry.
“Spike, what’s wrong?” she asked with tinge of nervousness.
Without so much as blinking, Spike moved her head to look where he was looking. Twilight now wore the exact wide eyed expression he did. There was another metallic object sticking out of the ground. A tall sign, for that’s all the object could logically be, stood intact. It was painted yellow and black with a very bizarre symbol. The worn image showed the face of some unknown, perhaps simply symbolic, creature with a gaunt nature. Just below the eerie head -- in the spot its neck would be -- was a sword or perhaps a knife and below that was a single large red raindrop shape.
Twilight and Spike felt their hearts drop into their stomachs when they saw that splotch of red. Mounted on a pole that extended above the sign was a long, black, hooded robe. The fabric was tattered and had obviously weathered the devastation of time. Here though, in this lifeless landscape where nothing bigger than a fly survived, only the everlasting heat of day and the occasional sandstorm worked to destroy it. Apparently the material was durable enough to last all this time. The odd thing resembled a scarecrow of sorts.
“Okay, I’m now one hundred and ten percent sure you were right, Twilight,” Spike quietly said.
Twilight Sparkle shook her head then levitated out a small camera from her saddle bags and snapped a picture. After that, she moved to examine it more closely. It was just a thin sheet of metal with a black robe draped over it. While nothing special under normal circumstances, in this location it more than confirmed her hypothesis that there had been some kind of local society. Technically, she and Spike could turn back now and head to the safe coziness of their home in Ponyville; there was no need to risk anything by going further into the wastes. Yet some imperceptible force pulled at her heart and mind to go further. It was as if a spirit was pleading to be found beyond the veil of dust and heat. Only the mare’s willpower and the tall sentinel of a sign worked to repel any invasions into the barren unknown.
“Come on, Spike, let’s keep going.” Twilight said.
“You sure? Even I can tell when an alien sign is saying keep away,” Spike asked.
“Yes,” she said, determined.
Things started to get hazy and a lot greyer as the explorers moved onward. The wind was picking up enough to start a sandstorm. The storm wasn’t too bad, but it did obscure the travelers’ vision. Keeping south, they were soon shielding their eyes from the pelting grains. Spike kept close to his adoptive sibling to avoid getting separated.
At last, the blasting winds died down to an eerie wailing that sounded like the shrieks of the damned. As their vision returned, the ghostly ruins of a massive metropolis met them. They had arrived. Both were speechless. Grey, lifeless buildings that dwarfed every structure in Canterlot -- with the possible exception of the castle -- lined up at their sides. What must have been an elevated stone pathway built for more than a dozen ponies at a time stretched out before them. There were weird wheeled carts made of metal strewn everywhere; and much more soon made itself apparent as they slowly started trekking along the empty streets. The baby dragon now rode on top of his equine friend.
“Twilight…I’m scared,” he hesitantly whispered, “I feel like we’re being watched.”
“Don’t be silly. There’s nothing here but us,” the unicorn found herself whispering too.
She couldn’t tell her assistant the truth – that she was just as scared as he was. She had to be brave for the both of them.
Something about this place didn’t feel quite right. Rubble lay scattered across the cracked and crumbling streets; worn out black rectangles hung along walls, street corners, signs; and a thick layer of dust coated everything like a layer of powdered bone. Twilight guessed some sort of magic had been used to power them all for something, but exactly what, she would probably never know.
Disastrous damage and disturbing atmosphere aside, the mare was still astounded at the level of advancement the race must have possessed. Everything gave off an impression of a strict, ordered society. Twilight had seen quite a bit, and had done her research, but none of it compared to the sheer size of this place. Beyond the unnerving fear she felt, she still felt the usual desire to understand how everything had worked and to what end. At the beginning she thought some separate tribe of unicorns or griffins had built it. Now, after seeing more and more evidence to the contrary -- like how none of the doors were shaped correctly -- she certain that some extinct species must be responsible instead. Twilight took out her camera and took a few more pictures. She and Spike eyed the broken glass and empty doorways. Each was a portal beckoning them inside into darkness.
Soon the pair discovered a spacious clearing in the otherwise densely packed ruins. The husks of petrified trees reached for the sky like the spears of an angry war god. In the center were several objects that were instantly recognizable as playground equipment. Twilight, with Spike staying glued to her back for comfort, inspected the grounds. With a heavy heart she saw the colors on the slide and teeter totter had faded to white. The swings had collapsed under their own weight, unable to carry the long gone children of a dead city. Twilight took no pictures this time. Spike almost swore he could hear the echoing of innocent laughter. The sun was setting, and the two knew that if they didn’t swallow their fears and find shelter soon, they’d be outside in this unnerving place at night. Somehow that idea did not appeal to them. Scanning their surroundings, Spike noticed an opportune location first.
“Look over there,” Spike said while pointing, “See the top of that building?”
Over a set of shorter structures that might once have been grocery stores was another with columns rising from the roof. They seemed out of place somehow. None of the other towers or dwellings had those.
“Alright, if nothing else I can get more information on a different category of architecture. Good eyes, Spike!”
The little dragon smiled despite his nerves. His heart beat faster.
“Hey, you know us dragons. We have the best eyesight and hearing around.”
Trotting around a collapsed dwelling, they finally got close enough to see all of the building with the columns, it had half deteriorated wooden doors much bigger than any others they had seen. A barricade of large grey and green machines surrounded it. Twilight noted that they had no wheels, at least no conventional wheels that she could see. She wondered how they moved. Did they have to be pushed or pulled? It seemed like way too much work to be practical or convenient. If that wasn’t strange enough, they also had long tubes sticking out; all pointed away from the building.
Strange, Twilight thought.
One near the pair had a lid opened on the top, but the mare could not hope to reach it at that height.
“Think you could look inside this thing if I levitate you up?”
“Uh, sure, yeah,” Spike answered, twiddling his claws.
Twilight could feel the shiver going up her assistant's back.
“It’s alright if you don’t want to, Spike. I can levitate myself up instead. I don’t mind.”
Spike rapidly waved his arms in the air like he was learning to swim. “No, no I’ll do it. Just, uh, just don’t go anywhere while I’m searching.”
“Never,” she assured him.
A lavender aura surrounded Spike and he was plucked off her back by an invisible hand and gently placed on top of the metallic behemoth. When the aura around him touched the thing, Twilight Sparkle yelped in pain just before her vision blacked out.
“Fire! Fire, you bastards! The United Confederacy will only take this choke point over our rotting corpses!”
Flashes of fire and lightning, followed by deafening blasts of thunder drowned out everything else. Barely visible figures moving in the dark of night darted from shadow to shadow. The choking stench of smoke burned the air. Screams echoed throughout the night. Pleas for mothers, shrieks of the dying and shouts of uncontained rage at the enemy were everywhere. Fear and anger, defiance and despair, the emotions were so thick one could almost taste them. Just barely observable was some bipedal creature holding a weapon that constantly blared with the elemental powers of lava and fire. It stood as tall as a giant. Its face, only seen by the bright flash of its terrifying weapon, was grey with soulless black eyes and a long circular feature that could have been either a trunk or a bizarre mouth.
“We won’t let them win. You hear me!?!” it bellowed from atop one of the metal behemoths that now blasted streaks of explosive magic from the barrel. Other tall shadows darted around the behemoth. The giant raised its fist high into the air while still firing its weapon. “Death before surrender!!! Death befo-”
With a loud metallic ding something invisible hit the giant in the head and it went limp. Time slowed to a crawl as the titan fell backward.
“Twilight?! Speak to me! Hey Twilight!”
“Huh, wha?” Twilight Sparkle’s eyes fluttered open and she rubbed her aching head.
Spike was staring down at her. Concern was as clear as the waning daylight in his emerald eyes.
“You were staring off into space there after you yelped. You feeling okay?” he asked.
“I’m, well, I’m alright. Oh wait! Did you find anything inside?” Twilight asked.
Concern changed to disappointment.
“Not really. Just a bunch of buttons and levers and dust,” Spike said.
The pony’s ears flattened.
“I DID find this thing though! I think it’s a fancy water container or something,” Spike offered.
Twilight’s ears perked up before falling back down with a horrified realization. The dragon was now holding up the face she had seen in her…vision? She levitated him down next to her along with the face. Close up she could see it was actually a high tech helmet that was very thick and far sturdier then anything she had ever seen. It was apparently not created for a pony or really any intelligent creature she could think of. It was too rounded, with zero room for somepony’s snout or horn. She stared at the front. Those soulless black eyes stared back at her in silent rage. Near the top left was a hole smaller than an Equestrian bit, surrounded by hairline cracks.
“Should we take it back as proof?” Spike asked as he looked up at his caretaker.
“I guess we should. Could you please carry it though? I’m a little worn out from hauling our gear,” the unicorn answered.
“Yes ma’am,” Spike saluted.
For an unknown reason, that dutiful salute made Twilight uncomfortable when it never had before.
Squeezing past the barricade of metal behemoths they made their way to the building. Spike gently pushed one of the large doors open. Thankfully it didn’t break. With a long creak of rusted out hinges it revealed the inside of the structure.
“Oh boy, here we go,” Spike muttered.
Twilight made a gasp that sounded like it might never end.
“Books!” The giddy pony bounced circles around an unamused baby dragon. “Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes!”
The shelves were as tall as those in the Canterlot library. Shelf after shelf lined the walls and more with the forgotten knowledge of whoever had built this city. Although just as silent as it was outside, neither of the two explorers would have labeled this silence as uneasy as the first. They just felt comfortable with it in that building, like the quiet belonged there. Twilight and Spike walked past what they assumed was a librarian’s desk. Although there was a square contraption on it, the well read mare was impatient to start reading first. She clopped past on the creaky hardwood floor to the first book she could reach. Eagerly grabbing it with her magic, she opened the first page. Her manic grin evaporated.
“These words are completely unreadable!” she complained.
A reference work, the 'All Encompassing Encyclopedia of Languages', levitated out of her saddlebags to float next to the indecipherable book. She flipped through page after page with increasing desperation. There wasn’t a single viable translation, modern or otherwise. “This can’t be. There’s not even a vague similarity to the world’s oldest languages. It doesn’t even look like the theoretical languages on chapter three hundred! Did these creatures just disappear off the face of the world?!” Twilight thought aloud.
After her initial exasperation, she noted that the old book was not only in illogically good condition, but was not made of normal parchment. It felt glassy and slippery, with sheen to its pages. Touching it with her hoof and horn she realized it was not made of paper at all. The material was something new. Clenching all the muscles in her body and only keeping one eye open, Twilight ripped out a sample page then stored it in a container from her bag for later study. She put the tome back in its place and went for a different book. Maybe this one would have text she could decipher. Her little hoof barely disturbed it when it crumbled to dust.
"What, no?! Wait, I can fix it! I can fix it!" she repeated.
How could one book be in near perfect condition, but another falling apart like that? She shakily lumped it back together. Her hooves carefully patted down the ashen remains into its original shape.
All better? she thought hopefully.
The book-shaped ashes fell apart again. The unicorn’s eyes grew as she felt like she was about to cry. Her lower lip was just starting to quiver when her assistant called her over to where he had been exploring.
“Twilight, look what I found!” he called.
The mare hurried to his voice. “What did you find? Are you hurt?”
She prayed to Celestia he hadn’t seen something like she had outside. He was looking at something on the floor. He scooted over to let his partner have a look. Twilight soaked in the relic’s details. Among the debris on the dusty floor was a marble bust, much like the ones of royalty or famous historical figures back home. Next to it was a short broken column that was carved from the same white stone. The relic itself had a few chips here and there, but nothing too bad. The eyes were beady with eyebrows above them. Its nose (if that’s what it was) was an ugly triangle shape set just above its normal looking lips. It was most likely a mammal; the bust had enough detail that Twilight could see hair on the very top of the head. The wrinkles suggested this individual was older, but for all they knew every member looked that way from birth. Spike glanced down at the ‘water container’ then back at the bust on the floor. Setting it upright, he put the metal mask on to the stone head. It fit perfectly
Twilight appreciated the spontaneous act. Initially she worried he might break or damage the relic, but he instead confirmed the other metal relic was a helmet. Unfortunately she could not, would not, risk damaging the intact bust by lugging the heavy and fragile object back to Canterlot. Wordlessly, she lifted the helmet off with her magic and back into the reptile’s grasp. She pulled a thin sleeping bag big enough for two from her stuffed saddlebags.
“We should get some rest, Spike. We’ll keep exploring tomorrow,” she said.
Spike nodded; and before either knew it, they had drifted off to sleep.
For Spike, being awake in the middle of the night was a rare occurrence for a deep sleeper such as himself. Something had stirred him from his slumber, but only an unlit candle and a still unconscious Twilight were around. Neither made any noise. His keen hearing picked up the moaning of the winds outside, but that was all. He started to slide back into the shared sleeping bag, when he heard something drop and break against the floor.
That woke him up.
The dragon looked to his sister to see if that had woken her. Twilight grumbled in her sleep. She seemed to be having a nightmare. Spike didn’t hesitate to investigate the noise; Twilight’s curiosity had rubbed off on him over the years. He grabbed the candle and its bronze holder, but nothing else in his haste. Once sure he was far enough away not to wake Twilight, Spike breathed a tiny bit of dragon’s breath onto the candle wick. The green light cast an eerie glow, but served well enough to illuminate his surroundings. Heading to the origin of the noise he had heard, he saw a mist circling around a piece of broken porcelain. It was the shattered remains of one of the occasional decorative knickknacks on some of the bookshelves.
Why’d it fall all by itself? That’s kind of creepy, the dragon thought.
He did a three hundred sixty degree turn to find what might have knocked it loose. So brief was the flicker of light turning a distant corner, he almost missed it. Was somepony else here too? He had to find out now. Turning a corner leading to a hallway, he was met with an otherworldly sight. At the end of the hallway was a two legged, tailless, little creature kind of like him. She, for it was certainly a female, wore a simple white sundress. Around her was the palest of glows, like that of moonlight. Even though the long, auburn-haired girl was completely alien, Spike felt the strangest feeling of enchantment with her. The entity radiated grace and innocence. Somehow, a part of him knew he had nothing to fear from her. She walked barefoot down the left of the fork in the hallway and out of sight again. Spike followed. When he reached the fork in the hallway, he almost missed the girl, just catching sight of her going into another room. He tried to catch up with her, but instead stumbled into an empty room with a hole in its side and bits of stony rubble on its floor. His vision went dark.
He saw the little girl in the sundress, with a much bigger lady standing next to her looking out a window. The little girl was playing with a doll as the older female looked out the window. She looked frightened.
“Mommy, when can we see daddy? I miss him,” the little girl asked, not looking up from her doll.
“As soon as we can go back home with grandma and grandpa, okay sweetheart? Now remember, we’re playing hide and seek. You have to be quiet so the bad men don’t find us,” the mother said.
“But mommy, I miss daddy,” the girl whined a bit too loudly.
“Sweetie, please, you have to be quiet so the bad people won’t find us,” her mother pleaded in a barely hushed whisper.
Suddenly the door leading to the room was kicked open and three devilish metal beings rushed in with strange black objects held in their hands.
“Get down on ground! Get down on ground!” one ordered in an artificial and heavily accented voice.
The beautiful little girl started screaming in terror, while the mother hugged her in order to protect her child with her body.
She started crying, “Don’t hurt my baby! Don’t hurt my baby!”
The metal demons didn’t move their faces, but their body language became more urgent and aggressive. “Down on ground! On ground!!”
The mother held her terrified daughter with everything she had. She continued to beg the intruders not to hurt her child. Ignoring her teary pleas, one of them violently grabbed the women by the hair to separate them.
Another of the metal monsters slapped the screaming child hard with its hand and shouted, “Down ground!”
The older female started struggling and thrashing to get to her daughter. She hit the being holding her in the face with her elbow, but it seemed unhurt.
“Leave her alone!” she shrieked as the metal creature raised the object in its hand…and squeezed it.
The woman’s head exploded and coated the monster’s steel skin with red. The body hit the floor with a wet thud. The little girl held her ears and shut her eyes like many scared young children do. Another of the creatures kicked her down and squeezed its own weapon.
A blinding light filled Spike’s vision as the explosive sound echoed in his mind. He rubbed his aching head and stared at the empty room. He was alone now. He dropped the burntout candle and sprinted back to Twilight in the dark. His eye's overflowed with tears while her ran, mucus leaking his nose. Reaching the unicorn at last, he slid into the sleeping bag and sobbed into her chest. His tears moistening her fur, waking her slightly from her restless sleep.
“Mmm… Spike? Why are you crying?” the mare asked groggily.
The baby dragon clutched her tight and buried his face into her comforting presence. “I don’t want *sniff* to talk about it. Can I just stay close to you?”
With a tired smile Twilight spoke, “Sure Spike, as long as you need.”
Soon she had fallen asleep. Spike followed suit, but not before hearing that last bang within his mind again. Yet he knew there were no sounds around him now.
There was only silence.
The next morning the two researchers turned adventurers woke up with no strange happenings. After replenishing her protection spell against the dangerous energy, Twilight and Spike prepared for the day ahead. They performed a last minute examination that only turned up more illegible books and a back room filled with important looking files in cabinets. Those of which were not inked out were also indecipherable. Spike and Twilight stayed closer together than the previous day, but neither of them were eager to inform the other as to why. Before leaving they also tried to get the square device at the librarian’s desk to do whatever it was supposed to. Failing utterly, they gave up and exited to the grey remains of the city of dust. The further the two traveled into the city, the more it seemed to be simultaneously preserved and destroyed. There were craters here and there at seemingly random spots. Pieces of what might have been wires, lanterns or scrap metal -- even the occasional bit of wooden furniture -- rested along the dirty streets.
At one point they stumbled upon a river of sorts. It looked to be a river of acid. It was sickly yellowish brown sludge flowing through a melted narrow of stone. Pipes and cords stuck out of the gash in the ground. Spike commented on how impressed he was that the builders could dig so deep and then bury the pipes so well that they didn’t break. Twilight agreed, saying that while Equestria had similar ideas for sewage and water, it was not nearly as perfected or as seemingly widespread. She then went into a brief and somewhat boring lecture on how the pipes themselves must be very strong and how much planning had to go into such a huge city, not only above, but below as well.
The pair carefully crawled over a fallen tower to cross the acidic river. Various discarded rusty cylinders and toxic boxes leaking acid littered the ground. What looked like lightning rods were also scattered about the wreckage and ruin. Investigation by the pair didn’t tell them much. Spike was playing with the fourth metal pole, when a loud humming filled the air. He jumped back. The rod suddenly started glowing blue, a bubble of electricity springing out to trap the dragon.
“Twilight, help!” he yelled.
“Don’t panic, Spike! Don’t touch the wall of that thing either!” Twilight instructed, with worry evident in her tone.
She experimentally tossed a pebble at the crackling blue-white field. It was vaporized before it even made contact.
Just as I feared, an advanced protective barrier. “Spike, can you remember what you did before it turned on?” she asked.
“Uh, I was just tapping some buttons near the middle.” Spike answered.
“Can you remember exactly which ones you pressed?” she asked.
Scratching his head before answering, he spoke, “Oh! It was a big green one.”
The smell of ozone tickled his sinuses like there was no tomorrow. Spike let out a sneeze. The puff of fire it created headed to the force field, but instead of receiving a shock it passed through like nothing was even there. The unicorn outside the field went wide eyed. Only the most accomplished magic users could pull off such a strong force field; none in unicorn history could make one that not only kept things from entering, but let things escape it too. Armor magic didn’t work like that. You just created a bubble container around whatever needed to be protected, and if you wanted to let someone enter it you had to change the barrier’s composition until they were safely inside. A second option was that you made a small shield in front of you. You couldn’t have it work both ways. Plus, the species that had mastered this ability apparently had the skill to create an item that could be used by any species. It was strange magic indeed. Twilight forced herself to get her assistant out safely first. She didn’t know how it might react if a dragon attempted to walk through it.
“Press the big green one again, okay?” she said.
Spike found the button and did just that. Instantly the electrical field dissipated and the two reunited with a hug.
“You have to be more careful, Spike! What if you had gotten hurt!? I wouldn’t be able to live with myself!” Twilight scolded. Water blurred her vision. “Promise me you’ll be more careful. Promise me.” She held his head in her hooves.
“I promise, Twilight,” he said, still looking scared.
“Alright, but from now on don’t touch anything without discussing it with me first,” the unicorn scolded.
“Got it,” He made to salute but accidentally bonked himself in the head with the helmet he was still carrying.
Twilight giggled, their oppressive surroundings making the little accident far funnier than it should have been, then the pair continued through the city. They decided to only search through smaller buildings that looked structurally safe and didn't give them a bad vibe. That shortened their list of locations to comb through substantially.
Spike started taking notes dictated by the unicorn on the various things and sights they found. Soon the notebook was nearly filled and they hadn’t even made it through a fraction of the city. Twilight was repeatedly astounded by some of the finds. For some immeasurably long time this metropolis had sat idle, yet many of its artifacts still functioned. Some must have used near perpetual magic engines since they would flash with lights or make sounds. They discovered street lamps that didn’t use natural means or fire as a power source. Strange music devices of various shapes and sizes that looked nothing like a record player sat collecting dust in one of the smaller structures.
Most had played static or nothing, but a couple had made beautiful and otherworldly music. One song had sounded downright demonic with a lot of guttural roaring. The explorers took one of the tiny ones that played a song with a lot of beeping and noises that would likely appeal to a certain unicorn DJ back home for study. They found more square contraptions like the one in the library, but only one seemed to work. That one just showed a black screen with more ancient symbols in the middle. Twilight silently lamented how so much knowledge had been lost to time. Soon the adventurers made their way through a hollow building whose only intact parts were three out of four walls.
Suddenly the grave silence was interrupted by a distant crashing that steadily became louder.
The Bearer of the Element of Magic spoke with total calm. “Spike we need to hide now.”
Spike nodded with a nervous look about him and the pair crouched behind the wall. They peeked over one of the many shattered window seals. The sound grew louder. Now it could be identified as a set of heavy footsteps. A giant metal animal about two stories tall walked into view across the distant street. It was a clunky, two legged thing that moved somewhat like a bird. It didn’t seem to have arms. Instead, at its sides were metal extremities that didn’t move. They looked like fins of some kind. Its three-toed feet made cracks in the paved street with each step.Its head was a reflective black dome, roughly the shape of an egg. It had no discernible organs for detecting its surroundings but it apparently didn’t need them.
It stopped right across from them and swiveled its head in their direction. The two of them ducked. Twilight put a hoof up to her lips in a shushing gesture. Spike nodded slowly. The crashing footfalls did not resume. The Equestrians behind the wall held their breath. Spike was beginning to sweat. That same sweat was making its way to his palms, one of which was clutching the wall. Suddenly a chunk of that decrepit wall chose that exact instant to tumble out of place and bounced on the ground right at Spike’s feet. It might as well have been a volcano erupting in that quiet city.
Twilight tackled him without thinking as the wall just above them exploded in a whirlwind of destruction. Rubble collapsed at the spot where they had been just a second earlier. Their ears were ringing when the magic user teleported them out of their spot. It wasn’t a second too soon, as another explosion blew that area into molten slag. Unfortunately, they stood out in the open now, prime targets for whatever strange weapon the thing carried. The hollowed husk of a building crumbled and collapsed. The two of them saw a smoking barrel they hadn’t noticed earlier. It, along with the pod shaped head it was attached to, aimed directly at them.
“JEOG-UI GAMJI JADONG PEU LO GEULAEM JONGSAHANEUN” The monster bellowed in a deep, emotionless voice. Several flaps on its sides opened up to reveal empty compartments that belched forth smoke. When nothing else happened, Twilight seized the opportunity to levitate a large chunk of rock at the monster. That particular rock had come from a nearby building and possessed a sharp, rusty spike of steel sticking out. The makeshift projectile was now lodged firmly into the joint connection of its right leg to its torso. Sparks spouted from the wound like fireworks. Maybe it wasn’t a living thing after all.
“OLYU. OLYU. OLYU. OLYU. *kzzzzzzzzzzttt* Olyuuu…” The threatening thing stopped moving.
After several minutes of silence, the pony dared a closer look.
“Twilight, are you crazy!?” Spike whispered hoarsely, “Don’t go near that thing!”
The mare ignored him. She could see a silhouette inside the creature’s head that looked familiar. Now she was drawn to it like a moth to a flame. She couldn’t stop her hoof from touching the glossy black surface. A hiss escaped the giant and nearly scared Twilight Sparkle out of her skin. It was still alive and hissing at her! That’s what she believed anyway, until the black pod opened and something even more horrifying greeted her with empty eye sockets. Both Spike and Twilight's mouths opened wider and eyes grew bigger. With dawning disgust they scanned all the morbid details. Slumped over in a chair inside the metallic animal was another one of the bipeds.
The creature inside was much smaller than the armor it was encased in, but still substantially larger then a pony. They recognized the body shape as that possessed by the beings in their separate visions. It wore a faded orange jumpsuit that was in far better condition than the body it contained. Little medals were placed on its chest. Twilight guessed they symbolized high status due to some skill. If the beast it was in the belly of was any hint, then that skill was the art of war. The legs wore high, black rubber boots. The arms were integrated into the beast itself. Glowing blue cables led from the metal bird-esque entity's insides and wrapped over still lingering strips of flesh, then up into the bony arm. From there the cables ran up and into the chest cavity. An empty bag with what looked an awful lot like an IV drip hung from the inner walls. The most disturbing part was the head. Its face was utterly mummified. The browned skin stretched tightly over its skull. While its mouth pulled back into an inappropriate grin, its eye sockets remained empty. That was all Twilight could take before she backed away and vomited. Spike followed her example. Never in all their lives had the pair stared death in the face so literally before.
“I…I wanna go home,” Spike whimpered.
Twilight couldn’t argue with that.
Remember, remember, remember, life, life, life.
The pony stuck her head up as the hairs on her body stood on end. Her pupils shrank to the size of pinpricks. Her ears twitched. Hearing voices meant one of two things. The first she that was going crazy, possible, but not probable. The other possibility was even worse for the logical mare.
“Twilight, you're scaring me. What is it? Twilight?!” Spikes voice next to Twilight grew more anxious by the syllable.
The pony looked over her shoulder at the face of an extinct race. She could no longer hear her companion’s voice. Her vision zoomed in on the carcass’s face. It looked up at her and snarled. Everything faded to white.
Twilight now found herself standing in a black void. There was nothing around her, absolutely nothing. Only a purple ball of light emanating from her chest dispelled some of the darkness around her. Ahead of her another light sprang up into existence within the void. This one was colorless. It bobbed towards her at a sluggish pace. When it was a bit closer, the dead body of the mummified being in the jumpsuit materialized around the light, which now rested in its chest. Twilight wanted to panic. She wanted to scream and cry and beg it to spare her all at once, but she couldn’t move a muscle. It got closer. It reached out a skeletal finger, then touched the purple light at her chest. From there it pulled its finger away and went for her forehead. A lavender string of light was wrapped around his bony extremity, leading into her chest light. At last, after a painfully long motion, it tapped her head. In a flash of lavender light the living corpse was transformed.
While still wearing the same clothes, the creature’s flesh and skin were rejuvenated. It looked to Twilight’s eyes like nothing she had beheld before. It had short cut hair, barely more then fuzz on it's head and around it's mouth, both were dark brown. It also possessed hair just above it's expressive grey eyes. It only used its lower legs to stand and walk, freeing its arms for other tasks. Twilight could see that its long claws were blunt and thick, sculpted for dexterity and a strong grip. The jumpsuit covered the rest of its body, but the creature was undoubtedly related in some way to primates. Sure, the artifacts and early visions had given her a decent picture, but the one in front of her was moving, breathing, alive.
What’s going on here? Why am I seeing this? she thought privately.
Yet, as if to answer her question the biped looked to the side and smiled a big toothy grin. Taking the hint, Twilight looked the way he was but only saw the void. She stared up at her new companion in saddened confusion. The being didn’t speak or look at the befuddled mare. The whispered voices from before answered instead.
Focus, focus, focus. We will show you the way, way, way.
Looking back uncertainly, Twilight focused with all her capability. Suddenly, a tiny prick of light exploded outward. Gasses, nebulas, stars and far more flew by them. Twilight was taken aback by the beauty. Next came the quickly approaching form of a planet. Twilight felt like they were going to crash, but they didn’t.
Home, home, home.
In the blink of an eye they were standing in the ruined city. Something was different now. The streets were filled with life. The sky was a pastel blue instead of the depressing sea of grey. Fresh paint decorated the unspoiled architecture. The odd carts now moved without any being pulling them, carrying members of the race from place to place. It was a wonder for the little pony to see. She smiled happily when she turned her head to the creature next to her. Now tears streamed down his face, but he never stopped smiling. Twilight saw his skin take on an orange hue. She turned her head and saw the same city now burning. Blasts of red and blue as well as the invisible cracks of other projectiles filled the air. Countless members of his kind ran about in various armored suits while metal monsters, both like and unlike the one Twilight had defeated, supported them. Bodies were everywhere. Innocents ran screaming in a mad dash to escape the war. Entire towers of magnificent glass and stone were blown apart like tissue paper. Screams of the dying were nearly imperceptible over the thunder of weaponry. Twilight tried to yell, tried to tell them not to lose the peace she knew they once had. However she was shouting to the dead. They could not hear her anymore than a weapon could hear the pleas of its victims to stop. The once grand utopia was burning to ashes and Twilight could do nothing to stop it. She could only watch, just like the ghost next to her.
“Please, no more. I don’t want to see anymore,” she begged.
This was too much. No race, no matter how foolish, deserved total and utter annihilation like this. Equestrian didn’t even have a word for what she was reliving. She had her head buried in her forelegs. A gentle hand touched her shoulder. She looked up with tearstained cheeks and puffy eyes. The entity looked down at her with moist eyes and a frown. Then back at the atrocity no doubt still playing ahead. Against her better judgment the young mare looked again. The fighting kept going until a massive mushroom cloud of fire erupted off in the distance, and then another, and another. The different metal behemoths opened their hatches, doors and other equivalents so those inside could see the end with their own eyes. A few individuals ran or hunkered down in the nearest buildings. Others deserted the area via quick moving war-carriages with four wheels. Most of the living warriors dropped their weapons. They knew further fighting was pointless. Others used their weapons on themselves. The few non-combatants left dropped to their knees. Two lone soldiers from opposite sides looked at each other. They removed their helmets and saluted each other. A wave of inferno and death that dwarfed the greatest disasters ever recorded by Twilight’s society neared them. All the living disappeared to be replaced by the city as it was now. A shadow of what once was.
“Why didn’t you save them?!” Twilight cried uncontrollably. Lightly beating at the one next to her she continued. “Why didn’t you all try to help each other?! Didn’t you know fighting isn’t the answer?! Now you’re gone and nopony even remembers you! It’s not fair!!!”
The being held her hooves in his hands. She struggled at first, but a calm peace radiated from the ghost. She stopped resisting his touch and stared into his eyes. He pulled her hooves to his chest where the colorless light rested. He then moved them back to her lavender light. Then he pulled one of the medals on his jumpsuit off and handed it to her. It resembled a purple heart. That wordless gesture spoke more to the unicorn than a book ever could. The ghost looked up, then from side to side. Abruptly they started sliding apart.
“Wait! Don’t go!” The pony called.
The ghost’s form started to fade. He changed to his mummified state, then back to a simple ball of light.
Remember, remember, remember.
Eventually, that faded as well. Only the void remained.
With another flash of light the explorer blinked. Spike was in front of her begging for her to answer him. She surprised her little brother when she hugged him for all she was worth. She finally let go after a moment. There was a clang of metal hitting the ground. Twilight’s ears twitched and she looked down. On the ground was a gold and purple medal, somehow made real from her vision, a last gift from the spirit of a once mighty race. She looked up at its face again then she picked up the medal.
“What’s that?” Spike asked, wiping his slightly leaking nose.
“It’s something to remember them by.” Twilight paused. The wind howled through the dead metropolis, tossing her mane back. “Let’s go back home.”
The baby dragon was all too eager to oblige. He hopped on her back and the both of them left as fast as was possible. Twilight did her best to not focus on the impossible tear she had seen falling from the dead creature’s face. While still being careful, they made their way to the edge of the city. The shadows greedily rushed to swallow them and the moaning of the wind sounded harsher and angrier with every passing second. By instinct the pair knew they would not be safe outside in the city at night. They just knew. The howling and moaning of the wind rose in volume. Soon the sounds of the blaring weapons’ fire became just barely audible to their sensitive hearing. Twilight didn’t notice, but as the sun continued to lower over the horizon, her partner could make out the silhouettes of tall entities running from shadow to shadow.
“Hurry, Twi!” Spike urged.
“I’m trying!” she replied.
They passed the library, then the outer city limits, then finally past the lone sign with a black cloak draped over it. Twilight’s heart couldn’t bear to let her look back, but Spike’s could if only just barely. While turned around on the pony’s hind quarters he nearly fell off at the sight of a shadowy skeleton holding a scythe in that old black cloak. The skull face of the sign was now replaced by a real one glaring at them. He rubbed his disbelieving eyes and looked again. The figure wasn’t there anymore, and neither was the sign.
The conductor was waiting at the station near the tip of the badlands on the third day like he said he would. The trip back home was so much longer to the two explorers than it had been the initial time.
“Twilight?” Spike piped up for the first time since the two of them had made it out of the city.
“Yes?” Twilight Sparkle said, looking up from the floor.
“So what are we going to report to the Princess?” Spike asked.
Twilight looked at the smallest of the artifacts they had recovered. The little medal she had received rested in her hoof.
“We’ll tell her to remember,” she replied with a tearful smile.