~Long ago, the War of the Magi reduced the World of Harmony to a scorched wasteland, and the powerful Magic of old ceased to exist. Even unicorns, the sole remaining wielders of conscious magic, were left with naught but the weakest of telekinetic powers.
1000 years have passed … metals, focusing gems, explosives, and steam engines have been rediscovered, and high technology reigns. But once again there are those ponies who seek to enslave the World of Harmony by reviving the dreaded destructive power of Magic. Even now, Harmony hangs by a thread.
Can it be that those in power are on the verge of repeating a senseless and deadly mistake?~
Three metal beasts lurched up a frozen hillside, spewing dirty smoke that fouled the pristine evening air behind them. The metallic monstrosities were magitek armor; four-legged, mechanized war machines from the Blueblood Empire. They were vaguely pony shaped, but where the head should have been located, an open cockpit cradled a living pilot.
As the armored walkers crested the hill, the shining lights of the far-northern town of Neighshe came into view at last. The three war machines formed a line abreast and then stopped. Warmed by the heat of their iron steeds' engines, the pilots took in the panoramic vista of their destination below.
"Well would you look at that, Snips; Neighshe," said the first pilot, a thin orange unicorn stallion. "An arctic town of hardened gem miners carved out of the rock of these mountainsides. I've even heard that young dragons make their homes in the mines and mountains around the town. These are tough ponies. Small wonder they've held out against the Empire this long."
"If you say so, Snails," the other male pilot replied. He was a stout cyan unicorn stallion. "All I know is I could be back in the warm barracks in Vectorlot. If you ask me it's just a matter of time before this whole forsaken continent falls to Emperor Blueblood."
"Of course," Snails nodded. "However tough these miners are, they're no match for magitek. Captain Snips, now that we're here, it seems that we must attend to our mission."
"Do you really think there could be an Esper down there, after all this time?" asked Snips. "It's been a thousand years! I thought the War wiped them all out, or drove them away, or whatever…"
"All I know is what the intel I got from the General says," Snails replied. "My understanding is that the miners here say they found an Esper."
"Yeah," Snips rejoined, "but it's probably just another wild goose chase, right?"
"I don't know …" Snails replied. "There has to be a reason we were given the 'special resource' for this mission. The boss must believe the rumors are true."
The cyan unicorn nodded, asking with only a slight tremble, "If there is an Esper, you don't think it's still … alive, do you? I mean, it's been a thousand years ..."
"It's none of our concern," Snails snapped, betraying his own anxiety. "That's why we have her." He gestured to the third rider, sitting eerily still in her magitek armor.
She was a young unicorn mare with a lavender coat and an unusual dark purple mane shot through with streaks of pink and royal purple. Her mane was severe and close-cropped compared to the long styles popular among the civilian populace. Most strikingly, an iron band embedded with focusing gems encircled her head. She stared blankly ahead and said nothing.
"I dunno, Snails, she gives me the creeps," commented Snips with a shudder.
"That's no way to talk about our secret weapon," Snails replied. "Besides, as long as she is wearing that Slave Crown she's ours to control. She can't even breathe unless we say so. We'll have that Esper and be out of here in a snap. Now let's move."
Snips nodded. "Okay! But uh, can we put her on point? No sense in taking risks, right?"
Snails thought for a moment, before nodding. "You're right! Good idea." Turning to the taciturn mare, he ordered, "You, we're heading out! You'll be taking point! If anypony comes to talk peacefully, let me handle the talking. If they're aggressive, well then," he finished, "I guess I don't need to tell you what to do, right?"
The lavender mare nodded her head in agreement, staring with hollow eyes back at Snails. As her magitek armor lurched forward and down the hill toward Neigshe, Snips and Snails both shivered, though not from the cold.
"L-let's get this over with swiftly, yeah? I don't like being around her," Snips implored. Snails quickly agreed, and the pair engaged the servos of their walkers and followed the mare toward the waiting town.
With servos whirring, engines whining, and exhaust billowing, the magitek knights in their armored walkers did not slow as they thundered across the snow toward the shuttered Neigshe city gates. The gate was broad and thick, but made of wood, and no mere wooden gate or palisade could stand before the Empire's mightiest constructs. Without hesitating to engage their advanced weapons, the walkers simply charged through the gate, sundering it and sending splinters flying in every direction. The booming reverberations of the impact echoed throughout the frozen mountain vale, alerting the Neighshe town watch.
"They'll be on us any minute now!" Snips called out.
"What of it? Disregard the rabble, the esper is our only objective!" Snails responded.
The three Imperials in their magitek armor charged down the main thoroughfare of Neighshe, and Snips was soon proven right, as a motley group of four guardsponies rounded a corner in front of them. The guards were wrapped from head to hoof in tightly-adhering cloths and furs to keep out the bitter cold. The lead guard whistled, and a pack of three snarling canines leapt out of the darkness to interpose themselves between the Imperials and the Neigshe guards.
"Lobos!" Snips cried out. "I wouldn't want to face off against one of them without my armor!"
"No kidding," Snails replied. "Luckily we don't have to. Now let's see what our little friend here can do." He turned to the Slave Crown-wearing unicorn in the third walker. "Kill them all!" he shouted.
The lavender unicorn nodded and stepped forward, leaving Snips and Snails safely behind her. She pressed a button in the console in front of her.
"Ooh, she's firing the Thunder Beam!" Snips announced. "Look out, lobos!"
The lavender unicorn's magitek armor leaned forward in an aggressive posture and a port on the "chest" of the walker irised open and unleashed a blinding torrent of lightning at the unfortunate lobos. In the wake of the blast the air reeked of ozone and burnt flesh, and the ponies present could see that one of the beasts had been reduced to an unrecognizable lump of char staining the white snow. With a shrill yelp of shock, its companion turned tail and fled into the night.
"Get out of our town, Imperial scum, and take your mechanical abominations with you!" one of the guards yelled, his raspy voice slightly muffled by his many layers of wrapping. "Blueblood hasn't set his dirty hoof down on Neighshe yet, and he never will!"
"Don't you understand how reckless it is to meddle with magic?" another yelled. "You'll end up destroying everything!"
The lavender unicorn remained impassive and did not acknowledge the guards' defiance. With an enraged shout, the four guards raced forward to engage, swinging bladed cudgels. With no other weapons, it was not apparent how they hoped to fight the deadly magical machines looming over them, but still they came.
"Bio-Blast!" Snails shouted. "That's an order!"
Obediently, the lavender unicorn placed a hoof against the console in front of her, and the portal in the chest of her magitek armor opened once again. This time, a sickly green, undulating cloud of energy poured forth to envelop the charging guards. They fell as one to the snow, writhing in agony before their screams fell silent. Instantly, they had received a fatal dose of magical poison from the Bio-Blast weapon.
"Messy work," Snips observed apathetically. "Now let's get moving. I don't want to spend another minute longer than necessary in this snowy wasteland."
"The new mine shaft should be just ahead," Snails agreed. "Go on!" he commanded the silent lavender mare.
The trio advanced through the town without encountering any more resistance, and soon found themselves approaching the entrances to the mines. "I guess we scared 'em off. Ha!" exclaimed Snips triumphantly.
"Maybe," Snails replied with hesitation. "Or maybe they're preparing a stauncher defense in the tunnels. I don't trust these miners."
"You're such a pessimist! Can't you just think positively for once? I mean, every single time you say something like that, som—"
Snips stopped talking as they felt the cavern vibrate slowly. Snips and Snails immediately became much more alert, their eyes scanning the walls and floors for possible traps, before they saw a small avalanche of dust fall from the ceiling in front of them. As they maneuvered their magitek armor backwards, a massive, spiral-shelled monstrosity fell down through the new opening in the cavern ceiling and landed with a booming thud.
A guard-pony poked his head down through the hole, yelling, "We aren't about to hoof the Esper over to the likes of you! Whelk! Crush them!"
The snail-like monster growled, its bass tones reverberating through the cavern like thunder. It inched inexorably toward the Imperials. Snails snarled, preparing his magitek for battle. "You just had to go and open your muzzle, didn't you?! Every single time something good happens, you go and say something like that and cause chaos to happen!" Gathering his wits, he ordered, "You, use a Tek-missile!"
The lavender mare flipped a switch, then slammed her hoof down on a red button in the consul in front of her. She watched without emotion as a panel in the shoulder of the magitek irised open and a shining silver spike rocketed from the magitek and slammed into the snail's shell, exploding violently. The snail squealed in pain, before its shell started to glow, then began to flash. Lightning shot forward, smiting the magitek machines in retaliation.
The magiteks started smoking horrendously from the damage, and some of the joints fused together from the searing heat, severely reducing the magiteks' agility. As Snips and Snails worked frantically to get their self-repair modes engaged, the lavender mare was forced to jump her magitek, teleporting a short distance away as her machine erupted in gouts of flame, damaged beyond magical repair.
As Snips stared at the destroyed wreck of the former mech, his rage soon followed in the wake of the technology: it exploded. "That's it! You, whatever your name is, use all of your magic on that monster's head! Bring that thing down!"
"And avoid hitting the shell!" Snails added after a moment, sighing in relief as his magitek was mostly repaired. "I forgot about these kind of monsters! If we hit the shell, it'll retaliate with an attack three times as powerful!"
"Gee, ya think?!" Snips snapped back, gritting his teeth in fury. "Why didn't you mention that before?!"
"Because you didn't give me time!" Snails retorted, getting ready to fight with his partner, when he noticed the mare's horn glowing. "What does she think she's doing? She's not going to be able to levitate something that large, is she?"
While Snips and Snails had heard from their superiors that the mare could use magic, nothing could have prepared them for what they witnessed. The mare chanted to herself quietly, her horn glowing a bright red before a radiant glyph the same color exploded from her, coalescing into an inferno under the snail monster, bathing it with flames. It writhed in agony, screaming tones alternating between guttural and a screeching falsetto, before trying in vain to seek sanctuary in its armored shell. The merciless flames didn't recede, instead cooking the Lightning Whelk alive inside of its shell. Moments later, the monster simply dissolved into a puddle, the shell crumbling into dust.
Snips and Snails just gaped for a moment, stunned at how quickly she had not only killed, but utterly destroyed the monster. Snips was the first to recover his ability to speak, asking hoarsely, "U-uhh... I-if she can use magic that powerful, then... Why would she be given a weaker magitek to use instead?"
"Err, maybe because of the better mobility?" Snails suggested timidly. "These can move faster than a pony could run, and longer too. Now we're down a tek, and we still have to escape after all of this! How are we going to get her and the Esper out of here?"
Snips sighed, before punching the console angrily, knowing he wouldn't be able to damage it, but it helped him vent some of his anger. "... We'll worry about that when the time comes. We should keep moving before they can find another one of those monsters to throw at us!"
"Why worry about that? We've got the mare!" Snails argued, pointing at the lavender unicorn, who was laying down as comfortably as she could on the ground, her chest heaving for breath. "... Oh. Yeah, okay, good plan! Mare, are you hurt?" He asked curtly, trying to avoid looking into her soulless eyes.
The mare shook her head numbly, though staggered slightly when standing back up. She stood still, waiting for her next order patiently. Snips took control once more, ordering, "Alright, Snails, you take point, just in case. You, you're going to follow him and make sure nothing catches us off-guard. I'll be taking the rear. Let's move out! We have to be getting close."
After ten tense minutes of navigating the mines and its dead-end paths, they finally found the cave that contained what they had been searching for high and low: the Esper. Snips and Snails both gasped loudly, the sound echoing in the cavern. In the center of the chamber was an enormous hunk of crystal-clear ice, and inside was a strange creature unlike any they had ever seen before. It was three times their size easily, made even larger by its frozen prison. The gigantic proportions of the Esper were hard to fathom, thrown off by the light manipulation the ice caused. Snips looked to the mare, who, for the first time, seemed to be showing the slightest hint of emotion, though it was impossible to tell what it was. Her eyes seemed … less dead than normal. "Stay out of our way! Snails, come on, let's go see what we can find out about this Esper."
As they approached the esper in their magitek, Snails stopped as he heard a small noise come from the mare as she slowly took a half-step forward. He blinked, then asked, "Hey, what's the matter? Do you know something we don't?"
Snips and Snails began to feel uneasy as they saw a flicker of confusion cross the mare's face, though she shook her head. Snips turned as he saw a pulsing light in his peripheral vision. "Hey, where's that light coming from?!" As he saw the esper, he felt like a stone had settled in the pit of his throat and stomach. The world seemed to fade away as the glowing esper seemed to grow in size, until it was all he could see. "Uwaaa—!"
Turning around quickly, Snails looked around, but his partner had disappeared without a trace. "S-Snips? Where'd you go?! C-come on, this isn't funny!" He looked around desperately, but all he noticed was the pulsing light radiating from the frozen esper, no trace of his partner or his magitek remaining. "W-what's happening?! Aughhhh!"
The mare blinked, and Snails was gone as well, having disappeared without a trace. For the first time in her life, she was without somepony else to tell her what to do. She stood stock still for several moments, before the esper started glowing again, though with a slightly different intensity than before, Slowly, she raised her front hoof, then set it back down slightly forward. Barely conscious of her movements, she was making her way to the esper at the pace of a snail, her eyes full of curiosity, though her mind was empty of all, save the irresistible compulsion to get closer to the frozen esper. As she neared it, it started glowing steadily, rather than in pulses, and the mare started started to glow as well. Wordlessly she opened her muzzle, though no words came out. The air crackled and sparked as electricity … or was it something else? … started flowing from the esper to the mare. Her head and horn exploded in pain for just a moment as the energy arced through her from the slave crown, before the sweet embrace of unconsciousness gripped her tightly and she fell to the ground, unaware of the world around her...
The first thing that the mare was aware of when she awoke was that she was warm. This was a significant change from her previous frigid circumstances. She almost started panicking, worried that it was a fire, when she realized that there was no searing, painful heat, but rather a low, comforting heat that seemed to radiate from all around her. She moaned slightly as she felt the ache in her legs and body, and started to curl up so that she could rest more comfortably. She froze in shock, however, when she heard movement just a dozen feet away from her. After a second, she jumped reflexively as a large thump reached her ears, tumbling to the ground. She righted herself swiftly, taking the room in a glance, before sagging to her knees as her vision got blurry, barely preventing herself from passing out again.
As she tried to blink the light-headedness away, she felt another body press up against her, helping her to support her weight. "Woah, take it easy! I only just removed the crown, too!"
From what she could tell, the voice belonged to an elderly stallion, though it had a gentle, caring timbre. As she blinked a few times, her vision returned to her, and she turned to look at her savior. He was a simple Earth pony with a brown coat and grey mane. After a moment to make sure she wouldn't get light-headed again, she inquired slowly, "W-where am I? Head... hurts," she grunted, wincing in pain as her head throbbed, preventing her from being more loquacious.
"Take it easy now, okay? That was a slave crown," he explained, pointing to the metal device sitting on the table against the far wall of the house. "The others you were with had complete control of you earlier because of it."
"But... Why can't I remember anything?" the young mare inquired, more confused than before.
"Don't you worry yourself about that, okay? It'll all return to you eventually. Well, at least in time, it will..."
~A mysterious young mare, controlled by the Empire, and born with the gift of Magic...~
The lavender unicorn forced herself to think as hard as she could, before saying slowly, "M-my name is... Twilight Sparkle," she finished, sounding slightly hesitant in saying it, as if she expected to be reprimanded.
To her surprise, the stallion seemed pleased with her answer, whistling, "Wow! Never heard of anypony recovering from Amnesia this swiftly before! Now you just take it easy, okay? It takes time for you to remember things, and that's not important if you can't remember something immedi—"
KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK!
Twilight squeaked in shock, jumping into the air before hiding behind the stallion, shivering at the unknown. The stallion turned to comfort her, giving her a reassuring pat on the shoulder when they heard shouting. "Open up!" a rough voice yelled outside of the house. "We know you have that witch from the Empire in there! She's an officer of the Empire, and must pay for her crimes! Hand her and the magitek over right now!"
"Oh no, I have to get you out of here! Hurry!" he begged, leading her to the back door hurriedly, setting a saddlebag on her back. "There's no time to explain! Just run, okay? Make your way out of here through the mines! I'll keep them distracted!"
"B-but who are you? Why are you helping me?" she protested, her eyes wide in fright, not really knowing what was going on.
The stallion sighed, before saying swiftly, "Look, there's just no time, I'm sorry! I'll send somepony along in a little bit to make sure you get out alright. None of this was your fault, and I'm just doing my best to make sure you aren't punished for something that you had no control over. Good luck... Now go!"
Twilight swallowed nervously, before being shoved out the back door, hearing it slam behind her. She took a few deep breathes before charging forward, stumbling some in the deep snow as she tried to make her way to a bridge that she could see up ahead. She started to cross it, the wood creaking loudly as she crossed. She was most of the way across the rickety old bridge when she heard voices yell beneath her, "There she is! She's heading for the caves! Cut her off!"
Twilight panicked, and started galloping as fast as she could off the bridge and into the cave ahead, her hooves echoing thunder as she charged down the path. She started breathing raggedly, the cold air cutting at her throat, making it more sore than her throbbing muscles. As she slowed down to turn the corner, she saw guards pouring out of a side shaft ahead of her. She started to slow down as best as she could, almost sitting down in her haste to apply resistance to the ground to turn around. As she slowed, however, she saw that there were guards chasing her from behind as well. She made it to the corner, but she was well and truly cornered now. She was shaking violently, scared witless, not knowing what it was that she had done wrong as they closed in on her. She backed up against the wall quickly, trying to keep from crying, hoping that whatever was about to happen would occur swiftly.
While not what she had hoped for, something DID happen rather quickly to aide in her escape. Namely, the floor collapsed beneath her, sending her plummeting downward as gravity took hold. When Twilight landed, she managed to roll to the side as she hit the ground, helping to reduce the damage her body would suffer, but she hit her head against a rock as she slowed to a stop. She struggled against the darkness for just a moment, but as her vision wavered, she couldn't help but surrender to the darkness, as she was still tired and had no energy left to fight anymore.
As she lay on the ground, her mind managed to free a small memory from the lockbox of her past. The control crown had not been invented yet, so she was kept compliant through drugs and potions directed at numbing her free-will and perceptions, though that was about to change. A griffon with wild head-feathers approached Twilight, who was kept comatose in a machine.
The griffon laughed wildly to herself, cackling, "Uwee he he he! With this new slave crown, you'll have to follow our every order without question, my dear magic user!" she laughed, tracing her talon down the mare's face tauntingly, knowing that the mare couldn't retaliate. She placed the crown on Twilight's head, snapping it into place firmly. "Now, how to test to make sure it works... I know! Let's have you cook some of our soldiers alive with your magic! Do it now!"
Twilight stepped down from the contraption slowly, as if she too was but a machine, her face flat as she walked into the next room. Without hesitating, she slaughtered the soldiers inside, searing them with magical flames. The griffon followed behind, laughing madly as Twilight roasted soldier after fleeing soldier. None could escape. "How utterly delightful! Wahahaha!"
Twilight fell even deeper into a coma, and remembered nothing more.
The old stallion who had helped Twilight earlier sagged against the front door in relief, having finally convinced the guards that he had been forced to help her in return for his life. The last guard had just left when he thought he heard something move in the back room. Worried that one of the guards had found the slave crown, he rushed in, prepared to fight if he had to in order to protect his home. Upon his arrival, however, he found his worries only half confirmed. There was somepony examining the slave crown, yes, but it was not one of the city guards. Relieved, the old stallion started berating the newcomer. "Rainbow Dash! What took you so long?! You were supposed to get back a day ago!"
~A Treasure Hunter and trail-worn adventurer, searching the
world over for lost relics of the past...~
A cyan-hued pegasus with rainbow streaked mane and tail looked up nonchalantly, rolling her eyes as she replied, "You seriously need to have more faith in me! I mean, come on! I got that job done in ten seconds flat!"
""Uh huh," the stallion replied flatly, not believing a word she said. "That's why it took you a week in order to go to those old ruins to steal th—"
"HAY! That's PROFESSIONAL TREASURE HUNTER! And no, some jerk got there before I did. Luckily, it wasn't what I was looking for, so it's no big deal," she said casually, leaning against the wall. "So what did you need me for? You're the one who called for me, right?"
"Yeah, there's this mare I want you to meet from out of town. Sh—"
"You what?!" Rainbow Dash interrupted the old stallion, thrusting her muzzle in his face, outraged. "This better not have something to do with that Imperial... 'Witch' I heard disappeared! You know th—"
"I know!" The old stallion barked, cutting off Rainbow Dash swiftly. "There's already been word about Imperial troops being sent here after her right now. We couldn't even stop three magitek from doing whatever they wanted, so what makes you think that we'd be able to handle the Empire itself?"
As she cooled down, he continued with his explanation. "Right now, there's no way that we can stand against the Empire. The only way that we can remain independent at this point is to join the underground resistance movement, a group called—"
"The Returners. Yeah, I've heard of them," Rainbow Dash said casually, though her eyes betrayed that she was lost in her thoughts. "I even know a few. But what does this have to do with that witch? If you want an assassin, you know that I don't do that kind of stuff," she finished, her tone angry and disappointed.
"Exactly," he exclaimed, nodding firmly. "You know that metal band you were playing with when you came in? That was a Slave Crown! She wasn't in control of herself, and from the amnesia she had when she woke up, she hasn't been for several years or more! If we could get her on our side, we might have a fighting chance against the Empire! She was one of their strongest assets, but without the crown, she could easily be used against them!"
Rainbow Dash remained silent for a moment, her eyes clouded slightly. "So, basically, you're saying that she had no freedom at all whatsoever? Even if she really, really, wanted to, she couldn't do anything herself?"
He held the crown out, raising an eyebrow as he asked, "Do you want to find out for yourself?"
Just the thought of losing her freedom turned her veins to ice as she backed up a step, saying hastily, "N-no! I'll take your word for it!" She took a deep breath, releasing it slowly, before stating firmly, "All right. I think I'll help her out, but I swear, if she acts even the least bit evil, I'm going to take her to the guards right away!"
Leaving before he could say anything else, Rainbow rushed out of the house, heading for the caves at top speed, leaving a faint rainbow-hued contrail following her. Townsponies looked up to see what was flying so fast, but all they saw was a fading rainbow heading towards the mines. As she drew closer to the entrance, she slowed down, looking around for another entrance, and saw a small shaft sticking out of the face of the mountain, clearly meant to help with the ventilation of the mine to help provide fresh air for the miners. Grinning, Dash flew over to the entrance stealthily, before slipping inside like a cat, working her way down the mine in search of the mare with strange magical powers.