The Celestia Code

by iisaw

Chapter 1: 1 The Treasure Room

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The Celestia Code

by iisaw

Chapter One
The Treasure Room

As I watched the books burn among the ruins, I couldn't help the near-instinctive urges that jolted through me like electricity. I could save them! A small shield spell around the fire would starve it of oxygen almost immediately, and when the heap had cooled enough not to reignite, I could—

But I had set them burning for a reason, and it was already too late to save them. The fire wasn't small, like the countless ones I had set in the fireplace of my bedroom above the library. Those fires had been comforting, their heat gentle, their flames waving slowly—almost like Celestia's mane, when back-lit by the sun—I shook my head to clear it and brought myself back to reality.

The bonfire hissed and roared, flames and burning bits of paper leaping skyward. The heat was sharp and uncomfortable, even at a dozen lengths' distance. My mane fluttered in the breeze caused by the air rushing in to feed the blaze, as if in mockery of the ethereal motion of Celestia's. I felt nauseous again.

If I could reverse the chemical reaction—flip entropy around—perhaps the Fail-Safe spell? No, it was beyond my power. I was just panicking in a silent, cerebral way. What had been done could not be undone.

Even books that had been written by some wooden-headed ideologue, who wouldn't know the scientific method if it bucked her in the teeth, were nearly sacred to me. My reverence didn't stop me from adding a note of scathing commentary in the margins, but to actually, deliberately destroy a book? It was unthinkable.

Until that night. Until I set fire to scores of unique manuscripts that bore knowledge recorded nowhere else in the world, destroying them forever. It was a crime I could never forgive myself for, but it was an act that was unquestionably necessary.

"Twilight!" came a voice from the darkness behind me. "Twilight! Where are you?"

I groaned and squeezed my eyes shut. Unquestionably necessary—but impossible to explain or justify.

Only a few short days before, I couldn't even have imagined this appalling situation.

= = =

The whole adventure began when I discovered the obscure back room in the Canterlot Archives under a royal seal. It was a very powerful and carefully crafted seal: Only a princess could open it. Even the guardponies patrolling the Archives couldn't disable the magical lock. I had only tried it on a whim, because I was certain that Celestia would have made the distinction between a Divine Highness and a Royal or Serene Highness when setting up the spell. But, much to my surprise, the door had sighed open at the briefest touch of my magic. Evidently, I was enough of a princess for the mystical gatekeeper even though I was lowest on the alicorn totem pole.

Should I have immediately closed the vault and told Celestia that there was an oversight in her security? Absolutely. Could I have possibly resisted the urge to take "just one little peek" at the treasures within? Anypony who thinks so doesn't know me at all. I wish Spike had been with me. He would have told me to shut the door and to mind my own business. It was just barely possible that I might have listened to him.

The scrolls and books within the vault were ancient. There were a few small boxes intermixed with the manuscripts and nothing seemed to have a title or label. I touched a large volume gently with my magic and tugged it from its place. It seemed to be sturdy and well-preserved, so I carefully opened it. It was the personal diary of Coperneighcus. Next to it was a scroll of essays by the feared Fireflower of Serpent's Spire, with margin notes that looked very like the quillwork of Clover the Clever. I tried not to hyperventilate. Just then, I think I understood how a dragon might feel when it discovered a huge, unexpected cache of gems and gold.

I could lock myself in—teleport food and water directly into my stomach so I wouldn't have to look away from the pages to eat—send a note to Celestia and my friends with some lame excuse that would explain a half-year's absence.

I sighed and returned the scroll to its place on the shelf. I took a deep breath and began to formulate a rational plan. The first thing to do would be to tell Celestia I'd found the vault, and hope that the fact that it opened to my magic wasn't a mistake. I reluctantly sealed the vault and teleported to the entryway of the throne room. Morning Court had just ended, and when I asked Celestia for a few moments of her time, she suggested we walk in the upper garden as we talked.

I couldn't bear to draw out the situation with polite small-talk, so we had barely set hoof to grass before I blurted out, "That sealed room in the archives that's under the East Turret? I took a look in there this morning and... uhmn... I was wondering if I should have. I mean, I didn't know if I was allowed to."

Unless I imagined it, Celestia looked a bit surprised for an instant. "Well, you didn't have any difficulty opening it, did you?"

"Oh, not at all," I assured her.

She nodded thoughtfully and took a moment before replying. "Feel free to browse as you wish. I would ask only that you don't take any of the items away from Canterlot. It has been so long since I have looked in there, that I couldn't give you a very clear idea of the contents, but most are very rare, and many are unique."

I suddenly felt twenty pounds lighter. "Oh, thank you, thank you! Is there a list of the contents somewhere? An index, or something?"

She grinned at my enthusiasm. "I don't believe so, Twilight. Perhaps that is a task you would like to take on?"

Oh, she knew me so very well! The thought of cataloging a room full of historic manuscripts, books, and other items made me go a bit light-headed. "I'd be delighted," I said.

= = =

That afternoon, I returned to the archives and began working out a scheme and timetable for recording the vault's contents. As much as I hated to admit it, because of my already busy schedule, my visits to the vault would have to be irregular and relatively brief. I summoned a notebook, quill and inkwell from my study in the library tower, and sketched out a diagram of the layout of the room, with case and shelf numbers assigned clockwise and top-to-bottom. Then I labeled the following pages, one for each shelf, which probably left enough space for a short description of each item. (If I needed extra room, I could always use endnotes.)

I recorded the contents of the first shelf and then forced myself to quit, even though I still felt a desperate need to devour everything I touched. Just on the first shelf alone, was the history of a pre-Equestrian trading empire I'd never even heard of, and a small box being used as a bookend containing an astrolabe fashioned by Starswirl himself. Not to mention an illustrated volume on batpony anatomy! I carefully sealed the vault and sent my notebook to the bedside table in my chambers.

I was distracted and spacey at that evening, and at dinner, Luna asked me if I had met anyone special.

"Huh?" I pulled myself out of my self-indulgent revelry. "I mean... I beg your pardon, Luna?"

"You are furlongs away tonight, Twilight Sparkle," she said with a sly grin. "I know well the most common cause of such distraction."

"Oh, no! Nothing like that!"

"Nay? But now comes color to your cheeks! Tell me truly, is he a worthy stallion?"

I sputtered a bit before replying, "No, honestly, Luna—"

"Oh, Luna!" Celestia broke in, "Don't tease her like that! If Twilight wants to keep her lover a secret..."

I gave an inarticulate squeak of outrage when I realized what was going on. "Oh, you two are impossible!"

They both broke out into laughter, and, after a short period of grumpy-face, I joined them.

"I'm afraid," said Celestia, addressing her sister, "that Twilight reserves her true passion for the printed word."

"Indeed?" Luna raised an eyebrow, then turned to me. "I could arrange a romantic, moonlit evening for you and a well-proportioned bookshelf, if you wish."

"Ha. Ha."

There were a few moments of silence as the soup course was removed and the salad served, and then Celestia said to me, "Joking aside, Twilight, is there anypony you're interested in, in that way?"

"Oh. Well... I mean... uhmn... no. Not that I haven't noticed a few stallions." I felt my cheeks warming again and I shrugged. "But when would I have the time to get to know one? I study more than ever, now... I have my official duties... and I'm trying hard not to neglect my friends..."

"A romantic partner can also be a friend, Twilight," Celestia said quietly. "In fact, a relationship works best if friendship comes first."

I nodded. "I'll put 'make more stallion friends' on my to-do list."

The sisters broke out into laughter again.


= = =

It was only a few weeks later when I found the journal. I was about seven-eighths of the way through cataloging the Vault of Treasures, as I had privately named the room of precious books, when I encountered it. Yes, weeks may seem like a long time to make a glorified list, but I was trying to be very precise and thorough, not to mention I was shuttling between Canterlot, the Castle of the Two Sisters, and my own castle in Ponyville during that time. Admittedly, I had gotten sucked into some of the more interesting pieces and lost several hours of cataloging time to fascinating sidetracks.

With my notebook and quill floating by my side, I pulled another volume from the shelf I was working on and flipped open the cover. So many of the manuscripts just started abruptly, and it took some skimming and reading to determine what their subjects were, so I was relieved to see a neatly written title page. The inscription read:

Property of

Professor Sharphoof

Crinet College Chair of Archaeology

Canterlot University.

Third Badlands Expedition

Volume II

Below that was a stamped image of a torch crossed with a writing quill. Most likely the professor's cutie-mark, I assumed. It certainly didn't match any of the university's college crests.

An archaeologist? That was odd. The name was very familiar, and as I recalled, she was a rebel or revolutionary from the eighth century of Celestia's reign, mentioned briefly in... I couldn't bring the title of the history to mind. Maybe I was confusing her with another pony of the same name. But, according to the dates in the journal, the time period was roughly the same.

I flipped through the pages and was struck by the high quality of the amazing maps, diagrams, and drawings of things that the expedition had found. The illustrations were beautifully detailed and conveyed even the texture of the items they depicted—sandstone, pottery, glass—though only black ink had been used to create them.

Then one illustration hit me like a physical blow. It was a picture of a bas-relief that covered an entire wall. The central figure was obviously Celestia, and surrounding her was a multitude of tiny creatures, mostly ponies. It wasn't uncommon for ancient art to wildly exaggerate the size difference between the Princess and her subjects, or even to place them beneath her hooves as a symbol of her sovereignty over them, but this carving was—different. The ponies beneath her hooves were obviously in pain, as if being crushed by her weight. And those surrounding her were not bowing in reverence but, rather, cowering in fear. Oh, the difference was very subtle, yes, but unmistakable nonetheless. Even conveyed second-hoof, the artist who had done the drawing was skilled enough to make the distinctions clear.

I was horrified. Who would have dared depict Celestia in such a way? Maybe Sharphoof was a rebel of some sort and she had distorted the sculpture through her drawing for... some political reason I couldn't fathom? But crude propaganda hidden away in academic notes? It didn't make any sense at all.

I hadn't considered removing any of the works from the vault before then, but I knew I couldn't rest until I had gotten to the bottom of this mystery. I could have simply asked Celestia, of course, but the mere thought of confronting her with that obscene illustration made my stomach knot up. I tucked the journal, along with the rest of my materials, into my saddlebag and sealed the vault. On the way out of the archive building, I asked the reference librarian on duty to compile a report on whatever was known about an eighth century pony (or ponies) named Sharphoof, and have it delivered to me as soon as possible.

"Of course, Your Highness!" the saffron-colored mare assured me. "I will see to it personally and immediately!"

Sometimes, it's very handy being a princess.

= = =


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