• Published 27th Nov 2019
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Hour of Twilight - Starscribe

Twilight Sparkle was Celestia's chosen heir, and under her rule Equestria was destined to prosper. But then her friends passed, as mortal ponies always do, and she was left to rule alone. The years were not kind to her after that.

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Chapter 11: Pyxis

Hollow Shades was nothing like Concord. When they first arrived, Star thought they’d gotten lost and wandered into some ancient ruin instead. But then she saw the movement from down below, and she realized with horror that they’d finally arrived. If there was going to be a rebellion hiding anywhere in the world, it would be here. These creatures even seemed to be hiding from the sun, let alone the princess and Harmony’s will.

“We’ll have to find a place in the Kindness district,” Ginny squeaked, from beside her. Her behavior had completely transformed as they arrived, and she truly adopted the role she was playing. She kept her head down, ready to back away from the ponies who were obviously more harmonious than herself. “They’re the only ones that… won’t ask too many questions.”

Me, live in the Kindness district. It had a bitter taste in her mouth, but no worse than anything else she’d be doing. I’m serving the princess. I’m saving Equestria. They’ll remember me on holidays and sing songs about this when the Devourers are destroyed.

That was the kind of thing ponies were supposed to care about, wasn’t it? Problem was, Star didn’t.

They had more than enough money to live anywhere in the city, if money had been the issue. But instead of flashing it around, Ginny found them a boarding house and bought them only one room.

“It’s perfect,” she said, as she tossed her saddlebags aside in the dreary space, and began tinkering with the furniture. She lifted the mattress on the single bed, moved the cushions of the sofa aside, then fiddled with the sink. “A few nights here, and we’ll make sure everybody knows what we’re doing. The gossip has to spread all over the city before anything matters.”

Star almost stopped her to ask what the buck she was doing, but after a few seconds the answer became obvious.

She was hiding their money away, stashing it anywhere that would be hidden if their room was entered. Which it probably would be, judging on the neighborhood. The walls were thin, and she could hear creatures arguing, and… doing other things. The air was thick with alcohol despite the early hour.

Star kept her voice down as she answered. True, the other residents here seemed to all have their own problems—but that might also be a disadvantage. She closed her eyes, concentrating for a moment on a simple silence spell—and all the noises of Hollow Shades faded into the background. For a few seconds she remained still, letting the silence wash over her. This was early morning in the Magic district—other creatures would be working where they belonged, letting citizens enjoy the time. It was only proper.

“I assume we’ll be taking steps to make it as obvious as possible,” she said flatly. “Out in the rest of the city.”

“Oh yeah.” Ginny settled up against her, wrapping a wing around her shoulder. “We’ll have to look for work first. I know where I’m going to find it, but you’ll probably want to find a… reprocessing shop? I think that’s what they’re called.”

“Sitting in a dark room, casting the same spell a hundred times a day?” she groaned, touching a hoof to the base of her horn in frustration. “What kind of citizen do you think I am?”

“Desperate,” Ginny said, leering at her. “But probably not desperate enough to work where I’m going.” She lifted her tail exaggeratedly, swaying from one side to the other. Half the court is terrified of you, Geist. Were you trained as a killer or a consort?

Then it clicked, and she clutched her stomach in sudden disgust. “Stars above, you can’t. You’re not… you wouldn’t. Don’t you have any respect, Ginny?”

She shook her head, sticking her tongue out. “I’m a changeling, Star. We might not depend on love to survive anymore, but we still use it for our magic. If this mission was important enough for the princess to send you, I’m guessing it’s the most important in my career. We might be hunting some rebellious ponies, but that’s a sideshow. I need power, and the city needs to know we’re desperate. You ponies have such… strange boundaries erected around sex. You eat every day, you drink, you breathe, yet for some reason other parts of your bodies are given strange respect. It’s a weakness that others will not share.”

Sacred Exemplars, I think I know how you’re so deadly. It was said that no number of house guard could keep a pony safe if Geist came for them. Maybe that wasn’t because he could dodge their security—but because he was always invited. “Are you even a stallion?” she asked, frustration obvious in her tone. “Or was that an act too?”

“Sometimes I am,” Ginny said. “Sometimes not. Depends on who’s watching. But I’m not sure why you’re even asking, Star. I thought you only cared about the path of Harmony. I’m just a changeling, I’m so far under you that our worlds barely intersect.”

The princess doesn’t seem to care as much about that as the Path of Friendship does.

It only took Ginny three days to get them their first arrest, orchestrated so perfectly some part of her thought it had probably been planned. Right after work, so she wouldn’t get fired for it (yet). Right in the central marketplace, where more creatures would see than anywhere else.

Commissar Golden Shine was usually there, and that included this particular evening. So he was only feet away when Ginny decided to kiss her right in front of everyone.

Even if they’d been a recognized pairing it would’ve been risqué behavior, unsuited for public viewing. But a pony and a griffon, even when no egg could possibly result—was almost as bad as a pony and a changeling.

“Heresy and disrespect!” Golden Shine yelled, shoving Ginny off of her with real force. She actually spun into a nearby scrap stall, knocking over plates and making the shopkeeper squeal in angry protest. “You go too far, bird! Only those who find place for Harmony will be given a place in return!”

He stalked up to her, scattering passers-by as he went. Most dodged as quickly as they could, though a nearby earth filly was a little too slow, and needed to be yanked aside by her pegasus companion. She still stared at the edge of the crowd, apparently surprised and horrified by the display. “You, pony!” Golden Shine roared. “Do you know this bird? I must know if your sin against Harmony is a mutual act, or an assault.”

It was almost comically exaggerated, yet she could still feel the fearful eyes on her. She was barely even acting when her ears flattened, and she glanced nervously to where Ginny had fallen. This is what my life could’ve been. I worked so hard to follow the rules, and I’m still back here.

“It was mutual,” she declared. “We’re together.”

The rest was right out of the same script they’d all been reading from up to that point. The Commissar dragged them through the streets to spend an evening at the city’s watch post, with its newly refurbished jail. They were given separate cells, and little food by any of the city watch.

Their disorderly conduct would only carry a single night’s sentence, however. When day came they were turned out, and told in front of all Hollow Shades that the punishment would be much harsher next time.

“That was incredibly unpleasant,” she said, as soon as they were safe at home that night. “Everypony looking at us, all that whispering… we should just be searching for the rebellion the old way. Interviewing loyalists, tracking down ponies making weapons… maybe we’d be more successful than Golden Shine.”

Ginny sat at the kitchen table, sipping at a bowl of cheap stew, and nursing her injured wing. It was actually bandaged after being thrown around, and Star didn’t know if the damage was real, or just some of the best acting she’d ever seen. “Creatures from all over Equestria have tried that and failed,” she said. “Just… think of how lucky you are to live out your fantasy guilt-free. I’m basically…” She waved her good wing vaguely through the air. “Whoever it was who made you think of this idea. Just pretend I’m her. Ponies are going to see your heart isn’t in it next time, even if they can’t sense your feelings.”

Star shoved into a standing position from behind the table, nostrils flaring and ears standing on end. “Are you bucking kidding me, Ginny? This wasn’t my idea. Nothing about this was my idea. And it isn’t—” Her ears flattened. “How do you know about her?”

Ginny tossed the empty bowl aside, clasping one claw on her shoulder. She leaned in close, just close enough to make her feel even more uncomfortable than she already did. “Think about things before you ask them, beautiful. You know what I am. There’s nothing a bug like me can sense better than love. There’s hurt in your past, deep down. Something hurt you, and you never healed from it.”

The anger evaporated, turning rapidly to shock. She backed away a few steps, yanking free of her. “I don’t… I suppose that means you’ll report me to that Commissar now. You wouldn’t want someone with flaws like mine anywhere near the Twilight court.”

Ginny shook her head. “Of course not. Let me tell you a secret, sweetheart. No creature is perfect except the princess. Harmony doesn’t expect you to be her. There won’t ever be another Alicorn. But you’re out here fighting for Harmony, doing things that disgust and frighten and embarrass you. How many other creatures would’ve rather just given up? How many would’ve given up a long time before they got to the court? You overcame yourself, and you’re still serving a noble cause. If I had to guess, I bet the princess knew about your past a long time before you even reached the court. She probably chose you because you proved you could overcome yourself. You’ve sacrificed for Harmony before, and now you get the chance to sacrifice again. A noble opportunity.”

Doesn’t feel so noble from here. She wiped her eyes, forcing a nod. “Y-yeah, of course. That’s… Nothing is more noble than sacrificing for Harmony. You’re right. I can almost believe you’re… not a bloodthirsty killer under all that makeup.”

Ginny covered her mouth with one claw, gasping. “I take exception to that. I’ve never been bloodthirsty in my life. You know how much love you can extract from a corpse? None. Killer… sure. Can’t argue with that one. Not my first choice, but…” She shrugged. “Anyway, we need to get caught with something big next time. Living together like this is good, but… I’m not sure. I know we got some attention, but I haven’t been approached by anypony yet. Were you?”

“No,” she admitted. “I… wouldn’t expect it after just once, but it is annoying. Your plan better not be wrong…”

“It won’t be,” Ginny assured, leaning forward for a stupid kiss on her forehead. “Like I said, big plan. I’m thinking the next time we’ll end up pilloried for at least a day. Oh, you’ll probably lose your job. But it’s not like we needed the money anyway. That’s just… more believable suffering.”

She tensed, teeth grinding together—but she didn’t fight. Not here, not now. One day you’re going to wish you’d treated me with more respect. “I believe it,” she said, glaring at the griffon. “But I’m not going to keep going with this plan forever. If it doesn’t work, then it’ll be my turn to come up with our method. I’m thinking something… magical. Maybe we can track their spells, or…” She trailed off. “I guess I’ll have plenty of time to think of it while I’m being publicly humiliated.”

Twilight hadn’t slept in a week.

Long ago, behavior like that would rapidly have eroded her sanity, until the waking world and her hallucinations merged into one and she was unable to tell the difference between the two. But now she had a spell for that, magic to keep her conscious without side-effects. In the past, she had invested months without sleep, when some particularly difficult problem confronted her.

The Devourers had made a serious mistake in thinking they could exact some retribution against her without consequences. Now they were revealed, and their destruction would soon follow.

“Princess,” said a voice from beside her, faint and fearful. The latest assistant she’d recruited from the upper city. She forgot his name. “There’s a general of Unification here to see you. He’s waiting just outside.”

She waved a dismissive wing through the illusion around her. It was only 70% opaque, so that she could study its details from every angle, without moving. “His timing is perfect, as usual. I’ll meet him at the door myself.”

She didn’t wait for the messenger to walk back with her, much too slow. The Concord Castle had over a thousand anchor runes, each one positioned somewhere she might need to travel. The teleport was effortless, and soon she was standing at her lab door.

She had to use her hooves to remove lead fastenings from the security door, rather than levitation. For the defense of her laboratory to be effective, no creature could spell their way through it, not even herself.

Finally came the vault door, which she rotated around until it began to swing outward. And standing on the other side, waiting unmoved in the castle hallway, was General Pike.

He had none of the usual Unification soldier look about him, no smell of preservative or residue of the spell that enabled them. Pike was nearing the time when he would join the ranks of that army, if the wrinkles on his face and streaks of gray in his mane were any guide. It would be a shame to lose his insight and courage—but that was the way with every mortal who served her. None yet had been good enough to take up her office.

None would be, until the world was finally safe.

“General Pike,” she said, smiling at him. “Exactly on time, I’m guessing.”

He saluted with one hoof, as perfect as any of her Unification soldiers. Maybe more, since she knew that he was deciding to move that way, instead of being compelled. He had a lifetime of practice. “As always, Regent. The honor of your company deserves nothing less.”

“Even when you are here to face the consequences of your failure?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. “What do you think I’m going to do to you, after losing one of my cruisers?”

He didn’t blink. She didn’t doubt that powerful mind magic would find no more fear than he outwardly showed. Pike was a creature just as ruthless as those he commanded. It was why he had survived the post for so long, when many around him had joined the Unification army. “Whatever I deserve, of course. The Regent’s judgements are always perfect.”

So many creatures intoned words like that around her. But when Pike said it, she knew he believed them. “Then you know I don’t hold you responsible.” She turned away, flicking her tail impatiently. “Come, I will show you what I’ve learned.”

“I am curious to learn,” he said, hurrying across the threshold after her. He stopped in the doorway to close each of the locks in turn—he’d served her long enough that he didn’t need to be told when a meeting was private. “I’m told you have not left your laboratory since we last spoke. Did you manage to learn something useful from the survivors?”

She waited just long enough for him to finish locking the door before re-activating her spells. At once, the complex magical machinery lining the walls fell into darkness, and the vast open space in the center transformed. Metal walls appeared, complete with seats, and engine machinery in back.

It was the interior of the cruiser, recreated in perfect illusion from before it was attacked. The dead soldiers were back in their seats, the engine and hull-plating were lacking the holes that had destroyed them. There was some precision lost in what didn’t matter—each Unification soldier looked like the same pegasus stallion, face blank and featureless. But that might as well be the case everywhere.

Pike gasped. “Grace of Generosity… this is 14-Rainbow, isn’t it?” He approached one of the transparent walls, waving a hoof through it. “I’ve never seen an illusion so incredible. How did you do it?”

Some part of her realized he probably knew she wanted to explain her achievements. It was torturous to achieve so much, and have her subjects understand so little of what she’d done. But even if he’d just done it for her benefit, she didn’t care.

“What you see at this moment was trivial—each transport cruiser is identical. I only had to reference the schematic. But what you’re about to see, that was the achievement. A combination of postcognition on the wreckage, and detailed interrogation of the survivors. After all, they were not blindfolded until after they were defeated. There is much for us to learn here.”

Pike was silent for a moment, walking past the outside of the vessel. Finally he realized what she was saying, and snapped alert again. “Regent, are you suggesting your magic is mighty enough to allow us to see the past?”

She rolled her eyes. “There are many ways to see the past. Not all of them are…” She looked away. Stepping through the illusion until she was apparently standing in the interior. Directly in one of the hallways. “Some will not function, as I lack any sympathetic connection to the events that transpired. One of the… unfortunate side-effects of the Unification soldiers. An exchange I made consciously when they were created, knowing the price I paid. But the rest… you should see the face of our enemy as I have.”

He lowered his head in something that was almost a bow. “Of course, Regent. Please.”

There was silence for a few moments, then the spell began to activate. A brilliant glow passed through the corpse of the ship as the spell’s power thrummed, then the simulation began. Twilight’s ears flattened as metal cut through the ship’s magical shielding, through the metal plates on the outside as well. The attacker seemed to recognize the engine, because the attack was precisely aimed at the machinery. Holes appeared in the engine, as something powerful enough to cut through two feet of basically solid steel punched through. Oil leaked out, and the whole assembly hissed and spluttered for a moment, before giving out.

“Right through the armor plating,” Pike observed, walking right up to the side of the ship and staring at the lines. “Crossbows can’t go through an inch of steel. And light lances can’t penetrate a dispersion field. What kind of weapon was that?”

“I have absolutely no idea,” Twilight said. “But it gets worse, observe.”

That wasn’t enough to ground the 14-Rainbow, only to stop it from accelerating forward.

Meanwhile, the crew reacted instantly to the attack. The illusions of soldiers rose from their seats, grabbing lightspears from racks and spreading out. The legionnaires organized into a unit, protecting the bridge and the officers there with one group while another formed into ranks of two and charged up.

Then came the real artistry. None of the direct evidence of anything she showed survived, since those closest to the entrance were destroyed beyond recovery. But even if some of the specifics were wrong, Twilight was confident in the general line of events.

Before the first soldiers had even made their way up, something heavy landed on the ship above them, enough that it overwhelmed the lift-crystal and they instantly started descending. Then something tore off the armored door to the lower deck, and rolled something large down the steps. Twilight didn’t know what it looked like, so it was represented with a crystal of dark magic, wrapped in stabilizing steel bands to keep it from shattering.

It activated as it rolled, sending out chunks of metal the size of a hoof in all directions. The legionnaires nearby were torn apart in seconds.

“Harmony protect us, what is that?” Pike asked, gesturing. “Their armor didn’t keep them alive.”

“From the remains I studied, it seemed carefully chosen,” Twilight answered. “The explosive was strong enough to pierce bodies, but not the outer shell of the 14-Rainbow. Our own armor concentrated the damage and killed as many as possible.”

Of course, her soldiers were perfect. They weren’t frightened by the loss of eight stallions into gruesome giblets—they retreated further, with some forming a shield-wall while others retrieved heavy weapons from where they were mounted.

And this was your critical flaw, monsters, Twilight thought. You would’ve given me nothing if you’d broken a few legionnaires and fled. But you were too proud.

A pair of armored figures lumbered down the stairs. Here she’d done nothing to embellish, adding no details that hadn’t been observed by the survivors or recorded in the ruined ship. From the size of the prints they left on the metal stairs, she estimated they were taller than she was, so large that they barely fit inside the little space.

Their bodies were largely obscured in the smoke, though some details were clear. They had only two legs, and stood entirely erect as they moved casually through the wreckage of the dead.

Legionnaires fired their light lances down the corridor, while the ballista was nearly reloaded. The two figures were too large to have any hope of avoiding even poorly-aimed shots.

But the energy seemed to glide around their metal armor, splashing around them like water and melting holes in the deck and walls.

Then one of the figures lowered another weapon, one as large as a ballista, but somehow carried between its thick arms. Sound roared down the corridors, deafening even the survivors to anything that might’ve been said. Even so, the simulation was gruesome enough that Pike looked away. A section of the massive weapon began to rotate, spraying pieces of metal longer than a pony’s hoof. The shield-wall held for less than a second, before it and the ponies behind it were torn into bloody pieces.

Twilight levitated a piece of metal into the air, holding it where Pike could see. “The chemists of Concord will rejoice when they realize we’ve discovered a new metal. I won’t tell them it was used to slaughter our soldiers.”

Pike took it in his own magic as the slaughter went on behind them, feeling it with a hoof. “As fast as that weapon is firing… the creature inside must have the strength of an earth pony just to lift it.”

“Indeed,” Twilight said. Then she stuck out a hoof. “Don’t taste it. That projectile is radioactive.”

Pike clearly didn’t know what that meant, but he knew enough to offer it back to her, unwilling to take any more risks. “O-of course, Regent.”

The soldier stopped shooting. They could’ve continued, widening the hole in the bridge and cutting through any creature unlucky enough to get in its way. But they’d clearly been counting the dead. Now that they got close, the weapon stopped. The other creature had something much smaller—a piece of glowing Darktech, with unreadable letters and numbers.

“Sixty-three,” it said, the only sound the Devourers had made that Twilight could be certain of. It almost seemed to want her soldiers to hear it.

But the illusion faded after that. It wouldn’t be good for Pike to watch as these two overcame the survivors in the bridge, tossing spells aside and methodically slaughtering until the number was right. Light faded, and the surviving ponies were the only ones left behind. At least the gruesome remnants of the slaughter were gone.

“Regent, could you recreate one of those… creatures, again? I’d like to see the face of my enemy.”

“I’m afraid you won’t,” Twilight said, complying anyway. The illusion appeared before them outside the recreated airship, entirely opaque this time. It towered over Twilight herself, wielding the terrible weapon in both arms. Up close some of the other details were visible—it wore a huge backpack, which frothed with vapor every moment. Moisture condensed on thick tubes leading into its shoulders from that backpack, leaving a trail of mist on the ground where it stood.

But there was no face to be seen, only a bubble around where she guessed the creature’s head would be. It wasn’t glass—one of these had taken a direct hit from a crossbow without cracking. But she guessed it was something similar.

Pike circled around the figure for several minutes, studying every detail. He even seemed to be trying to read the writing on the armor, which was fuzzy and out of focus since Twilight didn’t know what it said. “You’re sure it was just these two?” he asked. “They emptied a troop carrier by themselves.”

“Not quite.” She didn’t want to keep the simulation going, though of course she could have. Instead she summoned the other figure, the one that had arrived at the end.

This one had a body like the first two, though it wasn’t quite Twilight’s height. Instead of wearing armor like an airship, its body was soft and flexible in a silvery pattern around its joints. It had no backpack, and a hard-plastic case of Darktech instead of a weapon. But like the other two, it had never shown its true self through its clothes. Even its face was hidden by mirrored glass. “This was their, uh… technician. Or surgeon, perhaps. It altered the legionnaire to deliver the ultimatum. None of the survivors saw the process, but it took this creature less time than 14-Rainbow needed to crash. So they’re clever as well as dangerous.”

“Buck,” Pike whispered. He didn’t seem so intimidated by the creature whose arms weren’t thicker than his torso. He scanned the same points Twilight had—looking for a cutie mark, or any obvious weaknesses in the armor. “The Devourers were minotaurs all this time?”

“No,” Twilight said, dismissing the illusions and grinning energetically at Pike. “The joints are wrong for that. Besides, I know how minotaurs fight. When we reclaimed Crete, they made their techniques clear. This much death would’ve sent them into a bloodlust, and they never could’ve left survivors behind. They probably would’ve killed each other, though not necessarily.”

“Right.” Pike straightened, turning his back on the survivors in their seats. “I forget the depth of your wisdom, Regent. I hope you might permit me to plumb its depths a little further, and ask how we can defeat an enemy as mighty as this.”

Twilight watched him for a few seconds, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. Was that genuine doubt he was feeling? Did her highest military official question the Legion’s ability to adapt to this new threat? “I can’t give you a checklist. But one thing I can say: there aren’t many Devourers left. The historical data suggests each one of them is like a changeling queen unto themselves, requiring a whole population of slave creatures. Why do you think they grew so angry when we took their dogs away? We probably killed at least one of their numbers without even realizing it.”

“So even if they seem invincible… we have a numbers advantage,” Pike finished. “I will study what we’ve observed. But I will ultimately need more engagements. We won’t know if a technique will be effective at killing them without trying it.”

Twilight nodded. “I already have a pony searching for their hideout. Use what time you have to prepare. I will summon you again when the time arises.”

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