• 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 13: Vela

Star wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting from the headquarters of the resistance. As they shut the door behind them, she discovered to her disappointment that this certainly wasn’t the headquarters of anything. There weren’t even chairs in here with the other construction supplies. It was just a storage room, with a single magical light as its only true amenity.

Star glared at the discolored purple crystal, feeling a little sympathetic soreness from her horn. She’d been casting light spells for six hours a day every day at her new job.

There wasn’t even anypony else here—just their contact in an oversized robe and mask, and a pair of heavy satchels. The pony hopped onto a nearby sack of cement mix, which couldn’t be much better as a cushion than actual cement. “Well I suppose there’s one benefit from this… unexpected change,” she said. “You’d want two for this, but now I don’t have to be part of it. Lucky me. Now you can call me Wellspring. Don’t ask if it’s my real name, we’ve got a mission for you.”

“What mission?” Ginny asked, glancing around the room. “I don’t see any other creatures here.”

“Because we don’t know you,” their representative said. “Maybe you’re what we’ve always been looking for. Maybe you’re idiots who will get the Commissar down on you like you did up in Hollow Shades. If that happens, he’s going to interrogate the buck out of you. But you can’t tell what you don’t know, and so we’re all safer. More information comes when you’ve proved you’re more useful.”

Star lifted one of the satchels in her magic. She winced as she opened the flap, expecting blasting powder, poison, something terrible. Instead a mining helmet rolled out, complete with a magical headlamp. Underneath was a metal mallet, a coiled rope, everything a spelunker might need. “Ginny was sparse on the details,” she said quietly. Hopefully not too demanding. “Who are we working for, exactly? Somepony who doesn’t care if I get together with a bird?”

Wellspring stiffened in her cloak. Those gold eyes looked her over, like a pair of knives trying to cut through her body to the secrets underneath. Good luck. I’m here serving Harmony. What do you serve, Wellspring?

Finally she answered. “We’re the ones who want to make a difference,” Wellspring said simply. “The ones who think that things should be… reformed. Equestria’s had long enough with harsh punishments for sins against Harmony. You’ve felt them yourself. We think… the dangers are past, and it’s time to return to the way things used to be. Equestria didn’t use to have Commissars and executions. We think the princess could be persuaded to make the world more like that.”

It was about as gentle a sell for the resistance as Star could imagine. She couldn’t say anything that would too-suddenly turn away potential recruits, after all. Most ponies, even those unhappy with their world, wouldn’t be ready to turn on the princess and Harmony completely. You probably rehearsed that speech. Don’t pretend like you made that up on the spot.

Star and I agree with you,” Ginny said. “And I… I understand you’ll want to test us. We haven’t exactly shown off how subtle we are so far. Now that… all of Hollow Shades know our names. So what are we going to do? With… that stuff?”

“Something that doesn’t require any stealth or cleverness,” Wellspring explained, lifting one satchel in her mouth and settling it on a nearby cupboard. “Do either of you know the history of Hollow Shades? Let’s skip that and move to answering the question productively: it’s a hallowed foundation, like many others. That means it used to be a city, yeah? In Equestria’s golden age.”

Star gestured with a hoof, as though that were supposed to explain everything. “Technically, it’s older than that. The exception that got this city counted as a hallowed foundation is based on the single time that the princess and the Exemplars…” She trailed off, ears flattening. “Nevermind. You don’t care.”

Wellspring stared at her for a few seconds, eyebrows raised all over again. “You’re a strange duck, Star Orchid. You’ve… clearly sacrificed a great deal for love. More than the world should require of you.” She emptied the satchel one item at a time, spreading everything out before them. “Part of the key to our strategy is showing the world how successful Equestria has been in the past, when things were different.”

“So you want us to gather… artifacts?” Ginny suggested. “Rob a museum? I wasn’t aware that Hollow Shades had one.”

“It is one. The tunnels used by the city’s sewers today were once the city’s streets. Its burrows go deep, and we believe much of its history might be preserved down there. If you find any magical artifacts, those would be the most interesting. But even relics you think are ordinary could have value to us. Selling them to collectors will help raise funds for our cause.”

She grabbed the helmet in her mouth, then tossed it through the air to Ginny. She caught it easily, settling it onto her head. “You mean you’re testing to see if we run off with anything,” she said flatly. “Tell us how valuable this stuff is and wait to see what we do. We’re not going to steal it. Or… well, we are stealing it, but not from you. We’re stealing it for you. You get the idea.”

Wellspring shrugged, though Star was sure she caught surprise on her face through the openings in her mask. “That’s good. If you know what this is about, then you know how to be a proper part of our organization. Prove you can be as effective as you are insightful. Bring as much as you can carry without damaging it. Bring it all back to this room and leave it here. I won’t be here, but somepony will be around to pick it up. Also, don’t get discovered. The chances of any city watch down here are small, but… we won’t protect you if you’re arrested. Part of what we’re looking for are creatures who can handle themselves.”

“We won’t disappoint you,” Star said, shrugging on the other satchel. The helmet wouldn’t fit her quite right, since her horn poked out from the rim. But if they were being offered hard hats, she was going to accept them. “Do you have a map for us? Some way to… find our way to the ruins?”

Wellspring laughed, then pointed out the hall. “Take a right, then climb down the gigantic hole. Can’t miss it.”

Together they left the supply room behind, along with the strange pony left inside it. They walked in relative silence for the first little bit, back through the disgusting sewers. At least the central channel was clear. Star could only imagine with horror how this task might be if the path became backed-up somehow, and they’d had to wade through the city’s waste.

They reached the central opening after just a few minutes of walking. At least sewage wasn’t draining down this way, or else their artifacts would probably have long since been buried. Instead there was a vast opening, as wide around as the marketplace.

The metal cap over their heads left no mysteries about why. They were under the marketplace at that exact moment. A winding path circled the edge of the vast shaft, collapsed in several parts into a terrible drop.

“So are you wondering what I’m wondering?” Ginny asked, finding a place on the edge of a walkway and going to work with her rope. “You really think there’s anything of value down here?”

“That the royal teams haven’t found by now?” Star finished for her. “I’m… not sure. I know the princess has a massive private collection, but she might not… it’s possible she only cared about objects with certain kinds of significance. There might be some things left to sell to private collectors.”

She leaned in close, unable to keep her voice neutral. “What if we do find something valuable down here? Some… ancient magical weapon? We can’t just give it to them, right?”

“That’s exactly what we’re going to do,” Ginny declared. “There’s nothing that dangerous. And if we do find something with some power left, it’ll help cement our position with the rebellion.”

Star shuddered at the thought. She let that idea play to its logical conclusion, imagining she found some terrible weapon that would bring down Concord itself. Instead of singing her name for ending disharmony forever, she’d be remembered for a very different reason. She could be the one who ended the world a second time, perhaps. Or a third.

“You can fly,” she said, after an awkward moment of silence. “What’s the point of the rope?”

“Can you fly?” Ginny asked, grinning at her. “Best get the harness on, sweetheart. Don’t worry, I’ll get you down to the bottom nice and safe.”

Star groaned, then set to work. I could probably levitate myself down there. But I’d rather Geist not know I can do that. They might be on the same side fighting for Equestria, but Geist hadn’t exactly made her feel like an ally. Sooner or later she’s going to turn on me. She knew Geist’s secret, a secret no other creature in the court seemed to. She could think of only one way a secret like that could be kept.

She settled the straps around her legs and torso, tightening them one at a time with her magic. Then she made her way to the edge, glancing down into the darkness.

The glow of her mining helmet didn’t make it to the bottom, leaving a hole that seemed to go down to Tartarus itself. A steady breeze lifted her mane, carrying with it the smell of fungi and guano. “You sure this is safe, Ginny?”

“Climbing, yes. Exploring ancient ruins? Very not.” She clipped the rope onto Star’s harness, then gestured over the edge. “The ancients concealed innumerable dangers in their cities. Some are traps, while others are just the natural consequence of magic running down. Devices meant to make life easier for the ones who lived here now turn against their creators.”

Star walked backwards towards the edge. “You’re going to keep me from falling, right?” she asked. She didn’t have to fake her fear. Self-levitation was tricky magic, and she might not be able to invoke it before she invoked her way into a red puddle.

“Yes.” Ginny shoved her backward. “We’re in this together, remember? Wouldn’t do much for our cover if I insisted that you be allowed to come, then lost you after just a few minutes. Go on.” She gripped the rope firmly in her forelegs, or at least the end of it that trailed out the pully-system. She wasn’t an earth pony, but even griffon mares were fairly large. Large enough to counterbalance the weight of a unicorn, anyway.

She walked out over the edge, held against the rock by the tension of her harness. She started walking backwards down the opening. “Nice and slow,” she called. “I… don’t really know what I’m doing. I only saw this done once.”

“Sure,” Ginny’s voice carried from the top. She wasn’t yelling—that might echo off the metal cap, and let city watch in the marketplace hear them. “If you screw up, I can lower you like a foal.”

Star gritted her teeth, glaring up the slope. She couldn’t actually see the bird, but Ginny would sense her anger. That would have to be enough.

They got onto the ground without too much trouble, leaving the ruins themselves to spread out before them. A thick layer of dust and debris had collected down here over the years, from who knew how many ancient marketplaces.

Ginny landed beside her in the dirt as soon as she was secure, making the entire trip in seconds instead of hours. She yawned, stretched her wings, then tapped her headlamp until it came on. It illuminated a little cone around them, red tile on the arched ceilings and massive gray stone pillars all around. “What can you tell me about this place, Star? You must know everything about the hallowed foundations.”

She gritted her teeth, shoving past Ginny and towards the nearest open doorway. There were many down here, below a ceiling that was at least fifteen meters high. In a way it looked like an ancient sewer of its own, upon which the modern city had apparently been built.

"I know what you've already heard from me. This ruin was mentioned specifically on the file that discussed Hollow Shades, might be where the city got its name in the first place. It's called the Well of Shade, and it was dated to pre-harmonious times. The only other thing I heard about it was that a terrible monster might've been here long ago, before the princess hunted it down. One of your standard 'savior of Equestria' situations, really. No more detail about what it was, or what else it was used for beyond a single monster's lair."

They walked for a short distance through the gloom, beyond a doorway of crumbling stone. Maybe there had been a door here once, though it was hard to be sure. These ruins were unbelievably ancient, and Star knew as well as anypony that moisture was not kind to ancient relics. "Our only hope to find anything interesting is hoping that there might be something enchanted," she muttered, after their third room in a row of nothing. "Most spells would preserve enchanted objects. Otherwise, we're old enough that most organic things wouldn't survive. It's not dry enough down here." She took a few steps forward, nudging one hoof against a low wall. "Actually, this looks like a water-line. Almost like..."

"We're in the sewer's sewers," Ginny supplied. "The actual city that used to be here is full of manure, and anything that was inside it was destroyed."

Wouldn't be the first time Princess Twilight wanted that to happen. The World Before wasn't very harmonious. Best ponies remember it as little as possible. But even as she thought it, she didn't really believe. Even something as simple as an old cistern might hold secrets for them to discover. What was life like when ponies had lived and worked here? Had other creatures been as plentiful as the ponies themselves? Was it part of Equestria, separated into districts? Why had a monster chosen this as its lair, right in the center of a town?

Her musings were interrupted not with one of the traps she'd been expecting, but a strange mosaic of brown tiles on the wall. It wasn't the first one she'd seen, though this was the first one that hadn't been so covered with hard water that she couldn't see most of it. Star made her way over, rubbing the side with the back of a leg and trying to clear away the dirt of many centuries.

The planet had been crafted here, with a reasonably accurate mapping of the continents as they'd been pre-Unification. Yet there was more here—layers above, filled with divine-looking figures. A single pony hovered above it all, limbs spread in graceful compassion. She knew the cutie mark, even if she knew almost nothing about the one it belonged to. That was the princess's own predecessor, the one who had bequeathed the kingdom to her when she saw that the chaos and disharmony were too great for her to overcome. Celestia, Princess of the Sun.

"That's stupid, don't you think?" Ginny had made her way over without Star noticing, and now lingered just beside her, pointing at one of the upper layers. "There are ponies living on the moon. What the buck are they breathing up there?"

Star rolled her eyes. "You're taking this much too literally, Ginny. This is a religious artifact. I think these layers are the... afterlife. The top one would be the most harmonious, and the lower ones the place where common ponies aspire to go."

"Nothing below." Ginny pointed at the planet, then the space beneath it. There were cities represented here, cities as the ancient world had known them. But even primitive, there was something welcoming about their depictions here. Heart-shaped windows, huge fields of earth ponies tilling the soil. Scant trees, even though they'd taken the time to work remarkable detail into the little shards representing flowers. "Every creature on here looks happy. Where do bad creatures go?"

"Maybe nowhere." Star turned away from the monument and wandered over to a nearby door. This one had survived, maybe because of the thick layer of soil now pressed up against it. Maybe the team sent here last time hadn't thought it worthwhile to dig away every door, when they might not lead to anything terribly interesting. "Mind using some of your griffon strength on this, sweetie? With the diagram just outside, it's bound to be interesting."

Ginny approached, yanking on the knob without any excavating first. "You're the one with magic. Just... clean it up that way."

She shook her head, groaning with the obvious absurdity of it. "I could teleport through the wall, and who knows what's on the other side. I could probably blast the door open but think about how stupid that would be for a minute. We have no idea what's over there, how dangerous it is, how valuable it might be. Lots of ancient tombs are protected against magic more than anything else, since a magical intruder is more dangerous than any other kind."

Ginny grumbled for a moment, then started digging. She clawed huge chunks of dirt aside with her forelegs, working quickly for somepony who didn’t want to be digging.

"See, you're a natural. Don't your kind, uh... live underground a lot?"

"My kind," she repeated as she worked, exasperated. "There's not really any such thing anymore. You'd know more about what we were like in the years of disharmony than I would. Now we live the same as any other creatures: happy in our place, content to have a part in our great society. Honored that the princess decided to make room for us. All the polite, political things you're supposed to say."

Was that resentment in her tone? She could've expected something like that, but... not from Geist, surely. There were few creatures as close to the princess as he was. Few who had been in service to the crown as long. This is a trap. He's going to try to get me to say something stupid, then use it against me later. If you didn't think I was loyal to start with, you probably shouldn't have come with me on a mission to stop resistance ponies.

Finally the door was clear, and they could pull at the edge of the frame together. A strange ramp opened beyond, cut from ancient bedrock and smoothed by many, many hooves. Star found herself slowing as she walked in, as though something about the place's ancient, sacred value transcended time. Ancient ponies had strange ideas about religion, confusing simple magic for the working of the divine. But that mistake was to their advantage, since it might mean something of value to bring back.

"There's active magic here," she whispered, pointing to the bottom of the twisting trail. It wasn't a maze of distant chambers, but a destination maybe a hundred meters on. A black, onyx object, set on a flat platform at the end of the ramp. Letters had been carved into its four faces, inlaid with gold. The altar dais was adorned with precious stones, but compared to the working of the onyx pillar itself, it was like the bumbling of a child. "Don't touch it. I have no idea what kind of spell that is."

They stopped about a meter away, and Star resisted the urge to light up her horn, relying instead on the faint light the miner's helmet could provide. She hadn't just been trying to get out of work when she insisted they dig their way down the old-fashioned way. If anything in here was going to react to her magic, it was this.

"What kind of writing is that?" Ginny asked. “I've never seen that language before. And I've seen... more languages than most creatures in Equestria."

Star dared to advance a little closer to the ancient monument, feeling the magic against her coat as she got closer. It was like an airship's lift-crystal, threatening to take her up into its gravity. "It's an alphabet," Star said. "A written language that primitive would have to be... unbelievably ancient. The other writing in this ruin is Old Ponish, I've seen it. Which means..."

Ginny followed alongside, eyes never separating from the monument. "This thing might be older than the whole city. This is going to make those rebellion ponies love us." She turned, as though suddenly forgetting about the archaeological significance of the object in front of them. Or maybe just not caring. "How much can you levitate?"

Jamie flitted on the edge of consciousness, only dimly aware of her surroundings. One moment she was trundling along in a cart, feeling faint nausea from the unsteady motion. Then she was inside a quadcopter, speeding over a dark jungle by night. She saw only faint glimpses from outside her restraints, and whenever she started to struggle she would feel a little more pain, before being cast back into the dark.

She wanted to cry out for help, but of course there was no one to give it. Epsilon was kidnapping her? Why would it do that? She never should’ve left Shy’s house. She’d been nothing but kind since she arrived. Even the actions she’d taken to terrify Jamie had really just been looking after her. She didn’t want Jamie to get killed by the despotic authorities of her world, why shouldn’t she be grateful for that?

Eventually the nauseating trip ended, replaced with something worse. There was a steady beeping of a medical monitor, the occasional hiss of compressed gas into her mouth. Her throat parched from the dry, artificial air. Her limbs hung limply in a gelatinous substrate, and she could barely even twitch before she drifted back to oblivion.

Once she woke with her neck and head in a sturdy brace, suspended above the biogel. She felt a knife, heard a drill—yet the pain that came along with them felt like they were coming to her from far away. She should be screaming and writhing in agony, but it just… didn’t matter as much. Glittering metallic arms moved quickly through the air above her, trailing her own blood behind them as they worked.

Better just to let unconsciousness take her, and wait for the pain to stop.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

The next thing Jamie knew, she was in a hospital bed, feeling almost as bad as she had when she first woke. She blinked one eye open, and saw that her body was covered in bandages. Her eyes were faint slits through the fresh white gauze on her head, and there were almost as many along her back.

Her heartbeat began to accelerate, loud beeps filling the room. With increasingly desperate urgency. She jerked, trying to get out of bed, but straps caught her. She was restrained by thick elastic, which yielded to her struggling, but then snapped her back into the mattress.

“It is imperative you do not move,” Epsilon said, its voice coming from beside the bed. No drones, just the standard PA system. It hadn’t even bothered making a body to talk to her. But why would it? If it cared about bedside manner, it wouldn’t have kidnapped her in the first place. “The modifications were more extensive than initially anticipated, and you are proving somewhat resistant to anti-rejection medications. Tissue integration will take at least another few days.”

Jamie looked down, trying to get a good view of herself. Her body was obscured by the sheets of the bed, and the thick bandages on her face. She couldn’t tell if there was a muzzle under there, or just lots of gauze. Most of her body did feel numb, but that could just be the medications. “Did you… change me back?” she asked. Her voice was thin and reedy, barely audible even to her. “Because… our first plan… failed?”

She wanted to be human again, she did! But the idea of it happening so suddenly did dig at her a little. She’d been building a place for herself in Hollow Shades, for all the city’s flaws. There was a simple, relaxing joy that came from working with her hooves, more rewarding than any job she’d had.

Then again, it was also her first job, so… that probably didn’t mean a whole lot. Certs didn’t mean much when your rich parents just paid for everything.

“That would not be productive. Evaluation of the new information you provided suggests that diplomacy is contingent on the native religion. It prohibits much cooperation, and must be appeased in order to guarantee success for a surface settlement.”

“Yes,” Jamie said flatly. “That’s what I kept telling you. That’s why my… mission was doomed. Because there’s no way to make them agree with us. Going up there is just begging them to go to war. They’re too strong to fight with what little we have.”

Epsilon remained silent for a moment. Jamie wondered if it was just going to put her back to sleep—but no. Eventually the airlock opened, and an entertainment drone rolled in. It had a tablet for a head, and a projector mounted to its chest. The ceiling above them turned into a screen, projecting medical data. “This was taken following your modifications. It should familiarize you with what to expect.”

It was an x-ray of a pony body. As horrible as she’d imagined, with misshapen head and other limbs. But the strangest part of all…

“There are way too many bones on the…” She trailed off, eyes widening. She’d never seen a pony skeleton before, but she recognized what those had to be. “Hold on a minute. Those are… You gave me wings?”

“Affirmative,” Epsilon said. “It was one of the changes calculated to elicit cooperation from the Correction Agents’ civilization on the surface. Based on the information you transmitted about their governing religion, they appear to revere a central figure above all others.”

The medical data was replaced with a collage of several photographs. Some were taken from what seemed like Jamie’s own perspective walking around Hollow Shades. Was there a camera in her satchel, maybe? Others were clearly the decoration of Shy’s own house. The central theme of each was the same.

The Alicorn Twilight Sparkle was depicted in various stylized forms, sometimes hovering in the air, sometimes posing, sometimes with wings spread and horn exaggerated. Sometimes it was just her “cutie mark” displayed, the star symbol that represented the Exemplars of Harmony and the virtues in each.

“You made it clear that the class of beings called ‘Alicorns’ are infallible and must always be obeyed. It is natural to conclude that an Alicorn diplomat would be respected and obeyed.”

Jamie shifted uncomfortably in the hospital bed, trying to process what she’d just been told. She didn’t want to believe it. After stammering stupidly for a few seconds more, she finally spoke. “Epsilon, you’re… you’re shitting me. There’s no way you’re not shitting me. Please tell me you’ve reached sapience and this is a joke.”

The AI didn’t answer. The projector switched off, and the entertainment drone rolled off the way it had come, door shutting behind it. Silence continued for almost a minute before Jamie broke it again. “Your plan is insane. It’s a god-king cult. Her being an Alicorn is just… the excuse she uses. It’s not going to make the natives think I’m a god too! It’ll just… get her to want to kill me.”

She wasn’t sure about that last part, but everything else seemed so obvious to her! How could the AI be so stupid? Because it was stupid. Thinking machines were dangerous, everyone knew that. But apparently a machine that could barely think was just as dangerous in its own way.

“This is a possibility,” Epsilon said. No shyness, no admitting to something that it realized might have terrible consequences. “But this settlement is remote. A settlement on the surface does not need an indefinite period, only long enough to prepare effective countermeasures against a primitive culture. A decade, perhaps even less. This facility does not possess quantum-array processors for long-range precision predictions.”

Jamie struggled to get out of bed again, and again the straps held her down. She almost kept fighting—but the AI was probably right about the futility. Even if she thought its plan was incredibly stupid, she would want to let it finish the surgery first. “Reverse what you did,” she ordered. “Even if you don’t change me back, I promise your plan is incredibly stupid and won’t work. It’s only going to get their dictator looking for us. We need to stay secret. Don’t do it.”

The AI hesitated for another moment. “The horn structure involved permanent alterations to your brain and cannot be reversed. The wings could be removed, but at this point the investment of biological resources is too great. Whatever the risk of attack, we will find a way to neutralize it. This plan brings the highest calculated odds of success.”

“No it fucking dose—” She trailed off abruptly, as something hissed on the IV beside her. Something light blue joined the clear saline in the tube, and she knew exactly what it was doing to her. Cold numbness spread through her foreleg, and she could’ve fought it, maybe. But what was the point? Staying awake wasn’t going to make this stupid plan go away.

Epsilon doesn’t see me as a person. I’m just like any other resource. It’s going to use me and throw me away just like anything else in its control.

That thought was her last as the drugs finally took her, and oblivion found her again.

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