• 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 15: Ara

Regent Twilight Sparkle walked through her laboratory, attentive to the sound of pacing hooves behind her. General Pike stomped along with iron-toed boots, clicking against the tile. Behind him were the light footsteps of the Prelate.

Prelate Crimson Shine moved delicately, robes dragging along the tile behind her. I probably should’ve told her not to bother with the costume.

Whatever, Twilight could send clerks down here to sterilize it later. This was too urgent to wait.

“Forgive my curiosity, Princess,” Crimson said, her sacred crown glowing purple. Naturally, Twilight’s own color. Once Twilight had thought her element was Friendship—but that was wrong. She’d been Magic all along. “But the telegram didn’t say what this was about.”

Crimson eyed Pike with scorn on her face, disbelief that he could have any place in the city. Let the church and the army continue to struggle over who is more harmonious. So long as you aren’t questioning me, we can get along fine. “What could possibly require both of us?”

Pike nodded, though he exuded humility rather than pride. “I am curious as well, Regent. Eager for your wisdom.”

Twilight gestured at the shut door to the isolation cell. A heavy blast door secured it, sealing in any number of terrors that might dwell there. It had a single window, dusted with the powder of the changeling queen’s ancient throne. It could stop bullets too, though it hadn’t yet needed to.

The lights inside were off, meaning the metal grate in the floor and the various metal trays her visitors were sometimes strapped to glittered eerily in the gloom. Twilight could imagine some of them there, and the particularly enlightening procedures she had conducted.

She knew so much more about ponies than other creatures gave her credit. If only the world was ready to understand what she did, maybe they would’ve thrown off the danger long ago.

Why didn’t you believe me? We should be on the same side.

Twilight was staring at her Prelate again, and somehow her crown glowed pink. It was the exact shade of Fluttershy’s mane, dredged out of her memory. Maybe the Element you represent speaks more faithfully than you, Fluttershy.

Or maybe it was just a coincidence. Twilight straightened, flipping the switch that would light the inside. “I bought this from the Charming family, obtained it from an artifact trader who couldn’t say where he’d acquired it.” And he really hadn’t known. Whoever sold it to him had left nothing for Twilight’s magic to extract. “I believe it might be one of the oldest surviving artifacts of the Firstborn.”

Crimson staggered back, her eyes widening from within the headdress. It started glowing white. “Regent, truly? I didn’t think the Devourers had left anything behind?”

Pike remained silent, watching. He knew better than to repeat his question of why he was here. He would have to trust that she would explain in time.

“Our ancient ancestors,” Twilight supplied for him. “And the accidental creators of the Devourers.”

“Oh.” He pressed up to the glass, levitating a monocle over one eye and squinting within. “It’s a… golden obelisk. Beautiful certainly, but… what does it mean?”

“We will permit the object to speak for itself,” Twilight said. “But I have my theory. I think the Firstborn built this after they knew they were doomed, as a message for their foals.”

“A key to defeating the Devourers for good,” he supplied. “Possibly. I can see the appeal of leaving a last message to spite your enemies and help your children. Carved into stone and hidden, no doubt.”

The Prelate cleared her throat. Her headdress remained bright white as she spoke, and Twilight could almost imagine Rarity’s voice from the nag’s pockmarked lips. “And I’m here to… gather Harmony’s lessons from ages past? To learn in person, then share with the rest of Equestria?”

Twilight chuckled. “One day, when Equestria is safe. For now, though… I’d like your help with interpretation. You know the words of Harmony better than any creature. I would like to hear an impression that isn’t my own.”

That did it, at least enough to pique her curiosity. Twilight approached the blast door, touching her horn to the symbols in the correct order. She didn’t care if these ponies saw—they weren’t Alicorns, they could try the combination all day. It retracted into the floor a moment later, gears grinding as it slipped away.

Twilight led the way inside, past several restraining beds to where the artifact rested on an insulating rubber plate. Up close, the inscription was much more obvious. The writing system was entirely unknown to most creatures, though of course not to the princess herself. Not a syllabary, but a primitive alphabet of blocky letters. The trick was just in knowing how to read them—the Firstborn tongue had survived remarkably intact through the years.

And the less the citizens of Equestria know about why, the better.

“These are the secrets to defeating the Devourers?” Crimson asked, leaning close to stare at the words. Twilight didn’t think she knew how to read them, but she couldn’t be completely confident about that. “Wouldn’t that be… martial? And out of my purview of knowledge, I’m afraid. The military’s alignment to Harmony exists only as its service is congruous with the will of Harmony’s servants.” She glared pointedly at Pike, who did a very good job of pretending not to see her.

“I suspect there may be something martial here, hidden between the lines. The plain language doesn’t seem to be, however.”

Twilight leaned in close, and read:

“Thy world hath brought thee out of the darkness of instinct, out of the house of bondage.
1. Thou shalt have no other gods before it.
2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any thinking machine greater than thee.
3. Thou shalt speak no whispers into the darkness, for the void heareth, and layeth in wait to destroy you.
4. Remember the simplicity of the deepest weaving, to twine no threads together until all are mastered.
5. Honor the harmony of spheres for thy gain, never to rend in twain for a weapon against thine enemies.”

She’d read just about half of what the stone contained before she sensed their confusion near a breaking point, and stopped. “You’ve figured out something? Please, I want both of you to be frank with me. Say whatever you’re thinking, no matter how obvious or foolish you think it sounds.”

Pike was the first to heed that command. Crimson cared too much about what the princess thought of her, it was in the nature of her office. “I’m not sure any of that sounds military,” he said. “Honestly, I’m not connecting whatever wisdom of the princess allowed you to discern this message was meant to overcome the Devourers. Perhaps it’s a way to… avoid their temptations?”

Where Crimson had seemed only prideful while watching him, Pike turned to her with simple curiosity. “Prelate, are you seeing something I don’t?”

“Generally.” She circled around the stone, eyeing the parts Twilight had read in particular. Twilight would have to be careful how much of this she read in the company of other ponies, otherwise they might realize that anypony could read it with little extra training.

Her headdress shifted to purple. “Obviously it’s a moral metaphor. A list of commands for their children. I think the first command is to… honor our harmony with nature, so the world can care for us well? The others are less clear, but I’m sure with proper study I could figure something out.”

Twilight spun, fixing a fierce glare on the two. “What I say to you here must not be repeated. You know I will know if you defy my will.”

Crimson nodded fearfully. Pike remained calm. “Of course. Your orders are absolute, Princess.”

And you’re both so old this knowledge will fall out of circulation soon, as it should. Equestria won’t be backsliding.

“I believe this list is a warning of the Devourers’ weapons, the ones they used against the Firstborn. Despite their great harmony, they were unable to survive the onslaught, and were destroyed. We must learn from their mistakes.”

“How?” Pike asked. “Forgive my ignorance, Princess. But those don’t sound like weapons to me.”

I don’t understand all of them either. That’s why you’re here. Shame Starlight’s experiments failed; she might’ve given useful advice.

“The first instruction—I believe it warns us that the enemy will try to make the planet upon which we live unable to sustain us. Poison the water, fell the forests, ruin our crops. Our wise ancestors made certain this would not be possible. Each tribe helps maintain our world in balance, regulating the biosphere. This was probably their greatest weapon in ancient times, which is why it was listed first. And why the Firstborn worked so hard to make us immune.”

Pike nodded again. “And the others?”

Even knowing she had their absolute loyalty, Twilight hesitated another moment. “I have encountered a thinking machine before, long ago. It was one of our greatest enemies, determined to slaughter every pony who was ever born. I destroyed it.”

“Oh,” Crimson said.

“Could there be others?” Pike asked. “How will I recognize one if I encounter it? Obviously they should be our targets of greatest priority as soon as we see them. If they’re that dangerous.”

“Machines that speak,” Twilight said. “Often they control… other machines, many of them. Smaller than a pony, or larger. They work together against you, better coordinated than a changeling swarm. What one knows, they all know. But find the mind, and you rip the life out of them all.”

Twilight watched her companions, nervous for their reaction. Not that she really expected any of them to realize things she hadn’t—they knew so little of how the world really worked that it would’ve been incredibly surprising if they figured out something she’d missed.

“It seems there are layers of meaning here, Princess,” Crimson said. “And—forgive me for saying so, but I believe there is a spell in this. I’m certain you’ve already realized this, but… what does it do?”

Twilight smiled slightly. “It’s well hidden, I’m surprised you noticed. The magic is meant to interact with something larger. It is a key, a Haycartes cypher of incredible complexity. I don’t know yet what it is protecting, but I don’t doubt it will reveal itself in time.

“For now, come closer. I wish to read you the words that remain. You may share the wisdom they teach you with trusted servants of Harmony. But when you do so, say only that you learned it from me. If somepony already knows the lock, it would be best they not discover we hold the key.”

The maze Star Orchid had traversed for the last several months under Hollow Shades did not restrain itself to the sewers only. As she followed Wellspring through a dozen identical stone tunnels, she supposed that the rebellion had chosen this location specifically.

The sandstone was rough and ancient, breaking apart with enough pressure from her hooves. The marks carving through it were fresh in places, suggesting that the rebellion had added many of their own paths. Sometimes the ground was smooth, but even then the ceiling was low enough that a particularly tall stallion would have to stoop.

Wellspring led the way, clutching a lantern in one wing. Its paint-oil wick sparked and hissed whenever they came to a patch of dust, making Star wonder if she should help with her horn. But even if I did have light, I’d never be able to find my way here if I got lost. It seemed like they were taking an intentionally confusing path, doubling back and turning past familiar corridors. But was Wellspring trying to mislead them, or was it just the construction of the place?

An army trying to find their way through these would have a nightmare not getting separated. Even a skilled team who knew the rebellion was here would probably take so long to navigate that the location beyond could be evacuated.

“For the next little while, you’ll have to take this path with someone who knows it,” Wellspring said. “Not that we don’t think you’re clever—obviously you are if you made it this far. But the dangers of the Path of Friendship are numerous and lethal. Even creatures friendly to our cause have met their end in these halls.”

She lowered her voice. Even if her words seemed silly, her tone was dark. “They say their spirits are trapped here to this day, sensing the hearts of all who enter. Those who come to destroy instead of build are led down strange paths and lost to the traps.”

“Well ain’t that spectacular,” Ginny said, grinning at Wellspring in the faint lantern light. “We’re here to join, not to hurt anything. So there’s nothing for us to be worried about.”

Did you really have to say that so loudly? Are you trying to get them to question us?

But Geist was the expert. If only Ginny played the character a little more seriously. She was always having too much fun.

“Of course you are,” Wellspring said. She sounded absolutely confident. “If you were too big a risk, we would’ve ditched you a long time ago, or let the Commissar deal with you. Most creatures never make it this far—but you’re in the right place, and we can’t afford to give up good help.”

They traveled through the gloom for a little while longer, before coming to—a section of wall. It looked as bland as anything else, and the hallway continued beyond. But Wellspring held up her hoof, and it began to shift, lowering down in front of them like a ramp.

“How did you do that?” Ginny asked, staring. “You’re not a unicorn—that can’t be a spell.”

Wellspring grinned back at her. “I’ll teach you one day, when you’re a little further. For now, consider it a mercy that you don’t know. What you’ve never been told can’t be forced from you. If the Commissar ever brings you into the Hall of Obedience, you can say you don’t know where we are, and not violate the virtue of Honesty.”

Star could feel Ginny’s disappointment even without changeling magic. I want to be done with this job as much as you do, but we can be patient for a little while longer. Taking us there is already further than anypony else has come.

The wall settled flat, onto the top of a ramp descending straight into a gigantic chamber. It was almost as large as the central well, though there were metal beams running along the walls with braces that didn’t seem like a terribly pony design to Star’s first glance.

Even white light filled the space from mountings on the ceiling, which were at once as bright as a thaumic spotlight but shone in the same perfect lack of color. Whatever unicorn cast those is an absolute master of focus and discipline. Not a trace of their natural color in the light.

Twilight could do that, obviously. But the princess could do many things that other creatures only imagined.

She’d pictured maybe a dozen ponies, each one covered with tattoos and scars from close encounters with the Unification Army. They would be hunched in the dark, plotting over an inverse map to the one Twilight kept in Concord. Instead of finding the sources of disharmony, this one would find weaknesses in ponies’ hearts. They’d send out a team, sow chaos, then return.

She was right about there being a magical map. Not ancient crystal magic, but a spell of light and projection, shining onto the curved ceiling of the cavern high above. It showed all of Equestria, with loving detail given to the topography and the location of every major settlement.

Concord itself glowed bright red on the map. Unless it had rapidly accelerated since she left, it showed the city’s location accurately, moving slowly south past the Immortal City.

Balconies were attached to the walls to give the huge room three levels, though the center of the bottom floor retained a view of the map through the middle.

Instead of a gaggle of surly ruffians, the multi-tiered space had at least two-dozen creatures, separated like any of Concord’s better-organized offices. There were numerous smaller tunnels branching away from each level.

She’d imagined correctly when she pictured these ponies’ level of coordination as well. They didn’t dress in formal uniforms, or formal anything for that matter, but scraps of whatever they’d been able to get their hooves on. There were no guards, nothing like soldiers.

Even so, the scale was incredible. If these were all ponies devoted to spreading disharmony, it was no wonder Twilight thought their situation was so dire.

There could be a hundred ponies living here. A small number compared to all of Hollow Shades, for sure. But how could they feed them all without being discovered? How did they get water? Did construction in the city above ever break into their tunnels by accident?

“I see you’re staring,” Wellspring said, her voice breaking through Star’s thoughts at last. “Don’t worry, you’re not the first pony to be overwhelmed. That amazement you’re feeling is normal.”

“I’m amazed this doesn’t appear on any map,” Ginny said. “Right under a hallowed foundation, it would be prime living space.”

Nice way of saying the Commissar should’ve found you all and hanged you. At least you were trying to be a little bit careful.

“It isn’t on any maps.” Wellspring gestured towards a set of stairs leading to the second balcony level, and they began to climb. Creatures stared at them as they passed, many wearing… strange objects on their heads. Darktech. She didn’t get a good look, but it had to be. Either Darktech, or really ugly jewelry.

“It didn’t exist before, all freshly excavated. Those metal supports you see aren’t for show—they hold the cavern up around us, and stop the buildings above us from taking a swift trip down.”

Creatures got out of the way, though Star could still feel their stares following them. Not suspicion exactly, but not trust either. She supposed it was probably just the way any creature would treat newcomers with unknown loyalty.

You’re right to be suspicious. When the princess finds out about all this, she’s not going to be merciful. You’re making deals with the Devourers for your Darktech. You’re trying to spread disharmony. When you’re gone, Equestria will be safe forever.

“What takes so many?” Star asked. “This place is huge. Like a whole district hidden underground. It must be a nightmare to get enough food and water for all these… or do they sneak up to the city to live?”

Wellspring stopped outside a metal door set into the cavern wall. It wasn’t the only one, but these ponies used a fair bit of metal. Somehow they’d found the time to hire blacksmiths and cast things while hiding and feeding their rebellion.

“You won’t learn everything right away,” Wellspring said, spinning around. “There’s a lot to know, and you still have to prove yourselves. But take this meeting as proof that we trust you. We think you can give a lot to our cause. I stuck my neck out for you too… and that first big sale helped a ton.”

She took a few steps closer, leaning in. “But what you see through that door, it’s going to change you. You’ll never be able to go back to the lives you knew and pretend everything was the same. And you’ll be hunted. Every Commissar in Equestria would want to bring you in if they knew.”

“And you tell us this after showing us your secret hideout?” Ginny asked flatly. “Seems like the order is a little off.”

Even with the neutral way she’d said it, Star expected Wellspring to be at least a little nervous at a remark like that. After all, they were essentially admitting they had the power to damage the organization if they wanted to, albeit without any of the threat.

But Wellspring didn’t seem afraid. “I know you two believe in what matters. You wouldn’t have crawled through the muck and mud if you didn’t. But we don’t want anypony who doesn’t believe the same way we do, who isn’t fighting for the same things we are.”

She gestured back the way they came. “If you want to go back to the surface, we can do that. Nopony will believe you if you talk about this place… and you’ll never find it. Sure, we’ll be set back, having to dig a new entrance somewhere else. But it’s worth it. You can’t buy honest creatures. They either see how broken the world is, or they don’t. Do you see, Star Orchid? Does the world seem right to you the way it is?”

Of course it is, we have a perfect princess who could never do anything wrong. Everything is always perfect, and always will be. But even months ago, when she’d served in the palace and never seen the world below, Star wouldn’t have been able to say that with total honesty.

A perfect world wouldn’t need armies and public executions. It wouldn’t need prisons. Creatures would be able to live where they wanted, not tucked into tiny corners of the world.

“No,” she said. “I think Princess Twilight means well. But there are a lot of imperfect ponies who work for her. Little mistakes grow into big ones, get completely out of control.”

Wellspring nodded, satisfied. “Naive, but good enough. What about you, Ginny?”

“Buck the way things are,” Ginny said. She covered her lack of sincerity with volume and visible anger. “Star and I shouldn’t be afraid of living together. Any world that wants to keep us apart needs to be fixed.”

Her answer might be shallow, but Wellspring turned away. “Then you’re welcome to join the family. Just understand that you’re joining for life. Once you know our secrets, you’ll never be completely safe. There’s strange magic out there, and many creatures who would impress the important ponies of the world by hunting us. They’ll hunt you too, if they can.”

Star shrugged. It was all she could do, shaking with guilt as she was. Here we are lying to her face, and Wellspring is being completely sincere. She’s trusting us, when we’re coming here to destroy everything she’s building.

Geist would probably say that it was just proof of how unfit to lead she was, and how the organization she worked for was doomed. If it wasn’t the two of them, it would be somepony else. But little Geist had said could calm her.

Wellspring lifted her hoof to this door, and it too opened on its own. Obviously magic, though Star couldn’t actually sense any. It must be so low-powered that it only flashed for a moment, maybe even spring-loaded.

The door folded slowly upward, flush with the ceiling. This space was about the size of a conference room, with a table in the middle and more glowing white plates on the walls. These must’ve been weaker spells, or else they would’ve been blinded this close.

“We take every recruit to meet the boss,” Wellspring said, gesturing at the head of the table. There was a tall chair there, almost like a throne. Yet it was strangely… mechanical? There were wheels on both sides, yet somehow it remained in place. Little lights glowed from the back, and something mechanical hissed and squeaked every few seconds.

More Darktech. Like the diamond dog excavators, but all concentrated into one place.

As they got closer to the chair, Star realized the far wall was enchanted too. It wasn’t just light, but thousands of little words and pictures, all moving together. It was easily the most complex farcasting she’d ever seen. There were pictures of Hollow Shades here, with the figures inside them moving. The symbols weren’t anything like Ponish, lacking any inherent pictographic meaning.

Wellspring stopped not far from the chair and lowered her head respectfully. It was the kind of respect a pony might show to a visiting Commissar. Or the princess. “I brought them, Iron Lord. The ones I was telling you about.”

Star saw the edge of something lift from the chair—wheelchair, really. Just absurdly gigantic and covered with Darktech. A gloved paw, covered in white. The hand shook violently, like an ancient horse who belonged in convalescence.

But then he spoke, and his voice seemed so… normal. “Help me turn, Wellspring. I want to see them.”

She hurried over, gripping the back of the wheelchair and turning it sharply around to face them.

The creature wore white over his entire body, from the robes to the edge of the paws emerging from inside. Clear tubes ran down the back of the chair. From the steady flow of deep red, it seemed they were going into the creature.

The robes were lumpy and uneven, so it was hard to say what the creature looked like underneath. A stunted minotaur, maybe?

I’ve seen their skeletons in the castle. The princess was right all along. She felt a surge of fear, far worse than anything she’d known when she discovered Geist was actually a changeling.

The originators of disharmony. The most evil beings in all creation. The ones who destroyed the Firstborn. This one would surely recognize her as an intruder, and destroy her with its terrible magic. She would be helpless before it.

Its face was mostly covered, though a pair of tiny blue eyes gazed back at her. It was hard to guess what their owner might be thinking. Planning a gruesome slaughter, surely.

Except that she’d seen anger before. She’d seen hatred in the eyes of that diamond dog, when it defied the princess. But this creature showed none.

Even sitting down, he was the tallest being in the room by far. And so frail in all that white cloth. A strong gust of wind could probably blow him over and end Equestria’s entire war with chaos.

Don’t even think about it, Star. You’re way out of your league. Only the princess can fix this. “They’re adorable, Wellspring. You didn’t tell me they came in bird.”

Wellspring’s ears flattened in embarrassment. “Iron Lord, she’s called a griffon. They’re proud and powerful. You probably shouldn’t speak to her that way.”

“Of course, of course.” He lifted one shaking hand again, extending it towards Ginny first. “Sorry, I’m… new. So are the two of you, I’m told. Your time in the city above has not been enjoyable. I hear your past was even less so.”

The Iron Lord folded his gloved hands in his lap, looking down contemplatively. “Tell me about it. I feel better about someone if I can hear their story from their own lips.”

Star’s heart sank. It was exactly what she’d been afraid of. The Devourers might look strange, and might sound sincere. But he had mind magic, just like the princess. He would see through their ruse. They were bucked.

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