• 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 18: Apus

How could Star learn the secrets of Stygian’s Gate without making it obvious that she was here to get all of them hanged?

It was going to be an awkward conversation when she finally met back up with Ginny, and had to admit that she was right. Ponies could be incredibly stupid about their relationships. She’d never imagined she would wield a power like that over somepony, let alone actually use it. But how could she say no when the opportunity was given to her so plainly?

Certainly it had nothing to do with Windbrisk’s confidence and bravery, or his strange blend of bird and pony. Was it the most forbidden relationship she could imagine, or entirely innocent? Could a pony and a hippogriff even be together?

The rebellion was bigger than it seemed at first. Walking through that first huge space, she’d been able to imagine that it was all there was of this organization. Just a few bedrooms off to the side, and that was all.

The sound of distant grinding stone was their constant companion, overpowering anything they might’ve used to hear where in Hollow Shades this bunker had been dug.

“I think I’ve heard that sound before,” she said, as they left one of the brightly lit hallways into a little unmarked tunnel, barely wide enough for one of them. Bundles of wires and pipes ran through here, with just enough room for a pony to come through and service them. “From up in Hollow Shades. When I walked the streets late at night, I thought I could hear… worms.”

Windbrisk spun around, grinning at her. Somehow he was perfectly dry, while she was still damp from her fall. Fur just didn’t dry as well as scales, apparently. “Local legends work in our favor. Probably why they picked it. What is it they say, the ghosts of the old city hold market at the bottom of the well?”

She frowned. “I’ve… heard a few versions. Last one was, uh… the population of the city slipped into disharmony all at once, and so Twilight cast them into shadow. Now they’re clawing at the rocks until they can find their way out.”

“Even the legends get rewritten.” He turned away, scoffing. How could he even make that sound with a beak? “We take advantage, try to keep the machines working during the day. Machines… guess you call them Darktech up in the world the princess made.”

“Not every machine. I grew up in Concord, and we had… lights, hot water, the train system. Telegraphs to send messages in a hurry. But only within the city, obviously. Can’t… run lines over the world when Concord tears them up so often.”

“I have to know.” Windbrisk wheeled around again, getting right up in her face. “You lived there; you know how they think. Do ponies… are they tired of this yet?”

“Tired of what?” she answered by reflex, before she realized it probably wouldn’t help with her cover. But there was no taking it back.

“How about having a city that destroys the world as it flies over? Killing everything that tries to rebuild. Feels like she waits just long enough for the trees to start growing back before Concord comes around again, turning forests into wastelands. Or… do you not care, because that’s how the city stays flying?”

Star tensed—either because of his closeness, or the obvious accusation in his voice. “Everypony knows where it’s safe to build,” she answered. “As far as I know, we never… the city never swallowed any settlements as it went by. It’s huge, and it doesn’t go fast. Ponies have weeks to move if they need it.”

Windbrisk shook his head, obviously frustrated. “Weeks to leave behind everything their families built—but that’s not what I wanted to ask. I’m not trying to lecture you—you already left. I just want to know what the others think, what the… spirit is like. Is everypony afraid of the princess? Do they know what she’ll do to them if they break her rules?”

Harmony’s rules. The princess only shares them with us to help us live happier lives. But that wasn’t what she said. It might be what they were taught—but she’d been in the castle. The more she got to know the princess and the ponies who worked for her, the less they seemed to follow Harmony’s rules. Like Geist—he was willing to do anything that would complete their mission. Maybe that meant thousands of dead left behind them, or… or just a forbidden relationship.

“Yes. Nopony would say anything bad about the princess, not even to each other. You can’t… you can’t ever know that somepony isn’t listening. The princess might not be able to see into the rest of the world, but Concord is her perfect city. The closer to her you get, the better your life becomes—but you have to trade freedom for it. I grew up in Magic district… I never wanted for anything. But I had to live exactly the way Harmony said, or… I knew what would happen. Nopony was safe from discipline.”

“Is that why you ran?” He leaned in closer, close enough for her to feel his hot breath against her face. “You couldn’t stand the rules? You gave up all your luxury and safety to be somewhere life mattered?”

She nodded. They were back in familiar territory now, though… if he found out why she had been forced to leave according to the story, he might not believe it was authentic. Or maybe he’d think it was the birds she was interested in, more than the mares? Apparently that wasn’t wrong. “It would be nice if more creatures could… be themselves, instead of being whatever Harmony’s rules say they should be.”

He laughed. “We don’t have to have this conversation in the walls. In fact—I can show you somewhere exactly like that. One of the reasons this place is so big. I think you’ll appreciate our work a little more when you see it.”

He turned, bounding away through the dark. There was no room to fly, not with the walls crowding so close to either side. But he didn’t seem to be in a terrible rush.

“Where are we going?” She followed as close as she could, though the dark was strange and uncomfortable to her and felt like it might wrap around her hooves and trap her. There were many more small tunnels leading away from this one, passages that might lead to who knew where. Like a second set of roads through their secret city. This might actually be useful if I can find a few more ways in.

If the magic they used on all their doors prevented her from sneaking around and spying, then exploring this way might be their only option. She kept her horn alert, but so far she sensed no trace of magic. Don’t get too confident about that. There was none from the doors either.

“You wanted to see the things that most ponies don’t,” Windbrisk shot back, still grinning at her. “So that’s what we’re doing. The crew that goes up onto the surface doesn’t get to meet these ponies very often, because… well, it’s pretty obvious.”

It would be if you told me.

A few more turns and confusing crawlspaces, and Windbrisk stopped beside a bit of flat stone. Or that was what she thought it was. A little pressure from a claw, and it popped right out of its bracket, landing with a clatter. It didn’t shatter, though. “Through here.” He stepped out, offering a claw to help her over the edge. It was a decent drop on the other side, and she probably would’ve fallen on her face if she wasn’t paying attention.

She couldn’t see anything terribly different about the passages down here. They were in a stone hallway that could’ve been built anywhere else in the hidden city. Maybe that was the point, to leave an invader so confused that they didn’t know where to attack? Maybe Geist can memorize all those little passages. Changelings live underground naturally, so this should be normal for him.

Windbrisk picked up the flat piece of not-stone, pushing it back into place. “The playroom is just a little further. I think that’s where you’ll want to see.”

She followed, touching at her necklace briefly to make sure she hadn’t lost it in the cavern somewhere. “Are we supposed to be here?”

“I’m showing you the Undercastle. That’s what I’ll say if Wellspring asks.”

“What about the Iron Lord?”

He didn’t even slow down, glancing back at her with a knowing grin. “He wouldn’t even ask. Mind like that—wheels and predictions. Besides, I’m pretty sure he can’t see well enough to tell ponies apart. Half the time he thinks I’m one of you.”

“Why would your leader be in a playroom?”

He didn’t answer as they rounded the corner together into a large room, with a low fence and gate right in front of them. Windbrisk caught her by the shoulder so she didn’t smack right into it.

“Stygian's Gate has two halves, Star Orchid. There’s the brave ponies like you up on the surface, fighting evil. Then there’s us down on the inside, who do something else.”

She stared over the fence into the playroom, the breath catching in her chest. Here was more disharmony than she’d ever seen in one place—a center of evil and chaos so intense that she should’ve felt sick in the hallway outside. She practically begged for that feeling to come, reassuring her that her understanding of the world was right. It didn’t.

The space was half playground, half schoolhouse, with two dozen young creatures here studying. Not ponies as she understood them, though—these were mistakes. A few were young hippogriffs, or other half breeds she had no names for. There were a few little black bugs, with blue, insect eyes. Most were creatures Star would’ve politely called blemishes—ponies with missing limbs, torn wings, scarred faces. Little ponies wracked by incurable disease, making their coats fall out in little tuffs or ensuring they never got their cutie marks.

“This is…” Star’s disguise was forgotten, her fear irrelevant. She stopped by the edge of the fence, staring.

“Let me guess,” Windbrisk whispered. “What does the princess say about them? A harmonious society won’t allow citizens to live lives of pain?”

That was almost a direct quotation from the Words of Harmony. Almost. She only nodded.

“Do they look like they’re living lives of pain to you, Star?”

The play area was well-furnished, with a large wooden fort, climbing ramps, and a vaulting course. Little ponies giggled and cheered each other on as they ran and flew and crashed and bumped into one another.

She blinked tears from her eyes, wiping the sting away with the back of one leg. “Who… what happened to them? I’ve never seen… Somepony crafted magical replacement limbs? That’s—” blasphemy. Like little torture devices grafted to the suffering. Metal limbs and eyes. Somepony was transforming the already damned into living horrors.

Apparently no one told the children that. They didn’t seem horrified.

“He’s down here now, I think. See the light at that door? We can watch.”

Stars above no. But Star was here as a spy, wasn’t she? The princess would want to know about this… abominable magic. She forced herself to nod. “I’d like to see.”

Windbrisk pushed the gate open with one claw, holding it for her. Apparently this was here to stop the little ones from escaping. There were only a few adults here to supervise, and she felt suspicious eyes on them as they entered.

They seemed to recognize Windbrisk, though, because nopony tried to stop them.

The foals almost did. A few rushed over to them—a little changeling with a crushed shell and deep scars on his face, and a hippogriff filly. “Windbrisk, Windbrisk!” the bug yelled. “Did you save the world yet?”

“One day at a time,” he said, grinning at them. “Star, this is Charcoal and Palm Tree. I helped bring them in… not too long ago. Last month, Charcoal?”

“Yeah.” His face fell, broken shell opening a crack. But there were no wings beneath. “That seems right.”

“You’re pretty,” said the hippogriff, nudging Star. “Did you come from the sky?”

“She did,” Windbrisk assured, urging the two of them away. “I’m sure Star will come to play later. Right now we’re here to see the doctor.”

“Aww.”

They didn’t fight too hard, though. Star didn’t need to be a changeling to feel the love they felt for Windbrisk. Half these little fillies and colts did—no wonder he was so proud of this place.

They reached the door—taller than any pony ever would’ve needed. Big enough for a creature like the Iron Lord to use, with a single green light above it. Star probably would’ve turned around, but Windbrisk didn’t give her the chance, holding his necklace against it and pulling it open.

The room beyond was stark while, as clean as a hospital and with a similar smell of medication and alcohol. There was an empty cot against the far wall, with lots of strange metal things all around it. On the other side of the room were… more machines. Some of them hummed quietly, little boxes that shook and vibrated. A chest of many little drawers was arranged around it, packed with metal and a dull white material like the one used in some of the torture devices fused to those children.

A creature sat with their back to them, almost entirely obscured in a white coat. It had the same general outline as the Iron Lord, with legs dangling out from below the chair and back hunched over the table. “That would only be Windbrisk. What have you brought me this time?”

Not the Iron Lord, then. There was nothing feeble about this speaker, no body about to give up. He sounded confident, absolutely assured.

“A new friend,” he answered. “She wanted to meet the miracle-worker who saved all these creatures.”

Not the way I would’ve put it.

Something flashed from the other side of the room, causing Star to turn away. What could be so bright but not leave any magic in the air? It ended a moment later, and the creature spun their oversized chair around. Star was momentarily frozen with horror—it was much worse than she could’ve imagined.

The doctor wasn’t some prehistorical Devourer, kept alive by strange machines. It was something worse, something quite familiar in the Words of Harmony. A creature whose very presence was disharmony, with a body of many different parts and a mind that could understand nothing but chaos.

Twilight had triumphed over this creature long ago, sealing him with a spell that could not be broken. She saw that story was true, and runes had been burned into his flesh, scarring his face and moving down his body much like the children outside. One of his yellow eyes was directly in the path of the brand, and there was something metal over where the eye should’ve been.

He held something in his claws—a set of nearly transparent wings, attached to a thin metal scaffold in the middle with hooks running down both sides. Stars above it’s for the little bug. Apparently Star Orchid could feel compassion for a creature that shouldn’t even be alive.

“You did it!” Windbrisk exclaimed, rising to his hindlegs to be tall enough to reach the wings and examine them. The spirit of disharmony and chaos offered them to him as though it were an entirely ordinary exchange. Windbrisk turned, holding them up towards her. “This is the doctor. He’s the reason I joined here. Because of what he promised to do for my little sister.”

“And I always keep my promises.” Discord took back the wings, replacing them on his desk before turning his attention on Star again.

We’re bucked. One yellow-red eye stared, joined by another of glass and shiny metal. “This one is from Twilight’s little breeding experiment. Just look at her face. It’s okay, unicorn. You’ll have to tell me how you really feel. I’m not so good with the mind-reading anymore, as you can guess.” He gestured at his face with one claw.

Imperial magic. Star knew Twilight’s magic when she saw it, though this was a spell more complex and powerful than she’d ever seen in the palace. Binding chaos itself, one of the princess’s six great works. One of the proofs commonly used by the Clerics of Harmony, to prove her right to rule. It’s real. It’s all real I can’t believe I doubted I’m damned to chaos with all of these princess forgive me please.

They were staring at her. Windbrisk’s expression grew more concerned by the moment. Would he see through her disguise? “Why…” Not enough. “Why are you doing this?”

The doctor smiled at her, folding his strange claws across his chest. “What is a soul worth, pony? Defying the laws Twilight put in place—certainly worth that. I’m sure if you asked her, she could probably give you an exact figure. How productive would that pony be in her breeding experiment? How much closer to her goals?”

“Trick question,” Windbrisk said. “There’s no number. No trade, nothing. Every one of those children is worth everything.”

“What do you think, pony? What is a soul worth to you?”

She opened her mouth to come up with something, then shut it again. She could hear the laughter through the door. Who was she to tell those children their lives were misery and they shouldn’t even exist? Maybe Twilight could—she could brand chaos and seal his magic away. But she was just one pony.

Discord shrugged. “I don’t know, Windbrisk. But I’ll tell your unicorn friend this: they’re worth more than a few plastic joints and some neural interface implants. Before all this, I could’ve snapped my fingers and fixed them all.” He did so, making a sudden, sharp echo in the small space. “Now… I’ve been restrained. But Twilight can’t take what’s in here.” He tapped the side of his head with two fingers, the same ones he’d just used. “Every life I save is one more piece of gravel in her hooves. Just a little less order in her perfect world.”

Windbrisk rested one claw on her shoulder, backing away. “Thank you for seeing us, doctor. You’re working miracles down here.”

Discord grinned back. The expression seemed remarkably genuine for an entirely evil spirit of chaos. “If I keep at it for the rest of time, I’ll never wash the blood from my hands. But it will be fun to try.”

Star didn’t stop hyperventilating until they finally left his operating room behind, past the playroom to another living area. It looked much the same as the one built for her, except it didn’t hold resistance ponies ready to be deployed. These were… older versions of the kind of ponies in the playroom. The broken, forbidden, and disabled. Many had Darktech prosthetics, probably built by Discord too.

That’s the secret, that’s where it all comes from. This is the enemy you were hunting for all this time. Part of her reveled in the knowledge that she’d be able to give such an important gift to the princess. All she needed was the location of this place, and she’d be able to win her return to court for sure. This was everything Twilight expected from the mission and more.

But as Windbrisk introduced her to the adults and she heard some of their stories, she found the thought of the Unification Army moving through here less appealing than she had on the trip over. None of these ponies would be spared—such violations of Harmony’s precepts could only be put to the sword. Why did you leave Discord alive in the first place, Princess? Why not kill him at the same time you branded him?

She was still missing pieces, and the stronger that knowledge grew the more frightened she became. This is bigger than me. Geist was right, I’m going to drown out here.

Still, she had to disentangle herself from Windbrisk gracefully, lest she burn a bridge she’d just spent all day building. Whatever interest she’d felt for him, that faded into the background in light of what she’d just seen.

“I should probably get back to my quarters,” she said, as they finally returned to familiar parts of the Undercastle. “I think I’ll need some time to take all that in. Process… what we’re doing here.”

Windbrisk nodded, expression flat. “Don’t feel too overwhelmed, Star. Nopony expects you to save so many when they’re first starting. Stygian’s Gate values every contribution, even the small ones. I’m sure whatever you were recruited to do is just as important in its own way.”

You don’t have a clue what I’m thinking. She nodded anyway, reaching up to touch his claw briefly. A proper griffon would probably not have let them part on terms like this, with their entangled future still unresolved. Apparently hippogriffs had ponies’ patience for taking their relationships slow, despite being a stallion. I don’t have any idea what you’re thinking either. She’d never been interested in one before. What did a stallion even want from his partner?

Probably not for her to give all his secrets to the princess and get his little sister killed by the Unification Army.

“Thanks again for taking me. It makes me wish I was doing more, but… I’m glad to know what’s really happening. Helps me understand how I could help better.”

“Give it time. Stygian’s Gate needs to know it can trust you. Let Wellspring learn your talents, let the Iron Lord get to know you. You’ll be out there saving lives before too long.”

He left her there, alone in the hall leading back. She could still smell his scent on her all the way back to her quarters.

She spent the next few hours in turmoil, knowing full well that Ginny would be back any moment. The changeling could probably help reassure her their mission was just, that they were doing the right thing. Maybe if she talked enough, Geist would give her the secret he used to keep working this depressing job. What secret spell could quiet her conscience and remind her that nothing mattered as much as the world Harmony would bring?

Eventually the door opened, and Ginny slipped in. She was still wearing one of her performance dresses, with its evocative colors and cuts. Who knew what terrible things she’d done while wearing it? At least I don’t have to feel guilty about seeing other ponies. She’s with them every day from noonday to midnight. “Productive day?” Ginny asked, grinning at her. “Tastes like someone learned some interesting things while I was out. I can’t wait to hear.”

Star cast her usual silence spell, though it actually took a second try. Her heart just wasn’t in it right now. Still, it would be even worse if she didn’t share. During their first meeting, Geist had threatened to kill her if she became disloyal. Even if he’d never been violent since, the threat was always there, lurking in her shadows.

“I explored, like you suggested,” she said. “Met a hippogriff who would show me around. The Undercastle has secret tunnels—passages between sections that aren’t easy to see from up here. I think Stygian’s Gate wants to keep its skills separate. We don’t find out about what’s going on below, and the ones they’re hiding down there don’t find out about us.”

“Oh, that is interesting.” Ginny removed her dress with exaggerated sensuality, like she was performing for Star all along. The mixture of so many smells under there didn’t have the effect Ginny probably wanted, though. This was a pony with so many relationships that Star herself could only rent her time. Even if she hadn’t known she was just a changeling underneath, an assassin… “Who are they hiding?”

“Discord,” she said. When the spy only looked blankly back, she continued, her tone more disbelieving the more she said. “Spirit of chaos? Defeating him was one of Twilight’s six great works? Being of corruption and despair? Demigod bound only by the divine grace of the princess?”

“Oh.” Ginny settled onto the edge of the bed, stretching out and lifting her tail provocatively. “Never heard of him. But you sure make him sound like somepony who’d be hiding in a rebellion. Still… doesn’t sound that interesting. If he had any power left, I’d know about him. If I’ve never heard that name, he doesn’t matter. Don’t get too worked up.”

You think that’s what I’m upset about? Star snapped around to glare at Ginny, but only for a few seconds. Now that she thought about it, maybe she didn’t want to share. You’d probably go through there and kill all those creatures yourself if you thought the princess wanted you to. And you wouldn’t even feel guilty while you did it.

“It’s important,” she insisted. “Discord used to be the princess’s greatest enemy, left over from the world before. She’ll want to know about this, I promise.”

“You can tell her,” Ginny said, rolling over. “When we go. We’ve almost learned all we need. Give me a few more days to get a map of these tunnels worked out. They’re not as safe as the ponies here think they are. Once we can give the princess a map, it’ll be job done. You’ve done good work here, Star Orchid. The princess was right to think you could be more than another clerk in her court. Just don’t let them figure you out and slit your throat before we leave, yeah?”

Her heart went cold. “When would we… leave, exactly?”

Ginny hardly seemed to be paying attention. “As soon as they send us together on a mission outside Hollow Shades. We could escape right now, but then they’d know they were in trouble. They might go to ground, hide out in the wilderness somewhere… and we’d be back to where we started. For all this work to matter, we have to get out while they don’t suspect anything. Concord finds out in time to deploy over here, and… that’s it. Equestria’s a little safer.”

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