• 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 21: Cancer

Jamie shifted uncomfortably in the dress that didn’t feel like it was hers, wishing very much that she could be back in the shelter. If only someone else’s pod had been failing, then she wouldn’t be out here playing horse. She could wake up, blissfully unaware of all the difficulties that transpired while she slept. Except they might never wake up now. If their evil princess can find the emergency shelter, she will probably kill everyone inside.

Apparently the dictator was evil enough that she might just invade and slaughter every person in Hollow Shades because Jamie had appeared there. It was all about controlling the flow of information, and nothing at all about morality. The princess had given up on that a long time ago.

Discord thinks she had good reasons. Something about the governing intelligence and the harm it had caused? Jamie had a hard time understanding everything Discord meant, but he hadn’t stayed long enough to finish explaining. He wanted to go back and tell their secret human about her; someone called the Iron Lord. Leader of the rebellion. Of course another survivor would actually be making a difference, instead of selfishly hiding and getting nothing done.

That wasn’t quite true—she was getting Twilight to turn her attention to Hollow Shades, and likely destroy the rebellion in the process. Jamie the failure was on a roll.

She probably wasn’t wearing the dress right. Or maybe she was going to tear it and show off how obviously not royal she was to Golden Shine and half of Hollow Shades. Her impression of regality was one of the few defenses anypony had, and it was going to go up in smoke.

“He’s at the door,” Shy said, poking her head into the little sitting room. “You should probably just go out. If we let him in, he might take advantage and start searching the place.”

“Makes sense.” Jamie leaned forward, hugging the other horse briefly. “Thank you for helping. I’m sorry I brought so much trouble for you. I didn’t mean to!”

“I know.” She let go quickly. “You didn’t have a choice either, Jamie. I know that look. Sometimes ponies don’t get to choose what kind of lives they’ll live. Action grabs you by the bridle and yanks you out of where you felt safe. It’s been… happening to me my whole life. Most of the time, there isn’t so much at stake.”

Thanks, Shy. Really comforting. “I’m not cut out for this,” she muttered, reaching up to check her mane one last time. Without understanding how to use her horn, it was all she could do to use her hooves for the task. “If this goes bad, I’m sorry. I’m trying my best.”

She marched past Shy, through to the front of the house. The stone doorway was already open, and Golden Shine peeked out from the other side.

He’d dressed formally for the occasion, instead of the mismatch of armor and unruly mane. He had a sharp uniform, though his oversized axe was still strapped to his side. Or… was that a different, formal axe? Only for the special beheadings.

“Emissary,” he said, bowing his head respectfully to her. “I hope the accommodations were to your liking.”

“It wasn’t your fault.” Jamie stormed out the door, spinning to glare back into the house. This was the hard part. “But I don’t think I’ll ever want to stay a second night.” She did her best to glare at Shy, though her heart just wasn’t in it. The pegasus was more her friend now than ever before. “I don’t want to see her again, Golden Shine. Perhaps we could have our conversation somewhere a little more… respectful, of my diplomatic visit.”

Golden Shine turned, glaring back through the door at Shy. Apparently their little ruse was working. “Do you think your position protects you from infinite slights? Sooner or later, the princess will grow tired of you.”

Shy shrugged. “Maybe. She hasn’t yet.” She slammed the door in his face.

You and your husband both seemed to know her. There’s more here I’m not understanding. But Jamie wouldn’t be solving that particular riddle now. She could worry about that once she was sure she wasn’t going to be executed and the emergency shelter wasn’t going to murder everyone.

“Connection reestablished,” Epsilon announced. “You should not have drifted out of contact for so long. Make an effort to remain on the surface in the future.”

Jamie wanted to say the cruelest thing she could, maybe call it a pocket calculator. That seemed like the sort of insult a computer should get upset about. But not with Golden Shine and a dozen soldiers watching her.

Not just them. The streets were packed with ponies, more than she’d ever seen in one place before. Like they heard this would be happening, and they all wanted to be out to see me. They had no interest in Golden Shine or his guards, they were all staring at Jamie.

Epsilon might be a truly lousy strategist, but at least it knew how to make a fancy dress. Even in daylight, the overlapping patterns of almost-flames apparently trapped in the thread attracted stares and whispers. Awed, she hoped. “Is there anything else you would like to see, Emissary? Have you ever visited a land city before?”

And the longer they’re looking at me, the more likely someone is to see through the makeup and outfit and recognize me. She’d done her best to wear bits and pieces of her clothes around the city, so at least she could thank her past for that much. Otherwise, this would already be over the instant he saw her mark. Those things were so unique that they basically didn’t repeat. Or… that was the way she understood it, anyway.

“Nothing is more important than our arrangements,” she said. “When we’ve discussed, perhaps then a tour. But first… you need to know so you can send a messenger to the princess, isn’t that what you said?”

“Yes, of course.” He smiled towards her, seeming suddenly very pleased with something. “There is a suitable place to talk in the Hall of Justice. It’s the only large meeting hall in the city. Hollow Shades is… one of Equestria’s smaller settlements. You couldn’t announce your arrival in Concord instead?”

Jamie didn’t have long to answer, only a few seconds. But she’d thought about this one. “You saw the way I arrived. I feared that the princess might think her kingdom was under attack. Landing so far away… I hoped to show my, uh… our… desires are similarly small. But not here—this conversation should be private.”

“Of course. Follow us.”

Jamie did, staying close behind the dense pack of city watch. She couldn’t help but think she was somehow playing into Twilight’s mythology, showing these ponies that creatures from beyond visited their princess. Yet… what else could she do? Siding openly with the rebellion would certainly attract only a murderous response. As much as I want to. Someone has to do something about evil, or it just keeps festering.

Someone brave and skilled and useful. Someone else.

The Hall of Justice was in the Magic district, a stone fortress that was more of a revolutionary-war era star fortress than anything else. There were high stone walls around the compound, which was as close as Jamie had ever been before. The ones on those walls always seemed so unfriendly that she never wanted to find out more.

But now the gates opened wide for them, permitting her group inside but not the crowd. And if they want to kill me in here, there won’t be anything for me to do to stop them. Nobody will even know.

“You are unqualified to negotiate. You should have your conversation in a room with windows. That way you will not be on your own.”

If I can. For once, Jamie wouldn’t say no to another point of view, even if it was the one who’d gotten her into this mess in the first place. If only I could just take this whole thing back and fly into the sky the way I came. Just pretend you didn’t see me, guys! This was an accident!

“The Hall of Justice is the capital of a remote town like Hollow Shades,” Golden Shine explained. “I suspect you must already know some of that. You knew I was the authority here when you landed. And my name too, which I found unusual. Have you been observing Equestria from above?”

“We, uh… yeah,” she stammered. “Not me personally, but Equestria seems so interesting. Your world is so… dynamic. Everyone moving, changing. It’s fascinating to watch.”

Golden Shine shifted uncomfortably on his hooves, unsure of how to respond. He gestured, and most of the guards returned to the walls. Only a few dressed in black instead of white accompanied them to the building’s front doors. “I’m sure you plan to justify your observation to our princess. I can’t imagine she would be thrilled at eyes on her without permission.”

“Not her,” Jamie said hastily. “Not an Alicorn. But there weren’t any Alicorns in Hollow Shades until last night.”

And right there in the courtyard—a set of metal restraints, slightly rusted from disuse, with a wall behind them. The wall was pockmarked, as though many objects had been fired in its direction. So they did firing squads too, that was just fantastic.

Golden Shine grumbled quietly to himself at that, but didn’t offer any argument. He led her through another set of reinforced gates, with a strange metal protrusions settled into slits in the walls like mounted guns. Guns without barrels for bullets, or the coil of a plasma-channel. Curious.

But then they were inside, into a circular lobby with six murals on the wall. Each one showed a stylized pony, with a vague mark behind them Jamie took to be their “cutie mark.” Like art of the ancient saints, each one depicted doing something central to their domain. The one showing Princess Twilight actually glowed, and the portrait seemed to move to watch them as they passed through.

Jamie could hear screaming coming from down the hall, far away, and smell something metallic on the air. But here in the upper floor, the ground was polished wood and marble, with little crystals set into the walls providing a gentle glow for their path.

Soon they reached a conference room, lit with a skylight leading all the way up. Good, I won’t have to face this alone. Though what Epsilon was going to be able to tell her, she couldn’t say for sure. If only I knew some of their magic. I could pretend I was doing it while talking to the AI and say I was talking to the people in the sky.

“It wouldn’t be proper for anypony to use the princess’s seat,” Golden Shine said, before pulling out a large, straight-backed chair for her. “But I hope this will do.”

She sat. If only she’d had her proper body, she probably could’ve made herself seem dignified and important while she did so. As it was, she wasn’t really sure what to do with the oversized folds and twists of the fabric under her rump. She was probably wrinkling it all up. Just so long as I don’t tear it and look like an idiot.

Golden Shine sat at the table opposite to her, and several other ponies joined him. Not guards, this time. One mousy-looking creature brought something that was much like a typewriter, except that it only had eight keys, four to each hoof. How could she write anything with such little freedom of motion? “Maybe you can start by giving us an introduction,” Golden Shine said. “The princess should know who you are, and who you represent. That should help her grant your request more swiftly.”

Jamie shifted in her chair, thinking fast. Should I tell them something strange, or more familiar? “Empathy she said flatly. Emissary Empathy, of, uh… Persephone. City in the sky. Hopeful friend of Equestria, though that does depend on whether your princess wants heavenly visitors. Still, I think she’ll be happy that we, uh… don’t ask very much. For all we offer in return.”

There was a brief, awkward silence, and hooves clacked on a keyboard for a few more seconds. Finally they stopped, and Golden Shine nodded for her to continue. “You keep suggesting that you have something to ask of Equestria. What is it you want? I can’t imagine a civilization so perfect it dwells only in the sky has very much to ask from Equestria.

“We have a perfect princess, but… much of Equestria’s energy is spent overcoming the evils of imperfect creatures. We might have already joined you by now if only ponies were more obedient to our ruler’s commands.”

“Yes, uh… there is something. See, we… living in the sky, I mean… we’ve spent so long looking down at Equestria, seeing the beautiful plants and animals and stuff. We don’t have those where we come from, and… some of us would like to have them in our lives. We’re asking for peace with Equestria, and a small patch of land to build. It is near Hollow Shades, which is why we came here.”

Thanks to meeting back up with Shy, she now had that original map. She pulled it out, settling it on the table between them. “It would be about the same size as Hollow Shades, about a day’s walk from here. That way your city can keep expanding for many years without ours ever getting in your way.”

Golden Shine looked down at the map, holding it in his magic and staring. After a few more seconds he set it back down, expression hardening. “Observing us for so long, Emissary… you must know about Concord, and its path across Equestria.”

She nodded. “Your capital. It… destroys the ecosystems it passes over.”

“And it’s this promise I can’t make without the princess,” Golden Shine said. “You wish for peace, that is easy. Your celestial visitors have nothing to fear from Equestria. But I have no power over where Concord decides to travel. It has swept cities in its path before, and may again. Only the princess knows why it chooses the route it does.”

“Express willingness to move later if necessary,” Epsilon demanded, speaking right into her ears. “If we have any time to build, we will have defenses in place. It is not relevant whether or not the princess grants formal permission.”

“Maybe…” Jamie said. “Could we establish a camp, then? Understanding that we might need to move, if your princess so requires?”

Golden Shine’s frown deepened, and he seemed like he might refuse. But then he nodded. “I suppose that would require… the princess might revoke any permission I grant you, understand that. And it would come with conditions.”

She raised an eyebrow, trying to look as imperious as possible. But Jamie was not a terribly good actress.

“Such as?”

“Equestria is a sacred place,” Golden Shine recited. “If your creatures wish to visit, they will follow the essence of our laws. In time the princess may appoint you a Commissar of your own, but for now, it would be irresponsible for me not to inspect what you had built. Say… every two weeks. I expect a reply from the princess within the month, so giving you half the time to build seems like enough. Do you… understand our laws?”

She nearly answered reflexively, but this time Jamie hesitated. It would be trivial for Golden Shine to figure out she was lying, just by asking a question or two. She hadn’t picked up enough over the course of a month to say she understood their religion.

But if there was one thing Jamie could do like a pro, it was acting noncommittally.

“Not as well as I’d like to,” she said. “We can see your nation from up high. But the little rules that govern everyone are… hard to guess from so far away.” Does that even make sense?

“Then perhaps it would be unwise for you to get too far,” Golden Shine said. “I would be willing to host you myself, Emissary. I could instruct you in the ways of Harmony as I might teach one of my own disciples. Then you could send word back to anyone who wants to visit Equestria.”

Like we would just do whatever you said. If her story was true, the idea of following those rules seemed absurd. It was our planet first.

“The construction crew will be sent in anyway. Tell him that the builders will arrive before anyone moves in.”

“That sounds… like a good idea,” she admitted. As loathe as she was to even think about spending more time with this creature. The same one who routinely punished people for incredibly stupid things. Kiss the wrong kind of person? That wasn’t allowed. Say the wrong words? That was a whipping too.

“We will send our builders, but no visitors until I can understand your laws fully.”

Golden Shine looked like he might be about to argue with her, until he shrugged. “Just remember, the princess might revoke that permission. Your servants may build for nothing.”

Jamie shrugged. “I don’t think your princess will turn us away. Twilight seems like an enlightened ruler. Forward-thinking! Having friends in the sky will surely benefit Equestria. Maybe she’ll want to build a city of her own in our world one day.”

There was another awkward silence, broken only by the clacking of the keyboard. Finally the clerk nodded, and Golden Shine rose. “We can begin with your accommodations. I’m sure the princess won’t mind if you use her royal quarters. Until she arrives, of course. Then I’ll have to put you somewhere else. But it should do for the moment.”

“Certainly,” Jamie said, rising too. “And, uh… I would like to visit your town at least once each day while I’m studying here. You could show me how… how your laws are enforced.”

Golden Shine grinned wickedly at her. “I will take special pleasure in demonstrating that for you, Emissary.”

“I can’t believe they picked us for this,” Star whispered, as they crept through the tunnels of Hollow Shades. They weren’t so deep that they could do whatever they wanted, though—this mission took them right to the surface. If she bumped the wrong bit of metal, she’d make some noise in the middle of the market, and the entire thing would be ruined.

I’ll probably be whipped for climbing somewhere I don’t belong, too. There’s no end of good news.

“It makes perfect sense,” Ginny said. She’d changed into a pony, something Star had almost never seen her do. A bat, like a female version of the creature everyone knew as Geist. There just wasn’t enough space for something as big as a griffon, even a female one. Star guessed that staying female was for her, though she was beginning to wonder. Mares did run the world, maybe the stallion was more the disguise.

“It’s risk minimization, sweetie. We’re not from here, so if anything goes wrong, we’re less likely to be attached to the rebellion. We’d also be the perfect saps if they were trying to get someone caught, but I don’t think that’s the case. Delivering a message to a pony already expecting a message, that just wouldn’t be the way to get rid of us.”

“You think they’ll do that? They seem so…” She thought briefly of Windbrisk, and his passionate defense of those little creatures. “Sincere.”

Ginny chuckled quietly to herself. “Some of them are. But just because someone’s a fanatic doesn’t mean they’re any less insane—probably it’s the opposite. No creature is more dangerous than somepony who knows they’re doing the right thing.”

They traveled in silence for a bit, Star clutching the satchel close to her chest. More than once she’d thought about opening it. But the spell wasn’t something she could foil. The short-term message would erase itself in moments after she opened it. Her best chance of reading the rebellion’s letter would be to take it back after their mark had it.

“An Alicorn that fell from the sky…” Ginny muttered. “I wonder whose clan wants to die.”

“You… what?” Star stared in her direction, entirely baffled for a second. “What are you talking about?”

Ginny watched, silent for a few seconds, apparently considering whether or not to answer. Eventually she did. “Changelings. We’re separated into clans now, depending on the emotions we prefer. And no, it’s not—we don’t harvest ponies anymore. It’s a mutual thing. We get magic from our friendships, and the harmony we share with other creatures. Or… other ways.” She leered, and Star Orchid needed no more detail than that. She knew where Geist worked, so she could guess at where the bug got her magic.

“This ‘Alicorn’ who landed here. There’s no such thing as other Alicorns, so she’s a changeling. Whoever’s clan had the balls to claim the princess’s own glory like that… if they’re lucky, they’ll just get dissolved into the other clans. But the princess might just burn them all.”

Star stopped in the tunnel, turning to look back in shock. “You’re not… you’re not worried it might be your family?”

Ginny shoved past her. “Not worried, because it didn’t happen. Clan Devotion, we’re simple creatures. We do what the princess says. That’s got to be some moron from Joy, or maybe Ambition. Yeah… I figure it’s Ambition. Too bad about losing another clan. Guess that’s the way it goes.”

Why? Star asked. “What’s the point of pretending to be an Alicorn? Seems like the quickest way to get the princess to tear them apart, if they’re pretending.”

“It’s the fastest either way,” Ginny said. “But mainly the story. Pony from above the sky, huh? Yeah right. Quick Trick says they came down with a lightshow and a magical dress and everything. It’s too convenient. Stygian’s Gate has all their power all tucked into Hollow Shades, right down to an underground fortress they can’t move. Where do they land? Right here. And sure enough, we’re carrying a message to them. I’m going to take a guess that you’ve got their next instructions in there. What’s the next stage of the act? How do they undermine the princess’s authority?”

“We can’t open it,” Star said hastily. “I told you. I can’t stop it from burning once it opens. I’ll have to try and read it after we give it to her.”

“Can’t put all that unicorn magic to more productive use, eh?”

They fell silent again, sneaking through the tunnels until they reached their destination. If their instructions were correct, the Emissary was being treated to private time in the town’s only luxury spa. She’d insisted on Golden Shine not joining her, some stupid story about not wanting a stallion in at the same time and her strange customs. Even Star could see through the insanity of that ruse to the plan underneath. She was making herself accessible, and they were just the ponies to deliver.

Star could tell they were getting close when she started sweating, and the walls around her became so hot that she couldn’t touch them without feeling like she might burn herself.

“You get up there and deliver,” Ginny instructed. “I’ll make sure nopony disturbs you from this end. You’re bucked if somepony comes in from up top, though.”

“Thanks for your support. For a changeling, you don’t use your powers productively very often. You could look like a city magistrate, or somepony important. You could be the one taking risks.” Star wedged herself into the narrow service passage, tucking her ears and lighting up her horn. According to the resistance’s sketches, she’d fit. Barely.

“Keep working until you’re in charge,” Ginny said flatly. “Then you can tell the newbie to do all the risky stuff too.”

Star reached the end of the pipe, then settled one hoof against the metal and pushed. It came off with a loud click, letting her climb up into the spa.

There was enough space for half a dozen ponies in here, though she could see only the one. The Alicorn who had ripped off her towel and was backing into a corner of the room, eyes wide with shock and surprise.

Star Orchid froze too, momentarily overwhelmed. This was an Alicorn, something so powerful that she was a brief speck, destined to exist for seconds in comparison to her own vast timeline. Yet…

I’ve seen you before. She couldn’t quite tell if it was a memory or just a dream. But she had seen her before. Only… she’d been smaller then. Had she not been an Alicorn?

“Don’t be afraid,” she stammered, very afraid herself. “I’m with Stygian’s Gate. I have a message for you.” She fumbled in her satchel for a moment, removing the sealed envelope. “Take that, read it, and give it back as quickly as you can.”

“Oh, r-right. Yeah. Of course.” She settled down, wings folding to her sides. That horn did seem small for a being of cosmic power—more like something a filly half her age might’ve had. But the Alicorn herself didn’t seem terribly old. Younger than Star, for sure. Shorter too, so she didn’t have Twilight’s noble build. “Message. The human sent you.” She extended a hoof, and didn’t take the letter from Star’s magic with her own. Just… waited for Star to pass it to her.

She tore it open with her mouth, horn entirely dead as she flipped it open. She muttered quietly to herself, glaring at the page. Her eyes darted over the message as she read. “Fucking hell. That’s the best they have? Great.” She passed it back a second later. “Tell them I’ll try. That’s… all I can manage right now. I’ll try.”

Star caught the letter in her magic, turning it so she could see the letters before they vanished.

It was scrawled entirely in an ancient alphabet; the same script she’d seen on that first artifact they’d discovered during her first excavation for the rebellion. Even now the edges of the letters were getting fuzzy, burning slowly away. It was only the ink that would vanish, leaving the paper blank. There wouldn’t even be pressure marks of where the letters had been.

She can read an unimaginably ancient script. Maybe she is a real Alicorn. “You can read this?” Star asked, before she could stop herself. “These… weird symbols? What is this language even called?”

She climbed back onto the empty bench, grabbing the towel with her mouth and tossing it over her back. “Simplified English. Or System Common, if you’ve got no soul. It’s the only language I can read… ever been stuck in a house with an evil monk who’s trying to teach you their weird religion and have to pretend you can understand their bible? It’s my first time. And now I’m stuck with it a little longer. The things I do to save the world.”

“I think they’ll send me again,” Star stammered, folding the letter back up. “In a few days. I’ll… tell them what you said. You’re going to try?”

“Yep,” she answered. “Way over what I’m qualified for. But try or die… I’ll pick try.”

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