• 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 22: Canis

Star Orchid stared down at the scroll in front of her, chewing subconsciously on the feathery tip of her quill. This message wasn’t scribbled hastily, but copied with perfect calligraphic order, exactly as she wrote any court document she thought the princess might see. As perfect as she could create, though from her that was never quite good enough.

The little fireplace against the far wall crackled merrily, turning dry wood into an uneven orange glow. Star hadn’t seen any of the other residents here use their fireplaces, and she was sweating enough to know why. But she didn’t want to take any chance of being seen. Even the magical lights might be suspect if she let them run.

She kept glancing up at the wall of her cramped quarters, waiting for some army of rebels to arrive and seize it. The Iron Lord’s eyes would be on her, surely. Maybe Windbrisk would be the one to execute her, before those helpless children he’d saved.

It was all here, every detail she could think of being useful to the princess. Enough trips to the surface had given her a fairly good idea of where the Undercastle was built, even if the specific tunnels to reach it might change. She’d named as many ponies as she could, described their cutie marks, and had paragraphs about their weapons and techniques.

Each stroke of the quill felt like she was flaying those children. Maybe if they were lucky, they’d just be burned alive. An agonizing way to die, but faster than some of what happened in the palace’s darkest corners.

She squealed as something moved behind her. She was alone, that was the entire point! She tucked the sheet away as the pillows on her bed exploded outward in a flash of green changeling magic.

She sighed, slumping slightly as she saw Ginny standing there. “Thank the stars, it’s just you,” she said, picking up her quill from where she’d dropped it. Ink seeped out on the carpet. “I thought you were on a job.”

“I was,” she answered, lifting Star’s legs with a claw and snatching the scroll away. “Had to be sure of what we were sending. I’ve had missions get this far before a pony snapped.”

She skimmed the entire thing, flipping it over and reading what Star had written there too. Finally, she seemed satisfied, and settled it down on the desk in front of her. That made her chest flare with guilt far more than a dagger to the gut would’ve done. “Impressive work, Star Orchid. First assignment on the ground, and you haven’t completely lost your nerve. Installed with the enemy for weeks and you didn’t forget why we’re here.”

She turned for the door, grinning. “You should really think about what I said. Working in the court might be comfortable, but it’s nothing like this. Don’t retire when you’re done, don’t waste your potential.”

Star raised an eyebrow. Her hooves were shaking under her, but she managed not to look away. “When we’re done here, won’t the world be harmonious forever? These rebels and their Devourer… they’re the last ones. When they’re gone, ponies like you will be out of job.”

Ginny broke into booming laughter, echoing off their silence spell. She stumbled closer, resting a claw on Star’s shoulder. “And you’re still so naïve, after all this time. It’s adorable.”

“B-but…” She took a deep breath, keeping her emotions under control as best she could. “What evil will be left when we’re done here?”

“I see where you’re confused.” Ginny patted her shoulder with a claw. “It’s nothing to do with morality, Star Orchid. Everypony thinks they’re doing the right thing, all the time. Even the darkest creatures of disharmony think they’re justified. For them the evil was okay, just this once.

“There’s no such thing as good or evil. We serve the crown because that’s how a government survives. Harmony’s religion is for other creatures to worry about. It’s just another shortcut for the same thing: obedience to the princess. The two of us just skip the pomp and circumstance and get right to the meat.”

Then she winced. “Right, insensitive expression. You don’t know what meat tastes like. Just… think of it as one more thing you’re needlessly sacrificing. When this is over, Star, Clan Devotion will welcome you. It’s a rare opportunity, not one shared lightly. Think about it.”

She leaned forward, pecking Star on the cheek. It didn’t even seem like an act as she did it, Geist meant it. Star didn’t need magic to tell she meant all of it.

“Get that scroll off to the princess as soon as you can,” she said, turning to go. “I really do have to do that job now. If I run, I probably won’t be late.”

She turned, and her claws echoed away down the stone hall outside.

Star Orchid stared at her report for a good long while. How many creatures would die because of the words on these pages? There’s no such thing as good or evil. We serve the crown because that’s how a government survives.

Was the crackling fireplace a preview of the fate these creatures soon faced? It would be the kindest end for rebels.

Star aimed her horn at the scroll, finding Twilight’s little sending charm stamped into the paper. She unraveled it, then tossed her report into the fire.

If Ginny returned now, if this had all been a test, or even if Ginny planned on counting their sending scrolls later, her efforts would be doomed. Buck, Star would be doomed if they ever actually talked to the princess again. Was she giving up her life of service, just like that?

You’re wrong, Geist, Star thought bitterly, taking her pen again and starting over. I’ll show you what good looks like.

Her replacement report wasn’t as finely formatted or typographically perfect, but it would still have passed a first-year style review. Probably the princess wouldn’t care about that anyway. She just wanted to know what was going on in Hollow Shades.

Regent of Creation,

We have investigated Hollow Shades at your order. Geist and I believe previous intelligence putting the rebellion here was mistaken, as they use the city as an intermediate point to contact other forces.

You will probably have heard about the Alicorn who arrived in the city by now. Geist thinks she must be a traitor from one of the changeling Clans, though we don’t know for sure. I have spoken to her several times and couldn’t find any signs of your tremendous power in her.

Whatever forces sent her also seem to want to build a new settlement far from Hollow Shades, at the following location. You’ve probably seen this demand too, or you soon will. Perhaps if we track down whoever sent her, we can also discover the rebellion’s true location?

There are certainly ponies hostile to Concord passing through Hollow Shades, but I don’t believe the nexus of their influence is here. If it pleases the Regent, please respond with instructions.

-Star Orchid

Star didn’t wait a second from when she finished. She didn’t proofread what she’d written or fix the few stray drops of ink. She tied the sending scroll closely with a little ribbon, then levitated it towards the fireplace.

This time the flames caught the catalyst of Twilight’s magic. Instead of charring the whole thing slowly orange, they grew to a bright green flash, consuming the scroll and taking Star Orchid’s gambit with it.

Jamie had known the instant she heard the plan it was a bad idea. All Jamie had to do was a single completely impossible task. Convince Golden Shine to let her leave the city, then visit a specific cave where she could have a meeting with the rebellion’s leader. Couldn’t they just send her a damn radio or something?

But they hadn’t, nor had they left her any way to redesign the plan. She had no choice but to keep going with what they’d given her.

She only had three days to get to the requisite spot, so there was little time for planning. There was nothing to do but just slam her head into the simplest solution and hope they didn’t kill her.

Golden Shine didn’t keep her a prisoner in the Hall of Justice, though it seemed like he wanted to. He had his own duties, and when they were “too sensitive” for a visitor to Equestria to see, he left her with a pair of city watch. Simple guardsponies, who carried crude metal spears when she’d already seen more in the Hall.

She tested the bounds of her sway with them with requests for spas, shops, and restaurants. All accepted without any objections.

“I want to explore the wilderness outside the city,” she said, as soon as Golden Shine had left for his duties. “Come hiking with me.”

They shared a look, but she didn’t give them a chance to say no. Jamie left the hall through the gates, then continued all the way up the road until they’d reached the edge of Hollow Shades.

“I really don’t think we’re supposed to leave,” said the pegasus. “If we aren’t back by the end of the Commissar’s duties, he’ll be… furious.”

She didn’t stop, just shrugged one of her wings. If there was one mercy to the AI’s hasty bioengineering, it was that most of the ponies were terrified of her. Alicorns represented incredible power in their world, power that could easily kill them if they angered her.

“I will lead you,” Epsilon said. “The trip is not long, less than a kilometer. Think about what you will tell them when you arrive.”

Instead of going straight there, she ignored the AI’s instructions for an hour, traveling at random and never listening to their pleas to slow down. Neither of her guards were earth ponies, so none could keep going quite so far.

Only when they were clearly limping along after her did she finally travel to the cave entrance she’d been told about in the secret note. It was there, with the little curtain of ivy in front.

“Let’s go!” Jamie proclaimed, lifting it away with a hoof. “I’m, uh… I’m just so excited to see a real cave! Isn’t having ground amazing?”

“Why don’t…” Both had dropped behind her, one leaning on his spear, the other just flopped sideways in the grass. “You shouldn’t go in there. There could be… all kinds of dangers. We aren’t… don’t have the skills to protect you.”

“No need.” Jamie turned, smiling at them. Hopefully they wouldn’t notice how much she was shaking. “I’ll just poke around for a minute or two. You two catch your breath up here. I won’t go far.”

They shared another look. For one terrible moment, she thought they might still try to stop her.

The pegasus dropped to the ground too, bending down to take a long drink from the pond. “If you… say so, Emissary. Don’t take too long.”

Jamie picked her way cautiously over rough ground, with no obvious signs of previous travel. For all she knew she’d gone completely the wrong way and might waste what little time she had won here.

I’m not alone. It’s worth any risk to meet them for the first time. Buck Epsilon. But she couldn’t escape the consequences of her failure, and Hollow Shades even less. It wouldn’t be her fault if Twilight murdered everyone, that would still be the evil dictator’s doing. She’d feel responsible.

And she would probably be one of the first people the princess murdered, so at least she wouldn’t have to stay guilty for very long.

Jamie gritted her teeth together, stopping every minute or so to focus on her forehead again. A little glow from her horn was the most she could manage, with what little time to prepare she had before her mission began.

In the faint purple glow of her horn, Jamie could make out spectacular stalactites, weeping down with speckled reds and creams. Formations like this took centuries to appear, or longer. Eventually the princess would be here with her city, and it would all be chopped to rubble. Somehow.

Come to think of it, Concord sounds a little like a terraforming machine. Processing the surface of the planet at an industrial scale the way it does. There might’ve been hundreds of them, much earlier in the process.

“Stop where you are,” said a voice, harsh and abrupt. “Alicorn Empathy, is that right? Emissary of Persephone?”

The shock was all the stress it took for her to lose concentration on her horn and plunge herself into darkness.

For a few seconds, anyway. Brilliant spotlights suddenly shone on her, or at least she felt like they were. She whimpered, shielding her eyes with one leg. So adjusted to the gloom, it didn’t seem to help. “I thought you wanted me to come.”

Another voice answered a few moments later. “We do, Empathy. But we need to make sure you aren’t being followed. Our leader is… vulnerable. A personal meeting is both rare and stupid. But he insisted. We insist on a few precautions.”

Someone emerged from the gloom beside her, using a cold metal rod to lift her wings, and embarrassingly her tail as well. At least it only took a few seconds before they finally let her go. “No weapons.”

“I don’t know how to use weapons,” she said flatly. “Only job I ever had was data entry, and they fired me after my first month. You’re worried about nothing. I can’t hurt any of you.”

The same speaker as before laughed into the gloom, her voice echoing in the cavern. “Says the Alicorn. Princess Twilight once fought an army of a thousand stallions on her own.”

“Then you’re wasting your time either way,” Jamie said, folding her wings back to her sides with difficulty. “Look, I don’t have much time. Maybe ten more minutes before they get worried and come looking for me. Let’s move this along.”

“I agree,” said another voice. There was something over the speaker’s mouth, distorting their words a little. Even so, Jamie couldn’t identify any of the usual pony accents. “Come now, Wellspring, you’ve taken precautions. Let her join me. Empathy, nothing but apologies. But I suspect that isn’t your real name.”

The lights dimmed, finally pointing away from her face. Jamie caught another look at the cavern, which seemed as untouched as the others she’d been navigating. Except that a section of smooth polished wall had been lifted away, and now rested on its side.

Even electric lights were visible from within, and a tiny furnished chamber. Long thin lanes, with little tables at one side. A firing range?

All the furniture had been shoved aside, making room for a single table in the center. Behind it sat… the one she’d been waiting for.

The “Iron Lord” sat in a worn-down portable life-support navigator. Two of its eight service lights flashed amber. Connections meant to be temporary on wrists and back were red and inflamed, suggesting long use. What little skin she could see was sickly gray—necrosis kept at bay only through regular medication.

“The Iron Lord,” the pony beside her—Wellspring said. “Leader of Stygian’s Gate. His work saves hundreds of lives.”

“Damn.” Jamie settled into the waiting cushion across from him, staring openly. “I thought my cryocell was bad. What happened to yours?”

The room echoed with gasps and stares. This was apparently someone important, and they didn’t seem too keen on her insulting him. But if she’d been the one in the chair, it wouldn’t make her feel any better to have people lie.

The Iron Lord laughed. The respirator on his chair grew louder as it cycled in time with his breath, though it could do only so much. Sooner or later those half-rotten lungs were just going to stop. “I can see your name is ironic, Empathy,” he said, raising a shaking hand to stop one of the guards. Whatever they’d been thinking of doing to Jamie remained decisively undone.

She nodded. “It’s a fake name, might as well be a lie. I’m Jamie Sanders. No titles, no… nothing special. All that Emissary stuff is just a lie the emergency intelligence came up with. I don’t even think it’s a very good lie.”

“And I’m Ferris Abrams,” he responded, offering his hand. “I like this, right to the point. It’s our only chance of surviving the next few weeks.”

I give it even odds you don’t live through them regardless. Modern medical science didn’t let people die anymore, not without a fight. But Ferris wasn’t so much showing signs of doctor treatment as a hasty butchering. Yet he still sounded alert, and that was the most important thing.

“If you wanted to ask me about my shelter’s emergency program, it’s fully functional. It gave me this body after I got… maybe as freezer-burned as you.”

She could see his excitement, though it didn’t last for long. He didn’t want to admit just how much the news relieved him. How could she blame him? I’d trade being a horse if the alternative was being dead. In fact, she already had.

“Something to explore in the coming weeks. It might be my first request, if it weren’t for…” He trailed off, glancing up at the high ceiling. “Well, you did announce your arrival to all Equestria right on our heads. I’m told that you’re already familiar with some of the political situation here. You understand why we would be unhappy with Twilight showing Hollow Shades more scrutiny?”

She nodded. “I spent a month living with Shy. I didn’t become an expert or anything, but I tried to pick up what I could.”

“But you still chose us,” Wellspring said, glaring at her. “All the hallowed foundations in Equestria, and you choose the one place that’s going to cripple our chances of freedom.”

Jamie spread her wings reflexively, rising from her cushion. “I didn’t know you were here!” she squeaked. “More importantly, I didn’t choose to come here. The emergency intelligence picked somewhere close to where it wanted to build its city. It’s close too. If Concord tears up the ground, it will kill us.”

“Wellspring, relax.” Ferris glowered at her, until she sat back down. He didn’t even twitch in his wheelchair, yet his glance was enough to silence objection. “You don’t know all the facts.” He waited until there were no further signs of argument from her before continuing. “Your shelter is intact? How much of the population survived stasis?”

“I can’t talk to the AI down here, but I saw the numbers a few times. The shelter was a standard Yun-3. I think preservation was in the ninetieth percentile somewhere. Call it 700k?”

The Iron Lord swore loudly, hands gripping the sides of his wheelchair. Even then, he might’ve fallen, if it weren’t for the life support. “God in heaven. Even if that’s overrepresenting and some sensors died, that’s easily half a million.”

He grinned sidelong at his escort. “Turns out you didn’t need me after all, Wellspring. We won this war before it started. Forget what I was planning: get to the surface, and radio your shelter. Get everyone with munitions and fabrication experience to whip up a fusion explosive using whatever emergency stores are left in your RTG. We can send Twilight and her Unification Army into the next life.”

And how are we going to get the princess and her soldiers far enough from the city that it doesn’t burn everyone living there? Of course, there were concerns that made the question pointless, so she didn’t bother. “You’re… a little off, Ferris. Shelter 198.64-Beta devoted everything to keeping us alive. The whole base is falling apart. I think it squeezed every spare resource to get me made. There’s nothing to scavenge, and no one awake down there. It was fucking lonely, actually.”

“Oh.” He slumped into the seat, staring down at his hands. “That isn’t what I wanted to hear.”

She was running out of time. Jamie had no magic to tell her, but she got the sense that the ponies up above would be running out of patience. This whole trip already looked suspicious. “Look, I wanted to help you people. Beating dictators, I’m all aboard. But I’m not sure what we have to offer. I tried to get the AI to give up on this plan. I told it how suicidal this was. But it’s just an emergency intelligence. It doesn’t really think much.”

The others stared back, defeated. Ten seconds passed in silence before the Iron Lord reached down, removing a clipboard from the side of his chair and flipping back a few pages. “In that case, we… must prepare to evacuate. It will not go quickly—we have no airships and can’t send many using the railway without being noticed. Our most vulnerable are least able to evacuate, since they’ll be identified and killed by any royal authority they encounter…”

He held one finger against the page, and Wellspring nodded. “It’s the best option we have.”

“Jamie, Stygian’s Gate needs you to stay on your insane mission. Whatever we can do to help you succeed, we will do. If you can somehow convince the princess that you arrived from… Persephone, I believe your story was. I assume your AI was thinking of expanding into the land you asked for, and begin waking the population?”

Jamie nodded. “I don’t know the details, except that there’s already equipment there. Once there’s enough saved up to wake a construction team, they’ll get to work. Epsilon is betting on building a defense before Twilight decides to attack.”

“Foolish,” Wellspring said flatly. “You are not the first powerful enemy Equestria has destroyed. How do you think she even knows what Darktech is? I don’t… it was a long time ago, details are blurry. But I know the princess fought Devourers.”

“Emissary!” The voice echoed suddenly through the cave, drifting down from distant heights. “Emissary Empathy? Are you down here?”

“Shit.” Jamie got up, turning back towards the entrance. “Sorry, out of time. You said your only plan was to keep going with what I’m already doing? Not what I was hoping for.”

“It’s all we have,” Ferris said. “Before you go, what’s your shelter’s radio frequency? It should be easier to use it as a middleman than sending spies to meet you each time.”

She told them, then turned to go. She tripped over herself squeezing back through the opening, and hardly moved until she heard the door seal shut behind her.

I could probably work with this. Jamie might not be an expert spy, but she was a domain expert at looking pathetic. She rolled around in the grime, getting her feathers and face as disgusting as possible in the thin layer of mud. Then she started crawling along the cave, vaguely towards the opening.

“I’m down here!” she yelled, needing very little acting now. She was in total darkness, and things wiggled in the mud around her. Any second now they’d be biting at her naked flesh. “Ponies, help! Please!”

They appeared a few moments later, spears clutched in their hooves. She could see them stop in the entrance, sharing a glance that was some flavor of “this pony is a joke” before one stepped forward to offer a hoof. “Emissary? What happened?”

“I’m, uh… I may’ve overestimated my caving abilities,” she said, climbing to her hooves and shaking herself out as best she could. “I was appreciating the… formations and stuff, when I tripped. We don’t have caves in the sky.”

“Or any sense,” whispered one of the escort ponies.

The other chuckled. “Well, Emissary, perhaps we should stop at the lake? You would probably feel more comfortable returning to Hollow Shades… less muddy.”

“Yes,” she said hastily, following closely as they left the cave behind. “That would be great.”

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