• 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 23: Malus

In time long ago, Twilight Sparkle had once overseen a navy of a thousand ships, from the smallest tugs to the mightiest destroyers. Her fleet could darken the sky over a city, bringing unification against even the fiercest resistance.

Couldn’t trust them. Disobedience is weakness. Devourers wiggle in, steal what we’ve built. Ponies’ greatest strengths were also their greatest weaknesses: they were far too compassionate. When dangers beset them, they betrayed orders, sparing enemies to attack again tomorrow.

Equestria’s great navy had dwindled since Twilight’s Unification Army was founded. She stood aboard their last destroyer, which hadn’t even seen battle in three centuries.

The ESS Harrow hadn’t floated in some cloud to rot, however. While she waited for a crew fit to fly it, her runesmiths toiled night and day.

Should we have come further than this? Twilight found herself thinking, resting one hoof against the helm. A light aluminum wheel, with engine controls off to one side. The ship’s weapons had their own crews, though stations to relay orders for each were present around the bridge. Why can’t we do better?

A tiny voice in the back of her mind whispered the same message over and over. Equestria hadn’t come far enough, and the still-living destroyers would slaughter them all. Would Equestria be something more, if she hadn’t been using Concord to so energetically hunt the Devourers?

“Princess Twilight, the general is coming,” Captain 133-Unicorn-S said, jarring her forcefully back to reality. “Do we allow him?”

Twilight nodded. “He’s expected. Allow any others he brings as well. He has prepared a crew to operate this vessel.”

“Yes, Princess.” She saluted, then retreated to relay the instructions to the other soldiers. No hint of frustration that the Unification Army wasn’t having the mission trusted to them alone. Envy was far too complex an emotion to preserve, at least with any solution Twilight had devised. And even if she could, she wouldn’t have bothered. Only collected calm and rage mattered, to be activated at need.

She paced back and forth through the bridge while she waited, occasionally glancing to her scroll of orders and checking over it with a faint glow from her horn. These were only for the ponies of course; her Unification Army would not need references given so explicitly. Once she told them what to do, they would remember until they got it done.

Finally, Pike emerged, trailed by a small escort of other officers. They were like all officers, serving Equestria without conversion during their lives. Unless they made too many mistakes, or the soldiers under their command did. Either they would be returning with honors after this mission, or all of these would join the ranks of her Unification Army.

General Pike saluted, joined by each of his companions in turn. Not as crisp as she would’ve liked, but they were only ponies after all. “Forgive me for not arriving sooner,” Pike said, slightly out of breath. Yes, his age really was the critical factor here. This is probably your last mission with me, Pike. I’ll be sad to see you go.

“No forgiveness necessary,” Twilight said, nodding for them to relax. She levitated her tightly bundled orders, then walked away down to the helm. Without prompting, Pike knew it as the instruction to follow. The others did not, spreading to take their stations around the bridge. “Your response was… adequate. I have information to share with you, obviously what prompted this mission.”

She levitated a single sheet out from within, with the block letters copied from the messages she had received. Not word-for-word, but exactly as much detail as she wished to share with Pike.

“I’m eager to hear it,” he said. “It must be good news, if you wished to see us mobilized so quickly. The vestiges of rebellion have been located at last?”

“No.” Twilight levitated the sheet in his direction, then waited impatiently while he read. She didn’t give him even a second to process—as soon as he’d finished, she snatched it back. “This information requires immediate action, General Pike. My suspicions about the location of the rebellion might’ve been wrong, but instead we’ve discovered something far more important.”

“Another Alicorn,” he whispered, ears flat. “I didn’t think it was even possible.”

Twilight felt a brief twinge of guilt, a sense so atrophied in her that she scarcely recognized it. She saw a false panel in the back of her lab, with a teleportation resonance crystal tuned far too tightly for any unicorn to notice. She shook her head vigorously, until she stopped hearing screams.

“Crimson Shine would tell you there could never be another,” she said, her voice shaking until the other sounds in her mind finally faded. “But this isn’t strictly true. It’s more accurate to say that Alicorns like myself don’t occur naturally. I don’t believe the circumstances required to create one could have arisen without my notice. This means one of two things.”

“The rebellion we’re looking for is festering in a changeling clan,” Pike suggested. “This is why we’ve had so much trouble pinning it down. It never wears the same face in any city it goes.”

Twilight nodded her approval. “That’s the simplest option, and the more desirable.” She glanced out the window, looking as high into the sky as she could. If a pony knew where to look, she could find them. The seams in the sky, where blue was broken with a slightly fainter shade.

“This is the option I send you to investigate. You will take this vessel and fly directly to Hollow Shades. Concord will follow, but it will take weeks to complete the trip. When you arrive, barricade the city, and dismantle it. Every creature is a suspect worth scrutiny. Above all, you will detain this Alicorn. Take any steps required to capture her but cause her no harm. Any hurt you or your troops inflict on her, I will inflict on you a hundred times. Are we clear?”

Pike’s eyes got wider and wider. But as eager as he was to obey, he also had enough practice with her not to just tell her what she wanted to hear. He shook his head. “Princess, I brought the navy crew you requested. They can operate this ship, fly it anywhere we need to go. But there’s only twenty of them, and not a single marine. I don’t believe we could carry out your orders with that number. I’ll need royal guards, at least five hundred. A thousand would be better.”

Twilight’s smile widened, just a little. Pike had served for many years; he knew exactly how the Unification Army worked. He’d probably seen them thronging all over this ship and assumed they were just the caretakers. She could take joy correcting him.

“You have an entire detachment of the Unification Army aboard this vessel, along with four interceptors that are trained to operate in any capacity required for your mission.”

Pike glanced back at the front of the room, where his soldiers had already taken their stations. Past all of them was a pair of marines, waiting just inside the bridge wearing full gear and carrying light lances. His voice dropped to a whisper. “Princess, there must be something I’m failing to understand. What am I missing?”

“The heart of Concord has been reproduced aboard the ESS Harrow. It sacrifices power significantly—the detachment serving on this vessel is the maximum number that can be maintained. But its range is unchanged. Anchor above Hollow Shades, and anywhere within five kilometers can be reached.”

He gasped, mouth opening and closing several times before he managed to say anything. “P-Princess, that’s… incredible. I had no idea your royal technicians had come so far!”

She levitated the orders towards him, finally releasing the bundle. “When you capture the Alicorn, I wish for you and a minimal number of your crew to fly an interceptor directly back to Concord. There is a chance, however miniscule, that she actually is an Alicorn. If that is true, her life is worth far more to me than any number of those in Hollow Shades. Do anything to capture her.”

Pike’s mouth fell open. “A-after we capture her, princess? As in… after we deploy the Unification army into one of our own cities?”

Twilight raised an eyebrow, daring him to argue. She’d chosen every one of her leaders for their loyalty, greatest of all virtues. That was certainly true about Pike. “Yes. Equestria can’t afford the delay.”

He nodded resolutely, and didn’t argue the point further. Pike flipped through the orders quickly, though there was little there he hadn’t already heard from Twilight. Finally, he found the transmissions, and looked them over again. “Princess, if she’s really… if she’s really an Alicorn, does that mean her other message might be true as well? Maybe she really did come as an ambassador from the sky.”

Twilight nodded grimly. “I considered that impossible, but I am open to correcting my impression. While you go to Hollow Shades, I will travel to Persephone.”

“Good.” He relaxed visibly, tucking the sheet away. “I guess you’ll be negotiating with them directly?”

“No. I’ll be making sure they’re as dead as I left them.”

Jamie’s instructions were neither reassuring nor useful. Whatever faint hope she’d been harboring—that Discord’s rebellion would give her some magical escape—was painfully dashed. All they’d left her was a nearly useless demand to “keep going.”

She did her best, though the weight of that demand settled heavier and heavier on her shoulders with each day. She didn’t just have to keep pretending that she was an ambassador from another world, though that would’ve been hard enough. She had to keep studying their cult-religion, so she could make sure visitors from the sky followed it.

“Learn as much as you can,” Epsilon told her, while she stared down at a book she couldn’t read. She’d tried to tell Golden Shine that more than once, but each time he’d seemed to think that her Alicorn magic was itself enough for her to read “a work of such perfection.” “We will need to feign obedience to these restrictions while the settlement is built. Passing inspections may be key to rebuilding enough to protect ourselves.”

But whatever he might think about the Words of Harmony, there was no magic to tell her how to read it. It did have illustrations, which at least gave her something she could try and use to comment on its contents when Golden Shine asked her what she had learned.

“How the fuck are we going to protect ourselves when we have humans walking around?” The weighty leather-bound copy of the Words kept at the Hall of Justice had tabs for easy navigation and had been worn down with much use. Finally, she found the section she wanted, showing each of many different races and their placement in the faith’s mythos.

The tribes at the top of the pyramid, slightly favoring earth ponies over the other two if their relative placement meant anything. Then lots of other things, which Jamie had never seen. Lumpy-looking dog people, and other smarter-looking versions of animals she knew. There were so many variations of horse in the world, and all of them were up here.

Then came griffons, along with a half-dragon looking horse with scales on its back. And below them, a bug-looking creature the same general shape as a pony, and something that was unmistakably a dragon.

Finally the bottom of the page was dominated with illustrations of… monsters. She couldn’t make most of them out clearly, though one was two legged and thin, with glowing eyes and metal skin. Is this an artist’s rendition of a powered exoskeleton?

Jamie’s quarters were sparsely appointed, though they did have a window to make communication possible. Unfortunately for her, Golden Shine always kept a guard assigned to her, waiting just outside. Ostensibly “to provide any service she required.” In practice that meant following her everywhere and stopping her from wandering into most parts of the Hall of Justice.

It meant she had to whisper to reply, making as much noise with the chair as she could to cover it up. “If he sees a single human walking around, it’s game over.”

“This information has been considered,” Epsilon replied. “Citizen Jamie should be advised that she will be required to invent a reason that her ‘sky city’ has members of ‘inferior’ races living in it.”

At least that one had a few answers jump out at her, the simplest of which would be calling the visitors some flavor of servants. Equestria didn’t have slavery by that name, but service to the crown might as well be. “You’re changing more people? And… not into Alicorns.”

“Your transformation produced consequences that were not anticipated. Citizen Ferris Abrams has provided genetic samples from other species that should circumvent this problem.”

So maybe this isn’t completely helpless. The rebellion was in touch with her shelter now, though Jamie’s confinement meant that she knew very little of the specific details involved. Presumably they were getting lots of things done as fast as possible.

“You’re allowed to change other people without their consent?”

She flipped through a few pages, back to the middle of the book. She couldn’t read it, but showing progress was good. Progress, and she could pay special attention to Golden Shine whenever he spoke. He liked to ramble about the aspects he was most likely to quiz her about, anyway.

“The emergency intelligence is at liberty to alter any individual who would not ordinary survive revitrification. Informed consent is obtained when possible, to secure a greater likelihood of cooperation with the relevant individual.”

Jamie felt a familiar annoyance rising in her chest, duller than it had once been. Whatever frustration she felt with being a pony, she knew that it was possible to adapt. Hopefully the others in her position would be able to do the same.

Heavy steps sounded from the hall—probably Golden Shine was back from his latest assignment too private for her to ask about.

“Emissary Empathy!” he said, as he appeared in the open door. “How goes your study of our enlightened ways? I’m sure any reading you do here must be… merely review. No doubt your world has these same concepts by other names.”

“I, uh… no doubt,” she squeaked lamely, shutting the book with a snap before he could get a good look at what she’d been reading about. This same moment came in every lesson: if she didn’t ask the questions, he’d start quizzing her, and would inevitably become dissatisfied with her answers.

“We don’t have, uh… Exemplars of Harmony,” she stammered, adjusting her mane awkwardly. “I was hoping you could explain that to me. They seemed to be mentioned an awful lot.”

Really it was their cutie marks she found a lot, in sections she could only guess were relevant to their domains. “Who were they? Why are they so important to you?”

“Ah, that one would make sense. They were born down here, not up in your home. Perhaps you never needed them, with such strict obedience to Harmony’s precepts. We were sent the Exemplars because so many creatures are chaotic and unharmonious. Many ponies require correction. The gentlest correction was the teaching of the Exemplars. Follow me.”

She did, though thankfully not to the side of the Hall of Justice that always seemed to be producing screams. Instead she walked closer to the entrance, where the halls were wider and decorated with tapestries hung every so often. The Commissar slowed to appreciate them as they passed, apparently recognizing what was on them. Most focused on a purple Alicorn accomplishing various feats. Defeating an army of dragons, blasting the sun with her magic? And covering a city up in light? What did any of that mean?

Commissar Golden Shine didn’t even slow down to elaborate on those questions, and instead went straight to a set of wide double doors. He pushed them open, revealing… a church?

It had a single aisle down the center and pews on either side, anyway. There was an altar at the front, where she’d expect a priest to give sermons. A tile mosaic covered the entire wall behind it, lit by perpetual spotlights on the ceiling. Twilight was depicted overhead, forelegs spread like a god embracing the congregants below.

The marks of each exemplar appeared on the wall below her, as though she were reaching for them too. Apple, diamond, balloon, rainbow, and positioned right behind the pulpit, a butterfly. It wouldn’t be visible while anyone was standing there, yet it wasn’t that much lower than the others.

“You have… worship services here?” she asked. “For your princess?”

The Commissar shook his head once. “No, no. Princess Twilight is Harmony’s speaker, it’s that ideal we revere. Salvation does not come through her, she only points to it. The other Exemplars do likewise, in lesser ways.” His eyes lingered on the butterfly, and he turned sharply to the side.

There were more paintings along the room, the way Jamie had seen in the shelter’s single Sanctuary. It was a Catholic thing, maybe? Jamie didn’t know much about religion.

This first painting depicted a barn on fire. Ponies gathered around it, watching with horror as it went up. Only one creature seemed serene—an orangish earth pony, depicted with the sort of saintly calm Jamie always imagined from religious icons. So, this is the virtue of ignoring the pain of others? The hell is wrong with you people?

“The five Exemplars lived long ago, before the Immortal City was given its timelessness. At first, they were ordinary creatures, until chosen by Harmony to give the ponies of Equestria a lesson they desperately needed. This one’s name was Honesty. She tried to warn the creatures of her town of the dangers of storing their harvest improperly. But they didn’t listen, and one day lightning struck the town’s hay supply. Many starved that winter.

“This teaches each of us that we always be honest, even when those around us don’t want to listen. Especially when they don’t want to listen.”

The Commissar led her around the room to the next one, this one with a pale unicorn… leading a riot? A towering city rose in the distance behind her, more like something out the 1900s than anything she’d seen in Equestria so far. Half of it was burning too.

The Commissar introduced her to Generosity, Laughter, Loyalty in turn. Each seemed as twisted to her as Honesty; Generosity led a revolution that butchered the city’s elected officials when they refused to be generous with needed supplies. Loyalty led an army to die heroically in Harmony’s name. Laughter was all about how to passively tolerate a miserable life when Harmony did not see fit to grant you more.

Finally they reached a blank section of wall, with a tiny butterfly but no scene painted.

I knew I’d seen that before. The colors weren’t quite right, and Shy had three of them, but… This is her, somehow. “This is Kindness, the least of all Exemplars. She is a reminder to each of us that merely receiving a charge from on High is not enough. When she could’ve demonstrated her virtue to all Equestria, she selfishly abandoned us instead.

“The princess believes that one day Kindness will see her evil, and repent. Until then, there is nothing to remember.”

Jamie paused, looking thoughtful. Or trying, anyway. “How long ago did the Exemplars live?”

Golden Shine shrugged one shoulder. “They were born… nine centuries ago, perhaps ten. But their message remains timeless, and ponies everywhere would do well to remember it. Perhaps you… already have some version of their stories? How do the ponies of the sky keep their lessers following the path of Harmony?”

Jamie winced, ears flattening at the attention. “Well we don’t believe in—” She stopped suddenly. If she was going to call their builders servants later, explaining that the idea of having lessers was itself absurd probably wasn’t a good idea. “Doing anything bad!” she finished lamely. “I think we probably did have, uh… stories, a long time ago. About ways to keep from being evil. There was a whole book of them that everyone studied, just like here in Equestria. For a while it seemed like no one would know how to be good without it. But eventually, we just, uh… didn’t need the reminder anymore?”

She pretended to be very interested in the tile butterfly, even if it was by far the least interesting thing in the room with them. I’m so bad at this.

“Perhaps there are some blessings to a world of Alicorns,” Golden Shine said. “When the generations of glory and obedience never pass away, then maybe a book of their accomplishments would be unnecessary.”

“Yeah, that!” She forced a smile. “Thanks for explaining all that, Golden Shine. I look forward to sharing it with the creatures of Persephone. Maybe I could get a copy of your book to bring them when I go? Do they print smaller copies?”

Twilight’s hooves echoed through the empty metal deck of Persephone, the only interruption to a silence that was otherwise just the low hum of machines. After teleporting aboard in the only location she remembered, Twilight made her way through its open market district, where once thousands of monsters had gleefully celebrated their slaughter of everything she loved.

In the glow of her horn, Twilight passed between skeletal trees and over grass that was only a faint gray stubble. In the sterile conditions of the orbital platform it had barely even decomposed.

The bodies hadn’t faired so well. Thousands of them had fought here—some with strange weapons, others with their fists or bits of metal or anything else they could get their hands on. As she walked, Twilight’s vision shifted. She saw not the pale purple of her horn, but simulated sunlight shining out from above, over a blue sky that was projected flatly on the domed ceiling.

Smoke filled the room, echoing with the constant flash of gunfire. Her war mages fell one by one, more victims of the Devourers cruelty.

“Princess, please!” a voice cried. An earth pony clutched at his chest, blood oozing from a hole in useless metal armor. “H-help—”

He was just a corpse now, bones bleached white where they emerged from rusting steel plates. The platform had cleaned away the flesh but left the corpse behind.

He wasn’t the only one—every pony body lay where it had fallen, five centuries ago. Many had crumbled beyond belief, but bits of weapons or clothes remained where they dropped. The Devourer bodies were all gone. The soldiers she’d hunted for killing this stallion. The group of smaller ones, no doubt fleeing for their weapons down another hall. Their voices had seemed almost like laughter as she burned them, sharp teeth glinting at her from the gloom.

I saved them from you, Twilight thought. You can’t be back.

Yet the Emissary had named this place specifically. Was that evidence she really was a rebellious changeling? Maybe she’d just named one of Twilight’s greatest agonies because she knew it would hurt her.

I must be sure. They’re all gone, they have to be gone.

Twilight passed through more crumbling shops, kicking aside the flat glass panels Devourers used to suck knowledge from the universe never to be seen again. She stooped as she climbed into the elevator, resting one hoof against the scorched metal along its far wall. Half a dozen Devourers had been waiting for her here, with more of their weapons. The last of her troops fell around her then, bodies steaming. Her Alicorn magic alone kept her going.

A single overhead light flickered on as she climbed in, stepping onto bare metal instead of soft carpet. “While in emergency mode, all destination restrictions are lifted. Where would you like to go?”

“Command deck,” she instructed. “Now.”

The doors slid closed, metal grinding against metal as it failed to shut. But when the floor lifted her, it moved smoothly. All these years, and it still works. She longed to travel down to engineering instead and leave the whole thing a smoking ruin. But without its guidance thrusters, Persephone’s orbit would eventually decay. It would strike its sisters, and rain death down on Equestria for thousands of years.

Not to mention the more important things that would be irrevocably lost. Twilight touched her horn once for reassurance, right about the time the elevator stopped. Her body kept moving, propelled towards the ceiling. Twilight squeaked, spreading her wings in surprise and beating furiously. She caught herself in the air as the doors ground open. “What is going on?”

“Gravitational array on command deck has failed,” said the voice, as sickly sweet as ever. “Repairs not available.”

Twilight flew out the open door, lowering her head again to avoid scraping her horn against the metal ceiling.

She’d been alone the last time she was here too, blasting back wave after wave of Devourers. It felt good to give them a little of the destruction they had brought to Equestria—but not as much as it could’ve, since she wasn’t sure they could even feel pain.

Instead of luxurious, the command deck was naked metal, though thanks to their primate stature it was still plenty large for her. At least there were no more pony corpses as she reached the doors to the bridge. A metal door as thick as her whole body was still melted in a puddle where she’d last left it, shoved aside by the force of magic. The armored demons she’d killed on the other side were gone too.

For a terrible moment Twilight could see the room brightly lit again, with Devourers gathered around a glowing parody of her cutie map planning Equestria’s destruction. She hadn’t ever heard them while they were doing it, but she could imagine. This was where they’d kill innocents next. Look at all the ways they’d recorded pony suffering to enjoy later. When every pony was rotting, they would need to prolong their joyless lives by reviewing it over and over.

“She was lying,” Twilight muttered, ducking again as she slipped through the warped metal doorway. Darktech screens along the walls still flashed, filling with text and mangled images. Their glowing map in the center was inert glass now, shattered into a few large sections. There was nothing alive in here, no sign of any rebirth for this dead place. The monsters Equestria had nearly died to defeat were still in their graves.

Twilight turned to go, until something against the far wall caught her eye. But when she was so ready for attack, no detail could escape her.

A patch of ground about a meter square had been cleared completely of rubble, with broken chairs and furniture shoved aside. A Devourer symbol of conquest and slaughter leaned against the wall here, a long vertical section with a shorter piece perpendicular and most of the way to the top. She might’ve thought it was just another piece of rubble, a crossbeam fallen from the torn wall perhaps. Except there were words written in greasepaint on the wall, letters thick enough Twilight guessed they’d been smeared with a Devourer’s foul digits.

Bis interimitur qui suis armis perit.

She didn’t know the words, but the princess could guess what they meant. The Devourers had cast some evil spell, probably some necromancy meant to bring back their dead army to oppress Equestria once more. The Alicorn was no emissary at all, unless she’d been sent by the failed reanimators of Persephone.

Twilight aimed her horn squarely at the evil icon and blasted it until it was glowing orange. It puddled on the metallic floor, hissing as the steel itself started to burn. Only a faint residue of ash remained on the wall.

“Persephone, are you listening?” Twilight demanded.

“Yes,” said the same voice from the elevators, as cheerful as ever. “What can I do for you, Orbital Correction Agent?”

“Is anyone alive on Persephone?”

“Emergency clearance granted. There is one life sign detected aboard the platform. One Orbital Correction Agent present on the command deck. Would you like directions?”

Twilight forced herself to smile. “It’s me, isn’t it?”


She turned to go, leaving the still molten symbol of conquest behind her. She could rest a little easier now—at least one ancient enemy had remained dead. She could leave this graveyard of the damned and return to the mystery waiting in Hollow Shades. There are still Devourers on the surface. But why lead me here? Do they think they can torment me into surrender?

It wouldn’t work. When Twilight found the ones who had been attacking her ships, she would show them even less mercy than the demons on Persephone received.

Monsters could not show kindness, they would receive none in return.

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