• 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 24: Phoenix

Days passed. Star Orchid waited nervously for new orders, expecting to receive a call from Golden Shine about a telegram any day. Maybe she’d have to intercept it, or creatively interpret its instructions so things wouldn’t be so obvious to Geist. Though it was also possible its message would be impossible to hide. Maybe she should be pulling Windbrisk aside to warn him of what had happened.

What would the Iron Lord do to her if she admitted her real purpose? He was still a Devourer, wasn’t he? Even if his focus had somehow changed to less evil directions, she was admitting to trying to destroy him. The princess certainly wouldn’t show mercy, how could she expect it of a monster?

Maybe I could leave them a note and run away from everyone. Geist doesn’t know all the magic I’m capable of.

Days passed while Star debated with herself, until the decision was abruptly snatched from her.

Sirens blared, though it wasn’t the noise that woke her. Ginny shook her violently with a claw, pointing at the wall. “I think it’s showtime, Star. I’ve got the emergency supplies, time to fly.”

She rolled out of bed, shaking herself out. It was still the middle of the night, and she was nowhere near awake enough to be thinking straight. “What’s… going on?” She brushed an awkward hoof through her mane, horn lighting to provide an illumination that didn’t flash. “Do they know?”

Geist rested a claw on her shoulder, rolling her eyes. “How long has it been since the scroll? Four days? That’s enough time, Star. Enough time for us to make ourselves scarce.”

“But… we haven’t heard back,” she croaked. Geist yanked her forward, and she wasn’t quite awake enough to resist. She slid along the carpet a short distance, before nearly falling on her face.

“Of course we haven’t,” the bird responded, not slowing down. She barely even slowed enough for her to catch her breath. “Telling us anything is a chance for a message to be intercepted and the intelligence ruined. We won’t hear back—it’s on us to get out without getting captured and killed. By our side, or theirs.”

She lowered her voice, yanking Star’s head suddenly close to hers. “Nopony knows about our assignment, Star. If the ones who set off that alarm catch us here, then we’re rebels to them.”

“What about Golden Shine?” she squeaked. Despite Ginny’s insistence that she didn’t need to grab anything, she removed her saddlebag from its hook. It was already packed with what she usually brought to the surface. It would have to do. “He knows we’re here. You’re friends even.”

“Golden Shine understands that a spy is only as useful as they are competent,” Ginny answered. “Don’t get too stressed about it. This is never as hard as we think it is. We just don’t want to be down here when they make their heroic last stand, that’s all. I know a half dozen ways to the surface, we just need to find one that hasn’t closed yet.”

Something banged on the door ahead of them, followed by a familiar voice. Wellspring. “Everypony out, right now! Stars help us if this keeps happening.”

Star nodded once to Geist, then levitated the door open. Getting out of the city was the smartest decision, she needed little persuasion to change her mind. “What is it this time?” she asked, not needing to pretend that she had just been asleep. “Another sky-Alicorn?”

Wellspring managed to laugh, her voice strangled by the blaring siren behind her. “It’s in the sky, anyway. Not as friendly as an Alicorn.”

“Concord?” Ginny asked. She’d gone from cold and calm to panicked in the blinking of an eye, wings flustered and tail whipping back and forth. Damn Star if the spy didn’t know what she was doing. “Is it Concord?”

“No, no.” Wellspring waved a dismissive hoof. “But it isn’t much better. You know where to go, be there.”

They obeyed, at least until Wellspring walked past them to start rousing ponies in another barracks. Star made for one of the inner wall exits she’d been told about, but Ginny caught her with a claw on her shoulder, stopping her up short with a harsh whisper. “We need to see what’s happening first.”

She couldn’t dare be more expressive, but Star understood. For all they knew, this might be about the mysterious Alicorn attacking the town. Just because it happened to line up with the fastest Twilight could’ve arranged a response…

The Undercastle had been crazy since Wellspring’s announcement that everypony needed to be ready for an emergency evacuation within the month. The Alicorn’s presence in the city, nothing to do with them. With that long, Ginny had suggested Twilight had plenty of time to respond. And if she doesn’t, we’ll go with them wherever they evacuate, and make sure the princess knows where they’re hiding next.

To her surprise, the Iron Lord wasn’t at the stage this time to lead the meeting. A few of the mid-level rebellion leaders thronged there, waiting nervously for Wellspring. Eventually she stepped up, tapping one hoof loudly on the stand for silence.

“Listen close and quick, ponies. Hollow Shades has a visitor. No, you can stop panicking about Concord, I know you’re all thinking it. It’s still traveling towards the Crystal Empire, you can relax. But it isn’t much better.”

The Darktech surface behind her flashed, then filled with the image of an airship. The ESS Harrow, flagship of Equestria’s navy. It was an ancient vessel, yet the zeppelin design had been remade a dozen times. Once it had relied on gas alone, now it had a lift-crystal somehow strong enough to hold the entire mass in the air without distorting gravity for the passengers.

Star Orchid had seen the vast sums of bits allocated to it—enough to build a dozen such airships from scratch. But instead of a vigorous interrogation, she gave the royal technicians who worked on it a blank check.

“It approached at night, stopping a full kilometer outside the city and dropping low. We can’t confirm a visual anymore, but the Iron Lord believes they’re unloading troops.”

“Concord isn’t here!” somepony shouted, from the front row. “That means it isn’t the Unification Army. We’re not dead!”

There were a few tired cheers and shouts of agreement scattered around the room. Star jolted to one side as a bird appeared there. Windbrisk waved once but didn’t interrupt the ponies downstairs. Did he come all the way up here just to check on me?

“Quiet!” Wellspring shouted, waiting until everypony had fallen silent again. “Pear Brilliant is right, we have every reason to think there are royal guardsponies on that ship. It seems likely they’ve come because of the Sky-Alicorn. Some of you know we’ve been talking to her. Believe me when I say the Iron Lord is heartbroken, we can’t help her from whatever’s up there. If we send a team to bring her down, then the princess will never stop hunting. She’ll bring Concord and tear Hollow Shades to rubble, nevermind the foundation. We’ll have to hope she can use her own magic to escape another way, or… maybe that ship is just a royal visit for some diplomacy.

“Whatever’s happening, Stygian’s Gate is hunkering down as of now. We’re sealing every primary passage to the surface, in case that army decides to come looking for us while they’re here. We’ve got sledgehammers and maps up here. You’ll break into groups of three, then take a tunnel assignment. Collapse it, and a build team will follow with cement. There’s no way to evacuate so soon, so we’ll have to hide.”

“We’ll be trapped down here?” somepony asked. “What will we eat? How will we breathe?”

“That’s taken care of,” Wellspring answered. “Don’t stress on it now, I can explain all that once we’re safe. For now, you have to seal our entrances before any creature comes poking around into the sewers looking for them. Break into teams and get down here.”

“Want to work together?” Windbrisk asked, right along with a wave of noise as dozens of other creatures did the same thing. “You and your… girlfriend. I’ve worked with griffons before, I’m sure we can be one of the first teams finished.”

Buck no, not now. Anytime but now.

“Sure will!” Ginny exclaimed, spreading her wings. “I’ve been hearing all about you from Star. Let’s work together.”

Nopony woke Jamie when the world ended.

It was like that the last time—she had so few friends around her that there was no one to come rushing to her habitation block, screaming of the necessity to get on the first evacuation ship. By the time she woke, Persephone had been a deserted wasteland. She’d seen the debris when she finally went down, and worried that the ships that preceded her had been destroyed.

She never learned whether they had been. And maybe there were no humans left anymore—maybe Twilight’s city of death had torn them right out of the ground and mulched them into paste.

She woke groggily, to an urgent voice speaking from only one side of her body. She knew on a conscious level that Epsilon talked to her that way, vibrating her ear bones or some related technology. But it took her a moment to wake up enough to process that information. “Hollow Shades is under attack. Citizen Jamie, you must react.”

She blinked, eyes scanning the spartan bedroom. It was far smaller than the place Shy gave her, with only the bed, a desk, and the “luxury” of a private toilet. She scanned the room, then shoved her head back down into the rough sheets. “What are you talking about?”

She had a window here too, though she suspected it had been purposefully chosen for its size. The slits were large enough for a songbird, but not even thick enough to get a hoof through. As much like a prison cell as a bedroom.

“A sizeable vessel landed covertly not far from the city. Its troops marched here and are now capturing Hollow Shades. Don’t you hear it?”

She strained, perking one ear towards the window. Yes, there was something there. A distant screaming, maybe the occasional crack of gunfire. “You aren’t the one doing this, right?”

“No,” it answered. “The vessel’s trajectory suggests it originated from the capital. It seems loaded with thousands of soldiers and possesses a heat signature equivalent to a modest orbital platform all on its own. At the vessel’s size, that would require at least a fission reactor of reasonable complexity, or a fusion containment toroid. The surface population is not known to possess either.”

Jamie shook off the sheets, chancing another glance at the window. Some part of her thought she might take a bullet to the face in the act and end her day about as well as it began. But nothing shot her, and she could see something glowing from the edge of the city. Flames, with a deep orange reflecting off some other buildings.

Are they burning the city down? Or was that an accident? That was the trouble with war—there was no easy way to tell if the evil was intentional or merely incidental.

“What should I do?” She glanced at her doors. Probably not locked, but there would be soldiers there at all hours. If they had any reason to think this was about her, they probably wouldn’t let her leave. They might take the initiative and decide to kill her themselves.

I really need to learn their magic stuff. Making my head glow isn’t enough to get out of a situation like this. But if I could teleport like the others, I could get out the window. Then I could use my wings and fly away.

Unfortunately for Jamie, she was a terrible waste of space who could do neither. She couldn’t even lift things with her mind.

“It is suggested that you attempt to escape into the jungle. Stygian’s Gate has just confirmed they are not able to reach you in time. You should endeavor to reach the site of new construction if possible.”

“Sure, just get past an army invading the city. That sounds so easy!”

“It won’t be if you remain in here and wait for capture.”

Jamie strode swiftly up to the closet—just an empty-walled section of the building with a metal bar across the center. Jamie eyed the glowing ambassador’s dress. There was something to be said for trying to intimidate her way out of this. Or rather, there would be, if she had any of the skills that would take. But Jamie’s lack of social skills was probably why this had happened in the first place. Oh sure, she couldn’t think of why it could be her fault yet. But by the time the soldiers tied her up for the firing squad, she’d think of something.

Instead of the dress, she chose a brown cloak that had been hanging in there when she arrived. It was a standard garment here in the Hall of Justice, worn by those who devoted their lives to the study of Harmony in poverty and obedience.

Jamie’s wings and body didn’t want to cooperate with it, but she was small enough to wiggle in anyway. So maybe being a little smaller than she liked could sometimes have its advantages. She pulled up the hood, doing her best to hide her face. But a horn would still poke out from inside. Hopefully the ones who saw her would just think she was a unicorn.

She reached the door, then nudged it with one hoof. It moved, and she poked her head out. “Excuse me? What’s happening?” she asked, trying her best to sound like she expected an answer.

She got none, because there was nopony there. Dark orange light streamed in through the windows, but Jamie herself could see no creatures. No guards here, none at the end of the hall. Was the entire place just… abandoned?

Maybe they knew this was happening and ran away? I wouldn’t stay behind to watch my city get burned down.

Jamie didn’t know the Hall of Justice well; she’d hardly been given a chance to explore. But at least she knew the fastest way out. She didn’t run—the way to be identified would be to act like she didn’t belong. But she walked as quickly as she could, expression as confident as she could manage.

She made it most of the way to the front gate before the doors went blasting off in front of her. She squealed in protest, shielding her face with a hoof. Was that a cannon? Did I just step into a civil war?

Pony figures stepped out of the smoke, which at first, she took to be city watch. But no—their armor was thicker, particularly around their sides. They wore heavy helmets, with visors that only had little slits for eyes.

Jamie spun as she heard another set of hoofsteps hurrying down another hallway, one that led to the basement below. A second later and Golden Shine emerged, wearing his full-body armor and carrying a strange spear in the air beside him. “Whatever outrageous error prompted you to attack the princess’s own—”

Then he stopped dead. In the door, more soldiers filed in—each wearing the same armor. Jamie kept retreating, though she didn’t quite have the courage to turn and start running. For all she knew, that would get them to give chase, or maybe use whatever made that almost-gunfire sound.

Golden Shine’s objections died, and he dropped instantly to his knees, the spear clattering to the ground beside him. “Soldiers of Unification. I did not know Concord was so close.”

Over the next few moments, more of them filed in. They crossed all the breeds of pony Jamie knew about, though there was something strange about them. All this time she’d been living with creatures as colorful as an art-supply accident, yet every single one of these were different shades of gray. Only their eyes had any color left, the rest of their bodies could’ve been easily colored in charcoal.

Jamie had seen soldiers, seen the UN’s security forces in her shelter, and the Orbital Coalition’s security drones. These seemed more like the latter, each one standing rigidly at attention with their spear held in the same position. Those with horns didn’t use them, they just… froze.

Jamie dropped into a low crouch, creeping slowly backward. She had another hundred meters to go before she rounded the corner, and she could still hear them clearly. It helped that there was so much noise outside to cover her whispers. A battle, one that didn’t seem to be going well for somebody.

One identical figure out of many stepped forward from the formation. There was nothing to set her uniform apart, no plumes or different colors, but she spoke with command. “You are Commissar Golden Shine of Hollow Shades.”

“Yes,” he said. “I have done my duty faith—”

The soldier didn’t seem to care, speaking over him. “You have interacted with the one called Empathy,” she said. “Lead us to her at once.”

Their voices were fading now, as she rounded the corner. But where am I going to go from here? Is there a back exit? Forts did tend to have secret exits, or maybe a postern gate to use during an invasion. Trouble was, Jamie didn’t have a clue where that might be.

And they’re coming. This was about me all along. “I know you’re too dumb to understand ‘I told you so,’” she hissed, choosing a downward stairwell at random and darting along it. “But I told you so.”

Epsilon’s response came very faintly, melting into a blur of hissing static that made it impossible to understand. Not that I fucking care. You’re the reason Hollow Shades is in this position in the first place. I could’ve hidden here for months without any problem, and you had to kick the hornet’s nest.

The ramp took her to a wide hallway, with metal doors along the sides. None were labeled, not that she would’ve been able to read what they said. And each step she took, she could hear hoofsteps getting louder. Those robotic-acting soldiers were on the move again, towards her.

Eventually she reached the end of one hallway, and a rickety metal door covered with a thin layer of rust. A platform waited inside, with an ancient-looking mechanical lift. A mining elevator? “Everything in this damn town has to be underground.”

But Stygian’s Gate was underground. They couldn’t save her, but maybe Jamie didn’t need to be saved. She could get to them, and damn Epsilon for cursing them all with this invasion. The caves couldn’t be worse than her shelter, and she’d have the company…

“Pony, do not move.” The voice was entirely emotionless, but that somehow made it seem even more deliberately threatening than if it had been screaming at her. “If you attempt to flee, you will be killed.”

Jamie winced. She glanced one last time into the elevator—but she didn’t know how it worked, let alone if it even did. She spun slowly around, and sure enough there was another gray pony facing her. A pair of yellow eyes stared out of a helmet covered with dents and scratches. Blood trailed down the front of their armor, though she could see no sign of injury. It wasn’t their blood.

“I won’t,” she said. “You can, uh… put the spear down.”

It had the same general profile as a spear, anyway. But the top half of the shaft was made of polished crystal, with a tip that reminded her vaguely of a magnifying lens. Was it just something to threaten her with, or could it actually kill? Jamie hadn’t lived this long by testing questions like that.

“Walk slowly past me,” the soldier said. “Return to the top surface for inspection. If you flee, you will be killed.”

Jamie nodded, then began to walk. The robotic soldier fell into place behind her and one glance over her shoulder told her that the not-quite-gun was still aimed squarely at her back. It had a faint internal glow, about what she might’ve expected from a laser pointer.

But considering what these soldiers had done to the front doors, Jamie didn’t intend to test them now.

Jamie was joined by several other figures in similar robes, though most seemed to be wearing things designed to fit their bodies. She joined them against the wall. Most of these were monks and apprentices, ponies that barely knew more about the cult than Jamie herself. I won’t be able to hide here.

She took a split-second to consider what to do, then flipped her hood all the way back and shook out her mane. The motion attracted the attention of several staring soldiers, though at least they didn’t shoot her. She counted down from ten, psyching herself up. I’m going to fuck this up I’ll be shot this is all your fault I’m going to turn you into a calculator when this is over Epsilon.

Jamie couldn’t use magic, but she could stop on the edge of the robe with one hoof, yanking it up and over her head. At least she’d learned one useful skill in physical therapy.

“Excuse me.” She stepped forward, eyes scanning for anything like a leader in the crowd. She recognized the gold eyes of the soldier who had been giving orders. Would these strange soldiers respond the way most other creatures did? “I don’t know what you’re doing in this city, but it doesn’t concern me. I demand to be taken promptly away from whatever this is.”

She closed her eyes then, expecting the shower of bullets to begin. At least her last memories would be brave ones.

Instead, she heard a single set of hooves, somehow louder than the dozens of others as the search continued. “You are the Alicorn called Empathy?”

Jamie opened one eye. There was the soldier, inches from her. She hadn’t even raised her strange spear, and none of the other soldiers did either. She felt the stares of apprentices and other Hall of Justice ponies on her back. Somehow, she doubted she would be inspiring any of them to action. She barely even knew their names. “Yes,” she said simply. “What is this about? I’m an Emissary of another kingdom. I should be treated with respect. Even if your princess has decided to, uh… don’t I get special privileges or something?”

Why did standing so close to this soldier remind her so strongly of her primary school’s science lab? Jamie half-expected to find the pony’s face was made of plastic pieces, and the eyes were a careful simulation concealing cameras underneath. But no—she could even see the moisture glistening on her eyes. Watching her for even a few seconds was painful. Her whole body was tense, like she was in constant pain under that helmet but too afraid to show it.

“You will now be taken away from whatever this is,” she said, tapping her hoof lightly on the stone floor three times. Exactly three soldiers broke away from the assembled formation. She lifted one hoof, pointing out towards the door with exaggerated stiffness. “Join the honor-guard outside, and you will be escorted to the ESS Harrow. Please do not wander, or you may be harmed accidentally.”

The soldiers fell into formation around her, two beside and one behind. They didn’t prompt her to go faster, didn’t even point their weapons at her. They just stood still, expectant. Maybe they thought she would be as obedient as they were.

Maybe this really wasn’t about me. If they’ll just lead me away.

She started towards the door, glancing back down the hall for any sign of Golden Shine. She could see no hint of what they’d done to him. Maybe that was for the best.

She stepped over the ruined doorway and out into the sweltering heat of a jungle night.

Around the hall of justice, Jamie saw what had become of the guards—all dead. She covered her mouth with the back of a hoof, fighting back her gag reflex.

Hundreds of soldiers stood out here, assembled in perfect blocks of twenty men. They stood without regard to the dead guards around the little fortress, trampling them to bloody ruin wherever the dead had fallen.

I wonder if the Olympus colony ever got this bad, when they realized they weren’t getting any more shipments from Earth.

There beside the door was Swift Wind, the same pony she’d tricked into letting her contact the rebellion a few days ago. His chest and torso had been burned beyond recognition, and he obviously wouldn’t move again.

“Who are you guys?” Jamie asked, finally swallowing a mouthful of bile.

One of her escorts turned rigidly towards her. Their eyes were pale green, though showed no more emotion than their leader had back inside. “We are the Army of Unification. Our hooves unite Equestria forever.”

Jamie sped up, passing between the line of assembled soldiers on either side, expecting them to turn on her at any moment. Now she knew where the blood came from on the armor of the ones inside. They could be dripping with it and not even care.

Outside the gates, Hollow Shades wasn’t doing much better. Several structures were burning, all in a straight line from the Hall to the jungle. Where that ship landed?

“You must not allow yourself to be captured,” Epsilon said into her ear. “You must escape at whatever cost.”

And get myself killed? Go to hell.

More soldiers gathered outside the Hall, marshaled in formation. They didn’t seem to care as the actual population of the town cowered in terror all around them. Anything that wasn’t in their way had been ignored. Every structure, every unfortunate soul on the streets between them and their destination—hopefully those weapons killed quickly.

As Jamie stepped through the gates, the sound of shifting metal and lifting hooves echoed all around her. She twisted around and saw that several large blocks of soldiers had begun to advance. While her mouth hung open, they split into ranks around her, weapons aimed outward.

Oh God. If anyone tries to rescue me now, I’m sorry for what happens next.

“Where am I supposed to go?” Jamie asked. She could guess based on the direction of the sound, but…

One of the armored figures pointed straight along the greatest destruction. “Destroyer ESS Harrow is this way. Please do not wander or you may be harmed accidentally.”

Please. Jamie started walking again, and the entire formation kept perfect pace with her. After a few steps she stopped for a moment, nearly tripping all over again with so many thumps sounding from around her. They weren’t robots, but how could they act so much like them?

She was probably pushing her luck, but all this death—her sensible instincts faded. “I’ve heard about you. I thought you worked for Equestria.”

“We serve the princess,” echoed the same one who had spoken before. She was certain it was a mare by now. That armor was all the same size, sometimes straining to fit the pony inside and other times it barely even stayed on.

Jamie didn’t argue—she didn’t believe for a second that the soldiers now escorting her could change their minds. Maybe Jamie was a coward, but she didn’t want to be another corpse in the street.

“You must not surrender,” Epsilon said again. “The risk is too high.”

And if you’d listened to me, this wouldn’t be happening. Were all these deaths somehow Epsilon’s fault?

Jamie dismissed the thought, whimpering. That means it’s your fault too. You could’ve just let Epsilon shoot you. You wanted to live, and all these people died for it.

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