• 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 25: Crater

Star Orchid could hear the echoing gunfire overhead, the pounding of hooves on stone, the distant shouts. Yet those weren’t the shouts of royal guardsponies giving orders, but the screams of anypony getting in their way. At least she hadn’t heard more orders echoing down the halls behind, perhaps warning that soldiers had found another entrance and would be flooding the Undercastle. The rebel ponies had weapons of their own, didn’t they? How long could they last down here?

Windbrisk’s sledgehammer struck the side of a stone support with a resounding bang, tearing loose another huge chunk of stone. He was no earth pony, but whatever he lacked in magic he seemed to make up for in simple determination. Star had taken a few swings with her magic before he took over—not because she didn’t have the strength, but because he seemed to want her to know just how strong he was.

“Help me,” Ginny whispered after one swing, securing another wooden support in place. They were all connected with robe at their bottom sections, so they could be yanked aside at once to let the tunnel collapse. That was the theory, anyway. “Distract him a second. We can’t let this tunnel go any further.”

She pressed low against the growing pile of rubble that had once been supports, twisting one of her forelegs sideways and exposing the sharp claws waiting there.

Oh buck, she’s going to kill him. From there it was easy to imagine the rest. Star wouldn’t have to attack Windbrisk to escape, they’d just have to run past him. This meant she wanted a tunnel open. Windbrisk dead, and we can reach the surface and bring soldiers down here.

Star walked along beside her in a stupor. Ginny was already advancing, without any overt signs of hostility. Geist was an expert at this. Despite everything Star had seen living with him—he was still a pony all of Concord feared. Dozens of ponies had fallen to him over the years. She’d respected that number once, as seeds of disharmony removed from Concord’s perfect greenhouse. Now she wasn’t so sure.

Windbrisk is a hippogriff; he can’t help being evil. The tremendous evil of rescuing children and bringing them here, where they clearly lived lives of endless misery. But if I can’t trust the Words of Harmony, what can I trust?

As Ginny approached, Windbrisk lowered the sledgehammer, wiping away the sweat from his brow. “You want to take a turn? I guess it was only a matter of time. The griffons I’ve known… you wouldn’t want a half-pony to do more work than you.”

Ginny nodded noncommittally, bending down as though she were going to take the sledgehammer. Which would put her only a few centimeters from Windbrisk’s neck. Star watched, her body on the edge of a knife. All she had to do was keep her mouth shut, and she could probably go back to Concord. She’d make some excuse for her first letter—maybe she sent the wrong one, maybe it was intercepted somehow. It wouldn’t matter if she still accomplished her mission and the rebellion’s connection to the Devourers led to their ultimate destruction.

Star heard children laughing, then she saw Ginny’s claws in the dark.

She barely even thought. Her horn flashed, shoving Windbrisk stumbling backward in a wave of force. Ginny’s claws sliced harmlessly through the air, centimeters away from Windbrisk’s exposed throat. The world moved in slow-motion as Ginny flailed wildly for a second, before landing on her claws. She spread her wings wide in the cavern, hissing at her. “You were doing so good at this, Star! Don’t forget your duty now! You want to die with them?”

She didn’t wait for an answer, pouncing down on Windbrisk.

But she’d lost her element of surprise, and the hippogriff was ready. Her beak dug into his shoulder instead of his neck, spraying red blood. But Windbrisk wasn’t a helpless victim anymore. While Ginny bit into him, he smashed up against the wall with all his might, until Ginny made an uncomfortable crunching sound.

She melted, feathers fading into a shell of black chitin crushed where Windbrisk’s claw had held. But in that single instant Geist had lost half their size and rolled out of Windbrisk’s reach. Towards the open passage to the surface. “Are you bucking insane?” Windbrisk asked, ignoring the wound to heft the sledgehammer in his good arm. He threw it with all his might, but with blood pouring down his side his strike went entirely off-course. “You’re a changeling? And you attack me now?”

Geist deflected the hammer with their magic, not quite stopping it. They didn’t pick it up, but maybe they couldn’t while that badly hurt. “You can still fix this, Star Orchid!” she called—a distinctly feminine voice to match the slimmer insect body. “I’ve seen your magic! Kill the bird and come with me. Don’t let your emotions blind you.”

Those words served a double purpose, obviously. Windbrisk looked between them, confusion turning into horror. “B-both of you? All this time? We thought we’d stayed safe from Equestria, but… you still found us?”

“The princess finds all creatures in time,” Geist snapped. “You had to know your time had come. Now my partner's magic will end this. She was trained by the princess personally. Your physical strength means nothing to her.”

“How?” Windbrisk backed up against the wall, glancing rapidly between them. “How could you, Star? You’re going to invite those soldiers down here to kill all of us? What did my sister do to deserve that?”

“Nothing,” Star said. Geist was right about one thing: she had been trained by the princess. Not so much for combat, but there were plenty of other useful spells.

Star Orchid focused on the ceiling above Geist, held by a thin length of feeble stone. She screamed, blasting it with enough magic to shake the tunnel around them as it hit. Windbrisk stood still, closing his eyes as though he expected the killing blow Geist asked for.

Stone exploded from behind him, followed by a subterranean roar as the passage collapsed. Powdered rock blasted around them, momentarily blinding them. Hopefully Geist is down there.

Star Orchid stood frozen at the pile of rubble, breathing heavily. She watched closely for any sign of the changeling emerging from within. Maybe Geist’s magical skills were more than she thought, and this was the moment she retaliated with some terrible attack.

Then Windbrisk flopped to one side, trying in vain to staunch his bleeding shoulder with the force of just one claw. Star darted past him to the tunnel, raising her voice as loudly as she could. “We need help! Windbrisk is hurt, and our tunnel just collapsed!”

She could see no light coming, either the flicker of a lantern or the steady glow of a unicorn. She rounded the corner again, dropping down beside the hippogriff. “Hold still, I can—”

Windbrisk retreated from her, head swiveling so his beak was in her way. “What even are you, Star? A changeling spy, like Ginny? You must be… living together the way you were. I’ve seen the way you watched her. I thought…” He groaned and spluttered, backing as far away from her as he could. The blocked tunnel stopped him from getting too far before he smacked up against it. “I thought your relationship was strained. Ginny was just too intense for a city pony like you. I was wrong, wasn’t I? You weren’t together at all, except in wanting us dead.”

She opened her mouth to argue—of course she didn’t want to hurt him, or his sister, or even the Devourer who had hidden all this deep in the earth below a hallowed foundation. But she had come down here to do exactly what he thought. He wasn’t wrong to think she was a spy sent to destroy everything he loved.

All her energy melted away. “I saw I was wrong. Instead of telling the princess about you, I sent her lies and tried to lead her away. You’re still bucking alive!” She pointed at the collapsed passage, tears streaming down her face. “Please, Windbrisk! I didn’t… I had no idea what you ponies were really like! You can’t know how hard it is to defy the princess!”

A handful of ponies appeared in the open doorway behind them. Two had strange weapons slung over useless-looking cloth uniforms. The other four pushed a strange machine with oversized black wheels and a huge tube emerging from it.

“Damn, Windbrisk,” said one of the ponies, dropping down on one knee beside him. “Swung the sledgehammer a little hard, don’t you think? You weren’t supposed to knock down your own neck.” He lifted a black box up from where it was clipped on the breast of his uniform. “Medical detail needed at grid 17-5. Doesn’t look life-threatening, but there’s a lot of blood.” Pause. “Not a battle injury. Construction accident.”

It was Star’s turn to retreat into a corner, ears flat. Maybe this wouldn’t be as bad as she imagined? Windbrisk cared about her, didn’t he? Hadn’t she just saved his life?

“We have a spy!” Windbrisk shouted, pointing with one bloody claw. “Star Orchid! Grab her!”

They weren’t the quickest with their weapons. Ginny probably could’ve used that little delay to affect an escape. But Star just… couldn’t make herself care. She stood stupidly in place as both soldiers pointed their weapons at her.

I betrayed Harmony, and Stygian’s Gate is still going to kill me for it. Maybe there was some justice in that. Ginny might have survived—maybe she was gathering soldiers to press underground and attack. Maybe Star’s change of heart had come too late, and they would all still die.

The soldiers didn’t fire. “Come with us,” the first said. “Medics are on the way, Windbrisk! Don’t bleed to death.”

Star followed without a fight. She probably could’ve used her magic to overpower them a dozen different ways, assuming she was quicker with a spell than they were with a trigger. But she didn’t try. She dragged her hooves, eyes fixed on the stone. They passed many forks in the path, and the sound of many demolition crews hard at work. Maybe they would manage to close every entrance before the army could reach them.

She barely even listened to one of her escorts speaking into the Darktech transmitter again. “Windbrisk says we have a traitor. Yeah, found him bleeding bad. No weapons she could’ve done it with. Right, that’s what I thought.”

“It’s not you I betrayed,” Star muttered. “It’s the princess. I tried to protect you from her.”

She expected fury on the ponies’ faces, or maybe the same betrayal Windbrisk had displayed. Instead they were almost completely neutral. “I don’t have a bucking clue what just happened,” they said. “If Stygian’s Gate lives through this, we’ll sort through the details in the morning. If you are a traitor, maybe hope we get wiped out while you’re in jail, eh?”

They didn’t lead her to anywhere in the upper castle, but down twisting passages she knew well. Windbrisk had taken her there a dozen times by now.

“Why are you bringing me to Discord?”

No soldier of Unification would’ve answered questions, and most guards probably wouldn’t have tried very hard to alleviate her confusion. These weren’t soldiers as she knew them, though. “You’re a unicorn,” said the other fighter—a bat, with burn scars running down half his face. “Only one creature down here that can keep you contained without a gun against your head.”

They emerged from a side-passage into the school. The classrooms were dark, the playground empty. Only one door was open, a single figure visible inside.

“Doctor!” shouted the unicorn guard. “We have the prisoner we radioed about. Suspected spy?”

Discord stepped out, and brilliant white overflowed from behind him. There was a patient on his operating table, a pony covered mostly in cloth. “Leave her here and go,” he said. “Quickly, ponies. Those rifles will be sorely needed.”

He tossed something through the air towards Star. She shielded herself with magic, catching the assault rather than deflecting it like Ginny had done. Not an attack, though—it was a papery-looking dress, complete with a mane-net and mask. “Put this on, Star Orchid. Then get in here.”

The soldiers left without another word, barely even watching them. Does Discord have any magic left at all? Maybe she could still escape. To where, though? Ginny thought she’d betrayed Equestria, and Sygian’s Gate would soon think the same thing.

She pulled on the strange hospital uniform without objection. She’d seen them used before in the ancient walls of Canterlot General, the few times she’d been there. “If you’re going to use your hooves, sanitation is against the wall,” Discord said, turning his back unceremoniously. “Magic can’t contaminate, so stick to that.”

Star’s mouth hung open, stupefied. “Did you hear what those soldiers just said? They just called me a traitor. Shouldn’t you be… locking me up? Isn’t it dangerous to let me just…”

Discord spun around, glowering down at her with a face suddenly furious. “Are you telling me I should operate on this patient without a nurse because she happened to have sudden weakness of moral fortitude? We don’t have time to waste, Star.”

What could she do? Star followed, half expecting to see Windbrisk already on the operating table. But of course all he needed was a few stitches. This… this kind of medicine was like nothing she’d ever seen.

The Iron Lord lay in one corner of the room, his chair stretched all the way back into a comfortable reclining position. With his layers of robe and obscuring cloth removed, Star could see clearly just how frail this creature was. His body was shriveled and skeletal, with skin green in patches and angry red in others. Tubes of red and black and other colors ran into his torso at various points, along with several interlocking plates secure across his chest.

More disturbing was what waited on the operating table. It was a changeling, and simultaneously not at the same time. Instead of colorful, its outsides were soft-looking and as white as fresh snow. The head was completely submerged in something flexible and clear, filled with pink fluid. Was she hallucinating, or was part of the skull detached?

There were other strange things she’d never seen before, boxes of little machines and bags of fluid arranged neatly against the wall.

“What in the princess’s name are you doing?” she asked, before she could stop herself. “What did you do to this changeling?”

“Nothing,” Discord answered, fury entirely wiped from his face. “It’s fresh. Nothing grows faster than an insect. Our mutual friend is starved for choice.”

The Iron Lord looked up with glassy eyes and limbs that shook as he moved. “I’m sure I… this isn’t the night to do this, Discord. Even a full brainpan like mine isn’t successful with every transplant. Stygian’s Gate needs me.”

“Precisely why we’re doing this now. One of our spies will be your nurse. That way the rest of your medical staff can be out in the field when the Unification Army reaches us.”

“What?” Star Orchid probably should’ve kept her mouth shut. She wasn’t just suspected of betraying them, Discord just went out and said it like it was true. Which it was, but still. “They can’t be here. The army never deploys more than ten kilometers from Concord. If the city was up there, we’d know.”

“I know.” Discord pulled on a pair of gloves, which barely fit his strange mismatch of limbs. He probably had to use different sizes to make that even a little bit possible. “I don’t know how they’re here, but… they’re here. Half dead monsters, screaming in silent agony. Is it chaos to be a puppet of corpse-flesh, or just evil? I think my younger self would’ve laughed at the question.”

“I thought you said we couldn’t fight them,” the Devourer said. He watched Discord’s approach, eyes lingering on the tray of knives and strange sealed vials. “If the Undercastle falls today, get me out of all this. Put a gun in my hand. I’ll die with the others.”

Discord smiled at him. “If it comes to an open war, we’re certainly doomed. But I wouldn’t count on that just yet. Tunnels are narrow, and you know them well. Don’t underestimate your fighting ponies. They may surprise you.”

He sighed, folding both arms across his rotten chest. “I suppose I’m not getting out of this, am I? What do you think, spy? Better to leave Stygian’s Gate without its leader during an invasion? Have me now, but probably have me die in front of them a few hours later.”

“Why are you asking me? You think I’m a spy. Discord just said—”

The Iron Lord didn’t even need to move to silence her. He just fixed her with a glare, intense enough that she trailed off and stared down at her hooves. “Well, are you? A spy.”

She hesitated, then caught one of Discord’s wide yellow eyes fixed on her. She wouldn’t be able to fool him, any more than she could trick Ginny. But I did. Ginny didn’t know until the end that I’d changed sides. She wasn’t expecting me to save Windbrisk. “I was. But then I saw what you were doing, and I realized I didn’t want it to stop.”

“See, there you go. What becomes of the Undercastle without me? You ponies… you’re adorable, but so clueless. You don’t know how to fight, even if you’re just as good with the violence as any… anyone else.”

“I d-don’t…” she whimpered. “You shouldn’t ask me. But Discord is old, and powerful. If he thinks… Stars, what am I saying? Listen to the avatar of chaos? He’s an aspect of evil back in Canterlot. His face is used for warnings on road signs and building construction. Watch out, chaos ahead!”

Discord removed and filled a needle, then injected it into one of the many tubes. “Either this works, or you don’t wake up. Sweet dreams.”

“You know, when I thought I was dead the first time, I fought so hard to die under the sky. But now here I am, deep underground. Am I dying for anything, Discord?”

The creature shrugged one shoulder, expression entirely without compassion. For all that Star had seen good, maybe it was wrong of her to think that everything was evil. Discord might be helping, but did he care? “You’re in good hooves, Ferris. Well, there won’t actually be any hooves operating on you, but I hope you appreciate the sentiment.”

He didn’t answer. A few seconds later and he slumped to one side, his face going slack. At first Star thought he was dead, but… no, that clearly wasn’t the case. The machine breathing for him was loud enough that she couldn’t miss it.

“Please bring over that yellow package. Tear off the shrink-wrap and line up the bottles inside beside the machine on my desk. There’s about a five-minute window between removing a brain and its destruction. If he dies because of you, I’m going to be quite cross. My wife even more so.”

Less than an hour ago, Ginny was trying to kill Windbrisk. Now I’m going to have the rebellion’s human leader within striking distance of my knife. Are these creatures insane?

And for better or worse, Star Orchid was with them now. “Did you tell him the truth, Discord? About… the Unification Army? Are they really here?”

He nodded solemnly. “I don’t lie to those I respect. I don’t know how they can be here. I don’t know how long the magic animating them will last so far from Concord. But while it does… I suppose we’ll see what kind of warriors a single man can make of the desperate and dispossessed.”

As if on cue, the ground shook, to the terrible sound of tearing rock far above. Discord reached out to steady a tottering Darktech machine, the one with a multi-jointed arm and something almost like a paw on the end. “The Unification Army may be unfeeling monsters of flesh who fear no enemy—but Stygian’s Gate are defending their home. Who do you think will fight harder?”

Jamie could only feel relief as they left Hollow Shades behind. The more of these creatures she led away, the more relieved she felt. Every one of them escorting her wasn’t murdering people.

Just leaving the city behind wasn’t enough, not when there were still hundreds of the monsters back there. Stay safe, Shy. I hope that mansion of yours has a panic room you never showed me. Either that, or maybe her creepy-looking husband could use some strange magic to keep them out.

They marched Jamie through the jungle some distance, until the outline of an airship appeared in the gloom overhead. It wasn’t that impressive to her—Jamie had spent most of her life living on an orbital platform, an insignificant sliver of the Earth’s shell. But for a zeppelin, this thing was massive. Spotlights ringed its outer edges, shining down on a slowly expanding war-camp. The trees beneath it had already been reduced to stumps, with the jungle floor charred to trim away the underbrush.

More armored ponies were hard at work, digging trenches and hammering pickets and preparing heavy mounted guns. White tents stood in military rows, all stinking of the same chemicals. Formaldehyde, maybe? Was that what disgusted her about being around them? No, it was probably still the blood.

They were challenged at the gate by one of many identical soldiers. Each had a different voice but spoke as though they were the same pony. Like ants from the same colony, greeting a group of returning scouts.

She didn’t see a single pony off-duty. There were no gatherings around campfires, no music. The alcohol she could smell was more what she would’ve expected from a hospital and less an army’s camp.

“General Pike is waiting for you aboard the Zapapple,” said one of the soldiers escorting her. She couldn’t really keep track of them, and maybe there was no point trying. “Please step onto the transport platform and hold still.” They pointed towards a slightly raised platform, lined with faintly glowing gemstones. Jamie needed no knowledge of the natives to guess at what it did.

“Am I being imprisoned?” she asked. “What will happen on the Zapapple?”

“The Zapapple is a lancer and will take you to Concord far faster than the ESS Harrow could. It has accommodations suited for the princess. You will be housed there during the trip.”

If there was one source of comfort while Jamie stared into the face of this monster, it was that she didn’t think it could lie. Lying took calculation, emotional understanding, and she felt nothing from these ponies.

“What are you?” she asked. Maybe unwise, but the walk had shown her no violence from any of them. They treated her with such respect, not even getting close enough to touch her by accident. Yet they’d slaughtered every pony who stood in front of them, probably without the ones they were fighting even trying to resist. “Are you androids?”

The eyes looking back at her didn’t even have the decency to seem confused. “Are you refusing to comply with instructions, Empathy?”

“No.” She groaned, stepping up onto the platform. “I’m just asking. Ponies act like people, but you don’t.”

“You must not comply,” Epsilon said, as it had been doing every few minutes. “You must prompt them to destroy you. It is the only step that can preserve the secrecy of 198.64-Beta.”

Jamie laughed. Maybe it was stress, or maybe so many eyes on her. These probably-robots wouldn’t be able to identify her behavior as crazy when they didn’t act alive themselves. But then, neither was Epsilon. It had rules, and at least some of those could be used to her advantage. “I invoke the UN universal privacy statute,” she muttered. “I revoke my consent to electronic communication.”

Epsilon did not reply. Maybe it was listening, waiting for her to reinstate her consent. But how far was the Zapapple traveling, anyway? Radio’s range wasn’t infinite.

“Do not move,” said one of the soldiers. “Remain still, or you may be accidentally harmed.”

Jamie opened her mouth to ask exactly what kind of vehicle she was standing on—before the world fuzzed around her, jungle trees and army of strange soldiers blurring to nothing.

Her hooves settled on an identical platform, though instead of raised above the jungle this one was set into the center of a small room. A handful of creatures waited there for her—uniformed soldiers, rather than armored. None of these were the washed-out gray white of the creatures below. “Emissary Empathy,” said the one in the fanciest uniform, extending a hoof towards her. He was an older pony, maybe the oldest she’d ever seen. But those eyes were still alert and lively, even in a face covered in wrinkles. “My name is General Pike. Welcome aboard the Zapapple.”

She took the offered hoof, though it filled her with disgust. She was looking up at him, but suddenly she found the anger came naturally to her. “Pike,” she said, as scornfully as she could. “Are you the one responsible for the disgusting waste of life down there, or is that someone else?”

His face twitched, and he pulled his hoof back. “If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you to your quarters. The royal suite will be yours for the duration of the trip. Only the finest for our ambassador from the sky.”

“I’d rather figure out what happened back in Hollow Shades,” she said. “There are ponies dead down there. Is this how your kind normally handle civic disputes? Murder?”

Pike cleared his throat, and the four other ponies in the room drew their weapons. At least they had enough respect not to just go out and point them at her. “Please, you need to be situated before we can get underway. I have instructions to make the trip as expeditiously as possible.”

Jamie had no choice but to follow.

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