• 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 29: Leo

Jamie had seen plenty of Perspective Entertainment in her idle time aboard Persephone, watching as brave heroes fought off dozens of opponents with makeshift tools and their wits one moment while inventing incredible devices or negotiating treaties the next. But putting on a VR headset and watching trained actors perform the stunts was one thing—doing any of it herself was another.

There were no daring escapes as they led her from the Zapapple. Maybe if she’d been able to fly, she might’ve tried something while still close to Hollow Shades. Even if she could somehow kill everyone around her and blast through a wall, it would just be into the arms of Twilight’s evil empire. The princess herself was through that wall, waiting for her.

It wasn’t just the general and his marines leaving the ship, either. Several of the bugs were joining them for the trip, including Basal. She followed at the very back, and avoided Jamie’s eyes whenever she looked at her.

“I suggest an increased level of politeness when you’re with the princess,” Pike said, as they descended a spiraling ramp through the bowels of his ship. “Her time is precious, and she has little patience for those who would distract her from Harmony.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she said, wings spreading involuntarily in her exasperation. “I was sent for this. Just… maybe didn’t expect the kidnapping in the middle there.”

They passed through a metal door near the prow, out onto an extended platform without handrails. On either side was a drop down to nothing. What was worse, the wind caught her wings almost instantly, threatening to tear her right off into the void. Pike had to catch her, pressing on her with that strange force ponies called magic. She assumed it was him, anyway—he was the one glowing.

“Forgive me, I should’ve warned you that there would be wind. Concord is traveling at speed, and even within the shell the air is always somewhat disturbed until we slow again.”

She opened her mouth to say something snide, the rudest thing she could think of. But the words dissolved, as she got her first look at the one who had created this world of misery and suffering.

She was the tallest creature Jamie had seen in her new body, except for Ferris. Even then, she probably would’ve been nearly as tall, and several times heavier. Princess Twilight Sparkle didn’t wear a multilayered dress covered in enchantments, or much of anything for that matter. She had purple metal shoes, and a circlet of dark purple perched on her head. Both glowed slightly, as though they were being moved by a unicorn. Or… more likely, they contained some other magic, which Jamie couldn’t easily understand.

The princess watched them approach with a single sharp eye, which cut straight through the general and his marines to Jamie. She hardly seemed to blink, watching without the slightest distraction. More like Epsilon than any living creature Jamie knew.

“Princess.” Pike stopped them just before her, dropping into a low bow. At once every other creature in their group was imitating him, many bowing even lower. Jamie was caught off-guard, and only managed a slight inclination of her head before the others were already standing. “I have done all things as you ordered. Hollow Shades has been occupied, and we will soon dismantle any resistance there. It was likely already done in the time since—”

Twilight’s horn glowed faintly for a moment, and Pike fell silent. Twilight stepped around him, apparently uninterested in whatever else he had to say about Hollow Shades. Does she not even care about the ponies they’re killing? Maybe it was her idea to begin with. “That will do, General Pike. Prepare your crew for debriefing and compose a full report. I require nothing further from you at this time.”

He saluted sharply. “At once, Princess.” Then he gestured, and his group parted around Jamie like she was the rock at the center of a river. Even the bugs, which cowered before Twilight and never looked in her direction. In moments they left her alone, standing at the base of a steel ramp over a terrifying drop, with the wind constantly pushing her slightly to one side. And right in front of her was the princess who ruled the world—the one who tortured and enslaved and wrote a maze of confusing laws. The one who would murder Jamie.

Twilight extended a hoof to her. “Welcome to Concord. I think you’re going to enjoy your time here.” Her accent was strange, even compared to the creatures she had been living with for the last month. Sometimes Shy had sounded a little like this, though only when she was reminiscing. “I’m told you call yourself Empathy. That sounds like a pony name though, and wouldn’t be a good fit for you. It would be better if we can begin our relationship with honesty.”

She twisted slightly, offering a hoof. “I’m Twilight Sparkle. Everypony else calls me Regent or Princess, but you can forget about the formalities. It’s wrong for Alicorns to lean too much on pomp and circumstance.”

What’s your game? Jamie almost backed away, or maybe just gave her the same name over again. But this wasn’t a being she could resist too strongly. If Twilight wanted to end this, she could. Maybe if I cooperate, she won’t hurt me. “Jamie,” she answered. “Empathy was the name of my… position.”

“Jamie.” The princess let go of her hoof quickly—the gesture really didn’t make much sense for horses anyway. She turned away from the ramp, looking thoughtful. “That’s a very old name. Well, we can get to the complex business of discussing your purpose here in Equestria another time. I have an urgent appointment in an hour, and a long trip to make to get there. But… before that, I would like to introduce you to where you’ll be staying for the duration.” She pointed with a wing, right behind them. Jamie didn’t have to look very far.

It was a castle, built of the same structural crystal that spiked through this atmospheric platform at various points. It was nothing like the Hall of Justice in Hollow Shades—this palace was built far more for beauty and luxury than defensibility.

Twilight smiled, reaching out to gently push her mouth closed with a hoof. “I suppose you’ve never lived anywhere quite like the Concord Castle before. There’s no shame in that—I hadn’t either, until I had it built. Even my predecessors never… fully explored what magic could offer ponies who master it.” She stepped to the side, nodding towards a trail of bright gold leading to the palace steps. “After you, Jamie. I think you’ll find the trip enlightening.”

Are you going to kill me in there? Jamie didn’t argue, though her steps weren’t rapid. She was in no hurry to get where Twilight wanted them. The docks themselves were deserted near this mooring, but at all the others…

This was a military dock, packed with the Unification Army’s finest. These wore polished boots and dress uniforms, instead of the practical armor and olive drab of the ones who massacred innocent people. They all had heavy packs of gear, all moved like robots…

Jamie sped up, eager to get away from the dock as fast as her hooves could carry her. She had the dignity not to sprint away, but only barely. “So, uh… your city here, Concord. Are you using a gravity refractor?”

Twilight’s eyebrows went up, though her expression was otherwise so neutral that Jamie couldn’t have said if she was furious with her or impressed with her insight. “Concord uses lift crystals, the same as most airships only… larger, obviously. It’s the single largest thaumic storage and processing medium ever constructed. Maybe we’ll have time to visit in the next few weeks.”

Weeks. But did she say that to trick her into compliance, or did it really mean… “I’m sorry Twilight Sparkle, I’m not a very good emissary. I didn’t even give you my formal greeting from Persephone. The creatures there—”

The Alicorn rounded on her in an instant, horn glowing faintly. None of these robotic soldiers seemed to even see them, keeping their distance. Twilight’s act of neutrality was gone in a flash. “I asked for honesty, Jamie. You can’t have any relationship without a foundation of trust. Nopony on Persephone is sending anypony anywhere, seeing as they’re all corpses. I personally lobotomized the supervising computer, so I know it didn’t send you. Would you like to try again?”

Star Orchid had stood on half a dozen Equestrian naval ships before—working as the princess’s personal advisor meant plenty of interaction with her military, something that she kept as far away as possible from ordinary citizens. Even with a lifetime in the civil service, she’d only stood near the core of an airship once—though even that had only been a little personnel carrier.

Now she had unfettered access, without a single Unification Army soldier to get in her way.

Apparently it was the same way for the humans who had taken this ship, because they sounded almost giddy with excitement as they called back and forth to each other. Several ranged about the room rounding up the engineers, bringing them to stand in a group near the center of the deck. Landon had something even Star could guess was a camera, taking pictures of anything that looked technical.

Captain Kondrak was the only one whose attention was elsewhere—he crouched beside the fallen soldier, his own helmet off and working skillfully with his medkit.

Star approached slowly, not wanting to interfere. After working with Discord, she realized she’d seen those tools before. “That’s an auto-suture,” she muttered. “Discord has Devourer medicine?”

Kondrak didn’t look away from his patient. With the armored breastplate removed, the deep gash cut straight through uniform and flesh beneath. Kondrak had already cut away the clothing, and patiently sealed the torn flesh with the quietly humming auto-suture.

“Discord is super dead,” the soldier said. He leaned up against a bulkhead, clutching a length of metal to keep from moving. The steel bar twisted slightly under his grip, the way it might for an earth pony who was having trouble sitting still. “If we still had him, you really think we’d have people out here doing this ourselves? We’d sleep this nightmare away, and wake up with our world back.”

“That was partly the problem,” Kondrak said. He glanced to the side, fishing through his medical bag while he used his other to keep the patient still. “Pony, do you mind, uh… I need the Pharmablue coagulant.”

She levitated it out of the bag for him. Kondrak caught it in his free hand, eyes widening. “Looks like our guest is lucky.”

“Just had lots of practice with rapid memorization,” she countered, settling down beside the medkit. This kind of field medicine might’ve been horrifying for her, except Discord had done so much worse. In a purely physical sense, it had looked like he was killing two patients, instead of only saving one. “Princess never really gave me much time to learn things. I had to remember everything she ever said, and be able to recite it back to her without the slightest mistake. If I couldn’t do that, I wouldn’t last a week. I’m more interested in why a captain would be a healer. Those are separate professions for ponies.”

Kondrak chuckled, twisting off the cap of the vial and sliding it into place in the side of the auto-suture. It chimed cheerfully, and he went back to work. “I’m the captain of the Hippocrates—she isn’t a warship, like this vessel. She’s a Saint class, designed to place a field hospital on any platform within 24-hours. That she survived when the others…” He looked away, back to his patient. “Later, Star Orchid. When our situation is less urgent. I’ll leave you with the assurance that I have served far longer in hospitals than at the helm of starships. Marlay here is in capable hands.”

She left him to his work, though what Marlay said still lingered. He’d known the name of Discord, and apparently believed that he was dead. His magic is. Maybe that’s what he means?

She walked back to where a half-dozen royal technicians had been herded, tucked up against the wall without any controls within reach. As usual for the royal technicians, they were completely silent, though mares and stallions alike were utterly terrified. I would be too, if dead monsters from the ancient past took my ship and destroyed my life’s work.

If this ship had a living captain, Star had no doubt they would’ve been forced to join the Unification Army in penance for their failure. But it wasn’t the royal technicians’ fault they’d lost, was it? It’s my fault. But if the princess ever finds out about that… Would she have something worse than an assassin hunting her after this? If Geist was still here, if he’d seen the fall of the Harrow, then he would certainly know she was the one responsible for Harrow’s loss. Who else could lead the enemy directly to its heart?

And now they know how all our ships work. Even if the ones near Concord won’t be able to stop the whole army they command. They’ll still know.

Her eyes fell on the fallen Unification Army soldier, the only they’d seen past the barricade. Was it her imagination, or had she slid a little closer to the ruined core?

Star slowed as she passed the royal technicians, more than a little curious about what these engineers might know. Maybe there were some old childhood friends in their number, their secrets forever silenced. “Don’t bother trying to get them to talk,” she said to the human soldiers, speaking confidently as she passed. “They can’t, they don’t have tongues.”

“Excuse me, what?” Landon blocked her path, expression indignant. “You’re shitting me. You’re telling me the Rogue is butchering her own crews? That’s ridiculous.”

“You.” She pointed towards the nearest pony, a soft pink stallion with a vibrantly rose mane. “Show them.” When the royal technician didn’t seem cooperative, she lit up her horn, glaring. “You’ll be happier if they know you can’t talk. Do you want to get left alone, or interrogated?”

A nearby mare shoved him aside, opening her mouth wide for Landon to see. Star didn’t look away in time to avoid seeing the old wound, still seeming swollen and unnatural despite probably decades of time to mend.

“We’ll have to do something about that,” Landon said, deflating. “And those scars on your necks… damn. Captain should be able help you once we have you aboard the Hippocrates. Listen closely all of you—I fucking hate shooting civvies, but I’ll do it if I think you’re trying to take us down. We’re marching the lot of you out of here. If you try to run…”

Star left her behind. There was nothing more for her to contribute at this point. Though from the way Landon said it, it sounded less like they were going to try to get them to write their answers and more like they planned on giving them back their voices?

She never would’ve believed it was possible, except that she’d seen what Discord could accomplish. If the Iron Lord survived his operation, then she had no doubt they could return a mute pony their speech.

The fallen soldier slid along the floor, a little closer to the magical core. What had Twilight called it, a pseudo-phylactery?

Even that, Star was certain she wasn’t supposed to hear. Maybe Twilight thought her advisor would be taking all her secrets to the grave. Given how long they lasted, most of them probably did.

“Five minutes until we move!” Kondrak called. “I almost have Marlay here stable. Nobody ask if we can keep the ship—she’s already spoken for.”

Star continued to where the pony had fallen, nudging her with the edge of a hoof. None of the human soldiers were close, maybe she should’ve been afraid. But there was nothing to be afraid of, right? The Unification Army relied on Harmony’s light to keep them fighting. Without it…

The pony moaned, withdrawing slightly from the pressure. The movement was so subtle she almost could’ve dismissed it as some drop of reflexive magic left in the pony’s body. But that wasn’t possible.

Star focused her magic, pushing the pony sideways so she could get a better look at her face. Her expression was still twisted into terror—and her eyes were still moving.

“Oh Harmony.” She retreated, gasping and breathing heavily. “You’re supposed to be dead. Without the phylactery… why aren’t you dead?”

The pony only twitched, one leg spasming slightly. Was she trying to reach for Star Orchid? She didn’t have a weapon, not even a knife—but she was a unicorn. Star couldn’t underestimate the threat she posed.

There was one way to investigate—one she never would’ve considered back on Concord. Touching a soldier’s gear was one of the things that meant instant execution even for the members of important families in the Magic district. But she’d already betrayed everything Twilight stood for. She could hardly be more dead.

Star gripped the edge of the fabric, pulling gently. This was no vault, just resealable Velcro meant to keep the contents safe from dust and casual observation.

The pony was almost dead, a thin film of preservative solution dribbling from her lips. But she didn’t fight.

Inside was a curved metal shell, shaped to match the saddlebags but protect the delicate contents from accidental or deliberate destruction. There was no lock though, just a simple unicorn-knob. The mechanism was indicated only by a horn icon set into the metal, which meant it had to be twisted from within, using levitation. It clicked, and the top popped out suddenly enough that she jumped away in surprise.

Within the protective metal cage was a little bank of thaumic crystals, so dim they were almost dead. There was also a reservoir of preservative, about a liter’s worth. And connected to them both, protected by metal ribs, was a heart, deep red and sealed in glass.

It twitched as she watched, almost making her turn and run all over again. She clutched her chest, but didn’t run.

Are you all really this complicated? She’d expected a simple bellows, maybe a thaumic battery to work them. This heart, with living red flesh instead of corpse-yellow… how?

“P-ple… p…” the pony coughed. With the bag open, Star saw her heart beat again, and the thaumic crystals dim still further.

“You’re… an older model,” she said. “Or maybe you aren’t quite the same as the others. What makes you different?”

Her head turned towards the satchel, as though whatever she had to do was inside.

This is incredibly stupid, Star thought. There was no way it didn’t end badly. But if she walked away, those spells were going to die.

You’ve suffered as much as anyone under Equestria’s rule.

“You try anything, and I’ll…” She brandished the human weapon in her magic, shaking it threateningly. Then she focused her magic on the thaumic crystals, and hit them with all the power she could muster.

It might’ve been harder for her if she hadn’t made charging simple spells her job for weeks during this undercover mission. Even so, the drain on her magic was staggering. The gun dropped right out of the air as her ability to levitate was momentarily suppressed, and the spell took every drop of magic she had.

She severed the connection, but even so she dropped limply to the ground, breathing heavily. Probably shouldn’t have done that right before we run from this place.

Her effort wasn’t wasted, at least. The crystals were glowing now, solid blue to match her magic. The strangely preserved heart began to beat, and the pony looked up. “Mind… clearer,” she whispered. “What is… assigned… confused.”

“On your feet, everyone!” Landon called. “Moving out, nice and easy! Nobody runs, nobody else gets shot.” She was gathered along the float core with a few other humans, adding little yellow boxes hidden among the structural links. Star could guess what those were for, even without a word spoken between them.

“I need some help over here!” she called, glancing back towards Kondrak. If she had left the pony to die, they could’ve left without much worry. Now, though…

The captain appeared moments later, his helmet back on and medical bag over his shoulder. At least the glass was clear as he spoke. “This one is… still moving,” he observed. “Why?” Something flashed over his eyes, and she caught a tiny reflection stretched and distorted. Was he somehow… seeing outside the ship again? “The others are still inert.”

“Human…” the pony muttered, seeming suddenly alert. “What are you doing outside the reservation?”

“Taking you prisoner,” he said, drawing his handgun in a single gesture and aiming at her head in the same smooth motion. “Please, join the others.”

I shouldn’t have helped her. Star followed behind the captain, watching the Unification solder seal her satchel and rejoin the others. As exhausted as the drain was on Star’s magic, it probably wouldn’t last more than a day or two. There was a reason the Army never left the phenomenal power of Concord’s core.

I probably can’t make things worse. I’m already a traitor.

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