• Published 27th Nov 2019
  • 4,393 Views, 890 Comments

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.

  • ...

PreviousChapters Next
Chapter 30: Pavo

Jamie wilted, glancing nervously to either side. But there was no retreat here. They neared a thick fortress wall, manned by a dozen more of the weird-smelling soldiers. She wouldn’t be getting away from this. “S-sorry. I guess you… probably think I’m a changeling or something. From one of the… clans?”

The princess relaxed, her anger fading as though it hadn’t been there. She turned back to the gate, and waited for Jamie to catch up with her. “It was one possibility, and I admit I did consider it likely. But the Zapapple sent a report ahead of its arrival, and Pike said the changelings all insisted you weren’t one of them. Were they wrong?”

Her horn glowed faintly, and the air around Jamie seemed charged. Her mane lifted slightly. Through her forehead, it seemed suddenly that an incredible pressure weighed on her, slowing her thoughts and her progress forward. “No. I hadn’t even met one until the servants on the Zapapple.”

Twilight nodded her agreement. “It’s quite fortunate you aren’t. Equestria can’t afford changelings getting the idea that they can ignore Harmony’s decrees by pretending to be something they aren’t. You would’ve made an example to any others who had the idea.” She sounded so cheerful as she said it, though the violence implicit in those words… “That leaves only one other option, one I wasn’t sure I would ever see again.”

Soldiers in thick armor saluted for the princess, then opened the gate without a word exchanged. Inside was a concrete tunnel about twenty meters long, with slots running through the ceiling and a drainage grate in the floor. Crystals studded into the walls, glowing in different colors as they approached, then fading as they walked past.

Jamie watched each one, ready for the moment when the magic of this place realized she was human and killed her. It didn’t come. “What’s that, Prin—Twilight?” Jamie asked. “If I’m not either of the things you thought.”

“Well, there are certainly many unanswered questions about you,” Twilight said. They reached another heavy gate, metal and covered with intricate carvings of an Alicorn—this one with a sword raised. It was probably meant to be Twilight herself. “How you could know about Persephone to lie about it will probably make for an interesting story. Where you found that orbital cargo launcher. Why Hollow Shades, of all cities you could choose in Equestria. Interesting questions.”

After a few moments the gate rumbled and slid sideways, and they emerged into a massive courtyard. It was as beautiful as the castle behind it, at least past the guard post inside. But the ones who saluted the princess on this side were very different than the not-robots behind them. They wore gold armor, and more importantly they moved like they were still alive.

“The regent returns!” called a voice from the gate. Trumpets sounded a second later, and creatures all through the courtyard turned to bow.

Twilight barely seemed to see them, walking between the crowd of visiting creatures all supplicating themselves before her. Jamie was forced to follow, ears flattening to see so many all looking at her. The visitors didn’t look too closely—but the guards were different. They stared at Jamie as she passed, a few whispering and pointing when Twilight wasn’t looking.

“But those can wait,” Twilight finished, stopping at the castle gates. The doors swung open, lifted by a pair of bright purple changelings wearing adorable little vests. “Your arrival brings hope for all creatures in Equestria, even if most of them can’t possibly know why. Alicorns can grow from ponies, without the corrupting influence of Sovereign. If we take your arrival as typical of the half-life based on Equestria’s current population… Concord should see its second Alicorn within another five centuries. We may not even need them. We’ll see.”

Why are you looking at me like that? Jamie stopped in the doorway, frozen for the second time in just a few minutes.

Twilight’s castle was built around a massive central tower, which spiraled high into the sky like a unicorn horn. The space was so cavernous that Jamie could even see small clouds forming near the top. Rather than built as any other structure, the castle had dozens of wings and thousands of rooms, all floating up ahead. Sunlight was stained purple by the crystal walls, then seemed to grip rooms large and small, suspending them in the air.

It’s like the docking segment on an orbital platform, but without the computer to manage it all. “The interesting sections are all below-ground,” Twilight said from just beside her, voice smug. “But I’ve given up on keeping just one castle up here. At first I was strictly utilitarian, concentrating on only what I thought I needed. But the longer I rule Equestria, the more I realize that anything I need once will eventually be useful again, if I wait long enough.”

She walked past Jamie, past more insect servants in their adorable little uniforms. A bridge of gold and gemstones stretched out from the ground over a cliff. Jamie followed, and saw a round opening below a small section of the castle, maybe a hundred meters across. Castle rooms were melted and burned away, and from some of them she could still see sparks and flashes of magic of things broken awkwardly and never repaired.

Twilight’s horn glowed a brilliant purple, and the whole room groaned and shuddered in response. Whole rooms began gliding down towards them, passing narrowly between hundreds of others with scraping stone and groaning metal. The lower they got, the more glimpses Jamie got between them. A shallow pool in one, a massive bedroom made of marble, and many other sections with shut doors and better-connected walls.

The entire mass, probably several tons of brick and steel and glass, settled into place at the edge of the bridge, a gold door mating perfectly with the railing.

Lights flickered inside, then started glowing on the other side of a stained-glass window. “And just like that, we have somewhere appropropriate for a visitor as… significant as you.” Twilight turned back, breathing heavy. Jamie remained silent and still, not rushing her. She didn’t want to stand particularly close to anything that could move so much matter around, be it alive or simple machinery.

“That’s incredible,” she muttered, wings spread to either side. One rested on the railing, though it would do little to catch her if she fell. The opening didn’t just pass through the castle, but past hundreds of meters of rock and crystal until she saw blue sky and a far-distant, mossy plain. If she jumped now, she would basically fall forever. “You can just do that with anything you want? No cranes or construction crews, or… How do you bond the different rooms together?”

Twilight seemed to appreciate the attention. Maybe she wasn’t used to the company of someone who felt brave enough to make demands. “That’s subtler magic, but sadly can’t be automated by the support systems. I have to manage all that myself. Nothing you should concern yourself with, Jamie. Look.” She reached to the side, pushing the door gently ajar with one hoof.

Lights glowed to life inside, leading to a sitting room with space for dozens of creatures. Jamie glanced once more over the edge, before stepping through the doorway. Somehow these rooms were suspended over a cliff—but if Twilight wanted her dead, she didn’t need to drop her down a hole to do it.

She rushed over to one wall, where boxes of fresh flowers seemed still to be blooming. She touched one with a hoof, and her eyes grew wider when she felt living petals. “How?”

The princess followed her into the doorway, banishing any fears that this might be an elaborate (and very expensive) execution. “I used to have a maintenance schedule for these stored rooms. But keeping them all clean was just like having a castle several times larger. I keep these extra rooms in stasis now, and it’s much simpler.”

Stasis. Jamie balked indignantly at the suggestion. Was there really a way to preserve living things without cryogenics? The human method took dozens of different drugs, careful control of body temperature, and frozen people still slowly cooked in the radioactive decay of their own cells. If we could do stasis, I wouldn’t be a horse right now. “How?”

Twilight extended a wing, silencing her. “I do appreciate your curiosity. Healthy interest in learning is a virtue I value. But… this isn’t a thaumic fundamentals class. Maybe one day, if I’m pleased with your cooperation.” She walked right past Jamie, towards one of two identical golden doors. Exactly like the ones that led into this room, with the same sturdy frame on the outside ready for claws to grip it.

They’re standardized. Each one could be connected to the bridge, or each other.

Twilight pushed this one open, and the lights came on. An oversized kitchen, though rather than luxurious this one seemed to be about cramming the most facilities it could into a small space. There were more identical doors. “This is for your staff. Obviously I didn’t lock them in here too… no telling when I would’ve needed it again, and retraining is such a hassle. I’ll have my steward find a crew before lunch, don’t worry.”

She opened the next doorway, this one leading to a private study. It was quite a bit like the cabin aboard the Zapapple, with fine furniture, shelves and shelves of dusty books, and plenty of dated-looking scientific and navigation equipment. That was certainly a sextant on display on one shelf, and there was even more that Jamie couldn’t name if she wanted to.

There was even a fire still burning in the fireplace, warm and comfortable. And… impossible. But clearly not. By now Jamie should consider just throwing out what she thought could and couldn’t happen, clearly her impressions weren’t suited to the world she’d woken up in.

“I thought you would be locking me in prison or something,” Jamie said instead. Hopefully not sounding too disappointed by that fact. “This doesn’t look like a prison.”

Twilight shook her head. “There are some similarities, I suppose. You won’t be able to leave until I’ve fully investigated you. That’s where the uncomfortable similarities end.”

She stopped just beside Jamie, meeting her eyes. “Ruling Equestria is a terrible burden, Jamie. The creatures outside this castle cannot possibly imagine the danger they’re in all the time. I’ve tried so many times to tell them… but they’re too simple. I suppose they… just weren’t built to understand. A few years go by and we’re back to magical thinking and religion all over again. At least with the canon codified the laws don’t drift anymore, and I can focus on what matters.”

Every tyrant has reasons to justify what they do. That’s all this is, just her rationalization. But there was still some part of her, however small, that wanted to believe this princess could have a reason for all this. It didn’t seem possible, but maybe… “Like what?” she asked. Not doubtful, not trying to argue with her. She was only curious. “Why is Equestria like this?”

The princess turned upward, as though staring at an enemy Jamie couldn’t see. “Our world is not what it appears. The truth of that revelation took more from me than… more than you can imagine. But it’s more than I can possibly share with you in the time we have left. When I return… maybe you’ll be able to comprehend the gravity of the threat to Equestria.”

She wrapped one leg around Jamie’s, dragging her along. Her grip was iron, but Jamie didn’t resist, and so it didn’t hurt. More was the fear of what this princess might do to her, any moment.

Through another modular door was a palatial bath, with marble columns along the walls and statues of dignified ponies beside fonts of stone and tile. The water was still steaming hot, and the shelves of soaps and oils smelled wonderful even just walking past them.

“Until then, I’ll leave you with some homework. Consider what you’ve heard while playing ambassador in Hollow Shades. Everypony knows the commands I send keep you safe from chaos. I defeated the betrayer centuries ago, and his magic is no longer a threat to any creature. The question I wish for you to answer is: why? What do ponies fear?”

She extended a few feathers, silencing her. “Before you do, here are some hints. I’m not just doing this to exercise greater control. If ponies’ actions didn’t have a real threat of harming us, I wouldn’t try to stop them. You will receive bonus points if your answer somehow involves new information that I have not been exposed to.”

Through a final door and they reached a bedroom, a round space that could’ve been ripped right from the top of a tower. The massive four-poster in here could certainly be used for plenty of royal debauchery, and from its age maybe it had been.

Everything else was in line with the royal bedroom facade. An oversized wardrobe, a telescope tucked in one corner, even the tiles depicting the constellations covering the ceiling. All ancient and fading, but preserved by the stasis spell.

There was one exception: in the center of the room was a stone obelisk, about human height. It was covered in English text, in little lines numbered from one to ten.

Twilight finally let go when they were beside it, smiling at Jamie. “I wasn’t sure where to put this—just don’t break it, otherwise I’m not terribly concerned what you do.” She turned, backing towards the doorway. “You should have a day or two to think. But like I said, the steward will take care of staffing your wing while you’re here. Be careful with them, if you can—good servants are hard to replace.”

There was a flash of bright purple from in front of her, along with a loud bang—when it faded, the princess was gone.

Well, I’m not being tossed into a dark cell to rot for the rest of my life, and I’m not being tortured to death. This isn’t the worst thing that could happen to me.

Jamie rested one hoof on the obelisk, her eyes skimming involuntarily over the text. It was the sort of artifact she expected to find in an ancient Egyptian tomb, except that it was written in English. Its rules didn’t make as much sense as she would’ve hoped, but… that probably didn’t matter.

I have homework, she thought, smiling despite herself. She wandered to one corner of the bedroom, stopping beside an old piano and poking at the keys with her hooves. They were already oversized, only a tiny bit narrower than a hoof. How someone could reach enough of them to play anything was beyond her.

Why would she bother? Was there any reason the princess would want to convince her to her side?

“I grant my consent for electronic communication,” Jamie muttered, barely above a whisper. Only silence answered.

If she was going to be locked in a pony prison, then the least Jamie could do was try and learn some useful information. She turned from the piano, then crossed through the baths, leaving the bedroom behind. Maybe Princess Twilight had left her something more interesting to read than an old textbook.

They passed dozens of dead Unification soldiers on their way to the deck. Though considering it, “dead” probably wasn’t the most accurate description. How could something that could’ve been dead for centuries be even more dead? Maybe “inert” was more accurate. Without a core the spells they carried could not work, and so they lay where they had fallen without so much as a twitch. She saw no other signs like the one she had saved. That was probably for the best—if they were wrong about the Unification Army’s weaknesses, then they were all doomed.

The top deck was a frenzy of activity, with hundreds of inert soldiers blocking their path. They had to dodge around them to get anywhere.

The golden insect landed on the patch of open ground, though it couldn’t avoid landing atop a few of the dead. She winced even so, looking away and humming to herself to cover the terrible sound. They might be unsteady monsters now, but once these ponies had been part of families, they’d had friends and hopes and desires…

“Star Orchid,” Kondrak called, touching her shoulder gently. “I have one final task for you, one in service to those who fight against the Rogue Agent and all the evil she has done to this planet. You must take me to the bridge.”

She pointed to a metallic building rising from the deck, its doors still open and soldiers pouring out. A little fortress meant to protect the ship, now apparently abandoned. With no weapons firing and the ESS Harrow holding position, the sky was eerily silent. Only the dripping of preservative fluid interrupted the occasional howl of wind. “Are you going to commandeer this ship?” she asked. “It isn’t meant for creatures your size. It won’t, uh… be easy.”

She made her way to the bridge, dodging between fallen Unification Army soldiers. With every step, she found herself wondering if it would’ve been easier if they were just corpses. But after the pony she rescued she couldn’t help but wonder. How dead were they? Could she open their support gear and wake them one at a time?

Not at the same time, anyway. Star’s magic was so drained that she would probably just collapse if she tried to cast anything more demanding than a single-object levitation. There are levels to this that the princess even hides from us. Being her advisor doesn’t mean knowing all the nation’s secrets.

“It won’t be for us,” Kondrak called, having to stoop as they passed through the outer door. Star waited to one side as he lifted the blocking ponies out of the way one at a time. But why was he acting like this was so urgent? They’d won, hadn’t they? If any city watch survived the attack, they’d be no match for the rebellion’s own fighters. “We’re going to land this ship directly over your city… Hollow Shades, if I am not mistaken. From there, you will be free to board it and take it for yourselves. Knowing the Rogue’s previous pattern, she’s likely to fly that destroyer platform of hers here and tear things up right down to bedrock. You needed to evacuate, well… this is your evacuation.”

Star’s mouth hung open as she considered the possibility. Stygian’s Gate with a warship, fully stocked for an entire army and with weapons to match. In a single moment, they would go from insignificant to a genuine threat. Assuming they could stay ahead of the princess. If Twilight ever boarded…

“I don’t know how to fly anything this size,” she admitted, as they finally reached the bridge. It was the same as every other Equestrian vessel—altitude control, pitch and roll and yaw, engine direction. There were a dozen little consoles around the room, some attended by an unarmored Unification Army pony, others just abandoned. There wasn’t a single living pony up here when we took the ship. Where did they go?

Star could imagine plenty of ponies willing to heroically scuttle the ship with an enemy aboard, hoping for eternal glory in Equestria’s memory. Maybe they’d even get some of it, instead of being remembered a failure like the rest of the soldiers here.

“I have some experience with your vessels,” Kondrak said, holstering his sidearm and heaving several more bodies aside. How long until these soldiers start rotting, anyway? The rebellion will be flying on a ship of the damned. “I wanted a pony here in case I made a serious error. I’ll admit we have yet to encounter any number of friendly creatures. Perhaps you could help me resolve a few of my misconceptions.”

Captain Kondrak wasn’t lying, he really did know quite a bit about flying their ships. Star sat beside the helm, reciting volumes worth of information Twilight had forced her to memorize. She might not know how any of the magic worked, but she knew a great deal about the Harrow’s technical specifications. She watched the exterior windows, waiting for the golden insect to return to the sky with their prisoners and soldiers aboard. It never did, but tore deep holes in the wooden surface to hold in place as Kondrak’s inexpert piloting made them swerve and tilt from side to side.

After half an hour of nausea and a near-catastrophic impact with the side of a low hill, they brought the Harrow down directly over Hollow Shades. The human captain used more of his unexplainable extrasensory perception, and somehow knew when the landing ramp was in position even without one of his soldiers to tell him so.

Finally he locked the ship back into a stationary position, grinning with satisfaction. “Your insight has been a great service, pony Star Orchid. Now our exchange is complete, and your allies receive this impressive destroyer in the bargain.”

“Why?” she asked, before she could stop herself. “Not keeping promises—that makes sense, I’m glad you value honesty the way we do. But you don’t have to give us all this. Stygian’s Gate has so little to offer you. There’s not even a guarantee leaving us with this will mean we survive long enough to ask a favor from in the future.”

Kondrak shrugged ambivalently, leading back the way they’d come, and out onto the deck. “If the Rogue Agent leaves your city a smoldering ruin and you’re all dead, then we certainly won’t be able to collect anything, would we?” He retreated from her, until he stood beside the railing.

From down below, Star could just about make out ponies looking up in their direction. Horrified, probably—if the Harrow had come right above the city, it could only mean to bring them something terrible. Of course there would be no more Unification Army soldiers disembarking from it today.

“Let me tell you a story, Star Orchid. Before the first of your kind was created to dwell upon this planet, my kind were the only species of consequence. We ruled from the deepest depths of the ocean to mining platforms orbiting distant Pluto. I was not alive in those days, so I do not know what provoked our wars. What I can tell you is that too many people think only of what they could gain, and too little of what it would cost. If we wish to make a different world, we must start by acting differently.”

Then he laughed, low and rumbling through the deck. “Besides, the ceilings are too short.”

Star Orchid was at the front of their little procession as they exited the Harrow, beside Kondrak and Landon. The others had gone with their new prisoners on the golden beetle.

Ponies scattered before them, those few brave enough to come out to look. The city had already been attacked once, so creatures were ready to flee. She couldn’t blame them. Though what future they could hope for when Concord arrived… whatever the truth of Kondrak’s stories, his guess about Twilight was probably right.

But what am I supposed to do about it? I’m not a princess, I can’t make Twilight change her mind. Until last week, she wouldn’t have even believed there could be another princess. Now she’d met one, and… that pony was probably gone too. The Army had gone straight for the Hall of Justice, where Empathy was staying.

Is she locked up on this ship somewhere? Oh buck we need to find her. What did an army even do with an Alicorn, anyway? How could they possibly keep her from breaking out?

She waited nervously for the inevitable moment when the creatures left in the city watch made their brave defense and tried to stop them… but it never came. They made it all the way back to the shattered magical crater near the marketplace, with ponies watching their every step.

Star kept far enough away from all of them, though there was no looking like a prisoner. She still had the gun, and none of her companions made any hostile motion towards her.

But it wasn’t her reunion with these ponies she was waiting for—several probably knew her, if only thanks to Golden Shine’s punishment. Whatever they might think wasn’t going to get friendlier after this. Did we save your lives by stopping the Harrow, or only damn you all?

“One other thing,” Star said, as they passed out of public earshot and back into the dark. “That strange prisoner, the Unification Army soldier… the spells keeping her alive are going to die if she stays away from Concord. I charged them, but… I don’t think any of you can do that.”

Kondrak shook his head slowly. “My crew are all too vanilla for that. Whatever advantage we might gain is not worth the price of vulnerability.”

“It’s all managed by dumb systems,” Landon supplied helpfully. “They don’t like harming humans with construction equipment. But you change just a little too much, and you don’t qualify. It would be better to learn everything we can before the spells expire, then let go. How much can we really have to learn from another enemy shock-troop?”

“Enough,” Star snapped. “Please, she’s… I know she’s different. If you don’t want to deal with it, leave her here. I’ll share anything you want to know.”

Kondrak held up a hand, interrupting the two of them. They had already reached the same place they’d met last time. There were a pair of rebellion ponies here in bloody uniforms, watching nervously. At least they hadn’t fired. “This isn’t a conversation to have between us. Your assistance has been invaluable, Star Orchid. You’ve proven yourself a woman of honor by risking yourself in the name of your successful suggestion. Nothing has been lost that cannot be replaced, and much was gained. I wish to express gratitude to your leaders in person.”

Star separated at last from the towering Devourers, who waited behind her as she stopped beside the soldiers.

“Star Orchid?” one of them asked. “The one we’ve been waiting for?”

“Yeah,” she snapped. “Get Wellspring up here. Tell her the Devourers have a gift for us, and it might help with the evacuation.”

She waited impatiently, occasionally glancing back to Kondrak and his few crewmen apologetically. What could possibly be taking them so long? It wasn’t like Stygian’s Gate had anything more important to do while they waited for Twilight to come and kill them all.

Then somepony rolled the stone aside, and she finally saw.

A little gaggle of exhausted-looking guards were first out the doorway, each one carrying their weaker versions of the Devourer weapons. Wellspring came next, looking even wearier than last time. She was helping somepony along, a soft blue insect with green fins down his back.

The one Discord had insisted was hollow until Star’s own help with the operation. And now he was moving, so did that mean…?

The changeling’s head was heavily bandaged, though more interesting was the thing he used to walk. An external skeleton of metal links, bridging back to limbs and then to his skull. His body shook with each step, rebelling against him. But still he moved.

“You’re the reason there’s a destroyer parked over my head!” he called across the room. His voice shook like the rest of him, but there was still confidence.

He reached Star, hesitating as he saw her. His insect eyes were hard to read, but at least there was none of the hostility she’d felt from Geist. Or… any attempt to murder her. “And you, Star Orchid. The Doctor tells me you were party to the transplant.”

It wasn’t the Iron Lord’s voice. His tone reverberated strangely through his chest like all changelings.

She nodded, retreating a step from him. She’d seen inside that body last night. Though after the brief battle she’d joined atop the Harrow, maybe she could learn to live with what she’d seen in Discord’s operating room. “I helped. Discord was the one to save you, I just… helped with the tools.”

He lifted one shaky hoof, settling it briefly on her shoulder. She was frozen, trying in vain to process how a demon that had towered over her could go from that to a changeling shorter than she was, with an awkward metal contraption to help him walk. “I won’t forget, even so. If Stygian’s Gate makes it out of this, when I’m healed… I will owe you a debt.”

Then he let go, continuing towards the waiting Kondrak.

“I’m afraid we haven’t been introduced,” the human said, removing his helmet and settling it under one arm. “We negotiated with her the last time—Wellspring. Who are you?”

“Her boss,” he said, extending a shaky hoof. “I had just been under the knife when you were last here, forgive me. My name is Ferris Abrams, leader of Stygian’s Gate.”

Kondrak didn’t take the offered hoof, watching skeptically. “We were told you were led by a human overseer. That was part of what brought us here in the first place.”

“I am,” Ferris said. “Or was, until… last night. The emergency intelligence in my shelter let all of us go rotten, I was just lucky enough to keep my head properly frozen the whole time.”

He took the hoof in one gauntleted hand, shaking briefly. “Then I am Captain Kondrak of the HMS Hippocrates. I look forward to a long and productive relationship—but for now, you need to start evacuating. The Rogue Correction Agent is on her way here as fast as her platform can travel. When she arrives, you will all die.”

“Unfortunately many of us are in the same condition I am, recovering from surgery. If the Doctor was still down here, he’d be livid I was out of bed so soon. We cannot possibly outrun Concord through the jungle.”

“We agree,” Kondrak said. “That’s why we brought the Harrow. I understand it flies far faster than the platform can glide in low altitude. If you hurry, maybe even fast enough to flee.”

PreviousChapters Next