• 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 32: Aquarius

Hollow Shades was evacuating.

It wasn’t like Star Orchid had expected anything different. Once they’d taken a ship for themselves, flight was the only possible option. But as Star watched ponies flee up the ramp, carrying what little they could bring of their lives, she couldn’t help but feel empty inside.

How much of this was because of her? None of these ponies could ever go home again. If they were lucky, Equestria would just forget they existed, and let them fade into the crowds of displaced exiles living outside the grip of her power.

But they had to get far enough away first. There was no train in time, and even if there was Star expected it to be searched and emptied. It was possible, though she couldn’t have said she thought it was likely, that the princess would force every creature she caught anywhere near the city into mandatory military service. She could certainly imagine Twilight doing something like that.

Down in Hollow Shades, a mountain of bodies rose from the dirt. She could smell the preservative even from up here, as rebellion ponies cleared out the last of the ship’s old crew. There was no time for burials, so a massive pile in the center of Hollow Shades would have to do.

Once the jungle heat gets to them, this city is going to smell so bad no creature will ever live here again.

“I can see your thoughts,” said a voice from behind her, so abruptly that she lurched right into the railing.

Good thing it was there, or she might’ve gone soaring off into the void with nothing to stop her.

“Well, technically not the way I used to. But I’m old enough that I can guess. Woe is me, I’ve brought such terrible suffering upon this innocent village. I am truly the center of all evil in the universe, and undeserving of love. Sound familiar?”

She spun slowly on her hooves, eyes narrowing. Discord. She should’ve known he would be joining them, despite every objection she might otherwise hold. And of course, why wouldn’t he? He’d saved the Iron Lord’s life, and half a dozen other creatures in the rebellion. I was wrong about the Devourers, or at least Kondrak and his crew. Could I be wrong about Discord?

“Am I wrong?” she asked, glaring anyway. “Isn’t all this happening because I came to Hollow Shades?”

Discord’s presence here did explain why so many others had given her such a wide berth. If Twilight ever captured any of the ponies of Hollow Shades, they would have some interesting stories to tell about the one they’d seen lording over the evacuation.

“Tracing causality has always been a fool’s errand, little pony. But in this case, no. I believe the Emergency Intelligence caused this particular nightmare. I wonder if it realizes that by attracting Twilight’s attention here, she’ll excavate this jungle for years until she finds the shelter and turns the little human popsicles inside into…” He winced. “Well, nothing alive.”

“There are humans near Hollow Shades? Underground?”

Discord nodded absently. “Of course. The emergency shelters are all underground, or they were. Why do you think Concord flies the way it does, tearing up kilometers of rock as it passes overheard? You think she does that just to be spiteful and destructive?”

Star Orchid shook her head. “I… I still think the princess has a plan in mind. She’s not an emotional pony, she’s… purposeful.”

“Obsessed,” Discord corrected. “The princess was not built for immortality, as no natural organic truly is. Without the proper mental conditioning, her psyche fractures and crystalizes with every passing century. Living all that time in absolute power has accelerated the deterioration to something I would almost find admirable, if she didn’t spend so much of her time murdering. She’s killed far more of her own ponies than the Governing Intelligence ever did.”

“She’s… trying to dig up emergency shelters filled with humans?” Star supplied. “Why?”

Discord shrugged absently. “I can’t even speculate at her motivations anymore. Fighting the Governing Intelligence was one thing—we all had to fight, or Equestria would die. But we won, and she just… kept fighting. I wanted to live as much as any other creature, but I’m less supportive of her determination to murder sleeping children. She’s been at it for so long, she probably thought she got them all. Covered every inch of the globe she could.”

He began to walk away, muttering to himself as he went. “Except for the oceans, I suppose. She can lift mass all day through her little stolen platform, and there will always be more. And all the little warzones even the Intelligence couldn’t fix. Steelbones Canyon, the Badlands, Everfree, places like that. But they’re so dangerous on their own that no emergency shelter could survive. Oh, and you probably shouldn’t tell anyone my name. They don’t know what I look like, think I’m dead. Let them keep believing.”

Why are you telling me all this? Star nearly let him leave—the strange creature might not even have a reason she could understand, or maybe it was just about tormenting her with knowledge of things she could do nothing about.

Still, she didn’t ask outright. Somehow she didn’t take Discord for the kind of creature who was likely to give a direct response when questioned. But if she played along, maybe.

“You’re coming with us now?” she asked, hurrying to catch up. “Aren’t you worried that the princess will be hunting us?”

“Oh, I expect her to be hunting us.” Discord didn’t glide through the air, despite all the stories of his ability to fly. His body seemed awkward and unwieldy on the ground, but he kept going anyway. “That’s part of the fun. She has all the magic from every platform, she has the whole world at her command. Yet we still escape. If we make it a week, it will be worth the effort. If we can stay ahead of Concord for a whole month, I’ll have something to tell stories about for the next century.”

Not very optimistic about our chances, are you? She almost got indignant with him right there, screaming that they did have a chance. They had a ship that could outpace Concord a dozen times over, that was why it had been sent in the first place. And they had new friends no previous rebellion had ever had before.

They even had an insider from Twilight’s own court, ready to betray everything if it meant a greater chance for the rebellion. In a way I’m even worse than he is. We’ve always known that Discord was spreading disharmony in his hoofsteps. But the princess trusted me.

Star dismissed that thought, before it took her back into an endless loop of doubt and disbelief. “I don’t believe that,” she argued, though it wasn’t strictly true. The old Discord would’ve been more than capable of all that. The Discord she’d grown up learning about would sow disharmony for its own sake. “You don’t have to put yourself at risk. The princess won’t tolerate your exile if she thinks you’re going to keep doing this forever. If she thinks you’re responsible—”

Suddenly Discord was right up in her face, looming over her. Even compared to the humans he was tall, about the same size as one of them in full armor. “Careful, Star Orchid. Eventually you wander far from the trunk, and you fall. Don’t worry about me—you should be far more concerned about your own future.”

He pointed up to the open bridge, where a familiar figure lingered. One she’d been simultaneously expecting and dreading. Windbrisk had finally come looking for her. “I suggest you turn that charisma up to eleven, little pony. You’ll need a creature like him where you’re going.”

Discord didn’t have his magic, so obviously he couldn’t have teleported away. But just because he couldn’t have apparently didn’t stop him from not being behind her anymore when she looked.

There were plenty of other creatures gathered up here—the leaders of the rebellion stood in little groups, some gathered around folding tables with papers and maps. A few humans moved between them, though she couldn’t make out what they were saying.

Star’s whole world narrowed, until Windbrisk was the only creature in it. He approached her deliberately—maybe he’d been dreading this moment as much as she had. “So you, uh… you’ve been busy,” he said, stopping just ahead of her.

She nodded, ears flattening. It was probably just the chill of the high air that made her feel so warm all the sudden. “I guess so.”

“You worked all night with the doctor to save the Iron Lord,” he began. “Then you befriended these… strange creatures, and persuaded them to save us from an invading army.”

Star nodded again. “I can’t get credit for saving anyone, though. Discord did the operation, and Kondrak’s crew were the ones who fought. The only one I saved was this… strange prisoner.”

He was silent for a long time, watching her. “My memory of the attack is hazy, Star. Did you come here with your girlfriend as a spy for Equestria or not?”

“She was never really my girlfriend, but… yeah. The spy part is true.”

He tensed again, though at least he didn’t start screaming and thrashing around like last time. Granted, he hadn’t been stabbed. “You’re not a very good spy.”

She shook her head. “Geist, the one who took me down here—he talked about trips to the surface like they would corrupt anypony he brought. He said he’d be waiting to kill me if I ever turned away from the court. He expected me to see what you were doing, and change my mind about who I thought was evil. He was right.”

Windbrisk remained silent for several seconds, looking her up and down. Maybe he was using some arcane hippogriff sense to read her emotions—but that didn’t make sense. He wasn’t the changeling, that bug was still out there hunting her. “And now you want creatures to trust you?”

She shrugged. “I want creatures to live through this. If they don’t trust me, I’d only point out that I’m as dead as the rest of you. I fought alongside Devourers to capture this ship. There’s no possible chance the princess won’t find out.”

Star expected she’d have as much time to convince him as she needed. Apparently not, because the Iron Lord had noticed them, and was headed over. Kondrak followed close behind, along with Wellspring. What they had to say, it must be important if it took all three.

“You really weren’t dating her?”

She choked back a laugh. “No, I wasn’t. That was just my cover-story for why a unicorn would leave the Magic district and come down here. Part of me thinks that Geist just picked it hoping he’d get some extra love if I pretended long enough.”

Windbrisk didn’t get a chance to say anything else, just stepped back and lowered his head respectfully as the Iron Lord neared them.

He waved a dismissive hoof. “No, stay. This concerns you too, Windbrisk. I’ve heard you were healing well from the injuries you sustained in… defense of the Undercastle.”

Windbrisk nodded. “How’s it feel to be able to walk on your own, sir?”

The bug looked down at his hooves, suddenly distant. “You cannot possibly imagine. The agony of living in a body overcome with rot, but undying. Without such an important cause, I would’ve welcomed death many times. Finally I have reason to be glad I didn’t.”

“We all are,” Wellspring added. “Nopony wants to face this next nightmare without you.”

“Yes, well. We need to survive it first. I was hoping both of you would join us on the bridge. We have much to discuss as we depart. Windbrisk, it involves your next assignment, so you should join us as well.”

Star Orchid watched from the bridge as the Harrow finally took to the air above Hollow Shades. Its new crew knew far less about operating it, but between Kondrak and Star’s advice, their single military defector of a pilot managed to keep them from tipping over.

She could only imagine what the Harrow must look like to the crowd of ponies down in the city below—loyalists to Equestria, who trusted in the princess’s mercy at their loyalty over the ample evidence to the contrary.

Like all the old destroyers, it was more like a squat castle, and far less like an actual ship. The lower section of the hull curved into the wind, but not gracefully. Their hasty patch of the hole into engineering would do the ship’s aerodynamics no favors.

“Now that we’re moving, we can talk.”

The bridge was big enough that their group could retreat to the navigation desk in back, where maps and charting tools were left by the old crew. She didn’t long consider the question of whether a Unification Army soldier could have done something so complex, and instead turned her attention to the Iron Lord.

“It won’t surprise any of you to know that we’ll be working together,” Kondrak said, as soon as he had their attention. “There are very few on this planet who aren’t loyal to the princess, she’s made sure of that.”

“You should really just get to the point where I explain where you’re sending these creatures,” Discord said, swiveling around from one of the navigation chairs. Had he been there the whole time, waiting?

You don’t have magic, how do you keep doing this?

Ferris Abrams cleared his throat. “Welcome, Doctor. If you could let me explain. We do plan on asking, rather than demanding.”

Discord shrugged, swiveling his chair back around. “Take your time then, I’ll be here.”

Kondrak continued where he left off. “We’ve been considering ways to remove the Rogue from power for many years now. Ultimately it all comes back to the same fact: her city makes her invincible. While it is nearby, its core connects to her in a magical symbiosis that has rendered her immune from assassination.”

“So we have to lure her out of the city,” Windbrisk suggested. “Away from the evil magic making her invincible.”

Star Orchid might’ve already been frothing with confusion and religious disagreement with what was being said here, if she hadn’t spent the last few months adapting. The talk still made her sick, even if she no longer felt the need to shout about how something was impossible.

“Either that, or remove the core. This would also eliminate the Unification Army. If we weren’t careful, it would also crash Concord straight into the ground and kill everyone living there. This is unacceptable, so another solution must be found.” Kondrak removed something from his armor—his flat projection surface, which could show almost any image.

This time, he showed a map of Hollow Shades, all the way to where the coast fractured into impassable canyon. “The Hippocrates and I will attempt to lure her away from her city where she can be neutralized with minimal loss of life. We’ve recently gained intelligence that something we’ve been searching for is located beneath these ruins.”

Star Orchid jerked to attention, eyes widening. “That’s Steelbones Canyon, Kondrak. The air is poison, and the princess has the whole area watched by loyal pegasi. She’ll see you.”

He nodded slowly. “That’s the intention, Star. The Hippocrates will have to be there to make it worth a trip. Otherwise, she’d probably just send another ineffective army after us. It needs to be her.”

“You’ll die,” she whispered. “I know you creatures don’t think highly of the princess and what she’s built… but she’s strong. Even if she’s far away from Concord, she’s still the best spellcaster who ever lived.”

Kondrak nodded grimly. “That’s assuming she can be lured. It is still possible she is too cautious, which is why—”

“Where you come in,” Discord said, swiveling his chair around eagerly. “Please let me tell them, Ferris. It’s my forbidden knowledge, and I’ve been dying to watch something happen all this time.”

The changeling only shrugged. “Don’t embellish then, Doctor. Remember that I won’t be requiring their service, only asking for it. If you scare them off, we’ll be in terrible danger.”

Discord barely seemed like he’d even heard the instruction. “The core of Concord is a spell which receives its power from somewhere else. You’ve probably heard of the Immortal City. What you probably haven’t seen, is anyone who has ever gone in and left again. “But if you could somehow bypass the troops guarding it, slip past the barrier, and destroy the spells… the core would instantly begin to drain.”

How could Discord know so much? Even the royal technicians didn’t learn about such sacred subjects. Yet he mocked the Immortal City like it was just a patch of dirt with some magic around it.

“So you’re asking both of us?” Windbrisk said. “Because I can fight, and Star is a court-trained wizard?”

“You won’t be fighting,” Discord said, covering his mouth in mock-horror. “What do you think Twilight would do if she even hints that her precious Harmonic Singularity is in danger?”

He didn’t wait for a response. “If you can destroy it, the princess won’t know her city’s protection is waning. This is the opportune time to, well… do whatever you feel is necessary. That’s the grim choice for you to make. But be warned, whatever course you take must be taken with great urgency, because there is no damage you can do that Twilight cannot repair.”

“You see the division of labor,” Ferris finished for him. “Kondrak and his ship will attempt to lure Twilight away. Even if they can’t kill her, they give you an opening to dodge Concord and reach the… Immortal City. I don’t know what that is, but I assume you do, Star?”

At her nod, he continued. “Meanwhile, Stygian’s Gate will focus on keeping this city’s population alive, and preparing for our confrontation with the princess. If we’re very lucky, she’ll be so busy hunting us that she never learns there’s a shelter still intact somewhere near Hollow Shades.”

“Not likely,” Wellspring said. Not exactly confrontational, just matter of fact. “Don’t forget, she has the Alicorn. Any one of us she met is compromised, our old safe haven is… meaningless now, I suppose. But the princess will have her sharing everything she knows about her own shelter.”

Kondrak’s frown deepened. “I will give her something else to think about. Given how vital your mission is, I’d like to assign one of my finest marines to accompany you.”

“A human?” Windbrisk muttered, raising an eyebrow. “Wellspring, I’m sure they’ve got vital contributions to the mission and all, but… humans aren’t changelings. Are we supposed to walk the whole way?”

“She’ll be transporting you herself, actually.” Wellspring didn’t sound very pleased about it, but at least she was confident. “Apparently they have ground transports almost as fast as you can fly. Which you… wouldn’t be able to do, given your company.”

“I could carry her,” he replied, without a second’s hesitation.

“Maybe, but there’s another going with you. A volunteer from the… Unification Army.” The Iron Lord rose from his seat, expression haunted. “Kondrak, you explain. Thinking about it makes me sick.”

Star didn’t hesitate, not nearly long enough for him to answer. “That isn’t how that works, Iron Lord. Respectfully… the Unification Army can’t be corrupted, persuaded, or cajoled. They can’t be tortured or pressured or tricked. There’s no possible way to sway them to our side, no matter how badly we want to, or how convenient having one of them would be.”

But even as she said it—obvious truths, so far as she was concerned—she thought of someone else. That strange soldier with ancient equipment. The one who had begged for the lives of the other Unification Army soldiers. If they could even be called lives.

“It’s the soldier you recovered, Star,” Kondrak said. “Your doctor and I had her under the knife during the last eight hours of the evacuation. After a regenerative graft to the—”

“Save it.” Discord banged one paw on the table. “We’re pretty sure we’ve repaired her brain. She’s able to communicate, recognizes where she is… and most importantly, she’s willing to help.”

“You’re asking me to fight beside one I thought was a traitor,” Windbrisk muttered. “I can accept that Star has proven herself. But now you’re asking for us to put one of the princess’s undead demons at our back? Or is the Doctor reporting that he’s somehow restored it to life?”

“Oh no, she’s quite dead,” Discord said, grinning wickedly at them. “Not even a full brain-scrape and cranial imprint can bring back the dead. Maybe a cyber-conversion, but we don’t have the hardware. Even if we did, what would be the point? As you say, every creature knows the Unification Army is beyond reproach. They are incapable of disobedience, entirely beyond suspicion. Consider that for a moment. Even a changeling can’t impersonate a Unification Army soldier. But now we have one.”

If we have one.

But as brave as Star Orchid was, she didn’t quite have the gaul to suggest that Discord might be wrong. Besides, the strange soldier had already seemed on the edge of lucidity before. With the other marvels Discord could accomplish, why not this?

“We’re prepared to deploy the LEV as soon as you’re aboard,” Kondrak said. “Assuming you decide to fight with us.”

Star Orchid would not have said yes for the Iron Lord. He was a stranger, and just now her stomach twisted at the sight of changelings even when it wasn’t his fault. I still have one hunting me, even now. Geist was probably aboard the Harrow, waiting for the perfect moment to silence her.

Discord might’ve claimed that creatures never left the Immortal City—but that wasn’t true. Some might not, but that was only because they’d been welcomed into that sacred land of immortals and perfect friendship. It was big enough for the thousands of creatures who hadn’t come back.

“I’ll go,” she said. “Hopefully the changeling hunting me will realize I’m gone and leave your city behind. If not… you should know that the deadliest assassin in Equestria is somewhere on this ship. Never trust a single creature to anything vital. You should probably keep a dozen swords in the core, more if you can spare them.”

“And if she’s going, I’m going.” Windbrisk rose from his cushion, walking past Star. “She came straight here from Concord, she won’t be safe on her own.”

Star turned to glare at him, but he was already leaving. I probably could use the company of someone who’s done missions like this before. If a non-changeling can survive in a whole world that wants him dead, then he can probably get me anywhere.

It took them less than an hour to prepare to leave. Even the waking spells she’d learned from Twilight herself were failing by then. Maybe an hour or two of dozing she’d managed while the Harrow was loaded just wasn’t enough to refresh her.

The LEV Kondrak warned about turned out to be something like the troop carrier they’d used to attack Harrow the first time, an intricate craft of white with gold trim. It was quite a bit smaller, with a crew section in front and a bunkroom in the rear—but since everything was sized for the towering humans, even that little space felt big.

Landon rose from her chair as they entered, seeming… quite a bit smaller than before. She wasn’t wearing her clunky armor, and without it she seemed quite a bit less intimidating.

The other passenger more than made up for the lack of terror, in any case.

She’d hardly changed since Star had seen her last, except for the pale bandages wrapped tightly around the back of her head. Now none of her mane was visible, which hardly helped her look normal.

She still has her life-support spell. It might be a good thing for her that she was coming on a mission like this—she’d need a fairly-skilled unicorn to keep magic like that running in the absence of Concord’s core.

She was a unicorn herself, for all that was worth. Star hadn’t actually seen her use that magic, and didn’t expect she would. Obviously she wouldn’t be able to power her own spell that way, even if she’d been one of the greatest mages ever born. Thaumic conservation was a ruthless mistress.

“I remember you,” she said. Her words were a little slurred perhaps, but also far more purposeful. “You saved my life. Who are you?”

You’re probably still loyal to the princess. You’ll take everything you learn with us and bring it right to her as soon as you get the chance.

Star glanced briefly over her shoulder to see what Windbrisk was thinking, and found him lingering outside. He shifted nervously from foot to foot, looking up at the pony only with nervous fear. “Get in here, bird,” she called, voice teasing. “Unless you’re saying a helpless pony mare is braver than you are.”

“You can’t call yourself that and have me believe it,” he answered, climbing up the steps. The door slid shut behind him, a contraction of somehow elastic metal that sealed away the last vestiges of light.

“You’re just going to ignore me?” the dead pony asked. There was annoyance in her voice as she said it—she was actually offended that Star hadn’t answered her yet. “Aren’t you supposed to be terrified? I’m an undead killing machine. Shouldn’t you be afraid I’ll snap or something?”

“Sorry, sorry.” Her ears flattened apologetically. “I’ve never actually, uh… You’re already saying more to me than any Unification Army soldier I’ve ever met. Most of you can barely manage more than repeating your orders, or reciting the same expressions over and over. ‘Move along please’, or ‘surrender or you will be killed.’ That kinda stuff.”

Without her armor, she barely even looked like a soldier. Her body was lean and withered, with a coat that was flat and waxy. I bet you can relate to how the Iron Lord felt. “I just wanted to thank you,” she continued, ignoring Star’s diversion. “I have not been able to… do that. It’s been so long, I…” She stuck out a hoof. “I would feel better if I knew.”

“My name is Star Orchid.” She took the offered hoof. “I’m not sure if I’m more or less of a traitor for saving you.”

The pony shrugged. “And I’m Sunset. Sunset Shimmer.” She sat back, chuckling to herself. Even her breath smelled like formaldehyde. “It’s been so long since I told anyone that. I always knew… but I couldn’t. Why?”

“You were nerve stapled, horse.” Landon walked right past them, settling in front of strange controls. They swiveled forward to accept her arms, covering much of her body. “Even before the whole planet went crispy, there weren’t many doctors with hands steady enough. It’s Captain Kondrak you should be thanking.”

“Him too,” Sunset whispered. “If it lasts.”

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