• 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 34: Venatici

Twilight took each step slowly, conscious that each moment might bring some new danger. Some part of her had to keep that thought present with her at all times, fully aware that even a few steps out into the world imperiled her. Her power might be vast, her preparation exhaustive, but that didn’t mean she was invincible. The ones she fought had defeated an even more harmonious civilization before theirs, after all. Humans knew how to kill Alicorns.

It was rare for her to venture so far from the protection of Concord and its core—but just now it was imperative her troops ensured no survivors escaped. Word was already spreading of the defiance of Hollow Shades. If she didn’t turn that defiance into an example, it might one day become the first martyr in a revolution.

But if Twilight didn’t act, she would have to let an opportunity to eliminate the Devourers for good slip past her. That conundrum had only one solution: take a few risks. I owe Sunset that much.

She wouldn’t blunder in naked, though. In the days Twilight led great wars against the ancient evils of the world, she had made armor for herself after the fashion of Celestia’s own, hammered of thin thaumium inlaid with enchanted crystals with various protections.

There was a sheath along the back, where she held an awkward silver sword. No pony smith had wrought the weapon—its blade was crude, hammered of scavenged plates of strange metal. It held its edge better than any alloy Twilight knew, as sharp as obsidian while remaining as strong as steel.

Some parts of the world were too dangerous even for Concord to purify, and Steelbones Canyon was the quintessential example.

Here the very stone was poisoned, with a corruption that no spell could purify. As Twilight looked down over the canyon, she saw the corpses of ancient leviathans—monsters of metal that could’ve made dragons look puny. Now they were dead, and half-encased in many layers of rock. She could see some evidence of recent landslides, and there more of the monsters’ true flesh was exposed, sickly yellow and oil black.

Hundreds had died the last time Concord flew this way. While it was true she had verified personally that no human could live here for long, that didn’t mean they wouldn’t visit.

They had their own devices, sufficient to protect them for short periods just as Twilight herself was protected by a shield spell. What Twilight couldn’t protect, she had surrounded with spells.

These humans were particularly brazen, perverting her own loyal ponies to rebel, stealing a ship, then flying right for their own ruins like she wouldn’t be watching?

The Hippocrates hovered over the deepest part of the canyon, suspended with a crude and unsteady levitation spell. Were they not even watching for her? Didn’t they know what their intrusion would mean?

Twilight’s protection spells activated in an instant, without any input from her. One of the little crystals shattered, conjuring a barrier centimeters from her head.

A bullet froze there in the air, breaking into metallic shrapnel against the shield and steaming as it hit the ground. So maybe they weren’t quite as stupid as they looked. They were watching.

Twilight concentrated for a moment, then vanished from sight with a simple invisibility charm. While lesser creatures would leave footprints, or bleed heat into the air around them, she did neither.

She felt it coming more than she saw it, a rocket tearing the air towards her from the distant Hippocrates. But now she had line of sight, and a fair idea where the one who had tried to shoot her must be hiding.

Twilight teleported to the other side of the canyon, where an ancient skull of rusting steel gaped open from the cliffside. She watched invisibly as the hill she’d been standing on turned into a crater, showering molten stone down into the canyon. These might be monsters bent on the destruction of everything she’d ever built, but at least they were taking her seriously.

That’s only your pride that’s soothed, Twilight. If they see you as a danger, they’ll be harder to eliminate.

Like right here. Twilight’s guess had been right—there were a few reddish nets hung between two gigantic teeth, and a rifle resting on a swiveling metal tripod. There was no shooter, only a—

She couldn’t have possibly reacted in time. Something flashed, and another surge of energy rolled around her. It would’ve meant instant death, except that another fuse of her armor shattered, teleporting her exactly one kilometer vertically.

She fell for a few seconds, still dazed by the flash. It couldn’t have seen me. That must’ve been timed.

Despite the air rushing past her, Twilight Sparkle felt her breath catch in her chest. Someone had baited her into danger, and would’ve killed her if she weren’t so well-prepared.

Her enemy hadn’t blundered into these ruins to get themselves killed. Their starship hovering here was a trap, just waiting for her to spring it. If she turned around, all their preparation would be wasted. The canyon would poison them, or they would flee.

But not where I can get them. They’ll take that starship back up into orbit, out of reach until they go back to spreading disharmony.

Without their starship, they could never really escape her. There was nowhere on land or in the sky her troops wouldn’t eventually reach.

Twilight spread her wings wide, catching herself in the air. Sunlight blasted down around her, a reminder of the reason she fought. I’ll keep them safe for you, Celestia. I’ll do what you couldn’t.

Twilight began with the simplest strategy, albeit the least likely to succeed. She began the words to a spell, more powerful than anything any other creature could conjure. Her invisibility spell sloughed off around her, burned by the energy of her preparation.

Space itself curved as she finished her spell, aiming it squarely at the center of the ship. That was where the magic came from, the only thing holding it up. Without that, every creature aboard would perish in the fall.

Her eyes began to glow, her whole body illuminated as she briefly served as a conduit to something far greater. Harmony’s power, concentrated in the hooves of a single pony.

Then she targeted the ship, and let it loose.

Even expecting it, Twilight was momentarily stunned by the shock. The spell dissolved into the air around her in a terrible flash of light and heat, while the spell she held in her concentration was scrambled into meaningless gibberish. Blood trickled from her nostrils, running down her face.

“Force vector denied,” Twilight’s mouth muttered, against her will. “Force vector denied. Force vector denied.”

The hangover lasted for nearly a minute after. She let herself fall, gliding away from the canyon to break line-of-sight as fast as possible. Just because she’d come to this conflict well-prepared didn’t mean she needed to squander scarce thaumic resources. Each crystal in her armor took her best Royal Technicians weeks to craft.

She landed in a jungle of badly mutated plants, with nothing more complex than a cockroach skittering out from the rocks. There were birds, the corpses of anything that flew too close or stopped to drink the water here. But she might’ve mistaken the trees for normal, if they weren’t so lopsided and with splotches of different greens in their leaves.

You knew that wouldn’t work, Twilight. There are humans on that ship.

It was the reason the Regent of Equestria bothered with crude things like swords and armor, even though she had the power to command the daylight and tear mountains from the earth.

The Devourers’ great secret, their greatest perversion of all—magic couldn’t hurt them.

Twilight could, though.

She drew the sword, its hilt springing to life in a violent glow that matched her magic perfectly while not drawing any power from her. It was still linked to her, obedient to her will. But it wasn’t her magic.

As Twilight returned to the edge of the canyon, she found her enemy still hovering there, exactly as she’d left them. This time she kept her own shielding spell a single syllable from complete, in case she felt another attack coming for her. But whether because her flash had blinded their sensors, or just because they hadn’t seen her yet, none came.

It was far too dangerous to teleport herself into an unknown vessel, which was almost certainly a trap. They’d probably be expecting her to go right for their float core. Maybe they’d imprisoned unicorns there, strong enough to trap her in an antimagic field long enough to sink the ship with her still aboard.

She had to do something unexpected, something they couldn’t possibly be prepared for.

Twilight focused on the underside of the ship, where most vessels usually could open to receive supplies—and teleported herself there.

Twilight conjured her shield in that same moment, strong enough that the shell became fully opaque. In her mind, she was suddenly outside a very different vessel, bombarded by surface guns that turned the soldiers flying around her into reddish paste.

Twilight opened her eyes, lowering her forelegs from in front of her face. There were no guns—no place to put them, actually. The side of the Hippocrates was completely vacant, except for human writing in fading paint.

“HOSPITAL CARRIER HIPPOCRATES” it read, along with several familiar red symbols. So universal in fact, that Twilight could remember seeing them all over Equestria with very little alteration. I’ll have to do something about that. We can’t be inheriting corruption from the ancients.

She’d been wrong about the need for a shield, but right in her other guess. A section of the wall nearby was not perfectly uniform with the hull of the Hippocrates, but formed of a complex jointed assembly of flexible sections.

Twilight Sparkle took a moment to catch her breath, waiting to see if any other defenses were mobilized against her. Nothing appeared—no unseen windows opened, no gas sprayed from the side of the ship. Are they so desperate they think using the injured as a shield will stop me? A monster did not become suddenly kind just because it had broken a leg. If anything, it was an opportunity to eliminate a problem before it got worse.

Then Twilight swung, slashing into the metal with the sword levitating beside her. It bit deep, slicing along the junction. Where an ordinary blade would’ve done little but score it, this was wielded by an Alicorn, and strong enough to survive the abuse she put it through.

She swung again and again, until even the vicarious effort made her sweaty and breathless.

The door finally parted, grinding and sparking and a section fell past her into the void. The hole she’d opened wasn’t large, but it was big enough for Twilight to crawl through, past the jagged edge of angry steel to a vacuous cavity within.

In a way it looked like its own little dock, with railing high above and an empty space for her to fly through. It did say it was a carrier. Even so, Twilight wasn’t worried. If the Hippocrates had a smaller section, it was probably down in the ruins recovering whatever they’d come to steal. Even if it had fled hours ago, it couldn’t possibly be large enough to reach escape velocity. Anyone on it could run for a short while, but they would eventually be found.

So long as I destroy this ship, I can end this.

Twilight landed on an empty dock, covered with litter and debris. It did look like creatures had been here recently, if the trash and personal effects scattered here were suggestive. Not weapons and the blood of ponies they had tortured, either. There were clothes, plastic human books, children's toys.

More signs this is a trap, Twilight. They already evacuated. It’s time to turn around.

The last time Twilight had fought against the Devourers, she had a whole army of ponies at her back led by her best general. But she’d also been contending against incredible numbers, and thousands of years of evil plotting. What kind of princess am I if I can’t even sink one ship?

A security door waited in Twilight’s path, or maybe it was just an airlock. Either way, the door wasn’t human. She angled her horn, slicing evenly through the steel where it joined with the hallway around it. It wobbled on its side for a moment, before crashing down in front of her, buckling the deck and finally letting her through.

Alarms blared through the ship, along with the deceptively friendly voice of the ship’s automind. “Breach detected in docking bay two. Airlock fault in docking back two. Extreme chemical hazard detected! Please follow the flashing lights, and report to medical if you experience necrosis in any soft tissue within the next twenty-four hours.”

Twilight ignored the voice—she wouldn’t need its permission today, or any help finding where the lift-core operated. She wouldn’t necessarily need to fight any human warriors—their deaths could all come later, so long as she destroyed their ship.

Airlock doors closed ahead of her, with more warnings about the breach and hostile conditions outside. I was right, they can’t stay here very long either. At least she could settle that particular fear, and not need to worry that the forbidden technology flowing across Equestria was coming from here.

She sliced through two airlock doors, before realizing that they weren’t even trying to lock her out. She passed through a third, waiting for it to spray her with harmless white decontamination foam. Once she was through, the ship stopped resisting her.

Your automind isn’t half as smart as the Persephone’s, Hippocrates. Don’t you know what I’m going to do to you when I reach the core?

Something clicked, and a voice echoed from all around her. Not the genderless, emotionless automaton. In a way it was a welcome change. She’d heard enough simulated voices telling her it was time for her species to go extinct.

“There’s no point telling you to stop,” it said, a voice so deep she almost didn’t recognize it as speech at first. It must be low even for one of the monsters. “But I’ll suggest you should, anyway. You violate international treaty by attacking a hospital ship. But you’re already a war criminal.”

Could he hear her? The Twilight of centuries ago would have ignored it, focusing on her mission. It didn’t matter what the Devourers wanted. Their world was dead, and soon the last of them would be too.

This time she couldn’t help herself. “You’re honestly trying to play on my good nature, demon? How many innocent foals have you strangled? How many cities have you burned?”

“None,” came the reply, sounding so damn sincere. “I’m the captain of a hospital ship, Orbital Correction Agent 97. Until I saw what you had done to the world, I’d never even taken a life. You made me break my oath. When your tyranny ends, I’ll never be able to be a doctor again.”

The further Twilight got, the less refined the ship became. Instead of perfectly flush white panels, the engineering section had naked steel plates, and panels removed from the walls for servicing and just left on the ground.

The Hippocrates isn’t a warship. She can barely even fly anymore.

Twilight resisted the urge to drag her blade through all that exposed wire and pipes, severing as much of the ship’s spine as possible. But to do that would be to suggest she feared she wouldn’t be able to sink it from the core. She wouldn’t give the distant voice the satisfaction.

“That would mean more if you hadn’t left a trail of destruction behind you, Devourer. Hollow Shades is damaged beyond repair. Hundreds of Unification Army ponies were killed.”

“You killed them when you recruited them,” the voice answered, confident. “Look in a mirror, ruler of Equestria. Everything you touch turns to nightmares. Your citizens live in tyranny. You lead an army of corpses.”

“They aren’t dead,” she spat, her sword slicing through a bundle of glass fibers. There was no dramatic shower of sparks, just a bundle flashing uselessly, their lightspeed signals silenced. “They’re free of disharmony and evil forever. Perfectly loyal, perfectly obedient. Emotions you couldn’t understand.”

She was getting close now. Even unfamiliar with this particular design, Twilight turned into a much wider corridor, with doorways large enough for industrial equipment and a recessed track in the floor.

“CHARGED GRAVIUM IN OPERATION, EXTREME DANGER” the walls proclaimed. She ignored them, of course. There would soon be far greater dangers to all those cowering on this ship.

“Your solution is crude, but it was effective at preserving a significant percentage of the prefrontal cortex in three of your captured soldiers. I suggest a network-grafted neural restorative along with a lifetime prescription to an antirejection and anti-necrotic. The treatment showed considerable promise with our first volunteer. With regular therapy, they might even be able to return to their families.”

Twilight stumbled to a stop, eyes widening. She’d known from their first attack that these monsters understood the Unification Army far better than any she’d fought before. Had they become so evil they would openly admit to butchering her ponies? “They’re immune to evil forever,” she whispered, her sword drooping in her grip. “You can’t corrupt them, no matter how hard you try.”

The voice rumbled, a pained laugh she could barely even hear. “And for you, I’d recommend an introductory dose of antipsychotics and several months of in-patient therapy. Listen to yourself, Rogue. You can’t even rationally assess your world anymore. I’m trying to help you. If this ends differently than I expect, take the hardware on our fabrication deck and produce the curatives your people need.”

Then she reached it—a single heavy door, similar to the exterior docking bay, over a section of the ship covered with caution lines and red flashing lights.

This was somehow studier stuff than anything outside, even the Hippocrates’s reinforced hull. After resisting strikes from her sword, Twilight had to take a few moments muttering the words to a spell. It had to be very narrowly focused, to avoid the disruptive effect humans had on magic.

The door crumbled away, shattering into a dozen pieces that flew wildly through the room. A few collapsed and fell inward for a moment, before smacking up against the hallway behind Twilight. She felt the strange lurch of gravity as though the ground were suddenly behind her, and she was standing up against the wall.

She pressed herself downward with a harsher force, then advanced her way into engineering.

Signs of the Hippocrates’s haphazard maintenance were everywhere—toolkits left discarded on the floor, spare cable in spools or piled against the wall. From the patterns on the floor, Twilight guessed there were some parts of the room less vulnerable to the strange spatial warping of their levitation spell, and others that were safe.

A figure stood in one such spot, directly between Twilight and the core. His armor was an older model, dented and scratched and covered with little burns. It made the human within seem even larger, more like a mountain than a man.

His visor was up, and a pair of large eyes watched her as she approached. When he spoke, the voice came just from his armor now, instead of echoing from the ship all around him. “There’s still time to change your course, Rogue. Easier a thousand steps back, before your soul went so rotten. But I don’t think it’s impossible. Let your people go.”

The Hippocrates’s float core hung in the air behind him, about the size of a carriage. It was formed of a single sheet of chalky brown stone, a concave mirror that faced downward and constantly shook and twitched as a thousand little motors and actuators bent and deformed it with delicate metal rods. It sounded a little like an insect clattering over its surface, as little hisses and pops of compressed air worked the delicate machinery.

“I’m the only thing protecting Equestria from monsters like you,” Twilight said, advancing on him. Her magic couldn’t target him, but her sword would still cut. “Without my leadership, every pony would be rotting in the ground just like the ancients you murdered before us.”

The human was well armed, though he hadn’t drawn any of his weapons. He had an oversized tablet in his gloves, which he could only manipulate with crude taps from his gauntlets. “That was the Governing Intelligence, not me. The error that would have been obvious if it were a man. The machine couldn’t imagine it would create something that could care when its time terraforming was over.”

He slipped the computer back into a waiting holster on his leg. “We don’t have to fight anymore, Orbital Correction Agent. There’s enough planet here for all of us. You already destroyed the Governing Intelligence, it can’t hurt you again. Put down your sword.”

Twilight ignored him. There was still a part of her that welcomed such an inviting lie. There was nothing to fear, no more reason to fight. What a perfect world that would be, if only he was right. But humans were incapable of living in peace with other creatures. Incapable of even simple honesty.

“Why did you stay here, human? You can’t think you’ll escape from here. Every one of you I kill is less corruption spread over my planet. Did you really think you could trick me?”

“No.” He sounded so sad, exhausted with years he couldn’t possibly feel. “If someone wasn’t still aboard, you could destroy the Hippocrates from miles away, without ever stepping inside. It’s the ancient privilege of every captain to die for their crew, if the need arises.”

Every word she heard was another drop of acid in her brain. Obviously his sincerity was a ruse, his calm only a carefully constructed front. Humans were compulsively destructive, and even a polite conversation should be too difficult for them to maintain for long. Everything they did served violence.

“I’m going to take your ship away,” Twilight declared. “Once it falls, you won’t be able to wage war on Equestria anymore. No more fleeing to the low orbitals after your attacks. It will only be a matter of hunting down the other monsters you released into my kingdom. It won’t take me long.”

“We’ll see.” He met her eyes, little white pinpricks surrounded by dark skin. “Seven-Zulu-Orange-Romeo.”

Every drop of hesitation Twilight had been feeling faded in an instant, and she slashed violently at the human’s middle. He dodged with incredible speed, sparks showering from his armor, and the floor buckled under his legs. “You think it’s that simple, demon! You think I’ll keel over and die like my friends?”

She could still feel the stone against her face, see the skeletal robotic workers picking past Celestia’s corpse, wings splayed awkwardly in death. Twilight’s fury had kept her alive then, with a focus powerful enough to keep her heart beating. Now she barely even felt a twitch.

The human answered with a spray of bullets from his other hand, sending up pained sparks from the equipment against the wall. “Had to try.” His visor slid down, and bright red lights began to flash all over the room. Not a single alarm, though.

Twilight responded with a roar, her body following in relative stillness while the sword slashed and spun far more quickly than he could hope to respond. Each slash took metal with it, or sprayed bits of creamy white lubricant from the armor’s hydraulic strength-assist.

“I was going to let you go down with your ship, Captain,” Twilight called. “I’ve changed my mind. I’m going to take my time, make sure you’re completely dead. I don’t need whatever you think you know, I can interrogate your underlings. They won’t be nerve stapled.”

She backed him up against the wall, hacking away at him in little bits before finally stabbing right for his chest. The sword stuck there, magic grounding out as it sunk deep in human flesh.

The captain wobbled on his feet, dropping to one knee. Lubricant sprayed from the suit as he did, which whined and squealed with every little movement. “Was never… meant for this,” he croaked. Despite the pain on his face, despite the blood running from his lips, his eyes remained focused. “Lucky we didn’t have any gene-corps left.”

“You did before,” Twilight said, grinning as she closed on him. “Over a dozen, during the battle for the Persephone. They didn’t stop me, and now neither have you.”

The human twitched and spasmed, and Twilight took a reflexive step back. That armor could still crush pony bone with ease, if it had power left. But he wasn’t crushing her. In spite of his injuries, the captain brought both gloves together directly over the hilt of her sword.

There was a harsh mechanical sound, then an oozing drip as the wetware seeped out onto the floor. “Take my ship… I’ll have your… sword.” He wobbled, toppling over sideways.

As he died, Twilight felt another flash of heat, far too sudden to react. Every last crystal in her breastplate shattered at once, spraying her chest with shards of thaumic residue.

She vanished, ripped a kilometer up into the air, then another and another in quick succession as a fireball hotter than the sun chased her faster than the speed of sound. Her shield went completely opaque to protect her eyes, with enough spent magic that she could do little more than hang there, dazed.

Eventually she had gone far enough that the shield went transparent again, and she could see the place where the Hippocrates had been. A towering cloud of molten light rose from that place, flattening as it struck the upper atmosphere.

Dead man’s switch. Killing him was part of the bait.

Twilight’s breastplate crumbled away from her body, thaumium going chalky white as it tumbled into the high air. Every last protection spell she’d invested in it was gone now—but the armor wasn’t wasted. By saving her life, it had also saved Equestria.

The princess remained there in the upper air, watching as the Steelbones Canyon got a little wider and a little more poisonous. At least she wouldn’t have to waste any more Unification Army soldiers scouring the place—if the poison wasn’t enough to kill any humans below, that explosion certainly had.

He was willing to die to protect his friends. Isn’t that loyalty? Selflessness? Twilight dismissed the thought with fury over her stolen weapon. The Devourers were barely living to begin with. His death had probably been a relief, knowing he would be stealing from her.

Now to find the rest of them, and make Equestria perfect forever.

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