• 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 36: Vulpecula

The princess loomed over Jamie, looking as much like death as the city dying just behind her. “Get up,” she instructed. She was barely even loud enough to be heard over the cataclysmic explosions of rock behind her. Yet somehow, she remained totally calm.

Jamie rose, wiping the rest of the slime from her lips with one leg. Her whole body shook in the princess’s presence—but she didn’t run. She wasn’t going to die feeling like a coward in her final seconds.

“You lived in Hollow Shades,” the princess continued, urging Jamie forward with a wing. Not off the edge, but along the palace. Now Jamie knew the purpose of the ramp—walking it took them past the remains of whatever was destroyed below. There was some organization here, with some things rising while others sank. But Jamie couldn’t look without seeing the corpses, making her look quickly away again. “How long were you there, a month?”

She nodded. “About a month, Princess Twilight.” That smell on the princess, that burning mixed with a faint touch of cherry. That was synthoil. Were you crawling around in old starships? At least if she focused on the princess, she didn’t have to see the horror behind her.

“Then you’ll feel the same rage I do, that this was necessary.” She stopped abruptly, turning Jamie’s head with one leg, forcing her to look. From up above, everything taken from Hollow Shades was below—bits of structures on one side, with the dead together on the other. “Look at what the Devourers have done. At the last census, there were five thousand six hundred twenty-six creatures living in Hollow Shades. That’s five thousand six hundred twenty-six more lives ended because of the Devourers’ corruption.”

More dead eyes stared up at her. A librarian, a street vendor, the monks she had met only briefly in the Hall of Justice. Even worshiping the princess’s religion hadn’t been enough for her to spare their lives.

“Princess, Concord killed these creatures, not the Devourers. All we had to do to save them was fly your city anywhere else in the world.”

She’d known it was the wrong thing to say before she’d even opened her mouth. But while Jamie could keep her head down to avoid torture just fine—how could she watch Twilight murdering people and pretend it was humanity’s fault?

“Is that what you think?” Jamie’s body lifted suddenly off the ground, in a glow not unlike the one that had killed many of the creatures below. But Twilight didn’t throw her over the side to join them, she just started walking again. “I understand this is personal for you. This was your town, you think that the ones living there should be spared. Is that it?”

Jamie couldn’t do much to fight, but her head was still free. She could speak, and so she did. “They were good to me. They worshiped Harmony. Those ones wearing purple, they were your monks. Why kill them?”

The princess didn’t answer for a long time, only sped up. A set of metal doors banged open, and Jamie caught one last look of Basal and her military escort, stopped there. Apparently they’d been following the whole time.

This part of the palace was nothing like the wide-open spaces with fancy tapestries and sculptures—Twilight took her through a Spartan tunnel, with thick bundles of wire along the ceiling. Electric lights glowed overhead, flickering slightly in their sockets. They passed a unicorn wearing black and white robes, dodging out of Twilight’s way and dropping into a bow as they passed.

The princess didn’t even notice him. “I used to be just as limited in the shallowness of my thinking. It’s natural to want to preserve the ones we love. That used to be an Element of Harmony—Loyalty. But Equestria needs you too badly to afford sentimentality right now. You need to see this, and understand what we’re up against.”

They passed through another doorway, this time made of dense metal mesh. Another, inner door was made of more copper mesh, with slightly larger holes.

A platform lifted from the center of the room, maybe ten meters across. Glowing crystal studs surrounded it at even intervals, humming faintly with electricity. “I’m sorry you have to see this.”

There was a harsh crack, blinding Jamie with a sudden explosion of light. The world faded.

Sunset rose, pacing once around the map. She squinted down at the image, studying a few parts of it in detail.

Star Orchid tried to follow her gaze, maybe understand what Sunset thought was the most worth understanding. Her eyes were so pale it was impossible to see.

The map also wasn’t terribly helpful. The border checkpoints themselves were visible in startling clarity, from the sturdy fortifications to the powerful repeating lightlance mounted to a building. As to the city itself, there was very little to be gleaned from the map.

It was about the same size as the other hallowed foundations, which made sense on a spiritual level. Each sacred city stemmed from the example of its greatest cousin. But where the other hallowed foundations were filled with ponies who failed to meet Harmony’s standards, the immortal city was perfect, shielded from the rest of the world by an unbreakable barrier against all things impure.

Or so Star Orchid had always thought. “My first question: how are we going to get in there? I kind of imagined Sunset would be getting me in alone, but… the more I think about that, the stupider that sounds. But I’ve had relatives who tried to visit, and they were turned away. I guess you would say that the princess made her magical barrier to forbid people who don’t follow our religion. But whether it can sense Harmony or not, uh… Windbrisk, you’re forbidden by her religion, and Ellie is an actual demon.”

Sunset laughed, voice bitter and grating. Star imagined she could hear all the damage to that ancient body, preserved only so well by the constant infusion of her solution. “If there was a magical way to know who believed, there wouldn’t be a rebellion, would there? She could have ponies casting the spell in every city, find the ones who don’t believe, and send them to be reeducated. There are spells for looking into somepony’s thoughts, but they’re invasive and the harm they do is often permanent.”

She waved a dismissive hoof. “Landon, do you have a pen?” The human tossed her one, and she started drawing. She outlined the positions of buildings, connected roads, pulling the map closer and closer all the time. She didn’t use her magic, forcing her to stop whenever she wanted to say something.

Maybe you can’t. Or maybe you’re just trying to save power in that spell. Lucky for Star, then. Casting that spell even once a week would be taxing, and she’d need to do it at least twice as often.

“How do you know all that?” Landon asked. She didn’t stop Sunset, didn’t seem to mind that she was drawing on the map. Her tone was only curious.

“There when it was built,” she said. “Part of it, anyway. I don’t know what else Twilight might’ve done since I was last here. But if she’s anything like the pony I knew, she’s probably still… sentimental. Ponyville was somewhere important for her. It was the version of Equestria she wanted to survive forever. It doesn’t matter if she ripped the earth up by its foundations, killing every forest on the rest of the world. Ponyville will be left alone.”

She continued sketching in silence for a few minutes, gradually populating the opaque shell on the map with roads and structures. Some got little labels in neat hoof writing, with the flourishes of truly ancient script. But despite Sunset’s own great age, Star found the text perfectly comprehensible.

“City hall,” “Carousel Boutique,” and “Castle” among others. None of it meant anything, but at least she could read the notes.

“We’ve been watching the checkpoints for a long time,” Landon said, pointing at one with her spindly digits. There are two kinds of visitors—the big groups of tourists, and the little military ones. Big ones obviously won’t let us in—Maybe with the right costume Windbrisk here could pass as a pony, but there’s no chance in hell I ever could.

“Military groups, though… seems like they never ask questions. When the Unification Army brings prisoners, they just walk straight through. But it’s always at this checkpoint, and always in the middle of the night.”

“There’s only one way that could go sour for us,” Sunset said, finishing with the pen. “If the officer on duty understands that the Unification Army shouldn’t be here with the city so far away, they might call for their superiors. There could be a thousand soldiers in that barricade, and I don’t think this motley band of heroes is enough to fight odds that bad.”

“They won’t know,” Star said confidently. “Almost nopony knows that. I didn’t learn you couldn’t leave the city until I made it to the Purple Court. Royal Guards are never included in those conversations. I wouldn’t be surprised if the princess has all kinds of rules in place to keep them from getting too close to anything interesting.”

“Suppose we get in,” Landon said. “We’ll have two people in pony costume—and let me tell you, they’re not terribly convincing. We don’t exactly have a prop department on the Hippocrates. What’s waiting on the other side?”

“A city frozen in time, animated by living death. I don’t know what she built it into—but I saw the number of corpses on the ESS Harrow. Stars know how many crews like that she has in her service. All that power comes from somewhere, and this is where she gathers it. It’s the power that lifts Concord.”

“There should be thousands of ponies living there,” Star declared. “I know the harmonious from Concord and lesser cities have been visiting for centuries. I had an uncle who was accepted into the safety of the Immortal City.”

Sunset reached across the table, resting one leg on her shoulder. “You worked in the court, Star Orchid. You’ve seen Twilight’s ledgers?”

She nodded. “Not all of them. She was protective of the military stuff, managed all of it herself. But I’ve seen everything else.”

“How much food did you send?”


“Necromancy taints everything it touches,” Sunset continued. “That shield isn’t there to keep anypony out.”

“All this sounds like you don’t know what’s inside the shield,” Landon said. “We have a target. I’ve got explosives. Put the two together, and we’re done. Are there guards waiting inside?”

Sunset shook her head weakly. “She did all this… without me. I don’t think the Elements would’ve been okay with it either. Sacrificing the lives of ponies like this… we were going to find another way. We had to. But it’s the necromancy you need to know about. You’re all alive. The tainted land is going to drain you until you’re withered husks, then grind up what’s left. I don’t know how many dead are stuck in that dome, but… thousands? Tens of thousands? Celestia save us.”

“So we bring hazmat gear,” Landon said, annoyed. “Honestly, there’s no reason to get superstitious about all this. Magic is just your way of describing the systems we built. There’s no such thing as ghosts, or spirits, or souls. You’re not alive again because of necromancy, it’s just life extension. We all do it.”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “If you’re determined to keep believing that, there’s no chance you will escape the Immortal City. Time curves inward, and death is a river that will carry you to destruction.”

“Is there anything we can do to protect ourselves?” Windbrisk asked. “Star’s a wizard, maybe she can enchant something.”

Sunset shook her head. “Time. We’ll need to get in and out as fast as possible, but even time can’t be trusted in there. Expect it to warp and twist around us, speeding and slowing and maybe even trapping us there forever. There’s a real chance we’ll just never leave, and a thousand years will go by out here. That was Twilight’s entire goal—keep that little perfect piece of Equestria safe. First from humans, and then just from time.”

“Alright, enough of this shit.” Landon stood up, holding her wrist up to a section of wall jointed with little metal lines. She touched and it opened, revealing several sets of the armor she usually wore underneath. “If you won’t give us a plan, I will. We go in at dusk, right before the changing of the guard when they’re exhausted and hungry and aren’t ready to ask too many questions. We get in there, we blow up whatever evil mumbo-jumbo the princess uses to keep herself invincible. Well… you all do.”

She stalked back over, dropping a bundle of cloth and something softer out onto the map. “Here’s the best pony costume we could come up with under short notice. It’s going to look great from far away, and like dogshit if you get close. Sunset’s the escort, obviously you two are the prisoners.”

“You aren’t going in?” Windbrisk asked. “You just showed us humans are immune to magic, and you’re not coming with us into the place overwhelmed by dangerous magic?”

Landon was unfazed. “I’m not going with you because I’m going to be orchestrating a distraction to cover your retreat. Once you blow up the evil, we’re on borrowed time until we can get back to the great dictator and pull the trigger. That fuse is shorter if she knows what we did, so the escape has to be quiet.”

Windbrisk turned away from her, unrolling the costume. It was fairly convincing fake fur, but the face really made it fall apart. It was a mask, with little eyeholes hidden in the blacks of fake, unmoving pony eyes. Any kind of inspection was bound to reveal exactly what was going on.

“You worked in the court, right?” Landon asked, nudging Star. “Do you know if anything ever leaves this place? If nobody ever does, then maybe stealth is pointless. They’ll never buy anything walking out again.”

“Ponies leave all the time,” she said. “I’ve known about, uh…” Then she stopped, expression twisting into a frown. “I’m sure they leave all the time. But… I can only think of ponies who were refused at the gate. They weren’t pure enough, and they returned home in shame. It wasn’t their fault, most creatures don’t belong in Harmony’s presence.”

“Yeah don’t care about the cult.” Landon slumped into the chair again, frowning deeper. “That probably means there’s no way to open the bubble from the inside. So I’m going to have to create some distraction that pulls troops away, and open the door for you.”

“You won’t know when we’re ready to leave,” Sunset said wistfully. “I know how badly you want to find a way around the magic, human. But there isn’t one.”

Landon rose, stomping away again. She returned seconds later, a plastic box under one arm. She banged it down on the table, flipping it open. Inside was dense foam, and a set of… necklaces? Cheap jewelry, with imitation glass gemstones. Star’s family never would’ve tolerated her wearing anything so obviously worthless.

“My ship is mostly medical people, but we do have a few engineers. They came up with these in case we ever had to work with native auxiliaries.” She spent the next few minutes showing them how to put them on and off, and how to talk so their words would be sent to everyone else wearing one.

“Your radio technology won’t work through the bubble,” Sunset said, as soon as Landon had finished. “The shield keeps out all kinds of energy, or it wouldn’t be worth anything.”

“Maybe,” Landon responded, noncommittally. “But even if it does, it has some other functions, including a chronometer. If there’s something in that bubble to trick your vision of time, then the solution is a device to remind you. We’ll set a timer to keep synchronized, say for… a twelve-hour mission. I’ll knock the door open just before dawn, before the shifts change over again. That’s when I crack the door open for your daring escape.”

“It’s the stupidest thing any creature has dared against the princess,” Windbrisk said. He hefted the floppy rubber mask over his face. At a distance it might pass, but even the scale had to be wrong to fit his beak. It was a face not even a mother could love. “Let’s do it.”

Jamie could still remember the battle of Hollow Shades—though it had been far more of a massacre than anything else. The “Unification Army” swept across the city, killing everything that got in their way. She had seen the wreckage of that battle on her way across town, and the mostly ordinary citizens of Hollow Shades who had died in the process.

She had not seen anything like what waited when the teleport finally ended, and she materialized on solid ground.

Twilight dropped her unceremoniously to the floor in front of her, hard enough that she tumbled in the jungle dirt.

A stench hit her like something solid, unlike anything she had ever experienced or could easily describe. It was death, at a scale that even the end of the world could not prepare her for.

“Get up,” the princess commanded from behind her. “See what the Devourers have done. See what they would bring to all Equestria.”

Jamie rose, her legs shaking under her. Any second now she was going to break down, and Twilight would probably kill her. Maybe she’d try to run, maybe she’d break down into a sniveling wreck. I ran away from this. It was supposed to be safe in the shelters! The world was supposed to be waiting for me to live in, already fixed!

A mountain of the dead rose before Jamie, piled stories high. The jungle heat and humidity had not been kind to them, and she saw things she’d only ever seen sketched in anatomy textbooks. An ocean of fat black flies hummed over the gruesome mass, loud enough to be heard even above the distant crash and rumble of stone.

The mix of harsh laboratory smells did little to mask the stench, even if the not-blood seeping away from the artificial mountain turned every plant gray and withered.

Some of them were still moving.

Her stomach rebelled and she started to gag again, but now her stomach was empty and only a few drops of steaming yellow bile emerged.

“This is the fifth regiment of the Unification Army,” Twilight Sparkle said, her voice strained. “Every one of these was a brave volunteer, who sacrificed everything to protect Equestria. Hollow Shades killed them, left them to r-rot in the sun.”

Was she crying? Twilight stiffened, turning away from Jamie. She didn’t dare look. “It’s happening again, Jamie. Long ago, Equestria was in a fight for its survival. This is one of their best tactics, turning us against each other. There are… certain truths about the way pony bodies are organized, that I was unable to repair. Some of us are more vulnerable than others. Only my Unification Army is immune. They are the only creatures standing between civilization and oblivion.”

She led Jamie past the corpses, where a swathe of jungle had been cleared. Hundreds of Unification Army soldiers were here. Many were occupied digging a vast grave ditch, though not all. As they watched, a pair carried a single corpse on a stretcher, up to a medical tent. Ponies wearing gas masks and white robes did something to the satchel attached to the corpse, storing it while the disposal team carried the body to the grave.

The things they wear are more valuable to you than the ponies wearing them. Jamie had thought it was strange that the robot-soldiers wore the same equipment.

“Equestria is stronger than one regiment,” Twilight said. “I always knew Equestria would be left to fight for its survival again. Even as the faith I constructed gains followers, my commissars discover Darktech in every city. You can’t know what it’s like, Jamie—you’re immune. But ponies couldn’t help it. All it takes is for the enemy to use the right words, and they’re all enslaved. Their essence is corruption, spreading to everything they touch. If the rot ever reached Concord, even once… our civilization would end.”

Twilight turned towards the terrible noise, and Jamie followed her gaze. Concord was perhaps one kilometer away, close enough that bits of gravel and dust rained down near them. But given this camp, it seemed they wouldn’t be coming back. She wouldn’t bury her dead, then send their bodies through that machine anyway, would she?

Seeing it from afar was far worse than just watching the top layer. So much rock moved through the air that it was almost a solid column. Bits of metal roofing and sections of wall and bodies all swam together, crushed and pummeled until none were recognizable. “What do we do?” Jamie asked. “If Equestria is really up against something like that, how do we win?”

“I’ve been preparing.” Twilight’s horn glowed, and they vanished—though the process only lasted a moment. Suddenly they were standing in another ring of stones, like the one on the Concord itself. The same transport mechanism she’d used to board that airship. “We will need many more volunteers to replace the dead, from all over Equestria. Many more families will weep for their lost sons and daughters. But as they serve this higher cause, we can prepare ourselves for the final confrontation.”

She circled around Jamie, pointing her horn at each of the stones in turn. They came to life, a few moving and rearranging as they did so. Presumably there was a technique to this, but it was complex enough that Jamie couldn’t even remember their final configuration. “I can’t do it alone anymore. But just when Equestria was straddling the precipice, Harmony sent you. I hoped to have a few decades to test and teach you. Our enemies won’t give us that much time.”

She spun on Jamie, looming over her with bloody wings spread. “You’ll help me, won’t you Jamie? You’ll help keep Equestria alive?”

Jamie looked, and saw a mountain of the dead in a sea of flies. Her courage faded, and she nodded. “Y-yeah. Of course I’ll help!”

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