• 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 43: Indus

They did not walk back to the castle, as Star had feared. They were so far away, and the chances of arriving in time seemed so slim. The Alldeath was not limited to such methods of travel, however.

Somehow, impossibly, it had an airship of its own. All they had to do was jog for a short distance out to the surface again, where it was already waiting for them.

“Why so many soldiers?” Windbrisk asked, as they squeezed into the tiny front of the airship, where the pilot would’ve usually been. There were no humans within with their comfortably squishy bodies—only the disembodied voice of the Alldeath.

“Because the location of the shelter would put the lives of those who sleep at risk. I do not know how many other humans survive elsewhere, but I will protect those few who remain.” There were no loud engines, or even crew of desperate pegasi outside. The ship hummed, then jerked upright under their hooves.

The Alldeath spoke like the other entrapped spirits Star had studied during her time in court. There was passion in his voice, marred by desperation. When he spoke, the whole airship rumbled. “The eyes of countless generations look backward on us now, marines. In some future day, they will say that you were the dogs who were faithful to the end. You fought for their masters when they couldn’t fight for themselves.”

One of the armored figures smacked his chest, hard enough that the metal rang uncomfortably. The others followed, howling in their suits.

It’s like the Unification Army all over again. But these creatures didn’t have to lose their souls. She had seen a few of them put on their suits, and seen Landon take hers off. They were just clothes.

“Tell us our destination,” Alldeath continued once the noise had died down. “Agent Sweetie Belle, you have personal involvement with this project?”

She nodded grimly. “I didn’t think we were actually gonna fight it. Princess Twilight thought it might get attacked, so she wanted defenses strong enough. I know where the defenses are weakest. There’s an opening for newly harvested… energy… to be added. That will take us down to the core level, where the staff ponies would normally be to receive the donation and transfer it out through the core.

“But the wraith is down there too. We were going to lead it away, not try and fight directly. I don’t think you can win.”

“The pony doesn’t think you can win, dogs,” Alldeath said, speaking over her. “What do you say to that?”

They roared again, banging armored paws together. “We’re going in this way,” Alldeath declared. “Don’t be afraid. My pack of marines will distract long enough for you to reach the core. I will send one of them to protect you in case there are lesser obstructions in the way. Reach it, and we will all be free. Or fail, and hope these temporal intruders aren’t annihilated when time curves back again.”

The shattered remains of the Castle of Friendship were already coming into view below them, surrounded by a field of broken crystal and crushed buildings. Princess Twilight had preserved the Immortal City, she hadn’t fixed it.

“Good luck,” Alldeath said, his voice almost friendly. “I can’t put you any closer, there’s a tension-bubble in the air around the trunk. Marines, do no harm to these with you! Strange as it seems, they fight against the same foe. Get them deep enough, and they will deal a deep blow to our enemy. Fail, and we’ll be trapped here.”

They landed beside a particularly large chunk of purple crystal, and the multi-jointed ceiling and walls folded down around them. In a second, they were suddenly exposed on all four sides.

A dozen heavily armored figures surged towards the castle, loping forward on four legs, and tearing up great splashes of dirt with every step.

Only one remained with them—the same one with the blue stripes they’d seen earlier. The one who had stopped them on their way in. “Behind me,” she said, rising tall on her hind legs. “You have no armor. Don’t want to take a bullet.”

“No bullets in there,” Sweetie whispered. “Just light-lances, fifty royal guards, and an unkillable demon.”

“We’ll see,” growled the dog, through her armor. “They said your Alicorns were unkillable too.”

Their escorts couldn’t get far before the fighting began. Star knew the sound of their oversized rifles from her siege of the Harrow with Kondrak and his crew, but even so she found the sound almost overwhelming. Her ears pressed flat, and the other creatures all huddled close behind their escort as they made their way inside.

The dogs didn’t break down the door, but dug down into the building from the side, leaving bits of broken crystal in their wake.

Sweetie had been right about the defenses. There were Royal Guards inside, with ancient armor and uniforms that Star couldn’t even identify. Or rather, there had been.

Sweetie Belle squeaked incoherently as they made their way down, past fresh bloody smears and a few stray bits of pony. Their armor had done almost nothing. There wasn’t a single dead dog.

“It’s happening again,” Sweetie moaned. She slowed so much that Windbrisk had to nudge her to keep going. “I think I restarted the war.”

“No,” Sunset said. “Don’t second-guess yourself now, Sweetie Belle. You haven’t seen what Twilight did to the world outside. She kills more ponies than this every day. If we stop her, we make their deaths mean something.”

They knew the instant the castle’s real defenses discovered them. A terrible roar shook the foundation under their hooves, enough that Sweetie nearly fell over. It was their dog escort that kept her standing, barely.

“We go quickly now,” the dog said. “They will lead it away, come on!”

They galloped down the hallway, with Sweetie occasionally pointing the way. Down another hallway, through several vault doors, and finally a set of steps into a vast space carved out of the ground, maybe fifty feet across.

They found their first diamond dog here, torn almost completely in half. Molten metal still hissed and bubbled, burning away at their insides. Another dog-shaped crater was visible on the wall, with purple fluid leaking from one side.

Star knew only one creature that could fight like that.

Princess, would you really imprison a Windigo’s spirit? How unholy are you willing to be?

It was obvious to Star Orchid as it had never been before: Princess Twilight did not care about the Words of Harmony. They were just as Windbrisk said—a construct to control her ponies.

Over the sound of gunfire and terrible animal screams, they finally passed into the central chamber. The weight of necromancy wrapped around Star’s neck like a noose. Her body shook, but only bile dribbled from her lips. She hadn’t eaten anything here, so there was nothing to lose.

Even the armored dog froze in place, probably relying on the armor’s internal strength to stay standing. What would it be like to puke inside a helmet?

Only Sunset Shimmer was immune, striding forward towards the core. “Give me the explosives, Windbrisk. We don’t have much time.”

The core was a perfectly carved blue crystal, about the size and shape of a pony huddled in the fetal position. Metal spikes jutted up to it from six points in the wall, each one a different alloy. They pierced it like the body of a living creature, driven deep. It glowed faintly from where a pony’s eyes would’ve been in a sickly pink.

Black crystals grew at random from the walls and ceilings, each one a little cancerous spike of dark magic with a razor’s edge. They pulsed faintly green a few times a second, an obscene, ceaseless heartbeat.

Windbrisk staggered towards Sunset, tossing the bag onto the ground. “H-how… how can you stand it? This place is killing us.”

She caught the bag in her magic, levitating out several packs of dense foam and adhering them to spikes along the crystal’s edge. “Can’t kill what isn’t alive,” she said grimly. “Think you can fly up there and get a bomb next to that thing?”

She pointed up near something Star hadn’t even noticed yet. The Time Twirler didn’t seem that remarkable, but one of the metal spikes ran straight to it. It glowed sickly green, and she turned her eyes away as quick as she could. “There’d be no power anyway, but let’s not take chances.”

“Sweet Celestia…” Sweetie backed out the doorway, barely able to stand now. “There’s so much dark magic in there.”

“This is just one harvest,” Sunset muttered, gesturing around the room. “Every time lives are spent here, darkness infests this place. It would’ve devoured the whole city many times over, except for that.” She nodded towards the Time Twirler. “There’s the princess’s cheat. Time resets, but her energy sluices away to the heart of Concord.”

If she wasn’t so sick, Star Orchid might’ve wondered at the conservation of energy involved in such a process. Could the time-magic be fueled by a resetting process like that?

She didn’t get the luxury of time to spend on such academic questions.

An unearthly roar sounded from the opening behind them, and the ground shook under their hooves.

Sweetie backed into the room, overcoming her disgust this time. “I told them we were supposed to sneak in!” she called, desperate. “It’s coming! We can’t set off those bombs while we’re this close!”

How could something so big move so fast? Star pulled Sweetie from the door, urging her to retreat. She got her first uninterrupted view of the monster, pounding down on six legs towards them. Its claws burned bright red, and jagged teeth made of black crystal ran right through a multi-jointed jaw, continuing down its back. Huge openings were burned through the creature now, with sinewy black muscle visible beneath. It didn’t care, didn’t even seem slightly slowed by what the dogs had done.

Now those black eyes were fixed on her.

“The decision was deliberate,” said a voice from the dog’s armor. Alldeath, as calm as their first conversation with it. The armor moved to one side, blocking the entrance. “After you betrayed Dr. Hardy, I couldn’t allow anyone with knowledge of the shelter’s location to survive. What I can do is access the standard channel of a deployable explosive charge. Thank you for your service.”

Star had only a second to react. No other creature in the room would be fast enough—nor would they have the power to do anything. But after being dragged out of her comfortable life, then learning that everything she believed was a pile of lies so big she couldn’t see the top—she wasn’t going to just close her eyes.

Star’s horn lit up in defiance of the corruption. Those black tendrils wrapped tight around her, trying to strangle her magic before she could finish casting it.

But Star Orchid had been casting shield spells since she was a filly—long before Twilight had ever accepted her into the court.

She pulled Sweetie back roughly, standing in the center of her desperate band.

Light flared around her, just as the world went white.

The bubble deformed, bowing down so far it pressed Sunset flat, while the rest bulged. Its surface burned with heat and light.

Star couldn’t look away, couldn’t twitch or risk breaking her concentration. Power faded from her and she dropped limply to the ground. But her spell continued, until the blue-white glow of the shield turned to dull red, all in the span of a few seconds.

The earth shook under them again as her shield popped back into shape, chunks of sparkling light trailing as they rained down from above.

Through the shield, Star saw the sky split open. From a bubble of warped time and dark magic came the first light of dawn, faintly yellow in its path from the east.

I did it, she thought, still barely awake. We made it. Her world went black.

Star Orchid was conscious in only brief glimpses after that. She felt herself jostled on Windbrisk’s muscular back. They passed the melted husk that had been an armored dog on their way up, not even trying to shield itself from the explosion. Then up the side of the crater their explosives had made in the earth.

There was some fighting after that, though Star couldn’t see who or what was being fought. Then came a dark shape in the sky, and Landon’s face as she helped them inside.

She saw nothing at all after that and rested at last. Shapes moved in the half-observed light around her. Most often she saw Landon in the dark, tending to her with a strange salve that sunk into her burned skin like sheets of ice. Every visit meant more hours of half-conscious torture, but Star endured it.

At least she wasn’t alone. Whenever she looked to either side, she saw the familiar shapes of her allies, similarly entombed. How badly hurt had they been?

Finally Star woke, jolting upright in the tiny flat bed. Something beeped over her shoulder—a medical monitor, far more advanced than anything she’d seen in any hospital.

“Look who woke up,” said Sunset’s voice, rumbling deeper than usual. “Landon, we’ve got a live one!”

Star turned to look at her, and nearly fainted at the sight.

Her shield hadn’t been enough, as she had feared. With so little time to construct it, and her companions spread across so large an area, terrible heat had penetrated. Sunset Shimmer had been right at the front, probably in direct contact with the bubble in places. It showed.

Her face was now shaped mostly from metal on one side, sinking into the fur. There was a patch over the other side, and instead of an eye there was a matte green square, which twitched and pivoted in the socket as though it was alive.

The rest of her left side had done little better. Huge sections of flesh were missing, replaced with sinewy black fibers that twitched whenever she did. Her horn had been spared, though it looked shorter and bonier than before.

“Yeah, it’s as bad as it looks,” Sunset said, grim. “Bet it would hurt like bucking Tartarus, if I could still feel anything.” She sighed, turning her back on Star. She didn’t have a tail anymore, and patches of burned skin peeked out at random from splotchy fur. “But wasting medical supplies on an undead corpse didn’t seem too smart, with so few to go around and living creatures who need them. But if you feel up to recharging me in the next day or so I’d appreciate it.”

Her saddlebags were gone too—in their place was a slim black fabric bag, with the bulky metal shape of her undead animation spell’s protective case inside. At least that box had done its work, despite everything else.

“Sorry,” Star said. She didn’t sound much better than Sunset, low and gravely. Her throat ached from disuse. “I tried—”

“Don’t be.” Sunset spun around, resting her good hoof up on the bed beside Star. There was no eye to watch her, no expression to read. But the pony smiled through burned lips anyway. “You saved my life twice now, Star Orchid. More importantly, we just blasted a hole in Twilight’s invincibility. The resistance might’ve been afraid that she could rebuild it—they’re wrong. Twilight will never get a Thaumic Core like that. We’ve just bought the Iron Lord enough time to end this.”

“How can you be so sure?” Star asked. She hoped she didn’t sound too petulant; she was only worried. “I’ve been in the court my whole life. If I learned one thing, it’s that the princess will do almost anything to get what she wants.”

“Because that wasn’t just a crystal,” Sunset explained. “That was the body of an alicorn. No matter how much she might want to, the princess can’t create them. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be this… thing.”

Landon appeared in the doorway. She’d even stripped down her uniform and wore only a white sleeveless top over dark shorts, both splotched with grime and blood. “Wish I had good news for you, Star. Do you want me to tell you now, or would you rather get some rest first?”

What good will that do? I’ll never be able to sleep now. “They caught the Harrow?” she supplied. “The resistance is already gone?”

“No,” Landon said, though from her tone it almost seemed like she would’ve preferred that answer. “It’s the Hippocrates. Captain Kondrak sacrificed her to kill the princess.”

She slumped into a nearby cushion, eyes wide and desperate. “It wasn’t an accident—the crew were evacuated; he was the only casualty.” She rested both hands in her lap, clenching her fingers into fists, then releasing them. “We’re going to rendezvous with them now, then we’ll join your resistance aboard the Harrow. I wish there was better news.” She turned, wandering out through the open door.

Now you are realizing you’re in this with us until the end, Star thought. No more flying up into the sky to hide for centuries, hoping others will solve all the world’s problems for you. We’re in this together.

But there was still one more conversation to have, one they could only share in hushed whispers while Landon was elsewhere. Sunset hadn’t told the woman about the Alldeath’s survival, or its attempt on their life. Star commended her choice and agreed they should all do likewise.

She didn’t seem too fond of that computer herself. Ellie is probably glad to be rid of it. She made sure to confirm that decision with the others as they woke, one at a time. They couldn’t risk telling their human companions about the Alldeath’s survival, not after what it had done. If Landon chose to fly back, its next attempt at killing them might be more successful.

Jamie didn’t change her mind. She didn’t read any of Twilight’s telegrams, letting them form a growing pile on the ground floor of her former castle.

Instead, Jamie began to gather supplies, just as Twilight herself had suggested all Equestria was already doing. The Crystal Empire was wealthy, and her personal stipend was seldom-used—so Jamie drained it dry.

In the next month, she filled the Castle of Friendship with supplies. She ventured to Yakyakistan, and the Dragonlands, and even the changeling hive, hiring as many mercenaries as she could without cutie marks.

Twilight didn’t even do Equestria the decency of keeping her plan a secret. Instead, she took interviews from the Canterlot Gazette and the Manehattan Harold, showing off some of Jamie’s own evidence and even contributing some of her own. Yes, Equus had once known other intelligent life. Even better, some of it might still be around, and she would soon be leading an expedition of friendship to make a formal introduction. The interviews said nothing about the true scope of the threat, nor did they hint at any threat at all.

It would be no different than finally befriending the dragons or setting up the first official embassy in Breezie Village.

The day of the expedition arrived, and Jamie read over the morning paper with nervous anticipation, as Princess Twilight explained how long she was going and how Equestria would change when she arrived.

“Depending on how many of these Precursors remain, I would like to bring an envoy to Canterlot, so they can see some of what we’ve built. If they’re interested, enrolling a few of their young in the Friendship School seems like a natural next step. Imagine how much they could teach us.”

That was one area where Jamie agreed—there was a great deal they could learn from the ancient, half-dead elder ones. But it wasn’t anything ponies would want to learn.

Jamie never went back on her refusal to accompany Twilight’s mission of friendship.

There was nearly a full week of silence from the princess. Her mother took over from Twilight’s usual duties of raising and lowering the sun, so there was no interruption. But as the silence stretched on, Jamie’s fear began to grow. Fear that she had been right.

The desperate messenger arrived another week later, collapsing onto the balcony of the Castle of Friendship from flight-exhaustion. But he remained awake long enough to deliver his message.

“Your mother requires your presence in Canterlot Castle,” he said, breathing ragged and desperate. “As fast as you can fly. Take nothing with you.”

You should’ve learned how to teleport like Twilight does, Mom. We’ll need that more than ever.

Jamie couldn’t do it herself—studying magic like that would take time she just didn’t have, not with the world depending on her. There were other unicorns who could do it, like Starlight. But unicorns with magical skills that advanced would’ve drained her coffers too quickly. Jamie would have to fly.

Jamie had never been an expert with her wings, as much as she’d never been an expert with anything. There was little reason to bother when the basics had come so naturally to her.

This was the first time she was really made to regret it, since she wanted to make the trip with two of her newly hired mercenary-bats as protection. Even bats managed to make her look like a flagging filly, barely keeping herself flying straight.

“You sure you don’t want a carriage, Princess?” the brute asked, somehow keeping ahead of her despite the oversized saddlebags bristling with weapons he carried. “We could fly ahead and bring one back for you, Jamie.”

“NO!” she insisted, a little too loudly. “Please, that won’t be necessary. They’ve already been waiting for us long enough.”

Jamie felt a little like that poor messenger had looked when she finally touched down on the castle grounds. Royal Guards packed into every corner of the space, more than she’d ever seen in one place. Some of them were reservists—young stallions who had joined for the scholarship, or retired city guards called back up.

None looked particularly qualified to fight, even if they all held real weapons. Their golden shields and spears had vanished, replaced with flat iron. “Jamie’s here,” some of them whispered, clearing space in the courtyard for her and her escorts.

They made it as far as the castle doors before more guards stopped them. These were regulars, thickly muscled earth ponies with weapons showing a decent amount of real wear. “Nopony else is allowed inside,” one said, nodding towards the brute. “Wait here.”

He stepped forward to argue, but she stopped him with a wing. “I’ll get you both permissions to come inside in a minute. Just do what he says.”

Now that it was her instruction, they wouldn’t have to question their loyalty. She still felt naked leaving them behind, making her slow way through the castle.

The guards weren’t lying—there was nopony inside. No servants dusted in the halls, no moving crews shifted new pieces of art, no painters and remodelers were visible in their endless quest to please Twilight’s eccentric tastes.

She wouldn’t have known where to go, except that light was spilling out from the throne room, drawing her forward.

She found about two-dozen creatures inside, most in naval uniforms. Many were injured, and the ones who weren’t bandaged and limping had pale, shocked faces.

Hospital equipment had been set up in the center of the room, of the latest and most magically advanced varieties that had been so expensive for Jamie to source. The injured pony was connected to a full suite of life support, right down to a ventilator and blood-circulator twitching rhythmically with deep crimson.

Jamie had never seen a pony so badly hurt before. Her mane was completely burned off, and one of her forelegs was a bandaged stub. Her horn was wrapped in thick, weeping salve.

The desperate band gathered around her included her mother, the aging Elements of Harmony, and even Twilight’s new personal student, whose name Jamie had never bothered learning. Rainbow, Applejack, and Pinkie wore naval uniforms too, though the others did not. One’s missing? Where’s Fluttershy? Where’s Discord?

“What happened?” Jamie asked, her voice timid enough that she wasn’t even audible over the mechanical grinding of the life support magic.

A few naval officers in back noticed her, shuffling aside to clear an aisle for her. The room slowly turned, and one by one ponies lowered their head respectfully. But nopony dared say anything, not until her mother emerged from the back. Her makeup was streaked with tears, and her crown was askew, but she didn’t seem to care.

“There’s no easy way to say this…” she said, voice quavering. “You can… get the details from the survivors, later…”

She wobbled, nearly falling over, until a crystal warrior caught her with his shoulder, and she straightened, taking a deep breath.

“Retired Princesses Celestia and Luna are dead, along with most of the peace envoy. The hero of the Crystal Empire gave his life to get Twilight out safely, but you can see… the ruler of Equestria arrived in a medical stasis, barely alive. It’s unclear if we will be able to save her.”

“Three alicorns,” somepony whispered, from over Flurry’s shoulder. She couldn’t even see the speaker, though she could understand the sentiment. “What in Equestria could do this?”

“Not even Tirek killed like this,” someone answered. “Who could be so heartless?”

The elements kept glancing between each other, at a gaping hole between them. Jamie knew what that pain meant. More eyes were turning to Jamie, but it was a grizzled-looking naval pony who finally spoke.

“Princess Twilight insisted you were the expert on these creatures,” he said, emerging from the front of the crowd. He had a fresh bandage over one eye and burns down his flank. One of his wings was missing. “Before we put her under, she said a storm was coming. Equestria would face it whether she was ready or not.”

“You’re our best hope,” Princess Cadance concluded. “The storm she warned of is already on the horizon. The Alicorn magic I normally wield to turn the sun in the sky was stolen from me soon after I lowered the sun. I do not know if it will rise again.”

Flurry turned down to Twilight’s face, mostly covered in bandages. You said Equestria was ready for anything. I hope you were right.

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