• 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 52: Scutum

Jamie remembered this death. It had been so recent, the memories still fresh. If only there was enough of Flurry left in that well to ask, maybe she could’ve been ready for this. She didn’t know what to do, and had no power to fight. Her horn sparked once or twice, but Twilight’s magical construction was impossible to break. She might as well try to stand on a launch platform and hold down a rocket with her bare hands.

“Before I cast this…” Twilight set the wax aside, stepping back from her diagram. “I’d like you to tell me: did you think I wouldn’t discover you? Did you honestly think you could hide?”

“No,” Jamie answered. She could still speak, even if it didn’t feel like the words were hers. She was watching her body from somewhere far away. Was there anything she could do? Maybe if she could beg to Epsilon, it could do something to help her? But no, they’d left transmission range over a day ago. It wouldn’t even hear her die.

“Well that’s… an interesting admission from a spy.” Twilight settled down on her haunches, looking downright cheerful now. “Why bother coming here, anyway? Why allow the Unification Army to capture you? Did you want to die? Or maybe you had some… lingering loyalty towards Equestria, even now? You sensed the call of Harmony?”

It wasn’t like Jamie had anything to fear from telling the truth now. If anything, she should probably want Twilight to kill her quickly. That would mean no torture—no way to extract the other things she knew. Though from what Twilight had just told her, there probably wasn’t even anything useful Jamie could tell. Maybe that there was another emergency shelter that Twilight hadn’t bothered finding? But she probably just assumes she destroyed it when she killed Hollow Shades. She found bits and pieces of their base in the rock.

“I want my species to survive,” she said. “I don’t want to hurt anyone. Not you, not Concord. That’s why I ran, when the brave ones went to fight.”

Twilight sighed. “Pity. You must’ve been something special to be elevated to an Alicorn. Even if the evil of the Devourers made it possible. Under other circumstances, you would’ve been welcome in my household. If Concord weren’t about to fight a war, I would probably keep you here. Any wickedness can be reformed, with the right type of persuasion. In these final moments, know that your death will help Concord to survive. We will live a little longer thanks to you.”

Her horn flashed, and the markings on the floor began to glow, just as they’d done in Flurry’s final moments. Jamie squeezed her eyes shut. At least the last time had been painless. It was always borrowed time since the war. I got longer than I should’ve. Hope you’re waiting for me there, Kari.

Jamie thumped painfully to the floor, legs shuddering with the shock of sudden impact. “Permission violation!” Twilight shouted. “Subject classification invalid! Processing!”

Suddenly her body was her own again. Jamie took a few desperate breaths, sliding along the floor away from Twilight. Now she was the one frozen, her pupils wide and eyes unblinking. She remained in place, eyes still pointed at the exact spot Jamie had been sitting.

But as quickly as it had come, Twilight moved again. “Rectified!” Blood dribbled down her nose, her eyes. She spread both wings, backing away from Jamie with almost as much fear as Jamie felt. “It’s not… it’s not possible!” Twilight yelled. That emotionless presence in her voice was gone. “You can’t be… you can’t be human!”

She smashed her hooves into the table, shattering it to splinters. She yanked a sharpened leg from the wreckage, blasting it with her horn until it was a point. She followed Jamie until she was up against the wall, aiming the spike directly at her chest. “You can’t be!”

“I don’t understand!” Jamie yelled back, raising both hooves defensively in front of the princess. She prepared her own spell to block, but Twilight batted it away with contempt.

She shoved forward with the spike, then froze. “FORCE VECTOR INVALID. FORCE VECTOR INVALID.”

More blood dribbled down her face, splashing onto the stone. Twilight wiped it away with one leg, looking down in horror. “It’s not possible! No human could be one of us! There’s nothing but evil in you. All you want to do is destroy! Alicorn magic is sacred! It’s Harmony’s gift to her foals! You can’t corrupt it!”

“I… don’t want to destroy anything.” She rose onto her hooves, growing more confident. She just tried to kill me twice, and she couldn’t. What’s going on?

Twilight didn’t give her much chance to wait and find out. She backed all the way up to the door, then kicked it open with enough force to send it flying. Suddenly there was a great open chasm at the entrance to the quarters. “You… you will not leave, whatever you are!” She retreated out the opening, terror on her face. “Or my… my Unification Army will kill you. Why do you think I keep them? They’re immune to your programming, Devourer. I am going to find out what you’ve done to wear that skin. Then I will make sure there are no more of you left to try anything like it again!”

She vanished in a flash of light, leaving Jamie alone in the empty room.

Star Orchid was in the minority of creatures who actually knew what to expect from their brief ride aboard the transport. She took no satisfaction at the confusion and discomfort of the other passengers as the whole craft began to rattle, its skin compressing and ceiling closing in. All the while one of Landon’s marines remained near the center of the room, beside the section marked with black and white and the warnings about Gravium.

Even she was a little taken aback by how disorienting the flight became. She closed her eyes, listening to the sounds from outside. With her helmet off, she thought she could make out the occasional crack of a light lance, along with other sounds she didn’t recognize. There were human weapon sounds too, though they might just be the ordinary noises of flight.

“Helmets on!” someone yelled. Not Landon—she was apparently in the cockpit just then. Maybe she was their pilot. “If you’ve got ‘em. Volunteers stay in your seats! Marines, looks like the locals have a warm welcome waiting for us. Get ready for a party.”

Star reached up with one of her arms, but strained to reach her helmet. She didn’t quite know what she was doing with a human body, particularly with the complex “hands” that humans used for so much. The helmet seemed eager for the command, snapping down over her head with only slight pressure. Images appeared on the glass in front of her, faint lines in white. They were bright enough to be distinct, but not so strong that they would obstruct anything behind them.

Most of the writing was indecipherable to her, but there were images too. One showed a ghostly echo of what she thought were the palace grounds, with a rapidly approaching arrow zooming towards them. We’re going to crash straight into Unification Command. Despite its name, the bunker beside Twilight’s palace was mostly generals and other fully living creatures. They almost never retired to the Unification Army until they grew too old to fight anymore.

Then they hit, and Star jerked against her seat. It was barely a jostling compared to the terrible crash she was expecting. After a few seconds she had already recovered her senses enough to see what was going on. The marines surged past the center of the room, dodging the marked danger area with practiced ease. Landon was with them, carrying a different weapon in both arms. They must’ve spun just before impacting, because it was the rear of the craft that opened, like four leaves of a terrible steel flower tearing into stone like it was paper.

Gunshots echoed from somewhere nearby. Star’s suit displayed more information she couldn’t read, though there were angry red dots mixed with friendly white ones. Was it trying to show her the fight nearby? How could it know?

Sunset was already rising from her chair, fumbling with the restraints. Star moved to follow, though she hadn’t been quite as fast.

“They said to wait!” someone yelled. Another human with one of their suits, because it came through the armor as clearly as if it had been spoken directly. “Stay here.”

“I am staying,” Sunset said. She reached to the shelf over her head, removing one of the human rifles from its perch. There was one resting above every chair. She’d taken them for metal decorations at first. They’d used every centimeter of this thing to pack in war supplies. “But I think someone else will be here before they get back. Star, can you walk?” She held out one metal hand, expectant. “The army isn’t going to go to the fighting. They’ll want to close the line of retreat.”

She smacked one hand into the restraints, which zipped upward and off of her. Then she took the offered hand, groaning as she pulled herself up into a standing position. Sure enough, the red dots were growing more and more numerous by the second. They would have the advantage of surprise for only a moment. Once the princess’s life was threated, every Unification Army soldier nearby would abandon every other duty to protect her. Protecting their Alicorn was their most important task.

“Anyone else know how to use these?” Sunset asked, turning over her gun in both hands. “I know the open part points towards the ones trying to kill us. What else?”

“Magazine clicks into the top,” someone said. “Spits itself out when it’s empty. Safety is the red button on the side.”

Seeing Sunset rise gave some of the other volunteers courage. Though the hallways weren’t too wide. There wasn’t room for every person aboard to stand at the same time, even the smaller armor was too big for that.

Sunset spun wildly, looking past Star. They were at the end of the row, closest to the exit. The first attack would be coming for them.

Star caught a glint of flashing light from the entrance, then the muffled roar of a light lance. Sunset dropped the gun, holding both hands out in front of her. A faint green shell appeared before her, just in time for the angry red light to splash to the side, smashing into the white metal of the carrier. It glowed red where it hit, but didn’t warp.

A few more blasts followed. Star fumbled with her own weapon, hands scrambling for the thing humans called a magazine. As she struggled, more Unification Army soldiers appeared from down the hall, joining in a simple formation. They blasted against Sunset’s shield a few more times, then lowered spears and charged together.

It’s already breaking. She won’t be able to hold them off on her own.

Windbrisk ducked under her shoulder, aiming his own weapon down the hallway. It was far smaller and lighter, though it fit between his clawed forelegs perfectly. “Drop the shield, Sunset! Now!”

She did, and a series of quiet cracks echoed from the front of his rifle. He rocked backward slightly with each one—but his aim was true. Bullets struck, tearing gaping holes in them as they ran. But they weren’t alive. Not one fell from their charge.

The rebellion weapons aren’t as good as the ones humans use. Their bullets probably have trouble getting into the spells those soldiers are carrying. If the machines keep working, they can keep attacking through almost anything.

“Stop shooting, kid!” barked a harsh voice—one of the marines. Star caught sight of armor from around the corner, and Windbrisk stopped shooting, lowering the rifle. The marine stepped aside, blocking the entrance—then came the flames. They were bright blue, not orange, and roared like a living thing. Sunset backed away, the front of her helmet seeming suddenly dark. Without even realizing it, Star’s had darkened too, protecting her eyes from the worst of the light.

She pushed Windbrisk back, blocking the light with her armor as best she could. Hopefully he was smart enough to look away.

There was no protection for the soldiers. When the flames stopped, the sizzle and pop of flesh continued, along with several small fires. The room beyond had been a conference room of sorts, with tables and chairs spread all over. For all she knew, it was the very room where the generals of Equestria had planned their defense. Now it was burning, or at least the furniture was. A few dark patches marked where soldiers had been, with glowing orange boxes the only sign that a pony had been there. Twelve, at a quick count.

Those are bigger than before. Is Twilight reinforcing her ponies to fight us better? Their weapons were strange too. A few weren’t the crystal-tipped light lances, but instead were warped metal objects, not unlike what Windbrisk carried.

Twilight knows how to make guns.

The marine spun slowly around. He was easily the largest of them all, with an oversized backpack and a weapon that was really just a glowing nozzle connected with some tubes. Star now knew in vivid detail how that all worked.

His visor was ashy black, but it popped up and out of the way, so they could see his grin.

Star shuddered as she saw it—he smiled into the little carrier at them as though he’d come to bring refreshments. “Don’t think we forgot about you. Rest of the team’s sweeping through the building. Mostly its suits and pencil pushers in here. Landon’s making a racket to scare ‘em out, and we’ll have the place to ourselves soon enough. Minimal resistance so far.”

“There are tunnels connecting this bunker to the palace,” Sunset said, recovering her weapon from the floor and snapping the magazine into place. “Since they don’t know how much strength we brought, they’ll probably retreat through there with anyone important, then collapse the tunnel with magic.”

He stared, long enough that Star noticed his oversized buck teeth, and beady little eyes. But the figure inside was far from lithe and dexterous, like Landon. This man was built like a pile of brown bricks. “What makes you say that, volunteer?”

She rolled her eyes. “Because I was one of them for almost a thousand years. They might’ve learned new things over the years, but this stuff is old. No attacker ever reached the castle, so Twilight never had any reason to change it. Even if she wanted to, she can’t. When we’re made, we’re stuck. But we don’t need to train, either. We can sit in a room staring at a wall for a century, just waiting to fight. Then when the call comes, we’re in formation and shooting straight with our light lances.”

“I thought that was why we were attacking now,” Sweetie said. Her voice was small, like she hadn’t fully made up her mind about whether to say anything at all. “She can’t call up any more soldiers, can she?”

Sunset nodded. “The princess can’t activate any of her hibernating army that weren’t already in fighting shape. But she already knew we were going to be at war. If I know Twilight—and I know her better than anyone else on this transport—the instant we stole her ship, she was waking units as fast as she could. Worst case, she’d have to sacrifice more of her citizens to keep them going for a while longer. They thought they were going to heaven, so nopony was the wiser.”

There were a few seconds of pained silence, with all eyes on Sunset. Then the marine smacked his fist against his chest. “Word from Landon! Everyone up and armed and out. Building is clear. We’ve got a minute to breathe before the first counterattack comes. Time to use it.”

For several minutes Jamie was paralyzed in place, barely able to believe what had just happened to her. She should’ve died twice. First Twilight harvesting her magic to open… whatever this thing was. Then she’d just tried to stab her with broken furniture, to kill something that didn’t agree with her religion. Have you been lying to the ponies of Equestria for so long that you couldn’t tell the difference between what was a lie and what was real?

Jamie brushed aside bits of broken wood and splinters, backing nervously away from the opening. Twilight almost wiped out humans. This protection isn’t very good, or Concord couldn’t tear up old shelters. She couldn’t rely on it—at the worst, the princess could just starve her out. What can I do?

She had to get out, before Twilight overcame her own biases and came back to kill her. But how?

She hesitated beside the monument, inspecting its magic as she had tried last time. Trouble was, she hadn’t really learned any more magic since the day before. Opening that is probably not a good idea. She could just send those soldiers in to kill me, and they could take it for her. Unless something inside could help her, somehow…

She considered it for maybe a minute, searching for some lock that would be obvious to a human observer, that Twilight and her fleet of scholars hadn’t noticed. There were definitely weaknesses in the spell. It was a cryptographic shell, a cypher she’d seen in hundreds of games over the years. It’s algorithmic.

As she watched, she could feel the lock attuning to her, its invisible tumblers waiting for the key. But only for a fraction of a second—it sealed just as quickly, with the various segments shuffling again, scrambling the key. I’ll never open this.

Not alone, anyway. But even a pocket calculator would probably be enough to get through it. A pocket calculator that could do a little magic. This lock was meant for a creature with the magic of ponies, but with computer-assisted intelligence. If Twilight put a gun to Jamie’s head right now and demanded she open this, she couldn’t have. Not on her own, anyway.

She stalked away, frustrated. She was floating, suspended over a drop of at least a kilometer. All Twilight had to do to kill her was disable whatever spell held her prison in the air, and she would fall to her death. Would she be able to? What stopped her from killing me? Would she be able to do it through inaction, like letting me go?

The safest thing for Jamie would probably be to never find out. As interesting as Concord was, and as much as she longed to see what life was like for its everyday citizens—the time had probably come for her to move on.

She could thank Solar for teaching her so much useful magic, instead of whatever Twilight had probably wanted. She’d watched that Alicorn draw a dozen different long-range teleport glyphs, sketching them in painful detail for a craftspony to later come around and forge them in silver or gold. Jamie found a broken pencil among the books and paper of her shattered desk, levitating it up and stripping it down to graphite. She crushed it, mixed it with a pinch of wax as she’d seen Flurry do, then crossed to an empty stretch of ground and began to draw.

The door on the other side of the room rattled, then clicked. Jamie froze, staring up at Basal’s face in the opening. A few more frightened changelings lingered behind her, utterly bewildered by what they saw. “You’re… still here?” Basal asked, the first one brave enough to actually speak. “I thought…”

“You probably thought she was going to kill me.” Jamie looked back to her work. The changelings were probably a threat to her in other ways, now that she thought about it. They were loyal house servants of the princess. Maybe they were trained assassins, come to do the job that the princess herself couldn’t.

If someone does try to kill me, it probably won’t be with magic. If it stopped Twilight, it would stop an ordinary pony. So it’s going to be subtler than that. Maybe a knife to the throat, or poison in her wine. But Twilight hasn’t had the chance to talk to these changelings yet. They probably won’t want to kill me.

“Currently,” Jamie said, working as quick as she could. She almost had the circle finished by now. This was the one rune circle she could draw without even trying, since Flurry had made it so many times. Wherever “Ponyville” was, had to be safer than here.

Basal glanced at the open door, then buzzed her way in. She was the only one brave enough—the others waited in the next room. “You are trying to… queens, no! Princess, you must not try to cast that here!” She rested one hoof on her shoulder, startling her.

“Why?” Jamie froze, lump of moldable wax frozen in the air beside her. She didn’t even have to spend much effort on it now, hovering it there was practically second nature. “Did I do something wrong?”

“I… do not know, Princess. But I know that Princess Twilight has made the palace impossible to escape. Creatures who teleport within are…” She shuddered, face turning green. Well, greener than usual. “I don’t know how the defense works, but trying to teleport in or out of the palace shreds creatures to pieces, sending their bits to… slightly different positions. The princess herself… probably would not wish me to know this, but even she is subject to this restriction. Though it seems she can ignore the defense, she actually relies on points of safety throughout the castle, which can teleport to other points.”

There’s one in here, she’s teleported in before. But it would probably have other defenses. Too bad I couldn’t ask you about it, Solar. You might understand how it works.

Jamie slumped to one knee, staring down at the diagram. “The princess is very angry with me, Basal. I need to get out of here before she comes back. How would you do it?

The bug glanced over her shoulder, as though afraid Twilight herself would be watching, waiting for her to answer that exact question. But there was no one there but the other bugs, watching her. “What the princess wants, she will… get,” Basal said, after an uncomfortable silence. “No creature can hide from her, no creature can trick her. She’s older than all of us, and more powerful than any creature alive.”

Is that supposed to help? Some of it was clearly untrue. Jamie had tricked her without even wanting to. Twilight had never even asked if she was human. She’d just made her assumptions, and acted accordingly. It might be the only reason Jamie was still alive. She’s not infallible. And she’s not all-powerful either, or else the rebellion couldn’t do whatever they’d just done to her.

Twilight had kept that explanation vague, because of course she’d known what Jamie was by then. Or thought she knew. “If I can get away from Concord, then… maybe I can hide. Stop bothering Equestria. I don’t want to fight anyone, Basal. I just want to live.”

There was a moment of silence, then a voice from behind her. “You know how dumb this is, Basal.” One of her companions, speaking in a faint whisper. But of course if Basal could hear it, Jamie could. “We can’t get involved in royal politics. If the lady upset the princess, all we could do is put our eggs in the blender with hers.”

Basal shuffled nervously back and forth. Finally she gestured impatiently away. “You two, you’re ordered off duty. Return home. You can walk away from here without knowing anything else. You didn’t see me. You thought I was acting strange, but you didn’t question my orders. Understand?”

They looked between each other. Jamie couldn’t read expressions well in those multifaceted eyes, but she thought it was concern. “You don’t owe her anything, Basal. Just go.”

Basal hissed at them, baring a pair of long fangs. “You have your orders. If you stay, you’ll be implicated too. Get out!”

They did, wings buzzing as they fled down the corridor. Of course, how far away could they go? If they didn’t leave the prison, they’d die if Twilight dropped it just the same. But she won’t have a reason to do that if I’m not here.

“It’s probably impossible,” Basal said, approaching her more bravely than she had before. Her horn flashed, and a mop appeared in the air in front of her. She scrubbed away at the teleportation circle, until it was a mess of smudged wax on the floor. Then she dropped it, and it vanished. “There’s only one fate for ponies who try to desert. Other creatures just hang. But ponies…” She glanced nervously out the opening.

“Unification Army. I guess you’re immortal already, but you probably didn’t think you’d spend those years in mindless service. Barely alive, barely able to understand what’s happening to you. If you stay and face judgement, she might change her mind. Or she might make your execution painless.”

“I don’t think… she could do that to me,” Jamie finally said. She’d already started to wander down forbidden paths. There was no sense trying to hide when the most important pony already knew. “To freeze someone in long-term cryostasis, or to transfer them into another body, your brain has to be wrapped in a… protective shell. They’re made of the toughest stuff we ever invented. I don’t think there’s any chance in hell she could get it off without killing me in the process. That’s… the real point of the integrity protection. The safe needs to be tough enough that getting inside would wreck the contents.”

Basal’s mouth fell open. She stared at Jamie’s head, as though searching for the edges of a helmet or protective shell. Of course, there was nothing to see. “You believe what you just told me, but I cannot understand it. Shell… inside your brain? New body? What kind of princess are you, Jamie?”

It sounded like a joke, except that Basal’s expression was deadly serious. If anything, she was losing steam. If she gave up and left Jamie to her fate, she was doomed. Somehow, the answer to this question actually mattered. “The lost,” she finally answered. “The forgotten, the abandoned, and the dead. I’m the first of my kind, and maybe the last.” There was a spy in the Iron Lord’s command. Would they leave him alive?

Basal looked up, resting one hoof on her shoulder. She met her eyes, insect to mammal. “That is a silly thing to be princess of. But you believe it. You believe it, and you aren’t insane. Cracked, maybe. Not broken.”

“Telling you this can’t be good. It’s like those bugs you sent away—the more you know, the more risk you’re in.”

“Oh, I’m dead either way,” Basal said. “It’s obvious the princess wants you dead. She expects us to work for her will, not just her commands. I might get reprimanded for not killing you. But all this will give me something to tell the torturers. Maybe they’ll figure they got everything out of me, and not pull off my wings first.”

Jamie twitched, covering her mouth with the back of one leg. She would’ve thought that was a joke too, if it wasn’t for the pain. Basal spoke of something she knew. Maybe she’d seen it happen. “I need to get away before she comes back for me. How can I do that without getting killed?”

Basal looked thoughtful. “I heard you were studying high magic at the Arcanum Well. While you were there, did you learn any illusions?”

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