• 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 53: Eridanus

Star almost couldn’t believe her eyes. While they gathered supplies to reinforce the top floor of the building in case they needed to retreat, Star watched the battle projections play across the inside of her helmet.

She couldn’t understand a great deal of it—much of what the helmet wanted her to see was scrolling human words, unreadable to her.

While the trained soldiers worked, she remained behind the lines with the volunteers. Each of them had a gun now, and they at least knew how to point it in the right direction. “You’re our last resort,” Landon explained, before hurrying off to help with a pocket of resistance somewhere else. “You stay here, watch the drop-pod. We might need it.”

“I thought we couldn’t evacuate,” someone said. One of the human volunteers. “We’re stuck until this is over, aren’t we? Anti-air or something. Couldn’t survive another trip.”

“Yes.” Landon stopped in the doorway, spinning slowly around. “We got shredded pretty bad by anti-air on the way in. Made for… dragons, or something. But there’s one situation where we might need that drop-pod again. If the city falls, literally falls… we’ll want a way off before it hits the ground.”

Star’s heart slowed in her chest, struggling to beat. One hand twitched towards Landon. “There are over a million ponies living here, Ellie. That isn’t the plan, is it? My family lives here.”

“It isn’t,” Landon assured. “Kondrak wouldn’t hear of something like that. There’s no point winning a war if there’s no one left to liberate. But if the other side self-immolates, we don’t have to sit here and die with her. We can leave.”

No, we would save the city.

The half-burned conference room had been made into a makeshift supply room, triage center, and mess hall. Crates of gear and ammunition had been unloaded, with volunteers to dispense and manage. A box aimed at one blank wall produced images of many nearby hallways, as though captured through a set of invisible eyes.

But she didn’t argue the point. Landon looked busy, and the battle playing out in little icons on her helmet took a great deal of her attention to understand.

The human system represented the war with Twilight as a colored, transparent sphere of two layers. Red sections represented enemy troops, while the blue were areas held by friendly soldiers. The majority was gray, showing areas without information, or areas occupied by neither side.

Star nudged one of the human volunteers—none of the ponies would be much help here. “What are the numbers under the battle projection?”

The one she was speaking to only shrugged, but a marine from the other side of the room sat up. “Known engagements all over the city. Those aren’t individual losses, they’re a ratio of friendly losses to the enemy, adjusted to scale with the numbers we project. Given we think they outnumber us over a hundred to one, you need to knock a hundred of them to get a 1. Anything negative means we’re losing long-term.”

This battle won’t be won in the long term. If Twilight lives through tonight, we lose. Doesn’t matter if we win every conflict.

They weren’t, at least not based on the rapidly scrolling numbers. But almost all of them were positive. Colored symbols flashed beside some, triangles and circles that appeared long enough to change the font, then vanish.

“There’s so much information,” she muttered. “How does anyone process all this?”

“You don’t,” the marine said. He slid the oversized gun he was twirling back into a holster, making his way over. “Stick out your hand, I can show you where the button is to turn it off. Honestly I’m surprised you have permissions to see that much.”

“I’m a major,” she said. “Guess Ellie wasn’t just making pretty promises. I really have all this.” But what to do with it, that was the bigger question.

The minutes turned to an hour, and she watched with bated breath as many of the numbers stopped moving. Much of the outer sphere changed to blue, with only pockets of red scattered elsewhere. The inner layer was still entirely red, though—representing the many tunnels and caverns of Concord, packed with an unknowable number of the Unification Army. Though she suspected they would find out soon enough.

Finally Landon returned, leading a group of beleaguered soldiers and volunteers and covered in blood and grime.

“Looks like that’s the end of it. The soldiers have retreated to the palace, sealing the tunnel behind them. That’s our next task. Star and Sunset, I’d like to hear everything you know about its defenses.”

“Almost nothing past the walls in my day,” Sunset said, waving a dismissive hoof. “I know when it was rebuilt they used magically reinforced windows, and have an air-circulation system to keep the inside safe even if there’s poison outside. The biggest part of their defense is probably the Unification Army themselves. There’s a barracks directly under the castle, which is likely always fully staffed. Expect at least a thousand of Twilight’s oldest, strongest guards inside. Many of them will be survivors of the Umbra, like me. They’ll be able to use their pony magic in ways most soldiers can’t. Some of them might be old friends…”

“You know what I’m going to say.” Landon pulled over a chair, then tested it with one hand. It snapped almost without resistance, and she just dropped to one knee in front of the table instead. “We don’t want to hurt your Unification Army people. But if they fight us, we must fight back.”

“I know.” Sunset slumped her helmet against the table. “I’m not upset with you. Twilight stole our freedom, not you. The debt is hers.”

Do you really think you’re strong enough to fight her? Star pictured her shield again. She’d reacted fast, with a spell powerful enough to survive considerable pressure. But Princess Twilight was on a level far beyond that. Beyond what most ponies could even comprehend.

“There are many traps throughout the castle,” Star supplied. “I don’t know them all. But I know the princess added more every year. But there are safe paths all the servants take. I can show you on our way in. Also not that it matters for you, but Sunset should know—you can’t teleport in, but you can’t teleport out either. The former will just get blocked by her Spatial Anchor. The latter will kill you instantly.”

“Well that’s good to know.” Sunset shivered all over, looking up. “You probably should’ve told me that right after we landed. I’ve been considering when I should head over there and say hello to an old friend.”

“You will not do that alone.” Landon smacked her hand on the table, glowering at Sunset through her helmet. “I know how good you think you are, native. Maybe you’re right—god I hope you’re right. But we don’t have the luxury of mistakes and second chances. We tried using our weapons one by one, and now Kondrak is dead. This time, we throw the entire fucking moon at her from all directions. When sun rises, maybe we’re all toasted—but if the Rogue is gone, the ones who live can rebuild.”

Landon looked like she was going to say something else—then she looked abruptly away. The other marines all did the same, turning to a distraction that only they could see.

Except no, Star could see it too. It was the tactical projections. The sphere turned solid red in a single instant, the projections and battle numbers all started flickering through noise.

That can’t be good.

Star tried to focus on it, searching for some clue that wasn’t in the human language about what had happened.

She didn’t need to.

“Incoming priority communication,” said her helmet. “Sender: Acting General Ferris Abrams. Recipient: All Combatants.”

The side of Star’s vision filled with an image of the control room, where she had stood less than a day ago. Well, she was pretty sure that was what it was. It was hard to tell through all the smoke, and the bodies.

Screens had been crushed, ponies and humans alike lay limp in front of their stations.

Wellspring stood in front of the camera, looking desperate and bloody. She nursed wounds to her legs, wrapped tight with bandage, and her eyes were wild. “This will be the last message from ESS Harrow. An overwhelming force of Unification soldiers boarded the Harrow. They’re killing everyone! The Iron Lord is dead… everyone’s dead.”

It didn’t sound much like a battle in the background, though there was some screaming, some pained moans. The equipment certainly looked like a battle had been fought in there. There was indeed a changeling’s body lying in the Iron Lord’s chair, limp over the controls. She couldn’t see it very well so far in the background, from such a tiny viewpoint.

“You’ve been given permission to flee!” Wellspring went on. “Flee for your lives! Get as far away as you can! Scatter into the wilderness! The Unification Army can hunt some of us, but not all! Spread out, hide! Return to your safehouses, if you can find them. The day is lost, don’t waste your lives!”

Transmission Complete

The volunteers began to shift in their seats. A few screamed, pulled up their knees and began to shake. None of the marines moved from where they stood, six dark sentinels in the room of volunteers.

Behind them, Star saw a wave of troops marching in formation up a hall, with many packed behind them. A counterattack was coming, timed practically to the minute.

“We’re dead!” someone yelled. “There’s no point! We can’t win! It’s just like Persephone!”

“He did it,” Star whispered, voice frail. “Geist… finally did it. He was in that room after all. They weren’t ready for him.” She hadn’t known Wellspring for long, but she knew this. She would never be screaming in terror for the troops to flee, no matter how bad the odds. Did you murder her too, Geist? When did you replace her?

Landon nodded to her. “If enemy forces had somehow reached the Harrow, we would’ve known about it the instant they were seen, not after the ship had already fallen. Natives don’t fight that way. They have to land on a deck and fight their way down.”

She smacked her fist on her armor, rising to full height. “Listen to me, all of you! I’m locking this detachment into encrypted mode. Command has fallen, but our mission isn’t over.” Star’s vision flickered for a moment, and the battle projections vanished. They were replaced with two numbers, one green and one red. “I hope the other force captains do the same, but we can’t worry about them anymore.”

The Unification Soldiers were getting closer now, close enough that Star could feel the stone shake with their march. They had less than a minute before the wall of Unification Soldiers hit them.

“Form up!” Landon shouted, pointing at an entrance. “Reserve watch the windows! We can’t count on whittling away their troops anymore. We can’t count on drone reinforcements. We’re going in, and we’re beheading the snake. Now.”

Geist’s work isn’t done until I’m dead. He’ll get here, with a knife to my throat.

Gunfire echoed through the room. Star got into line with the other reserves, accepting a heavy satchel of gear that clanked and rattled with every step. They wouldn’t be doing much fighting, then—they were carrying ammo.

Star did her best to ignore the gunshots from the front of the group. But it wasn’t any easier than the last time she’d fought her way through with these same marines, even if they had more help this time.

How can they fight so well? After Geist’s perfect lie… Star would lose sleep over that one, eventually. Wellspring was always friendly, even if she could be hard to please. She deserved better than a knife in whatever alley Geist had stabbed her in.

Maybe she’s a prisoner somewhere, and we can set her free? It seemed a dim hope, no matter how optimistic she wanted to be. We might not live through tonight either. Wellspring isn’t the only one with an uncertain future.

They lost their first marine on the palace steps, lost under an eruption of boiling oil from an opening in the wall. Star didn’t have the stomach to watch, but she still swore she could hear the screams.

A handful of volunteers fell in the chaos that followed, trying and failing to reinforce the lines. Their volunteers fought bravely, but there was no substitute for the training and experience of these few.

Star wanted to help—but whether she wanted to admit it to herself or not, she wasn’t a warrior. She couldn’t fight like these people, or even the rebellion volunteers. She was a passenger, dragged along towards a goal that she probably wouldn’t be able to capture. But what was the alternative, hide on the Harrow and wait for the war to be over?

If they couldn’t stop Twilight now, Equestria had no future.

Jamie knew she was in trouble from the instant she saw her reflection.

Thanks to her time in the Arcanum Well sharing the memories of the dead, she did know how to work with illusions. They had been an invaluable tool during the Umbra, when drones frequently descended on pony settlements that seemed to be surviving too well.

They didn’t attack ponies living their lives, at least that would’ve been simple evil. But the drones didn’t target ponies, they mostly targeted things. They dismantled air filters, punctured water tanks, and sprayed poison over grain silos. The Alldeath hadn’t just been trying to exterminate the population: it wanted them to suffer.

But those drones hadn’t been particularly smart, even if their actions took more lives than any bullets ever could. The more run-down a place looked, the less likely they would interfere. So Flurry Heart had learned plenty about illusion magic.

Unfortunately for Jamie, making a tank look rusting and empty was far easier than making a pony look like they were bug. With a little effort she managed to make her fur look like a shiny shell the right color—but the height eluded her, no matter how much she stared into the mirror.

But there was no time to hide and wait for Twilight to forget about her. Any moment that Alicorn was going to confront her fear, and come back to kill Jamie the same way she had to the human population of Persephone.

“The Unification Army is strong, but stupid,” Basal said again, offering her a simple servant’s cloak. Jamie had lost count of how many times she’d said something like that, trying to reassure her. “They won’t look too closely. They miss things all the time—so long as nothing really big happens, nopony cares.”

“This seems like something big.” She couldn’t manage the voice, though she had tried to imitate it for a few seconds. But detailed auditory illusions were so far beyond her that she hadn’t tried for more than a few seconds. “Twilight won’t think I just disappeared. She’ll want to find me. If you’re with me when I get out…”

“The princess is ancient and powerful,” Basal rehearsed. “But not omnipresent. There are clans of changelings who live outside her laws. There are cities of hippogriffs she can’t find. My clan would take you, if we can reach them.”

Jamie shrugged on the servant’s cloak. It wasn’t long enough—instead of covering her legs, the edges were visible out from within the cloth. But at least from far away, some ponies would mistake her. Maybe the Unification Army would be dumb enough?

“What, we walk out and… fly? Out the opening?”

Basal choked, gasping for air. “Fly? Queens, no! The forces in the lift-column are vast and unpredictable. Those creatures who fly end up crushed to powder or squished into goo. We… can’t leave that way. But if we can make it to the edge of the grounds, we can jump, glide our way to the surface, and… make the trek over land.”

If Twilight hadn’t already tried to kill me, I would probably think you were tricking me into betraying Equestria so she could convict me. But Jamie should already be dead. Twice, really. Heroes like Kari were gone, and useless unemployed technicians like herself were all the world had left.

“Why are you helping me?” Jamie asked, finally approaching the doorway. There was the ramp leading down, and the escort of Unification Army surrounding her. But was she imagining things, or were most of them missing?

A few days ago, there had been an entire fortified line outside, with hundreds of ponies ready to fight to keep her trapped. Now most of the sandbags had no one behind them. The mounted guns had been moved, and only a skeleton crew remained. Half a dozen soldiers at most.

Too bad I’m useless, or I might be able to fight through that. Well, she could still try. Flurry Heart had known how to fight, though it was a skill she rarely used on other ponies. Mostly she fought drones, which would defend themselves while they went about their grisly tasks.

“Just let me do the talking,” Basal said. “Do not look them in the eye, don’t refuse their instructions. Unification Army are… bad with people. That’s why we still have a Royal Guard. No matter where they go or what they do, there’s always collateral damage.”

Basal nudged her in the shoulder, and Jamie followed her out the door, moving slowly down the ramp towards the barricade.

They weren’t even halfway there before the scattered soldiers began to assemble, blocking off the fortification. One approached, wearing the same marked cap that Jamie expected from their officers.

Yet they didn’t exist in Flurry’s time. What could possibly need them after Twilight had already won the war?

“You may not leave,” the soldier said. His coat was white, just like all the others. There was no malice when he spoke—there was nothing at all. “Turn around and return to the containment cell.”

Basal froze in place, under the harsh eye of the soldier. Whatever she’d been expecting, it wasn’t that. “Our alicorn requires more food for her pantry,” she said nervously. “We’re only going to fulfill her request. Were you ordered to restrain her servants as well?”

“You are resisting,” the officer said. “This is your final warning. Turn around, return to your cell.”

What are we supposed to do? If I go back in there, I’ll die as soon as Twilight recovers enough to try. There’s no time to wait.

“Twilight gave us special permission!” Basal said, her voice shaking. “We have official instructions from her, see!” She fidgeted around in her gear for a moment, levitating out a sheet of waxy paper sealed with a gigantic stamp.

The officer looked it over, holding it in a faint green unicorn magic that was almost alive.

Then his expression hardened into real anger. “This document is forged. You have ignored orders, attempted to escape, and produced a forgery to avoid the Princess’s instructions. You are judged guilty, the sentence is death.”

He stomped once, and the ponies all around the barricade sprang into action. They lifted their strange weapons in parade-perfect unison.

Jamie staggered backward, eyes widening in horror. Thanks to Flurry’s memories, she now knew them. These were light-spears, a force lens specifically constructed for fighting humans. Jamie wasn’t sure the theory behind them, only that the initial effect of the spear’s magic was harmless, but at range they became deadly as a secondary cause.

Not just to humans, unfortunately. The officer fired first, directly at Jamie. Her illusion spell took the hit, exploding into a shower of light and a pressure against her skull like a knife slipped between both halves of her brain.

She collapsed, momentarily overwhelmed by the spell’s feedback. Any minute now they would strike again, and this time she would die.

I won’t die with my eyes closed, cowering in terror. She didn’t bother running—there was no chance she could reach the door again before she was shot a dozen times. But she could at least have the small satisfaction that these soldiers would have to look their victim in the eye.

All six soldiers now aimed their spears directly at her, Basal apparently forgotten. Yet none of them fired. Spear tips glowed bright white, and she knew that even one shot would be enough to kill her. But they didn’t shoot.

“Well?” Jamie took one step to the side, and they adjusted their aim. But none fired. “What is it?”

“Invalid… argument,” the officer said. “Order conflicts with… directive one. Order rejected.”

Basal shuffled behind her, keeping Jamie between herself and the soldiers. She might’ve resented that, except it was clearly a winning strategy.

“What is directive one?”

“Protect our princess,” the guards repeated, in perfect unison. “She may not be harmed, or be allowed to come to harm through inaction.”

Jamie’s eyes shifted nervously between each soldier, searching for doubt. They had her at gunpoint, if even one of them saw their orders a little looser…

Equestria never had another Alicorn, not after Twilight killed Flurry. She didn’t even think it could happen. Apparently that went all the way to the programming for her brainwashed troops. They think I’m her.

Jamie straightened, doing her best imitation of Twilight’s voice. It wasn’t very good, but that didn’t matter. She spread her wings, and tilted her head to accentuate the stubby little horn. “Lower your weapons.”

As one, the soldiers obeyed. Spears clicked once against the stone, now pointed comfortably somewhere else. One by one, their tips stopped glowing.

“And… step aside?” Jamie suggested.

As one, the crowd moved, lining up on one side of the bridge. Ready for her inspection.

“How are you doing that?” Basal whispered, just behind her. “We didn’t have to waste time with illusions if you know magic that powerful.”

Jamie didn’t explain, not with the unblinking eyes still watching her. There was no telling whether or not they would be able to discover what she’d done to them. But Jamie had no intention of screwing herself. “I require an escort to the cliffside edge of the castle grounds,” she said. “You will take me there, and protect me from harm along the way. That’s your job, right? Protecting your alicorn?”

The officer saluted her, then stomped his hoof again. The soldiers separated into two groups of three, surrounding her at back and front. The officer was in the front group, occasionally glancing back at her to make sure she was okay.

Basal remained silent as they circled slowly around the great opening, passing towards a rear set of double doors. There were more Unification Army soldiers stationed here, though just like Jamie’s own accommodations there were only a few. Where is everyone?

They did not even ask why she was being brought, or whether Twilight would want her leaving this way. The guards just pulled the door open for her, saluting as they passed. None even gave Basal a second glance.

“Guess the regent can’t want to kill you any more than she already does…” Basal muttered as they walked. “Good thing you didn’t show off this power before. If she knew there was a way to fool the Unification Army, she would’ve erased it at even a hint. They’re the instruments of her power. If they weren’t reliable…”

“I don’t think it’s as powerful as you think,” Jamie whispered back. “I’ll explain when we’re flying out of here.”

They hurried from hallway to hallway, passing increasing numbers of soldiers running in one direction or another. Most weren’t armored, but carried supplies, oversized barrels or fresh weapons. None looked past the guards escorting them.

As they walked, Jamie was conscious of another sound, at once entirely out of place, yet totally familiar. The thought of Kari’s broadcasts was fresh in her mind now that she had relieved that memory. Gunfire had often been a part of them, either in the street battles or open civil war. Those were empire weapons, close enough that she could hear them through the palace walls.

The rebellion really is happening now.

Their group passed through an open door teeming with soldiers marshaled in blocks and ranks. There were so many ponies that only a thin aisle remained between each group, and they had to thin to double-file to make it through.

The room was so massive it was more like a cavern, with an arched ceiling so vast she saw clouds gathering above. As big as the prison, but without the openings through Concord.

Instead this ruin had a floor cut downward, with terraced platforms like little parade grounds evenly spaced. On each one she saw ponies standing in blocks, perfectly spaced and already in uniform. It went on so far that her vision quickly blurred, and she looked away.

“Stop,” Jamie commanded her escorts. A few others turned to watch, though they were already standing in place doing nothing, so there was nothing for them to do.

The smell of laboratory preservative was as thick here as in Hollow Shades, and it was easy to see why. These ponies looked worse than any Jamie had ever seen—their coats were white, and what flesh wasn’t covered with fur had yellowed and warped. Like something that had spent a few centuries in a jar.

“Turn around,” Jamie said—just loud enough for the soldiers near her to make out clearly. “We’re going another way. We don’t want to disrupt this formation.”

They started moving, and the other soldiers watching didn’t move from their positions. Somehow, they could tell they weren’t the ones she ordered. How?

“Stop!” called another voice, from the far side of the room. “Stop, everypony!” The room froze in obedience to Twilight’s shout—all but Jamie and Basal.

Shit. “Run,” Jamie whispered, shoving Basal as hard as she could behind a row of soldiers. “Fast as you can.”

“Rank 17-green and 17-yellow, about face! March thirty steps!” At Twilight’s command, the ponies to either side of her spun and began to march, widening the column around Jamie and her tiny escort of guards. They didn’t move—but they weren’t 17-green or yellow.

Jamie couldn’t teleport away, not in here. So she ran, right back out the doorway she’d come. Without a single word of command the soldiers followed around her, keeping pace.

No, I did give them instructions. They’re supposed to protect me.

“Kill her!” Twilight’s voice boomed through the castle, crashing against her eardrums. “Kill that pony!”

Jamie dodged through the doorway, though she didn’t expect to get far. There were hundreds of hooves pounding on the stone after her, maybe thousands. The less she thought about it, the better she could concentrate on her running.

But it wasn’t doing any good. The ponies behind her were already gaining, their light spears lifting. They didn’t cram up against each other in the double door, tripping and trampling one another. A single glance behind her proved that they had were narrowing to a line twenty ponies across, a dense column that all charged as though they were assaulting an enemy trench.

Only as they closed in on her did Jamie see the first sign of her enemy failing. Whenever they got close, ponies skidded to a halt, staring at her in surprise. Behind them, runners had to dodge around, occasionally stumbling or smacking into the pony who stopped.

Jamie spread her wings, spinning suddenly around in the hall and lifting into a hover. “All of you, stop!” she ordered. “Stand where you are and break your spears!”

All of them—from Jamie’s own escorts to the head of the vast crowd trying to reach her—stopped in place. Those who weren’t unicorns removed spears from holsters—and started bashing them to pieces.

Jamie didn’t stop to watch them—didn’t know or care how many would do it. She was past the point of being able to help the invasion, though she hoped it would. She didn’t quite have the stomach to tell the soldiers to start attacking each other. If Twilight was smart, she probably would’ve made such orders impossible, just like attacking her.

Jamie left her former escort behind, feeling ahead of her with the magical senses Flurry Heart had developed over years. There were many spells hidden in this place, and she had no intention of stumbling over them to her death. She felt for the directions with the least magic, then ran that way as fast as she could. So maybe escaping with Basal wouldn’t work—she could still try to get to the ground, maybe walk back towards Hollow Shades until she was back in range of Epsilon. It could probably point her towards safety, even if it would doubtless refuse to let her return.

Or maybe the rebellion would win tonight.

Jamie ran for several minutes, dodging and weaving but always preferring hallways with windows. That meant an exterior wall, and she kept a mental note of how far from the wall she’d gone. The first large window she found would be her exit.

The only trouble was, there weren’t any. The vast stained panels she could see from outside were facades, with only slits behind them. Not even Basal could’ve squeezed through them, assuming the glass waiting on the other side didn’t shred anyone who tried.

There was a flash from ahead of her, and Jamie raised her wings, shielding her face from the light as best she could and skidding to a halt.

Twilight Sparkle stood before her, a strange sword hovering in the air beside her. Strange because the base of the weapon was an Interceptor’s multitool, stretched and warped absurdly into a blade.

“This is far enough,” Twilight Sparkle said. “You have no idea what wealth of enchantments flow through the foundations of this castle. There is nowhere within its walls you could hide from me.”

Twilight looked much the worse for wear. Her mane stood on end, tips frayed and bleached white along one side. Her eyes were wide, her face twitching periodically. “When the sun rises over Equestria tomorrow, it will be to a kingdom safe from your kind forever.”

She gestured. “Step forward and hold still. I have one last task for you.”

Jamie eyed the sword, shivering. She knew very little about how those devices worked, except for what she’d seen Kari do with hers. Apparently they had grown more advanced over the years, enough that they even worked in gravity.

“You’ve helped illustrate a critical flaw with my troops. I don’t even want to think about all the paperwork and reconditioning it will take to fix this. But thanks for your help in beta testing. Let’s make sure that issue doesn’t repeat in the meantime.”

She attacked so quickly that Jamie barely moved. The sword slashed, parting her wings from her body in two elegant strokes.

Jamie opened her mouth to scream, but the pain was so intense that shock overwhelmed her. She collapsed into a pool of her own pulsing blood, severed wings splayed to either side.

Twilight said something, but Jamie couldn’t comprehend it. Her world was on fire. She managed a single thought. At least I’ll bleed to death before she can do anything worse. Then the merciful relief of unconsciousness.

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