• 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 54: Grus

How many soldiers were there? Star barely lifted her weapon, but as the marines advanced she felt the same weight they did, slowly crushing her.

So far she had shown them two side-entrances into the royal palace, and watched near the back as their dwindling force pressed through. In both cases, they were met with a force of Unification Army soldiers so strong that they were soon clambering over corpses to move further. Eventually the dead became so thick that the enemy used them as a barricade.

Star Orchid would’ve lost her dinner, if she’d eaten anything. Instead the humans provided a strange, soupy liquid, which tasted just a little too sweet.

“Dose every hour,” Pablo, one of the four remaining marines, explained. “Stay alert, but avoid overhydration. Not that you can’t just piss in the armor. But any discomfort might spoil the fight, feel me?”

It worked better for her and Sunset than the pony volunteers. But all that extra focus and alertness only made it harder to ignore the terrible cost victory would bring.

Landon pulled them back from the second doorway, her suit so covered with preservative juices that it splashed around her when she stepped. “This is not working.”

They retreated from the building a little way—around the high wall of the sculpture garden, where they wouldn’t be in easy range for any of the new weapons the Unification Army wielded.

“Star Orchid, where are we trying to reach? Where would the princess go during a siege?”

Their little group had been whittled down to twelve, with most of the pony volunteers falling to minor injuries and returning for treatment, or just breaking under the stress. Star felt a little safer with the older mare Sweetie Belle back at their landing site, tending to the wounded. She only wished Windbrisk had done the same, but no luck. He had fought as hard as any of the human soldiers, and with far less protection from harm.

“Well, the good news is we know our attack worked,” Star said. Or all the portraits and histories are wrong. “In the past, Twilight would be out here leading her troops directly. She must feel vulnerable.”

“Great,” Vandal said, flipping back her visor and chugging from a tube of the nutrition goo. “Fantastic. Fuck these defenses, we’re going straight for her. Where’s she at?”

Star shivered under the pressure of their attention. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to share what she knew—but what if she was wrong? These lives would be on her hands. And maybe all Equestria too. “The most secure part of the palace is her laboratory. I only entered a few times, and only with her escort. Speaking of avoiding the palace’s traps: every kind of dangerous spell there is will be protecting it.”

“Shouldn’t hurt us though, right?” Pablo asked. “You know, on account of being people.”

Sunset glared at him. “When I last spoke with Twilight, she feared you over all her other enemies. I don’t know how many of her protections will work on you, given she didn’t spare any of you for testing. But some might. I know the light spears will, even if they have trouble with the armor.”

Pablo waved his gauntlet dismissively. “We can deal with the threat when it arrives. It isn’t like the ones out here aren’t already trying to kill us. Down there won’t be any worse.”

“Do you know where this laboratory is, Major Orchid? Approximately? We’re done asking nicely. We’re no longer in contact with the other teams, we don’t know if the enemy is already being reinforced from other districts of the city. Or maybe they’ve already won, and they’re just waiting on us. Time is not on our side.”

Star nodded. “Twilight’s lab is in the tunnels below the palace, part of the old caverns that connect the parts of the mountain Concord lifted. I don’t know exactly what it’s under, but once I see them I can guide you. She often transports large objects down there, or large groups of ponies. They won’t be hard for us to find.”

And you don’t want to know what she does with them once they get there.

“Down into the caverns,” Landon repeated. “Are those caverns underneath us right now, in the garden? Could you point us somewhere that you know will lead to them?”

She hesitated, then pointed towards an oversized fountain, which was shut down like everything else at night. “The palace water reserve is in a cavern just below there. The Unification Army doesn’t need any, so it’s mostly for the grounds. I know there are pumping stations down there, filtration and sewage. That kind of thing.”

“Good enough.” Landon turned towards Vandal. “Give me a door, Lance Corporal.”

“Sure thing.” She hefted the oversized pack she’d been carrying onto the ground in front of them, which rattled with malicious intent. “You don’t care if it’s pretty, right? Ain’t feeling big on pretty.”

It wasn’t pretty. They watched from hundreds of meters away, sheltered behind the thickest wall they could find. Decorative facade windows shattered all over the near face of the palace, while priceless plants blasted away in the force of the explosion. The real danger was the rock showering down around them, closer than Star would’ve liked.

Sunset lifted one hand, projecting a bubble over their group. But somehow, Vandal’s “spell” didn’t fling even a pebble in their direction, while boulders and chunks of stone larger than Star’s head rained down on the palace wall.

A fungus-shaped cloud rose into the sky ahead of them, gradually dissolving as the city flew. Even as it faded, Star could still hear the roar of moving water. “Door’s open,” Vandal said. “Hope the Rogue heard it.”

So the fight went on. For the next few minutes they made unopposed progress through the caverns, sloshing through water so high that Windbrisk transformed at first to swim through it instead of walk. The remaining two ponies had no such luck, and needed human assistance.

There were bodies too—at least a few of the castle staff had been hiding down here under the grounds to flee the battles upstairs, and had either been killed in the explosion or crushed by the water that followed. Star could only lower her head in whispered apology to each one they passed, then move on.

By the time they reached the entrance to the caverns, more soldiers blocked their way. They lost a rebellion pony to a lucky shot with a light lance about halfway to the lab. Not much further, a trap of stone collapsed around Pedro.

“Just cover me up with a few more rocks,” he said, voice strained. “Armor’s… fine. Don’t want to get shot while I can’t move, you know? You can come back for me when you win.”

Landon nodded, covering his exposed gauntlet with chunks of rubble. It would probably work to keep him alive down there until a rescue—unless they lost. Star didn’t want to think about the slow death by dehydration that would follow, maybe over days.

But I’ll be dead if that happens, what will I care? We’ll all be in Tartarus eventually.

By the end, the marines depleted the ammunition and fuel in every weapon they carried, and had to make do with whatever they could scavenge from the dead.

“Any… conventional enemy would’ve broken long before now,” Landon explained, as they ripped a mounted gun from a now-defunct defensive barricade. It had cost another of their human volunteers.

“Ten percent losses. That’s what an army can usually sustain. After that, it breaks.”

She slung the belt of ammunition over her shoulder, then took the no-longer-mounted gun in both arms. “We must be well beyond that for the Unification Army by now.”

“So are you,” Sunset said. Respectful, rather than confrontational. “How many more can we lose?”

Landon shared a long look with Marlay and Vandal. “Just because we’re not Interceptors doesn’t mean we’re a conventional army,” she said. “The Hippocrates had two dozen of us when she was commissioned. Now there are… fewer.”

“Can’t save the Empire,” Marlay said, dark eyes haunted. “No family, no home. Kodrak gave us something bigger than that. We’re the last ones fighting for this planet. If we make it safe tonight, we’re leaving a legacy bigger than anyone before.”

“Break’s over.” Landon turned, gesturing for the large hallway. Twilight could’ve hidden her lab, but she didn’t. Ultimately, the greatest protection it could have was the pony inside.

They traveled only a hundred meters or so further before finally reaching the door. It was the final obstacle, the thing Star had known would be waiting for them. A barrier of strange metal, spells layered so deep that she couldn’t even sense them through their lines of mutual interference. Centuries of spellcraft, all united to keep uninvited visitors out.

“The lab is on the other side of this door,” Star explained. “The lock is… complex. I don’t have a clue how to get through it.” She turned to Sunset Shimmer, feeling an irrational surge of hope. Star Orchid couldn’t open a door like this, but maybe she wouldn’t have to.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Vandal said. “I don’t see any locks, just something that’s about to be blown to pieces. Everyone stand back.”

“No!” Star jerked, spinning around to stare in her direction with horror. “The entire lab is a magically-reinforced shell. Anything strong enough to break through it would probably melt all of Concord. We’ll only waste time trying to cut our way in.”

Landon nodded slowly. “Sensors we left show reinforcements on their way down here. We’re about to have company.”

Star made her way over to Sunset. “You were Twilight’s magical equal once, weren’t you?” she asked. “Can you get this open?”

Sunset fidgeted with her gauntlet, before finally pulling it free. She ran bare skin over the metal, feeling its surface. From this side there was nothing to see, not even a keyhole. No conventional means could open this door, only magic. Maybe only Twilight Sparkle herself.

Finally Sunset looked back, at the expectant crowd. “Keep them off me for a bit. Starmind and I will get this open.”

Jamie didn’t want to wake up. Her memory still burned with the agony of what she had just suffered—no, that burning was her own flesh. She felt delirious, barely conscious. It would be so easy just to close her eyes and let it stop. She was no Interceptor, she wasn’t even a soldier. No one could expect her to keep fighting.

Her captor did not give her a choice. Someone kicked her in the side, hard enough that she actually rolled a short distance. “Stand up, Devourer. You’re going to watch this. A few minutes from now, you have to cast it.”

Jamie groaned, opening one eye and looking around. She was resting on a flat stone floor, polished smooth and featureless. More like a chalkboard than a floor, really. And that was no accident, because Princess Twilight had covered meters and meters of it with white lines.

Of course there were other things she was forced to see. Such as when she looked at her sides, and the ruin that had become of her wings.

Twilight had left about a handspan of joint and flesh on either side, before slicing through the meat and bone alike. She hadn’t bled to death from the sizeable wounds there, just as the pain of it wasn’t leaving her unconscious. The former she understood: Twilight had cauterized the wounds, brutally and mercilessly.

“I shouldn’t be… conscious.” Jamie moaned, stumbling to her hooves. She felt pain, but it was far less present in her mind than it should’ve been. More like the memory of somepony else’s pain, rather than her own. “People die from this much shock.”

People might. Alicorns don’t. Somehow the Devourers know the secret to what I do not.”

“Genetic engineering,” Jamie croaked, wiping her mane from her eyes. She scanned the room around them, searching for a way out. Not that she thought she could run or fly her way out now. Jamie would never fly again. “My brain was encased and transferred into a new body. It grew wings and a horn based on genetic templates and attached them. Against my will. I was perfectly happy growing plants in Hollow Shades’ garden. I didn’t want any of this.”

She’d never seen this part of the palace before. The ceiling was only a few times her height, held up by regular pillars along the center. A row of identical doors on one wall led to storage areas. But there were no exits, not all the way to a distant door what looked like five hundred meters or so away from her.

There were no shortcuts, no cover except pillars made too thin for a pony to hide behind. The whole space was lit with the same even blue glow, radiating down on them from above.

In many ways, it was what she would’ve expected from the study of an Alicorn like Twilight.

“You trouble me, Jamie.” Twilight stalked past her, eyes harsh. “You are an inconsistency. Devourers cannot increase the level of harmony in a system. Yet Alicorns are appointed by the divine will of Harmony, who would never choose a creature who did not serve it. This conundrum will be resolved. First the assault on Concord will be resisted. When the soldiers are dead, I will take the ESS Harrow back, and question every creature as long as it takes to ensure nothing survives of this rebellion.”

Jamie looked away, feeling a brief stab of pain as her wings tried to open. If she held them still, it didn’t hurt so bad—a dull background ache, ready to keep her awake in endless agony until she died.

“I think you’ve been telling this lie a little too long,” Jamie said. Maybe she should’ve kept her mouth shut—but she was already being tortured. Twilight obviously could’ve killed her, and she hadn’t. In a way, this was liberating. I’m going to die. I don’t have to stay quiet anymore. I don’t have to listen. “That’s the problem with lies. Maybe they’re convenient. But now you’ve confused reality and fiction.”

Jamie glowered at her, turning her chest directly towards Twilight. Her horn was still there, intact. But Jamie didn’t try to cast anything yet. “Alicorns aren’t religious icons, you’re terraformers. You manage the Earth’s orbit. You’re not a prophet.

Something metallic flashed beside Twilight—her sword, still stained with Jamie’s own blood. Though it had been long enough now that it was brown on the edges, rather than deep red. “You’ve said enough. I need you alive, but I do not need you to enjoy it.”

Why don’t you stick that handle a little closer, so I can recode it? Of course, that would require Twilight to not be giving it any commands.

I need to be ready. I still have my magic. I can use it against her, even though she can’t use it against me. She was in far too much pain to contemplate any kind of direct conflict—her concentration wouldn’t last long enough. Twilight would probably be able to defend herself, so long as she didn’t hurt Jamie. Wait for an opening. “What do you want from me, anyway? You can’t steal my magic, you already tried that.”

The sword wavered in the air beside Twilight for a second, as though she were reconsidering whether or not to put it through Jamie’s chest. After a few seconds, she sheathed it and turned back to her work. “You will wait there until I am finished. Then you will cast the spell I’m transcribing. I cannot seize the power your masters stole, so you will make a voluntary donation.”

Suddenly Jamie recognized the diagram. How she could’ve gone so long without understanding it, she couldn’t be sure. It wasn’t quite the same spell she’d seen Twilight cast on Flurry, or that she had tried to cast on Jamie. Thanks to her time in the memories, Jamie could see the changes clearly. Rather than taking from an external magical source, this one would simply give everything the caster had, and leave them just as dead.

That’s why you can’t butcher me more. If I’m a screaming wreck, I can’t cast spells.

Jamie’s ears twitched as she heard something coming from the doorway. Like metal clicking together. Maybe someone was going to cut their way in? Big difficult spell like this will take more time for Twilight to finish. She’ll have a hard time forcing me to do it without causing more damage.

“I wonder how you’ll try to make me cast this,” she said, voice bitter and pained. It was hard not to be, with bloody stumps instead of wings. “You can threaten me with torture all you want. But you know as well as I do that torture won’t make me able to cast spells.”

The princess looked up, eyes narrowing. “Causing pain is only accessory to the process. The evil protection around you and other humans might keep you safe from spells, but it won’t spare you poison.”

Twilight levitated something out from under her wings, holding it just where Jamie could see. “This poison will cause a slow, agonizing death. When I administer it, you will have two choices. Cast my spell and make the pain stop, or writhe in agony as your sanity melts away.” The vial vanished back into wherever she’d tucked it. “I’ve lived a long time, seen every kind of evil you’re capable of. But you… you’re one of the lesser demons. The strongest evils came before you, and I already purged them. All that’s left are the little ones.

“You’re selfishness, greed, sloth. When given the choice between hours of pain or a swift release from it, I know what you will choose.”

The battle for Twilight’s lab was terrible.

Behind their makeshift defenses on the steps, Star felt the weight of exhaustion heavy on their few remaining soldiers. By now every rifle and other exotic weapon had been run dry, except Landon’s gigantic gun. Worse, their enemy seemed to realize it. They had long since stopped sending soldiers with guns, instead charging with spears and pikes alone in overwhelming numbers.

Vandal was the most recent casualty, when a growing imperfection in one shoulder was torn open in a wave of charging ponies.

Windbrisk had taken a few hits from the light spear, and now fought from the reserve level taking potshots with what few light spears they still had. They’d lost a handful more human volunteers too, either taken down by lucky shots, or breaking under the pressure and needing to be dragged away from danger.

“We can’t keep at this all night!” Landon said, during the latest, longest lull in the fighting. None of them dared hope that it was the end of the Unification Army’s troops, at least Star didn’t. The numbers might be small compared to what the princess could usually field, but against their starting force of less than a hundred, they could keep fighting forever.

“Sunset, we need to be in there yesterday. What’s the hold-up?”

“I’m… almost…”

Sunset stood just in front of the door, working with a damaged light-spear she’d been using to burn glyphs into the stone. Many of them glowed with magical energy now, bright enough that no flashlight was necessary to light the featureless metal door. But for all her effort, the door was still deservedly closed.

“Well?” Landon asked. “I’m not trying to rush you. But if we get another wave as large as that last group, we won’t be able to protect you. Either you get us in there before the next charge, or we’re dead.”

Sunset spun, finding Star in the crowd and gesturing for her. Star hurried over, leaving the still-functional spear with another pony.

“What is it?”

“I could get the door open now,” Sunset said, over their private channel. “But it’s gonna take some serious magical strength. I don’t know how Starmind made us, but my power doesn’t go on forever.”

Star nodded. “You want my help casting it?”

Sunset lowered her head. Was that… shame? “I was hoping to find a less brute-force approach. But I can’t find the combination, and we’re running out of time. This spell will get it open, I’m positive. But we have a choice. If we cast it together, then we’ll both be half exhausted when we face Twilight. If one of us casts it, they’ll be wrung out—but the other one will have all her power. Tell me right now that you think you can fight the princess better than I can, and I’ll do it.”

Sunset held out the clipboard she’d been scribbling on, and the broken spear. “Or if you don’t think you can do it, then cast this spell. Leave me strong enough to stand a chance.”

Star imagined herself back in the royal court on her first day of service, staring up at an Alicorn with powers she could barely comprehend. Twilight had served for over a thousand years. If anypony stood a chance of beating her, it was obviously a creature who was similarly experienced.

I can’t kill a god, even one who lied to all of us for our whole lives.

“I’ll cast the spell,” Star said. “Walk me through it. I think I’ve picked up a little of how magic works. Still strange not feeling a horn, but… if it’s that or get crushed by the army battering us to death against this barricade, I’ll take it.”

Sunset clasped her on the shoulder, hugging her as best she could through the armor. “Thanks for your trust, Star. You don’t know what this means to me. I promise, I’ll make this count. I’ll free Equestria or die trying.”

I know. That’s what we’re afraid of.

Sunset walked her through the spell she had created, hurrying between different sections. Twilight’s lock wasn’t as complex as she initially thought, it turned out. It wasn’t that she couldn’t get it open, but that Twilight didn’t want anyone getting in without her knowing. Enough raw force could blast the magical lock apart.

“These numbers… this looks like an Alicorn spell, Sunset. I saw a few drafts of spells this size in Twilight’s solar, while I still served her. No unicorn could do this.”

“You’re not a unicorn,” Sunset said. “Neither am I. We’re… the life that Starmind expected in the world to come.” She flexed one empty glove, grinning at Star from behind her helmet. “You can cast this, Star Orchid. You’ve already destroyed one of the worst evils Twilight ever made. Think about your… uncle, wasn’t it? Thousands of ponies like him over the years, and you stopped it. Now stop this.”

Star took the clipboard firmly in both hands, glancing once over her shoulder. There was motion coming from down the halls again, probably another line of marching soldiers. They didn’t care about the mountain of the dead—they weren’t even alive. If they didn’t get inside soon, all the lives lost would be for nothing.

“Star?” Something approached from behind her. Windbrisk, hobbling along with his hindlegs heavily bandaged, leaning on a spear for support. He stopped beside her, looking up at the incredible door. “Can you get us in?”

She popped open her visor, bending down to look him in the eye. Strange that someone who had been so much taller than she was now seemed almost cute. Well, birds were always cute—but that was her old self getting her into trouble again. Unless she could reverse her transformation, she didn’t have much future with Windbrisk, even if they both lived through the night.

“I don’t know,” she whispered. “The princess didn’t want company. She locked us out better than any magic I’ve ever seen.”

Windbrisk considered that, glancing briefly at the spell. He looked back, without a trace of recognition on his face. This was all well beyond what he could grasp. Hippogriffs might understand transformation, but that was it.

“Please,” he whispered. “I know you can get us in there. My sister… doesn’t have a future, unless this door opens. Your family too. We can’t keep living under a tyrant. It has to stop.”

She bent down, resting one gloved hand on his shoulder. “I’ll try,” she promised. “But when I do… I don’t know how much more use I’ll be after this. Somepony else will have to worry about the princess.”

“We’ve got that part,” Windbrisk said. “We’re taking numbers for who gets to finish her off.”

Star drew in one last, deep breath… then started to read.

Sunset was right about one thing, she didn’t need much help with the casting. Her body knew what she was trying to do, even if Star herself did not. Runes began to glow, tearing open sections of lock one after another. The door lifted a few centimeters off the ground, its surface suddenly alight with thousands of tiny symbols. Twilight’s own magic burned there, deep purple. Defiant.

You can’t keep us out anymore. One by one the sections of Sunset’s spell lit up, lancing straight through the heavy metal like spears of light. Six symbols tore through it in six great openings around the edge, crumpling metal like paper. Runes burned out one after another, little flashes of gold light as the magic left them.

Star Orchid felt the strength draining from her with each one. She didn’t know quite how to measure her own magical strength, not yet.

Her knees buckled, but the armor remained standing. It was stronger than she was.

“You have to admire her though, don’t you?”

For a second Star looked away from the spell. The world was still. Windbrisk still watched from beside her, Sunset had retreated a little further to be out of range of the spell. Soldiers looked out at the gloomy tunnels, preparing for an attack they would not survive.

A figure strode past the door ahead of her, a figure Star recognized. A young human with white hair, with eyes that echoed down into forever. He wore the same loose coat as before, his feet bare. He looked back from the damaged spell, grinning. “There’s no speaking for her morality, but the determination… she built a kingdom to last.”

Star didn’t move. She didn’t lower the spell, for fear it might end in failure at any moment. If it did, she’d never manage to cast it twice. “Is that what matters? Just… how strong something is? How long it lasts?”

The figure shrugged. “Do the stars care what we did with their sunlight? Power’s just a gradient, Star Orchid. Until you give it meaning.”

He reached out, tapping the center of the door with one hand.

Reality came roaring back. The door collapsed in on itself, balling up like paper. It turned molten orange, landing with a half-solid splat on stone, and leaving the laboratory door open ahead of her.

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