• 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 8: Lepus

There was no town at the end of the line, everypony knew that. Beyond Terminus, the land was too treacherous for the tracks to survive for long. The jungle here was some of the first land that Concord had purified, during a time so ancient that it was more of a flying palace than a flying city.

But like that ancient city, Terminus had grown. Things here were a little more organized than the nameless places Star had seen—there were three districts instead of six, made from jungle wood and occasional stone. As they climbed out of the train, it was to make room for dozens of ponies waiting to get on. On its return trip through Equestria, the express would have few empty seats.

“We’ll need some new clothes,” Geist said casually, as they left the station behind for a muddy central street in the Magic and Generosity district. Here were the town’s only stone buildings—a mining warehouse, a shrine, and a hotel for officers and officials. Star could smell the aroma of fresh tea on the air, drifting from that building, and she started walking towards it before Geist even finished. He had to put a hoof on her shoulder to finally slow her down.

“Where are you going?”

She opened her mouth to answer, before she realized what she’d have to say, and she shut it again.

He smiled, apparently satisfied. “Remember why we’re here. Now it’s time for a change of clothes, and maybe a little more. We must sever the links of familiarity that bind us to our past. We can’t let them follow us from here.”

Star couldn’t even tell who that particular act was meant for. There were plenty of other creatures walking around, enough that it didn’t seem likely they were being overheard. But at the same time, it was almost overacted. Would anypony really believe anything he said?

So they left the Magic district for Kindness instead, where wooden buildings crowded close together in shops and homes of the merchant class. Geist seemed to know exactly where he was going, because he selected an unmarked building and walked straight in, leaving her to follow awkwardly behind him.

The interior was stuffy with incense, thick enough that she almost couldn’t see where she was going. Down a set of winding steps, and they were in a stone basement, packed with shelves. They carried clothes for all creatures, not just ponies. Most of it was practical—thin robes to keep out the ever-present dust, with masks and veils to use when the storms really got going. Coats for the coldest nights, as well as a small section of clothing that would probably have been burned if it were ever seen in Concord. Those socks certainly weren’t meant to be worn with any shoes…

For the size of the shop, the strangest part of all was probably just how few other customers there were. There was only one other creature inside, probably the shopkeeper.

“Is that a friendly face I see?” asked a voice, their diction slow and strange. “Yes, I know it. Geist has returned. What news from the capital, cousin?”

“No news is good news,” he responded, practically its own ritual in his tone. “We need traveling clothes for the road. We are refugees from Concord, you see. The laws there were too oppressive for us.”

Star emerged from behind a shelf, and finally caught a glimpse of the creature he was speaking to. She froze, utterly stunned. That hard green coat, those shimmering wings—this shop was owned by a changeling. She moved closer subconsciously, trying to catch a better look. She’d never actually seen one so close before. Even purified changelings like this were only allowed in Kindness, the lowest district of Concord. She’d never even visited.

“You’re looking for the forbidden,” the changeling said, glancing between the two of them and clicking her tongue. “What would cause you to flee Concord in shame, I wonder. What horror are you guilty of?”

“I know one way to find out.” Geist spun around, dodging around another shelf of multicolored coats until he was right in front of her. “I know your type, Star. You had strict parents, yes? Concerned with Harmony?”

She nodded, standing a little taller reflexively. “Obviously. Everypony cares about Harmony. My parents taught me well.”

He rolled his eyes. “What would you have to do for them to disown you? What do you know they never would’ve forgiven you of?”

Her ears immediately went flat, tail tucking between her legs. She slid back a step, shaking her head. “N-nothing. They loved me, that was just how it was. It was never a question whether I’d be harmonious or not.”

“Uh-huh.” Geist followed her, his grin merciless. “I’m sure I believe that. If you need the extra help, why don’t you just… pretend you’re telling me about somepony you knew. A neighbor, perhaps. What was the worst scandal you can think of? What are ponies in Magic district really ashamed of these days?”

The words tumbled from her lips before she could stop herself. It didn’t matter—there was nothing he could do about it. She’d never actually done it. “If I’d brought a bird home with me instead of a pony,” she muttered. “A mare. That’s… the worst thing I could think of. I’m not sure my father would ever look at me the same way again.”

The shopkeeper laughed, her voice reverberating through the shop. It made Star shiver again, taking another step towards the door. “I’m not sure what that matters for us, Geist. We can just say we got caught… stealing from an altar or something.”

Geist shook his head peremptorily. “I told you that you’d want to flee your duty, remember? You said you’d never dream of it. Are you changing your mind? Does your commitment to Harmony only run skin deep?”

Are you really telling me that I have to do something to invite evil in order to do good?

“I’ll do whatever is necessary to serve Harmony,” she muttered. It was a familiar mantra, her only real defense against chaos. Of course she would serve harmony. “It doesn’t matter though, Geist. Maybe that would make for a compelling disguise. There’s just one problem—” She shoved him with a hoof, hard enough that he slid away from her. She wasn’t an earth pony, so she couldn’t really hurt him. But she was starting to want to. “You’re not a bird. That’s why my idea is better. Something simple we could’ve done that no one can prove.”

“Precisely why it won’t work,” said the shopkeeper. She bustled about the store, gathering bits of clothing from around them while they argued. It looked like she was assembling outfits. The clothes she picked used some familiar formalwear as a base. Perfect outfits from Concord, cut and sewn and re-tailored together into something flawed in a dozen different ways. “If you can’t prove you’re unwelcome, you invite investigation.”

“But by presenting our crimes in a way that makes them clearly visible to all, we are impossible to deny,” Geist finished. “Why do you think I’m still alive when so many others who have served in the court have perished in their duties? I know what I’m doing, Star. You will need to trust me—and sacrifice, perhaps. You sin a little to invite greater Harmony into all Equestria. Welcome to the work of the infiltrator and the assassin.”

She flopped onto her haunches, exasperated. “I don’t care how convincing you think it would be, Geist. It’s impossible. That’s why it would be so convincing, because it’s hard to fake. There wouldn’t even be a point to pretending we were together. You’re a bat, I’m a unicorn. And I’m not going to do it if it doesn’t serve our mission. I don’t have to make a fool of myself for your entertainment.”

“You don’t have to do that,” he agreed. “That’s a service you provide free of charge.”

At that moment, the shopkeeper stopped, settling a little metal cart in front of them. There were two distinct outfits there—both obviously for mares, though one was so much bigger than Star it might as well be a tent. Geist shrugged out of his cloak, revealing… nothing underneath. She’d pictured armor, or maybe knives strapped to his limbs. But no, he was just a bat under there. All that time he’d spent hiding his appearance from the eyes of the average pony, and there wasn’t even anything that interesting to see.

“Now you’re a sinner,” Geist said, taking the jacket made for a griffon and shrugging it on with a flourish. There was a flash of magic, and his form blurred, and… Geist was gone.

In his place was a graceful, feathered beauty, perhaps a head taller than Star. Her feathers were dusty black and brown like an owl’s, though they went pale cream around her soft face and underside. Massive wings slipped out between the openings in the jacket, so it wouldn’t interfere with her flying. Even the scent of a bat was gone, replaced with something much more exotic.

“And chaos enters,” the bird said. She didn’t use Geist’s voice, hers was high and musical. But it was still his annunciation, his constant near-mockery. “Imagine your father’s fury when he saw me for the first time.” She extended a claw, accepting the scarf the shopkeeper offered, wrapping it around her neck. “No daughter of mine, he must’ve said. From the Honesty district, can’t you do better? How will you give me foals this way? We want grandkids, your mother said. And you hung your head in shame, and apologized… but we fled that night. And now we are here.”

It was a preposterous story, obviously. Star Orchid never would’ve imagined doing something that would bring shame and embarrassment on her family. She had a filter for things like this that stopped her before she made stupid decisions. She tried to force a laugh in the bird’s face—but her body just wouldn’t cooperate. “You’re a changeling. The princess let a changeling into her court?”

“Even a princess can get over herself enough to see when we’re useful,” the shopkeeper said. She tugged on Star’s sleeve. “Go on now, off with that perfect white robe. It wouldn’t stay white where you’re going anyway. You’re a vagabond and a runaway now, dress the part. Most of the magic is in the clothes, not the transformation.”

“Piriform would say that, she sells clothes,” Geist said. Star’s brain couldn’t really process that. It was the same personality, but… if Geist had looked like this through their whole trip, she would’ve had a very difficult time just looking out the window all the time. That common sense muscle would’ve got an awful lot of exercise.

Changing in front of another creature was embarrassing, but… it clearly wasn’t going to be the most embarrassing thing she did today. Or even this week. No, I’ve got standards.

Star snatched the entire outfit from the cart, spinning her tail and marching away. “I can see you’ve got a changing room. Just because I’m apparently some kind of… degenerate… doesn’t mean I’m going to give up all my standards of property.”

“It was your fantasy,” Geist called after her. “We could’ve done something else!”

“It wasn’t a fantasy! You asked for the worst thing I could think of, and…” She stormed into the changing room, slamming it shut behind her. Compared to most shops she’d visited in Concord, this one was gigantic, the bench so high up she almost couldn’t reach it. She stripped, then donned the new costume as quickly as she could.

Even with her cheeks warm and ears flat, she could see some truth to the illusion that Geist had proposed. Her reflection in the changing-room mirror really did seem like some courtly unicorn on the run. Trying ineffectively to hide her wealth by sewing her courtly robes into something more practical. There were even little bits of jewelry, which this pony probably wore to look good for the bird she loved.

Give up your whole life because you can’t control your emotions. Stupid. There’s a reason love isn’t one of the harmonic ideals.

Hiding wasn’t going to make the problem go away, though. I’ve been with a changeling this whole time. His disguise is so good that nobody even knows he was a bat. That brought a little fear, though. If nobody knew—did that mean she would be killed before the end of this mission? Or maybe it was something simpler, and he only made his promise to ponies he knew could keep them. He, she… Now she was confused.

She stormed out a few moments later, fully dressed in the new outfit. Piriform was standing just outside, with a much rougher bag held out for her. “Here, transfer your belongings. Can’t have something stitched so perfectly over those makeshift cloaks, dear.”

You’d know, you’re the changeling. You creatures lie with your appearance alone. She started dumping things, working as quick as she could. “Aren’t you going to be miserable for… as long as this mission takes, Geist? I don’t know many creatures who would want to be the wrong sex for months at a time.”

Suddenly she was there, emerging from behind a shelf of hats. “You say that like it means anything to me. I’m a bird right now, and a few minutes ago I was a bat. Wouldn’t you think that difference would matter more? Entirely separate magic, entirely separate reactions. There are places that no bird will be able to live. But if this rebellion is anything like the ones I’ve killed in the past, then… they won’t care. It just makes our act more convincing. Aren’t you convinced?”

She slid past her, running her side against Star in a way that was far more than friendly. Her rational mind wanted to shove her back—but it was too weak just now.

“It’s mildly convincing.”

Geist stuck out her tongue. “Well, you need some work. Looking at me with half-disgust isn’t going to fly if we’re going to pretend we eloped from Concord. I’m going to need some more convincing romance than that.”

She leaned forward, as though she was going to try and pressure Star into kissing her next. That was too far. She caught her shoulder with a hoof, shoving her backward. “Let’s focus on getting there first. I’ll cross that bridge once it matters.”

“Such a pony way of doing things…” Piriform muttered. “Good luck on this one, Geist. You’re going to need it.”

If Star had known what kind of journey was waiting for her as soon as she finished with the train, she probably would’ve taken the time to appreciate its luxuries a little more.

They stayed only one night in Terminus, during which Geist insisted on getting a “bridal suite” to aid with the illusion if anyone decided to investigate. Star slept on the couch, growing less amused with their chosen illusion the longer Geist kept it up. And I’m going to have to deal with it for the rest of this mission. Harmony preserve that I don’t kill her before this is over.

But then came morning, and the trail. At least it was well-marked, they weren’t venturing into unknown territory where no creature had ever walked. But a well-marked trail was still essentially just a rocky jungle with a few signs to make sure they didn’t go off the wrong way.

“Maybe… the princess has the right idea after all…” she croaked, by their third day of hiking. “If flying over this place would make the mosquitoes die, then we should come back this way.”

Geist laughed. “You unicorns would like such a simple solution. Magic over this place until the ground is a smoking crater, and job done. Maybe that works for the Devourers, but mosquitoes are mightier than that. Legend says they survived the end of the world three times, and still they endure. Our princess’s castle won’t make a dent.”

She groaned, but didn’t argue the point. She wasn’t aware of that particular legend, but it probably made sense. And of course, Geist’s bird form would be immune to their bites with feathers that thick. She was immune to getting mud on her hooves, or stepping on rocks, or tripping on vines. She glided over the trail, drifting lazily while Star had to drag herself along. It was enough to get Star thinking that there was wisdom in the way the princess treated changelings.

“You know, I’ve been thinking. We need a new name for you. If we call you Geist around Hollow Shades, somepony might make the connection. You’ve got to have an appropriate bird name to be convincing.”

“Sure,” Geist said, as though she was barely listening. “Why don’t you pick something. I am your marefriend.”

That doesn’t make sense. But she didn’t give her the satisfaction of pointing that out. She’d been traveling with Geist long enough to realize that she clearly liked to make ponies uncomfortable. First it had been seeming all dark and dangerous, and now they were out here… it was almost the reverse. “What’s a proper griffin name? They’re all strange, aren’t they? They only like names that sound one way. How about… Ginny.”

Certainly she had no ulterior motives in choosing that name. It wasn’t like she’d known a bird like that, once. Back when she still thought about making stupid mistakes.

“Fine,” Geist said. “Ginny it is. Don’t bother changing your name. Nopony has a clue who you are. The princess knew this was coming when she picked you. No formal announcement, all of your meetings with her were private. Star Orchid sounds like a proper noble name, which you’ll play fine since that’s exactly what you are. We just have to work on how affectionate you are.”

Her horn began to glow dangerous. “Don’t even bucking think about it. I’ve got mud in places I never dreamed of, and I am not in the mood. You want to practice that, you get down here and walk.”

She landed right in front of Star, so abruptly that her tail actually smacked into her face. “Fine,” Geist… no, Ginny, said. “That’s a fair trade. I’m not a creampuff out of the castle, I can walk. Even if you make it out of this, cross all the way to Hollow Shades and back, you’ll never come close to as far as I’ve gone. I’ve been to parts of the world where most creatures can’t imagine. I’ve stood in eight of the great relics. The Dragonlands, Mount Aris, Griffonstone…” She stopped, glancing over her shoulder. “Don’t tell me you’re actually impressed.”

Star couldn’t help herself. She hadn’t said anything, but of course Ginny wouldn’t need her to. She was a changeling under all those pretty feathers. She would be reading her feelings. If the ancient stories were true, she could feed on those feelings as well. Or her ancestors had. The black changelings, creatures of hunger and greed. Rather like Devourers themselves, now that she thought about it. Had the princess ever made that connection?

“How’d you get past the Spellrift? I didn’t think anything could survive out there. Not even dragons.” Wasn’t that the whole point?

“The navy would be unwise to share all its secrets with the ponies of Concord,” Ginny said, voice cheerful. Still amused with her. “But I’m not the navy, I don’t have to keep their secrets. I’ll say… that the Rift is real. But the danger of life outside comes from the Rift, not anything else. Get past that, and you can live as well as anywhere else…”

She trailed off, looking awkwardly away. Obviously she wasn’t sharing everything. But why would a master liar make it so obvious?

“What are those places like?” Star asked, hurrying to keep up. Maybe if she kept the pressure on, she’d actually learn a few interesting details. Or just figure out that Geist was a liar, something she already understood just fine.

“Dead,” she said flatly. “It’s a reminder of the dangers of… disharmony. In our old, harmonious world, creatures lived everywhere. They created all kinds of amazing places. Different races built things in different ways, or worked together to build even greater. But ultimately—”

“Strife and disharmony tore them apart,” Star finished, almost defensively. “And the princess saved all that she could. But most of the world was lost to the Spellrift. All outside of Equestria withered and died.”

Ginny looked away. She didn’t actually try to “practice” romance, or say anything else until nightfall.

They still had so far to go.

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