• 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 9: Sculptor

Jamie slowed as they finally reached the city, trying to process something that resembled nowhere she’d ever imagined. Hollow Shades was built into a narrow mountain valley, a vast circular city divided into thirds around a central market. It looked as though space had started running out for new homes a few centuries back, and so the ponies had started stacking things onto one another, leading to narrow streets that were just barely large enough for two people, weaving between shops and gardens and plenty of adorable little houses.

Adorable probably wasn’t the right word. This was the worst nationless slum, constructed out of scrap material and ancient stone and held together with crude mortar. She searched for the hallmarks of technology—the wireless transmission towers, power cables, or fleet of transit drones. She found none of them here.

“It’s not the fanciest city in Equestria,” Shy said from beside her, apparently interpreting her long silence the wrong way. “But it’s as far from Concord as you can be. Its ponies are open-minded, and love learning new ideas. Plus, there are all kinds of interesting animals in the jungle, and lots of them come in to visit. You’ll… have to get used to that if you’ll be living with me.”

“That’s fine.” She turned, ears flattening with embarrassment. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a city on the ground.”

Shy’s eyebrows went up, expression turning to confusion. “I don’t know how to read you, Jamie. Your name, the, uh… the Darktech you’re carrying… you don’t seem like someone who’d live in Concord. Unless that’s where you’ve been running from all along. Did you lie to me?”

“No!” Jamie rolled her eyes. “I don’t know what Concord is. I grew up on Persephone Platform—one of those low-orbit jobs, the kind that has to moonlight throwing cargo downwell to maintain its angular momentum and keep orbit…” She trailed off, recognizing the universal sign of “I don’t have a clue what you just said” on Shy’s face. “My parents are both from Artemis. How many of the moon cities are still up there?”

There was no more comprehension on Shy’s face, yet somehow she seemed to be relaxing the more she told her. “I’m just glad you told me the truth.” She turned back for the road, which cut narrow switchbacks down the side of the cliff and into the alleys of Hollow Shades. “Just keep your eye out for anypony wearing purple, okay? You wouldn’t want to say something like that in front of an Commissar. They’ve got… strict rules.”

“Authoritarianism, perfect,” she muttered, following Shy into the city. She was silent then, watching the streets nervously for any sign of the ‘Commissars’. She didn’t need any context to the lives of the horse creatures to know they must be bad.

Then they were into the city, and the silence of the jungle was replaced with voices. Not the shouting happiness of the data-exchange on Friday night, but… at least they were other voices. After spending weeks in physical therapy with a barely-sapient AI, she’d take anything she could.

So many of them were bigger than she was. It wasn’t just Shy, apparently she was just small here. She saw no suspicion as they watched her—only friendly smiles, as they greeted Shy and welcomed her back from “another of her trips.”

Shy took them all the way down into the center of the city, where merchant stalls were packed up to standing room only, and there was no silence over the constant shouting. Jamie whimpered quietly at the volume, moving a little closer to her companion. I’m completely out of my depth here. How long until someone notices I don’t belong? Instead of the simple cobblestone path or dirt trail, the floor here was made from thick metal plates, interlocking near the center and flexing slightly whenever the crowd moved. Were they on the top floor of a building, or covering up a basement?

It wasn’t just her own thoughts urging her to turn back. She could still hear Epsilon in one ear, repeating that she should flee the settlement at the first available opportunity. She was in too much danger, discovery was too serious a risk, the strategy needed to be reevaluated. If you think I’m going back to hide in the ground after seeing this, you’re delusional.

But arguing with it would make her look crazy, and was also far too confrontational for Jamie. She just kept quiet, not letting Shy get out of her sight.

“I’m always hungry after a long hike, want to stop for lunch?” Shy asked. “Wait no, I don’t want to put you on the spot—you won’t have any money. How about… I’m going to treat you to lunch.”

Apparently Shy had been planning on that for most of the walk, because they were only a few steps away. A little stall tucked into a secluded corner of the marketplace, with a rickety-looking deck built above it packed with tables and chairs.

They reached the shop, and Jamie stopped dead, staring at the creature behind it. They weren’t even a horse, but some kind of four-legged bird thing, complete with oversized wings and a beak on their face.

“I thought you planned on spending a few days with the bats, Shy,” they said. “Change of plans?”

“Minor cave-in,” she said weakly, gesturing over her shoulder at Jamie. “But I made a new friend! Georgia, this is Jamie. She’s come a long way to find somewhere safe to spend a little while.”

“Doesn’t look like she’s seen a griffon before,” Georgia said, smiling ruefully at her from behind the counter. “Careful leaving your mouth open like that, kid. Bug might fly in.”

Jamie winced, shaking herself free of her stupor and nudging up beside Shy. “Sorry. You’re, uh… you’re right, I never have. Pleasure to meet you, Georgia.”

That was apparently what the griffon was looking for. “You had me worried for a minute, Shy. Thought you’d found some stuck up Concord pony, who flew out here to make our town more like hers.”

“I don’t think she’s like that,” Shy said, eyeing Jamie with a sudden intensity. Just for the griffon’s benefit? “Anyway, can we just get, uh… a pair of daisy sandwiches? With whatever fresh greens you have today.”

“Sure,” Georgia said, fishing around behind the stall. Her head emerged with a pair of plates a moment later, exchanging them for little bits of gold from Shy. It was probably for the best that Shy carried both of them—Jamie wasn’t sure she could’ve handled the narrow steps and balancing a plate of food in her mouth at the same time.

There wasn’t a lot of space on the top floor, but Shy found them an empty table near the railing. Jamie sat back, taking in the market from her commanding view. The food might be from the equivalent of a cheap stall, but it was just as good as anything she’d eaten in the shelter. Epsilon had only guessed at what ponies liked to eat from what it saw on camera. Georgia actually knew.

“I like to pony-watch from up here,” Shy muttered, after they’d been eating for a few minutes. “Everything in Hollow Shades happens here in the center market. Sit up here long enough, and you’ll see all the important ponies in the city.”

Seems like you’re one of those important ponies, Jamie thought. Everyone knows you. Everyone wants to say hello. Coming in with Shy had probably alleviated much of the suspicion she would’ve faced, if she’d just walked in. Maybe there’s some way I can still figure out my original mission. I just need to get to the authorities who are really in charge without getting stopped by the Commissars on the lower level. “Seems like a nice place to live,” Jamie said. “This… might seem like a weird question, but do you guys have power out here? Or… indoor plumbing? I can’t see any infrastructure, and I don’t know how you’d hook up all these little houses.”

“You’re thinking of Concord again,” Shy said. “The capital has all those things and more. Magical carts that take you anywhere you want to go, all the different foods you can eat, water and electricity… we trade all that away in Hollow Shades.”

“For what?”

“Freedom,” Shy answered.

There was silence between them. Shy went back to eating, and Jamie looked back to the railing, watching the market.

It reminded her a little of the tech-bazaars she’d seen in Cupertino when she went Earthside as a kid. Only instead of pirate implants and custom drones, these creatures were hawking much more primitive supplies. Most of it was food, though there were plenty of stalls selling “salvage” of various kinds. Old furniture, old tools, all painstakingly restored.

Then she got her first look at a Commissar. Jamie didn’t need Shy to tell her what she was looking at—she probably would’ve known even if she’d never met her.

The pony towered over the creatures all around him, wearing full plate and mail somehow anodized in purple. How the hell aren’t you boiling alive in this humidity? But if the full suit of armor wasn’t enough, an oversized banner was attached to his back, waving with a strange star symbol on purple cloth. Everywhere he walked, creatures got out of his way, many dropping to the ground or at least lowering their heads as he passed.

“Commissar Golden Shine,” Shy muttered, barely loud enough to hear. “He’s only been here a few months, ever since Concord figured out the last one had stopped enforcing half of the Words of Harmony. You shouldn’t talk to him. Or… really get anywhere close to him. He’s the last pony you want looking at you.”

Golden Shine looked up as he passed, eyes skimming right over her but settling on Shy. He seemed to tense, slowing. Was he going to storm up the steps and confront her?

After a few seconds he shook his head, continuing his market rounds. Apparently he wasn’t just here to intimidate everyone, he was inspecting what was being sold.

But just as quickly he was gone, leaving Jamie to her meal. Shy seemed to be making sure he wasn’t coming back before rising, and gesturing for her to do the same. “We’re in the Kindness district. It’s… the lowest in town, but that doesn’t mean as much here as it does in Concord. Hollow Shades wasn’t a perfect planned community, so we kinda just build wherever we can find room.”

She shrugged one shoulder ambivalently. “I wouldn’t know what it meant even if you were like Concord, Shy. I… don’t know anything, remember?”

They walked from the restaurant, circling around to another part of the market, then finding an alley barely wide enough for two ponies to walk at once. From the look of things, the rich part of Hollow Shades was on the upslope, and the downslope Shy spoke about was the Kindness district. They stepped together into the shade and didn’t emerge again.

Jamie watched every step with nervous eyes, the same way she had whenever she visited the Unregulated zones. If anywhere was going to offer to sell her forbidden mods or some insane new drug, it would probably be here. “Why is this place called the ‘Kindness’ district?” she asked, eyeing the open windows of a building that was certainly a cathouse. Even among horses, she knew the look. The way those feathered ones lounged on the second floor, beckoning her whenever she looked at them for too long. And whatever she was smelling, it had to be a drug. “Smells more like a red-light district to me.”

Shy’s ears drooped, and she didn’t answer for a few silent moments. “Every city has to do things like Concord does, the Commissars make sure of that. They’re is divided into districts based on the Exemplars of Harmony. Laughter, Generosity, Loyalty, Honesty, Kindness, and Magic. In Concord, they’re physically separate, and different kinds of creatures live in each one, based on how closely they follow Harmony’s example. Kindness is…”

She fell silent as another group passed them going the other direction—two ponies marching together wearing purple uniforms. Curiously, they seemed almost as afraid of Shy as she was of them, because they didn’t even make eye contact. As soon as they saw who was leading Jamie, they looked the other way and sped up.

When they were gone, Shy continued. “Kindness is the least of all virtues, so it’s the least of all districts. We got last pick over where we’d be built, so we’re kinda tucked away into the bottom here. It’s… not the worst, though. The city planners didn’t know just how much space there was underground, and since it’s still on the hallowed foundation… well, I’ve got a great place. I can deal with being underground, and I’m a pegasus. You don’t mind, do you?”

“It’s… not my favorite,” she admitted. “But it’s not like I’m never going to leave. I’ll have to, uh…” She trailed off, whimpering quietly. She didn’t actually know what she was going to do. Presumably she should be taking steps to accomplish her mission? Or maybe she should just be learning the new world and getting a job. It didn’t help how much bigger most of them seemed to be. At least Shy wasn’t super tall. “I don’t suppose you people take UNI-ses certs for job qualification?”

Shy didn’t answer, as they’d reached a heavy wooden door set into the side of the cliff. It looked far less run-down than many of the other places, with sturdy metal bands. There was no keyhole, but Shy tapped the door once, and a mechanical sound echoed through it from the other side. It swung open, leading into a gloomy space. Not quite a cave, since it had been cut and finished into a structure big enough for her to walk comfortably. But it probably had been one once.

As soon as the door shut behind her, an even white glow shone from up above, radiating from a little strip bracketed along the ceiling. “I thought you didn’t have electricity!” Jamie exclaimed, pointing up with one leg. “You’ve got motion sensors and everything!”

Shy hung up her hat and jacket on hooks near the front door, pausing only to secure a series of locks. “Magic, it’s not the same thing. But I don’t like talking about it outside the house. I feel bad for all the ponies who have less. I can’t give away enough to make a real difference, but… I can help when I see an opportunity. Like a strange little stray who saved me from a cave-in.”

She spun back around, looking far more confident now. She might’ve been a little nervous before, but this was her private domain.

I’m not that little.

“Hopefully I can learn a lot from you, Jamie. I don’t know if you’re a Devourer, or… Whatever you are, I’ve got a proposal for you.” She stopped only inches away, extending a hoof towards her. “You stay here with me, and I teach you anything you want to know about Hollow Shades. In exchange, I want to know about where you’re from. So long as we’re honest with each other, you can stay as long as you like. If you lie…” She shook her head. “I don’t want to be lied to. I’d send you back to where you came from to work on your honesty.”

Jamie couldn’t even hear Epsilon’s voice in her head anymore. Probably being underground had blocked it out. “I can agree to that, Shy. But there’s not a whole lot I can do to convince you about what I’m saying. The world I’m from is… so different from yours that they barely have anything in common. I wouldn’t have to exaggerate anything I said for you not to believe most of it.”

“Yeah?” She considered that for a moment, then shook her hoof anyway. “You’d probably be surprised, if… there’s a single bedroom down here with a skylight. It should be empty right now—let’s see about getting you set up. And maybe find you some less suspicious clothes, while we’re at it.” She stared at Jamie’s undersuit for a few seconds, frowning. “I don’t think even the royal technicians would wear something like that in public.”

Twilight Sparkle, Regent of Creation, reclined upon her perfect throne in her perfect kingdom. Ten centuries of leadership had brought increasing purity to the domain she ruled, removing dangers one at a time until at last true purity was close.

There weren’t empty thrones around her, as there had once been. That had let her imagination run wild, and sometimes she would see their faces all around her. They hadn’t approved. She knew what they wanted, because of course there could be only one thing. There was too much disharmony, too much hatred.

Now instead of thrones, there were stained glass windows, surrounding her chair in a glowing antechamber. The symbols of the Exemplars of Harmony weren’t exact copies of their cutie marks—a single golden apple, a perfectly straight rainbow instead of the lightning-bolt, one balloon. They weren’t meant to symbolize the complex lives of her irreplaceable friends—just their greatest talents. And of course, by long tradition Fluttershy’s wasn’t a window at all, so no light came from behind her monochrome butterfly.

A set of hoofsteps interrupted her contemplation, enough that Twilight began to stir in her throne. There was order in the sound, perfect timing of one and three more. The gallop of one of her legionnaires.

This particular soldier was freshly made, and so he still had a little color in his mane. His eyes had the same neutrality as all the others, though his urgency suggested whatever he’d come to say must be important. He stopped near the throne, earning suspicious glares from the royal guard. Twilight could practically hear their thoughts. What’s this creature doing in our territory? Why is it trespassing?

“Commander,” he said, saluting crisply and perfectly despite the run. “General Iron has news from the Unification War.”

Twilight gestured with a wing. There was no point being impatient with the deliberate way he spoke, enunciating every word. One did not hate a clock for losing time, one hated its craftspony. Twilight Sparkle certainly couldn’t hate herself. “It must be important news if you’ve been sent. Iron’s troops were investigating the… caverns of the diamond dogs we captured, if I’m not mistaken. Has he encountered the source of the Darktech at last?”

“No.” Her advisors would probably speak more gently when correcting her, fearing the consequences. Her soldiers were incapable of fear, even in the face of terrible danger. “He sent me to report an engagement with an unknown enemy.”

Interesting. Twilight rose from her throne in a flash, appearing inches away from the soldier. He didn’t flinch. “And the outcome?”

“Seventy-one destroyed, one damaged,” he said. “Loss of the transport cruiser 14-Rainbow.”

Her face twitched. When she sent her troops in to fight the diamond dogs in their own territory, only five legionnaires were damaged, all back in service now. I knew we were close, she thought, looking up at Rainbow’s window above her. Its multicolored glass filled her with purpose. Soon the planet would be pure at last. “The enemy must’ve fielded a battalion at least to inflict casualties like that. How many did you capture?”


Twilight’s mane flared behind her, beginning to glow brighter than the sun streaming in from outside. Her guards backed away, quietly slipping around beside the throne. She let them do it—this wasn’t their failure. “And… how many… dead?”

“We don’t know,” the legionnaire said. “There are no bodies to study.”

Twilight froze, eyes fixed on him. She took a few deep breaths, counting backwards from ten. It’s alright. We’re getting closer to our final enemy. We’ve still made progress here. The Unification Army isn’t afraid of losses.


He told her. A few seconds later, she was there.

They were on ground ahead of the Concord’s path, with grass swaying in the wind and half a dozen large wildflowers blooming. The transport cruiser had left a deep track in the soil from its rough landing, though her pilot had kept it in one piece. So there were still plenty of little things to be proud of.

Twilight advanced along the dirt track, until she reached the airship. It was almost upright, though the armor plating along its side was strangely damaged. Something had punctured the steel in dense circles, which seemed to cut straight through to the other side of the ship.

Another two cruisers had landed on the ground nearby, unloading their legionnaires into a protective perimeter around the crash site. Overhead a single battlecruiser loomed, blocking out the sun with its massive guns. Whatever force had attacked one of her cruisers would think twice against confronting such a potent section of the Unification Army.

The soldiers didn’t react to her presence—other creatures would be asked for identification, possibly taken into custody if they drew too near to such a strategic crash site. But every soldier knew her. There was no point asking for identification from an Alicorn, when there was only one in all the world.

She strode up to the perimeter anyway, searching for the officer with the plume of feathers in their cap. “Legionnaire—this crash had survivors, did it not?”

He saluted. “Yes, Princess.”

“See that they’re sent to my palace via the usual method, once they’re fit to travel. They likely know information that will be critical to discovering the culprits of this unprovoked attack.”

“Yes, Princess.” No doubt, no consideration. It didn’t even matter if this was the right pony in the chain of command for such an order. A command coming from an important Alicorn would get to where it needed to be.

Twilight lifted into the air, landing on the broken deck moments later. Here were the first bodies—the legionnaires manning the pair of deck-guns facing to either side. Mostly they were used for riot control, but the energy-crystals in both sides were missing. Not drained, just gone. Stealing weapons is a capital crime, she thought, as she walked between the brutalized bodies of her soldiers.

The smell of formaldehyde was thick in the air, but she walked over blackened flesh with her nose held high. Whatever had killed her soldiers, it had only taken seventy-one of the eighty-one ponies that should’ve been on this transport cruiser. That meant survivors, and maybe witnesses.

There were more corpses on the stairwell leading belowdecks, though that wasn’t the first thing she noticed. The metal had turned thin and powdery, and her hoof nearly broke through one of the steps as it crumbled to chalk. Interesting.

The lights were off down below, forcing her to light her horn to see the carnage. This was the source of the formaldehyde smell, and it was no mystery why.

The large section where legionnaires sat while in transit had been… exploded. There was no clearly identifying the parts of one pony over another, it was all an unidentifiable red paste, with yellowish preservative sloshing around as the common blood of the dead.

Twilight had no choice but to walk between it all, erecting a little bubble of force around herself to push the bits and pieces away. She crossed down between the bodies, until finally reaching the bridge.

The steel security door had a single hole melted through right into the locking mechanism, and hung loosely on one side.

The pilot was still here. His hooves had been tied to the helm, and a dark cloth bag was over his head. Still he stood at attention, like he hadn’t noticed he was crewing a crashed ship full of gore.

He wasn’t the only one the enemy had restrained. Six bridge-officers had been hogtied like animals, not fighting their bonds. They wouldn’t keep wasting effort once they realized they weren’t able to escape.

Twilight found the single “damaged” legionnaire strapped to the engineering console. His service-vest was removed, and the tube running into his torso had been cinched with a little knot. For the first time since stepping onto the 14-Rainbow, she felt her first twinge of disgust. Somepony understands my soldiers.

The instant she untied him, the legionnaire snapped upright, dislodging his flight cap.

His mane had been completely shaved, and a hoof-sized chunk of metal Darktech sunk directly into the skull.

The legionnaire stirred as his heart began to function again, eyes snapping directly to her. He didn’t struggle against his bonds as he was programmed to do, didn’t try to salute. Instead he spoke, his voice quivering and forced. Like an unseen power that had never had a body before was puppeting him. “I-I-I… see… see… you.”

She stopped right in front of him, expression even. Though her anger now raged, she wouldn’t show it here. If this really was some way the enemy had left to communicate with her, she wasn’t going to give it the satisfaction of seeing she was upset. “There were eighty ponies on the 14-Rainbow. Why did you spare these?”

Maybe her effort was futile. She saw no comprehension in those eyes. “S-s-seventy-one,” it said. “Seventy-one.”

“I know.” She rolled her eyes. “Why? Revealing yourself to me guarantees your destruction. You could’ve at least taken an entire ship with you.”

“S-seventy-one… dogs… m-murdered,” the pony croaked. But it was learning, stuttering less and less by the second. “Seventy-one tools broken. Equality. N-next time… w-will will be… geometric.”

Something flashed on the pony’s skull, and Twilight’s shield appeared around her by instinct. But she needn’t have bothered—it wasn’t a bomb meant to kill her. In an instant, the Darktech on the pony’s head turned bright yellow, melting a crater in the legionnaire’s head and sloughing off into a pool of molten slag.

Twilight was frozen in place for several long moments, utterly shocked. She probably should’ve been used to this by now, considering she’d encountered something similar with the diamond dog. She took a few deep breaths, banishing her frustration. They’re the ones who ought to be afraid now. We’ve demonstrated the link. They’ve subverted one diamond dog colony, and they’ll likely do the same to others. They won’t be able to hide for much longer.

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