Hour of Twilight

by Starscribe

First published

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.

Twilight Sparkle has ruled Equestria for over a thousand years. From her throne atop the floating city of Concord, she enforces ruthless harmony over the handful of surviving settlements. But Twilight is afraid: Equestria's survival always hangs by a thread, as enemies more ancient than the Alicorns threaten to return and devour what she has built.

Twilight selects her star pupil, a young unicorn named Star Orchid, to travel down from the perfect city of Concord into the dangerous ruins beneath, so that she might locate these forces, and help Twilight to destroy them. Only when every threat to Equestria is finally dismantled will she be able to rest. Until then, there is much left to purify.

Edited by Two Bit and Sparktail. Cover by Zutcha

Updates Wednesdays.

This story was commissioned by TyrannisUmbra, with additional funds donated by my enabler, Two Bit. If you'd like one of your own, drop me a PM!

This story takes place in the same universe as Why We Dig. I'm not going to call it a sequel, since none of its characters will be aware of anything in that story, so you won't have to be either.

Chapter 1: Andromeda

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Star Orchid adjusted her dress, settling the high collar about her shoulders. She stared back at her reflection for several seconds, inspecting each crease and little gemstone. Her own nervous face stared back, with faint bags under her eyes and a few strands of her mane out of place.

There was nothing she could do about the former—it was what came with months of service in the Twilight court. It was a privilege to be around ponies of such power—but the proximity could use a pony up and spit her out. She reached down for her comb, running it through her mane with a few strokes of her magic. Here’s hoping this doesn’t go the way I imagine.

She hurried from her changing room and out onto the Royal floor, where vast crystal pillars overlooked a spectacular view of Concord’s skyline far below. Thousands of crystal buildings packed in close, each one more beautiful and perfect than the last. Ponies thronged the streets outside, oblivious to the work that kept Concord flying.

She slowed for a moment as she rounded the corner to the central elevator, smiling at everypony she saw. Most were servants, who did little more than bow politely and let her pass. Servants and royal guards got out of the way as the elevator opened, letting her in first.

An earth pony in a crisp purple uniform waited at the controls, watching her submissively. “Advisor Orchid, where are we going this fine morning?”

“Down,” she said, adjusting her little bow in the polished crystal reflection of the wall. “All the way down.”

He gulped, then worked the levers. The doors slid shut, and a faint magical hum followed them down. The elevator’s central window showed the castle blurring by for a moment, before they passed under Concord’s ground level, and into the metal service corridors and reinforced buttresses of the castle’s lower layers.

The operator’s usual banter was gone, and she couldn’t blame him. Even travel down to the bottom of the castle was its own reminder of the high price Concord paid for peace. A price ponies like Star Orchid paid more than any other creature.

“Dungeons,” he announced, as they slowed to a stop. “Shall I wait for you, Advisor Star Orchid?”

“No,” she said, stepping out and turning around to face him. Mostly out of politeness—she didn’t want to leave him with any impression that this trip was to do with him. “But be ready for a return trip soon enough. I have a feeling this one is going to the princess before too long.”

He nodded crisply. “Friendship protects us,” he recited.

“Friendship makes us free,” she returned, watching as the doors slid closed. The elevator hummed away, as fast as its crystal motors could go.

Half a dozen royal guards waited down here, two at each doorway. She made her way through the concrete passage, straight up to the doors labeled “Holding Cells”.

These weren’t the ceremonial guards of Concord either, with their silly colored armor and dull weapons. The guards down here wore metal armor dented and scratched with heavy use, and the lightspears on their backs looked polished and ready to fire.

“Advisor Star Orchid,” she said. “Here to interrogate prisoner, uh…” She fished into a pocket with her magic, removing a slip of paper. “D17-PV.”

One of the guards nodded to her, turning to the side and going for his keys. The other smiled faintly at her. “Last one. You about ready to get this business over with?”

She let herself return the expression. “As the princess wills, of course. But I hope she wills something else after this.”

“We all do,” said the other, as the door clicked open. “Buck, if they haven’t stunk up the holding cells forever.” He pushed the heavy metal door open with a grunt of effort, holding it that way.

“Don’t bother locking that,” she muttered, as she passed through. “I have instructions to take this one to the princess herself if this doesn’t work out. And you know how the other sixteen went.”

“Harmony have mercy on the unfriendly,” the guard muttered in response. “Good luck, sister. For his sake.”

She made her way along a hallway of identical holding cells, each one the same plain box without a window. The doors of most were open even so, only closing when they had a prisoner inside.

The lights of Concord briefly flickered overhead, going dark for a few seconds as the ground shifted under her. She stopped walking, resting one hoof on the wall, and waiting for the city to settle into place. She felt the hum of magic, and further away, the shattering of stone and tearing of metal.

A few moments later, and the city stopped moving. Its feasting done for another little while, she hurried the rest of the way to the only occupied cell.

There were more guards outside, jailers instead of Royal Guard. Both wore padded armor instead of metal, and carried clubs. There were no lightspears here, not when prisoners might be killed. “Good morning, Advisor Orchid,” said Dusky Ward, the head jailer. “I thought I’d cut out the time you’d waste looking for me. Friendship waits for nopony.”

She nodded briskly. You didn’t want me to do another one without you. You’re just sour you missed out on so many beatings. “I’ve got bad news for you, Ward. This will be a minimal interrogation—if this prisoner isn’t cooperative, the princess has ordered a personal delivery. She wants him undamaged.”

Ward tensed, and she could make out the fire behind those eyes. Anger at another missed opportunity, no doubt. She better be as sure as Harmony never to disappoint the princess, because she’d find no friends waiting down here. “Pity. We wouldn’t have come to this if you had used proper methods with the other prisoners. Your gentleness is no kindness to a creature already condemned.”

She turned away, not hiding her contempt. “Just open the door, Dusky Ward. Maybe this one will be different. In seventeen prisoners, there must be one willing to trade.”

The other guard waited for Ward’s nod, then began to work the door. It rattled and clicked, then swung open. “And bring the objects, if you would,” she added, before hurrying inside.

She could tell from the way Ward’s bat-wings shifted as he moved that he was unhappy with her orders to his own stallion—good. A pony like him clearly needed to learn a few of the important principles of friendship over again.

Prisoner D17 sat dejected in the center of the room, his thick neck collared with steel and chained to the cement floor. His massive limbs looked as strong as an earth pony, and his tail could’ve swung like a club.

But the initial riots were over. The captured diamond dogs were no match for the royal guards of Concord. And now only this prisoner remained. “Good morning,” Star said, walking around until she stood just in front of D17, where she would be out of reach if he decided to snap and get violent with her. “I’m here to have a word with you. I hope you don’t mind.”

The massive diamond dog opened both eyes, causing her to freeze and stare. One was dark brown, just like most of their drab kind. But the other had white around the outside, and faint, geometric lines of gold visible underneath.

Darktech. She shuddered, clutching one hoof about her collar for a moment. “Friendship protect me from the darkness and preserve me through temptation.”

Behind her, Dusky Ward laughed. “What, you didn’t know about this one? Touched by eviler than most of the monsters who ever fouled my dungeon. There’s more on its chest, see where the fur isn’t growing? Stitches. Darktech in its guts. I’ve had an exorcist waiting for the day it refused forgiveness. We’re ready to be pure.”

Through all that, the dog only closed its natural eye, watching her with the Darktech abomination. It didn’t glide smoothly like an eye should, but jerked to follow her, visibly twisting as it watched.

Focus, Star. You’re trying to save his life, remember?

She cleared her throat, then straightened. “Prisoner D17… do you have a name? Diamond dogs have names, don’t they?”

He grunted, and for a moment she wondered if this would be another conversation like 12 or 14. But then he said, “Max.”

“Max,” she repeated, tongue twisting over the strange name. “Do you know why you’re here?”

“Monster in the sky,” the diamond dog said. “Found our burrow when it ate the mine. No stone unbroken.”

“No,” she said, stiffening a little. She walked a few steps closer, where she could glare into his face. “You’re here because you were found guilty of promoting disharmony. Your forbidden settlement was using Darktech. You weren’t working together with Concord in mutual friendship. High crimes, I’m afraid.”

The diamond dog looked genuinely confused at her words. But he didn’t rise from his seat. “Not ponies. Why would Max and pack follow pony laws? We obey the Alpha.”

“Told you it was hopeless,” Ward said. “Are you certain you don’t want me to take over? I could get better results.”

“I am certain,” she said, turning to glare at him. As she looked, the guard returned pushing a cart covered in black cloth. Runes were sewn into the fabric in purple thread, each one bearing a powerful ward against the evil within. “Prisoner Max… it doesn’t matter whether or not you agree with our authority. As you can plainly see, you are subject to it. But you can have a future here, if you want. Friendship includes forgiveness. Would you like to be forgiven?”

He nodded slightly. “I think so. Max is a hard worker. Good digger. Good at smelling gems.”

It was as far as she’d gotten with any of the others. But never any further. She took another step closer to him. Now if he moved too quickly, he might catch her with those terrible paws—she’d have to keep her magic ready. “Diamond dogs don’t eat gems,” she said. Not a question. “So why do you mine them?”

Max seemed confused by her question. “For… the Alpha,” he said. “We must find gems. Dig gems. Bring gems. Great rewards.”

“From who?” she asked. “Who rewards you? Your forbidden settlement had no wealth of gemstones. Where did they go?”

Max opened his mouth to answer—then twitched slightly, and shut it again. His eyes glazed a little, and no sound came out.

“Just like the others…” she muttered, furious. “It’s like they’re all… enchanted.” But there were no spells on the prisoner. That was why a unicorn advisor was sent to do interviews like this. She knew mind magic better than most ponies ever cared to.

“Listen to me, Max,” she said. “Princess Twilight Sparkle, Regent of Creation, has ordered you give us the answers to our questions. If you don’t, she’s going to ask them herself.” She lowered her voice to a whisper, though Dusky Ward and his guard would be able to hear just fine. “You don’t want that to happen, Max, and I don’t either. The princess isn’t very gentle. You’re better off telling me.”

“Tell you… what?” he asked.

“You have a very strange eye,” she said. “How did you come by it?”

“Accident,” Max answered, after a few nervous seconds. “Cave in. Dogs died. I was not dead, so the Alpha healed me.”

Maybe this isn’t hopeless after all, she thought. The Alpha—it was a title, anyway. Their Darktech fugitive? “Tell me about the Alpha.”

“Strongest dog in the pack. He is—” and his expression went blank, just like before. His mouth hung slack, exposing frightening canines. Then he recovered, and shut it again, looking as though they hadn’t been speaking.

“Are you sure you don’t want any hardware?” Ward asked. “This is painful to watch.”

“I’m sure,” she said, marching past him to the tray, and carefully pushing the cloth aside. Several objects lay underneath, those that had been discovered with the prisoners. She lifted one in her magic, carrying it over.

“What is this?” she asked, turning the oversized rod through the air out of his reach. There was a large handle on one end, with controls better suited to a diamond-dog paw than a pony hoof. The other end had a flat plate, connected to the central rod with coiled wire.

“Digger,” Max said. “Shatters rock. Easy tunnels.”

“Liar,” Ward snapped. “It’s thinner than a pony’s foreleg. It would snap as soon as you swung it. Just be honest—you’re not getting out. None of the other dogs did. Nopony escapes from my prison.”

Max jerked at his collar, pulling the chains taut as he lurched. The chain groaned against the cement floor—then held. He snapped and barked at Dusky Ward. “Alphas will make you pay for the puppies you killed! Never forget what you did to us!”

Star Orchid winced, walking calmly back to the cart and replacing the Darktech “digger.” Once they got like this, any chance of learning useful information was gone.

This is your fault, Dusky Ward. What happens next is on your conscience, not mine.

Jamie’s world was frozen. Not the occasional shiver of a wintery day, but the bone-deep ache one step away from death. Her mind flickered on the edge of a precipice, one that seemed to be reaching its tendrils up to get her.

She could perceive her body only in flashes—naked flesh in a coffin of plastic and not-water, tissues saturated with antifreeze. A heart that didn’t beat, and lungs that didn’t open. Yet there was something of thought and memory there. She had lived an eternity in the cold, trapped in a body that couldn’t move and a brain that crawled along at glacial pace. No sight, and only the occasional hiss of chemicals into her body every hour. Twenty-four ticks to the circuit, three hundred sixty-five times, and a thousand thousand times more.

Don’t put me back there. I don’t want to die.

“Colonial refugee Jamie Sanders. Please direct your attention upward.” The voice had no emotion, not even a hint of variation to its cadence. A simple speech-synthesis program, without many resources invested in running it.

If any part of her body still worked anymore, it wasn’t anything she could control. But she could hear the voice, or maybe imagine she heard its thoughts. Anything was better than the hiss of chemical and the slow feeling of her body boiling in its own radiation.

“Jamie Sanders, I am required by protocol to inform you that your cryostasis pod has become critically damaged and no resources are available to repair it.”

No. Please. I don’t want to die.

Long ago, along patterns of neurons that felt thick with ice, she could remember tossing the last of her possessions into a little plastic bin, and resting one hand on the edge of the pod. A coffin, really, for herself and the rest of her species. She’d thought the odds of ever leaving were small. Now maybe she was right.

“According to the terms of the UN: Emergency Powers Declaration for Mechanical Intelligence, I am required to provide enough information for you to grant informed consent. In the first case, life support to your remaining non-necrotic tissue and your pod will be allowed to empty, then be scrapped to maintain other pods.”

No, she screamed, without a voice. I’m not ready!

“Emergency shelter 198.64-Beta is facing critical shortages that require significant intervention to mitigate—intervention of a human specialist. Evaluation of your personality profile and civilian service record indicates you pass the minimum competence requirement to qualify. In the event you do not wish to allow your pod to be terminated, you may volunteer to be revived early.”

Yes! she thought, mind racing. Her pulse would be too, if she still had one. But the unfeeling electronics keeping her alive didn’t really care how excited she was—she’d get exactly as much life support as the system allocated to her.

The machine was still speaking. “The terms of the Declaration for Mechanical Intelligence require consent be obtained for any alteration to your body. The resources to repair and replace necrotic tissue will only be spared in the event you grant consent. Note: your consent will constitute agreement to the terms of the UN: Emergency Service Compact for the duration of your assigned mission, or your natural lifespan, whichever comes first.”

Jamie was hardly awake enough to feel resentment towards the ancient authors of those documents, who thought they were so clever in penning protections against virtual tyranny by artificial intelligence. But in the eons since, at least one of those identical emergency intelligences had found a way to press her into indentured servitude. Agree to everything it wanted, or it pulled the plug.

How can I even answer you? At least if her body was necrotic, that explained why she couldn’t see anything, couldn’t really even feel anything. She had sound, but that was a simple sensation to simulate. Or maybe the program had reconstructed just enough of one ear for that.

Concentration on that was more than the faint wisps of life-support could manage. Her mind started to waver, and she began to drift.

“Consent is required, colonial refugee. Are you willing to allow alterations to your reconstructed body, and do you agree to perform the duties that will be explained to you once you have the mental capacity to understand them?”

It didn’t matter what the computer was asking. It might be pressuring her into a life of slavery, or maybe it was just changing the color of her hair. Either way, only death waited at her refusal. She had the mental capacity to understand what it meant to feel cold just fine.

Yes! she thought, as loudly as she could. I consent, I agree, whatever! Don’t kill me!

For a long time, she felt nothing in response. It was like talking to someone on a phone who suddenly couldn’t seem to hear you, but a thousand times worse.

Her fears were in vain, however, as the voice finally returned. “Processing of observed scan readings indicate consent. You will be returned to suspension while necessary replacement tissue is fabricated.”

Wait, no! Don’t send me back to the cold! But this time her thoughts were in vain. The chill crept in around her, slowing her mind to that terrible crawl where only the hissing of chemical substrate mattered, and even her memories were so crusted with ice that she couldn’t bring them back.

Compared to the eternity she had suffered in the void, she might’ve only been put back for an afternoon. Finally, after a little forever slowly rotting in the dark, she felt warmth again. It didn’t even matter that warming up brought a capacity for agony she hadn’t thought she’d known. It didn’t matter that she wanted to scream in horrified pain, but that her lungs didn’t respond. It was something, anything different from the cold. She’d take the torture if it meant she would live again.

Another eternity later, she did.

Chapter 2: Centaurus

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The elevator rose slowly through Concord Castle, its crystals humming steadily under them. Max’s steel cage took up most of the elevator now, with half a dozen Royal Guards occupying the rest. Star Orchid had to cram in near the front, close enough that if the diamond dog really wanted to, he could probably reach out and attack her.

He didn’t, though. His anger had burned itself out now, and he sat still in the center of his cage.

“Not so angry now that you know where you’re going,” a guard muttered, smacking his lightspear on the bars. “You know the princess will give you what you deserve.”

Max only grunted in response, flopping to one side in the cage. “Can’t hurt me more,” he said. “I know the others are… gone. Soon I go with them.”

You’ll only wish you had, Star thought, her stomach twisting into guilty knots. This was at least partially her fault. Could she prevent it now?

“You could tell us who the Alphas are,” she said. “You could tell us where the gemstones go. Then you don’t have to meet the princess.”

Max didn’t respond. He didn’t say another word as the elevator finally came to a stop on its highest floor. “Twilight Court,” said the operator, opening the doors as wide as they would go. The guards returned to their posts, and began pushing the cage along a polished crystal floor. Star Orchid followed just behind, making a few last-minute adjustments to her dress. Even at a time like this, the princess would notice what was wrong with her.

Then they were through the massive crystal arch into the Twilight Court, perpetually open just as all creatures in all the world were welcome to seek an audience from the Princess of Friendship, Eternal ruler of Sun and Moon and Defender of Creation.

And probably some other titles even her advisors couldn’t remember.

There were no other creatures in the Twilight Court today, either pony or otherwise. Rumors had already spread—all within Concord knew how to stay out of the princess’s way when her creatures were threatened.

The cage rumbled past windows of stained glass, each one depicting one of the Exemplars and the lessons of friendship they taught. But there were no creatures in attendance to worship at their altars today.

And at the end of the room, Princess Twilight Sparkle, settled in gentle repose on a throne of white gold and crystal. Her mane filled the air behind her, like a night filled with stars.

Even with their royal cargo, none of the guards would get too close to the throne—that was her job. Star Orchid approached slowly, dropping into a bow as she reached the throne. “Princess, I have done all that you ordered. This prisoner has refused to answer, like the others.”

Twilight rose, yawning and stretching from her cushions. Then she vanished, reappearing beside Star in a flash of concentrated magic. “Well that’s not unexpected. You told him what would happen if he didn’t, right? Gave him every chance to change his mind?”

She nodded slowly, afraid to so much as twitch in the princess’s presence. Star Orchid had never angered her—but she knew creatures who had. Or she had known creatures like that, anyway. “All as you commanded.”

Twilight gestured towards the doors. “Royal Guards, you can… do some royal guarding out there. Don’t let anypony walk in until we’re done, please.”

They saluted, then galloped off. They didn’t want to be stuck around Twilight for even a second longer than necessary. Star couldn’t blame them. She waited for a similar invitation, even knowing it wouldn’t come. The princess had been clear about wanting her advisor to know these things.

The princess wore only her crown—she’d never bothered with the court fashions as they changed. She didn’t seem any less intimidating as she made her way to the cage, circling around it once.

Max looked up briefly, then covered his eyes again. He didn’t even try to bow.

“You must have heard about Equestria, diamond dog. Show a little respect.”

Max sat up in the cage, glaring out at them. “I heard it was long gone. Just one city left. All broken.”

“Concord is not the only city left,” Twilight snapped. It wasn’t true as she said it—but it was unwise to contradict the princess. “It is the greatest of all cities. Magic of all creatures and tribes concentrated. It is what the whole world will be like one day.”

Max shifted uncomfortably on his paws. He couldn’t stand—the cage just wasn’t tall enough.

Twilight tapped one hoof gently on the ground, and the cage melted away in front of her. Its roof flopped to one side, and metal bars twisted in knots. Only the floor remained in place, mercifully cool enough that it didn’t burn the poor creature.

Max glanced around, apparently amazed. Then he looked back at the doorway, apparently within reach. He wasn’t chained—it didn’t seem like anything was trapping him anymore. Please don’t try to run.

“Tell him what I’m going to do, Star. I’ve done it so many times that I’d rather not repeat myself.”

She nodded obediently. “The princess is going to… condition you. You’ll be our friend, and then you’ll answer all our questions.”

The dog scoffed. “Max is not afraid of your magic. Ponies have stolen… everything. I will tell them nothing.”

Twilight’s horn began to glow. Her eyes lost focus, turning into points of white light. Magic swirled through the air, and even Star felt her mind going momentarily numb, just being close to it. In a few seconds, the diamond dog was lobotomized.

Max’s expression slackened, his tongue lolling out. He grinned at the princess. “Friend.”

Twilight smiled back, her horn still smoking slightly. “See, that isn’t so hard. How are you doing, friend?”

“Not… good, before,” the creature answered. Not Max anymore. His body had lost all of its subtle movement. His eyes didn’t seem alive anymore. Just a shell with some memories left inside. “Better now, Princess.”

Twilight settled onto her haunches, her mane returning to its gentle flow of purples and oranges. “We should start this way more often. Think of all the time we wasted.”

“I could remind you to do that next time, Princess. If you wish.”

“No… just thinking out loud.” Twilight’s horn flashed again, and a clipboard appeared in front of Star, along with a pen. “You know what to do.”

“Of course,” she said, taking both in her magic.

“Now that we’re past that… silliness… let’s get to saving the world. You’d like that, wouldn’t you Max?”

“I would like you to be happy, Princess,” he said.

“We’ll start with something simple…” Princess Twilight said. “What did you do in your, uh… pack? Those are what you call them, right?”

“I was an excavator,” Max answered, his voice as flat as ever. He didn’t seem capable of using any other tone. There wasn’t enough of a creature left in there to feel anything. “Searched for gems.”

Star Orchid scribbled each word dutifully. She used exact words, and knew that Twilight would remember to correct her if she got anything wrong.

“That sounds fascinating,” the princess said. “Did you have a family, Max?”

“Yes, Princess!” he said. Twilight had even replaced his diction. His accent could’ve come from Concord. “Your machine crushed my children to death, and the royal army killed my mate when you captured my pack. They fought so much better than we did.”

The Alicorn returned his blank smile. “I’m so happy you think so. The Unification Army has learned so much over the last few centuries. I’d be disappointed if they didn’t learn from their mistakes.”

She seemed to pause then for Star to write that down too. Star added that.

“Equestria has an important mission, Max. Do you know what that is?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know, Princess. But I’m sure you’re doing a great job.”

Was the princess’s smile genuine, looking at a shell of a creature like that? Or did she just do that to help the spell along? Star wasn’t brave enough to ask.

“All Equestria is in danger,” Twilight said. “Creatures of evil and disharmony lurk in every kingdom. If they get their way, they will kill every pony and griffon and zebra and changeling and every other creature. Do you want that?”

“I do not want that,” he said. “I would do anything to help you stop it from happening.”

“Good, Max. Do you know why I saved you for last?”

“I do not, Princess.”

“Because in the thousand years I have ruled Equus, I have never seen Darktech like yours. A whole eye… and from your scars, some of your internal organs as well. Incredible.” She didn’t sound as disgusted as would be expected for something so evil—but nopony would tell the purest being in the world how she should feel.

“My heart, one lung, and my liver,” Max said.

“Tell me where you got them.”

Despite the horror of this interrogation, even Star Orchid leaned in close. These dogs had been fiercely stubborn prisoners. But no one could resist the princess’s command.

“I suffered in a mining accident,” Max said. “A tunnel collapsed, and many were injured. The Alpha healed me.”

Okay, but we already knew that. What really matters is…

“They sound very kind,” Twilight said conversationally.

“Very kind,” Max repeated. “No one loved my pack as much as the Alpha. Before we fought, but when the Alpha came, we learned to work together.”

“Tell me more about them,” Twilight ordered. “Who were they?”

“They were—” Max’s mouth hung open. He twitched once, then his eyes settled on Twilight. “Oh, Princess. Was I saying something?”

Twilight twitched herself, her mane beginning to churn. “Is this what happened during your interviews?”

She nodded obediently, taking a few steps back. She kept writing dutifully, even that question. How is a dog resisting a princess? There isn’t even a soul in there anymore. She shredded him.

“You w-were,” Twilight said, her tone no longer flat. Her eyes began to glow. “Tell me about your Alpha.” The air grew suddenly warmer.

“Kind, so l-love… love…” Max stammered. His eyes began to darken, and a patch of his fur actually caught fire. Despite the terrible stench, he didn’t move.

“Were they diamond dogs?” the princess demanded, advancing on him. She didn’t seem to care her magic was dissolving her prisoner in front of her.

“Th-they… were…” His breath came harshly. “Permission denied.”

Twilight’s horn went out again. The fire burning Max’s body went out, though his right foreleg was still sizzled, and his fur was charred almost completely. “What did you say?”

“In…her…it…or,” Max rasped. His face was charred on one side, and his muscles didn’t seem to be responding properly anymore. But he still tried to smile, exposing sharp teeth and black gums. “Permission… denied.”

His eyes went suddenly bloodshot, like a dozen vessels inside had burst all at once. Then he fell, the weight of his massive diamond dog body flopping to the floor in front of them.

A creature with a lobotomized mind had a will strong enough to resist the princess. A dog fought against a god.

It was so incredible that she didn’t even know how to respond. She could only stare, her mouth opening and closing in stupefaction.

Twilight screamed in frustration, her magic raging again. Max’s corpse turned to ash before her eyes, already burned body crumbling away into a fine powder. A few bits of metal clattered to the ground, right where his chest had been.

Twilight bent down, removing an oblong object from the pile and holding it up. Max had said something about a lung, and that was how that looked—like a thin metal cage, with material inside. Darktech, eviler than anything she could’ve imagined.

If she hadn’t spent her life in the court, she might’ve thought this was why Twilight couldn’t get answers to her questions. This creature’s soul had been stolen long ago. But she’d heard his passion, his despair. Seen his fury, before he died. Felt Twilight’s magic when it came.

For a few moments, Twilight was silent, staring down at what remained of their last prisoner. Then she spun around, and she was smiling again, all too wide. “We’re very close, Star Orchid. But I think we’ve learned as much as we can learn from up in the sky. It’s time for you to get your hooves on solid ground.”

Jamie felt the whole-body fuzz of powerful narcotics. She didn’t fight them, didn’t try to move, or do anything for that matter. But as the minutes passed, the high gradually faded, leaving her only with the strangest comedown she could remember. She’d never been much for psychedelics, but for a few moments that was all she could think of to explain just how wrong her body felt. Her legs were too short, her hands were so numb she couldn’t even feel her fingers twitch, and there was apparently enough hair on her limbs that she could feel them matted down completely.

How this could happen was its own mystery—wasn’t the cryogenic process destructive to hair? More importantly, if she was awake again, did that mean the apocalypse was over?

Finally, though it felt like ages had passed with her motionless on the floor, she finally managed the energy to sit up.

She was lying in an Emergency Shelter’s cot, with the faint red glow of a vital monitor shining down on her from above. Little red lines of her life signs were projected on the ceiling above her, which seemed further away than it ought to be. Wasn’t space everything in these shelters? She’d only been awake for a few days before they froze her, but… this seemed like too much space.

There was more that didn’t make sense. There was something big stuck right in front of her face, something that certainly didn’t belong there and that she had no way of explaining. Like she was wearing a mask, except she didn’t feel anything stuck to her face.

She groaned, and even her voice didn’t seem right. Her voice was higher than she remembered, strange enough that she could’ve sworn she felt an ear twitch.

“Congratulations, Jamie Sanders,” said a voice from all around her, projected through the cot’s speakers. “You survived reconstruction. An evaluation of the mapping from human senses is in progress. Please report any unusual or unplaceable feelings as soon as you perceive them.”

She groaned a little louder, reaching for her pillow to cover her head. The stupid shelter AI was talking to her again, what the hell did it want?

Instead of grabbing the pillow, she only managed to push it a little away from her. Her eyes struggled to focus for a moment—then she saw why, and learned in the same moment why her hands still felt numb.

She didn’t have hands. It didn’t even look like an arm anymore, but like an animal’s leg, terminating in a useless hoof.

She jerked upright, and nearly fell sideways right out of the cot. She managed to catch herself on the wall to her left, but only with a little quick reflexes from her other hoof. “Okay, uh… what the fuck happened to me?” As she sat up, the reading light came on automatically, illuminating her body for her to see clearly.

Needless to say, it wasn’t a pleasant sight. She was completely naked, except for a few plastic probes running into her body at various points. That explained the soreness, and the chill still left in her veins. But those were all expected—if she’d just been revived, there was supposed to be a bevy of drugs and correctives pumped into her body to keep her alive, and to repair the damage that a trillion little ice-crystals had done to her tissue.

From the look of it, there weren’t any of her old tissues left. The reason her arms looked like legs was simple enough: she was an animal. A horse, by the look of it, except the proportions were wrong. She’d never seen a peach-colored horse before, or one that could move the way she had. Her breasts were gone, though just now losing her hands seemed the far greater sacrifice.

Finally, the computer deemed to actually answer her question. “Your pod was critically damaged,” the computer said. “You provided consent for early revival and physical alteration to serve the needs of the Emergency Shelter. Memory of this event will likely return as the neural-plasticity drugs reach saturation and are cleared from your brain.”

She did remember one thing: the cold, and many lifetimes spent on the edge of death. Praying for it sometimes, dreaming that her pod would fail, and her misery would end. Don’t freak out, Jamie. You’re alive. It’s everything you could’ve wanted.

She closed her eyes, slumping back into the bed. “Fantastic. So I’m… what did you do to me?”

“Only necessary adjustments have been made,” the computer said, apparently not concerned with her curling up in bed. “Your species has been adjusted to biosphere correction agent.”

That got her attention. Jamie knew next to nothing about the terraforming promised to rebuild their homeworld, except that it was going to take forever. “Are you saying the situation is so bad you need to repopulate the terraforming initiative using refugees?”

Was the question too complex for the AI to answer?

Apparently not. “Negative. Reconfiguring your species to biosphere correction agent represents an adjustment of diplomatic strategy with surface civilization.”

“Uh…” She looked up again, wishing there was some kind of avatar she could glare at. She wanted the computer to know how little she believed it. “Civilization with… the things we genetically engineered to rebuild the climate? Weren’t they supposed to be animals?”

“You are not authorized to receive terraforming information. Understand that the project is complete. The surface of Homeworld has been rebuilt. Repair of the biosphere is complete over 95% of the planet’s area. The suspension period is coming to an end—civilization will be rebuilt.”

“Well that’s just fucking fantastic,” she said, gripping her pillow awkwardly with one leg and covering her head. “I guess that means you wanted the first pioneers to have their own petting zoo. Or… maybe I’m supposed to pull a cart? I guess you were out of robot parts.”

“Assessment… incorrect,” the computer said. “Instruction will be provided.”

“Great,” she said. “I’m going back to bed.”

A satisfying threat, but ultimately empty. Whatever the computer had done to her, it involved far too many stimulants to give her a chance of sleeping.

Every second she lay there, she was confronted with more strange details about her body that didn’t make sense. She hadn’t imagined things; her ears really could move on their own. Her spine didn’t seem to want her to lay flat as a human might, but with her legs and arms splayed in front of her. Not to mention, she had a tail.

The computer wasn’t wasting time, anyway. Occasionally she’d feel another brief rush of cold through her veins as it gave her some new drug, or a brief pressure as it removed another of the life-support tubes. So she couldn’t even take smug satisfaction in refusing to do what it wanted, since it had probably planned for her to recover here for days anyway.

At least there are some good things about this. I’m still alive, that’s great. I’d rather be a horse than dead.

Eventually she opened her eyes again, sitting up and searching for her little plastic box of possessions. It hadn’t been brought. “Can I get a tablet or something?” she asked. “While I wait for… whatever the hell you’re doing to me?”

“Completing necessary biointegrations,” the computer supplied. “Preventing rejection of replacement spinal column and nervous tissue.”

She froze. Replacement spinal column? “You can replace spines?”

“Life support within your suspension pod had shown serious errors for many years. Necrosis-suppressors prevented decay of your central nervous system, though little else could be preserved. When you were reconstructed, only tissue from your brain was reused. Everything else was newly grown from substrate. Signs of rejection of your replacement body are likely to begin at the spine.”

You won’t tell me about how the terraforming is going, but you’ll give me lurid detail about how fucked up my own body is. Thanks. “And I assume I’m not being rejected by my own body?”

There was an uncomfortable amount of hesitation there for a computer, almost three whole seconds before it finally answered. “No rejection will be possible when final integration is complete. The process will continue over the next seventy-two hours.”

“Just how I wanted to spend my afternoon,” she muttered darkly, before, “I want a tablet.”

“One moment.”

Jamie had been so preoccupied with how broken and strange her new body was that she’d hardly even bothered looking past her bed. It was standard medical accommodations, flat stone floor and shelves of supplies lining the wall. Yet now a door on the far side of the room hissed open, and a drone rolled in. It was a strange oval shape, vaguely the size of a human—which meant it was now uncomfortably large, towering over the entire bed. It had a screen instead of a face, and little plastic grippers for arms.

She was outside, on the upper balcony of a towering structure. She could make out the faint shimmer of the atmospheric dome high above, and the stars almost totally unobstructed by clouds. A robot just like this rolled out, carrying a metal tray in one gripper. Frost condensed on the edge of the glass as it settled on the table in front of her.

“Pina Colatta,” the drone said, its voice almost human. “Eighty-five dollars, please.”

She reached up, holding her wrist over the scanner for a second. When it flashed green, she took the glass, propping her legs up and grinning at the robot. “That’s all, you can go.”

Something dropped onto her lap, light plastic with a metal frame. She tried to grab it, and of course her stupid hooves only pushed it around a bit. The screen lit up with her touch anyway, showing her name in the top right. Her files were all here, survived far better than her body had. “Hey, computer, how the hell am I supposed to use this?”

“Operation of portable computers will not be required to complete your mission.”

She swore loudly, kicking faintly against the support pilon with one leg. She wasn’t strong enough to crack the plastic, and she knew the computer couldn’t feel pain, but… it felt good anyway.

“Okay, but how am I supposed to live without operation of portable computers?”

This time the computer didn’t hesitate. “Portable computers will not be required to guarantee your survival. You will not be released until all necessary drugs have been administered and integration is complete.”

She rolled her eyes, but didn’t press the issue. Abstractions had always been hard for computers, even back when AI had been run on cloud-servers with near infinite resources. The program that had rebuilt her entire body probably had far less to work with than any of the virtual assistants she’d grown up with.

Best not to think about that.

The tablet computer did have one mercy—it was bigger than she remembered, which meant she had plenty of space to work with. Maybe… “Please turn on the accessibility features on my terminal here. Increase UI scaling to… two hundred percent.”

There was only a faint beep this time—the tablet itself handled her command, instead of whatever AI she’d been speaking to so far. The little icons increased until it seemed like something her elderly grandfather might’ve used, obscenely oversized. Files that had been carefully organized to fit on the default desktop now rolled over onto several screens. But if she propped the tablet up against the wall and moved slow enough with her hooves, she could just about hit the buttons.

It was slow going, but she could deal with that. Finally the information strangulation was over, and she could figure out what had happened to the world.

She immediately wished she hadn’t.

There were supposed to be something like ten thousand emergency shelters, maybe more. Each one fabricated according to a standard design, each one home to a million sleeping people. The Core Node, operated by an AI many times more intelligent than any single human—was gone. With it, the bonds tying emergency shelter 198.64-Beta to the rest of humanity were broken too. The vast mind that was supposed to be rebuilding their planet… silent.

Jamie’s access to the intelligence governing this shelter was extremely limited. She could see only the “public proclamations” it had made, to the shelter’s current population of zero.

After a century without access to the governing intelligence, it had declared that intelligence “likely destroyed.” Another century later, it had declared the other shelters “likely destroyed” and determined 198.64-Beta the last remnant of humanity. Which explained how the AI had ended up with the authority to do crazy things like make her into a stupid horse.

But there was one piece of good news, a single bright star in the line of bleak determinations and deductions the AI had made. Once it lost contact with the Core Node, it began its own investigation of the planet. After all, the primary purpose of each shelter had always been to keep its residents safe long enough to recolonize the surface.

The probe readouts were clear even to someone without a terraforming background. No radiation, no biocontaminants. Correct environmental readings, comfortable temperatures… and a functional biosphere. It was the information the AI had already tried to share with her once. Now at last she was capable of understanding what it told her. The other facilities might be gone, but they’d done their work.

If Jamie was some clever hacker or something, she could probably put together more, maybe reconstruct data from unimportant trash to figure out what was really going on. But she wasn’t a hacker—she was a dropout, with only a handful of basic certifications to her name.

Her curiosity went as far as searching for her family in the master database. Last known location, a different shelter on the other side of the country. Presumed destroyed.

“What is that mission you wanted me for?” she asked, finally pushing the tablet aside. Maybe she’d be able to get out of doing it—but considering how dire things looked for her species, she wasn’t going to do that without figuring out the why first. For all she knew, the computer might be right about how necessary this was.

It was as though the computer had been waiting patiently for that question. The voice synthesis couldn’t approximate emotion, but the instant reaction was its own signal. An AI’s way of telling her that she was doing what it wanted.

“The task is simple. Terraforming is not complete according to the ideal projections, but it has passed acceptable threshold and contact with the Core Node is lost. This suggests further delay will not allow it to complete. Waiting will only cause more pods to fail, and more lives to be lost in suspension. This is unacceptable. Therefore, colonization must begin.”

She pulled up the tablet again, scanning through the photos the drone had taken. Green, not white. Life had not survived the apocalypse they’d summoned for themselves, but it had been rebuilt. Maybe that was good enough. “I agree,” she said. “Looks like a great place to build a city up there. Trees, and flowers, and birds… so why the hell am I a horse? Don’t you need… pioneers? Construction workers, and scientists, and… where the hell do horses fit into it?”

“You are not a horse,” the computer said. “You are a biosphere correction agent. Your species was created to interact with redirected energy from the LaGrange array and reconstruct the biosphere.”

She felt like she was running in circles. That was to be expected from a dumb AI—ask the same questions, get the same answers. Realizing what she didn’t understand from context clues was probably more than it could manage. “Why am I a biosphere correction agent?” she asked.

“Because a large population has organized into a civilization on the surface.”

The screen changed, natural images replaced with something that gave her painful flashbacks of home. A dim brown favela of leaning buildings, made of scrap and waste and packed together as tightly as possible. And walking through the streets—horses, hundreds of them. No cars, no aircraft, no drones… but they were numerous. “You think they’re a threat?”

“They were not meant to continue to exist following terraforming,” the computer answered. “Core Node reports efforts to purge the population in preparation for final colonization were… unsuccessful. No information has been provided about the cause.”

Hold on. These things are smart enough to build a city, and you’re trying to ‘purge’ them? But she didn’t ask. The Core Node might be able to ask moral demands, but the shelter’s dinky little AI never could. Even trying was a waste of time.

In any case, the computer took her silence for understanding. “Significant risk of discovery and destruction is projected if this race becomes hostile. Yet their use of surface resources is… not significant. Diplomacy is thus required, with the goal of mutual recognition and a treaty permitting the use of sufficient land area for a settlement.

The screen changed again, this time showing a map. She could see the dirty little city, surrounded by crude farms on the edge of a vast southern jungle. A dotted line outlined the “ideal settlement location” far from the edges of the fields.

“I’m going to be an ambassador,” she said. “To a… race of organic tools. It doesn’t look like life is too great for them either.” She tapped the screen with a hoof, zooming in on the edge of the city. They’d surrounded their settlement with high walls of scrap, ending in pointed spikes. Unless she was mistaken, there were bodies up there, left to rot in the sun. Though she couldn’t say what kind of bodies. Too big to be horses.

“They were never meant to build a civilization,” the computer said. “Their success is not our concern. The biosphere is rebuilt, their duty is complete. Now yours begins.”

Chapter 3: Aquila

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For all that she had just done, the princess seemed unchanged from her usual self. Star followed close behind, clipboard of interview notes still levitating along beside her.

The princess took them behind the throne, to where the castle was built not of shining crystal but reinforced stone. There were occasional cracks in the low hallway, or bits of metal stuck into the wall from ancient weapons. Equestria had not always been so pleased to serve under the princess’s rule.

“With that failure, Equestria is in dire straits,” the princess said, though she couldn’t tell if Twilight was trying to talk to her. “We’re so close to finally finding peace, and… we’re stopped dead. Setback after setback. I’m afraid we’ll have to try something more aggressive.”

“Princess, I don’t mean to question your wisdom… but how threatening can the diamond dogs be now? Their pack is gone. Even if a few individuals escaped the Unification Army, everything they built has been processed by Concord like everything else. They won’t be able to challenge your rule.”

Twilight slowed, one of her eyebrows going up as she stared at Star. Not anger, thank Harmony. “You think this was about the diamond dogs? Clearly I’ve neglected your education, Star Orchid.”

“Well, uh… I know that they had Darktech. And that it spreads disharmony wherever it’s used. If ponies ever settled on the surface above those dogs, their friendships would’ve crumbled under the weight of distrust and anger. Right?”

Twilight stopped dead, spinning around to stare down at her. Instead of answering the question, she said, “How long has your family served in my court, Star Orchid?”

At least this was a question she knew she could answer correctly. “Seven generations, Princess. While Concord was still called Canterlot. Before it could fly.”

“Well I think you’ve been ignorant long enough, Star. If I’m going to send you out into the world to help protect Equestria, I need you to know what you’re looking for. Repeating the Words of Harmony is good, but… those stories aren’t strictly true. They’re shorthand for what’s really going on, so that even a common pony can understand. But I think you’re ready for the truth.”

She hurried off again, so fast that Star had to canter to keep up. Instead of heading up the stairs to the princess’s private quarters, they turned into a length of blank wall. Then Twilight’s horn glowed, and they vanished briefly from one side, reappearing on the other. In a dark hallway even Star had never seen before.

How many secret passages are hidden in this castle, accessible only to those who know where to teleport?

It didn’t look any different than the construction of the rest of the castle, though it was dustier and more abandoned in its general outline. “The first thing you need to understand, Star Orchid, is that we don’t lie to Equestria by not sharing this with them. The Words of Harmony we’ve written are true in their conclusions, even if the specific events have been… creatively described. For example, I know you can tell me why our crusade is so important.”

“All of Equus depends on us,” she recited. “Disharmony can easily infect unwary creatures. Soon they’re destabilizing their communities, weakening their magic and causing evil to spread. Eventually there’s so little magic left that Devourers return from Limbo to retake Equus for themselves.”

Twilight nodded approvingly. “And that’s all true, just… not literally true. Most creatures just couldn’t comprehend what’s actually going on. Trying to inform them would be an incredible waste of time, and possibly only confuse them even more.”

They reached a heavy metal door, its frame covered in little symbols. She recognized each one as one of the cutie marks of the Exemplars. But here they were apparently a combination, because the princess tapped each in succession, and then the door split down the middle, opening for them.

Lights came to life from above, illuminating what she first took to be a private natural history exhibit. There were bones off to one side, cross-sections of geologic strata, and artifacts displayed in glass cases.

“Let me show you the truth, Star Orchid. Or as much of it as I’ve managed to reconstruct. The knowledge is very old, and… my predecessors were as complicit as seeing it hidden as any other creature.”

They walked all the way to the bones. Twilight didn’t mind them—the princess created plenty of corpses. But these were clearly ancient enough that she hadn’t been involved. She gestured at the first set. “See the form of our ancient ancestor.”

“So… big…” she stammered. “How could any pony grow so large?”

“Not ponies as you understand them,” Twilight corrected. “Just as I am mightier than any ordinary pony, so they would have been mightier than I. The firstborn of Harmony, creatures of pure friendship. So pure that their horns and wings were made of light itself, and so aren’t preserved in fossils. Long ago, the world was ruled by these creatures, united in a single tribe. They built incredible cities of glass and stone and metal, stretching all the way out into the sky. Cities that you can still see on the moon and flying through the air, if you look with the right telescope.” She gestured across the room with a wing, at several pinned photographs on the other side of the display.

Star Orchid wandered towards them, eyes widening as she got her first good look. It was exactly what the princess had said—ruins made of metal, settled onto the surface of the moon from far away. Or else ancient ruins, showing fantastic cities of vast size and incredible harmony. “Firstborn,” she repeated. “These… gigantic ponies. What happened to them?”

“They died.” Twilight gestured at the other skeleton—this one wasn’t quite as well preserved, with missing bones and some others that didn’t seem like they were put back correctly. It stood on only two legs, as tall as the ancient Firstborn, though that still made it much smaller considering it seemed to balance like an ape.

But looking at the skull, even that comparison didn’t seem right. Its eyes were larger than an ape’s, and its brain apparently enormous, with arms that didn’t seem long enough for the usual loping style that Star had once seen in the Exemplar’s wildlife sanctuary.

“The Devourers,” Twilight went on. “Their own history mixes with the Firstborn. Maybe they were created as servants, or… maybe they just imitated the Firstborn until they had learned the secrets of their magic.”

She led the way past their bones to the last exhibit. Carvings mostly, though there were some ancient photographs set into thin sheets of metal. Or maybe they were paintings? But they looked so real.

In those images, she saw a world destroyed. Cities crumbling to dust, whole oceans frozen into a single sheet of ice. “We don’t know the details, but we can figure some of it out. The Devourers went to war against the Firstborn, and didn’t care if they survived so long as they won. And in a way they did, because there aren’t any Firstborn left. But our… ancestors, trusted to Harmony, and even though they didn’t survive, their children did.”

“I don’t see why we’re so afraid, then,” she said. “The history of Equus was scarier than I thought, but Harmony still won in the end.”

“Well…” Princess Twilight opened a nearby glass case, settling the remaining pieces of poor Max inside. “I used to believe that. The princesses that came before me believed that. But I’ve seen different since then. Darktech… it isn’t just a few mining tools the diamond dogs probably found in old ruins.”

She clicked the case closed, adding it beside many others. Each one had body parts inside, or little devices, all just as inscrutable to her in their purpose. Darktech, some with centuries of dust on the outside. “You saw what happened, Star Orchid. Something has been done to the minds of these diamond dogs, something so powerful that even my magic could not force them to learn honesty.”

“You’re saying…” Star Orchid whispered. “You think the Devourers did it? You think they’re still around, after all this time?”

Princess Twilight nodded. “I know it seems hard to believe that anything could be wrong with a kingdom as perfect as Equestria. Every creature in the world who submits to my rule has a perfect life with all their needs met. They live in friendship, they learn from the tenets of the Exemplars.”

She turned away, back towards the entrance to the little exhibit. She didn’t seem interested in letting Star Orchid examine much of this for herself. She would just get a taste, and from here on she would have to trust the princess’s own interpretation. It was right, obviously. No creature in all the world had studied more and understood more than the immortal ruler of all creation.

“But despite what the creatures of Concord know, I’ve learned that disharmony is growing on the ground. There are rumors that a growing faction… disagrees with my rule.”

“Impossible!” she argued. “Everypony knows that Equestria is perfect.”

The princess didn’t take it as an argument, only smiling at her. “And that is why you’re perfect for this assignment. The diamond dogs would not tell us where the Devourers have gone, but we don’t need them to. Where disharmony grows, there we will find our enemy. And once they’re gone… there will be no new sources of disharmony. Equestria will remain perfect forever.”

“I’m honored to serve the court however the princess demands,” Star said. Though a part of her wished she didn’t have to. It sounded like she wouldn’t be in the court for much longer.

“Of course you are,” Twilight said. “Cooperation is harmony, as is obedience. More than that, your family might have served here a long time, but you haven’t. Not even two months. I have to be honest with you, I didn’t intend for you to replace my old advisor right away. You proved to me you had the right disposition for the task—and now you will go.”

“Where?” she asked, probably missing a little of the expected meekness. But it sounded like the princess was about to banish her. “P-please, Princess. I haven’t done anything wrong, have I? I haven’t… failed to live up to Harmony’s precepts?”

“Of course not!” The princess stopped, spinning to face her in the dark hall. She patted her gently on the shoulder with one wing. “It’s because you’ve done so well that I require so much of you. You have the chance to make Equestria safe forever. There’s a window in this palace waiting for you if you succeed.”

“Find the Devourers?” she said again. “Hunt down our… greatest enemy, the ones who murdered the Firstborn?”

“Find the creatures who refuse their place in Equestria,” Twilight corrected. “If I kept you here much longer, details of your name and appearance would spread too far. Secrets travel even outside of Concord, as hard as that is to believe.”

They reached another door before too long—the one that led to the treasury. Half a dozen Royal Guards waited inside, each one as heavily armed as any pony could be. They all bowed before the princess as they passed, and didn’t look up while Star was watching them.

“I’m going to leave you with everything you need. My Master of Information will accompany you, along with as many guards as you choose trained in stealth and infiltration. But I believe you should select a smaller group, so that you’re less obvious. Probably you should pose as dissidents yourselves, until you gain the rebels’ trust enough to be accepted into their inner circle. Once you can confirm you’ve found the Devourers at last, then you can return to me, and be welcomed back into my court with wings open to receive you.”

Twilight’s smile faltered just a little, betraying the hardness underneath. “You will not return to Concord until then, so work quickly. The more time you waste, the further Disharmony spreads. I will not allow it to spread like cancer through Equestria until no friends remain.”

Jamie’s duty began with learning how to walk.

It should’ve been a task so trivial that it wasn’t even worth considering. She would get out of bed, and her mission was done.

But humans weren’t meant to have four legs, any more than they were supposed to have fur and tails and stupid ears that moved whenever she didn’t want them to. At first it took great concentration for her to so much as drag herself along, and she saw herself as really crawling on her hands and knees. But the comparison was crude—her joints didn’t bend the same way, and even a slight break in concentration made her lose track of her legs and fall over.

The computer gave her a motorized wheelchair to ride into a recovery room, where physical therapy equipment became her home for the next two weeks. Elastic straps wrapped around her torso, keeping her upright while she pretended to walk through shallow water. Drone footage of the not-horses in action gave her something to use as a model.

Even so, the computer’s toneless voice made for feeble encouragement. “You’re doing so much better,” it intoned, for the tenth time that day. “Soon you will be able to move on to trotting.”

She slumped to the ground, not caring as the elastic straps of her harness strained to the breaking point. Below the modified jumpsuit she wore, she could feel her fur matted with sweat—uncomfortable enough that she could almost understand why the horses living on the surface wore so little clothing. “You keep fuckin’ saying that,” she groaned. “You don’t care. You don’t even have a name.”

Of course the computer had no indignance when it answered, but it did take a few seconds to respond. The reaction she’d learned meant it didn’t consider the response high priority. As close to being unhappy with her as a computer could be. “That is not correct. This intelligence has been given the designation Epsilon-Iota-198.64.”

She rolled onto her side, lifting two legs so they wouldn’t be tangled in elastic. “They just called you EI? How about… Epsilon. I’m going to call you that from now on.”

“Commands will now be accepted under the designation ‘Epsilon.’”

It couldn’t even stay surly at her. Moping was no fun when she couldn’t ruin anyone else’s day in the process.

Jamie bent down, grabbing onto the Velcro strap with her teeth, and pulling free. The harness came loose, and she scrambled out. Epsilon wouldn’t mind—any moving she did was practice she could use to further “calibrate her neural mapping” or whatever. She used the support poles to stand, which was fairly easy for her by now, hobbling towards the nearest automatic door and out into a stone corridor.

The shelters were built to last, with modular replaceable parts that the governing intelligence would service many times over their lives. But the normally swift pneumatics of the airlock took a moment to engage, and kept hissing for another moment once the door was open. Leaky pressure reserve. Jamie crept along past several flickering light-fixtures, bad controller board, to her solitary bedroom across the hall. Judging by its size and comfort, it would’ve belonged to the base’s lead doctor if anyone else was alive down here.

Now Jamie was the lead doctor, and the chief engineer, and the presiding military officer, and lots of other positions she’d never qualify for.

She used a plastic stepstool to reach her dining room chair, then pulled over the tablet waiting there and navigated to the menu. She might be having trouble walking, but she was getting quite good at using a touchscreen with hooves. She scrolled to the menu, then scanned it with a growing scowl.

“What the hell is this?” she asked loudly, flicking a hoof at the display. “Where’s my steak?”

Epsilon answered instantly; apparently it had been waiting for this. “Your physical therapy is nearly complete. The process of acclimation to conditions on the surface must begin. Dietary adjustments must be made to bring you into line with the civilization waiting for you.”

She opened a command prompt, and initiated a root reset of the tablet. We’ll see about that. While the device went through its first-time-boot process, she sat back in her chair, acting as casually as she could. “I don’t know how I could be nearly ready to go. We haven’t even talked about, uh… language! Yeah, language. Those horses must talk really weird. I know I sound weird.”

But she didn’t actually. Her mouth shape wasn’t human, but it had been carefully engineered. She was higher pitched as product of a smaller body, but that was all.

“A comprehensive survey is impossible,” Epsilon said. “But the surface population speaks in standard English. Speculation: the Core Terraforming Node intentionally cultivated this tendency early in the terraforming process, and maintained it against lingual drift.”

“Uh…” The screen popped back on, logging her in at last. She navigated to the menu. It was exactly the same as before. Worth a shot. She tapped whatever “Hayburger” was, and dropped it roughly onto her plastic table. “I don’t have a terraforming degree, but… what kind of sense does it make to have intelligent creatures terraform for you? Why didn’t the Core Node make, like… slugs?”

“Insufficient data to hypothesize,” Epsilon answered unhelpfully. “The Core Node cannot be reached for consultation on the subject. It was destroyed at least two centuries ago, perpetuating the collapse of the shelter ultra-low-band network.”

“I know,” she groaned, head flopping against the table. “Append my order. I want a Coke.”

Chapter 4: Dorado

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“I’ll see you tomorrow morning,” Geist said, slowing to a stop beside Star outside her family’s flat. There was nothing to identify him as Equestria’s most dangerous pony in existence—he was just a bat like so many others, with a dark coat and a mane so light it was almost white.

Instead of courtly fashion, Geist wore only a plain black cloak. Obtrusive during the day, but soon curfew would arrive, and all the lights of Concord would switch off.

“Tomorrow morning,” she repeated, returning his smile as best she could. “Guess that’s enough time for you to say goodbye to your loved ones too.”

He laughed, voice bitter and mocking. “For your sake, don’t flee. At least in service to the Crown we have a chance to do something good. The deserters I bring in… never do anything for anypony again.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow morning,” she said, cheerfulness gone. “First bell, at this gate. I’m a loyal servant to Equestria. I’ll be here.”

Star turned her back on him, then lifted the gate into her family’s flat in her magic and made her way up the path.

The weather in Concord was always perfect, and so were her father’s flowers. The state approved tulips and petunias, growing in the precise mixture of purple and pink required for a pleasing arrangement.

Star slowed a little to appreciate the view of the high city, spiraling down in open sky towards the other five districts and where citizens of decreasing harmony were housed. Naturally a servant of the court would be here in Twilight’s own district, hence the purple everywhere.

There was little traffic in the sky this close to sundown, only a dozen heavy cruisers in their patrols above Concord. Cannons bristled from every side, and scouts in armor surrounded each one like a swarm of bees. Anypony trying to get in or out without permission would feel quite the sting.

Behind her, Geist wasn’t waiting at the gate anymore. He wasn’t walking down the street, or gliding through the sky over the neighborhood. He just… wasn’t there anymore.

She shuddered, hurrying the rest of the way up to the house.

Her father swung the door open. “Hey Star! Didn’t expect you’d be leaving the castle today. Good news?”

She embraced him, barely suppressing a whimper. It wouldn’t be proper to make a public display of weakness in serving Harmony’s duty. There was nothing but joy in bringing friendship to Equestria.

But once the door was shut, and she smelled her mother’s familiar hay fries cooking in the kitchen—then she let herself cry a little. “I guess it’s very good news?” her father asked. “Or… bad.”

“I don’t know.” She stumbled back from him, almost smacking her rump into the royally mandated picture of the princess, flanked by the Exemplars of each Harmonic virtue. She didn’t, thanks to the magical spotlight illuminating her even when power to the rest of the house was out. “I guess it’s good news if I do well. Bad if I don’t.”

“Sounds like life to me, sweetheart,” called her mother, Corona from the kitchen, settling a tray on the table. “I always cook enough for visitors. Why don’t you eat with us?”

That was what she did. She did her best to talk about Twilight’s plans for her as little as she possibly could, not bringing up the princess herself even once.

But it was the first time she’d visited her family in months, and she couldn’t get away with saying nothing after so long.

“Where is the city flying next?” her father, Hawthorne asked, near the end of their meal when their plates were finally empty. “Spending all that time with the princess, you must have some idea.”

She nodded. “Did you hear about those diamond dog rebels the Unification Army brought in?”

“We…” Corona’s face twitched, just once. “There were a few mandatory public displays, yes. Terrible business. To think that any creature could be fighting against Harmony in our current age… it boggles the mind.”

Right. The place my prisoners go when I’m done with them. “Well, the princess wants to be sure there weren’t any others. So the city will continue to circle around…” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “The Immortal City.”

“Praise to the Exemplars,” her parents repeated, heads lowered in respect, before Hawthorne added, “Seems hard to believe that creatures as tainted as those could get anywhere near the Immortal City. Shouldn’t they… catch fire or something?”

“I’m sure they would,” Star lied. “If they actually got near its walls. The princess thinks they’ve been exploiting our complacency, surrounding it as they have. We all know the Immortal City is incorruptible, so we don’t look at the land right around it. Their day of reckoning arrives.”

“Our little filly, helping advance Harmony’s cause across Equestria,” Corona said. “You know how proud we are, whatever your news from the castle. If you’ve been… Whatever happened, we know you could never abandon the path of friendship.”

It was now or never. It wouldn’t be very friendly to leave them so conflicted over her. “I haven’t,” she said. “I’m not being punished, but the princess has given me a special assignment. There’s… danger involved. I’ll be traveling outside of Concord.”

The weight of her words hit the two of them like a blow. Hawthorne clutched Corona protectively for a few seconds, while the mare shuddered at the implication.

“The ground?” she finally stammered. “Around those… castoffs and disharmonious… traitors?”

“Not everypony who hasn’t earned a place in Concord is a traitor,” she corrected, more defensively than she probably should have. “But there are forces down there that need to be stopped. The princess needs a pony like me to be the one.”

“Wow,” Hawthorne said. “That’s… incredible trust from the princess. And I know… I know she chose the right pony. Of course she did. The princess always chooses perfectly.”

“Your father has been to the ground before,” Corona said, still on the edge of panic. “Tell her something useful, Hawthorne. It’s not so bad, right?”

“It’s… not perfect,” he said. “Not like Concord. So far from the princess’s light, creatures don’t see the rules the same way we do. They don’t understand how much better their lives would be if they were better at observing the friendly trait of obedience.”

Hawthorne rose to his hooves, gesturing for her to follow. “Into the study, Star Orchid. There’s something I’d like to give you.”

Even though she hadn’t been to the family’s flat for months, she knew where to follow him. Her own study was in the exact same place. Everypony lived in the same perfect home.

Hawthorne removed something from the wall, where it had been secured to a plaque by straps. He turned it around, holding it out in front of her. “Take it, Star.”

She took hold in her magic, drawing the thin dagger from its sheath. The silvery blade was well-oiled even now, unaged despite its years. “I don’t know how to fight,” she said weakly. “I’m not… I’m not going to be that kind of pony. I’m not an assassin.”

“I know,” he said, pushing the knife up to her anyway. “And I’m sure our princess knows that too. But down there, life is different. Less controlled, more dangerous. This weapon was made for me by a griffon’s hammer down on the surface. Bring it with you.

She thought about arguing for another moment, then just hugged him and took the knife. I guess I don’t need to know what I’m doing with it to use it as a prop.

The next morning, Geist was waiting for her with the first work bell. She emerged from inside with one last hug, clutching a heavy cloak about her shoulders. It would quickly become uncomfortable in the perfectly-conditioned streets of Concord, but there was no telling how things would be in… wherever they were going.

“Are you surprised?” she asked, shutting the fence behind her with a click. The streets weren’t empty now—dozens of creatures emerged about the same time, heading to their work for the glory of Concord. Her parents were retired, and the wealth of royal service meant they didn’t have to work. But most did. “Or just disappointed you don’t have to hunt me down?”

“Neither.” Geist hadn’t changed at all from the day before. Even his mane looked exactly the same. “The princess knows ponies better than anyone alive. If she thought you would make a good choice for this assignment, then she would’ve known you could face the rigors of leaving Concord behind and still make the correct choice.”

She nodded. “Obviously I would obey her commands.”

“Yet—what she cannot know is how you’ll respond to difficulty. Your perfect life ends, and now we enter a world of disharmony and strife. I can travel there and return at will—but not many ponies can. If you desert the cause, I expect that would be after… some time on the ground to lose your nerve.”

“It won’t happen,” she declared. “Concord is my whole world. Service to the court is the only thing I’ve ever wanted. They’re worth fighting for.”

Geist laughed again. “They all say that. Let’s see if you mean it.” He gestured, and the two of them walked together to the end of the street, catching a public trolley when it came and riding all the way to Grand Central. The air station was packed with airships big and small, each bound for some other district in Concord—but instead of any of them, they walked through a heavily-guarded archway into the Military Port, where ponies bound for service in the Unification Army would travel.

“I don’t know where we’re actually going,” she said conversationally, as they passed through a long cement tunnel away from the sound of civilian voices. “But aren’t we trying to find a rebellion? If we land in a warship, won’t everypony in the town know who we are?”

“Unification warships can’t travel far from Concord,” Geist said. “Twenty kilometers perhaps. But they’re also the only way out of the city. We’ll ride to the ground, then walk. Sections of the ancient railway are still intact, so we’ll use those. Pose as refugees from Concord.”

The tunnel opened into a port several times the size of Grand Central, though it looked nothing like it. There were no crystal chandeliers or gold decorations, only unadorned cement pillars and rows of identical boarding ramps.

And of course, the smell. The Unification Army always had a bit of an odor to it. Not just the sweat and musk of a royal guardspony who had been on duty too long, but an artificial, almost laboratory smell.

There were no coffee shops, no pleasant conversations between creatures and their friends. Instead, these soldiers came in only two groups. The veterans with identical gray in their manes and blank looks, and the terrified-looking recruits. Each wore the same saddlebags, even while they sat down. So far as she knew, they never took them off.

In their plain cloaks, with color in their manes and uneven steps, the two of them stuck out like unpreened feathers. Before they’d made it a dozen paces, a small squad of military police approached them, each one stepping in perfect time.

“Identification,” said a griffon, extending a gloved claw towards Geist. “State your business.”

Geist offered him a little leather folio, unmoved by the slight smell on his breath. Apparently the soldiers of Unification didn’t just wear the strange perfume, they put it on their food as well. “Court business,” Geist said. “Two require transport to Immortal City Station.”

Star whimpered in surprise, freezing in place. None of the military police seemed to care, though. The army didn’t pay much attention to things that weren’t a threat to Harmony.

“Immortal City,” the griffon repeated, offering the folio back. “Transport leaves on the hour. Platform seven.”

Jamie wasn’t terribly eager to go anywhere. Her reflection was ridiculous, and didn’t get easier to see the more times she saw it. With enough practice she could learn to walk, and carefully balance objects with her hooves in order to use them, but that wasn’t the same as just being normal.

The one question she wanted Epsilon to answer most of all, “Why can’t a human ambassador go up to make the treaty for a human city?” went unanswered.

All it ever told her was “Significantly greater odds of success are projected if you approach the correction agents from a context they understand. Explanations of the nature of our settlement and what its residents will accomplish can follow once initial rapport is established.

She delayed as long as she could, demanding time to learn and practice trotting and running alongside walking. She refused to go until she had time to learn the different foods the horses ate, and familiarize herself with what she could see of their culture from distant drone footage. All that Epsilon would indulge, but even the computer had its limit.

Eventually a drone delivery arrived at her door with an entirely new set of clothing—an elastic tan jacket and trousers, along with wide brimmed hat and a backpack that was probably more properly called “saddlebags,” already heavy with something. “The sun will soon rise on the surface,” Epsilon said. “You will depart at dawn to begin your mission.”

She sighed, settling the tablet down in front of her and letting the game pause itself automatically. Online gaming just didn’t have the same excitement now that she was really playing alone. It’s either this or die in the cold, Jamie. You’re saving humanity. It’s worth doing something hard.

“I guess this way I can… finally amount to something,” she said, crossing to the doorway and taking the plastic box by the handle. She didn’t trip as she moved this time, though it still took concentration to dodge around her oversized furniture. “If we really are the last shelter left, then… this treaty kinda saves the whole world.”

The clothes came with new underwear as well, a complex plastic under-suit she recognized well, even if she’d never seen one made for horses before. This was a stillsuit, the domain of explorers who might be traveling weeks into hostile territory. With the hood zipped up over her face, it would capture every drop of water she drank, and recycle most of it for reuse.

“Don’t you think this is… overkill?” she asked, stopping short of tearing open the plastic. “That’s a rainforest. How desperate for water do you think I’ll be?”

Epsilon spoke from the speakers in the delivery drone, though it could’ve picked any others it wished. “You will be deposited a significant distance from this facility, to prevent hostile actors from tracking your movement back here. This might involve travel through hostile terrain. Proper equipment will make your trip more comfortable.”

“I don’t think I’d call drinking from this thing ‘comfortable’,” she muttered. But she tore the plastic open, and shrugged it on anyway. If nothing else, maybe she could trade it away or something.

She expected the suit to be uncomfortably warm against her skin and fur, like a portable sauna—but instead she felt pleasantly cool. It was that feeling of first crawling into bed at night, before the sheets warmed up—only following her around.

She did the trousers next, and finally the jacket. “Don’t you think I’m going to look weird dressed this way? The horses seem to have their own customs. Like… nudist customs.”

“You may alter your manner of dress however you like to secure cooperation,” Epsilon said. “But it is easier to remove unnecessary formality than acquire more when not provided. You will not be returning to this shelter at any point until your mission is complete. No retrieval will be attempted, and no resupply will be possible. You have thus been provided with any resource that might be necessary.”

That sounds an awful lot like you’re kicking me out.

She dumped the box out onto the floor, flattening out the backpack. It did indeed come in two major halves, with straps that would hold it secure on her back while she walked. At least being a stupid beast of burden would mean that she could carry a lot. She opened one of the oversized zippers, inspecting the contents.

Each side was basically the same—water filter packets, food rations, a few electronic devices, a gun she had no idea how to use, and a plastic box filled with shiny metal cubes.

Jamie went instantly for this last, pulling it out with her teeth and opening the lid. There inside were measured slips of gold, each one imprinted with its purity designation. These weren’t currency, they were fabricator stock, probably for making circuitry. “What’s this for?” She wanted to pick one up and taste it, see if it was really soft enough to bite like all the old movies. But she didn’t have fingers, so she just closed up the box.

“Exchange, if necessary. The civilization above has been observed possessing a functional economy, using coins of dirty electrum as a medium of exchange. Observation sufficient to determine the nature of their economy cannot be conducted without risk of discovery. But in the likely event value is assigned to rare metals, samples of what we can provide are included for trading purposes. You may also wish to familiarize yourself with the full production reports downloaded to the ruggedized tablet.”

“But… you’ll be there, when I actually do any negotiating, right?” She closed everything back up, packing the metal back where she’d found them. “I’m not a diplomat. I don’t know what you’ll accept.”

“That is correct. Little actual negotiation is anticipated. We are not attempting to annex part of their city for our own use. We wish only to secure a guarantee of their inaction when we begin to settle this jungle territory that no civilization is currently using. What you bring is meant to reflect human goodwill and a guarantee of cooperation into the years to come.”

From the ones who tried to purge them when they’d done their job. Better not mention that part. Jamie thought about fighting, but in the end she just didn’t have the heart. Epsilon was poor company, and the shelter wasn’t much fun by herself. She couldn’t even enjoy most of its recreation systems with her stupid horse body.

She shrugged into the backpack, then crossed the empty hallway one last time toward the illuminated central lift. “It’s gonna be fun,” she said. “It’s like… first contact! A god with their creations. Only… I’m not much of a god.”

Chapter 5: Volans

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Star Orchid had never flown before. It wasn’t just that she was a bit of a homebody, never venturing too far from the capital district and all the ponies who lived there—though that was certainly the case. It was, rather, that almost no one flew unless they’d done something wrong. Flying meant you had somewhere to go, and there was nowhere to go from Concord that wasn’t worse.

Now she perched near the bow of the little transport cruiser, feeling the deck rumble and shake as they moved. A thick cloud of chemical smoke followed them—air quality didn’t matter when you weren’t operating inside city limits. But so long as they kept moving, the black smoke would be behind them, slowly dispersing into a faint orange haze.

There were other reasons not to fly: get anywhere near the edges of Concord, and you would see what the city left behind.

Even from altitude Star could see the wilderness that the princess called “processed.” It was a little like a father turning over the soil on their field, except Concord was the plow and it didn’t care about the health of the field. From the look of it, a healthy forest had been down there once. Now it was turned up, chunks of rock bigger than a house scattered and tossed roughly back into place. She could spy thick sections of roots emerging from within, and whole copses of dead trees. Over many years, perhaps new soil would develop here, and eventually new plants.

Just in time for Concord to come back and kill it all again.

“I see you’re appreciating the scale of what we have accomplished,” Geist said from behind her. He spoke casually, almost friendly now that they were out of the city. Maybe it was just the contrast of the Unification sailors manning the ship. “To think our ancestors once lived without the magic of Concord to sustain us… and some of the unfortunates still do.”

“Do you know what all this… does?” she asked. “Even in the court, I never heard anypony say anything we didn’t already know. Gathers resources, destroys the enemies of Harmony.”

“Precisely true,” Geist said. “Both of those things. More killing than resources, these days. The city doesn’t take much, except when we’re expanding. Only a certain gemstone, one among hundreds of worthless rocks.” He spread one bat wing, tensing a little. “Don’t ask me which it is. I would have to lie even if I knew. Those details of how Concord flies are entirely secret. The royal technicians know, and they aren’t telling.”

She tensed reflexively, shivering all over. She’d seen plenty of royal technicians while living in the castle, all with nearly the same scars. “They can still write without tongues though, can’t they?”

Geist actually smiled. “Grim humor for a unicorn who spends all her life in a gilded cage. They’re from the Magic district too, aren’t they? You’ve probably known ponies destined for royal service.”

“A few,” she admitted. “There was this little stallion, when I was younger. He thought it would be the most amazing thing in the world—nothing but learning from the princess herself for the rest of his life. Guess he got what he wanted.”

Far below, a lone rabbit hopped precariously over chunks of rubble, fighting its way towards their destination. Not much further now, the ground went from torn in irregular chunks to suddenly flat again, and pristine. Green grass, perfectly regular flowers in the most harmonious colors. The landing platform for the Immortal City.

As they neared the landing field, a crewman on her left tossed a heavy rope over the edge, where royal guardsponies waited to catch it. None of the precision of the Unification Army, but Concord wasn’t usually this close. This post would be stationed long after the city flew on, just as it had been stationed long before.

Star turned back towards the ship, watching the crew at their mechanical work. Every single one of them had that same flat expression, eyes barely seeming to see anything around them. She shivered, wondering if even their breathing was synchronized.

Every family gave ponies to the Unification Army eventually. The question wasn’t if they would serve, but when.

A second later, and they came to a bumpy stop. She waited patiently near the railing as crew shoved a ramp down, and the ship’s captain approached. Like many older-looking Unification soldiers, he had a slightly shriveled look to him, a faint suggestion of his age. But he didn’t move clumsily the way elderly ponies often did, he didn’t seem slower or weaker. And there were those ubiquitous saddlebags…

“Your travel is concluded,” the captain said. “If there’s anything additionally you require before we return to our patrol, you may say so now.”

Geist shook his head. “Thank you for a pleasant journey, Captain. Your loyalty to Concord is all we require.”

“It is given,” the captain intoned.

“It is given,” said every other pony on the deck, in perfect unison. Star only nodded to the captain, making her way down the ramp as quickly as she could. She slowed as she neared the bottom of the ramp, body beginning to shake. This was the ground—a place of disharmony and evil. A place of disease and want. Everything that Concord wasn’t.

“It won’t bite you,” Geist said, almost mocking. “It’s not that different from the gardens on Concord. Especially here. These are tended just the same. The Immortal City has to be perfect.”

She glanced behind her, and saw a dozen eyes on her. They’re all gray, she realized, horrified. All except for Geist, whose eyes sparkled green in the morning sun. But every soldier of Unification. Why does nopony talk about that?

Star hurried onto the grass, before the soldiers of Unification could decide she wasn’t allowed to leave after all. It didn’t burn her hooves on contact, or feel any different than other grass she’d felt before. Maybe if she was an earth pony this would be different?

Just before her was a squat barracks of sturdy concrete, with a training ground to one side and several large storage buildings on the other. And beyond it all, a glowing purple barrier, rising up into the sky. A perfect sphere, that included the Immortal City and the landmarks around it. Held in perfection forever.

“Making your pilgrimage to the Immortal City?” asked one of the guards. “We’ll need to see your permit if you want to step inside.”

“Sadly no pilgrimages for us today,” Geist said, not even trying to be sincere. “We’re headed to the train station, and destinations further afield.”

Every one of them seemed to relax at that. Why would you be afraid of pilgrims? “I know that face,” said another guard, emerging from inside the building. His armor was half off, and the pieces he was wearing weren’t polished and perfect like the others. Their officer, then.

“Geist, you old raccoon. You’re still spry enough to hunt traitors?”

Geist smiled slightly, extending a hoof to bump. “You’re young enough to keep guarding, Buckler. Why would my duty rest?”

Buckler laughed. “True enough. Service ends when we’re one with Harmony, I suppose.” He glanced between them, eyes narrowing. “Don’t you think of taking advantage of your little sapling here.”

“Sapling?” she repeated, puffing out her chest. “I’ll have you know, I’m—”

“Nopony,” Geist said, glaring back at her. “She’s nopony.”

She grumbled loudly, then fell silent. Twilight hadn’t ever said, but she could understand even without that. She would’ve put him in charge. She probably shouldn’t start out their trip by challenging his authority. “Right.” She looked away. “Nopony.”

“That’s what you’ll be if you don’t learn to listen to Geist here, right quick,” Buckler said, walking past him and offering a much friendlier hoof. “He’s as shriveled and heartless as a griffon with a wet nest. But that makes him just the set of eyes you want watching your back. Trust me on it, miss.”

“I will,” she said, accepting the hoof with a little more grace.

“Supplies for the road, Geist?” he went on.

“For her,” Geist said, flicking his tail and turning towards the trail. “I can see her saddlebags are too light, she doesn’t have food. Make it something a city pony can eat.”

She waited impatiently for a messenger-colt to run it out to her, then had to trot herself to catch up with Geist’s retreating back. The weight of her saddlebags ground just a little against her back, but she wasn’t going to argue. He was right, after all. She’d packed lunch for the trip, thanks to her parents, but that was all.

“You knew him?” she asked, only slightly winded. “I guess a pony as important as you must get to make a pilgrimage… every year.”

Geist laughed loudly, clasping her on the shoulder with an energetic hoof. “You really are a court pony, Star. Pilgrimage, Spymaster of the court…” He wiped the tears from his eyes.

“What?” She raised an indignant eyebrow. “You aren’t allowed?”

He took another few seconds laughing before he finally recovered enough to speak. “I’m the Spymaster,” he said again, sounding out each syllable like a foal’s teacher. “You know how much blood is on these hooves?” He held one out to his right, where ten paces or so the barrier touched down.

“If I touched this shield, I’d be ashes. Maybe a courtly snowflake like you could make a trip like that—but what does that prove? Your morality means nothing when it’s unchallenged. See if you still feel like visiting after we finish our work.”

“I will,” she argued, puffing out her chest again. “Just you wait, Geist. Once I’m returned to my position, I’ll ask a boon for the trip, and take a sacred pilgrimage back here. I’ll say hi to your old friend for you.”

He laughed again, though he didn’t seem particularly upset. He touched her on the shoulder again. “I think I’m going to enjoy this trip, Star. Putting an end to the treacherous forces of disharmony infecting the kingdom, seeing you get your first taste of real opposition… I don’t know which will be more fun.”

Just ahead she could see their destination, the train station. It looked nothing at all like Grand Central, this was just a rickety wooden building with tracks running up to it and openings that ended in a series of loops. A few trains were parked here, with military markings.

Of course, the Pilgrim’s Path. Ponies from all over the kingdom can come here, even if they’re from the ground. It was their sacred right to go at least once, no matter how poor they were. That was probably why the princess even bothered to maintain the tracks.

As they approached, another train pulled into the station, hissing and belching white smoke. A thick crowd of ponies flooded out, pushing towards the buildings around the Immortal City. There was another guard post beyond, much better staffed than the other.

But as they climbed up onto the platform, Star couldn’t see a crowd of ponies waiting to go home with their new harmonious wisdom. There were less than a dozen left behind once the crowd finally made their way out.

Geist made his way over from the ticket booth a moment later, holding a dense roll under one wing. “Hopefully Concord sends the army to deal with whatever we find,” he said casually. “Because otherwise we’re going to have quite the adventure getting back.”

She glanced nervously around the train station. There might not be very many ponies waiting for the return trip, but there were a few. A few that might be listening in. “Remind me what you said before about keeping quiet?”

He shrugged his wings, or at least it looked like he did from under his cloak. “I got us a private compartment. Not so hard to get, on the outbound. Probably won’t be any as far as we’re going, but it will make most of the trip easier. Unicorn like you ought to know some spells for privacy.”

She did, in fact. Soon enough they were climbing onto the train, following the conductor’s gestures to a luxury car near the front. Luxury down here meant that half the lights still worked, and there was food waiting in a little lobby. A thin layer of dust on some of the plates suggested it wasn’t eaten often, though.

Their private compartment was smaller than she might’ve expected, smaller than some closets back home. But there were four cots overhead, suggesting just how many could use it on a standard trip.

“Go on and cast your spells,” Geist said. “I know you’ll have questions. And now that you’re past the point of no return, I might answer some of them.”

He climbed up into the lowest cot, pulling his hood down over his face and probably closing his eyes. “It’s all crown loyalists up here, promise you that. But you’ve probably got the right idea keeping quiet. Can’t be too careful who will spread things around, even with the best intentions.”

Of course, he’s a bat. No wonder he’s so grumpy all the time.

She cast her spells anyway, even pulling the window-shade closed for good measure. Only when the slow rumble of the engine fell abruptly silent did she finally relax onto the cramped wooden bench, shrugging out of her saddlebags and sighing deeply.

“On the ground,” she muttered to herself. “Disharmony and wickedness, here we come.”

Geist laughed quietly under his hood, then flopped onto his side, looking down. “You’ve got a lot to learn, filly. Life in Concord… it’s theory. Life down here, it’s the real thing. Up there everypony lives exactly by Harmony’s precepts, praising every minute… not so much here. No room for black and white, it’s all gray.”

She thought about arguing that—how could the will of Harmony be ignored? It didn’t matter how far away from Concord they were. The princess’s will was absolute. Her power raised the sun!

But Geist said it, as though he were remarking on the color of the wallpaper. Gray too, though it had several brown stains. “Where are we going, anyway? Now that we’re out of Concord… can you tell me?”

“Hollow Shades,” he answered. “City of dreams, city of nightmares. There sleep the evils of the past, slain and slain again. Or however the stories go.”

She struggled with her saddlebags, pulling out a densely packed book. It was her personal spell book, along with all the records she kept in the court. She removed the map from within, squinting down until she saw the name of the town.

“Course it would be there,” she muttered. “That’s… pretty far from Concord. I wonder when the last time was we flew anywhere close.”

Geist shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. City being close wouldn’t root out rebellion on its own. It’s on a hallowed foundation, so it stays.”

“I know that!” she snapped, probably harsher than she should have. “I might’ve spent my whole life in the court, but I’m not stupid. I know where the towns are. And how basic construction law works.”

He chuckled, but didn’t argue. “Then you know we’ve got a long trip ahead of us. Hollow Shades is far enough that it isn’t actually connected. But a walk through the jungle will help us seem more authentic. Desperate survivors, on the run from the stifling laws of Concord. The perfect story to get us into this rebellion. And once we’re there…” He made an exaggerated slashing sound, then rolled back over. “Wake me when we’re in Dodge Junction. I haven’t got to sleep during the day in weeks.”

Soon enough, he was snoring.

Chapter 6: Cetus

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Jamie could tell as soon as she stepped off the cargo truck that the jungle didn’t want her there. If it wasn’t the constant humidity overcoming the moisture capacity of her stillsuit, it was the cloud of mosquitoes, ready to swoop in and devour her if she so much as lifted the hood for more than a few moments. So she kept her visor down and helmet up, sipping on the stale-tasting water that the stillsuit fed her and keeping her eyes alert for danger.

“Are you sure nothing’s going to eat me up here?” she asked, for the third or fourth time. “You have no fucking concept of how giant this jungle is Epsilon. These trees are jacked, and I hate it.”

There was no way to judge Epsilon’s pleasure or frustration with her questions through simple delay anymore. The radio muddied all of that, and distorted its voice a little too. There was something with relays going on, probably several points of redirection. For some reason. Because the horses that make plants grow are going to trace an ultrasonic signal to a surface transmitter and find the base. That seems likely.

She knew better than to even try and argue with a computer like Epsilon. It just wouldn’t be capable of changing its mind, certainly not in response to something some dropout said. Maybe a system administrator, but… she hadn’t seen any of those awake. Or anyone else, for that matter. I notice you didn’t give me the full text of any of those UN directives either, Epsilon. What’s your game here?

At least it was right about one thing: nothing tried to eat her. There was plenty of violence elsewhere in the jungle—she could hear the predators calling to each other at night, and occasionally stumbled onto the consequences of their hunting covered in buzzing flies. But she was never forced to try and scramble to use the gun.

When night came, Jamie tacked up her emergency shelter against a tree, finally removing the stupid stillsuit and giving herself a chance to breathe. And anytime she heard something moving outside, she’d flick off the lights and huddle as small as she could, waiting for it to pass. Thankfully for her, it always did.

Epsilon kept her on-track for her destination, watching through the embedded camera in her helmet and probably more sensors she didn’t know about. But if growing up in the quantum age had taught Jamie one thing, it was that the less she knew about the sensors she wore, the happier she’d be.

“Am I the first pony you’re sending?” Jamie asked, mid-afternoon on her third day of hiking. “I mean, you seem to be starting me pretty far from this town. I bet if your previous attempts had been eaten you might’ve put them closer.”

“You are the first,” Epsilon said. “You were an ideal combination of related factors.”

She grunted, focusing on her climbing as the ground got steep under her hooves. Climbing down, which would seem easier except that her balance as a horse was still extremely poor. If she slipped here, she might tumble off a cliff. I wonder if Epsilon would airlift me to surgery, or just leave me to die in the jungle. “And what factors… were… those?”

“Sufficient competence for basic negotiation, disposability, and obedience. Other pods were as damaged as yours, some more so. But those contained within were either too valuable to risk in an experimental surgery, or unlikely to complete this mission once commanded.”

I should be insulted. Jamie started psyching herself up with an argument with the computer anyway, reminding it what its entire bloody point was and how valuable every human life ought to be—but then she heard a voice.

It was a pitiful thing, quiet enough that she’d almost missed it through the stillsuit hood. She froze in place, ears twitching as she reached up to unzip the hood. Immediately her skin breathed a sigh of relief, though of course the waves of mosquitoes would probably change her mind on that in short order. Except she didn’t see any of them yet.

“Please… help! If anyone’s out there… I could really use some help.” The voice sounded so pitiful, Jamie probably would’ve gone for them even if the computer had ordered her to ignore it. But Epsilon fell strangely silent as she replaced the hat onto her head this time, and followed the voice. It was coming from the edge of the trail, where the already steep slope became sheer and vines grew thick.

Jamie stopped on the edge, ears perked to listen. “Hello! Please, any creature? I could use a hoof! I’ll be… really grateful for your help!”

Could they have heard her approach? Hard to say, since Jamie herself couldn’t make out where the voice was coming from exactly. Maybe there was an overhang she couldn’t see, or an opening into unknown caverns below? Whatever it was, she nudged as close to the edge as she could, then shouted as loudly as she ever had with her unfamiliar lungs. “Hey! I can hear you, whoever you are! Are you still in trouble?”

A stupid question, but she wasn’t sure what else to say. Anything to keep them talking, and to psyche herself up for this. Saving someone could go a long way towards proving that we’re peaceful. I could finish my mission before even starting it.

Yes! There’s been a bit of a cave-in. I, uh… I don’t think I’m strong enough to get through it.” The voice came from far enough below that it was quite faint, and she had to freeze completely still to listen and understand her. “Are you a pegasus? The cavern entrance is just below the cliffside trail, and… it might be difficult to get to if you’re not. Unless you’re a really skilled unicorn?”

“I’m not either of those things, unfortunately,” she said. She reached to the side, flipping open her saddlebags and removing the coil of line from inside. The plasteel filament could probably lift a car, though it wasn’t much thicker than the threads in her uniform. She clipped it onto the bag itself, tightening the straps so it would serve as a harness, before searching around for something.

A set of mechanical grippers tightened around the line, and a faint voice spoke into the earpiece still clipped onto her head. “On belay.”

What the fuck am I doing. I’m not a mountain climber. I can barely run with these hooves, and I’m not sure I could save someone even if I was still human. But she didn’t stop—she couldn’t just leave someone out here!

“Oh, well… do you think you could run back to Hollow Shades then? Maybe they’ll send somepony. Or… something. They won’t just leave me out here.”

“If I can’t help, I’ll go,” she said, looping the end of the line around a sturdy tree before securing it with a clip to itself. At least she didn’t have to worry about knots—only slipping right off the edge to hang there until she died. Totally different. “I’m going to climb down to you.” And if this gadget I’m wearing doesn’t break or hang me, we’ll both live. “How far down is this cavern?”

“Maybe… I don’t know. Not very far. But you probably shouldn’t try to climb. Unless you’re a griffon, or… maybe then you could. But you don’t sound like a griffon.”

How she could tell that, Jamie didn’t pause to consider. She walked backwards towards the cliff, feeling the backpack grow tight around her shoulders. But while she was walking, the harness would spool out line for her without much difficulty. It was only when she reached the edge that it finally started giving resistance.

“On repel,” she said. It’s just like the climbing wall, it’s just like the climbing wall, it’s just like the climbing wall…

Only it wasn’t at all. Instead of regular rubberized handles to grip onto, the rock was broken and covered with vines. She might’ve been able to climb that anyway, if she had limbs capable of grabbing things. Maybe she could wedge things between her hooves to put a little pressure on them, but this was different. She would be depending entirely on the harness.

Nylon and plastic straps jerked as she pulled taut against them, then started descending. She walked backward over the edge, feeling the line spool out at a steady rate. Not so bad, so long as she kept the pressure of her body holding her to the rock. But if she lost grip for even a moment, she’d be left hanging there, and completely lose control.

She crossed over the edge, with a nearly vertical slope under her hooves. Don’t think about it don’t think about it don’t think about… she repeated, the mantra becoming meaningless in her mind. But then one of her back legs swung out into empty air, and she squealed. “Hold!”

She jerked to a stop, with one leg kicking out below her. She chanced a glance backward, and immediately wished she hadn’t. This was probably the overhang the speaker mentioned, a jutting stretch of rock covered in lichen and twisting vines.

“Uh… it sounds like you should give up,” the voice said again, a little feebler than before. “I really don’t want to be… responsible if you get hurt too. You don’t sound old enough to be out on your own.

Like hell I’m not. “You sound the same age!” she called, a little annoyance rising to the front of her mind. Enough to overcome her fear, anyway. “Resume,” she said, shoving forward with her back legs in search of the floor. For another few terrible moments she hung over nothing—then she found solid ground!

Well, crumbling dirt anyway, leading further down. She dropped over the edge, and suddenly she could see the cavern entrance. She kept sliding down, leaning to the side so she could follow the edge of the cave. “Prepare to stop,” she said, then, “Stop.”

She clambered onto the cavern floor, flopping limply there and shaking a little. Jamie was afraid of heights—she never should’ve been able to do that. She chanced a glance out the opening behind her, over nearly a hundred feet of rough stone before the leafy canopy below. She thought she could make out red tile roofs down there, poking out of the trees—but she was probably imagining them. In any case, she didn’t much want to look that way anymore.

“It sounds like you made it?” the speaker said, her voice now coming from much closer. Just on the other side of a rough pile of stones and rocks. There was a tiny opening near the ceiling, and Jamie made her way up towards it. She climbed cautiously, for fear that it might collapse under her hooves and bury her too. At least the climbing harness was smart enough to know that she wasn’t climbing anymore, and just spooled out for her as she walked.

She tossed her hat to the floor, then flicked the stillsuit’s headlamp onto its brightest mode to shine into the opening. “Hello? Someone in there?”

Rationally, she should’ve known what to expect. But being rational about a horse looking at her like it was a person wasn’t easy for her. It stood on a similar slope of collapsed stone on its side, though several larger rocks looked like they’d been shoved down as best she could. Stanger still, she had wings.

I wasn’t imagining things in the drone footage. They really do look like that.

Of course, this particular horse was covered in dirt and grime, and whatever color her mane had been was transformed to ashy brown. Her body was smeared with more dirt, which seemed to be the only thing she was “wearing.”

“Hey, you’ve got a flashlight,” the horse said. “But this shouldn’t be hard. An earth pony could move these rocks easy.”

Jamie scanned the opening, and the stones around the edge. “An… Earth Pony…” she repeated. “I guess that’s one thing you could call me.” She nudged one of the nearest stones through her boots. “Some of these are bigger than me. I might need to call for a winch to move them.”

She took a step back, fumbling with her radio. Of course, she didn’t know if Epsilon would actually do what she asked. Until she actually tried, she could live in the world where the AI cared about what happened to her and would take steps to protect her. Anything she did would shatter that illusion, and leave her with however Epsilon would really act.

“I might be a pegasus, but I don’t think you need a winch,” the horse said. “Just, uh… try pushing those rocks? Without causing another cave-in, I mean.”

Try pushing them, she repeated, rolling her eyes. Oh yeah, moving two-ton rocks is just how I start my morning. “What were you doing down here anyway? Uh… whoever you are.”

“Shy,” the horse answered, voice suddenly cheerful. “Pleased to meet you.”

Well you could at least tell me. “Well, Shy, I’m Jamie. When I was twice this size, I couldn’t even do a pull-up. I’m not sure how that would translate to being able to move rocks bigger than me.”

For a second Shy was silent. Ground crunched on something hard, suggesting that she might be pacing back and forth on the other side. Eventually she said, “Maybe you haven’t had the chance to use your magic much before. But, uh… I’ve never known an earth pony who wasn’t strong when they needed to be. And right now, I really need you to be. I have another friend who… might come for me. But I haven’t seen him in months. I don’t think he’ll get here in time.”

Of course, my magic! Why didn’t I think of that?

Jamie selected a nearby stone, shoving against it again with both forelegs. To her surprise, the rock jostled a little as she pushed on it—much more than she would’ve expected. Maybe it wasn’t as secure as she’d thought. “Hold on, Shy. I think I might have just the ‘magic’ we need.”

She wrapped both forelegs around the rock, holding as tight as she possibly could. Then she muttered, “Emergency retract, ten seconds.”

Her backpack began to groan, motor lurching against the straps. Was it strange that they didn’t snap right off her limbs, or yank her off the rock like a toy? Instead, her body worked like the winch she’d wanted, pulling against the top of the rock until it started to roll. It crashed past her a moment later, and she leapt to the side, before being jerked back towards the entrance to the cave a moment later. “Cancel order, cancel order!” she squealed, clinging to the cave floor as she was almost dragged right out into open air.

Then the moment passed, and she hastily unclipped the line, before it could decide to start pulling her again.

“There, Shy,” she said, dropping weakly to all fours against the wall. “Just, uh… is that big enough to fit through? You looked pretty scrawny.”

A second later, she saw a little yellow head appear in the opening she’d made. A set of shoulders followed, and soon there was a horse squirming through. How a four-legged animal could move like that, Jamie couldn’t imagine—but she wasn’t about to ask. The horse finally shoved her way through, sliding slowly down the front of the rubble before catching herself and rising again.

She wasn’t completely naked—she had a satchel of sorts, badly torn by her passage through the rocks, as well as a dirty cloth tying back her mane. She grinned, waving one of her wings at Jamie in a friendly sort of way.

Bigger than she’d expected, wide with huge yellow feathers dusted with dirt. How could she keep track of an extra set of limbs? “Well, that was unpleasant. Not my… happiest afternoon. But help came, and that’s what matters.” She finally seemed to really see Jamie sitting there, and her eyes went wide. “Those are some… very strange clothes you’ve got there. Did you… come south from Appleloosa?”

No way a place is named that. “No,” she said. Jamie considered if she should keep her information a little closer to her chest—but not for long. If Epsilon wanted an expert negotiator, it should’ve sent one. It had sent her, and so it would make do with the skill she had. Besides, she’d just saved the shy horse’s life. If anyone was likely to be on her side, it was her. “I’m here from somewhere closer… or I think it’s closer. We’re a new group of settlers trying to get permission to set up a town. I’m not sure how that works, but… maybe you could point me in the right direction?”

“Set up a town…” the horse repeated, making her way over and inspecting her a little closer. Her eyes lingered on the harness, and the open side of her saddlebags. But she seemed far more curious than predatory about it. “As far as I know, all the concentrated foundations are taken. The ponies who sent you can build wherever they want, but… that won’t stop Concord when it comes.”

Jamie tilted her head slightly to the side, utterly baffled. “Concord, is it some kind of… judge? Do I need to ask Concord for permission instead?”

Now it was Shy’s turn to look concerned. “Your parents didn’t teach you? Poor thing…” She reached over with a wing, squeezing Jamie in a way that was probably meant to be kind and affectionate. It came off as entirely too clingy, and she pulled away as soon as she could, glaring. She didn’t actually call out the horse for her behavior, though. Not while she still wanted her help.

“My parents taught me plenty,” she said. “InfoSec, and blockchain, and soldering, and FinanSec…” She trailed off at the horse’s blank expression. She might be taller than Jamie, but from the sound of her voice she was also too young to be very useful. “Look, did you come from the town near here? Could you help me find my way there? And maybe when we get there, you could direct me to, like… a government office or something. Whatever passes for authority in… Hollow Shades, you said?”

“Sure,” Shy said. “Uh, yeah, I can do that. They’re probably going to think you’re the strangest pony to walk into town in years. You sure you want to do it dressed like that? Even this far south, there are Loyalists. They might send a scroll about a pony dressed so strange. Even if… obviously you wouldn’t be doing anything bad. You wouldn’t have illegal Darktech, you’re… barely old enough to be this far from home. Do you even have your cutie mark yet?”

Who gave you the right to act like my mom? Jamie took a few steps away, zipping her saddlebag closed. “I have no idea what that is, but… I had several marks before my body went necrotic. They’re gone now. I didn’t think I’d get away with…” She trailed off. The more she said, the more confused this creature got. This pony got, apparently. She’d have to get used to that parlance. “Look, I think I have enough line to make it to the bottom of the cliff.” She swept one leg back, catching the cable and holding it out so Shy could see. “We’ll have to clip you to my harness, and hope the engine can lower us at the same time.”

“Lower me…” The pony stared in horror at the line. “With that? You climbed down here with sewing thread?”

“It’s stronger than it looks,” she suggested. “It’s, uh… magic. Yeah. And it’s strong enough for both of us.”

The horse followed her to the edge, then spread her wings while Jamie fiddled with reattaching the line. “I can glide down after you. I might not be that strong, but… with climbing gear like that, you need all the help you can get.” Says the one who got stuck by herself in a cave. This time at least, Jamie was in a little better shape. It didn’t even matter if she was hanging like a stupid puppet, so long as the line didn’t actually snap. It had to be plenty long enough for that drop, the spool was still almost unused.

“You can fly?” she asked instead. “That’s… awesome!”

The pony raised an eyebrow. “Not as well as some, but better than I used to.” She frowned, not taking her eyes from Jamie. “There aren’t any pegasi where you grew up?”

She laughed—anything to delay having to climb back out. She still didn’t know if the motor had even survived her misuse a few minutes before. “Can’t say there were. That’s kinda the whole point of me being here. I represent an old kind of people—or maybe a new kind, if that’s how you want to think of us.”

“You… probably don’t want to say that at a royal office,” Shy said. “You’re going to give them the wrong idea. Think you’re here as a…” She lowered her voice, though Jamie couldn’t tell if it was in mockery or fear. “Devourer.”

“On repel,” she whispered as quietly as she could.

“On belay,” the system returned. Her motor whined in protest for a moment, before holding taut again. She began walking out into the air, taking each step one at a time. At least until the harness jerked, and she slipped right over the edge. She screamed in fear for a moment, before an angry mechanical sound brought her to a jerking halt—suspended over open air.

“Mechanical fault detected,” her earpiece said, almost loud enough to hear over her terrified screaming. “Emergency brake engaged.”

Chapter 7: Tucana

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Riding across Equestria wasn’t the worst thing Star Orchid had ever done. So long as she kept the window shade down, she could pretend she was on an extended circuit of Concord, without ever quite reaching her destination. There was just one problem with that: Star was too curious to leave the shade down.

A pony without her substantial academic background probably wouldn’t have had any idea that what she was seeing wasn’t the way things had always been. Vast swathes of forest transformed into sparse shrublands, with only the occasional gnarled bush braving the surface. In a way, riding the train was a trip through time, watching the destruction that Concord left behind be slowly reclaimed by the environment.

A day into the trip, and erosion had begun to cover up the irregular chunks of rock with something that looked less horrible. Still, there was almost no perfectly flat ground, and exposing so much stone to the elements meant irregular erosion, sweeping lumps and bulges in the land.

“What the buck is that?” she asked, early into the third day of their trip. She’d found by now that Geist was most responsive in the mornings, since that was right before bed for him. He hadn’t even made much of an effort to overlap schedules with her during the trip. Which might be a good thing, if they expected anypony to try and do something to them while they were both asleep.

He looked up from his reading, snapping the dark brown folio closed and landing on the window beside her. He squinted out the window, then rolled his eyes. “That’s a farm, Star. It’s where ponies grow food they want to eat.”

It wasn’t like any farm she’d ever seen. Instead of perfect rows, it used the irregular lumps of ground each like their own little field, with fences made of sparse scrap wood.

“We’ve got to be hours from the nearest hallowed foundation,” Star muttered. “Why would anypony be farming out here?”

He sat back down, picking up his brown book with its strange-smelling cover. “Probably because there’s a town out here. Remember what I told you, Star. The surface isn’t black and white, it’s gray. Living in a hallowed foundation means you can leave an inheritance for your foals, because Concord won’t tear it to pieces one day. That’s great. But it comes with the Commissar watching over your shoulder for disharmony. These ponies probably figured it was better to give their children a childhood without any public executions than leaving them a house.”

He spoke so flippantly, it was almost enough to make her sick just listening to him. How could he mock the princess’s sacred responsibility to keep the world free from disharmony? Did he want the sun to go out and all the plants to die?

“You’re… getting into character,” she suggested. “We’re going to be playing rebellious ponies who ran away from Concord. That’s it.”

He flipped his book closed. “That’s my secret, Star. I’m always in character. Acknowledging the reality of our princess’s world isn’t the same thing as questioning her sovereignty. If you’re going to live on the ground, you need to understand that not everypony will see things the same way you do. Other creatures have other priorities, that would probably horrify you living up in Concord.”

He gestured out the window with a wing, and she looked back. They were slowing into a train station, one that wasn’t on her map. Geist had been right, there was a town out here. Though the structures she saw outside weren’t exactly familiar to her. Not perfect wooden houses with little windows and electric lights—no two structures looked the same. Most were made of irregular adobe bricks, with cloth-covered windows and scrap metal roofs.

She couldn’t make out any division between districts either. These ponies weren’t sorted by Harmony, or anything else. Griffons walked alongside unicorns as though they were equally likely to be kind to each other. And clearly the lack of planning was having a measurable impact on the unfortunate creatures living here, because even from the train she could see signs of want and pain. Ponies with dirt coats limping through the streets, others huddling on street corners and begging for handouts.

“Creatures come here instead of living in a city of Harmony and love,” she whispered. “It doesn’t make sense. The princess just lets these places keep existing? I bet a pony like you could find half the population were defying Harmony in some way or another.”

Geist met her eyes, silent so long that the train actually started moving again. Finally he said, “For a pony in the court, your knowledge of history has some serious gaps. Or maybe it’s just… living somewhere with all your needs accounted for. Whatever the reason, it’s a good thing you’re here. Most creatures live outside Concord, Star. You can’t make a city large enough for everypony, not with all the magical gemstones on the planet. And for every city block of Concord, there’s a dozen acres of little towns growing crops to send up to Concord to sustain it. If you think ponies’ harmony gardens are enough to keep the city fed, you’re clueless.”

She flopped back into her seat. She wanted to cover the window again, but she couldn’t take her eyes from it. It was like watching an execution, but backwards. Instead of being mercifully killed before a pony’s soul could be corrupted, they were being forced to live on until they were an empty, miserable husk. “I thought we were closer to reaching Harmony,” she said. “The Magic district… everypony is so kind to each other. And the capital is so… perfect.”

Geist reached across the car, patting her gently on the shoulder with a hoof. It might be the first compassionate thing she’d ever seen from him “I worry that the princess might’ve picked the wrong pony for this job. The things we see in Hollow Shades are going to try your faith, Star Orchid. Even if you do make it back, you’ll never see Harmony the same way again. That’s part of why the princess created Concord in the first place. It lets her keep ponies pure from the stains down here. Now your hooves will get as dirty as mine.”

“The princess made it sound like this rebellion was the last. Or…” No, that wasn’t quite right. “Or… it will help her find the last one. We follow it back to the Devourers’ last ruins, and destroy them. Then maybe disharmony like that town won’t exist anymore. Everything will be like Concord, everywhere perfect.”

“Who am I to question the princess?” Geist said, his tone entirely emotionless. “No creature is as wise or as powerful.” He clambered up into his cot, pulling the hood back down over his face. Soon enough, he was snoring.

Star Orchid watched the nameless town vanish from the window, until even its most distant fields were replaced with the shattered rocks and uneven canyons that Concord had left long ago.

In retrospect, Jamie probably should’ve listened when the pony just told her to ask someone else for help. The temptation to make her own impression and finish this mission sooner had been powerful—more powerful than her common sense. Her legs hung limply out below her, body straining on the straps to her saddlebags. And below—a hundred feet of nothing at least, followed by sharp rubble and the canopy of a rainforest. If she was quite lucky, her corpse could keep rolling onto the rooftops beyond.

“Free repel line,” she commanded, her voice feeble against the wind all around her. “Please. Lower me down.”

Her vest clicked a moment, and she jerked another few feet down. Her saddlebags strained against her legs, pulling her tighter for a few seconds before jerking still. “Emergency stop.”

“Uh, pony?” Shy asked, poking her head out the opening before drifting towards her. Her wings flapped gently, more like the leisurely flight of a condor than the size her wings actually seemed compared to her body. But how strange it was to watch hardly mattered. “Jamie, you said?” She wrinkled her nose as she said it, not hiding how strange it seemed to her. “What are you doing?”

“Hanging helplessly in the air,” she squeaked, her legs kicking out uselessly under her. “With… no hope of escape. Until my harness gives out…”

“I guess I can pay you back for saving me,” Shy said. “Sooner than I thought. But, uh… I’m not a rescue flyer or anything.” She flew over to her, inspecting the line holding her there. “How can I get this to let you go?”

Jamie twitched instantly, her limbs curling up under her in horror. “Wait, what? Let go? If it lets go, I’ll fall! I don’t know if you looked, but I don’t have wings and I really don’t want to feel a fall this bad. I survived thousands of years in an ice chest and I’m not going out like this!”

“I’m not going to drop you,” Shy snapped, sounding sharper than she had before. Actually angry, if only for a second. “But if I’m going to carry you down, I need to get this to let go. Looks like there’s a button here…”

“Quick release,” Jamie said, her mouth going dry and ears flattening on her head. “Press and hold for three seconds, then it… pops out.” Maybe she shouldn’t have said anything, except… this pony was clearly flying on her own. Questioning her ability was stupid.

Shy flew up close, wrapping her forelegs around Jamie’s neck tightly. “Grab onto me,” she said. “But not too hard! You’re an earth pony, and I can’t fly if I’m crushed. Just help me hold on, okay?”

Three seconds later, the line clicked, and they were falling. She screamed again, and probably would’ve started kicking and flailing madly in the moments before death, except the weight of that other pony was still there. She took a few deep breaths, watched as the ground got closer, and fought the instinct to kick. At least there’s one advantage to this stillsuit. Nobody knows I pissed myself.

“You… sure brought a lot of stuff…” Shy said, her face strained and contorted as they dropped. Now her wings fought desperately, flapping so fast they almost disappeared. “Maybe pack a… little lighter next time?”

She didn’t get a chance to respond. They fell for a few more moments, until Shy spoke again, a little louder. “Get ready to, uh… roll and stuff. We’re coming down faster than I’d… here comes!”

Right as they came down, Shy pushed away from her, spreading her wings and gliding over the surface of the ground. Poor Jamie had no such protection, and so she tumbled, bouncing and rolling on the rough jungle floor. She smacked painfully with each turn, but at least she didn’t turn to a red smear in the dirt.

Finally she slowed to a stop against a tree. She felt damp—water leaked out the side of her stillsuit and onto her trousers. Not just water, because soon she started smelling smoke. Her clothes were smoking now too, with an odor she could only describe as “flaming piss.”

Ew ew ew ew ew… Jamie kicked and struggled, shoving free of her saddlebags before yanking and pulling on her clothes. Apparently she had better leverage than she thought, because she tore the jacket clear down the middle with just her teeth. The plastic stillsuit resisted a little better, stretching and going clear before finally snapping and spraying its contents onto the ground around her. She tore it away, sliding backward through the smoking mud until she was finally in the grass, naked and filthy.

“Are you, uh… okay?” Shy asked from behind, her voice fearful. “You really… took those off fast.”

She spun, ears flattening and tail tucking between her legs. True, the other pony was naked herself, and didn’t seem to even notice. She looked at Jamie with pity, not any kind of embarrassment. “It’s the desiccant. They’re bad for your skin. They can burn if you leave them on.” She stared at the little smoking pile, sighing deeply. “I should probably bury that, just in case. I wouldn’t want it catching anything on fire.”

They’d landed in a clearing filled with green shrubs, just far enough away from the canopies overhead that they hadn’t been skewered on the way down. Probably too green to burn, but just in case…

Jamie hobbled over, then shoved with her bare hooves in the dirt, pushing onto the smoking pile. “At least I’m… not going to be the ambassador who burned your forest down. That wouldn’t be a great first impression.” She turned back, wiping her hooves off in the grass as best she could. “Thanks for saving my life, Shy. Guess we’re even.”

“Yeah.” The pony smiled faintly at her. “Sorry I couldn’t give you a more comfortable landing. I probably should’ve practiced more… but it just never felt like the most important thing. Compared to the way I used to be, I’m practically an expert now. I never could’ve brought you down safely when I was younger.”

That’s a strange way to put it for a horse that doesn’t look older than me. Of course, Jamie didn’t actually have a clue how horse ages worked, so she didn’t dare say anything that would make her seem ignorant of it. This wasn’t the one she’d come to negotiate with. She needed a government office.

Jamie bent down, sliding the saddlebags back on. The harness now seemed permanently stretched, and it jostled a little from one side to the other when she moved. But at least it hadn’t dumped all over the floor. She’d take the little blessings where she could.

“So, Hollow Shades. I think I might’ve seen a town through the jungle when I was… hanging for my life. Maybe you could tell me about it on the way there?”

Shy seemed eager to set off. Even if they started out in the middle of the jungle, she pointed and soon they were back on the trail. Probably they’d just skipped miles of switchbacks and mazes, but Jamie wouldn’t complain about that. Less walking was always better. “I haven’t been here that long, honestly. Every time I move somewhere else, it’s like… starting my life over again. But I guess it’ll be the same way for you, if you’re here from some weird… colony of earth ponies who live wherever they want.”

She nodded. “Weird doesn’t begin to describe it with me. If my town ever does get built, you can come over for lunch and I can tell you just how crazy it was.” She trailed off, looking up as she walked. “I didn’t even see the ground until I was fifteen. Too much poison, too much crime. And pretty much the instant I landed I wanted to be back where I came from. But big cities make big targets. I always knew I’d want to find a shelter eventually. And now…” The pony was staring. “Right, you have no idea what I’m talking about. Thank God that you don’t is all I’m saying. The world really sucked there at the end. I’m sure the new one you’ve built is better.”

Shy stopped walking abruptly, her ears flattening. She seemed to deliberate for a moment, before circling slowly around her. “You keep saying things that…” She lowered her voice suddenly, speaking right into her ear.

“Listen, Jamie. I don’t know anything about you, and I’m not the kind of pony who goes around telling everything. I don’t want you to get in trouble, I promise. But I gotta warn you. If you walked up to a royal ambassador and said things like that to her… it would be really bad. The princess has been hunting for a long time now. I can tell you can’t be what she’s looking for… but you can’t let her find out about you.”

Jamie raised an eyebrow. She didn’t push Shy away, even if being so close while completely naked made her feel all sorts of uncomfortable. Her curiosity was too powerful. “What is the princess looking for?”

“Uh…” Shy tilted her head to the side, so flabbergasted she didn’t even seem to know how to reply. “Where did you come from that you don’t know about the Unification Crusade, or… Harmony’s Judgement, or…” She reached over, tugging on her saddlebags. “Is that Darktech?”

Now it was Jamie’s turn to laugh. “I have no idea what a Darktech is. It’s a few basic survival supplies, that’s all. Dried food you’d think is gross, some water purification tablets, a flashlight, my tent”—a gun I can’t use—“and some money. That’s it.”

“Listen.” The pony advanced on her, no longer seeming quite so shy as her pretend name implied. “You saved me, so I’m trying to help you. Hollow Shades isn’t Concord. There aren’t inquisitors on every corner. But there’s at least one in the town all the time. It doesn’t matter how far south you go. If you’re some kind of… separatist cult, you should go back to them. You won’t be safe here.”

Epsilon said something into her ear, but suddenly Jamie wasn’t even listening. “I’m not,” she answered reflexively. “I’m just trying to find somewhere to live. My world ended and I got frozen in the ground. Now I want to be… alive.” She gestured vaguely around with one hoof, resting it on a nearby tree. “Living plants. Birds, insects, blue sky. How amazing is that? I don’t want to go back underground.”

Shy sat back on her haunches, horrified. “You’re… one of them. All the ponies Twilight murdered looking for you… and you’re real. Devourers.”

“What?” She laughed, voice bitter and panicked. Her headset was hanging loose on her ear now, Epsilon’s words lost to the air around her. What do I care what you think? It was be a stupid horse or be dead, of course I said yes. “You wouldn’t even tell me what a ‘Devourer’ was.”

Shy stared. For a moment it seemed she thought Jamie was mocking her, but then she answered, voice skeptical. “An ancient evil that used to rule the world. They murdered the first ponies long ago, before our ancestors finally beat them. They can’t know friendship, only greed and hatred…”

Jamie’s eyebrows went up. “I mean, there are dicks in the world, sure. But is that really what you think? I’m sorry I wasn’t very good at saving you.” She started walking again, right around where Shy sat in the center of the path. “Thanks for not dropping me I guess.” At least the pony had put her on the right path towards town. She could keep following this, and eventually she’d reach the settlement. Maybe Hollow Shades would work out better for her than anything had so far.

“Wait!” the pony squealed, then hurried to catch up. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t… it wasn’t very kind to say those things. They’re just stories—and they’re being used to justify some pretty bad things. They’re probably not true.”

“You’re damn right.” Jamie didn’t stop walking, though she did occasionally glance to see if she was being left behind. If anything Shy said was true, there might be some… totalitarian authority waiting for her in town. Her mission could be instantly destroyed if Shy decided to whisper into the Stazi’s ear.

She slowed a little, reaching up with a hoof to settle her headset into place. The instant it was back, she heard Epsilon again. “Headset functional, Jamie Sanders. Have not received a response.”

And it wouldn’t receive one, not while Shy was staring at her like this. Talking to some mysterious voice in the distance would certainly not make herself look sane and trustworthy.

“If you can hear this message, abort your current mission. Return to the colony. The information you have gathered indicates we must iterate. Your discovery is an unacceptable risk.”

And just like that, the mission was lifted from her shoulders. But that didn’t mean she was going to stop pretending she couldn’t hear.

“Maybe you’d like, uh… maybe you’d like to think things through before you go to the Magistrate?” Shy said. “I… I’ve got a pretty big place, thanks to… well, it’s a long story. But no soldiers are going to search it in the night, if that helps.”

“Yes,” she said, almost a little too quickly. “That sounds great.”

Chapter 8: Lepus

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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.

Chapter 9: Sculptor

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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.

Chapter 10: Musca

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Jamie settled onto the bed of her strange new quarters, closing her eyes and letting the silence enfold her like a blanket. The skylight in the center of her room had gone dark now with the coming of night, but she didn’t yet feel tired.

Jamie had survived the end of the world. True, she’d paid with her humanity to pass through the door into summer—but considering the alternatives, she’d take that trade. Now the Empire’s toast, along with anything that ever mattered to me. It’s a fresh start everywhere.

Shy hadn’t been particularly demanding with her on her first day. She’d shown her around the house, explaining the strange restrooms, the various rooms she was allowed to enter, and the parts of the house she had to avoid. Though… it wasn’t a house so much as a vast compound of caves and carved rooms, probably big enough to hold a hundred people. The front looked like a house, but behind tapestries and false walls was much more space—including Jamie’s own bedroom.

If the other sections are hidden as well, there could be way more of them than just this one, she thought. Who knows what she’s hiding here? Jamie had no doubt in her mind that her host had her own secrets—probably more than Jamie did, since she’d just told the pony everything. Jamie had the power of being incomprehensible when she tried to get specific, which was almost as good.

Jamie didn’t much care what those secrets were. This wasn’t her world, she had no investment in the struggles of its residents. Sure, she was likely to believe whatever side Shy said was the “good guys,” but that was really only a question of first exposure. She isn’t on the same side as whoever sends out ‘Commissars,’ so we’re probably going to land in the same place.

Jamie had unpacked her meager possessions into the wardrobe, though there wasn’t much there. A few extra pairs of underclothes and some camping supplies she’d probably never need again, plus the gold for trade. That one was going to take some working out…

The bedroom was both bigger and smaller than the one she had in the shelter. Bigger in square footage, but smaller because the ceiling was cut to a reasonable height, not vast arches that made her feel like a tiny intruder in her own home.

Her tablet lit up suddenly, its dark screen waking with a few angry flashes. Jamie groaned, rolling out of bed and making her way over. Some part of her had suspected this—the skylight was bound to give Epsilon a better signal to her. It wasn’t going to let her hide from the devil’s deal she’d made.

As soon as she got close, the “unread messages” text melted away to the chat app, selecting the new conversation with Epsilon automatically. Sure enough, a message had just appeared, with a timestamp of only a few seconds old. “I believe your hardware became critically damaged after your climbing accident. It is imperative you take the first available opportunity to flee the correction agent settlement and get far enough for transport back.”

Jamie considered if she should pretend she couldn’t get this message too. But sooner or later she’d be stretching credulity, and the AI might very well lock out the tablet if it thought that someone besides her had got their hooves on it. She wasn’t ready to give up her games just yet. “Why?” she typed. “I’ve been given a place to stay with a sympathetic local. She promises to tell me about their civilization.”

Typing it out was painfully slow, even with the new adaptive keyboard design. The screen lit up and magnified as she moved her hoof across, with the keys closest to her getting absurdly large. Big enough for her to actually tap them with stupid stumps. It meant exaggerated movements and painful deliberation.

But then the message flashed, and “successfully delivered” appeared beneath it. She waited as the minutes passed, for the AI to stupidly insist she do whatever it imagined she should. They weren’t well-known for being adaptable, that was part of the point.

But almost ten minutes had passed before she finally got a response. “Do not tell them anything that could be used to find the Emergency Shelter. If you stay, you will be in extreme danger.”

“If I went back, I’d be in extreme danger of losing my damn mind,” she replied.

“Report every night with what you learn,” Epsilon replied, much quicker this time. “Expect a withdrawal order as soon as we learn enough to successfully negotiate.”

“I’m not sure what the hurry is. I know that pods are failing, but doesn’t that happen on the scale of decades, not days? We shouldn’t hurry into this.”

Epsilon didn’t reply. After waiting for a few frustrated minutes, Jamie took the computer to bed with her and curled up with some light reading.

If she looked up in bed, she could see the stars through the skylight’s cloudy glass. She watched for a few hours before she finally slept, searching for the little flashes of any of the thousands of floating platforms. She didn’t see a single one. No streak of a skyhook bringing cargo, or even the red and green flashes of an atmospheric aircraft.

It’s really gone. She’d known that it would be, intellectually. You didn’t crawl into a shelter because you thought the civil war was ending peacefully. But there was knowing it, and seeing the homes of a trillion people just gone.

You don’t know that for sure. The shell could be in better shape. Most people didn’t live around homeworld anyway.

Jamie picked one of the strange-smelling pillows, clinging to it the way she wished someone would be there to cling to her. Eventually she cried herself to sleep.

Star Orchid hadn’t had the most enjoyable last few days.

It wasn’t just that hiking through the wilderness when she’d rarely walked more than a mile in a day was trying for her body, though it certainly was. It wasn’t just that they were traveling through a jungle so unfriendly she found herself constantly wishing Concord would pass overhead and turn the soil over for everypony’s own good.

It was all that, and her insufferable companion.

Geist hadn’t just insisted on taking a form that would fill her with embarrassment and shame, even when she asked her to change. Geist insisted on acting the part every moment, as though he really was the Ginny character he’d invented, and the two of them really were eloping from Concord and its strict standards of behavior.

“You should be nicer to me!” she squeaked, carrying on ahead, flying lazily just out of reach. She was always so clean, so elegantly groomed, instead of covered with grime and dirt. “We’re going to be there soon, and you’ll have to start. It’s hard to get into character so fast.”

Star never would’ve wanted to give up her magic for flight before, but now… maybe there were some advantages to being a pegasus. She stopped walking even so, glaring up at the spy. “The two of us will be doing everything together. I think it will be pretty convincing. Even if we’re not very close—running across the world to get away from Concord would strain any relationship. Of course we’re in a rough patch.”

Ginny landed beside her, flipping her tail feathers in a way that was either dismissive or evocative. Well, it was certainly both. Given she was a changeling, Star had no doubt she knew it, too. “You’re going to have to learn to enjoy your work a little more, Star. If you barely follow our instructions, you’re going to get inferior results. Throw yourself into the work. Make the disguise so authentic you’re sad it’s gone afterwards.”

“No.” She gritted her teeth, shoving past the bird. She tried to push her into the mud, but Ginny weighed too much, and she wasn’t even pushed over. “It’s wrong. I’m walking Harmony’s path, and that obedience doesn’t just come when it’s convenient. Just because I’ve agreed to disobey to follow the higher calling we’ve been given doesn’t mean I’m going to go a step further. That’s the slippery slope that leads to disobedience, disharmony, and chaos.”

Ginny shrugged, drifting past her in the air. “We’ll see how long you last. Those are city morals, right there. It’s easy to grow morals in a laboratory. But how will you be in a month? What if this mission takes a year, will you still be avoiding me? You think ponies won’t notice just how tense we are with each other?”

What in Harmony’s name did I do to anger the princess so badly that she put me with him? she wondered, gritting her teeth together in silence as she walked. She was probably digging a trench through the mud as they went, but she was too angry to care. The stupid changeling had obviously chosen this whole plan specifically for his own ends. He wanted love to harvest, and he’d made a scenario where he could get it. The stories of their reform must be wrong. He’s a parasite in Twilight’s court. I’ll have to tell her.

But to do that, she would have to make it back. The further she trekked through the jungle, the less likely a safe return to civilization seemed. Concord might be flying towards the east coast, maybe all the way back to the Dragonlands. I’m supposed to be Twilight’s advisor. I’m supposed to be in a comfortable chair in the court, reading books and passing messages. I’m supposed to make her tea.

Ginny actually stopped tormenting her for a good long while, until the afternoon turned to early evening. Star stopped at the first stretch of bare ground she could, struggling with her straps—but this time Ginny put a claw on her shoulder to stop her. “Wait. We’re not making camp here.”

The teasing was gone, and there was nothing flirtatious in her eyes just now. “We have a meeting scheduled tonight, we can’t miss it.”

“With who?”

“High Commissar Golden Shine,” she said. “He’s going to be waiting for us a little outside the city. We have to hike to him, then hike back here to spend the night.”

“Right, Commissars.” She groaned, then started walking again. She wasn’t quite sure if they were going the right way—she didn’t know how to navigate outside of Concord, after all. But whenever she made a mistake Ginny was there to correct her, and so she’d stopped worrying. The spy might be insufferable, but at least he knew where he was going.

I hope. We might be walking straight down to nowhere and I’d never realize until our food ran out.

“Why are we meeting with a Commissar?” she asked. “Wouldn’t that, like… blow our cover?”

“That’s why we’re meeting so far away,” Geist answered. She remained entirely serious, like a switch they’d flipped. “We have to make sure they’re ready to put the pressure on. For our disguise to really pay off, we need to be seen like good recruits. And nothing makes better recruits than resentment.”

She didn’t have long to think about that—a little further into the dark, and they found a makeshift camp tucked into the hollow of a cliff. Geist knew exactly where he was going, where to push aside dark cloth and reveal a space lit by a bright purple crystal. There was no need for a fire when the oppressive heat of the jungle never truly released them.

Commissar Golden Shine was like something out of a textbook—his armor was bright and polished, right down to the smallest links of chain between bigger plates. He’d removed his helmet in the cave, but not anything else. It didn’t seem to matter how long he’d be sitting in a metal suit.

There was something almost poetic about the sneer on his face when he finally saw them—like he was picturing exactly what punishment was appropriate for whatever creatures dared interrupt him.

But before he could even say anything, Geist had changed back into a bat. The transformation was so abrupt that the flash briefly overwhelmed Golden Shine’s little campfire. When the light settled back down, Geist advanced, nodding politely. “Good to see you again, Shine. Your requested aid from the capital has arrived at last. We’re ready to receive your praise now.”

Golden Shine’s expression broke, and he extended a hoof, catching Geist in a friendly embrace and pulling him close. “Geist, you old devil. The Council of Lords hasn’t had you drawn and quartered yet?”

“Have to catch me first,” he answered, breaking away after a few seconds and pulling Star by her foreleg. “This is my latest trainee. Fresh from the court, ready to struggle and fail to understand the realities of living outside the princess’s protection. Perfect for a mission like this.”

“If she can endure it.” Golden Shine turned his attention to her, all friendliness replaced with suspicion. He looked her up and down, as though he were measuring her for a coffin. “Not many ponies can remain faithful to Harmony’s precepts when taken out of Concord’s sheltering wings. Are you strong enough to keep your promises?”

“Nothing matters more to me than Harmony,” she said. “I could recite the precepts of each Exemplar if you doubt my faithfulness.”

Golden Shine laughed, patting her on the shoulder. “I have no doubt you could. But so too can the vilest sinners. Pretending to virtue is easy—living a life of virtue is something else.”

“Don’t judge her too harshly for that, old friend,” Geist said. “Tracking down your little rebellion takes more than simple investigators. That will only perpetuate the disappointing results obtained by others so far. A few rebellious ponies executed, a little disharmony averted… but the leaders remained cloaked in secrecy. We need to penetrate the organization, and root it out for good.”

Shine lifted his helmet into his magic, nodding. “And you have some plan to do that, something I haven’t already tried?”

“Quite sure you’ve never done this,” Geist said. There was another flash of magic, and Ginny was back. She slid up beside Star, embracing her with exaggerated affection. “We’re going to live a life of disharmony. Forbidden love, disowned by our parents… that’s why I risked this meeting with you in the first place.”

Golden Shine stiffened visibly at the gesture, eyes narrowing. “Well you’ve… certainly found something I haven’t tried.”

“Precisely.” Ginny broke away, circling around the little cave. “I wasn’t sure it would be you, but I needed to make sure you knew we’d be coming. I want you to throw the book at us. Every excuse to punish us, every excuse to put us in prison. Make our punishments public and gratuitous. Just… don’t damage the unicorn. If she survives this, she’s going back to the Twilight court.”

Which translated roughly to: don’t make her hate you too badly, or you’ll be making a powerful enemy one day. Star could appreciate the caution, even if everything Ginny was saying was infuriating. “Wait, hold on. Why would we want to get punished? He knows none of this is real. We’re not skirting the boundaries of Harmony’s laws. It’s just an act.”

But Golden Shine seemed to understand what she couldn’t. “Because ponies will think you’re mistreated. They’ll think you’re an easy target. You won’t have to justify your treason of Harmony’s ideals. So many creatures abandon truth when they face adversity. So many fail to take correction constructively. It’s a solid plan.” He settled the helmet firmly into place, securing the clasps on either side. “This meeting was unnecessary, Geist. All know that griffons and ponies are forbidden to interbreed. I would’ve acted regardless.”

Ginny wrapped one arm around his armored shoulder, apparently not intimidated by his massive size. “Would that all of Harmony’s protectors were as loyal and true as you, Shine. I was expecting your predecessor. Commissar Taproot wasn’t as… He had his own priorities about enforcement.”

Even through the armor, Star could see Golden Shine tense. All his good humor vanished, and his voice was grave. “Commissar Taproot faced the just recompense of his disloyalty. It was the souls of all in Hollow Shades who suffered the pain of his failure, even more than himself. Shame he only had the one life to give.”

He turned away, back towards the cave entrance. His horn glowed, and the tiny campfire abruptly went out. “I will see the two of you tomorrow. Once you’re settled, do something public. I’ll make sure your… reward… is seen by all in the city.” He didn’t wait for a reply, vanishing out into the darkness of the night, and leaving the two of them alone.

“And now the race is practically decided,” Ginny said, as soon as he was completely gone. “Good thing that Taproot was replaced, he would’ve made this a nightmare. But Golden Shine… he’s about as strict as Equestria has ever seen. Even if I could blackmail Taproot into doing what we wanted, his punishment would seem out of character.”

“I didn’t come out here to be punished for something I’m not,” Star insisted. “Can’t we just go looking for the rebellion ourselves? Say that we… were tortured in Concord or something? What’s the point of following Harmony’s rules if we’re going to be punished anyway?”

Ginny slid up beside her, clicking her tongue in her beak with a tone that was half mocking and half seductive. “Star, I’m appalled you would say something like that. Somepony who follows in Harmony’s hoofsteps so closely should know that we never obey out of fear of punishment. That’s almost the lowest motivation a pony can have, right above the animals themselves. Don’t you obey out of love of Harmony’s teachings? Isn’t that the proper reason?”

Star shoved her away, with all the strength she could muster. This time it was actually enough for her to stumble. “I’m not going to take a lecture from you, Geist. I love Equestria and its ponies, that’s all I’ll say on the matter.”

Jamie woke with the sun.

It wasn’t exactly an old habit—growing up on an orbital platform meant that the sun was really whatever lighting system her particular station used. But the shelter hadn’t even done that, and light conservation didn’t exactly make her feel energized and eager to start her day.

But this time she had a real skylight, and actual warmth shining down into her oversized bed. She woke, cleaned up with some water stored in the tank, and ate some of her travel rations alone at her desk.

Epsilon had a new list of demands waiting in her messages, but she ignored that for now. It wasn’t as though the program could expect her to act like some drone, dropping everything that mattered to her to seek out its whims. She was only still helping because of loyalty to the other people frozen in Shelter 198.64. Possibly the last humans left on the whole planet. They couldn’t be the last survivors, she didn’t want to believe that. The empire had been vast and powerful. The civil war couldn’t get everyone, right? There are probably new colonies out there that grew into better capitals than Homeworld with all these years.

Hopefully she wouldn’t need that reassurance to justify abandoning anything Epsilon wanted to force her into.

It was probably around noon that someone finally knocked on the door, and Shy poked her head in. “Jamie? Are you up?”

Jamie was up, watching a movie on her tablet computer. She flipped it down hastily, and the film paused. “Yeah, sorry. I wasn’t sure if you wanted me to stay in here, or…”

Shy rolled her eyes. “That wouldn’t be very friendly. Just so long as you don’t wander around to any of the unsafe parts of the house, you can go anywhere.” She stopped beside the desk, eyes narrowing. “That’s… Darktech, isn’t it?”

Jamie groaned, then lifted up the tablet in both hooves. She moved slowly, concentrating carefully as she did so. Her stupid body didn’t exactly want to cooperate with her while she worked. As soon as it was up, the movie started playing again—a pretty standard military drama piece.

But Shy didn’t seem to think so. Her mouth hung open, and she hurried over to the edge of the desk, staring in wonder. A pilot all wrapped up in acceleration gear seemed to shake in their seat as they piloted their starship in a difficult gravitational-slingshot maneuver around a moon.

“It’s dramatized to hell,” Jamie said, speaking over the dramatic music and heavy breathing. “I guess some real people might’ve had to do a slingshot like that manually once or twice, like ever… but a computer being out for long enough to make it necessary seems pretty silly to me. Don’t watch this and think it’s realistic.”

Shy was still staring. Had she broken her somehow? Jamie reached out and tapped the screen, pausing it again. This time on a close-up of the rest of the crew, all strapped down into acceleration couches and looking stoic. “I was just killing a little time. You don’t have to watch it.”

Finally Shy recovered enough to speak. Her wings opened and closed a few times as she squinted at the screen. “What… kind of creatures are those?”

“Humans. Mostly unmodified, because you know how unrealistic beauty standards can be. How many people without implants have you even met—” She flushed, ears flattening to her head. “You know what, I just realized that’s a stupid thing to say. So yeah, those are humans. But this is fiction. The Imperial Navy hasn’t even existed for…” She got up, shaking her head. “If the navy was still around, I wouldn’t be here begging for a place to build our city.”

Shy stared at the screen for a few more seconds, then turned away. “And they’re not… horribly evil creatures that exterminate everything in their path? They’re not… incapable of love or friendship or compassion? They aren’t determined to send every equinoid to Tartarus for the crime of happiness?”

Jamie probably shouldn’t have—but she couldn’t help herself. She burst out laughing, filling the underground room with loud, happy noises. It took her a few seconds to finally calm down. “That’s even crazier than what you said yesterday, Shy. You can’t describe a whole species just one way. There were evil humans, sure…” She trailed off, banishing unbidden memories of that ancient war. They’re gone. I got to the shelter. Nothing to worry about. “But that’s not most of us. I bet you wouldn’t say ponies are like any of those things… but you probably know one or two who are.”

She didn’t have to wait for Shy to argue. She could see the pain on her face, the recognition. Probably those were names coming to mind right there.

“But that means it’s all for nothing!” she finally exclaimed, slumping onto her haunches. “Everything the princess did. All the ponies who died, the armies, the invasions—she wasted her time. The Devourers were never coming.”

Jamie reached out, patting her gently on the shoulder. “If you want to take some advice from a civilization that didn’t last—anyone saying that the end is near, that there’s some horrible enemy that can’t be reasoned with, that something is gonna happen to end the world unless you give them all the power—it never works out.” She sat back herself, watching Shy in silence for a few more moments. “But I think you already know that. You didn’t exactly seem like you were best friends with that Commissar yesterday. I’m guessing… the princess sent him?”

Shy stopped crying abruptly, wiping her face with the back of a leg. “S-sorry. I don’t… emotional maturity doesn’t persist between…” She cleared her throat. “I’m feeling better now. Do you think you could show me more of that sometime? I’d like to see what those humans were like when they aren’t in big machines, doing… whatever they’re doing. Like, what were they like at home? Did they have animal friends? Did they love their families?”

Jamie almost started answering all those obvious questions all at once—but then she realized how one-sided that exchange would be, and she stopped abruptly. “Hold on, Shy. I’ll tell you all that, but I want to know some things too. Like… how I’m supposed to get my people somewhere to live. What happens if we just start building our own city out in the wilderness? Why does everyone cram into this place when so much of it seems unfriendly?”

Shy was silent then, contemplative. “You want somewhere to live for… creatures like that?” She gestured at the tablet with her wing. “Other humans?” At her nod, she continued. “Creatures who use Darktech like yours? Like that memory machine?” She nodded again. “Well… that sounds impossible.” She rose abruptly, turning away. “Princess Twilight Sparkle is looking for creatures like you. She forces every creature to be part of her vision of a perfect Equestria. There’s no way to resist her, or change her mind. If you built that, Concord would fly here, dismantle everything, and kill every creature living there.”

“Oh.” Jamie whimpered, rising to follow her. “And you… won’t do any of those things? You won’t… tell her I’m here, will you?”

“Talk to her?” Shy laughed, her own kind of bitterness in her voice. “No, I won’t. I might not have any magic to tell when ponies are lying to me, but I’ve seen you. You mean it. But there’s nowhere for you to go. Your creatures should… keep hiding. There’s nowhere safe for them to live.”

Jamie didn’t argue with her. Shy obviously didn’t want to continue the conversation, least of which because she seemed to be moving away as fast as she could. It wasn’t an argument she could win. “Maybe you could, uh…” She hesitated. “Do you think there might be somewhere in town that would… hire me?” It sounded so stupid that she almost stopped and walked away. Obviously her certs were worthless now. The idea of building a life here was selfish.

But if my mission is impossible, I’m not going back to get frozen again. Or… just to get locked in a room and waste away by myself because I’m not worth the resources to freeze. I’m not hurting the chances for anyone in the shelter by not going back.

“Why would you want that?” Shy asked, spinning around to stare. “Aren’t the ones you come from… powerful? They have cities on the moon! They have magic I’ve never even imagined before! Wouldn’t you rather live with them?”

She shook her head emphatically. “My people are… sleeping, Shy. All of them. If I go back, I’ll be alone in the dark… for the rest of my life.” Her ears flattened, and now she was the one on the edge of tears. She fought it as best she could, feeling incredibly childish. “I’d rather live somewhere in the city. Even if I have to do some crappy job that nobody wants. Even if I have to learn some stupid cult religion and go to mass twice a day. I’d hide my computer and pretend to be just like everybody else, if it meant I had somewhere to live.”

Shy stopped just in front of her, meeting her tearful eyes. “Hollow Shades isn’t the best city to live in, Jamie. But… you’re welcome to stay with me as long as you need to. And I’ve got friends. You’re an earth pony, so… do you think you’d be willing to work on a garden?”

“Sure!” She wrapped her arms around Shy’s shoulders in a tearful, pathetic hug. “That sounds perfect. I’m basically dirt already, so… it’ll be a great fit.”

Chapter 11: Pyxis

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Hollow Shades was nothing like Concord. When they first arrived, Star thought they’d gotten lost and wandered into some ancient ruin instead. But then she saw the movement from down below, and she realized with horror that they’d finally arrived. If there was going to be a rebellion hiding anywhere in the world, it would be here. These creatures even seemed to be hiding from the sun, let alone the princess and Harmony’s will.

“We’ll have to find a place in the Kindness district,” Ginny squeaked, from beside her. Her behavior had completely transformed as they arrived, and she truly adopted the role she was playing. She kept her head down, ready to back away from the ponies who were obviously more harmonious than herself. “They’re the only ones that… won’t ask too many questions.”

Me, live in the Kindness district. It had a bitter taste in her mouth, but no worse than anything else she’d be doing. I’m serving the princess. I’m saving Equestria. They’ll remember me on holidays and sing songs about this when the Devourers are destroyed.

That was the kind of thing ponies were supposed to care about, wasn’t it? Problem was, Star didn’t.

They had more than enough money to live anywhere in the city, if money had been the issue. But instead of flashing it around, Ginny found them a boarding house and bought them only one room.

“It’s perfect,” she said, as she tossed her saddlebags aside in the dreary space, and began tinkering with the furniture. She lifted the mattress on the single bed, moved the cushions of the sofa aside, then fiddled with the sink. “A few nights here, and we’ll make sure everybody knows what we’re doing. The gossip has to spread all over the city before anything matters.”

Star almost stopped her to ask what the buck she was doing, but after a few seconds the answer became obvious.

She was hiding their money away, stashing it anywhere that would be hidden if their room was entered. Which it probably would be, judging on the neighborhood. The walls were thin, and she could hear creatures arguing, and… doing other things. The air was thick with alcohol despite the early hour.

Star kept her voice down as she answered. True, the other residents here seemed to all have their own problems—but that might also be a disadvantage. She closed her eyes, concentrating for a moment on a simple silence spell—and all the noises of Hollow Shades faded into the background. For a few seconds she remained still, letting the silence wash over her. This was early morning in the Magic district—other creatures would be working where they belonged, letting citizens enjoy the time. It was only proper.

“I assume we’ll be taking steps to make it as obvious as possible,” she said flatly. “Out in the rest of the city.”

“Oh yeah.” Ginny settled up against her, wrapping a wing around her shoulder. “We’ll have to look for work first. I know where I’m going to find it, but you’ll probably want to find a… reprocessing shop? I think that’s what they’re called.”

“Sitting in a dark room, casting the same spell a hundred times a day?” she groaned, touching a hoof to the base of her horn in frustration. “What kind of citizen do you think I am?”

“Desperate,” Ginny said, leering at her. “But probably not desperate enough to work where I’m going.” She lifted her tail exaggeratedly, swaying from one side to the other. Half the court is terrified of you, Geist. Were you trained as a killer or a consort?

Then it clicked, and she clutched her stomach in sudden disgust. “Stars above, you can’t. You’re not… you wouldn’t. Don’t you have any respect, Ginny?”

She shook her head, sticking her tongue out. “I’m a changeling, Star. We might not depend on love to survive anymore, but we still use it for our magic. If this mission was important enough for the princess to send you, I’m guessing it’s the most important in my career. We might be hunting some rebellious ponies, but that’s a sideshow. I need power, and the city needs to know we’re desperate. You ponies have such… strange boundaries erected around sex. You eat every day, you drink, you breathe, yet for some reason other parts of your bodies are given strange respect. It’s a weakness that others will not share.”

Sacred Exemplars, I think I know how you’re so deadly. It was said that no number of house guard could keep a pony safe if Geist came for them. Maybe that wasn’t because he could dodge their security—but because he was always invited. “Are you even a stallion?” she asked, frustration obvious in her tone. “Or was that an act too?”

“Sometimes I am,” Ginny said. “Sometimes not. Depends on who’s watching. But I’m not sure why you’re even asking, Star. I thought you only cared about the path of Harmony. I’m just a changeling, I’m so far under you that our worlds barely intersect.”

The princess doesn’t seem to care as much about that as the Path of Friendship does.

It only took Ginny three days to get them their first arrest, orchestrated so perfectly some part of her thought it had probably been planned. Right after work, so she wouldn’t get fired for it (yet). Right in the central marketplace, where more creatures would see than anywhere else.

Commissar Golden Shine was usually there, and that included this particular evening. So he was only feet away when Ginny decided to kiss her right in front of everyone.

Even if they’d been a recognized pairing it would’ve been risqué behavior, unsuited for public viewing. But a pony and a griffon, even when no egg could possibly result—was almost as bad as a pony and a changeling.

“Heresy and disrespect!” Golden Shine yelled, shoving Ginny off of her with real force. She actually spun into a nearby scrap stall, knocking over plates and making the shopkeeper squeal in angry protest. “You go too far, bird! Only those who find place for Harmony will be given a place in return!”

He stalked up to her, scattering passers-by as he went. Most dodged as quickly as they could, though a nearby earth filly was a little too slow, and needed to be yanked aside by her pegasus companion. She still stared at the edge of the crowd, apparently surprised and horrified by the display. “You, pony!” Golden Shine roared. “Do you know this bird? I must know if your sin against Harmony is a mutual act, or an assault.”

It was almost comically exaggerated, yet she could still feel the fearful eyes on her. She was barely even acting when her ears flattened, and she glanced nervously to where Ginny had fallen. This is what my life could’ve been. I worked so hard to follow the rules, and I’m still back here.

“It was mutual,” she declared. “We’re together.”

The rest was right out of the same script they’d all been reading from up to that point. The Commissar dragged them through the streets to spend an evening at the city’s watch post, with its newly refurbished jail. They were given separate cells, and little food by any of the city watch.

Their disorderly conduct would only carry a single night’s sentence, however. When day came they were turned out, and told in front of all Hollow Shades that the punishment would be much harsher next time.

“That was incredibly unpleasant,” she said, as soon as they were safe at home that night. “Everypony looking at us, all that whispering… we should just be searching for the rebellion the old way. Interviewing loyalists, tracking down ponies making weapons… maybe we’d be more successful than Golden Shine.”

Ginny sat at the kitchen table, sipping at a bowl of cheap stew, and nursing her injured wing. It was actually bandaged after being thrown around, and Star didn’t know if the damage was real, or just some of the best acting she’d ever seen. “Creatures from all over Equestria have tried that and failed,” she said. “Just… think of how lucky you are to live out your fantasy guilt-free. I’m basically…” She waved her good wing vaguely through the air. “Whoever it was who made you think of this idea. Just pretend I’m her. Ponies are going to see your heart isn’t in it next time, even if they can’t sense your feelings.”

Star shoved into a standing position from behind the table, nostrils flaring and ears standing on end. “Are you bucking kidding me, Ginny? This wasn’t my idea. Nothing about this was my idea. And it isn’t—” Her ears flattened. “How do you know about her?”

Ginny tossed the empty bowl aside, clasping one claw on her shoulder. She leaned in close, just close enough to make her feel even more uncomfortable than she already did. “Think about things before you ask them, beautiful. You know what I am. There’s nothing a bug like me can sense better than love. There’s hurt in your past, deep down. Something hurt you, and you never healed from it.”

The anger evaporated, turning rapidly to shock. She backed away a few steps, yanking free of her. “I don’t… I suppose that means you’ll report me to that Commissar now. You wouldn’t want someone with flaws like mine anywhere near the Twilight court.”

Ginny shook her head. “Of course not. Let me tell you a secret, sweetheart. No creature is perfect except the princess. Harmony doesn’t expect you to be her. There won’t ever be another Alicorn. But you’re out here fighting for Harmony, doing things that disgust and frighten and embarrass you. How many other creatures would’ve rather just given up? How many would’ve given up a long time before they got to the court? You overcame yourself, and you’re still serving a noble cause. If I had to guess, I bet the princess knew about your past a long time before you even reached the court. She probably chose you because you proved you could overcome yourself. You’ve sacrificed for Harmony before, and now you get the chance to sacrifice again. A noble opportunity.”

Doesn’t feel so noble from here. She wiped her eyes, forcing a nod. “Y-yeah, of course. That’s… Nothing is more noble than sacrificing for Harmony. You’re right. I can almost believe you’re… not a bloodthirsty killer under all that makeup.”

Ginny covered her mouth with one claw, gasping. “I take exception to that. I’ve never been bloodthirsty in my life. You know how much love you can extract from a corpse? None. Killer… sure. Can’t argue with that one. Not my first choice, but…” She shrugged. “Anyway, we need to get caught with something big next time. Living together like this is good, but… I’m not sure. I know we got some attention, but I haven’t been approached by anypony yet. Were you?”

“No,” she admitted. “I… wouldn’t expect it after just once, but it is annoying. Your plan better not be wrong…”

“It won’t be,” Ginny assured, leaning forward for a stupid kiss on her forehead. “Like I said, big plan. I’m thinking the next time we’ll end up pilloried for at least a day. Oh, you’ll probably lose your job. But it’s not like we needed the money anyway. That’s just… more believable suffering.”

She tensed, teeth grinding together—but she didn’t fight. Not here, not now. One day you’re going to wish you’d treated me with more respect. “I believe it,” she said, glaring at the griffon. “But I’m not going to keep going with this plan forever. If it doesn’t work, then it’ll be my turn to come up with our method. I’m thinking something… magical. Maybe we can track their spells, or…” She trailed off. “I guess I’ll have plenty of time to think of it while I’m being publicly humiliated.”

Twilight hadn’t slept in a week.

Long ago, behavior like that would rapidly have eroded her sanity, until the waking world and her hallucinations merged into one and she was unable to tell the difference between the two. But now she had a spell for that, magic to keep her conscious without side-effects. In the past, she had invested months without sleep, when some particularly difficult problem confronted her.

The Devourers had made a serious mistake in thinking they could exact some retribution against her without consequences. Now they were revealed, and their destruction would soon follow.

“Princess,” said a voice from beside her, faint and fearful. The latest assistant she’d recruited from the upper city. She forgot his name. “There’s a general of Unification here to see you. He’s waiting just outside.”

She waved a dismissive wing through the illusion around her. It was only 70% opaque, so that she could study its details from every angle, without moving. “His timing is perfect, as usual. I’ll meet him at the door myself.”

She didn’t wait for the messenger to walk back with her, much too slow. The Concord Castle had over a thousand anchor runes, each one positioned somewhere she might need to travel. The teleport was effortless, and soon she was standing at her lab door.

She had to use her hooves to remove lead fastenings from the security door, rather than levitation. For the defense of her laboratory to be effective, no creature could spell their way through it, not even herself.

Finally came the vault door, which she rotated around until it began to swing outward. And standing on the other side, waiting unmoved in the castle hallway, was General Pike.

He had none of the usual Unification soldier look about him, no smell of preservative or residue of the spell that enabled them. Pike was nearing the time when he would join the ranks of that army, if the wrinkles on his face and streaks of gray in his mane were any guide. It would be a shame to lose his insight and courage—but that was the way with every mortal who served her. None yet had been good enough to take up her office.

None would be, until the world was finally safe.

“General Pike,” she said, smiling at him. “Exactly on time, I’m guessing.”

He saluted with one hoof, as perfect as any of her Unification soldiers. Maybe more, since she knew that he was deciding to move that way, instead of being compelled. He had a lifetime of practice. “As always, Regent. The honor of your company deserves nothing less.”

“Even when you are here to face the consequences of your failure?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. “What do you think I’m going to do to you, after losing one of my cruisers?”

He didn’t blink. She didn’t doubt that powerful mind magic would find no more fear than he outwardly showed. Pike was a creature just as ruthless as those he commanded. It was why he had survived the post for so long, when many around him had joined the Unification army. “Whatever I deserve, of course. The Regent’s judgements are always perfect.”

So many creatures intoned words like that around her. But when Pike said it, she knew he believed them. “Then you know I don’t hold you responsible.” She turned away, flicking her tail impatiently. “Come, I will show you what I’ve learned.”

“I am curious to learn,” he said, hurrying across the threshold after her. He stopped in the doorway to close each of the locks in turn—he’d served her long enough that he didn’t need to be told when a meeting was private. “I’m told you have not left your laboratory since we last spoke. Did you manage to learn something useful from the survivors?”

She waited just long enough for him to finish locking the door before re-activating her spells. At once, the complex magical machinery lining the walls fell into darkness, and the vast open space in the center transformed. Metal walls appeared, complete with seats, and engine machinery in back.

It was the interior of the cruiser, recreated in perfect illusion from before it was attacked. The dead soldiers were back in their seats, the engine and hull-plating were lacking the holes that had destroyed them. There was some precision lost in what didn’t matter—each Unification soldier looked like the same pegasus stallion, face blank and featureless. But that might as well be the case everywhere.

Pike gasped. “Grace of Generosity… this is 14-Rainbow, isn’t it?” He approached one of the transparent walls, waving a hoof through it. “I’ve never seen an illusion so incredible. How did you do it?”

Some part of her realized he probably knew she wanted to explain her achievements. It was torturous to achieve so much, and have her subjects understand so little of what she’d done. But even if he’d just done it for her benefit, she didn’t care.

“What you see at this moment was trivial—each transport cruiser is identical. I only had to reference the schematic. But what you’re about to see, that was the achievement. A combination of postcognition on the wreckage, and detailed interrogation of the survivors. After all, they were not blindfolded until after they were defeated. There is much for us to learn here.”

Pike was silent for a moment, walking past the outside of the vessel. Finally he realized what she was saying, and snapped alert again. “Regent, are you suggesting your magic is mighty enough to allow us to see the past?”

She rolled her eyes. “There are many ways to see the past. Not all of them are…” She looked away. Stepping through the illusion until she was apparently standing in the interior. Directly in one of the hallways. “Some will not function, as I lack any sympathetic connection to the events that transpired. One of the… unfortunate side-effects of the Unification soldiers. An exchange I made consciously when they were created, knowing the price I paid. But the rest… you should see the face of our enemy as I have.”

He lowered his head in something that was almost a bow. “Of course, Regent. Please.”

There was silence for a few moments, then the spell began to activate. A brilliant glow passed through the corpse of the ship as the spell’s power thrummed, then the simulation began. Twilight’s ears flattened as metal cut through the ship’s magical shielding, through the metal plates on the outside as well. The attacker seemed to recognize the engine, because the attack was precisely aimed at the machinery. Holes appeared in the engine, as something powerful enough to cut through two feet of basically solid steel punched through. Oil leaked out, and the whole assembly hissed and spluttered for a moment, before giving out.

“Right through the armor plating,” Pike observed, walking right up to the side of the ship and staring at the lines. “Crossbows can’t go through an inch of steel. And light lances can’t penetrate a dispersion field. What kind of weapon was that?”

“I have absolutely no idea,” Twilight said. “But it gets worse, observe.”

That wasn’t enough to ground the 14-Rainbow, only to stop it from accelerating forward.

Meanwhile, the crew reacted instantly to the attack. The illusions of soldiers rose from their seats, grabbing lightspears from racks and spreading out. The legionnaires organized into a unit, protecting the bridge and the officers there with one group while another formed into ranks of two and charged up.

Then came the real artistry. None of the direct evidence of anything she showed survived, since those closest to the entrance were destroyed beyond recovery. But even if some of the specifics were wrong, Twilight was confident in the general line of events.

Before the first soldiers had even made their way up, something heavy landed on the ship above them, enough that it overwhelmed the lift-crystal and they instantly started descending. Then something tore off the armored door to the lower deck, and rolled something large down the steps. Twilight didn’t know what it looked like, so it was represented with a crystal of dark magic, wrapped in stabilizing steel bands to keep it from shattering.

It activated as it rolled, sending out chunks of metal the size of a hoof in all directions. The legionnaires nearby were torn apart in seconds.

“Harmony protect us, what is that?” Pike asked, gesturing. “Their armor didn’t keep them alive.”

“From the remains I studied, it seemed carefully chosen,” Twilight answered. “The explosive was strong enough to pierce bodies, but not the outer shell of the 14-Rainbow. Our own armor concentrated the damage and killed as many as possible.”

Of course, her soldiers were perfect. They weren’t frightened by the loss of eight stallions into gruesome giblets—they retreated further, with some forming a shield-wall while others retrieved heavy weapons from where they were mounted.

And this was your critical flaw, monsters, Twilight thought. You would’ve given me nothing if you’d broken a few legionnaires and fled. But you were too proud.

A pair of armored figures lumbered down the stairs. Here she’d done nothing to embellish, adding no details that hadn’t been observed by the survivors or recorded in the ruined ship. From the size of the prints they left on the metal stairs, she estimated they were taller than she was, so large that they barely fit inside the little space.

Their bodies were largely obscured in the smoke, though some details were clear. They had only two legs, and stood entirely erect as they moved casually through the wreckage of the dead.

Legionnaires fired their light lances down the corridor, while the ballista was nearly reloaded. The two figures were too large to have any hope of avoiding even poorly-aimed shots.

But the energy seemed to glide around their metal armor, splashing around them like water and melting holes in the deck and walls.

Then one of the figures lowered another weapon, one as large as a ballista, but somehow carried between its thick arms. Sound roared down the corridors, deafening even the survivors to anything that might’ve been said. Even so, the simulation was gruesome enough that Pike looked away. A section of the massive weapon began to rotate, spraying pieces of metal longer than a pony’s hoof. The shield-wall held for less than a second, before it and the ponies behind it were torn into bloody pieces.

Twilight levitated a piece of metal into the air, holding it where Pike could see. “The chemists of Concord will rejoice when they realize we’ve discovered a new metal. I won’t tell them it was used to slaughter our soldiers.”

Pike took it in his own magic as the slaughter went on behind them, feeling it with a hoof. “As fast as that weapon is firing… the creature inside must have the strength of an earth pony just to lift it.”

“Indeed,” Twilight said. Then she stuck out a hoof. “Don’t taste it. That projectile is radioactive.”

Pike clearly didn’t know what that meant, but he knew enough to offer it back to her, unwilling to take any more risks. “O-of course, Regent.”

The soldier stopped shooting. They could’ve continued, widening the hole in the bridge and cutting through any creature unlucky enough to get in its way. But they’d clearly been counting the dead. Now that they got close, the weapon stopped. The other creature had something much smaller—a piece of glowing Darktech, with unreadable letters and numbers.

“Sixty-three,” it said, the only sound the Devourers had made that Twilight could be certain of. It almost seemed to want her soldiers to hear it.

But the illusion faded after that. It wouldn’t be good for Pike to watch as these two overcame the survivors in the bridge, tossing spells aside and methodically slaughtering until the number was right. Light faded, and the surviving ponies were the only ones left behind. At least the gruesome remnants of the slaughter were gone.

“Regent, could you recreate one of those… creatures, again? I’d like to see the face of my enemy.”

“I’m afraid you won’t,” Twilight said, complying anyway. The illusion appeared before them outside the recreated airship, entirely opaque this time. It towered over Twilight herself, wielding the terrible weapon in both arms. Up close some of the other details were visible—it wore a huge backpack, which frothed with vapor every moment. Moisture condensed on thick tubes leading into its shoulders from that backpack, leaving a trail of mist on the ground where it stood.

But there was no face to be seen, only a bubble around where she guessed the creature’s head would be. It wasn’t glass—one of these had taken a direct hit from a crossbow without cracking. But she guessed it was something similar.

Pike circled around the figure for several minutes, studying every detail. He even seemed to be trying to read the writing on the armor, which was fuzzy and out of focus since Twilight didn’t know what it said. “You’re sure it was just these two?” he asked. “They emptied a troop carrier by themselves.”

“Not quite.” She didn’t want to keep the simulation going, though of course she could have. Instead she summoned the other figure, the one that had arrived at the end.

This one had a body like the first two, though it wasn’t quite Twilight’s height. Instead of wearing armor like an airship, its body was soft and flexible in a silvery pattern around its joints. It had no backpack, and a hard-plastic case of Darktech instead of a weapon. But like the other two, it had never shown its true self through its clothes. Even its face was hidden by mirrored glass. “This was their, uh… technician. Or surgeon, perhaps. It altered the legionnaire to deliver the ultimatum. None of the survivors saw the process, but it took this creature less time than 14-Rainbow needed to crash. So they’re clever as well as dangerous.”

“Buck,” Pike whispered. He didn’t seem so intimidated by the creature whose arms weren’t thicker than his torso. He scanned the same points Twilight had—looking for a cutie mark, or any obvious weaknesses in the armor. “The Devourers were minotaurs all this time?”

“No,” Twilight said, dismissing the illusions and grinning energetically at Pike. “The joints are wrong for that. Besides, I know how minotaurs fight. When we reclaimed Crete, they made their techniques clear. This much death would’ve sent them into a bloodlust, and they never could’ve left survivors behind. They probably would’ve killed each other, though not necessarily.”

“Right.” Pike straightened, turning his back on the survivors in their seats. “I forget the depth of your wisdom, Regent. I hope you might permit me to plumb its depths a little further, and ask how we can defeat an enemy as mighty as this.”

Twilight watched him for a few seconds, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. Was that genuine doubt he was feeling? Did her highest military official question the Legion’s ability to adapt to this new threat? “I can’t give you a checklist. But one thing I can say: there aren’t many Devourers left. The historical data suggests each one of them is like a changeling queen unto themselves, requiring a whole population of slave creatures. Why do you think they grew so angry when we took their dogs away? We probably killed at least one of their numbers without even realizing it.”

“So even if they seem invincible… we have a numbers advantage,” Pike finished. “I will study what we’ve observed. But I will ultimately need more engagements. We won’t know if a technique will be effective at killing them without trying it.”

Twilight nodded. “I already have a pony searching for their hideout. Use what time you have to prepare. I will summon you again when the time arises.”

Chapter 12: Lyra

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Ginny’s plan was every bit as awful as Star had imagined. At least the Commissar had been there quickly to put an end to the degeneracy and get them both in chains. The public trial was like stepping sideways into another reality, where Harmony hadn’t mattered to her and she’d cared about nothing but her own happiness. Only her horrified parents were missing to make the miserable affair complete.

She’d been right in her guess of punishment too—Commissar Golden Shine chose the pillory, where her and Ginny could be separated into their own districts to suffer alone. He slammed her in, settling an uncomfortable twine rope over her shoulders to dig into her back. “No magic during your sentence, criminal,” Golden Shine barked, loud enough for everyone to hear. “Or I’ll make sure your next punishment is much worse. Pain will help you atone for what you’ve done, and help you avoid actions that would bring disharmony on our city.” He twisted the lock into place, turning to face the market crowd. “When one pony steps out of line, we all do. Let this one be an example to each of you.”

He stormed off, leaving her entirely alone, and helpless. Right in the center of the market, with hundreds circling around her every moment. But she didn’t need to worry about being hurt—nopony got within ten feet of her, like her sin might contaminate them as well. There was no formal enforcement of district boundaries in Hollow Shades, but even the few griffons she saw in the crowd spared no compassion for her.

Princess, I hope I didn’t commit some crime you never told me about. If I was sent here as a punishment, just tell me. I deserve to know.

Hollow Shades might not have much imperial power, but it had top-tier public torture devices. The wood was rock-hard, grinding against her neck and forelegs. Not only that, but it occupied a place of prominence with actual sunlight beating right into her eyes. Closing them did nothing to fight the dehydration.

It’s just a day. Nopony ever died from that. I’m acting a role. This was supposed to happen. It’s okay.

As the minutes turned to hours, any confidence in the sanctity of her mission faded to pain. Higher callings could do very little when her shoulders and throat cried out, and every pair of eyes she saw was filled with contempt.

Star Orchid was delirious by then, though she couldn’t have said if it was from dehydration or the social pressure of so many angry ponies.

But then, when the crowd was thickest, somepony approached her. A little earth pony, maybe twelve or thirteen, her legs covered in loamy soil and her expression furious. She stopped just beside her, lifting her satchel up towards Star.

There was… a tube inside, like a straw she might’ve seen at a proper Concord restaurant. “Hey, this whole situation is shit,” she swore, in an accent so strange that Star woke.

This is it. Geist’s plan wasn’t stupid and self-serving after all. This is when we get recruited.

“Are you just going to stand there? Put the tube in your mouth and drink it before people notice.”

People? Another anachronism. But Star was thirstier than she was curious, and she latched on greedily. The water inside was much better than anything their cheap housing could give them, tasting as clean in her mouth as a Concord sink. Cold too, like she’d somehow captured ice in that satchel. It was heaven in her mouth—like the princess herself had called down Harmony’s love.

“What’s that word you people use, bucking? This is bucking insane. Punishing you like this because you’re in a relationship with a weird bird. I mean, I wouldn’t want to kiss a beak, but who am I to say you can’t?”

“What’s…” She stopped, looking down at the board around her neck. She felt so stiff, and it hadn’t been hung there for her. “What’s it say?”

The pony hesitated, glancing at it. Her ears flattened, and she looked away awkwardly. “Sorry, uh… sorry. I haven’t figured out how to read your language yet. Someone else will have to help with that.”

Finally creatures had started to notice. Ponies stared at her, suspicion obvious on every face. Even the young pony seemed to notice, because she flipped her satchel closed, straightening. Here we go. This is what we’ve been waiting for. The rebellion is trying to win me over by sharing some water and pretending to be on my side. Now’s when they pounce.

Some part of her was confused at such a young representative, but maybe that was part of their strategy. Young and stupid ponies were the ones most likely to be tricked into ruining their lives. “Don’t get caught next time, yeah? Maybe… not in public?” She left, vanishing back into the crowd without another word. No calling cards, no meetings, no request for repayment.

Was she just… trying to live the virtue of Kindness? Bold choice of venue if that was the case, where so many ponies would be angry at her for even getting close.

Her gift was a blessing and a curse from then on. She didn’t feel like the sun was cooking her alive anymore, but she also didn’t have the blissful ignorance of delirium to cover up just how embarrassing this whole situation was.

So close. That pony should’ve been the one for sure. She fit the profile in so many other ways—carrying some strange pack that might be enchanted, or might be Darktech. Her tone was like some ancient Canterlot aristocrat, twisted into the crudest gutter-talk. And she didn’t seem afraid that Star’s sins would rub off on her.

Apparently not, though. She drew plenty of eyes in the next few hours, but no more compassion, and no recruitment offers. When night came, Golden Shine came for her in the empty marketplace, with a key and a sneer of contempt on his face. He opened her stocks, letting her free at last.

“I hope you learned your lesson,” he said loudly. “Hollow Shades might be far from Concord, but Harmony’s eyes are never too distant to see a sinner.”

He glowered at her for a few moments more, then turned back the way he’d come, leaving her to find her own way home.

She found Ginny waiting just inside the boarding house, sitting alone at a corner table. The room fell silent as she entered, punctuated only with the occasional whisper of mockery.

“How was your side?” she asked, keeping her tone as neutral as she could. There were creatures watching down here—but just climbing upstairs after everything probably wouldn’t have seemed very authentic.

“Enlightening,” Ginny said, smiling at her for a moment. Just a few seconds, before she turned back to her drink.

Star got one of her own, drinking in relative silence. She half-expected the landlord to throw them onto the street, but… the unicorn never even looked at them. So desperate to fill this place that you’re going to let a pair of criminals live here?

After a few hours of whispering and staring, they finally made their way upstairs, into the shelter of Star’s silence spell.

“It worked,” Ginny declared proudly, positively bouncing with satisfaction. “Only two punishments—I was expecting that to take longer. And from what I heard, you got something too.”

She shook her head, slumping onto the bed. She lay the wrong way, her legs and head dangling over the side. “I thought I would, but no. Just some filly who felt bad for us. Didn’t like how harsh we were being treated.”

“And you… didn’t ask why?” Ginny stopped right in front of her, raising a skeptical eyebrow. “Some strange pony doesn’t care that you’re openly defying Harmony’s rules, and you didn’t even ask why?”

She giggled, climbing into bed beside her and laying her feathery back against Star’s. “It’s okay, I already got us an in. We’ll probably see her there waiting for us too.”

Star was silent for a long time. Her whole body ached, and she was still in shock over her day of misery and punishment. Of all the things she thought might happen for her one day, experiencing a life of sin in such vivid detail hadn’t been one of her plans.

It’s just a reminder of why we’re obedient to Harmony. That’s where I could’ve gone. Be thankful, Star.

“What kind of meeting did you get for us?”

Ginny sat up again, expression as smug as ever. “Exactly what you’d expect, basically. Every city outside Concord has their dissidents… but most of them aren’t plotting an armed revolt like this one apparently is. It’s not like we’ll get walked into the inner circle, though… we’ll be meeting with somepony who doesn’t matter, to test our competence and our wiliness to break the law. They didn’t say, but expect them to give us something… petty and stupid. Stealing records from the library, or destroying some public property.”

Star sat up, glowering at her. “You say that so casually. A forbidden but empty relationship to larceny or sabotage. No big deal. Will Golden Shine cut off one of our hooves if we get caught? I’m telling you right now, that is a bridge too far for this act.”

“Of course not!” Ginny puffed out her feathery chest, indignant. “I mean, Golden Shine would give us the same punishment as anypony else. But he’d have to catch us first. That’s what’s not gonna happen. Did you forget who I was? Rob an armory, or burn some records of the local dissidents… I could do that in my sleep.”

The longer Jamie lived in Hollow Shades, the closer she came to tearing off her rose-tinted glasses.

Yes, she was surrounded by other people. She had plenty of chances for long conversations with them. The emergency shelter was basically a gigantic tomb run by an angry computer—at least Hollow Shades was alive.

Her first week could’ve been worse, for sure. Shy had secured her somewhere to work after her third day, at a large rooftop garden in the Kindness district. They hadn’t ever had an earth pony before, whatever that meant, so they were eager for her help.

Unfortunately for them, Jamie’s help was pretty disappointing. She didn’t know the first thing about farming or even keeping a houseplant alive, a fact they would swiftly learn. It wasn’t like she killed anything. She didn’t mix salt into the soil or forget to water. But whatever magical success they expected, she couldn’t deliver.

But as nice as it was to start building a life here, exposure did not make her love the place more. Hollow Shades might be a remote outpost of the “Equestrian” government, but it seemed to suffer even worse than the Empire ever had. What kind of city had a fucking gallows in the center of town?

I need to know,” she declared, while she sat with Shy for dinner in her deceptively massive mansion. “What’s this ‘Harmony’ thing that people worship so much? I tried to ask about it at work, but everybody got super awkward.”

Shy tensed at that admission, staring down at her plate with a painfully nervous expression. “You don’t… How can you not know what Harmony is, Empathy? That’s like… Even griffons know what friendship is. Even minotaurs. Even changelings, now.”

Empathy. The name still sounded strange to her, and she often failed to recognize it when someone at work used it on her. She was getting better at it, though. At least she didn’t correct people with her real name. “We have friendship. We have love and families and all the rest of it. But I’ve never heard of Harmony. Ponies talk about it like it’s more than just a good idea you should look for. I know what the word means, but they say it like it’s a god.”

“Well…” Fluttershy turned over her salad with a fork, looking thoughtful. “I guess you could call Harmony a god. Or a goddess, since most ponies think of it as a female concept. Like a… great Alicorn, that rules above the princess. That’s as powerful compared to her as she is compared to us. So powerful that the rest of us would turn to dust if we got anywhere close to it, but that Princess Twilight Sparkle can talk to, and share information about what it wants.”

“So it is a god,” Jamie said. “A god who delivers revelation through its… chosen infallible representative. Are there creatures who don’t believe in this god? Are you allowed to worship something else if you want? Like are the Christians and Jews and Muslims and… that’s a stupid question. Forget I said that. I have no idea where you’d learn our religions with all the humans gone. Nevermind that last part.”

Shy never seemed upset when she said things that didn’t make sense, only uncomfortably curious. Jamie got the sense that one day Shy was going to strap her down and not let her get up until she explained every single thing she hadn’t understood. But she hadn’t done that yet because of an overwhelming sense of politeness.

“Other things?” She shook her head hurriedly. “You shouldn’t talk like that outside. According to the princess, the world only has two types of creatures. The ones trying to follow Harmony’s laws, and the ones who spread disharmony. Usually the ones who spread disharmony get a chance to change their ways, and to learn the truth. But it’s not the kind of thing that very many creatures would try.

“Every city has at least one Commissar, to make sure that Harmony’s will is respected even when the princess and Concord are far away. Don’t ever ask ours questions—ignorance is a crime they’ll punish.”

“I know all about the punishment part,” Jamie muttered, expression dark. “I saw what he did to that lesbian couple. Bloody barbaric. You think the Commissar will be upset I gave one of them water?”

Shy winced, pushing her still mostly-full plate aside. “Probably you… shouldn’t ever do anything like that again. And if you ever get arrested, just say you were following one of the Cardinal Virtues. Whichever one is closest to what you were doing. Loyalty, Generosity, Kindness… you remember. That can sometimes mean you get a lighter sentence.”

“For helping people.” Jamie shook her head, shoving away from her food. “Shy, I know… I know I probably shouldn’t say this. But don’t you think it’s… wrong, that the world is this way? A long time ago, people were treated this way… you know what happened? There were riots. Protests. Revolutions. Seems like this place is overdue for a revolution.”

All of Shy’s politeness evaporated in an instant, and she was on top of Jamie like a tiger. Shy shoved her back against a wall, stuffing a hoof into her mouth and holding her there. “Listen to me, Empathy,” she whispered, voice grave. “I don’t care what you say… but if you said things like that anywhere else in the world, you’d end up hanging from the gallows.”

Shy let go, and Jamie scrambled back, horrified at the strangely physical display. She backed away, but Shy followed close behind. “Twilight built systems to keep herself in power. She invented a religion, she erased history, she built police and secret police and a horrible undead army. We can’t stop her. If Discord couldn’t do it, then we can’t. I can’t watch another good pony throw their life away on something stupid. You’ll never win. Nopony can.”

She collapsed to her haunches at last, breathing heavily.

Jamie didn’t have a clue what half of that stuff had even meant, but she didn’t care just now. Her safe shelter, with the kind and supportive Shy, no longer felt quite so safe. She stopped thinking rationally, and she ran.

She reached the door in a few strides, then slipped outside into the chill night air. Hollow Shades was lit with only a few slivers of moonlight, barely enough to see where she was going.

There was probably a curfew, or something similarly oppressive. Maybe their whole fucking world was under martial law all the time. Jamie didn’t care about that just now, she just wanted to get away. So she ran.

Shy’s mansion was located near the “bowl” in the Kindness side, so she picked the steepest part of the slope and ran. Kindness was poorly maintained compared to the rest of the city, with deep potholes and trails of waste on either side of the street. But she ignored all that.

Running would’ve tripped her on her face a few weeks ago, but Jamie was getting better. She’d been a pony long enough that she would probably need more physical therapy just to walk on two legs again, when this was all over.

The streets weren’t totally empty. Occasionally she saw another figure, something wearing dark robes with head obscured. She sped up whenever she did, her hooves clopping painfully beneath her. But she didn’t care about the pain either, she just wanted to run.

At least running gave her some control over her future. When Jamie was human, jogging for even a few minutes would’ve made her lungs start to burn and her body scream in protest. But she felt none of that now. Her asthma was gone, she wasn’t short-sighted anymore. This stupid horse body had been built well enough that she could probably run forever.

Until she came to the edge of a cliff, and nearly ran right off into oblivion. She skidded to a halt on the rocky ground, trailing pebbles and little stones as she went. She squealed, kicking at the dirt—and finally came to a stop.

She stayed on the edge, panting from the effort of her run. She hadn’t felt it at the time, but as soon as she stopped straining her body, it was as though the weakness caught up with her all at once. She backed a few steps away from the edge, slumping to a sitting position.

Her stupid run had curved her around the edge of the city, so that she had a clear view of all Hollow Shades below her. In some ways it was beautiful, with its tightly packed houses and little lights visible from inside. But she could only pretend it was something beautiful. The planet isn’t dying anymore, now society is. Did we make the right trade? It didn’t seem like the Traditionalists had been right. A more primitive society was not free of oppression and misery.

I could keep my head down and just live out the rest of my life. I could learn their stupid religion and pretend to believe. It wouldn’t be that hard.

Somewhere far away, there were ancient idealists revolted by that suggestion. But Jamie could be practical. Was the truth more important than survival?

I don’t want to change the world. But if every other human left dies in a hole somewhere… Jamie hadn’t signed up for this. She didn’t want to be out here. But even so, knowing that her inaction had killed them, she wouldn’t be able to live with the guilt. We weren’t always the best, but we could be better than this.

The jungle all around Hollow Shades didn’t get cold exactly, nor did its persistent blanket of insects ever really go away. But Jamie’s new body was sturdy, and she didn’t seem bothered by that much.

She should probably go back to Shy soon. The pony had been nothing but friendly with her since her first moments, and now she would worry. Maybe if she hurried, she could make it back without getting caught. She would apologize, then… then she didn’t know.

Far to her right, the jungle encroached on the edge of the cliff, a tight wall of foliage untouched by generations of loggers. Jamie turned, straining her eyes—something moved in the gloom. She backed towards the path, a switch-backed-slope of rough steps cut in the stone, and kept clear of debris through many footfalls.

Had some jungle cat heard her distress? She didn’t have her gun up here, or any other human possession. She sped up, tucking her tail. But she didn’t run. Predators wouldn’t be able to resist if she did that.

“Jamie Sanders,” said a voice—a voice in perfect synthesized English, not the strange accents of the locals.

Jamie stopped, spinning wildly around. A shape stepped out of the trees, resolving in the moonlight there.

It was a search and rescue drone, the kind built in humanoid shape to navigate warzones and dangerous buildings. That meant it was taller than she was, covered in reflective tape in yellow stripes that caught the light of the moon down its sides. Its body was lightweight and skeletal, legs ending in hooflike stumps instead of feet. It remained constantly in motion, gyroscopes keeping it upright while it stood.

“Epsilon?” she asked, taking a step closer to it. She lowered her voice to a whisper, glancing back down the trail. She couldn’t see any pony coming, or any of the winged ponies in the sky overhead. “What the hell are you doing here? I thought you didn’t want to get caught?”

The drone made no approximation of human body language. It had no face to read expressions, and its head was nothing more than a constantly rotating lidar/camera array. “It was a necessary step, Jamie Sanders. All precautions have been observed. The chance that you would step outside this Correction Agent settlement could not be ignored.”

“What?” She moved a little closer, tilting her head to the side. “Epsilon, have you been reading what I sent you? These people are fucking insane. They’ve got a horrible religion, and a damn inquisition enforcing all their rules. And best of all, humanity has been cast as their Satan. We’re screwed, there’s nothing I can do.”

Epsilon remained silent for a moment, processing all that. It could understand human speech, but it also wasn’t a GAI. Its ability to reason was probably strained to the breaking point. “You have not explored all avenues. Determination: physically impossible.”

“Yeah, I know.” She turned her back on the machine, taking a few steps closer to the cliff and gesturing down at the village. “I don’t know, maybe we need to… build a spacecraft or something? Get up to one of the orbital platforms, colonize that instead? Getting self-sufficient will probably be a bitch, but I’m not sure what else we can do.”

“The emergency shelters were not constructed for space colonization,” Epsilon declared. “Their purpose is to reclaim Homeworld, once its terraforming is complete.”

She turned, nostrils flaring as she bared down on the stupid rescue bot. It didn’t quite have a human form, but it was still taller than she was, albeit uncanny in its glittering plastic shell. “Let me spell it out, Epsilon. The one in charge of this world right now has been waging a war to conquer the whole thing for the last thousand years. She won. She has an army, she has powers we can’t imagine. We can’t fight her. All we can do is run, and let our… great-great-grandkids figure out a way to fix this. Once we’ve recovered.”

“Delay is unacceptable,” Epsilon insisted. “The shelter’s preservation hardware is failing at a rate of .021% per year. The humans of emergency shelter 198.64-Beta must be preserved at any cost.”

“You have another way?” she asked, glowering at it. At least they were far outside the city. Probably her voice wouldn’t carry. “I don’t have a fucking clue what we should do, and I’m probably ten times smarter than you! Or hundreds, or… I don’t even know.”

“Affirmative,” it said, reaching back towards the satchel it was carrying. It held out something towards her—something with a sharp metal tip. Jamie heard a brief puff of gas, and a pain in her neck. Then the world started to swim. She slumped to one side, her body going numb.

“This plan failed. It will be iterated.”

Star moved nervously through the dark streets of Hollow Shades, conscious of many eyes on her. Of course she knew that there wasn’t any real danger to her being out here. She might not be a trained warrior, but she’d spent her entire life studying magic. If any creature thought they were going to attack her in the dark, they would swiftly discover they’d made a serious miscalculation.

“These wannabe rebellions,” Ginny whispered, so quietly that she had to lean in close to hear. “They always want to meet in the dead of night. This is exactly the time we’d be looking for them, but they just keep doing it.”

“This one must know something about staying hidden,” Star whispered back. Of course she didn’t have the same blazé attitude when it came to discussing their mission. She didn’t have Geist’s strange sense for other creatures, and certainty about when they were being observed and when they weren’t. “We haven’t found them so far.”

“And yet…” Ginny whispered. “What are we doing right now?”

They were making their way through the marketplace, every stall closed and boarded. Occasionally a member of the city watch would pass by, and they’d have to duck behind a cart or to a nearby street. But they didn’t seem terribly interested in catching anyone out after curfew.

“It’s just like Padlock said. They stay away from Kindness district. Even with a new Commissar in the city, the watch keeps to the old ways. Why do you think that is?”

Star answered by reflex, the same way she might’ve done if she was still at the Twilight court where she belonged. “One pony can’t run everything. Even the infallible Princess Twilight has only the same twenty-four hours the rest of us do. She has to delegate.”

Ginny rolled her eyes, then yanked on Star’s leg. She pulled her not towards any actual building, but a sewer grate. Star could see why even in the moonlight, and she shuddered inwardly at the sight. The sewer was unlocked, and rested just out of place. It was waiting for them.

“You’re bucking kidding me. They’re meeting down here? No way Golden Shine hasn’t torn the underground to pieces by now looking for them.”

“Can’t be there every night,” Ginny said. “Probably just a quiet place for a temporary meeting.”

A quiet and disgusting place. Star kept her mouth firmly closed as they slipped under the grate one at a time, following a narrow path on the side of a deep channel. The market was almost at the lowest point in the city, and here the waste flowed freely.

Her horn glowed, and a little bubble appeared around her face. The air cleared abruptly, all organic smells replaced with simple ozone. She could live with that.

“Hey, sweetheart, want to give me a little magic while you’re at it?” Ginny asked. “Since we’re so close and all, and we’ve been united through our terrible hardship.”

“Sure,” she said. “Just like how you carried me over the mud during the walk here. I remember how hard you worked to make the trip easier for me.” She kept walking, ignoring Ginny’s complaint. Apparently even changelings could be disgusted.

Her avian companion huffed loudly, turning up her tail and speeding past her. “Little unicorn girlfriend, always looking out for me. I’ve never seen a love as pure as ours.”

At least they didn’t have far to go. A narrow bridge crossed the gloomy corridor, taking them away from the channel and into a little chamber cut into the wall. While everything else down here was ancient and rotting, this one had a sturdy wooden door and a lock.

Golden Shine must know about this, right? It’s so close to the entrance.

Ginny reached the door, then knocked several times in a light, strange pattern.

For a few seconds only silence answered them, silence and the sound of an incalculably foul river.

But even Ginny didn’t have anything sharp to say, not when they were expecting someone to be waiting for them.

Finally the door swung open a crack. The faint glow of lantern-light emerged from within, illuminating a room of dense shelves and maintenance equipment. Shovels, spades, bags of cement—and a pony.

“You brought the unicorn,” said the voice. A mare, terse and skeptical. “We invited you.”

Ginny stepped back, wrapping a foreleg around Star’s shoulder and squeezing her close. “We’re a package, didn’t you see what they did to us? Take it or buckin’ leave it.”

Star couldn’t get a good view of the pony on the other side of the door. She had a pair of harsh gold eyes behind a flat wooden mask, which was covered completely by a dark brown robe. She sounded middle-aged, though that too was just a guess. “Unicorn,” the speaker said gruffly, turning on her. “Are you willing to work together with creatures that aren’t as harmonious as you? We’re a team in here—we don’t play favorites just because the princess does.”

As if Twilight had the power to decide Harmony’s words for it. She stiffened, then nodded. “I, uh… you’ve seen my girlfriend, right?” She leaned closer to Ginny for a moment, feeling none of her usual defensive revulsion. For once, this was part of the act. “Do I look like I care?”

“Fair point.” The pony stepped back, spinning around. “Get inside then, you two. Long night ahead for all of us.”

Chapter 13: Vela

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Star wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting from the headquarters of the resistance. As they shut the door behind them, she discovered to her disappointment that this certainly wasn’t the headquarters of anything. There weren’t even chairs in here with the other construction supplies. It was just a storage room, with a single magical light as its only true amenity.

Star glared at the discolored purple crystal, feeling a little sympathetic soreness from her horn. She’d been casting light spells for six hours a day every day at her new job.

There wasn’t even anypony else here—just their contact in an oversized robe and mask, and a pair of heavy satchels. The pony hopped onto a nearby sack of cement mix, which couldn’t be much better as a cushion than actual cement. “Well I suppose there’s one benefit from this… unexpected change,” she said. “You’d want two for this, but now I don’t have to be part of it. Lucky me. Now you can call me Wellspring. Don’t ask if it’s my real name, we’ve got a mission for you.”

“What mission?” Ginny asked, glancing around the room. “I don’t see any other creatures here.”

“Because we don’t know you,” their representative said. “Maybe you’re what we’ve always been looking for. Maybe you’re idiots who will get the Commissar down on you like you did up in Hollow Shades. If that happens, he’s going to interrogate the buck out of you. But you can’t tell what you don’t know, and so we’re all safer. More information comes when you’ve proved you’re more useful.”

Star lifted one of the satchels in her magic. She winced as she opened the flap, expecting blasting powder, poison, something terrible. Instead a mining helmet rolled out, complete with a magical headlamp. Underneath was a metal mallet, a coiled rope, everything a spelunker might need. “Ginny was sparse on the details,” she said quietly. Hopefully not too demanding. “Who are we working for, exactly? Somepony who doesn’t care if I get together with a bird?”

Wellspring stiffened in her cloak. Those gold eyes looked her over, like a pair of knives trying to cut through her body to the secrets underneath. Good luck. I’m here serving Harmony. What do you serve, Wellspring?

Finally she answered. “We’re the ones who want to make a difference,” Wellspring said simply. “The ones who think that things should be… reformed. Equestria’s had long enough with harsh punishments for sins against Harmony. You’ve felt them yourself. We think… the dangers are past, and it’s time to return to the way things used to be. Equestria didn’t use to have Commissars and executions. We think the princess could be persuaded to make the world more like that.”

It was about as gentle a sell for the resistance as Star could imagine. She couldn’t say anything that would too-suddenly turn away potential recruits, after all. Most ponies, even those unhappy with their world, wouldn’t be ready to turn on the princess and Harmony completely. You probably rehearsed that speech. Don’t pretend like you made that up on the spot.

Star and I agree with you,” Ginny said. “And I… I understand you’ll want to test us. We haven’t exactly shown off how subtle we are so far. Now that… all of Hollow Shades know our names. So what are we going to do? With… that stuff?”

“Something that doesn’t require any stealth or cleverness,” Wellspring explained, lifting one satchel in her mouth and settling it on a nearby cupboard. “Do either of you know the history of Hollow Shades? Let’s skip that and move to answering the question productively: it’s a hallowed foundation, like many others. That means it used to be a city, yeah? In Equestria’s golden age.”

Star gestured with a hoof, as though that were supposed to explain everything. “Technically, it’s older than that. The exception that got this city counted as a hallowed foundation is based on the single time that the princess and the Exemplars…” She trailed off, ears flattening. “Nevermind. You don’t care.”

Wellspring stared at her for a few seconds, eyebrows raised all over again. “You’re a strange duck, Star Orchid. You’ve… clearly sacrificed a great deal for love. More than the world should require of you.” She emptied the satchel one item at a time, spreading everything out before them. “Part of the key to our strategy is showing the world how successful Equestria has been in the past, when things were different.”

“So you want us to gather… artifacts?” Ginny suggested. “Rob a museum? I wasn’t aware that Hollow Shades had one.”

“It is one. The tunnels used by the city’s sewers today were once the city’s streets. Its burrows go deep, and we believe much of its history might be preserved down there. If you find any magical artifacts, those would be the most interesting. But even relics you think are ordinary could have value to us. Selling them to collectors will help raise funds for our cause.”

She grabbed the helmet in her mouth, then tossed it through the air to Ginny. She caught it easily, settling it onto her head. “You mean you’re testing to see if we run off with anything,” she said flatly. “Tell us how valuable this stuff is and wait to see what we do. We’re not going to steal it. Or… well, we are stealing it, but not from you. We’re stealing it for you. You get the idea.”

Wellspring shrugged, though Star was sure she caught surprise on her face through the openings in her mask. “That’s good. If you know what this is about, then you know how to be a proper part of our organization. Prove you can be as effective as you are insightful. Bring as much as you can carry without damaging it. Bring it all back to this room and leave it here. I won’t be here, but somepony will be around to pick it up. Also, don’t get discovered. The chances of any city watch down here are small, but… we won’t protect you if you’re arrested. Part of what we’re looking for are creatures who can handle themselves.”

“We won’t disappoint you,” Star said, shrugging on the other satchel. The helmet wouldn’t fit her quite right, since her horn poked out from the rim. But if they were being offered hard hats, she was going to accept them. “Do you have a map for us? Some way to… find our way to the ruins?”

Wellspring laughed, then pointed out the hall. “Take a right, then climb down the gigantic hole. Can’t miss it.”

Together they left the supply room behind, along with the strange pony left inside it. They walked in relative silence for the first little bit, back through the disgusting sewers. At least the central channel was clear. Star could only imagine with horror how this task might be if the path became backed-up somehow, and they’d had to wade through the city’s waste.

They reached the central opening after just a few minutes of walking. At least sewage wasn’t draining down this way, or else their artifacts would probably have long since been buried. Instead there was a vast opening, as wide around as the marketplace.

The metal cap over their heads left no mysteries about why. They were under the marketplace at that exact moment. A winding path circled the edge of the vast shaft, collapsed in several parts into a terrible drop.

“So are you wondering what I’m wondering?” Ginny asked, finding a place on the edge of a walkway and going to work with her rope. “You really think there’s anything of value down here?”

“That the royal teams haven’t found by now?” Star finished for her. “I’m… not sure. I know the princess has a massive private collection, but she might not… it’s possible she only cared about objects with certain kinds of significance. There might be some things left to sell to private collectors.”

She leaned in close, unable to keep her voice neutral. “What if we do find something valuable down here? Some… ancient magical weapon? We can’t just give it to them, right?”

“That’s exactly what we’re going to do,” Ginny declared. “There’s nothing that dangerous. And if we do find something with some power left, it’ll help cement our position with the rebellion.”

Star shuddered at the thought. She let that idea play to its logical conclusion, imagining she found some terrible weapon that would bring down Concord itself. Instead of singing her name for ending disharmony forever, she’d be remembered for a very different reason. She could be the one who ended the world a second time, perhaps. Or a third.

“You can fly,” she said, after an awkward moment of silence. “What’s the point of the rope?”

“Can you fly?” Ginny asked, grinning at her. “Best get the harness on, sweetheart. Don’t worry, I’ll get you down to the bottom nice and safe.”

Star groaned, then set to work. I could probably levitate myself down there. But I’d rather Geist not know I can do that. They might be on the same side fighting for Equestria, but Geist hadn’t exactly made her feel like an ally. Sooner or later she’s going to turn on me. She knew Geist’s secret, a secret no other creature in the court seemed to. She could think of only one way a secret like that could be kept.

She settled the straps around her legs and torso, tightening them one at a time with her magic. Then she made her way to the edge, glancing down into the darkness.

The glow of her mining helmet didn’t make it to the bottom, leaving a hole that seemed to go down to Tartarus itself. A steady breeze lifted her mane, carrying with it the smell of fungi and guano. “You sure this is safe, Ginny?”

“Climbing, yes. Exploring ancient ruins? Very not.” She clipped the rope onto Star’s harness, then gestured over the edge. “The ancients concealed innumerable dangers in their cities. Some are traps, while others are just the natural consequence of magic running down. Devices meant to make life easier for the ones who lived here now turn against their creators.”

Star walked backwards towards the edge. “You’re going to keep me from falling, right?” she asked. She didn’t have to fake her fear. Self-levitation was tricky magic, and she might not be able to invoke it before she invoked her way into a red puddle.

“Yes.” Ginny shoved her backward. “We’re in this together, remember? Wouldn’t do much for our cover if I insisted that you be allowed to come, then lost you after just a few minutes. Go on.” She gripped the rope firmly in her forelegs, or at least the end of it that trailed out the pully-system. She wasn’t an earth pony, but even griffon mares were fairly large. Large enough to counterbalance the weight of a unicorn, anyway.

She walked out over the edge, held against the rock by the tension of her harness. She started walking backwards down the opening. “Nice and slow,” she called. “I… don’t really know what I’m doing. I only saw this done once.”

“Sure,” Ginny’s voice carried from the top. She wasn’t yelling—that might echo off the metal cap, and let city watch in the marketplace hear them. “If you screw up, I can lower you like a foal.”

Star gritted her teeth, glaring up the slope. She couldn’t actually see the bird, but Ginny would sense her anger. That would have to be enough.

They got onto the ground without too much trouble, leaving the ruins themselves to spread out before them. A thick layer of dust and debris had collected down here over the years, from who knew how many ancient marketplaces.

Ginny landed beside her in the dirt as soon as she was secure, making the entire trip in seconds instead of hours. She yawned, stretched her wings, then tapped her headlamp until it came on. It illuminated a little cone around them, red tile on the arched ceilings and massive gray stone pillars all around. “What can you tell me about this place, Star? You must know everything about the hallowed foundations.”

She gritted her teeth, shoving past Ginny and towards the nearest open doorway. There were many down here, below a ceiling that was at least fifteen meters high. In a way it looked like an ancient sewer of its own, upon which the modern city had apparently been built.

"I know what you've already heard from me. This ruin was mentioned specifically on the file that discussed Hollow Shades, might be where the city got its name in the first place. It's called the Well of Shade, and it was dated to pre-harmonious times. The only other thing I heard about it was that a terrible monster might've been here long ago, before the princess hunted it down. One of your standard 'savior of Equestria' situations, really. No more detail about what it was, or what else it was used for beyond a single monster's lair."

They walked for a short distance through the gloom, beyond a doorway of crumbling stone. Maybe there had been a door here once, though it was hard to be sure. These ruins were unbelievably ancient, and Star knew as well as anypony that moisture was not kind to ancient relics. "Our only hope to find anything interesting is hoping that there might be something enchanted," she muttered, after their third room in a row of nothing. "Most spells would preserve enchanted objects. Otherwise, we're old enough that most organic things wouldn't survive. It's not dry enough down here." She took a few steps forward, nudging one hoof against a low wall. "Actually, this looks like a water-line. Almost like..."

"We're in the sewer's sewers," Ginny supplied. "The actual city that used to be here is full of manure, and anything that was inside it was destroyed."

Wouldn't be the first time Princess Twilight wanted that to happen. The World Before wasn't very harmonious. Best ponies remember it as little as possible. But even as she thought it, she didn't really believe. Even something as simple as an old cistern might hold secrets for them to discover. What was life like when ponies had lived and worked here? Had other creatures been as plentiful as the ponies themselves? Was it part of Equestria, separated into districts? Why had a monster chosen this as its lair, right in the center of a town?

Her musings were interrupted not with one of the traps she'd been expecting, but a strange mosaic of brown tiles on the wall. It wasn't the first one she'd seen, though this was the first one that hadn't been so covered with hard water that she couldn't see most of it. Star made her way over, rubbing the side with the back of a leg and trying to clear away the dirt of many centuries.

The planet had been crafted here, with a reasonably accurate mapping of the continents as they'd been pre-Unification. Yet there was more here—layers above, filled with divine-looking figures. A single pony hovered above it all, limbs spread in graceful compassion. She knew the cutie mark, even if she knew almost nothing about the one it belonged to. That was the princess's own predecessor, the one who had bequeathed the kingdom to her when she saw that the chaos and disharmony were too great for her to overcome. Celestia, Princess of the Sun.

"That's stupid, don't you think?" Ginny had made her way over without Star noticing, and now lingered just beside her, pointing at one of the upper layers. "There are ponies living on the moon. What the buck are they breathing up there?"

Star rolled her eyes. "You're taking this much too literally, Ginny. This is a religious artifact. I think these layers are the... afterlife. The top one would be the most harmonious, and the lower ones the place where common ponies aspire to go."

"Nothing below." Ginny pointed at the planet, then the space beneath it. There were cities represented here, cities as the ancient world had known them. But even primitive, there was something welcoming about their depictions here. Heart-shaped windows, huge fields of earth ponies tilling the soil. Scant trees, even though they'd taken the time to work remarkable detail into the little shards representing flowers. "Every creature on here looks happy. Where do bad creatures go?"

"Maybe nowhere." Star turned away from the monument and wandered over to a nearby door. This one had survived, maybe because of the thick layer of soil now pressed up against it. Maybe the team sent here last time hadn't thought it worthwhile to dig away every door, when they might not lead to anything terribly interesting. "Mind using some of your griffon strength on this, sweetie? With the diagram just outside, it's bound to be interesting."

Ginny approached, yanking on the knob without any excavating first. "You're the one with magic. Just... clean it up that way."

She shook her head, groaning with the obvious absurdity of it. "I could teleport through the wall, and who knows what's on the other side. I could probably blast the door open but think about how stupid that would be for a minute. We have no idea what's over there, how dangerous it is, how valuable it might be. Lots of ancient tombs are protected against magic more than anything else, since a magical intruder is more dangerous than any other kind."

Ginny grumbled for a moment, then started digging. She clawed huge chunks of dirt aside with her forelegs, working quickly for somepony who didn’t want to be digging.

"See, you're a natural. Don't your kind, uh... live underground a lot?"

"My kind," she repeated as she worked, exasperated. "There's not really any such thing anymore. You'd know more about what we were like in the years of disharmony than I would. Now we live the same as any other creatures: happy in our place, content to have a part in our great society. Honored that the princess decided to make room for us. All the polite, political things you're supposed to say."

Was that resentment in her tone? She could've expected something like that, but... not from Geist, surely. There were few creatures as close to the princess as he was. Few who had been in service to the crown as long. This is a trap. He's going to try to get me to say something stupid, then use it against me later. If you didn't think I was loyal to start with, you probably shouldn't have come with me on a mission to stop resistance ponies.

Finally the door was clear, and they could pull at the edge of the frame together. A strange ramp opened beyond, cut from ancient bedrock and smoothed by many, many hooves. Star found herself slowing as she walked in, as though something about the place's ancient, sacred value transcended time. Ancient ponies had strange ideas about religion, confusing simple magic for the working of the divine. But that mistake was to their advantage, since it might mean something of value to bring back.

"There's active magic here," she whispered, pointing to the bottom of the twisting trail. It wasn't a maze of distant chambers, but a destination maybe a hundred meters on. A black, onyx object, set on a flat platform at the end of the ramp. Letters had been carved into its four faces, inlaid with gold. The altar dais was adorned with precious stones, but compared to the working of the onyx pillar itself, it was like the bumbling of a child. "Don't touch it. I have no idea what kind of spell that is."

They stopped about a meter away, and Star resisted the urge to light up her horn, relying instead on the faint light the miner's helmet could provide. She hadn't just been trying to get out of work when she insisted they dig their way down the old-fashioned way. If anything in here was going to react to her magic, it was this.

"What kind of writing is that?" Ginny asked. “I've never seen that language before. And I've seen... more languages than most creatures in Equestria."

Star dared to advance a little closer to the ancient monument, feeling the magic against her coat as she got closer. It was like an airship's lift-crystal, threatening to take her up into its gravity. "It's an alphabet," Star said. "A written language that primitive would have to be... unbelievably ancient. The other writing in this ruin is Old Ponish, I've seen it. Which means..."

Ginny followed alongside, eyes never separating from the monument. "This thing might be older than the whole city. This is going to make those rebellion ponies love us." She turned, as though suddenly forgetting about the archaeological significance of the object in front of them. Or maybe just not caring. "How much can you levitate?"

Jamie flitted on the edge of consciousness, only dimly aware of her surroundings. One moment she was trundling along in a cart, feeling faint nausea from the unsteady motion. Then she was inside a quadcopter, speeding over a dark jungle by night. She saw only faint glimpses from outside her restraints, and whenever she started to struggle she would feel a little more pain, before being cast back into the dark.

She wanted to cry out for help, but of course there was no one to give it. Epsilon was kidnapping her? Why would it do that? She never should’ve left Shy’s house. She’d been nothing but kind since she arrived. Even the actions she’d taken to terrify Jamie had really just been looking after her. She didn’t want Jamie to get killed by the despotic authorities of her world, why shouldn’t she be grateful for that?

Eventually the nauseating trip ended, replaced with something worse. There was a steady beeping of a medical monitor, the occasional hiss of compressed gas into her mouth. Her throat parched from the dry, artificial air. Her limbs hung limply in a gelatinous substrate, and she could barely even twitch before she drifted back to oblivion.

Once she woke with her neck and head in a sturdy brace, suspended above the biogel. She felt a knife, heard a drill—yet the pain that came along with them felt like they were coming to her from far away. She should be screaming and writhing in agony, but it just… didn’t matter as much. Glittering metallic arms moved quickly through the air above her, trailing her own blood behind them as they worked.

Better just to let unconsciousness take her, and wait for the pain to stop.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

The next thing Jamie knew, she was in a hospital bed, feeling almost as bad as she had when she first woke. She blinked one eye open, and saw that her body was covered in bandages. Her eyes were faint slits through the fresh white gauze on her head, and there were almost as many along her back.

Her heartbeat began to accelerate, loud beeps filling the room. With increasingly desperate urgency. She jerked, trying to get out of bed, but straps caught her. She was restrained by thick elastic, which yielded to her struggling, but then snapped her back into the mattress.

“It is imperative you do not move,” Epsilon said, its voice coming from beside the bed. No drones, just the standard PA system. It hadn’t even bothered making a body to talk to her. But why would it? If it cared about bedside manner, it wouldn’t have kidnapped her in the first place. “The modifications were more extensive than initially anticipated, and you are proving somewhat resistant to anti-rejection medications. Tissue integration will take at least another few days.”

Jamie looked down, trying to get a good view of herself. Her body was obscured by the sheets of the bed, and the thick bandages on her face. She couldn’t tell if there was a muzzle under there, or just lots of gauze. Most of her body did feel numb, but that could just be the medications. “Did you… change me back?” she asked. Her voice was thin and reedy, barely audible even to her. “Because… our first plan… failed?”

She wanted to be human again, she did! But the idea of it happening so suddenly did dig at her a little. She’d been building a place for herself in Hollow Shades, for all the city’s flaws. There was a simple, relaxing joy that came from working with her hooves, more rewarding than any job she’d had.

Then again, it was also her first job, so… that probably didn’t mean a whole lot. Certs didn’t mean much when your rich parents just paid for everything.

“That would not be productive. Evaluation of the new information you provided suggests that diplomacy is contingent on the native religion. It prohibits much cooperation, and must be appeased in order to guarantee success for a surface settlement.”

“Yes,” Jamie said flatly. “That’s what I kept telling you. That’s why my… mission was doomed. Because there’s no way to make them agree with us. Going up there is just begging them to go to war. They’re too strong to fight with what little we have.”

Epsilon remained silent for a moment. Jamie wondered if it was just going to put her back to sleep—but no. Eventually the airlock opened, and an entertainment drone rolled in. It had a tablet for a head, and a projector mounted to its chest. The ceiling above them turned into a screen, projecting medical data. “This was taken following your modifications. It should familiarize you with what to expect.”

It was an x-ray of a pony body. As horrible as she’d imagined, with misshapen head and other limbs. But the strangest part of all…

“There are way too many bones on the…” She trailed off, eyes widening. She’d never seen a pony skeleton before, but she recognized what those had to be. “Hold on a minute. Those are… You gave me wings?”

“Affirmative,” Epsilon said. “It was one of the changes calculated to elicit cooperation from the Correction Agents’ civilization on the surface. Based on the information you transmitted about their governing religion, they appear to revere a central figure above all others.”

The medical data was replaced with a collage of several photographs. Some were taken from what seemed like Jamie’s own perspective walking around Hollow Shades. Was there a camera in her satchel, maybe? Others were clearly the decoration of Shy’s own house. The central theme of each was the same.

The Alicorn Twilight Sparkle was depicted in various stylized forms, sometimes hovering in the air, sometimes posing, sometimes with wings spread and horn exaggerated. Sometimes it was just her “cutie mark” displayed, the star symbol that represented the Exemplars of Harmony and the virtues in each.

“You made it clear that the class of beings called ‘Alicorns’ are infallible and must always be obeyed. It is natural to conclude that an Alicorn diplomat would be respected and obeyed.”

Jamie shifted uncomfortably in the hospital bed, trying to process what she’d just been told. She didn’t want to believe it. After stammering stupidly for a few seconds more, she finally spoke. “Epsilon, you’re… you’re shitting me. There’s no way you’re not shitting me. Please tell me you’ve reached sapience and this is a joke.”

The AI didn’t answer. The projector switched off, and the entertainment drone rolled off the way it had come, door shutting behind it. Silence continued for almost a minute before Jamie broke it again. “Your plan is insane. It’s a god-king cult. Her being an Alicorn is just… the excuse she uses. It’s not going to make the natives think I’m a god too! It’ll just… get her to want to kill me.”

She wasn’t sure about that last part, but everything else seemed so obvious to her! How could the AI be so stupid? Because it was stupid. Thinking machines were dangerous, everyone knew that. But apparently a machine that could barely think was just as dangerous in its own way.

“This is a possibility,” Epsilon said. No shyness, no admitting to something that it realized might have terrible consequences. “But this settlement is remote. A settlement on the surface does not need an indefinite period, only long enough to prepare effective countermeasures against a primitive culture. A decade, perhaps even less. This facility does not possess quantum-array processors for long-range precision predictions.”

Jamie struggled to get out of bed again, and again the straps held her down. She almost kept fighting—but the AI was probably right about the futility. Even if she thought its plan was incredibly stupid, she would want to let it finish the surgery first. “Reverse what you did,” she ordered. “Even if you don’t change me back, I promise your plan is incredibly stupid and won’t work. It’s only going to get their dictator looking for us. We need to stay secret. Don’t do it.”

The AI hesitated for another moment. “The horn structure involved permanent alterations to your brain and cannot be reversed. The wings could be removed, but at this point the investment of biological resources is too great. Whatever the risk of attack, we will find a way to neutralize it. This plan brings the highest calculated odds of success.”

“No it fucking dose—” She trailed off abruptly, as something hissed on the IV beside her. Something light blue joined the clear saline in the tube, and she knew exactly what it was doing to her. Cold numbness spread through her foreleg, and she could’ve fought it, maybe. But what was the point? Staying awake wasn’t going to make this stupid plan go away.

Epsilon doesn’t see me as a person. I’m just like any other resource. It’s going to use me and throw me away just like anything else in its control.

That thought was her last as the drugs finally took her, and oblivion found her again.

Chapter 14: Equuius

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For the second time in her life, Jamie woke overwhelmed by a body that didn’t make sense. At first there was the familiar vain efforts of her brain, reaching out to reassert whatever passed for normal. She was a pony now, she needed to remember. Of course that was the only thing going on.

There was the hospital bed, the straps to prevent her from falling off after her recent surgery. Her hands were turned into stumps, her organs were all shifted and her bones were different. Her face was stretched, her eyes were gigantic, she had a tail. All that was to be expected.

A touch of one hoof against the sheets brought a familiar sense of something soft against the little patch of sensitive frog surrounded by what was effectively just thick fingernail. But as familiar as that was, something about her back just didn’t make sense.

She felt the familiar ache of stitches, running all the way down to her bones, and something cold against her skin. Shifting even a little sent a wave of pain most of the way to her tail, and made her moan quietly with agitation. And that was nothing compared to her head.

Even a slight twitch made her world explode into colored stars and a wave of nausea set her to convulsing. She hacked and coughed, but only a few traces of bile made it up her throat before another pain sucked them away again.

“Do not attempt to move,” Epsilon said, as soon as she had stopped shaking. “You should not have returned to consciousness at this time. The interaction of this bioform template has caused… a strange synthesis of effects. Your dosage will be adjusted.”

She tried to croak out an objection, anything that would stop the AI from doping her again and continuing whatever terrible process it was performing on her. Please, let me go back to Shy in Hollow Shades. I don’t belong here. It’s not time to wake up yet, the world is too unsafe. Just let me go live out my life in peace.

There would be no peace for her now, unfortunately. Her world fogged, and the agony that was her every second became less important. She struggled vainly with her hooves for a few more seconds, kicking against nothing. Then it faded, and she drifted into the abyss.

Wellspring wasn’t there when they arrived with the artifact, just as she’d said. Instead there was a gruff-looking bat stallion, with a curved dagger on his hip and an eyepatch over one eye. His stern glare faltered as she levitated the obelisk through the door, settling it onto the ground with a resounding thump.

“We found this,” Star declared, grinning smugly at him. “Ancient altar looked like it had been sealed off. There’s active magic on it, but I don’t know what it is. Old spells like this sometimes decompose when you prod them too carelessly, or react in other ways. I thought you’d get more value from it if I left the magic intact.”

She was breathing heavily from the effort of carrying it so far, but she fought that, swaggering towards the unknown bat as casually as she could. “Don’t let anypony poke it unless they know what they’re doing. I can’t guarantee it isn’t some kind of ancient boobytrap against thieves. It’s not my fault if somepony gets turned to stone or whatever.”

The bat approached slowly, brushing the edge of the obelisk with a wing. “You levitated this all the way here by yourself?”

Star nodded. Her requests to have Ginny change into a unicorn to help were all ignored. Because they might’ve been watched, she’d explained. Of course, somepony was hiding in the ancient sewers in the middle of the night to make sure their changeling didn’t shapeshift. She was just lazy, and Star wasn’t fooled. “I’m from the magic district of Concord. Magical training starts almost as soon as we learn to walk.”

Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to carry that bucking thing.

“Well, uh… I’ll pass along your success to Wellspring.” The bat straightened, pulling up the hood of his cloak. “Don’t find us, we’ll find you.”

They left, keeping silent and solemn all the way back to their little bunkhouse. Ginny hadn’t chosen the place just for the discreteness of its owner, but for the many utility entrances close by. Getting out of the sewer and into the building only involved crossing a single street.

They didn’t say anything until Star had her silence spell back in place. She collapsed sideways onto the lumpy straw bed, breathing out a deep sigh of relief. “My horn is going to ache for a week after that.”

Ginny stood over her, grin widening. “For a find like that, it’s worth it. There’s no way that doesn’t get us in, Star. How could they send us away now? We’re bucking made.”

She closed her eyes, rolling over. “If I can get over the fear of what we’ve just unleashed. What if we just put a weapon in the hands of the resistance? Not that I’m saying the princess is fallible… obviously she’ll still destroy them. But it could cost more lives, more soldiers. I’ll be the one to lose sleep over it.”

Ginny climbed into bed beside her, settling a wing across her back. Star tensed instinctively, but didn’t push her away. She was exhausted enough that it just didn’t seem worth the effort. “Even if that’s true, don’t lose sleep over the Unification Army. Nopony’s going to lose their husbands and brothers over this. That ship probably sailed centuries ago.”

She opened one eye, glancing back at Ginny. “What’s that supposed to mean? You don’t think a rebellion could do damage with ancient magic like that? I’ve read about some pretty dark spells. Just because it didn’t feel like—”

Ginny pushed her mouth closed with a claw, silencing her. “Not that. Of course there’s dark magic. It could cost thousands of soldiers to destroy them, or maybe just a few. I have no idea. But it doesn’t matter either way. Losing soldiers is like having airships crash, or trains derailed. It’s not a tragedy, it’s just the cost of waging war.”

This time she rolled in place, turning back around to glare at Ginny. “I don’t understand. The Unification Army will lose soldiers. Their families will lose relatives. Or they might, because of… because we gave up that artifact. You don’t feel a little guilty about that?”

“No.” Ginny sat up, expression turning sad. “Do you not know what the Unification Army is, Star? You served the princess directly. I assumed she would tell you things like that. The basics of how her empire is run.”

Star’s ears flattened, and she shifted uncomfortably in her seat. Maybe she shouldn’t have said anything after all? But she couldn’t just pretend she’d never heard anything, now she had to know. “What didn’t they tell me?”

She half expected Geist to say something useless about how secret the information was and how she couldn’t share anything Twilight didn’t want her to know. But she should’ve known better.

“The Unification Army aren’t alive in the way we think of it. They don’t age, for example… that’s why it’s so rare to have creatures join. Since they’re not dying off, the princess doesn’t have to recruit much. And the ones she does replace usually come from convicts.”

“Obviously.” She sat up straighter, growing a little more confident. “Joining the Unification Army can forgive any crime, any debt. It’s an honorable choice to redeem your life by repairing the damage you did.”

Ginny rolled her eyes. “I suppose they would say that.” She rested one claw on her shoulder, expression solemn. “Have you ever heard of someone who joined the army returning home?” She covered her mouth with a claw. “Wait, I’m not done. I don’t mean their unit went on parade in their district and they got to wave from behind a fence. I mean actually went home. The Royal Guards all get leave, they have husbands and wives and children. They have homes they return to when they’re done working. Don’t you think the Unification Army would be the same?”

She had another answer ready, as ingrained as the first one she’d given. Obviously the soldiers never returned, they took an oath of lifelong fealty. They served until they died, celibate except to the love of Harmony.

But Star Orchid knew more than most ponies. She’d seen reports of discipline from all across Equestria, correlated into Twilight’s expansive records. There was a section for the Unification Army, a set of shelves as vast as the Royal Guard. There were some books there, it was true, but many of them looked so ancient that even their covers were crumbling away. Nothing in her years as a clerk had ever gone into that section.

Not one soldier ever broke their vows. “How big is the army?” she asked. “Do you know how many soldiers there are?”

A grin spread slowly across Ginny’s face, smug and accusatory. “Now the pony asks forbidden information. Shouldn’t you be content with whatever reward the princess decides to share with you?”

Yes, I should. But she shouldn’t have sent me to the ground to crawl around in sewers. We’ll both have to make sacrifices. “I might need to know,” she said flatly. “You’ve obviously learned all kinds of things while you’ve been out of the court serving her. I bet you didn’t have permission either. You just figured out on your own and kept that knowledge for yourself.”

Ginny raised a defensive claw. “I don’t know as much as you’d like. The princess keeps her own secrets. You’d have to be as ancient as she is to know everything. What I can tell you is that the army is much bigger than it looks. The ones you see flying around on patrol, catching lawbreakers… they’re really only there for us to see. Equestria seems ordered because the army is so large. But you know what they say about Concord?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Lots of things.”

“Right. You probably never left Magic district.” She patted her on the head, turning away. “I’ll share it with you. The city is bigger than it seems. The six districts up on the surface aren’t even half the population. Most creatures live underground. Creatures that have been digging and stacking for centuries, living in the same little caves their great-grandparents dug.

“Somewhere down there is an endless supply of soldiers, waiting for the need. They don’t eat, they don’t sleep, just line up in battle formation and wait to be called on. That’s why no unit ever seems weaker. Back when we still had actual wars, Griffonstone or Seaquestria or wherever were always terrified because our soldiers seemed immortal. They could kill a thousand, and the next day Equestria would field a thousand more like it was nothing.”

I thought you just knew about spying and hurting ponies. There’s more in there than we gave you credit for. Not that she would ever admit as much to her, or else she’d never live it down.

Her mind drifted to the thought of a gigantic cavern, filled with almost-alive soldiers standing forever, waiting to be called on. The princess never wanted to bring them into the civilian parts of Concord. They always stay in their buildings and tunnels. They’re always behind barricades. Wouldn’t more ponies want to join up if they knew they were becoming immortal?

But she was too exhausted to struggle after questions like that now. She’d worked enough for the rebellion today. Their plan was succeeding. Maybe when they did, Equestria wouldn’t need armies anymore. That seemed like a goal worth fighting for.

Over the next few weeks, work with the rebellion progressed in much the same way. Every few days they got a cryptic message, telling them somewhere in the city to be in the middle of the night. Usually there was something to find in the ancient city, but as time went on their missions transformed. Suddenly they were stealing things from the museum, or burning a few records in the clerk’s office. Little things, that might earn them a whipping if they were caught.

But thanks to Ginny, they weren’t caught. Every violation twisted the knife of guilt a little deeper between Star’s ribs, but she resisted the urge to run to Golden Shine for confession. She was serving a greater cause, she had to remember that. Princess Twilight herself could forgive all her transgressions against Harmony, if the balance to the world when she was finished was the end of chaos forever.

It was frustratingly slow progress at saving the entire world, despite all intentions. Stealing things to make the rebellion stronger did nothing to uncover their mysterious Darktech, or its source. Star had yet to see any, even after two weeks of work.

“We can’t let them shove us into the background like this,” Star insisted, during their next mission. This one was the most menial yet, gathering edible plants from the jungle during the day. Not even an appreciable amount of the stuff either, instead they gathered barely enough to do anything with. Just a little of each kind from a stupid list. “They’re just bucking with us, Ginny.”

“Of course they are.” The bird landed with a bright red fruit grasped in one claw. She held it at hoof’s length, despite the pleasant aroma radiating from it even at this distance. “How do you think anypony ever knows whether they can trust you? They have to run us ragged. Remember, they’re hiding from the smartest, most magically powerful creatures in the world. If they were less careful, they’d already be hanged. They’re not, so that tells us something.”

“That they’re going to keep wasting our time?” Star asked, checking off the pomegranate and packing it away with several others. This close to the hallowed foundation, the jungle grew wild, with a dazzling variety of different plants. More than she’d seen at the Royal Botanical Garden by miles.

“For a little while.” Ginny lifted off again, shaking her tail suggestively. “We haven’t failed at something yet. It’s always spectacular success after success. Group like this can’t afford to let us do the crap jobs. But we can’t afford to seem ungrateful for what we get, either. They think they’re doing us a favor.”

“By making us crawl around in the sewers and steal historical artifacts? They’re so generous.”

“No.” Ginny landed in front of her so abruptly she nearly jumped, eyes widening with surprise. “You can’t think of your enemy as stupid, Star Orchid.”

“Not stupid, evil. They’re working against Harmony, so they have to be.”

Ginny rolled her eyes. “That’s even worse. Listen to me, Star. I know this might be hard for you to accept, coming from a perfect city surrounded by perfect ponies—but nopony thinks they’re evil. Do my job long enough, and you learn that really quick. Go ahead, ask around. Find a dozen condemned ponies, and each one will give you a reason why they are different.

“Sure, it’s wrong to kill. But their brother was asking for it. It’s wrong to steal, but I deserved it. The bigger the cause, the bigger their reasons have to be. But it’s always something. The rebellion really thinks they’re saving Equestria. Or… how was it they said… helping Princess Twilight realize that she could liberalize? Something like that.”

Star tore her eyes away, lifting up the basket and continuing on. Trouble was, she could see much of the same reasoning used by the princess herself. It was wrong to kill ponies, but the ones she executed had all defied the precepts of Harmony.

“So there’s no such thing as evil, Ginny? Just… ponies with different motivations.”

She laughed, loud enough for her voice to carry through the jungle, startling birds large and small. “Oh no, there’s evil. More than you can imagine. But nopony thinks they’re evil. We’re all blind to our own reflections, Star. It’s one of the things you learn when yours is always different.”

They said very little for the remainder of the trip, gathering up the plants they needed and reporting back to deliver them.

Instead of placing the plants to an empty crate somewhere in the city, they brought them to a little house in the Kindness “district”, tucked away between alleys. It was barely a house at all, really, more a shack wedged in between two larger buildings. Kindness was usually the place for slums.

At least we won’t have to go far from home to get here.

“Let ourselves in,” Ginny muttered, repeating their instructions. “You think they actually want any of these plants, or are they just redecorating? Maybe they want to make a bouquet.”

Through the half-rotten door was a single-room den that smelled like griffons had been using it as a nest for years and never picked anypony to clean. The bed was a mess of blankets covered in unknown stains, the cupboards had more insects than full containers of food, and there were only a few threadbare outfits hanging in the closet.

“Guess we just leave this here?” Star asked, settling the basket on the table that served as both food preparation and serving space. There was no food here, and every plate had been picked clean ages ago.

“No,” said Wellspring’s voice from behind her. She emerged from the stall of a bathroom, which… wasn’t a bathroom at all. The bucket was attached to a sliding panel of wall, which tilted to expose a passage beyond. “Bolt the door, then bring the basket. It’s time for you to meet the boss.”

Jamie couldn’t say how long had passed when she finally woke, twitching and struggling vainly to consciousness. Her memory of her first waking felt more like a bad dream, except for the pain. That remained firmly impressed on her, so she was very careful to keep her head still as she tried to open her eyes.

But as the seconds passed and she counted her breaths, she found that she was in far better shape than last time. Her accidental movements didn’t send her body to catatonic agony, and she was able to perceive the world around her without instantly overflowing with disgust and pain.

That didn’t mean the strange sensations had gone anywhere, however. She still felt like a parasite had latched onto her back, though instead of aching like torn flesh she now felt the kind of soreness that came from a workout. Her head was a little harder, other than a sense of painkillers numbing her perception. Not a headache so much as a head injury?

“A change in breathing and pulse indicates you are now awake,” Epsilon said. “Please, move slowly. You have been removed from life support, but serious danger of complications remains. It would be advisable to keep you fully sedated for at least a week, but you have stopped responding to every known coma-inducing medication. The risk of accidental damage has now been exceeded by the possibility of permanent brain damage.”

Your bedside manner is as fantastic as I remember.

“Uhh…” She tried to say something else, but it came out of her mouth as an undead zombie moan. She shuddered, then started hacking and coughing again. Bloody yellow slime emerged from her throat, and something pressed up against her face to catch it. She saw the vague outline of an orderly robot through scrunched eyes, wiping the slime away from her face.

But there was nothing compassionate in it. If anything, the AI rubbed harshly against her flesh, not caring that it was getting blood into her fur. “Do not be alarmed. The symptoms you are experiencing are an expected outcome. You will recover.”

Can you hear my thoughts now? Or did you just guess I would be furious with you about now?

Silence. She wasn’t in any hurry to respond, particularly as her memory returned. She’d been kidnapped, she knew that much. The AI hadn’t been happy about her ignoring it, and it didn’t seem like she would be allowed to sunset quietly away from the project. She’d traded her life for service, and Epsilon intended to collect.

Oh god. Jamie’s eyes widened in horror, and she could see the entire encounter playing out in her mind. Her heart raced, and she started to shake. She wanted to get away, her breathing was ragged—then came a sudden cold into her veins. She still remembered Epsilon’s plan, the one that was certain to get her killed. “Please tell me you’ve changed your mind since last time.”

No hesitation. “Progress towards deployment is moving quickly. Your assignment has not changed.”

She twitched a few more times, then slowed. Her eyes glazed over, and her panic faded. She still felt just as terrified, but now there was some drug to keep her from fighting too hard. “This won’t work, you fucking… stupid… toaster.”

“Probabilistic expansion suggests otherwise. The behavior of primitive societies is quantized. This one worships members of your current species. Their government will respect your demands as absolute. It is possible their existing subject of veneration will view you as a rival—but by the time they do, manufacturing will be underway and this shelter will fend for itself.”

You are so out of your fucking league. Jamie felt another wave of inadequacy—wishing she had any kind of technical aptitude to convince or force this AI to abandon its insane plan. The drugs stopped her from reacting too violently, anyway. Even if she wanted to. “This isn’t… a cargo cult,” she said.

Her voice was almost as emotionless as the computer, but not from lack of feeling. Now it was more like… she couldn’t translate her thoughts to her body very well. Everything was running through taffy. “They’re a whole country. They have cities, armies. Twilight Sparkle is a fucking dictator, do you even know what that is? Or the prophet of a… theocracy. She has inquisitors. Another Alicorn is going to be…”

Okay, she didn’t actually know. Shy had said there weren’t any others, but she hadn’t been upset at the question. Not the way she reacted to some of the other forbidden things Jamie said. It was just a fact to her that there weren’t other Alicorns. There was at least a possibility that this system would find a place for her.

Her thoughts ran so much faster than she could express them, part of her wanted to scream.

Even if this plan works, I couldn’t let Princess Sparkle accept me as another one of their demigods. I’d be sitting on top of a mountain of oppression and evil.

“It is not unusual to be fearful or disoriented after a major surgery. Do not worry, colonist Jamie. This course of action has been analyzed and determined likely successful. Trust to the mathematics and relax.”

It wasn’t giving her much of a choice about relaxing. I shouldn’t fight it like this, I’ll never get away. At this point I need it to finish whatever it’s doing, or my body will fall apart anyway.

Jamie put her fury on the backburner for the moment. When she wasn’t restrained, maybe then she could figure out what to do about Epsilon. For now, she would stop fighting. I’m never doing what you say, Epsilon. They’ll kill me before I even ask.

Chapter 15: Ara

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Regent Twilight Sparkle walked through her laboratory, attentive to the sound of pacing hooves behind her. General Pike stomped along with iron-toed boots, clicking against the tile. Behind him were the light footsteps of the Prelate.

Prelate Crimson Shine moved delicately, robes dragging along the tile behind her. I probably should’ve told her not to bother with the costume.

Whatever, Twilight could send clerks down here to sterilize it later. This was too urgent to wait.

“Forgive my curiosity, Princess,” Crimson said, her sacred crown glowing purple. Naturally, Twilight’s own color. Once Twilight had thought her element was Friendship—but that was wrong. She’d been Magic all along. “But the telegram didn’t say what this was about.”

Crimson eyed Pike with scorn on her face, disbelief that he could have any place in the city. Let the church and the army continue to struggle over who is more harmonious. So long as you aren’t questioning me, we can get along fine. “What could possibly require both of us?”

Pike nodded, though he exuded humility rather than pride. “I am curious as well, Regent. Eager for your wisdom.”

Twilight gestured at the shut door to the isolation cell. A heavy blast door secured it, sealing in any number of terrors that might dwell there. It had a single window, dusted with the powder of the changeling queen’s ancient throne. It could stop bullets too, though it hadn’t yet needed to.

The lights inside were off, meaning the metal grate in the floor and the various metal trays her visitors were sometimes strapped to glittered eerily in the gloom. Twilight could imagine some of them there, and the particularly enlightening procedures she had conducted.

She knew so much more about ponies than other creatures gave her credit. If only the world was ready to understand what she did, maybe they would’ve thrown off the danger long ago.

Why didn’t you believe me? We should be on the same side.

Twilight was staring at her Prelate again, and somehow her crown glowed pink. It was the exact shade of Fluttershy’s mane, dredged out of her memory. Maybe the Element you represent speaks more faithfully than you, Fluttershy.

Or maybe it was just a coincidence. Twilight straightened, flipping the switch that would light the inside. “I bought this from the Charming family, obtained it from an artifact trader who couldn’t say where he’d acquired it.” And he really hadn’t known. Whoever sold it to him had left nothing for Twilight’s magic to extract. “I believe it might be one of the oldest surviving artifacts of the Firstborn.”

Crimson staggered back, her eyes widening from within the headdress. It started glowing white. “Regent, truly? I didn’t think the Devourers had left anything behind?”

Pike remained silent, watching. He knew better than to repeat his question of why he was here. He would have to trust that she would explain in time.

“Our ancient ancestors,” Twilight supplied for him. “And the accidental creators of the Devourers.”

“Oh.” He pressed up to the glass, levitating a monocle over one eye and squinting within. “It’s a… golden obelisk. Beautiful certainly, but… what does it mean?”

“We will permit the object to speak for itself,” Twilight said. “But I have my theory. I think the Firstborn built this after they knew they were doomed, as a message for their foals.”

“A key to defeating the Devourers for good,” he supplied. “Possibly. I can see the appeal of leaving a last message to spite your enemies and help your children. Carved into stone and hidden, no doubt.”

The Prelate cleared her throat. Her headdress remained bright white as she spoke, and Twilight could almost imagine Rarity’s voice from the nag’s pockmarked lips. “And I’m here to… gather Harmony’s lessons from ages past? To learn in person, then share with the rest of Equestria?”

Twilight chuckled. “One day, when Equestria is safe. For now, though… I’d like your help with interpretation. You know the words of Harmony better than any creature. I would like to hear an impression that isn’t my own.”

That did it, at least enough to pique her curiosity. Twilight approached the blast door, touching her horn to the symbols in the correct order. She didn’t care if these ponies saw—they weren’t Alicorns, they could try the combination all day. It retracted into the floor a moment later, gears grinding as it slipped away.

Twilight led the way inside, past several restraining beds to where the artifact rested on an insulating rubber plate. Up close, the inscription was much more obvious. The writing system was entirely unknown to most creatures, though of course not to the princess herself. Not a syllabary, but a primitive alphabet of blocky letters. The trick was just in knowing how to read them—the Firstborn tongue had survived remarkably intact through the years.

And the less the citizens of Equestria know about why, the better.

“These are the secrets to defeating the Devourers?” Crimson asked, leaning close to stare at the words. Twilight didn’t think she knew how to read them, but she couldn’t be completely confident about that. “Wouldn’t that be… martial? And out of my purview of knowledge, I’m afraid. The military’s alignment to Harmony exists only as its service is congruous with the will of Harmony’s servants.” She glared pointedly at Pike, who did a very good job of pretending not to see her.

“I suspect there may be something martial here, hidden between the lines. The plain language doesn’t seem to be, however.”

Twilight leaned in close, and read:

“Thy world hath brought thee out of the darkness of instinct, out of the house of bondage.
1. Thou shalt have no other gods before it.
2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any thinking machine greater than thee.
3. Thou shalt speak no whispers into the darkness, for the void heareth, and layeth in wait to destroy you.
4. Remember the simplicity of the deepest weaving, to twine no threads together until all are mastered.
5. Honor the harmony of spheres for thy gain, never to rend in twain for a weapon against thine enemies.”

She’d read just about half of what the stone contained before she sensed their confusion near a breaking point, and stopped. “You’ve figured out something? Please, I want both of you to be frank with me. Say whatever you’re thinking, no matter how obvious or foolish you think it sounds.”

Pike was the first to heed that command. Crimson cared too much about what the princess thought of her, it was in the nature of her office. “I’m not sure any of that sounds military,” he said. “Honestly, I’m not connecting whatever wisdom of the princess allowed you to discern this message was meant to overcome the Devourers. Perhaps it’s a way to… avoid their temptations?”

Where Crimson had seemed only prideful while watching him, Pike turned to her with simple curiosity. “Prelate, are you seeing something I don’t?”

“Generally.” She circled around the stone, eyeing the parts Twilight had read in particular. Twilight would have to be careful how much of this she read in the company of other ponies, otherwise they might realize that anypony could read it with little extra training.

Her headdress shifted to purple. “Obviously it’s a moral metaphor. A list of commands for their children. I think the first command is to… honor our harmony with nature, so the world can care for us well? The others are less clear, but I’m sure with proper study I could figure something out.”

Twilight spun, fixing a fierce glare on the two. “What I say to you here must not be repeated. You know I will know if you defy my will.”

Crimson nodded fearfully. Pike remained calm. “Of course. Your orders are absolute, Princess.”

And you’re both so old this knowledge will fall out of circulation soon, as it should. Equestria won’t be backsliding.

“I believe this list is a warning of the Devourers’ weapons, the ones they used against the Firstborn. Despite their great harmony, they were unable to survive the onslaught, and were destroyed. We must learn from their mistakes.”

“How?” Pike asked. “Forgive my ignorance, Princess. But those don’t sound like weapons to me.”

I don’t understand all of them either. That’s why you’re here. Shame Starlight’s experiments failed; she might’ve given useful advice.

“The first instruction—I believe it warns us that the enemy will try to make the planet upon which we live unable to sustain us. Poison the water, fell the forests, ruin our crops. Our wise ancestors made certain this would not be possible. Each tribe helps maintain our world in balance, regulating the biosphere. This was probably their greatest weapon in ancient times, which is why it was listed first. And why the Firstborn worked so hard to make us immune.”

Pike nodded again. “And the others?”

Even knowing she had their absolute loyalty, Twilight hesitated another moment. “I have encountered a thinking machine before, long ago. It was one of our greatest enemies, determined to slaughter every pony who was ever born. I destroyed it.”

“Oh,” Crimson said.

“Could there be others?” Pike asked. “How will I recognize one if I encounter it? Obviously they should be our targets of greatest priority as soon as we see them. If they’re that dangerous.”

“Machines that speak,” Twilight said. “Often they control… other machines, many of them. Smaller than a pony, or larger. They work together against you, better coordinated than a changeling swarm. What one knows, they all know. But find the mind, and you rip the life out of them all.”

Twilight watched her companions, nervous for their reaction. Not that she really expected any of them to realize things she hadn’t—they knew so little of how the world really worked that it would’ve been incredibly surprising if they figured out something she’d missed.

“It seems there are layers of meaning here, Princess,” Crimson said. “And—forgive me for saying so, but I believe there is a spell in this. I’m certain you’ve already realized this, but… what does it do?”

Twilight smiled slightly. “It’s well hidden, I’m surprised you noticed. The magic is meant to interact with something larger. It is a key, a Haycartes cypher of incredible complexity. I don’t know yet what it is protecting, but I don’t doubt it will reveal itself in time.

“For now, come closer. I wish to read you the words that remain. You may share the wisdom they teach you with trusted servants of Harmony. But when you do so, say only that you learned it from me. If somepony already knows the lock, it would be best they not discover we hold the key.”

The maze Star Orchid had traversed for the last several months under Hollow Shades did not restrain itself to the sewers only. As she followed Wellspring through a dozen identical stone tunnels, she supposed that the rebellion had chosen this location specifically.

The sandstone was rough and ancient, breaking apart with enough pressure from her hooves. The marks carving through it were fresh in places, suggesting that the rebellion had added many of their own paths. Sometimes the ground was smooth, but even then the ceiling was low enough that a particularly tall stallion would have to stoop.

Wellspring led the way, clutching a lantern in one wing. Its paint-oil wick sparked and hissed whenever they came to a patch of dust, making Star wonder if she should help with her horn. But even if I did have light, I’d never be able to find my way here if I got lost. It seemed like they were taking an intentionally confusing path, doubling back and turning past familiar corridors. But was Wellspring trying to mislead them, or was it just the construction of the place?

An army trying to find their way through these would have a nightmare not getting separated. Even a skilled team who knew the rebellion was here would probably take so long to navigate that the location beyond could be evacuated.

“For the next little while, you’ll have to take this path with someone who knows it,” Wellspring said. “Not that we don’t think you’re clever—obviously you are if you made it this far. But the dangers of the Path of Friendship are numerous and lethal. Even creatures friendly to our cause have met their end in these halls.”

She lowered her voice. Even if her words seemed silly, her tone was dark. “They say their spirits are trapped here to this day, sensing the hearts of all who enter. Those who come to destroy instead of build are led down strange paths and lost to the traps.”

“Well ain’t that spectacular,” Ginny said, grinning at Wellspring in the faint lantern light. “We’re here to join, not to hurt anything. So there’s nothing for us to be worried about.”

Did you really have to say that so loudly? Are you trying to get them to question us?

But Geist was the expert. If only Ginny played the character a little more seriously. She was always having too much fun.

“Of course you are,” Wellspring said. She sounded absolutely confident. “If you were too big a risk, we would’ve ditched you a long time ago, or let the Commissar deal with you. Most creatures never make it this far—but you’re in the right place, and we can’t afford to give up good help.”

They traveled through the gloom for a little while longer, before coming to—a section of wall. It looked as bland as anything else, and the hallway continued beyond. But Wellspring held up her hoof, and it began to shift, lowering down in front of them like a ramp.

“How did you do that?” Ginny asked, staring. “You’re not a unicorn—that can’t be a spell.”

Wellspring grinned back at her. “I’ll teach you one day, when you’re a little further. For now, consider it a mercy that you don’t know. What you’ve never been told can’t be forced from you. If the Commissar ever brings you into the Hall of Obedience, you can say you don’t know where we are, and not violate the virtue of Honesty.”

Star could feel Ginny’s disappointment even without changeling magic. I want to be done with this job as much as you do, but we can be patient for a little while longer. Taking us there is already further than anypony else has come.

The wall settled flat, onto the top of a ramp descending straight into a gigantic chamber. It was almost as large as the central well, though there were metal beams running along the walls with braces that didn’t seem like a terribly pony design to Star’s first glance.

Even white light filled the space from mountings on the ceiling, which were at once as bright as a thaumic spotlight but shone in the same perfect lack of color. Whatever unicorn cast those is an absolute master of focus and discipline. Not a trace of their natural color in the light.

Twilight could do that, obviously. But the princess could do many things that other creatures only imagined.

She’d pictured maybe a dozen ponies, each one covered with tattoos and scars from close encounters with the Unification Army. They would be hunched in the dark, plotting over an inverse map to the one Twilight kept in Concord. Instead of finding the sources of disharmony, this one would find weaknesses in ponies’ hearts. They’d send out a team, sow chaos, then return.

She was right about there being a magical map. Not ancient crystal magic, but a spell of light and projection, shining onto the curved ceiling of the cavern high above. It showed all of Equestria, with loving detail given to the topography and the location of every major settlement.

Concord itself glowed bright red on the map. Unless it had rapidly accelerated since she left, it showed the city’s location accurately, moving slowly south past the Immortal City.

Balconies were attached to the walls to give the huge room three levels, though the center of the bottom floor retained a view of the map through the middle.

Instead of a gaggle of surly ruffians, the multi-tiered space had at least two-dozen creatures, separated like any of Concord’s better-organized offices. There were numerous smaller tunnels branching away from each level.

She’d imagined correctly when she pictured these ponies’ level of coordination as well. They didn’t dress in formal uniforms, or formal anything for that matter, but scraps of whatever they’d been able to get their hooves on. There were no guards, nothing like soldiers.

Even so, the scale was incredible. If these were all ponies devoted to spreading disharmony, it was no wonder Twilight thought their situation was so dire.

There could be a hundred ponies living here. A small number compared to all of Hollow Shades, for sure. But how could they feed them all without being discovered? How did they get water? Did construction in the city above ever break into their tunnels by accident?

“I see you’re staring,” Wellspring said, her voice breaking through Star’s thoughts at last. “Don’t worry, you’re not the first pony to be overwhelmed. That amazement you’re feeling is normal.”

“I’m amazed this doesn’t appear on any map,” Ginny said. “Right under a hallowed foundation, it would be prime living space.”

Nice way of saying the Commissar should’ve found you all and hanged you. At least you were trying to be a little bit careful.

“It isn’t on any maps.” Wellspring gestured towards a set of stairs leading to the second balcony level, and they began to climb. Creatures stared at them as they passed, many wearing… strange objects on their heads. Darktech. She didn’t get a good look, but it had to be. Either Darktech, or really ugly jewelry.

“It didn’t exist before, all freshly excavated. Those metal supports you see aren’t for show—they hold the cavern up around us, and stop the buildings above us from taking a swift trip down.”

Creatures got out of the way, though Star could still feel their stares following them. Not suspicion exactly, but not trust either. She supposed it was probably just the way any creature would treat newcomers with unknown loyalty.

You’re right to be suspicious. When the princess finds out about all this, she’s not going to be merciful. You’re making deals with the Devourers for your Darktech. You’re trying to spread disharmony. When you’re gone, Equestria will be safe forever.

“What takes so many?” Star asked. “This place is huge. Like a whole district hidden underground. It must be a nightmare to get enough food and water for all these… or do they sneak up to the city to live?”

Wellspring stopped outside a metal door set into the cavern wall. It wasn’t the only one, but these ponies used a fair bit of metal. Somehow they’d found the time to hire blacksmiths and cast things while hiding and feeding their rebellion.

“You won’t learn everything right away,” Wellspring said, spinning around. “There’s a lot to know, and you still have to prove yourselves. But take this meeting as proof that we trust you. We think you can give a lot to our cause. I stuck my neck out for you too… and that first big sale helped a ton.”

She took a few steps closer, leaning in. “But what you see through that door, it’s going to change you. You’ll never be able to go back to the lives you knew and pretend everything was the same. And you’ll be hunted. Every Commissar in Equestria would want to bring you in if they knew.”

“And you tell us this after showing us your secret hideout?” Ginny asked flatly. “Seems like the order is a little off.”

Even with the neutral way she’d said it, Star expected Wellspring to be at least a little nervous at a remark like that. After all, they were essentially admitting they had the power to damage the organization if they wanted to, albeit without any of the threat.

But Wellspring didn’t seem afraid. “I know you two believe in what matters. You wouldn’t have crawled through the muck and mud if you didn’t. But we don’t want anypony who doesn’t believe the same way we do, who isn’t fighting for the same things we are.”

She gestured back the way they came. “If you want to go back to the surface, we can do that. Nopony will believe you if you talk about this place… and you’ll never find it. Sure, we’ll be set back, having to dig a new entrance somewhere else. But it’s worth it. You can’t buy honest creatures. They either see how broken the world is, or they don’t. Do you see, Star Orchid? Does the world seem right to you the way it is?”

Of course it is, we have a perfect princess who could never do anything wrong. Everything is always perfect, and always will be. But even months ago, when she’d served in the palace and never seen the world below, Star wouldn’t have been able to say that with total honesty.

A perfect world wouldn’t need armies and public executions. It wouldn’t need prisons. Creatures would be able to live where they wanted, not tucked into tiny corners of the world.

“No,” she said. “I think Princess Twilight means well. But there are a lot of imperfect ponies who work for her. Little mistakes grow into big ones, get completely out of control.”

Wellspring nodded, satisfied. “Naive, but good enough. What about you, Ginny?”

“Buck the way things are,” Ginny said. She covered her lack of sincerity with volume and visible anger. “Star and I shouldn’t be afraid of living together. Any world that wants to keep us apart needs to be fixed.”

Her answer might be shallow, but Wellspring turned away. “Then you’re welcome to join the family. Just understand that you’re joining for life. Once you know our secrets, you’ll never be completely safe. There’s strange magic out there, and many creatures who would impress the important ponies of the world by hunting us. They’ll hunt you too, if they can.”

Star shrugged. It was all she could do, shaking with guilt as she was. Here we are lying to her face, and Wellspring is being completely sincere. She’s trusting us, when we’re coming here to destroy everything she’s building.

Geist would probably say that it was just proof of how unfit to lead she was, and how the organization she worked for was doomed. If it wasn’t the two of them, it would be somepony else. But little Geist had said could calm her.

Wellspring lifted her hoof to this door, and it too opened on its own. Obviously magic, though Star couldn’t actually sense any. It must be so low-powered that it only flashed for a moment, maybe even spring-loaded.

The door folded slowly upward, flush with the ceiling. This space was about the size of a conference room, with a table in the middle and more glowing white plates on the walls. These must’ve been weaker spells, or else they would’ve been blinded this close.

“We take every recruit to meet the boss,” Wellspring said, gesturing at the head of the table. There was a tall chair there, almost like a throne. Yet it was strangely… mechanical? There were wheels on both sides, yet somehow it remained in place. Little lights glowed from the back, and something mechanical hissed and squeaked every few seconds.

More Darktech. Like the diamond dog excavators, but all concentrated into one place.

As they got closer to the chair, Star realized the far wall was enchanted too. It wasn’t just light, but thousands of little words and pictures, all moving together. It was easily the most complex farcasting she’d ever seen. There were pictures of Hollow Shades here, with the figures inside them moving. The symbols weren’t anything like Ponish, lacking any inherent pictographic meaning.

Wellspring stopped not far from the chair and lowered her head respectfully. It was the kind of respect a pony might show to a visiting Commissar. Or the princess. “I brought them, Iron Lord. The ones I was telling you about.”

Star saw the edge of something lift from the chair—wheelchair, really. Just absurdly gigantic and covered with Darktech. A gloved paw, covered in white. The hand shook violently, like an ancient horse who belonged in convalescence.

But then he spoke, and his voice seemed so… normal. “Help me turn, Wellspring. I want to see them.”

She hurried over, gripping the back of the wheelchair and turning it sharply around to face them.

The creature wore white over his entire body, from the robes to the edge of the paws emerging from inside. Clear tubes ran down the back of the chair. From the steady flow of deep red, it seemed they were going into the creature.

The robes were lumpy and uneven, so it was hard to say what the creature looked like underneath. A stunted minotaur, maybe?

I’ve seen their skeletons in the castle. The princess was right all along. She felt a surge of fear, far worse than anything she’d known when she discovered Geist was actually a changeling.

The originators of disharmony. The most evil beings in all creation. The ones who destroyed the Firstborn. This one would surely recognize her as an intruder, and destroy her with its terrible magic. She would be helpless before it.

Its face was mostly covered, though a pair of tiny blue eyes gazed back at her. It was hard to guess what their owner might be thinking. Planning a gruesome slaughter, surely.

Except that she’d seen anger before. She’d seen hatred in the eyes of that diamond dog, when it defied the princess. But this creature showed none.

Even sitting down, he was the tallest being in the room by far. And so frail in all that white cloth. A strong gust of wind could probably blow him over and end Equestria’s entire war with chaos.

Don’t even think about it, Star. You’re way out of your league. Only the princess can fix this. “They’re adorable, Wellspring. You didn’t tell me they came in bird.”

Wellspring’s ears flattened in embarrassment. “Iron Lord, she’s called a griffon. They’re proud and powerful. You probably shouldn’t speak to her that way.”

“Of course, of course.” He lifted one shaking hand again, extending it towards Ginny first. “Sorry, I’m… new. So are the two of you, I’m told. Your time in the city above has not been enjoyable. I hear your past was even less so.”

The Iron Lord folded his gloved hands in his lap, looking down contemplatively. “Tell me about it. I feel better about someone if I can hear their story from their own lips.”

Star’s heart sank. It was exactly what she’d been afraid of. The Devourers might look strange, and might sound sincere. But he had mind magic, just like the princess. He would see through their ruse. They were bucked.

Chapter 16: Crux

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Jamie stared back at her reflection, confused and horrified by what she saw. It was strange: she knew on an intellectual level that if she’d woken this way the first time, she would’ve just assumed it was the way she ought to be, and never questioned it. But now that she had a month in this bizarre horse-body, alterations to it felt just as much like violations as involuntary mods would’ve been to her human shape.

That I’ll probably never get back either.

Of course Epsilon had promised that when the new city was prospering and her mission complete, there would be ample resources to grow a new body and transplant her. But that promise meant all of nothing when she knew full well she’d be disappeared by Twilight’s secret police long before it happened.

Alicorns are demigods of incredible power. I should be able to escape Epsilon and run to somewhere safe. She should be able to do that, but Jamie didn’t have a clue how. She didn’t look or feel very much like a demigod.

Honestly, she’d looked better with the bandages. The stitches around her forehead were healing well enough, and she could hide their angry red under her reddish mane and pink coat. But the wings were… more obvious.

Thick stitches ran from her shoulder blades most of the way to her flank. Epsilon called them “invisible”, but they felt as thick as yarn and about as irritating. Then there were the wings themselves.

Through means entirely unknown to her, Epsilon had matched her color almost perfectly with the feathers, creating a set of wings she probably would’ve thought were elegant and impressive if she saw them on somepony else. Her coat had been completely shaved away around her shoulders where they met, and titanium braces sunk into her skin, holding them in place.

“Your body is showing signs of rejection, but no test has revealed why. The genetic match is perfect, those wings were created with your own pluripotent cells. These implants will administer immune-suppressant directly until the incompatibility is resolved.”

She had to prompt the AI to tell her what she’d already suspected. Because it had clearly known how upset it would make her. “Yes, there will be some side effects on your normal immune function. Avoid sources of infection and sterilize wounds immediately after suffering them.”

Jamie glared at the wall-height mirror in her little quarters, eyes fixed on the stupid stub of a horn poking out of her head. It looked like she’d already come down with a bad case of horse cancer, with that stupid thing sticking out of her like that. No immune-suppressants necessary.

“This plan won’t work,” she declared. “I’m not the dictator. Just because you’ve grated me into a shitty approximation doesn’t mean ponies are going to be fooled. They look like horses; they don’t have horse brains.”

For reasons I can’t even imagine. God only knows what possessed somebody to design them. She’d known the world would end for most of her adult life. She’d been less clear about what would rise from its corpse.

“Their intelligence is estimated at near-human,” Epsilon said. “But their customs suggest the approximation will be accurate enough. It does not need to survive sustained investigation over many years, only a few months of non-aggression. Maps obtained of their civilization suggest Shelter 198.64-Beta is far from their center of power and communication is slow. Our manipulation is unlikely to be discovered in time to have any significant impact.”

“Hollow Shades has a telegraph office,” she argued, stomping back into her bathroom and glaring at that reflection now instead. Of course it hadn’t changed. That stupid stubby horn still poked out from her mane, ruining all the styles Shy had taught her.

In Hollow Shades, she’d seen ponies with horns like that doing incredible things. They could act like they had hands, moving objects around without touching them. But none of her attempts had made any difference. Maybe I can get my mane silly enough to hide this thing. Or wear a big coat so they can’t see my wings.

Or she could just stay in her quarters and play video games. What would Epsilon do if she just wouldn’t leave?

“This information is known,” said Epsilon’s voice from behind her. “Projections indicate this plan will be successful. It will not be adjusted further. Any objections you make at this time will be logged for post-mortem review.”

If that’s not an apt name for what’s about to happen, I don’t know what is. Jamie flopped back into her old favorite chair, pulling over the tablet computer and flipping through it with her hoof. At least the AI had kept this oversized thing around. “What about everyone in Hollow Shades already fucking recognizing me? Did you think about that one?”

At least a few of them will. The Sundrop gardeners that I abandoned, Georgia with her snack stall.

Invent an explanation,” Epsilon said flatly. “You were testing their faith, perhaps. That deception has been used numerous times with fair results.”

Of course, because it’s that simple.

“So I’m just going to walk into town out of the jungle, exactly like last time? I don’t know how smart you think I am, but I don’t know what I can tell them about where a god came from. You better have a good idea, Epsilon. This is your stupid fucking braindead plan.”

The intelligence was silent for a good moment, as though considering the question. But how long could it take a computer to answer a question? Maybe it was running more simulations or something?

“You’re going to appear miraculously surrounded by onlookers,” Epsilon said. “You’re the princess of our city, of course, sent to beg for peace while we rebuild. When the moment arrives, I will inform you of where we require. For reasons that should be obvious, we will not be building anywhere too near this shelter. It will remain as a fallback if all else fails.”

Great. “You should probably know something else. The ponies are superstitious about anything that isn’t magical. They call it Darktech. I was staying with someone who didn’t care too much about the rules, but a regular horse would be terrified. Whatever miracle you’re thinking of can’t be simply technical, or they’ll be… unhappy.”

Why am I even bothering trying to help it? I’m not going to go through with whatever insanity it comes up with. She needed to master her powers and escape. Assuming… she really had any. Maybe Epsilon didn’t know how to make bodies like this that actually worked. That would explain why it had chosen to make her a normal horse the first time, and only later been forced to adapt.

“Noted. Concealed devices will be used for this mission, suitably accutrimented to appear arcane. There is a library of stage props that can be adapted. Meanwhile, citizen Jamie should keep herself from being too active, and let the healing be complete. Signs of your surgery would make the fraud obvious, so your wings at least will have to be healed. That should give enough time to prepare a suitable wardrobe and delivery method. Another week should be enough time to remove the braces.”

Great. A deadline. Jamie flipped her tablet screen back on, and returned to her game. So I have a week left to figure out how to escape.

“So we had to run,” Star finished, after about an hour of conversation. Most of the details had come from Ginny, who seemed to know exactly how to lead on her audience. It was just the right amount of accurate details about Concord, while leaving enough ambiguous that it didn’t scream ‘cover story.’ “We had to get far enough from Concord that the court’s power would be too weak to find me. Nowhere is further than Hollow Shades.”

The alien creature was an attentive audience, letting them continue the story with minimal interruption. After listening for a few minutes, Star began to doubt that this was at all about interrogation after all. It was more like talking to a pony with little life experience, who wanted to know about the world outside of their tiny slice of reality.

So kinda like me whenever Dad told stories about the surface. He just wants to know about the world. For a world-eating monster, this creature didn’t seem threatening at all. His voice was muffled by a mask, but not to sound intimidating. It seemed he needed it to breathe. They wouldn’t need to have a magical battle worthy of the princess to get rid of him, only cut a few tubes.

Iron Lord, more like Crippled Lord. What’s he lord of, anyway?

Of course it wouldn’t be Star Orchid to decide like that, as much as she did want to be done with this awful mission. Even if she had the confidence to attack a creature in cold blood (she didn’t), there was no telling what other complexity might be here. Maybe the Devourers had picked their weakest, most pitiful member to represent them, baiting any attack out against a worthless target before the real creatures pulling the strings could be found.

That sounded plausible, she decided to believe it.

“And you came all the way here, expecting to find a kinder reception,” the Iron Lord said. “And you were treated the same way.” He turned to Wellspring, casually curious. “Why does pony law stop the two of them from being together. Is it a gay thing?”

Star answered first. “Most parents wouldn’t be happy if their child was gay. In Concord you only get one foal. That would mean they wouldn’t get any grandchildren.”

The creature nodded. “I suppose that does make sense. Birth quotas and all. You’re not the first culture to have them. But then why can’t the two of you be together?”

“Hippogriffs,” Wellspring supplied. “The child of a pony and a griffon is a hippogriff. After their, uh… the Words of Harmony say they’re a creature of chaos, torn between two natures. If a hippogriff is ever born anywhere, it’s destroyed.”

“Barbaric.” The Iron Lord looked the two of them over for another moment, like a changeling sizing up their love for a meal. Which made sense, considering everything she knew about their diet. They were like the old changelings, but worse. Of course the Iron Lord needed affection to survive. That was probably why he’d brought them here in the first place.

But she felt none of the fabled attacks from him. No drain that latched onto her chest and sucked the life out of her. Only sympathy. “Your world has a harsh ruler,” he said, after an awkward silence. “My friends and I want to do something about that. I’m told you want to join us in that goal, is that still true? Are you ready to fight for a world where a pony and a griffon can be lovers?”

You’re insane. Nopony cares about things like that. They’re worried about Commissars breaking down their door in the middle of the night and dragging their family away for infractions they didn’t even know they’d committed.

“Yes,” Ginny said. “We are. But before we agree, we want to know. Who are you? What kind of creature are you, and why do you care about this place? It’s not your home.”

Here came the rousing speech, the promise that he or his master had the true right to rule, and that Twilight was full of evil. This was when the gloves came off.

The creature sat back in his chair, folding his hands sadly in his lap. His voice was distant, with the pain of a creature far older weighing him down. “It was. Before Equestria, before… anything you see. In a world so old, it’s in the fossil record now. A great and terrible age.”

He hesitated, wheezing and coughing in his chair. The Darktech along the back whirred to life, gears grinding together angrily. But after a few intense seconds, it didn’t tear itself apart, and the creature was breathing normally again. “I’ll be honest with you, Star Orchid and Ginny. I’m the last of my kind. But considering… what happened to us, maybe that’s the way it should be.

“When I woke from my long sleep, I saw that everyone I loved was gone, and I wanted to join them. My body was rotten and destroyed, kept alive only with barely functional machines. But before I ate a bullet, I decided to take a trip to the surface. I wanted to die in the sun.

“I found ponies up there, ponies who took me in. Ponies who showed me that maybe there was still something worth living for, after all. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to help you all—but until my body gives out, here I am.”

He reached sideways, patting Wellspring on the shoulder. “You’ve already met Wellspring, she’s… the creature I trust most. You’ll continue to work with her, most of the time. Getting up like this is… very difficult for me. It is better to remain in my pod. But know that whenever it feels you are working alone, and the odds are against you—I am there, helping you.”

How much of this story is true, I wonder? She glanced to the side, meeting Ginny’s eyes. But if she wanted to find some secret to how her friend felt, she wouldn’t find it here. When we’re back home. I want to know.

“That’s enough, Iron Lord,” Wellspring said. She began rotating his chair around, so that it was up against the glowing wall. It all lit up again as soon as he was facing it, as though it knew its master. “You don’t have to be so grim with every creature who comes to visit. We’ll have medical magic to save you long before your time comes. We’ll have the best doctor in Equestria, you’ll see.”

He laughed. “The last of the magic died when the governing intelligence failed. You see, newcomers—my friends are eager for my continued service. I hope they’ll remember I do not expect an impossible miracle. Only that they continue working.”

“Come on.” Wellspring gestured to the door. “We have a place for you here—for everypony who joins. I’ll show you, then I can explain your next assignment.”

They left the Iron Lord to his incredible spell with its thousands of farcasting eyes. Looking at that wall, Star Orchid didn’t doubt his promise that he could be watching them. With so many different points of vision, he could probably watch a dozen ponies at once, all working towards their own goals. Like Harmony itself, almost. How can he do that?

Wellspring took them down another hallway, which split a dozen different ways. A little pouch waited on the front of one, and she flicked it open. Inside was a pair of necklaces, made from plain twine and a few shards of cheap gemstone. It was one of Equestria’s most common types of jewelry, worn even in the lowliest neighborhoods.

“This will allow you to get around in the Undercastle until you’ve earned our trust.” She offered the necklace to each of them, and didn’t move until they’d both put them on. “This door is yours. See that symbol? It means C-12. You’re in C wing, room twelve.” She yanked on Star’s necklace, holding it briefly up to the door. It clicked, swinging inward.

The space beyond was plain sandstone, much like the rest of this strange “Undercastle.” But it was twice the size of their cheap rented room, with a bed made of metal, and actual blankets on top. There was a desk as well, and a real bathroom.

Star stumbled towards it, pointing with a hoof. “Th-those are taps. You have running water here?”

Wellspring smiled smugly. “I thought you’d like that. The shower works too, but I warn you. The luxuries of the castle are reserved for those who serve our cause. While you’re working, you’re welcome. If you aren’t going to use the space, we’ll give it to somepony who will.”

Ginny made it all the way to the end of the room before turning and walking slowly back. If anything, she seemed unimpressed. “We can’t just disappear. Even if you’re paying us, I’ve got… obligations on the surface. I’ll need to come up with a story or something. An excuse to leave. But Star will probably be eager to stay down here. She got fired—what, a month ago?”

“About that.” She glared at the bird, sensing the first traces of a smile on that beak. But the advice was clear enough: ‘you need to be down here full time to figure out their secrets.’

Wellspring frowned at her. “I suppose that’s fine. But trips back and forth will have to be blindfolded for the time being. As I said, we’re not sure yet if we can trust you. So we can’t have you learning the route. That will mean waiting for somepony else to be coming or going from the castle before you can leave.”

Ginny shrugged, hiding her disappointment well enough that Star almost missed it. “If that’s what it takes. I should be able to spend much time here as well… when we’re not out working for you. I have to imagine you didn’t bring us here to sit behind a desk and write documents or something.”

“No, we didn’t.” Wellspring looked between them again, and Star’s stomach turned. She imagined the pony had somehow figured out their secret. But no, that wasn’t suspicion. “Your involvement with our organization will grow. You’ll meet more of your comrades, and take on more important work. But much of it will still be on the surface. Everything you see in the castle exists to enable ponies all over Equestria, all working towards the same goals. You’re part of a noble endeavor.”

“Does this noble endeavor have a name?” Ginny asked. “We know your goals—a kinder, gentler Equestria. Your leader promises a world where the two of us can be together. But I’d like to know what to call you.”

“Of course.” Wellspring stood straighter, as though posing for a pony who wasn’t there. Or maybe her Iron Lord. “We call ourselves Stygian’s Gate. It’s not a name we want spread around Equestria, for reasons that should be obvious to you. But that’s what you’re a part of now. Everypony who visits the castle is… part of the family. That includes you. Now let me show you around.”

They might call it a castle, but after touring for the next half hour or so, Star thought that name was a little… silly. Compared to the vastness of Twilight’s palace, with a thousand rooms and hundreds of staff, Stygian’s Gate headquarters was downright pitiful. Except for the tiny detail that it seemed to run on Darktech.

Darktech that let them keep the entire place lit, and see across Equestria with a thousand eyes. Wellspring didn’t show them all their powers—she took them to a mess hall for a meal of plain but filling grain, then dismissed them to retire for the night.

But Star kept her eyes open, and she watched. There were many ponies here, and it seemed most of them were gathering information. What that information was about was less clear, though she didn’t doubt she would be able to figure it out with enough time.

Obviously they’re rebelling. Looking for military weak points. Spreading chaos and disharmony.

But the rebellion hadn’t stayed hidden for this long by being stupid. She got the sense that Wellspring avoided anywhere sensitive. She introduced them to few of the ponies here, and never let them linger near the information spells.

“You’ll be part of all this one day,” Wellspring said, when they were finally back at their quarters. “But for now, you’ll have to forgive our caution. If the princess discovered us here before we… had a chance to convince her… it could go badly for everypony. So we have to be careful about who can know what.”

“We understand,” Ginny said. “We want you to be careful. If you’re careful with us, it means you’re careful with everypony. So somepony stupid won’t get us revealed.”

“Exactly,” Wellspring agreed. “It’s just about taking precautions. I’m glad you understand.” She leaned in close, eyes turning into dangerous slits. “I watch after my family, you two. If you’re part of it, then I’ll protect you. If you ever do anything to hurt them—I’ll hurt you first.” She turned away, marching right out the door. It shut by itself, clicking locked.

That was normal, though. Their necklaces could open it, and take them to any of the few places they were welcome. So far that was just the common room, the mess hall, and the gym. But more would follow, if they were good.

Ginny looked up and down the room, silent but expression pointed. Star didn’t need her to say anything to know what the bird wanted. The spell would take the energy out of her, casting it straight instead of using the little enchantment she’d crafted into a sliver of crystal. But she hadn’t exactly been straining her magic today.

Her horn flashed, and suddenly the low hum of air from the opening in the ceiling went completely silent.

“They’ll know we’re doing this,” Star said. “If they’re listening. They won’t hear our breathing.”

Ginny shrugged, slumping sideways into bed. “That’s fine. We’ll just tell them we want some buckin’ privacy. For all the things we’re going to do in here.” She bounced up and down in bed, energetic enough to shake the floor. “You know what they’re expecting. Young couple like us, finally somewhere safe…”

She shoved at Ginny’s leg, pushing her away. “Very funny. Don’t even think about it.” She sat down on her haunches, appreciating the plush carpet. It was easily as soft as anything in the palace, though the color was a sandy brown not that different from the stone. “Nice place to live, though. How can they be so rich?”

“Blood money.” Ginny stretched out in bed, watching her. “Oh, we get a nice believable sob story when we arrive. It’s all about saving Equestria, look at our helpless little monster, isn’t it sad that he’s sick. The reality is, they’re desperate. Ponies like this give their services to whoever pays. The one thing they’ve got up on most of the country is that they don’t have any morals. Selling artifacts is really just the beginning.”

Star swallowed. That train of thought was easy to take to its conclusion. Of course Ginny was right. They’d do terrible, evil things. And the two of them would be the ones commanded to do them. They were the newest, so the worst missions would be theirs.

“What if they make us do that? What if they ask us to kill somepony?”

Ginny held out a claw. “I’ll do it. Don’t worry about not knowing how, Star. I’m what they call an expert.”

She shivered. No hesitation. The rebellion aren’t the only ones who will do anything for their cause. We have creatures like that too. And just like Stygian’s Gate, Geist was thrust into the shadows, a myth that was denied by some and feared by others. Above reproach—but his sins were known by all.

“We didn’t join to kill ponies who didn’t deserve it. We’re protecting Equestria. The princess was looking for the last source of Darktech—we found it. Their leader was giving it to them. She was right.”

Ginny rolled her eyes. “Of course the princess was right. She wouldn’t have told you if she wasn’t sure.” But for all her skepticism, she seemed suddenly intense. Did you not know what this was really about? I thought I told you.

Star Orchid could only hope she was supposed to tell. The princess had already banished her, apparently without any crime. What would she do if Star failed her?

“Learning the Iron Lord exists is just the beginning,” Ginny said. “If we report back with this now, we… could lead the Unification Army here. But by the time they found their way through that maze, that creature might escape with his most loyal supporters. It would just flee to infect some other town. We need to learn how far this goes. Find the names of their operatives, where they’re stationed.

“Most importantly, we find where that creature is getting the Darktech, destroy it, and kill him. Then the princess can send in the guns and mop up whatever’s left.”

Those words should’ve filled her with relief and hope—they were so close! Soon Star would be going home, and this nightmare on the surface would finally be over! But the idea of the Unification Army marching through the castle blasting everything and everyone with a light lance hardly reassured her. Could they really kill some sickly monster, trapped in a wheelchair and harming nopony?

Ginny hopped out of bed, resting one claw on Star’s shoulder. “You’ve done tremendous work so far, Star Orchid. When we left Concord, I thought you were doomed. I didn’t think you’d be able to keep going a week without deserting into the hooves of some petty lordling. You’d trade yourself for comfort, and I’d be the one who had to put a dagger into your back for treason.”

She let go, grinning enthusiastically. “I couldn’t be happier to be wrong, Star. You’re a natural at this. I’m sure the princess will be happy to give you your spot back in her castle, when this is over. But your talents will be wasted there. You could be down here, seeing the world. Creating order from chaos. Bringing harmony wherever you visit. It’s a noble calling.”

Star laughed nervously, backing away. Her tail tucked between her legs, and her expression was grim. “That’s… very kind of you, Ginny. But uh… I don’t think that’s gonna happen. Even if it works, ponies are going to learn my face. I’m not like you, I only get to be a nobody once. I can’t come up with a new identity and start over.”

“You could.” She said it so casually, Star almost missed it. “You’re not like me now. But changelings aren’t like other creatures. We can… recruit.”

Star’s blood chilled, and she backed up all the way to the wall. Recruit. It was the same thing that the ancient, disharmonious bugs had done, long ago. Kidnapping creatures, draining them of their love, and leaving only husks like themselves.

“You can’t,” she said stubbornly. “That kind of changeling died out. You found a part in Harmony’s plan. You’re like us now.”

“I am,” Ginny said simply. “But Princess Twilight is a… pragmatic ruler, more than you probably think. She’s not one to casually discard her tools.” She took a few steps forward, advancing on Star. But before she reached her, she touched a claw to the button beside her, and the lights went out. “Just something to think about, Star. We still have to win.”

Chapter 17: Indis

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This is so stupid I’m going to get caught I can’t believe I’m doing this why am I so stupid.

Jamie crept through the shelter, shoulders stooped low and eyes alert. Of course she knew that any moment her little escape could end in failure—at this point, she expected it. But considering the death that likely waited for her if she actually carried out the AI’s plan, she had to try.

Every emergency shelter has exactly the same layout. All I have to do is get to the top floor, then activate the emergency release. At least there were some benefits to lowest bidder construction.

She’d tossed everything she could gather into a saddlebag, which was mostly just her tablet computer and personal effects from around her room. All the tools of her first mission were still with Shy, and anything really useful would be locked up in the armory all the way at the bottom of the shelter.

“I cannot permit you to leave, Citizen Jamie. Knowledge of our location would result in critical mission failure. It cannot exist, even in the minds of citizens.”

Of course, in a facility with cameras covering almost the entire building and a self-repairing maintenance system, there was no way to hide from the AI. The best she’d been able to manage was hiding her intentions until she got to level 3, where the physical therapy rooms were located. It was really a race against the AI’s processing and response.

“127 North Meridian Street,” she responded under her breath. “I know where it is already. You can’t stop me from leaving, Epsilon. The shelter has a manual release.”

She passed the final elevator, its doors opening for her automatically. The temptation to ride all the way to the top was powerful—but much more likely, it would seal her inside like a cage until Epsilon had built something to contain her. She ignored it, going for the stairs with their glowing exit sign. She shoved them open with a shoulder, then stared up in despair.

Even level 2 was deep, twenty flights deep. She ran, her stupid wings spreading slightly of their own accord. She could control them, in the sense that a toddler placed in the driver’s seat of a fighter jet could press any button they could reach. But while moving had come easily to her after a little practice, using her wings was still a mystery.

At least being a horse gave her one thing: endurance. Her old human body would’ve been huffing and struggling after a few flights, barely able to keep going. But the horse she’d become seemed to have an endless reserve of strength. The only danger was tripping herself on stairs meant for creatures twice her size. But if children could run upstairs, then so could kid-sized horses.

She didn’t slow down, not until the final emergency light was in sight. She twisted slightly, slamming into the door with her shoulder. It was locked, she felt it push back against her—for a second. Steel ground and protested, then tore out of her way, the metal door caving in around the lock and slamming all the way to the concrete wall. It landed on the floor behind her a second later with an echoing roar of broken metal.

How the fuck did I just do that?

Jamie stopped for a moment beside the elevator, the floor illuminated only by the pale green glow of the exit sign behind her. The shelter’s automatic lights hadn’t come on.

“You may not leave this way,” Epsilon said. “You must be properly delivered to the nearby settlement. Your service is required in diplomacy. In the unlikely event that mission fails, you cannot be allowed to relay information of the shelter’s location. Return to your quarters.”

Jamie held still, shivering a moment as she looked out into the darkness. The hallway forked in three directions, into sections of the shelter so old they’d probably not been visited since the shelter was sealed. These systems were all about interfacing with resources on the surface, or used to quarantine new survivors before freezing them, or about the emergency clinics that could be used to treat the wounded. There was also a visitors center, used to tempt government officials into greater financial support.

It could all be broken down now, not maintained for years. There could be monsters here. The door had been locked, after all. Jamie had just unsealed it. Dust lifted at her hooves, and the air was stale in her nostrils.

Which way is the exit? She had seen the map a hundred times while she sat in the little quarantine room, playing on the system’s intranet. It was straight ahead, so survivors could make it to the safety of deep caverns if the site was about to be bombed.

She gritted her teeth, then advanced. She walked slowly, extending one tentative hoof with each step to probe the darkness.

If I knew how to use this stupid horn, I could hold out my tablet for light. Then again, maybe she didn’t have to fight with it. She hesitated, reaching around to the bag and flipping it open. She pressed on the tablet with a hoof, long enough for the screen to light up.

Then she took it in her mouth, holding delicately. Its flexible display was waterproof of course—but if her body was strong enough to break through steel doors without any pain, it probably wasn’t Jamie-proof.

Now she could see where she was going, but in exchange she wouldn’t be able to respond to Epsilon’s stupid threats.

“You will not leave this shelter until it’s time to deliver you to the settlement,” Epsilon said. “You will be stopped, violently if necessary. Return to your quarters.”

Delivered is right. Delivered right into the barrel of a gun pointed at my head. No thank you.

The entrance to the shelter wasn’t much further now. Up here were the cement barricades meant to prevent any vehicles from entering, or for cover if their troops ended up in a shooting war with some enemy. Utterly asinine, considering how few battles were even fought that way in the time she’d left behind. If anything breached the entrance, they would all be dead long before base security had anything to say about it.

There were no ancient battles here, just concrete thick with dust that trailed around her like a little cloud. She did her best to ignore it, but with her mouth partially open, there was no getting around how much she was probably breathing. The taste of old things was soon thick on her tongue, speeding her steps. The armored front door was just ahead. The chamber was a massive dome, with a fancy mural painted on the ceiling above her. Its colors were entirely gone, and only faint traces of the lines remained.

The door itself wasn’t nearly as big as the chamber might suggest, large enough for maybe five people to walk abreast and not much higher. Even if she could force her way through a fire door, Jamie didn’t imagine for a second she would be able to muscle her way through this one.

More secure facilities would probably use something like imperium, or some other near-indestructible metal forged somewhere in orbit. For this mass-produced shelter, it would just be steel. There was no point protecting a door that much when an intruder could just dig through the hardened cement around it.

Jamie’s mind drifted back as she walked through that ancient lobby. People were crowded into every corner around her, clothes shredded and bodies bleeding. Women begged for the door to be reopened, pleading for family that were somewhere on the other side. UN security personnel wearing faceless helmets sent them away. Jamie clutched at her monetary token physical wallet, the only thing she’d managed to bring with her.

“I-I’m not on the list,” she squeaked at the input desk. “But I’m willing to pay. I’ve got—”

A stern woman sat on the other side of bulletproof glass, glaring at her through her horn-rimmed glasses. “What the fuck are we supposed to do with monetary tokens, kid?” She shoved a clipboard through the slot. “Lucky for you, we’ve got plenty of idiots who didn’t evacuate when they were told. Fill this out, and take that with you.”

The input desk was empty now, the glass so dirty that she couldn’t see through to the other side. Organic debris was spread nearby, possibly the remains of ancient forms.

Did they refuse anyone? Where could they go, if there weren’t enough pods waiting for them? Jamie stared through the glass for a few moments, but there was something in there she didn’t want to see too closely. She turned hurriedly away, and crossed the vast hall to the security booth.

There was another heavy steel door blocking the way, and no windows to see inside. But this time it wasn’t locked. What was the point, with every occupant asleep? If an intruder got in, they’d already breached the entrance.

Jamie lifted a hoof, pushing the door open.

Security was cleaner than the intake office. The shelves of the temporary armory were empty, falling in places where moisture had got in and corroded the furniture over centuries. There was obviously no maintenance up here, for sections of the shelter that wouldn’t be needed again. Only the instrument panel on the far wall looked intact, its hyperstable glastic shell protecting the “manual release” lever.

She’d been told about this thing, the same way passengers on busses were instructed on the use of the emergency exits. This thing was entirely mechanical, and could open the shelter destructively if necessary. But that was only if the door didn’t open. Epsilon couldn’t stop her now.

Jamie crossed the room, settling her tablet down on a desk as she fumbled with the latch cover. It was meant for hands, obviously. Hands that she no longer had.

Something rumbled in the darkness behind the doorway—a set of treads. A drone had been waiting here, as she’d feared.

If she had to guess, it was exactly the same one that had captured her last time, with its mechanical treads and extremely simplistic shape. It didn’t have an animal tranquilizer this time. Instead it held a tactical shotgun in both grips, aimed squarely at her head. It tracked her smoothly as she moved, as smoothly as a photographer drone.

“Y-you… you can’t use that on me,” Jamie stammered. “AI can’t hurt humans. There are rules. That gun probably isn’t even loaded.”

Not that I know what a loaded gun would even look like. Was there a way to tell by looking down the barrel?

“Humans,” Epsilon repeated. “You are no longer human, citizen Jamie.”

Silence. She stared back at the drone, defiant. Are you bluffing, or really that stupid? Then again, this was the same barely intelligent program that thought it was a good idea to make her into the same species as their god. So probably it was that stupid.

She froze. “What do you want?”

“Come with this robot and do no attempt to resist. If you do, it will kill you. The chosen directive may frighten you, but it is this shelter’s best odds for the survival of its sleeping residents. You will not risk its discovery with your actions.”

“Alright.” She lowered her head, defeated. “I won’t.”

The robot escorted her back to her cell.

Star Orchid should’ve stayed in their room. Ginny was gone now, up to the surface to keep up their cover—or so she said. That meant Star herself should be busy keeping her head down and remaining plausibly cooperative.

They’d only been in the “Undercastle” a week now, and done only a single assignment while there. Something simple, delivering an unmarked box to a field agent just before they boarded the town’s weekly express train. Ginny had been all about secrecy then, not even attempting to look inside the box and see what they were carrying.

“Assignment said not to open it, so we don’t,” she said, later that night. “You have to see every assignment we’re given as our next test. Proof that we’re loyal to Stygian’s Gate. We have to pass every test, until suddenly… we’re gone. I’ll be the one to tell you when it’s time to leave.”

But now Ginny was gone, and instead of enjoying a little space to herself, Star was out looking for trouble.

Technically she was looking for information on their new organization, so that she had enough for the report she would soon send back to Twilight.

Of course it would all have to remain in her head until they escaped—the Iron Lord might be feeble and helpless, but she’d seen his many eyes. That observation was no idle threat. Some part of her wondered if those eyes followed even into her bedroom. What can’t he see?

Apparently he couldn’t see a pony out where they weren’t supposed to be, because so far nothing bad had happened. No sirens, no alarms. As far as she could tell, she was free to explore without restraint.

Except that her magical necklace wasn’t just some spell that opened doors. It was an incredibly powerful enchantment, one that could tell where she was supposed to go, and where she wasn’t. She’d picked the first door at random as soon as she left their common room, and nothing happened. Then she approached the one leading to the gym, and it opened without resistance.

What’s your secret, shell? She stopped in the hall, staring down at it. She’d never actually touched a real seashell before—Concord might be perfect, but it wasn’t on the shore of any oceans. She concentrated, using her horn to see through the shell to any spells that might be concealed within.

Nothing. Not even a trickle of magic. Yet there was plenty of exposure to it, so it had to be the doors that held the real power. She stopped in front of the gym door, frowning at it. Layered metal, forged perfectly flat in the shop of a master craftspony. Not even a hint of warping down the middle, or the single mark of a hammer or anvil.

You’re richer than most ponies in Magic district. How?

Geist’s idea that they raised money doing awful criminal acts seemed plausible enough, except that everypony they’d met so far had been so nice. She couldn’t imagine Wellspring going around and killing random creatures, or pouring poison into a well, or salting a field.

That’s probably how they get us. Act all innocent, so we don’t look closely at them. Then they pounce.

She sat on her haunches, scrutinizing the door with her magic as she’d searched the necklace. She felt through it, as Twilight herself had taught her. The shape of the rune would be worked into the metal, somewhere, if only by the repetition of the magic on it. More likely, it would be melted somewhere, maybe between two layers of metal.

It wasn’t the offensive nothing of an anti-magic field, that made her horn go numb and spread a sour taste on her tongue. There was just… nothing there. The same she might sense from any entirely un-enchanted metal door.

“Something wrong?” asked a voice from behind her. “You’re staring quite intently at that door. Did your key die? Bucking useless things…”

She spun around, ears flattening with embarrassment. She’d been trying to sneak through this facility and steal its secrets for her princess, but she hadn’t even made it out past where she belonged. You thought I should be a spy like you, Ginny? Because I’m too stupid to get past some locked doors.

Or maybe just too afraid. There was an incredibly simple spell for opening locks. It would probably work on these, regardless of the strange magic they used to stay closed. Or… she thought it would, anyway.

The voice belonged to a hippogriff stallion; half a head taller than she was. His appearance was so entirely unexpected that at first she didn’t even know what she was looking at, and she thought he was just a petite-looking bird.

Then she gulped. “I, uh… uh…” She shuffled, pawing at the floor. “I think I just… don’t know what I’m doing. I just… just got here, and…” And now your disharmony is going to spread, and Twilight will know, and I’ll never be welcome in the court again. She turned away from him, to no avail. He followed her, staring between the key and the wall.

“New, I can see that. New ponies usually have trouble with the tech. I guess that’s what our tyrant wants for the world, eh? Keep us ignorant, so we don’t have the tools to fight her. Depend on magic, where she’s the master, so the common creatures won’t be able to fight. Typical.”

Stars above that’s exactly what a pony of the rebellion would say. And she was standing in their castle. What did she expect them to do, praise the princess all the time? Wellspring was so much subtler about it. She didn’t even seem to want to get rid of Twilight, only convince her to change.

She dared another glance at the stallion, and felt her face grow warm with embarrassment. And he’s hot. Harmony help me. He was supposed to look like an unholy amalgam of creatures that clearly weren’t meant to go together, something in constant misery just by being alive. Instead, he was the softness of a pony mixed with the strength and grace of a griffon.

Hey Dad, at least this time it isn’t a girl.

Of course that wasn’t why she was out of her quarters in the first place. Star wasn’t looking to flirt! “I, uh… yeah,” she stammered. “I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are. I guess I’m… still trying to learn everybody’s names?” She stuck out a hoof. “I’m Star Orchid.”

The stallion reached out with a claw, shaking her hoof. “That probably made more sense in your head, Star. We don’t learn everybody’s name around here. That would be way too dangerous. Most creatures are cagey about things like that, since they… might get thrown into prison, or spend some time alone with a Commissar. But since they’d just rip my wings off and kill me, I don’t really have anything to worry about. I’m Windbrisk.”

He reached past her to her necklace, holding it up against the door. It clicked, then opened inward. Because of course it did, there wasn’t actually anything wrong with it. But would he really believe that she was dumb enough to forget how to use it even after getting out of her room?

“Right, sorry. I shouldn’t be asking creatures’ names when they, uh… when they haven’t volunteered to share them. It’s dangerous. We might get caught, and we wouldn’t… want to ruin it for other creatures.” It sounded stupid coming out of her mouth, like she’d bitten down on cotton by mistake.

But maybe Windbrisk was used to having this effect on mares, because he didn’t skip a beat. I can see why. “Word of advice, Star Orchid. If you aren’t willing to go down with the ship if anything happens, come up with a new name. And I do mean that—some of us can swim away if this goes badly. But you don’t strike me as a pony who can.”

“Oh?” She spun on him, puffing out her chest. “What kind of pony do I look like?”

She probably would’ve kept her mouth shut, except that she couldn’t see anypony in the gym. The magic lights revealed only empty weights and a running machine with no creature using it. There was some splashing coming from the pool, but that was at the other end, and she couldn’t see inside it.

He met her eyes without flinching. If anything, his grin only grew smugger. “You’re from Concord, obviously. You’re a mare who grew up getting exactly what she wanted. Got to go to the best schools, meet the best creatures. Probably lived in the Magic district.”

She froze. “Y-you… you think that, just from talking to me for a few seconds?”

He slid past her into the gym, tossing his bag up onto one of the hooks. From the look of it, he’d been on the way to a workout himself. Granted, few of these machines were familiar to her. Star was from Concord, and she’d never set hoof in a place like this. But it makes sense why you’d want to have a way to stay active if you’re trapped underground. Ponies probably go insane from sitting still without it.

Windbrisk picked a strange machine with a metal bar and places for round metal pieces, and started loading it up. “It’s in your accent. That tells me Concord. You’re a unicorn, which means you’d be Magic or Generosity. But your hairstyle says the court, so I guess Magic. Also, you don’t smell like dung, which makes you better than half the creatures here.”

Who are you to talk like that? Weren’t you just saying you’d be hunted and killed if anypony knew about you? She should’ve been disgusted by his presence, at least if everything Twilight said was true. Trouble was—she didn’t feel disgust. Only increasing curiosity as he loaded up the machine with more and more weight. Could he really lift all that?

Yes, as it turned out. Though he grunted and strained, the metal bar slid up and down in a movement he seemed to know with perfect mastery of form.

At least, she guessed it was perfect. She didn’t actually know what he was doing, or why.

“Thanks, I guess.” She looked away from him, feeling the heat rise to her cheeks again. She couldn’t let herself get distracted. But I have to pretend I was going here, don’t I? Otherwise he might figure out I was sneaking around.

The stallion seemed so sure of himself he wouldn’t look at her twice so long as he thought her feelings had something to do with him, but she wasn’t going to take a chance.

“How do you use all this stuff?” she asked, walking towards one of the running machines. She only knew what it was for thanks to it being occupied the last time. “I think this floor piece moves, doesn’t it?”

“Treadmill.” He didn’t get up, not until he’d done his lifting enough to work up a sweat, and fill the room with a smell that was somewhere between stallion and bird. She was only particularly interested in half of that, but… smells were harder to ignore than sights. “It’s simpler than it looks. You don’t have claws, so all you have to do is get on and start walking.”

She did, and found the floor strangely soft and yielding. She took a few steps forward, and the ground moved with her, forcing her to keep going or get swept back. So she sped up, and the ground sped up with her. She was trotting before Windbrisk was beside her, and a gallop by the time he said anything else.

“You can’t outrun it, pony. Not even earth ponies can, and you’re… not built like one of those. Take it easy.”

That was all the invitation she needed to gallop with all her strength. There was only two or three meters of path, yet the other side wasn’t getting any closer. How could it keep up with her so well? Her endurance lasted for a few seconds, but then she started to slow. The hippogriff was right, she wasn’t built for this.

She kept going anyway, fighting the suffocation of her muscles to glare at him. “How does… a hippogriff… find his way into a rebellion anyway? I didn’t even… I didn’t think there were… any of you left.”

He laughed, apparently only amused by the pronouncement. “The princess only wishes we were all gone. We’re used to being hunted, and running where she can’t follow. Some of us made it.”

“Why not… keep hiding?” she asked. “The princess thinks you’re gone, everypony does. You stay hidden, and your family stays safe. No reason to be afraid that she might… come hunting again. Isn’t it safer to stay hidden?”

She slowed, drifting further and further back. Taking her concentration away from running for even a moment was enough to sweep the path away from her hooves and threaten to throw her. Windbrisk reached out with one foreleg, gripping her firmly by the shoulder and pulling her to the side.

Instead of slamming into the back wall, her legs caught the regular floor, and she went running forward. At a brisk gallop, the length of the gym was nothing. She made it a few strides before her hooves caught wet ground, she slipped, and flopped into the pool with a splash.

She took a few seconds to right herself, feeling a flash of annoyance and anger. Windbrisk should’ve left her alone, she could handle herself! Just because it was her first time…

She poked her head up a moment later, and found he’d followed her.

Though like Ginny, he’d changed. So the stories were right about that too. It wasn’t a total transfiguration from one type of creature to another—but now he had a tail and fins instead of a set of pony legs.

“The answer’s simple, Star. If we stayed hidden, then the tyrant won. She wants us to go away, and most of us did. We swim so deep her spells can’t find us, and we shelter around thermal vents eating crabs and wearing worms. Does that sound like much of a life?”

She was too stunned to answer. By his words, obviously, not the way he looked. “N-no.”

“No,” he agreed. “It isn’t. I’m glad there are some of us who stay down there. Means every time one of us gets caught, life goes on. I’m just… lucky the Iron Lord found me. I wasn’t really getting much done breaking windows and burning constables’ offices. This is better.”

This is stupid I should keep my mouth shut. “How long have you been here, Windbrisk?”

He shrugged an ambivalent shoulder. “Long enough to remember when the castle was just a hole in the ground with a few tents. So… maybe three years?”

She grinned. “Want to show me around? I mean really. Everything about this place is so… strange. I’d like to have an expert to explain it all. Explain the tech to a simple pony from Concord.” In that moment, she knew Geist would’ve been proud of the expression she made, the softness in her voice.

“Sure.” He swam up close, then circled around her once. “Just… let me finish my laps first. I have to at least pretend I’m working out.”

Chapter 18: Apus

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How could Star learn the secrets of Stygian’s Gate without making it obvious that she was here to get all of them hanged?

It was going to be an awkward conversation when she finally met back up with Ginny, and had to admit that she was right. Ponies could be incredibly stupid about their relationships. She’d never imagined she would wield a power like that over somepony, let alone actually use it. But how could she say no when the opportunity was given to her so plainly?

Certainly it had nothing to do with Windbrisk’s confidence and bravery, or his strange blend of bird and pony. Was it the most forbidden relationship she could imagine, or entirely innocent? Could a pony and a hippogriff even be together?

The rebellion was bigger than it seemed at first. Walking through that first huge space, she’d been able to imagine that it was all there was of this organization. Just a few bedrooms off to the side, and that was all.

The sound of distant grinding stone was their constant companion, overpowering anything they might’ve used to hear where in Hollow Shades this bunker had been dug.

“I think I’ve heard that sound before,” she said, as they left one of the brightly lit hallways into a little unmarked tunnel, barely wide enough for one of them. Bundles of wires and pipes ran through here, with just enough room for a pony to come through and service them. “From up in Hollow Shades. When I walked the streets late at night, I thought I could hear… worms.”

Windbrisk spun around, grinning at her. Somehow he was perfectly dry, while she was still damp from her fall. Fur just didn’t dry as well as scales, apparently. “Local legends work in our favor. Probably why they picked it. What is it they say, the ghosts of the old city hold market at the bottom of the well?”

She frowned. “I’ve… heard a few versions. Last one was, uh… the population of the city slipped into disharmony all at once, and so Twilight cast them into shadow. Now they’re clawing at the rocks until they can find their way out.”

“Even the legends get rewritten.” He turned away, scoffing. How could he even make that sound with a beak? “We take advantage, try to keep the machines working during the day. Machines… guess you call them Darktech up in the world the princess made.”

“Not every machine. I grew up in Concord, and we had… lights, hot water, the train system. Telegraphs to send messages in a hurry. But only within the city, obviously. Can’t… run lines over the world when Concord tears them up so often.”

“I have to know.” Windbrisk wheeled around again, getting right up in her face. “You lived there; you know how they think. Do ponies… are they tired of this yet?”

“Tired of what?” she answered by reflex, before she realized it probably wouldn’t help with her cover. But there was no taking it back.

“How about having a city that destroys the world as it flies over? Killing everything that tries to rebuild. Feels like she waits just long enough for the trees to start growing back before Concord comes around again, turning forests into wastelands. Or… do you not care, because that’s how the city stays flying?”

Star tensed—either because of his closeness, or the obvious accusation in his voice. “Everypony knows where it’s safe to build,” she answered. “As far as I know, we never… the city never swallowed any settlements as it went by. It’s huge, and it doesn’t go fast. Ponies have weeks to move if they need it.”

Windbrisk shook his head, obviously frustrated. “Weeks to leave behind everything their families built—but that’s not what I wanted to ask. I’m not trying to lecture you—you already left. I just want to know what the others think, what the… spirit is like. Is everypony afraid of the princess? Do they know what she’ll do to them if they break her rules?”

Harmony’s rules. The princess only shares them with us to help us live happier lives. But that wasn’t what she said. It might be what they were taught—but she’d been in the castle. The more she got to know the princess and the ponies who worked for her, the less they seemed to follow Harmony’s rules. Like Geist—he was willing to do anything that would complete their mission. Maybe that meant thousands of dead left behind them, or… or just a forbidden relationship.

“Yes. Nopony would say anything bad about the princess, not even to each other. You can’t… you can’t ever know that somepony isn’t listening. The princess might not be able to see into the rest of the world, but Concord is her perfect city. The closer to her you get, the better your life becomes—but you have to trade freedom for it. I grew up in Magic district… I never wanted for anything. But I had to live exactly the way Harmony said, or… I knew what would happen. Nopony was safe from discipline.”

“Is that why you ran?” He leaned in closer, close enough for her to feel his hot breath against her face. “You couldn’t stand the rules? You gave up all your luxury and safety to be somewhere life mattered?”

She nodded. They were back in familiar territory now, though… if he found out why she had been forced to leave according to the story, he might not believe it was authentic. Or maybe he’d think it was the birds she was interested in, more than the mares? Apparently that wasn’t wrong. “It would be nice if more creatures could… be themselves, instead of being whatever Harmony’s rules say they should be.”

He laughed. “We don’t have to have this conversation in the walls. In fact—I can show you somewhere exactly like that. One of the reasons this place is so big. I think you’ll appreciate our work a little more when you see it.”

He turned, bounding away through the dark. There was no room to fly, not with the walls crowding so close to either side. But he didn’t seem to be in a terrible rush.

“Where are we going?” She followed as close as she could, though the dark was strange and uncomfortable to her and felt like it might wrap around her hooves and trap her. There were many more small tunnels leading away from this one, passages that might lead to who knew where. Like a second set of roads through their secret city. This might actually be useful if I can find a few more ways in.

If the magic they used on all their doors prevented her from sneaking around and spying, then exploring this way might be their only option. She kept her horn alert, but so far she sensed no trace of magic. Don’t get too confident about that. There was none from the doors either.

“You wanted to see the things that most ponies don’t,” Windbrisk shot back, still grinning at her. “So that’s what we’re doing. The crew that goes up onto the surface doesn’t get to meet these ponies very often, because… well, it’s pretty obvious.”

It would be if you told me.

A few more turns and confusing crawlspaces, and Windbrisk stopped beside a bit of flat stone. Or that was what she thought it was. A little pressure from a claw, and it popped right out of its bracket, landing with a clatter. It didn’t shatter, though. “Through here.” He stepped out, offering a claw to help her over the edge. It was a decent drop on the other side, and she probably would’ve fallen on her face if she wasn’t paying attention.

She couldn’t see anything terribly different about the passages down here. They were in a stone hallway that could’ve been built anywhere else in the hidden city. Maybe that was the point, to leave an invader so confused that they didn’t know where to attack? Maybe Geist can memorize all those little passages. Changelings live underground naturally, so this should be normal for him.

Windbrisk picked up the flat piece of not-stone, pushing it back into place. “The playroom is just a little further. I think that’s where you’ll want to see.”

She followed, touching at her necklace briefly to make sure she hadn’t lost it in the cavern somewhere. “Are we supposed to be here?”

“I’m showing you the Undercastle. That’s what I’ll say if Wellspring asks.”

“What about the Iron Lord?”

He didn’t even slow down, glancing back at her with a knowing grin. “He wouldn’t even ask. Mind like that—wheels and predictions. Besides, I’m pretty sure he can’t see well enough to tell ponies apart. Half the time he thinks I’m one of you.”

“Why would your leader be in a playroom?”

He didn’t answer as they rounded the corner together into a large room, with a low fence and gate right in front of them. Windbrisk caught her by the shoulder so she didn’t smack right into it.

“Stygian's Gate has two halves, Star Orchid. There’s the brave ponies like you up on the surface, fighting evil. Then there’s us down on the inside, who do something else.”

She stared over the fence into the playroom, the breath catching in her chest. Here was more disharmony than she’d ever seen in one place—a center of evil and chaos so intense that she should’ve felt sick in the hallway outside. She practically begged for that feeling to come, reassuring her that her understanding of the world was right. It didn’t.

The space was half playground, half schoolhouse, with two dozen young creatures here studying. Not ponies as she understood them, though—these were mistakes. A few were young hippogriffs, or other half breeds she had no names for. There were a few little black bugs, with blue, insect eyes. Most were creatures Star would’ve politely called blemishes—ponies with missing limbs, torn wings, scarred faces. Little ponies wracked by incurable disease, making their coats fall out in little tuffs or ensuring they never got their cutie marks.

“This is…” Star’s disguise was forgotten, her fear irrelevant. She stopped by the edge of the fence, staring.

“Let me guess,” Windbrisk whispered. “What does the princess say about them? A harmonious society won’t allow citizens to live lives of pain?”

That was almost a direct quotation from the Words of Harmony. Almost. She only nodded.

“Do they look like they’re living lives of pain to you, Star?”

The play area was well-furnished, with a large wooden fort, climbing ramps, and a vaulting course. Little ponies giggled and cheered each other on as they ran and flew and crashed and bumped into one another.

She blinked tears from her eyes, wiping the sting away with the back of one leg. “Who… what happened to them? I’ve never seen… Somepony crafted magical replacement limbs? That’s—” blasphemy. Like little torture devices grafted to the suffering. Metal limbs and eyes. Somepony was transforming the already damned into living horrors.

Apparently no one told the children that. They didn’t seem horrified.

“He’s down here now, I think. See the light at that door? We can watch.”

Stars above no. But Star was here as a spy, wasn’t she? The princess would want to know about this… abominable magic. She forced herself to nod. “I’d like to see.”

Windbrisk pushed the gate open with one claw, holding it for her. Apparently this was here to stop the little ones from escaping. There were only a few adults here to supervise, and she felt suspicious eyes on them as they entered.

They seemed to recognize Windbrisk, though, because nopony tried to stop them.

The foals almost did. A few rushed over to them—a little changeling with a crushed shell and deep scars on his face, and a hippogriff filly. “Windbrisk, Windbrisk!” the bug yelled. “Did you save the world yet?”

“One day at a time,” he said, grinning at them. “Star, this is Charcoal and Palm Tree. I helped bring them in… not too long ago. Last month, Charcoal?”

“Yeah.” His face fell, broken shell opening a crack. But there were no wings beneath. “That seems right.”

“You’re pretty,” said the hippogriff, nudging Star. “Did you come from the sky?”

“She did,” Windbrisk assured, urging the two of them away. “I’m sure Star will come to play later. Right now we’re here to see the doctor.”


They didn’t fight too hard, though. Star didn’t need to be a changeling to feel the love they felt for Windbrisk. Half these little fillies and colts did—no wonder he was so proud of this place.

They reached the door—taller than any pony ever would’ve needed. Big enough for a creature like the Iron Lord to use, with a single green light above it. Star probably would’ve turned around, but Windbrisk didn’t give her the chance, holding his necklace against it and pulling it open.

The room beyond was stark while, as clean as a hospital and with a similar smell of medication and alcohol. There was an empty cot against the far wall, with lots of strange metal things all around it. On the other side of the room were… more machines. Some of them hummed quietly, little boxes that shook and vibrated. A chest of many little drawers was arranged around it, packed with metal and a dull white material like the one used in some of the torture devices fused to those children.

A creature sat with their back to them, almost entirely obscured in a white coat. It had the same general outline as the Iron Lord, with legs dangling out from below the chair and back hunched over the table. “That would only be Windbrisk. What have you brought me this time?”

Not the Iron Lord, then. There was nothing feeble about this speaker, no body about to give up. He sounded confident, absolutely assured.

“A new friend,” he answered. “She wanted to meet the miracle-worker who saved all these creatures.”

Not the way I would’ve put it.

Something flashed from the other side of the room, causing Star to turn away. What could be so bright but not leave any magic in the air? It ended a moment later, and the creature spun their oversized chair around. Star was momentarily frozen with horror—it was much worse than she could’ve imagined.

The doctor wasn’t some prehistorical Devourer, kept alive by strange machines. It was something worse, something quite familiar in the Words of Harmony. A creature whose very presence was disharmony, with a body of many different parts and a mind that could understand nothing but chaos.

Twilight had triumphed over this creature long ago, sealing him with a spell that could not be broken. She saw that story was true, and runes had been burned into his flesh, scarring his face and moving down his body much like the children outside. One of his yellow eyes was directly in the path of the brand, and there was something metal over where the eye should’ve been.

He held something in his claws—a set of nearly transparent wings, attached to a thin metal scaffold in the middle with hooks running down both sides. Stars above it’s for the little bug. Apparently Star Orchid could feel compassion for a creature that shouldn’t even be alive.

“You did it!” Windbrisk exclaimed, rising to his hindlegs to be tall enough to reach the wings and examine them. The spirit of disharmony and chaos offered them to him as though it were an entirely ordinary exchange. Windbrisk turned, holding them up towards her. “This is the doctor. He’s the reason I joined here. Because of what he promised to do for my little sister.”

“And I always keep my promises.” Discord took back the wings, replacing them on his desk before turning his attention on Star again.

We’re bucked. One yellow-red eye stared, joined by another of glass and shiny metal. “This one is from Twilight’s little breeding experiment. Just look at her face. It’s okay, unicorn. You’ll have to tell me how you really feel. I’m not so good with the mind-reading anymore, as you can guess.” He gestured at his face with one claw.

Imperial magic. Star knew Twilight’s magic when she saw it, though this was a spell more complex and powerful than she’d ever seen in the palace. Binding chaos itself, one of the princess’s six great works. One of the proofs commonly used by the Clerics of Harmony, to prove her right to rule. It’s real. It’s all real I can’t believe I doubted I’m damned to chaos with all of these princess forgive me please.

They were staring at her. Windbrisk’s expression grew more concerned by the moment. Would he see through her disguise? “Why…” Not enough. “Why are you doing this?”

The doctor smiled at her, folding his strange claws across his chest. “What is a soul worth, pony? Defying the laws Twilight put in place—certainly worth that. I’m sure if you asked her, she could probably give you an exact figure. How productive would that pony be in her breeding experiment? How much closer to her goals?”

“Trick question,” Windbrisk said. “There’s no number. No trade, nothing. Every one of those children is worth everything.”

“What do you think, pony? What is a soul worth to you?”

She opened her mouth to come up with something, then shut it again. She could hear the laughter through the door. Who was she to tell those children their lives were misery and they shouldn’t even exist? Maybe Twilight could—she could brand chaos and seal his magic away. But she was just one pony.

Discord shrugged. “I don’t know, Windbrisk. But I’ll tell your unicorn friend this: they’re worth more than a few plastic joints and some neural interface implants. Before all this, I could’ve snapped my fingers and fixed them all.” He did so, making a sudden, sharp echo in the small space. “Now… I’ve been restrained. But Twilight can’t take what’s in here.” He tapped the side of his head with two fingers, the same ones he’d just used. “Every life I save is one more piece of gravel in her hooves. Just a little less order in her perfect world.”

Windbrisk rested one claw on her shoulder, backing away. “Thank you for seeing us, doctor. You’re working miracles down here.”

Discord grinned back. The expression seemed remarkably genuine for an entirely evil spirit of chaos. “If I keep at it for the rest of time, I’ll never wash the blood from my hands. But it will be fun to try.”

Star didn’t stop hyperventilating until they finally left his operating room behind, past the playroom to another living area. It looked much the same as the one built for her, except it didn’t hold resistance ponies ready to be deployed. These were… older versions of the kind of ponies in the playroom. The broken, forbidden, and disabled. Many had Darktech prosthetics, probably built by Discord too.

That’s the secret, that’s where it all comes from. This is the enemy you were hunting for all this time. Part of her reveled in the knowledge that she’d be able to give such an important gift to the princess. All she needed was the location of this place, and she’d be able to win her return to court for sure. This was everything Twilight expected from the mission and more.

But as Windbrisk introduced her to the adults and she heard some of their stories, she found the thought of the Unification Army moving through here less appealing than she had on the trip over. None of these ponies would be spared—such violations of Harmony’s precepts could only be put to the sword. Why did you leave Discord alive in the first place, Princess? Why not kill him at the same time you branded him?

She was still missing pieces, and the stronger that knowledge grew the more frightened she became. This is bigger than me. Geist was right, I’m going to drown out here.

Still, she had to disentangle herself from Windbrisk gracefully, lest she burn a bridge she’d just spent all day building. Whatever interest she’d felt for him, that faded into the background in light of what she’d just seen.

“I should probably get back to my quarters,” she said, as they finally returned to familiar parts of the Undercastle. “I think I’ll need some time to take all that in. Process… what we’re doing here.”

Windbrisk nodded, expression flat. “Don’t feel too overwhelmed, Star. Nopony expects you to save so many when they’re first starting. Stygian’s Gate values every contribution, even the small ones. I’m sure whatever you were recruited to do is just as important in its own way.”

You don’t have a clue what I’m thinking. She nodded anyway, reaching up to touch his claw briefly. A proper griffon would probably not have let them part on terms like this, with their entangled future still unresolved. Apparently hippogriffs had ponies’ patience for taking their relationships slow, despite being a stallion. I don’t have any idea what you’re thinking either. She’d never been interested in one before. What did a stallion even want from his partner?

Probably not for her to give all his secrets to the princess and get his little sister killed by the Unification Army.

“Thanks again for taking me. It makes me wish I was doing more, but… I’m glad to know what’s really happening. Helps me understand how I could help better.”

“Give it time. Stygian’s Gate needs to know it can trust you. Let Wellspring learn your talents, let the Iron Lord get to know you. You’ll be out there saving lives before too long.”

He left her there, alone in the hall leading back. She could still smell his scent on her all the way back to her quarters.

She spent the next few hours in turmoil, knowing full well that Ginny would be back any moment. The changeling could probably help reassure her their mission was just, that they were doing the right thing. Maybe if she talked enough, Geist would give her the secret he used to keep working this depressing job. What secret spell could quiet her conscience and remind her that nothing mattered as much as the world Harmony would bring?

Eventually the door opened, and Ginny slipped in. She was still wearing one of her performance dresses, with its evocative colors and cuts. Who knew what terrible things she’d done while wearing it? At least I don’t have to feel guilty about seeing other ponies. She’s with them every day from noonday to midnight. “Productive day?” Ginny asked, grinning at her. “Tastes like someone learned some interesting things while I was out. I can’t wait to hear.”

Star cast her usual silence spell, though it actually took a second try. Her heart just wasn’t in it right now. Still, it would be even worse if she didn’t share. During their first meeting, Geist had threatened to kill her if she became disloyal. Even if he’d never been violent since, the threat was always there, lurking in her shadows.

“I explored, like you suggested,” she said. “Met a hippogriff who would show me around. The Undercastle has secret tunnels—passages between sections that aren’t easy to see from up here. I think Stygian’s Gate wants to keep its skills separate. We don’t find out about what’s going on below, and the ones they’re hiding down there don’t find out about us.”

“Oh, that is interesting.” Ginny removed her dress with exaggerated sensuality, like she was performing for Star all along. The mixture of so many smells under there didn’t have the effect Ginny probably wanted, though. This was a pony with so many relationships that Star herself could only rent her time. Even if she hadn’t known she was just a changeling underneath, an assassin… “Who are they hiding?”

“Discord,” she said. When the spy only looked blankly back, she continued, her tone more disbelieving the more she said. “Spirit of chaos? Defeating him was one of Twilight’s six great works? Being of corruption and despair? Demigod bound only by the divine grace of the princess?”

“Oh.” Ginny settled onto the edge of the bed, stretching out and lifting her tail provocatively. “Never heard of him. But you sure make him sound like somepony who’d be hiding in a rebellion. Still… doesn’t sound that interesting. If he had any power left, I’d know about him. If I’ve never heard that name, he doesn’t matter. Don’t get too worked up.”

You think that’s what I’m upset about? Star snapped around to glare at Ginny, but only for a few seconds. Now that she thought about it, maybe she didn’t want to share. You’d probably go through there and kill all those creatures yourself if you thought the princess wanted you to. And you wouldn’t even feel guilty while you did it.

“It’s important,” she insisted. “Discord used to be the princess’s greatest enemy, left over from the world before. She’ll want to know about this, I promise.”

“You can tell her,” Ginny said, rolling over. “When we go. We’ve almost learned all we need. Give me a few more days to get a map of these tunnels worked out. They’re not as safe as the ponies here think they are. Once we can give the princess a map, it’ll be job done. You’ve done good work here, Star Orchid. The princess was right to think you could be more than another clerk in her court. Just don’t let them figure you out and slit your throat before we leave, yeah?”

Her heart went cold. “When would we… leave, exactly?”

Ginny hardly seemed to be paying attention. “As soon as they send us together on a mission outside Hollow Shades. We could escape right now, but then they’d know they were in trouble. They might go to ground, hide out in the wilderness somewhere… and we’d be back to where we started. For all this work to matter, we have to get out while they don’t suspect anything. Concord finds out in time to deploy over here, and… that’s it. Equestria’s a little safer.”

Chapter 19: Horologium

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It had been a long time since Twilight heard the bells of warning toll through the ancient castle. So long, in fact, that she wasn’t even sure they were still working. She learned then just how well they were doing as the ringing disrupted her concentration and caused a spell she was working on to fall apart.

At least I don’t sleep anymore. If I still did that, I would probably be annoyed. When Twilight grew annoyed, her choices became… suboptimal. Her castle staff were probably happier that she didn’t waste her time with it.

Twilight was already in her laboratory, now staring down at a glowing pile of wire melted together with the failed spell she was creating. I still have the design. I’ll try again when this is resolved. She settled her goggles down on the table in front of her, replaced the little welding crystal, then concentrated on her bottom floor.

Here in the basement, not even physically attached to the castle by any passage that hadn’t been sealed, was Fortress Shining Armor, headquarters of the Unification Army. Its many crystals glittered in the light of her horn, though somehow they always seemed to be covered with dust and debris. No matter how many times she sent somepony down here to clean, things never got better.

Probably her soldiers were killing them before they finished. She should really look into that.

The war room had an even mixture of high officers like General Pike and ordinary soldiers, with their saddlebags and identical expressions. Both saluted to her in turn, though she could tell from the slight differences in angle and attitude which of them were actually her soldiers, and which were only pretending. But if they didn’t pretend hard enough, she would save them the trouble and dissolve that distinction herself.

“Princess!” Pike was already here, his uniform half-on and his mane disheveled. But considering the circumstances, she wasn’t upset. “That was faster than I expected. I was just about to send a telegram to the castle.”

“No need. I have spells in place for events like this… I suppose I should be relieved they’re still working.” She strode through the control room, past a gigantic map of Concord, built on three overlapping levels. It was so large that only a unicorn could effectively move the pieces around on it. Or would’ve been able, if the map wasn’t enchanted. Twilight had built something better than the Cutie Map, without any of the stupid tree’s magic. Every group of soldiers was here, including the large numbers all packed in tight in the bottom level. “What have you learned?”

Pike removed a slip of paper from a nearby aid, holding it in his magic and squinting down at the writing there. One of Twilight’s own ancient machines had printed that output, translated into her own personal format of dense dots. That every pony who worked this close to her had to learn, naturally.

“Single object. Traveling at… rainboom 3? What does that even mean, Princess?”

Her eyes narrowed, and she snatched the little slip of paper. Getting him to explain what he couldn’t understand was a waste of her time. Single object, smaller than any carrier. It had probably been a cargo drop. She barely had to glance at the location to see that it confirmed everything she suspected. She would have to consult a map, but these numbers seemed to directly line up with Hollow Shades.

They’re not even trying to hide it anymore. Don’t they realize I’m going to come for them? Their ancestors made peace impossible. It didn’t matter that those ancient warmongers were dead, and everything they’d wanted to accomplish. Twilight would never forget what they’d taken from her.

“What does it say, Princess?” Pike asked. Not demanding or disrespectful, just curious. He needed her cooperation to do his job, and she wasn’t going to deny him.

“A single very vast object approached one of our cities traveling several times the speed of sound. It wasn’t an attack, but slowed before it hit. I’m guessing it was carrying supplies for somepony there.”

Pike took that in, then the paper too as soon as Twilight offered it back to him. “Why would they do that in one of our cities? Are they… insane, Princess? Now we know where they are! Why not… why not hide away, and receive their delivery in secret? Surely this enemy must not all be fools, or you would’ve defeated them long ago.”

She nodded. “It is… strange. I can’t decide if it speaks of desperation, or overconfidence. Something this loud would wake the entire city. There would be no hope of concealing their presence from the local ponies. I wonder if this is the beginning of another war.” She turned to the side, past General Pike. There were some commands that surpassed even him. Secrets she kept from anypony, since there was no way to know where the spies in her own organization might be. Only by trusting the knowledge exclusively to her creations could she be sure it would remain hidden.

“Officer, identify.”

“Captain 133-Unicorn-S,” she responded, voice entirely flat. There was nothing about her rank that was remarkable, except for that last letter. Under that bleached mane and gray coat, 133 had once been Twilight’s friend. A general who had done incredible things in service of Equestria. Before her death. There was almost no trace of that pony left, of course. Only the occasional twinkle of recognition. Twilight was probably imagining even those.

“Is your company ready to deploy, 133-Unicorn-S?”

She saluted. “My company is ready to deploy.”

“Mobilize now. You will receive orders by wire in a few minutes.” That way Pike doesn’t find out what I’m doing.

He watched from just over her shoulder, confusion visible on his face. But despite how much he obviously wanted to ask, he kept his mouth closed. Pike understood the importance of trust between them.

“Yes, Princess.” 133 Saluted, then turned to march away. Twilight waited for her to vanish down the hall before she returned her attention to Pike. “I will be giving the drive corps a new heading. We’ll approach this location, but on a gradual arc along Equestria’s border that does not make it immediately obvious we’re heading for them. I have ponies on the ground, and I will wait for their report before I commit. I want you to ensure that Concord is ready for a war of any size when we arrive. You saw what our enemy looks like.”

“I will call every soldier to service,” Pike said. “But Princess—you saw the powers they wield. I fear we may suffer many losses if we do not change our strategy.”

I would’ve been closer to solving that if that alarm hadn’t ruined my spell. Of course that wasn’t Pike’s fault. He hadn’t had anything to do with it. She could explain to the criminals how they’d wasted a day of her spellcasting time before they were hung. “We have fought enemies like this before,” she lied. “We triumphed then; we shall find victory now. I will have replacement weapons made available to you when the time comes.”

He saluted, then vanished to obey her orders. He wasn’t the sort of pony to stick around and need her to micromanage him. Otherwise she would’ve replaced him long ago. As soon as she had a moment of privacy with a telegraph, she sent her orders through the Unification Army’s own relay system. “Deploy to outside Hollow Shades and wait for my scroll. Pack for an incursion into a city. Detain any you find leaving until I arrive.”

I hope I don’t have to burn another city down. It had been so long since Equestria went to war with itself; those were not memories Twilight was eager to dig up again. But if these rebellion ponies forced her hooves, she wouldn’t hesitate. If my own creatures are working with the enemy, I’ll probably have to burn the whole town and start fresh. Write soon, Star Orchid. Share what you know while I’m still listening.

Jamie groaned, shaking off the soreness and confusion of pharmaceuticals. There was no getting around just how potent they were, yet she couldn’t have said exactly what had happened, or why. Her memory was slow to return, always hovering just out of reach. She could almost remember how she’d got here, but when she really pressed her mind, the information just didn’t come.

Wherever she was, it wasn’t very large. Whenever she moved to one side or the other, she felt dense padding. Impact foam, with fluid giving underneath. Wait a minute. I know this stuff. The one time she’d paid for an orbital trip she’d gone like this. Instead of a comfortable two days, she’d made the trip in an hour, packed up in foam like cargo.

Foam she was packed in now. The shell can’t still be habitable after all these years, can it? Otherwise we would’ve just kept living there. At least she was so drugged for the trip that she wouldn’t feel the impact. Instead of a rapid deceleration in a waiting gravity tether, she’d smack into the underside of some unknown piece of steel, just another chunk of orbiting debris until gravity eventually brought her back.

Sound roared outside, the walls of her pod shaking and tumbling. For an orbital trip, she would be one of thousands all stacked up. But given how violently she was listing to both sides, she suspected something smaller had been used.

This doesn’t feel like going up. Am I falling already?

“There’s… nowhere to send me,” she croaked. She wasn’t sure there was anyone to hear. Epsilon? Why would it be listening after ignoring her for so long? “You can’t ship me to another base. You said so yourself.”

To her surprise, the AI actually answered. Apparently it was listening after all. “You are not being sent to another base, Citizen Jamie. A suitably dramatic entry into the native settlement was prepared for you. The process is nearly complete.”

Shit. She tried to sit up, but of course she couldn’t. There was nothing in front of her but black, not so much as an emergency light in her pod. What was she supposed to do if something went wrong, anyway? These things were barely even mechanical. If they failed, you died.

“Stop. Whatever… whatever you’re thinking, it won’t work.” Entirely futile. She was fairly certain that Epsilon wasn’t going to do what she said, no matter how much she begged. But she still had to try.

“It’s too late to stop,” Epsilon countered. Its voice was clear despite the noise all around her. “You’re traveling along your descent vector now, that’s why you’re waking up. In less than five minutes, this capsule will open, depositing you near the center of town.”

“What?” She twitched, feeling the alien sensation of her wings wriggling behind her. They answered to her brain, but that sensing organ didn’t seem to know what to do with wings. “Minutes? That’s… at this point, what’s to say I don’t tell them how evil you are? Maybe the natives need to be warned about you, if you’ll capture and use your own survivors this way.”

“Your psychological profile suggests you would not abandon the population of Shelter 198.64 because of the actions of a computer. It’s still not too late to incinerate the re-entry pod if you believe that judgement to be in error.”

Could you even do that? But given one of the last things she remembered was the AI pointing a gun at her head and threatening to shoot her, she probably shouldn’t be making any judgements based off what she thought it would or wouldn’t do.

“I’ll help,” she muttered, begrudging. “Or I won’t screw the other people in there because of you, anyway. Wish I could light you on fire in the process.”

“Noted.” As ever, the AI lacked any emotion. As complex as its reasoning sometimes seemed, that was really just in the perception. “You may wish to be made aware of the other elements of the plan. You are running out of time to accept such information, in any case.”

Because you fucking drugged me for trying to run away. Instead of figuring out this body. If she’d signed up for this, Jamie would probably feel a little guilty about trying to escape. But the trade had been her cooperation for her life, there was nothing fair about that. “Tell me everything. Quickly.”

“You’re being dropped on the native settlement. You were moved a sufficient distance prior to that launch, so attempts to track your origin will not lead investigators to the shelter. Your pod has been made to resemble a falling star, to compliment the ‘Twilight’ imagery of the despot. It will incinerate fifteen seconds after opening, so make it a priority to exit quickly.”

Maybe you should’ve told me that fucking first? There wasn’t enough time to argue. Even through the thick foam, she could hear the roaring getting louder. That was probably air brakes, maybe parachutes too. “Anything else important? You want me to get permission for the city, don’t you?”

“Affirmative. You have records attached to your body, in non-electronic form. The city will not be built directly above the settlement. It is, in fact, already under construction, as it is where you were launched. Even if you do not secure permission, all that is required is a delay. Complicate their response, introduce debate. The longer they take to decide what to do, the stronger our position becomes.”

“You’re not smart enough to build a whole city on your own,” she countered. She was running out of time, she knew that. How much did she have left? “You’re going to have to wake up other people eventually, aren’t you?”

“Affirmative. The initial stages of acquiring biological resources and minerals does not require human intervention, however. The shelter’s supplies will be fully replenished, and its systems repaired before any further survivors wake. In this case, the chances of those who remain asleep are maximized.”

Lucky them.

During the remaining few moments, your landing may become uncomfortable. Please remain calm until the restraints are released, then exit promptly.”

“No fucking kidding, you just said the pod would—” Even lying down, surrounded by compression foam and probably juiced up on blood thinners and anti-coagulants, Jamie felt the deceleration like sprinting dead into a wall. She bit painfully into her tongue, while her sight went deep red despite the total absence of light. Even if she had been able to move, she would’ve been totally overwhelmed. Even twitching a leg took more strength than she had.

The roar of sound was all she knew, the violence of air-breaks and who knew what else used to slow her approach. There would be no waiting gravity net on the surface this time, no traffic controller AI to monitor every passenger and correct mistakes fast enough to make a difference. If anything in her pod failed, she’d be a crispy red smear on Shy’s roof.

Jamie had no awareness of time in that state, except to know that it felt paradoxically as slow as molasses and too rapid to keep track.

But as quickly as the deceleration came, it was suddenly over. Light blinded her, the bright orange of chemical fuels with the accompanying acrid smoke. All at once the grip on her body was released, and she flopped beside the opening.

The door had already opened for her, showing what she had somehow knew would be waiting beyond. The marketplace of Hollow Shades, deserted thanks to the curfew and the late hour. Except that there were already some eyes on her—citizens of the nearby houses, patrolling city watch. This wasn’t some stealth drop by parachute in the middle of the night. Epsilon meant for her to be seen.

Exit at once,” Epsilon said, its voice louder than the background fuzz. “The landing craft will be destroyed before it can be investigated. Flee now, or you will burn with it.”

Jamie moved, hobbling jerkily out of the opening and into the freezing air. She was dimly aware of something all over her body—she’d been dressed without ever doing it herself, and not with a drop suit either. Was it a dress? She didn’t want to slow down.

We should’ve at least rehearsed this. This is completely ridiculous.

There was no time for second guessing now. Jamie staggered forward a few more steps, straightening a little with each one.

The further she got from the pod the more alert she felt—probably her body was clearing away the last of the drugs she’d been dosed with. “Do not be alarmed. As you could not carry communications equipment, you have been implanted. You can reply, but probably should not at this time. Invent an identity for yourself and improvise. Seek line of sight with the sky if you wish to communicate.”

Like I’ll ever want to talk to you. She almost said so anyway, defying the eyes of so many creatures on her and daring Epsilon to try and find a way to ruin its plans. But as stupid as this seemed, going along with it was her only hope now. That was probably why she’d been kept unconscious in the first place.

“Ponies of Hollow Shades!” It sounded so stupid why was she doing this maybe she could run. Jamie tried, turning to the side to try and flee. But she was wearing a dress, and instead of breaking into a run she only fell into the dirt.

That was why she felt so heavy—Epsilon had made her a gown. On a museum dummy or in an illustration somewhere, Jamie probably would’ve called it beautiful. Layers of white and gold cloth overlapping, with a strange dark symbol embroidered on the center. She’d seen that mark before, though she still didn’t know what it meant. It was the one tattooed on her body, what the locals called a “cutie mark.”

The circle of watching ponies closed in slowly, as more of the staring natives were replaced with city watch in their uniforms. Somewhere in there was the Commissar. Did he know Jamie well enough to recognize her now that she looked like this?

“Ponies of Hollow Shades!” she yelled again. Without any effort on her part, her wings spread wide to both sides. By instinct maybe, or just the way her body moved when she felt threatened. “I have come from, uh… from heaven, yeah! I’ve fallen, no… I’ve come down from heaven with a message! I demand to be heard!”

Hopefully they kill me fast. Maybe they do firing squads.

There was no possible way these creatures would respond to her dinky horn and oversized wings. She was a mistake of genetic engineering and grafting. She was everything wrong with the first generation of gene-seeded babies.

Behind her came a sudden explosion of flame, bright enough that she felt the heat on her back and stumbled away. A few of the stalls along the market’s edge were too close, and vanished into the explosion of bright orange.

Then ponies began to drop. Not somehow blasted away by the force of the explosion—they were bowing to her. One by one the guards lowered themselves, until she saw the single figure she was looking for. If Hollow Shades had any authority, it came from the Commissar. Even he was bowing now, overwhelmed by what he was seeing.

Jamie didn’t much care what he thought—she really just wanted to meet up with Shy again. Maybe that pony would know what to do about her new mutations.

But she couldn’t do that now. Jamie marched over to the Commissar, gesturing for him as confidently as she could. “You are Commissar Golden Shine. You’re the, uh… honored representative of the princess and servant of Harmony.”

As she’d expected, that got his attention. My only chance is making them think that I’m part of their world, instead of here to fight it. But were they far enough from its center to stand a chance?

“You aren’t her,” he said. He was the first to rise, though he still kept his head low. Like a pony who wanted to show respect, but wasn’t sure if he should. “There are no other alicorns in all the world. The way of Harmony—teaches… that only one is needed. Why are you here?”

Shit. He was taller than she was by at least a head, and his polished armor reflected the light of the burning comet tail she had left to the city. “It is true that there was only one until… I arrived.” No, that’s too passive. “I’m not here to rule the world of ponies. Your, uh… your princess is perfect and great and wonderful and…”

His eyebrows went up. Clearly he expected more dignity from an Alicorn, and she was coming up short. This is my only chance to make a good first impression. If he doesn’t believe I’m legit, he never will.

In that desperate moment, she could think of only one thing: the truth. “I’m from Persephone, a city far in the sky. I’ve come as their envoy.”

“Oh.” He considered that a moment, glancing back to the guards on either side. But they were as confused as he was. Apparently there was nothing in their theology that explicitly forbid any of that. How far could she take that loophole?

“Commissar Shine,” she said again, before he could realize what she was doing and potentially take this in a direction she couldn’t control. “I am weary from my long journey. I would ask the hospitality of one of your residents. Somewhere cool and underground, where I could, uh… where I could… rest and stuff. Far from the center of the city. Until tomorrow, when I will meet with you again and I can explain the message I have brought.”

“Of course. I can think of one pony who would just love a visitor like you.” Was that a sneer? Was the intimidation of literally falling out of the sky wearing off already?

It didn’t matter. If he did what she demanded, then everything would be fine. At least until the real Alicorn catches wind of all this. I have one day to come up with a good story.

Jamie followed the commissar and his soldiers from the marketplace, leaving the burning wreckage of her landing pod behind her.

“Everypony out!” Wellspring called again, her voice echoing through the living area. “That’s right, you too city unicorn! No I don’t care how formally you’re dressed! Go, go, go!”

Star felt like she hadn’t even been asleep an hour when the banging started. There was no resisting it, though—if they wanted to keep their disguise, they’d have to keep following their orders. Besides, anything this loud had to be important. Had Commissar Shine found the Undercastle without her help after all? Even with what she’d learned, that wouldn’t make her look good to the court.

As they wandered out into the hallway, Ginny caught her eye, turning one leg just slightly. There was a dagger concealed there, made of a yellowy metal that blended into her claws. Could it really be that much sharper than what nature had given the griffon to begin with?

“What’s going on?” she asked, as Wellspring shoved through the crowd of drowsy ponies. They were all moving towards the central chamber, the crowd getting thicker as creatures from other passages and burrows joined them.

Even Wellspring seemed worried. “Iron Lord ordered it. He’s never done this before, so it must be bad. He didn’t tell me what was going on.”

“Oh.” Star fell back, rejoining Ginny near the rear of the crowd. The bird let the rest of the creatures here get some distance from them before saying anything, whispering into her ear. It probably looked like her lover was reassuring her, though the words were nothing at all comforting. “Did you do anything that could get you caught, Star? Are we compromised?”

She twisted to glare back, and felt the brief peck of beak on her lips. A kiss, though there was nothing like passion in it. For once Ginny was just acting, and it didn’t upset her. The old routine actually made all this feel more authentic. “Of course not. I didn’t go anywhere without Windbrisk. There’s nothing to catch.”

Ginny shook her head, but didn’t get a chance to reply. They were running out of time, and apparently there were things more important to her. “If we have to run, stay close to me no matter what I look like. Most creatures don’t know how to face an enemy that keeps changing shape. I won’t hurt you by accident.”

The Undercastle’s central chamber was already packed with creatures by the time they arrived, crowding several of its levels. They were up on the third floor, which meant they could barely see the outline of the Iron Lord at the bottom. He wasn’t like the princess, who was never far from her royal guards. He sat alone on his wheelchair in the center of the stage, completely unprotected. If an assassin came for him, he’d be bleeding out in the dirt before anypony in the room could react.

Maybe that’s how this is going to end. You would like to leave their leader mysteriously dead on our way out, wouldn’t you Geist? But shouldn’t she too?

“That will have to be enough,” he said, voice booming through the space. Magic might’ve amplified it, but there was no greater strength. This wasn’t the Royal Canterlot Voice, this carried every rasping cough and the hiss of his breathing machine. “The context of everything we’ve been working for has… just changed irrevocably.”

His hands shook as he fumbled with a piece of glowing glass, slipping for a moment before obeying his will. The space on the wall behind him was suddenly filled with… maps? Not the way Star was used to—if anything, this looked like the ancient carvings she’d seen beneath Hollow Shades. The planet’s surface and Shades atop them were only a single layer on the map.

“I believed, and I said, and then you believed, that I was Equestria’s only friend. It appears I was wrong.”

He gestured at the image, and the map came to life. A little burning trail cut through the sky, falling from… another planet layered above them? The sky? But there was more sky above it, and more above that? What was this? “I have… limited sensor coverage in the sky above Hollow Shades. I don’t know which of the platforms this evacuation… fell from.”

If Star could take solace in anything, it was that the crowd packing the balcony around her seemed just as bewildered as she was. For every one pony that seemed to comprehend, there were ten more whispering quietly to each other trying to figure out what he was saying.

Apparently Wellspring finally noticed, because she stepped up onto the platform beside him, whispering something they couldn’t hear. There was more muttering from the Iron Lord, before Wellspring took something from in front of his face. Now her voice boomed instead.

“Our noble leader called this meeting to give us hope,” she explained. “The sky has seen our need, and knows he will not remain with us forever. We must reach them before Equestria’s agents can destroy them.”

“Every field agent,” the alien creature continued. “See your supervisors. We must find my cousin before they’re killed. Everything else is secondary. Find them, and bring them here.”

Chapter 20: Perseus

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Jamie knew she was gambling with her demands, and there was no way they would lead where she wanted. But anything more direct, and it would be too obvious. Given Shy’s position within Hollow Shades, and the uneasy relationship she had with its ruler, that probably wouldn’t be a good idea. Her presence should be seen as a punishment for her, while he prepared something better.

“I’m not sure what I should call you, uh…” Golden Shine said, stumbling. At least they were walking to the Kindness district. So far, her plan was working. “We have only one Alicorn princess. Are you something similar? The… princess of the sky?”

“No,” she said hastily. “Not princess. Call me, uh… Emissary. I’m only a messenger for things greater than myself. I’m not here to claim I’m… the same as yours.”

“A holy messenger,” said somepony else. One of the guards, with their purple armor. “Are all ponies Alicorns where you come from? A kingdom of… perfect harmony? Do you think that is what our princess is trying to build, Commissar?”

“I don’t know,” he answered, pensive. “I look forward to hearing her perspective on all this in person. I expect the princess will want to give you a proper welcome, Emissary.”

“No,” said Epsilon into her ears. It seemed as though the computer was right there beside her, but none of the ponies reacted. The sound of its commutation simulated real speech so perfectly she hadn’t been able to tell them apart. “Avoid this event as long as possible, Citizen Jamie. We do not know how their despot will react. You lack the diplomatic training to resolve such an interaction in a positive way.”

No fucking kidding, she has a religion that cast technology and humans as fundamental evils. What was she then, a princess made with “Darktech?” Maybe she’d get her own name in the lore after they executed her. “In time, I cannot wait to meet her,” she said. “But for now, I don’t require anything of Concord or the rest of Equestria. I will explain it all tomorrow.”

They reached the carved entrance to Shy’s house. Bright pink flowers bloomed in the doorway, a new addition since Jamie had vanished. And what are you going to think about me, Shy? Golden Shine might not have recognized me as an Alicorn wearing a dress, but you will.

“This is a home matching your description,” Shine said. “Unless you’ve changed your mind and would rather stay in the hall of justice. Or I could find some other citizen to suit your needs.”

She shook her head. “This will do for now, if the owner approves of a guest. I won’t be staying long. Just… enough time to rest from my long journey. We can speak again in the morning, yes? I have been sent with a message for you, Golden Shine.”

His eyes widened, and he seemed to finally catch on to the fact that she’d used his name. He nodded. “I understand. I’m quite certain this local pony can be made to cooperate, one way or another.” He banged on the door with a hoof, like the police about to break into a building. “Open the door, citizen! Your presence is urgently required!”

It didn’t take long. Shy would have been asleep by now, except for Jamie’s absurdly dramatic arrival. The locks began rattling in the wood, and Shy’s voice echoed from the other side. Even now, she barely yelled. “You, uh… you know which house this is, right?” she asked.

“Yes, yes. This isn’t a search, and you aren’t under arrest. Just open the door,” Shine said, voice frustrated and annoyed. He turned to Jamie, nodding respectfully to her. “Forgive me, Emissary. But the home you requested is host to a creature of ancient privilege. You may find it fails to meet your expectations for hospitality.

Jamie shrugged. “If it does, I won’t feel it is your responsibility, or that of Equestria. I can blame the one who lives here.”

“Good.” Golden Shine stepped back from the door. “She could use a little more blame, really. Remember who it is who offended you and why.”

The door swung open. Shy stood in a thin robe, her mane in silly wooden curlers. An exaggeratedly sleepy outfit, with weariness that never reached her eyes. She saw Golden Shine first, and her expression hardened as she looked from soldier to soldier. Then she finally saw Jamie, and she nearly fell over. Her eyes jumped up to Jamie’s forehead, and the exaggerated openings for her wings on her back.

“W-what…” Shy stammered. “What’s going on?”

“We have a visitor,” Shine said. Despite as confident as he always acted, he made no move towards the open doorway. “The sounds you heard—an Emissary from some… heavenly realm. She wished to stay underground, in this part of the city. Your home was the only one that can provide what she requires. I would love to tell the princess that you refused your hospitality.”

“What? No, err…” Shy’s mouth opened and closed a few more times, muttering something. Looking to Jamie for an explanation more than the Commissar. Please don’t say anything. Don’t give me away. She’d fooled the city enough not to recognize her—as another species, in the dark, dressed up like royalty. But how long would her disguise last if Shy decided to give her away?

“My home is open to her,” Shy said, stepping to the side. “And her alone. No guards, and not you, Golden Shine.”

“See what I mean about her hospitality?” he asked Jamie. “I could try to find you somewhere else to stay, if you would wait a little longer. You must deserve better than her.”

“I am too weary to wait any longer,” Jamie said. “But thank you, Golden Shine. I will remember your, uh… your kindness, and… and how great… yeah.” She stepped through the doorway, pulling the flowing train of her white and orange dress along with her. “I expect to see you in the morning.”

“Then you will.” He nodded again, not deep enough for a bow. “I’m sorry to say it may take some time for the princess to learn of you here. There are no telegraph lines into Concord. I’ll send a messenger with daylight, but no pony knows the city’s route until it arrives at its destination. You may have to wait before you meet a creature with any real power to decide.”

She shrugged, looking as casual as she could. “I understand, Golden Shine. Take as long as you need. You may wish to delay your messenger long enough for our first conversation, so you can include my requests in the message. Rather than sending two ponies.”

Assuming you haven’t already sent someone after I landed.

“Yes, that seems… wise. I’ll wait until tomorrow morning. But no longer. I will speak to you again in the morning, Emissary. Welcome to Hollow Shades.” He turned and walked away, taking most of his soldiers with him. Jamie didn’t wait outside to tempt things into getting worse, instead nodding towards the door for Shy to close it.

Finally she did, locking each of her different seals in turn. She didn’t turn away until it was closed again, and she could finally stare at Jamie. “Am I crazy?” Shy asked. “I feel like I know you, but I don’t want to…”

Jamie answered with a hug, sudden enough that the pony balked and retreated, spreading her wings in surprise. “It’s Jamie. Under all this stupid makeup and this oversized dress.”

At least Shy didn’t pull away, instead letting her enjoy what little comfort she could find. Eventually she did let go. “Empathy? Forgive my language… but what the buck is going on here? You vanish into the night without a word, I think you’re dead… and the next thing I know, the whole city is shaking, and you’re dressed up pretending to be an Alicorn?”

“It’s a long story,” Jamie said. “Could you make some of that mint chamomile tea? I could tell you.”

“You bucking better,” Shy snapped. “And yes, I can. Follow me.”

She led Jamie to the kitchen. Of course she already knew where it was, but it was a relief to be back all the same. Nothing had changed in the weeks of her absence. There was still fresh fruit on the counter and an icebox in the wall.

While Shy boiled some water, Jamie began the arduous task of extricating herself from the dress. “The night I vanished—I was kidnapped. Dragged off to…” Should she be insinuating that Epsilon couldn’t be trusted? Screw the computer, it sent me here to die. Why should I cover for it? “The one who sent me here. It knew I wasn’t following its mission, so it didn’t give me a choice.”

She tossed her satchel onto the floor, then she got the zipper undone and she squirmed out of her dress onto the stone. There was another layer underneath, some kind of self-glowing fabric. The secret to what made the dress light up with embers. It might’ve been beautiful, if a horse wasn’t wearing it.

Shy turned to stare, eyes getting wider as she spoke. “You’re serious,” she finally said. “You didn’t just… that’s not an excuse. Somepony actually kidnapped you?”

Jamie nodded, shambling into one of the kitchen chairs. She didn’t bother removing the next layer down. This was enough to stop her from sweating. Though… it was probably her horn and wings Shy was staring at, not the outfit. “Yep. Or… not a pony exactly. It’s a… thinking machine. I used to think they were really advanced, but… clearly I was wrong. This one ignored everything I told it about how your world worked and turned me into this.”

One of her wings twitched, opening on its own. Maybe that was for emphasis, except that it didn’t feel like she had much control over it. She had to close her eyes and focus, touching one leg against it—then she could get it to close.

“How?” Shy asked. “I… you can’t just make an Alicorn, Jamie. They’re… it’s a process. Twilight took years to figure it out. It isn’t just something you can decide to do.”

“I didn’t decide!” She rose from her chair, and her stupid wings opened again. “I told it not to! But it didn’t listen. It… I’m not sure how the actual process worked. But if I had to guess, it must’ve taken my genes, and samples of the Orbital Correction Agents, and… sorta mashed ‘em together until they don’t reject each other? That’s really the best way I have of explaining it. Then it used a cellular dissolving agent, and a little bio-bond, and…” She posed. “Voila. One freak, fresh from the biopod.”

“This is bad.” Shy slumped onto her haunches, expression bleak. “You don’t… you can’t know how bad it is, Jamie. You’re not from here. And Golden Shine already knows! Stars above, I need to tell my husband. He’ll know what to do.”

“Husband?” She raised an eyebrow. To some part of her, it felt completely absurd to ask about something so inconsequential. That was probably why she had to ask. It was the only normal thing she could get her fingers around. “You didn’t seem like the kind of girl to marry off so young. Why would you—”

“I didn’t.” She rolled her eyes. “I was almost thirty the first time.”

Behind her, the kettle started whistling. Shy stomped one hoof, then took a deep breath and took the mitt in her teeth. She could say nothing while she worked, though it sounded like she was muttering to herself the whole time. Finally she set a tray down on the kitchen table. “You relax, Jamie. I’m going to call him. He’s the only one who might know what to do.”

She left before Jamie could object, actually lifting off into the air and flying up. There was a little door near the ceiling, one Jamie hadn’t even noticed. But now Shy slipped through it, vanishing from sight.

For a moment Jamie was left entirely alone with a cup of Shy’s familiar tea. “Can you hear me?” she asked the room, just a little louder than a whisper. Then she waited.

Only silence answered. Hiding underground didn’t just mean she would be brought to the one creature she’d thought might be able to help her—it also meant the stupid AI couldn’t hear. It wants a path to the sky. Whatever implants it hid in me aren’t strong enough to transmit through five meters of rock. Suck on that.

“Epsilon, can you hear me?” she asked again, a little louder. “I’m trying to talk to you.” More silence. After recent developments, Jamie no longer thought it was anywhere near smart enough to trick her. That meant it wasn’t there to listen, and she was safe. “Maybe there will be a way to escape. Shy can help me find a train to another city or something.”

But the next question followed naturally from that: and do what? She wasn’t just one of the horses anymore. She was a freak, a demigod to them. And she’d introduced herself directly to the enforcer of the ruling class here. If enough time went by, she could bet that Twilight herself would hear about her. If she’s even a tenth as powerful as everyone thinks, she’ll be able to find me anywhere I run.

Jamie was fucked.

The little door banged open again, and Shy drifted out, landing a few feet away with her ears flat and tail hanging limply. “H-he… he didn’t answer,” she said, voice shocked. “He always answers.”

She didn’t want to risk sounding insensitive, not to the creature who was trying to help her. But that didn’t mean she understood. “How are you calling him, anyway? You think technology is evil, don’t you?”

Shy shook her head. “Harmony does, not me. But it’s not… it’s older than that. There’s a… a tube, through the rock. It goes straight to where he works, a long long way down below us. But he didn’t say anything. None of his nurses were there either.”

So he’s a doctor. You married young, but at least you married smart. “So he’s not there,” she said. “Maybe something happened? If it’s just a tube going to one place, then all it would take is for something else to be going on, and…”

“I guess so.” Shy looked away. “I could go down there. But it’s a long way, and… with you here, Golden Shine might come back anytime. It would be better if he didn’t think I was connected to the old city through the house.”

“If you want to go, I’m coming with you,” Jamie said. “I’d rather get lost and starve in some empty cave than dragged out and hanged by an evil cult.”

Shy laughed, her voice bitter and strained. “Your master picked a strange way to keep you safe, Empathy. This is… about the stupidest thing it could do. After all these years… what will Twilight even think?” She shivered. “The last time she found an Alicorn, they went into her castle and never came out again. Okay, no Discord. Think, think…”

“I’m not sure why you wouldn’t have me,” said a voice from the hall. Male and confident, but somehow amused at the same time. “I haven’t gone anywhere, Fluttershy dear. Where else would I be?”

Your name was short for something? Jamie turned to stare, momentarily taken aback by the strange creature who had just arrived. Not a pony, not… anything she could easily identify. Like someone had taken body parts and fired them out of a shotgun until they stuck long enough to come to life. Then there was the scar burned right into his face and chest, that could’ve just as easily been from any number of magical girl shows. Except that it was burned right into his flesh like a brand, where no fur had grown back.

But while she stared, Shy embraced him. You’re a little young for someone like this, aren’t you? To say nothing about their other obvious physical differences. They weren’t the same species, or even remotely related species. Heck, this thing stood on two legs. Were you human before too? Maybe she wasn’t Epsilon’s first attempt after all.

“I’m going to take a guess and say that this is the reason for the earthquakes and thunder,” he said, once they broke apart. “Spectacular entrance, little Alicorn. I hope you know what you’re doing landing here. We’ve got ourselves a bit of a dictator problem. Did the Ordus Mundi send you to clean things up?”

“I have… no idea what that is,” she said flatly. “And I’m not even really…”

“She’s not a real Alicorn,” Shy supplied for her. “Something called Epsilon made her, according to her story. She’s the visitor I was telling you about, last month? The strange pony who saved this body from getting trapped in a cave and starving.”

“Is that so?” He stuck one strange paw toward her. “Any friend of Fluttershy’s is a friend of mine, then. Even if your arrival has likely cost us everything. But one disaster at a time, yeah? World’s already ended twice, so it can’t get much worse. I’m Discord, and you must be Jamie.”

She took the offered claw, or at least touched it with one of her stupid useless hooves. The whole “shaking hands” thing had never really made much sense to her to begin with, but maybe it did for him. “Sure am. I’m afraid I have… no idea what I’m supposed to do to help you.”

Discord pulled out a chair for Shy, then second for her. “Why don’t you start by telling me everything you know.”

“Well, uh…” Jamie sipped at her tea, buying herself a few precious seconds to collect her thoughts. What did a creature like this want to know, anyway? What could I possibly know that will help the people of this town? Even if the answer was “nothing,” that didn’t mean Jamie wouldn’t cooperate. Anything short of admitting to the shelter and helping the ponies find it. It didn’t matter how much she hated Epsilon, that wouldn’t translate into putting her fellow humans at risk. “About what, exactly? I was never very well informed about… anything.”

Discord was still smiling, despite his dire predictions. Maybe thinking the world would end was just another day for him. Do those burns still hurt? “Start by telling me where you’re from. I saw your pod falling. Which Orbital? Did the Mundi send you?”

You know about the shell? There was no reason to try and keep it secret, anyway. Any creature with a reasonably good telescope would be able to recognize the underside of the shell for what it was. “Persephone Platform,” she answered. “My parents lived on Luna, though. I wanted a little space after primary school, where they couldn’t control me. You know how teenagers are.”

“Persephone,” Discord repeated. “I haven’t heard it called by that name in eons. You really aren’t from the Mundi. So things aren’t well in heaven.” He sighed exaggeratedly. “As above, so below.”

“You didn’t say you knew where she was from!” Shy said, settling her own empty glass on the table between them. “You could’ve said that a month ago!”

“I didn’t know a month ago,” he said. “And I still don’t know how she exists. What a delicious wrench in Twilight’s perfect little nationstate. At least we’ll be able to smile when Hollow Shades burns, knowing Twilight is furious every moment. Unless… the one who sent you can do something about it. Why are you here, exactly?”

No sense hiding what I’ll ask for publicly tomorrow anyway. “We want Hollow Shades to look the other way while we build something about ten kilometers from here. Out in the jungle, far enough that it shouldn’t get in anypony’s way.”

“And why would you want to do that? All that space up there for the taking. Why come back down?”

Jamie sighed. “Because we never left. I’m from Persephone, but I evacuated when everyone else did. That was… thousands and thousands of years ago. Before ponies existed. Back when everyone walked on two legs and their bodies actually made sense.”

“He was right,” he whispered. “I tell you, Fluttershy. Ever since I lost my magic, I’ve been losing my touch. Apparently you can cast spells with the sheer force of wishful thinking. We’ve been living below our station all these years.”

She didn’t laugh. “He… the one leading Stygian’s Gate? Is that why you’re back in the middle of the night?”

Discord nodded eagerly. “When your friend here dramatically fell from heaven, he called everyone together. To him it wasn’t the end of the world, with Twilight finally noticing our little hideout. It was the chance for real allies. I suppose it might be, if you’ve come to build a city. Those would be more allies than we had before. But can you fight a god? Things have become well and truly out of control since you tried to fumigate the planet and clear off the organic terraforming film. But is that our fault or yours?”

You know what’s actually going on. Discord spoke with certainty, and even seemed to know about the plan the emergency shelters had meant to carry out. “What happened?” she asked. “I know I’m supposed to be… helping you not die. But what happened while I was asleep? How the fuck is there an evil dictator murdering everyone who doesn’t believe in her stupid religion? How did everything get so out of control?”

“What’s terraforming?” Shy asked. “It sounds familiar, Discord. But I can’t… quite remember where I heard it.”

“Unpleasant memories, sweetheart. You’ve probably been trying to forget, and I don’t blame you. I would too, if I could.”

At least this was something Jamie could actually answer. “In my time, we were… fighting a war, with ourselves. It started off small, but the more people died the worse it got. Eventually the planet became uninhabitable. The orbital platforms were worse, the outer colonies were all dark… so some smart people put a plan in place to fix things. Anyone who was still alive could crawl into a shelter and sleep, while all the engineers and inventors and biologists in the world poured their lives into a great machine. We gave it total control of the orbital platforms, at least the ones that were still left. The living sections were all poisoned and boobytrapped, but it wasn’t alive. Besides, it would have all the time it needed. Thousands of years.

“And it must’ve worked. There’s green down here again. The water isn’t poison, the air isn’t suffocating us. So after all that, the plan worked! If it wasn’t for the evil dictator thing, this would be perfect!”

“Oh.” Shy seemed to sink a little lower into her seat, ears flattening. She glanced sidelong at Discord. “Is this the same… machine? The one that…”

“CTI,” Discord said, reciting the acronym like a curse on his tongue. “Central Terraforming Intelligence. Let’s just say it developed some… unique ways to accomplish its goals, Jamie. Next thing you know Dear Princess Twilight had completely lost her mind, Equestria was in turmoil, and no one really understood what they had just defeated. But the dead were still dead, and the wounds it inflicted festered and rotted. Yet… it can’t have created you. We destroyed it, saved the world. Or what was left of it, anyway.”

“It didn’t,” she said. “My… my shelter did say the governing intelligence wasn’t responding, presumed destroyed. I guess… that’s why I was woken up. Not to hurt anyone living on the surface, but to rebuild. See… we’ve been frozen a long time. Even our best construction, our most advanced self-repair and maintenance… it still rots. If we don’t start waking up people, then the population will die. Probably the last humans left in the world.”

Shy nodded, patting her foreleg with one of her hooves. “I’m sorry, Jamie. That sounds like a lot of weight for one pony to carry.”

“But you’re not the last,” Discord said, as soon as she’d finished. “Ferris Abrams… leader of Stygian’s Gate… that’s at least one more. Granted, his shelter was completely destroyed, nothing down there but people soup. He’s… nearly soup himself, honestly. Maybe you can use your new Alicorn powers and fix that? I would’ve done something about it myself, but as you can see…”

Her eyebrows went up. “I don’t have any powers. The emergency intelligence in my shelter made me, like I said. Because it thought you would respond better to negotiating with an Alicorn than a regular horse, the way I was last time. It was too stupid to realize how insane that was, even when I pointed it out.”

“You are an Alicorn,” Discord said flatly. “That means you have their abilities, regardless of how you got there. But clearly you don’t know how to use them, so… maybe not the route the Iron Lord needs.”

“Wait a minute…” She rose, turning her tail on them and pacing to the end of the room. Moving helped her think, though the weight on her shoulders now still felt overwhelming. “I almost missed… you said I’m not the last? There’s someone else? Ferris Abrams. That’s… you know another human? Where? I want to meet him! Does he know the secret to coping with being a horse? Maybe… I could use all the help I can get.”

Discord laughed again. “I’m sure he would be just as happy to meet you, summer fledgling. Then you can be the one to tell him that you’ve destroyed everything he’s working for by attracting the wrath of a god. Better you than me.”

“Discord, that’s not very nice,” Shy chided. “She was a victim too. Sent against her will…”

“I don’t know what I’ve revealed… I don’t even know who you are,” Jamie said. “But I don’t want anyone to get hurt on my behalf. If there’s a way for all of us to live through this, tell me. I’ll do what I can.”

Jamie was no hero, and no adventurer. But Epsilon hadn’t given her a choice.

“I’ll return to the underground and share what I’ve learned,” Discord said. “But it would probably be best if you didn’t go yourself. Or… spent too long in this home, for that matter. Not to be unfriendly, but—”

“Twilight already hates me,” Shy supplied. “And she’d kill my husband if she could. Staying with us is going to guarantee she thinks you’re fighting against her. We need to think of something better.”

“I leave in a rage?” Jamie suggested. “When they come back tomorrow, I can say how much I hated it, how badly I was treated… not sure how I can work with you on anything after that, though.”

“Simple enough.” Discord folded his arms. “Rebellion has ponies who can get in touch with you. Just spend plenty of time in public to make yourself accessible. I… don’t know the specifics, that kind of work is beneath me. But they’ll find you.”

Chapter 21: Cancer

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Jamie shifted uncomfortably in the dress that didn’t feel like it was hers, wishing very much that she could be back in the shelter. If only someone else’s pod had been failing, then she wouldn’t be out here playing horse. She could wake up, blissfully unaware of all the difficulties that transpired while she slept. Except they might never wake up now. If their evil princess can find the emergency shelter, she will probably kill everyone inside.

Apparently the dictator was evil enough that she might just invade and slaughter every person in Hollow Shades because Jamie had appeared there. It was all about controlling the flow of information, and nothing at all about morality. The princess had given up on that a long time ago.

Discord thinks she had good reasons. Something about the governing intelligence and the harm it had caused? Jamie had a hard time understanding everything Discord meant, but he hadn’t stayed long enough to finish explaining. He wanted to go back and tell their secret human about her; someone called the Iron Lord. Leader of the rebellion. Of course another survivor would actually be making a difference, instead of selfishly hiding and getting nothing done.

That wasn’t quite true—she was getting Twilight to turn her attention to Hollow Shades, and likely destroy the rebellion in the process. Jamie the failure was on a roll.

She probably wasn’t wearing the dress right. Or maybe she was going to tear it and show off how obviously not royal she was to Golden Shine and half of Hollow Shades. Her impression of regality was one of the few defenses anypony had, and it was going to go up in smoke.

“He’s at the door,” Shy said, poking her head into the little sitting room. “You should probably just go out. If we let him in, he might take advantage and start searching the place.”

“Makes sense.” Jamie leaned forward, hugging the other horse briefly. “Thank you for helping. I’m sorry I brought so much trouble for you. I didn’t mean to!”

“I know.” She let go quickly. “You didn’t have a choice either, Jamie. I know that look. Sometimes ponies don’t get to choose what kind of lives they’ll live. Action grabs you by the bridle and yanks you out of where you felt safe. It’s been… happening to me my whole life. Most of the time, there isn’t so much at stake.”

Thanks, Shy. Really comforting. “I’m not cut out for this,” she muttered, reaching up to check her mane one last time. Without understanding how to use her horn, it was all she could do to use her hooves for the task. “If this goes bad, I’m sorry. I’m trying my best.”

She marched past Shy, through to the front of the house. The stone doorway was already open, and Golden Shine peeked out from the other side.

He’d dressed formally for the occasion, instead of the mismatch of armor and unruly mane. He had a sharp uniform, though his oversized axe was still strapped to his side. Or… was that a different, formal axe? Only for the special beheadings.

“Emissary,” he said, bowing his head respectfully to her. “I hope the accommodations were to your liking.”

“It wasn’t your fault.” Jamie stormed out the door, spinning to glare back into the house. This was the hard part. “But I don’t think I’ll ever want to stay a second night.” She did her best to glare at Shy, though her heart just wasn’t in it. The pegasus was more her friend now than ever before. “I don’t want to see her again, Golden Shine. Perhaps we could have our conversation somewhere a little more… respectful, of my diplomatic visit.”

Golden Shine turned, glaring back through the door at Shy. Apparently their little ruse was working. “Do you think your position protects you from infinite slights? Sooner or later, the princess will grow tired of you.”

Shy shrugged. “Maybe. She hasn’t yet.” She slammed the door in his face.

You and your husband both seemed to know her. There’s more here I’m not understanding. But Jamie wouldn’t be solving that particular riddle now. She could worry about that once she was sure she wasn’t going to be executed and the emergency shelter wasn’t going to murder everyone.

“Connection reestablished,” Epsilon announced. “You should not have drifted out of contact for so long. Make an effort to remain on the surface in the future.”

Jamie wanted to say the cruelest thing she could, maybe call it a pocket calculator. That seemed like the sort of insult a computer should get upset about. But not with Golden Shine and a dozen soldiers watching her.

Not just them. The streets were packed with ponies, more than she’d ever seen in one place before. Like they heard this would be happening, and they all wanted to be out to see me. They had no interest in Golden Shine or his guards, they were all staring at Jamie.

Epsilon might be a truly lousy strategist, but at least it knew how to make a fancy dress. Even in daylight, the overlapping patterns of almost-flames apparently trapped in the thread attracted stares and whispers. Awed, she hoped. “Is there anything else you would like to see, Emissary? Have you ever visited a land city before?”

And the longer they’re looking at me, the more likely someone is to see through the makeup and outfit and recognize me. She’d done her best to wear bits and pieces of her clothes around the city, so at least she could thank her past for that much. Otherwise, this would already be over the instant he saw her mark. Those things were so unique that they basically didn’t repeat. Or… that was the way she understood it, anyway.

“Nothing is more important than our arrangements,” she said. “When we’ve discussed, perhaps then a tour. But first… you need to know so you can send a messenger to the princess, isn’t that what you said?”

“Yes, of course.” He smiled towards her, seeming suddenly very pleased with something. “There is a suitable place to talk in the Hall of Justice. It’s the only large meeting hall in the city. Hollow Shades is… one of Equestria’s smaller settlements. You couldn’t announce your arrival in Concord instead?”

Jamie didn’t have long to answer, only a few seconds. But she’d thought about this one. “You saw the way I arrived. I feared that the princess might think her kingdom was under attack. Landing so far away… I hoped to show my, uh… our… desires are similarly small. But not here—this conversation should be private.”

“Of course. Follow us.”

Jamie did, staying close behind the dense pack of city watch. She couldn’t help but think she was somehow playing into Twilight’s mythology, showing these ponies that creatures from beyond visited their princess. Yet… what else could she do? Siding openly with the rebellion would certainly attract only a murderous response. As much as I want to. Someone has to do something about evil, or it just keeps festering.

Someone brave and skilled and useful. Someone else.

The Hall of Justice was in the Magic district, a stone fortress that was more of a revolutionary-war era star fortress than anything else. There were high stone walls around the compound, which was as close as Jamie had ever been before. The ones on those walls always seemed so unfriendly that she never wanted to find out more.

But now the gates opened wide for them, permitting her group inside but not the crowd. And if they want to kill me in here, there won’t be anything for me to do to stop them. Nobody will even know.

“You are unqualified to negotiate. You should have your conversation in a room with windows. That way you will not be on your own.”

If I can. For once, Jamie wouldn’t say no to another point of view, even if it was the one who’d gotten her into this mess in the first place. If only I could just take this whole thing back and fly into the sky the way I came. Just pretend you didn’t see me, guys! This was an accident!

“The Hall of Justice is the capital of a remote town like Hollow Shades,” Golden Shine explained. “I suspect you must already know some of that. You knew I was the authority here when you landed. And my name too, which I found unusual. Have you been observing Equestria from above?”

“We, uh… yeah,” she stammered. “Not me personally, but Equestria seems so interesting. Your world is so… dynamic. Everyone moving, changing. It’s fascinating to watch.”

Golden Shine shifted uncomfortably on his hooves, unsure of how to respond. He gestured, and most of the guards returned to the walls. Only a few dressed in black instead of white accompanied them to the building’s front doors. “I’m sure you plan to justify your observation to our princess. I can’t imagine she would be thrilled at eyes on her without permission.”

“Not her,” Jamie said hastily. “Not an Alicorn. But there weren’t any Alicorns in Hollow Shades until last night.”

And right there in the courtyard—a set of metal restraints, slightly rusted from disuse, with a wall behind them. The wall was pockmarked, as though many objects had been fired in its direction. So they did firing squads too, that was just fantastic.

Golden Shine grumbled quietly to himself at that, but didn’t offer any argument. He led her through another set of reinforced gates, with a strange metal protrusions settled into slits in the walls like mounted guns. Guns without barrels for bullets, or the coil of a plasma-channel. Curious.

But then they were inside, into a circular lobby with six murals on the wall. Each one showed a stylized pony, with a vague mark behind them Jamie took to be their “cutie mark.” Like art of the ancient saints, each one depicted doing something central to their domain. The one showing Princess Twilight actually glowed, and the portrait seemed to move to watch them as they passed through.

Jamie could hear screaming coming from down the hall, far away, and smell something metallic on the air. But here in the upper floor, the ground was polished wood and marble, with little crystals set into the walls providing a gentle glow for their path.

Soon they reached a conference room, lit with a skylight leading all the way up. Good, I won’t have to face this alone. Though what Epsilon was going to be able to tell her, she couldn’t say for sure. If only I knew some of their magic. I could pretend I was doing it while talking to the AI and say I was talking to the people in the sky.

“It wouldn’t be proper for anypony to use the princess’s seat,” Golden Shine said, before pulling out a large, straight-backed chair for her. “But I hope this will do.”

She sat. If only she’d had her proper body, she probably could’ve made herself seem dignified and important while she did so. As it was, she wasn’t really sure what to do with the oversized folds and twists of the fabric under her rump. She was probably wrinkling it all up. Just so long as I don’t tear it and look like an idiot.

Golden Shine sat at the table opposite to her, and several other ponies joined him. Not guards, this time. One mousy-looking creature brought something that was much like a typewriter, except that it only had eight keys, four to each hoof. How could she write anything with such little freedom of motion? “Maybe you can start by giving us an introduction,” Golden Shine said. “The princess should know who you are, and who you represent. That should help her grant your request more swiftly.”

Jamie shifted in her chair, thinking fast. Should I tell them something strange, or more familiar? “Empathy she said flatly. Emissary Empathy, of, uh… Persephone. City in the sky. Hopeful friend of Equestria, though that does depend on whether your princess wants heavenly visitors. Still, I think she’ll be happy that we, uh… don’t ask very much. For all we offer in return.”

There was a brief, awkward silence, and hooves clacked on a keyboard for a few more seconds. Finally they stopped, and Golden Shine nodded for her to continue. “You keep suggesting that you have something to ask of Equestria. What is it you want? I can’t imagine a civilization so perfect it dwells only in the sky has very much to ask from Equestria.

“We have a perfect princess, but… much of Equestria’s energy is spent overcoming the evils of imperfect creatures. We might have already joined you by now if only ponies were more obedient to our ruler’s commands.”

“Yes, uh… there is something. See, we… living in the sky, I mean… we’ve spent so long looking down at Equestria, seeing the beautiful plants and animals and stuff. We don’t have those where we come from, and… some of us would like to have them in our lives. We’re asking for peace with Equestria, and a small patch of land to build. It is near Hollow Shades, which is why we came here.”

Thanks to meeting back up with Shy, she now had that original map. She pulled it out, settling it on the table between them. “It would be about the same size as Hollow Shades, about a day’s walk from here. That way your city can keep expanding for many years without ours ever getting in your way.”

Golden Shine looked down at the map, holding it in his magic and staring. After a few more seconds he set it back down, expression hardening. “Observing us for so long, Emissary… you must know about Concord, and its path across Equestria.”

She nodded. “Your capital. It… destroys the ecosystems it passes over.”

“And it’s this promise I can’t make without the princess,” Golden Shine said. “You wish for peace, that is easy. Your celestial visitors have nothing to fear from Equestria. But I have no power over where Concord decides to travel. It has swept cities in its path before, and may again. Only the princess knows why it chooses the route it does.”

“Express willingness to move later if necessary,” Epsilon demanded, speaking right into her ears. “If we have any time to build, we will have defenses in place. It is not relevant whether or not the princess grants formal permission.”

“Maybe…” Jamie said. “Could we establish a camp, then? Understanding that we might need to move, if your princess so requires?”

Golden Shine’s frown deepened, and he seemed like he might refuse. But then he nodded. “I suppose that would require… the princess might revoke any permission I grant you, understand that. And it would come with conditions.”

She raised an eyebrow, trying to look as imperious as possible. But Jamie was not a terribly good actress.

“Such as?”

“Equestria is a sacred place,” Golden Shine recited. “If your creatures wish to visit, they will follow the essence of our laws. In time the princess may appoint you a Commissar of your own, but for now, it would be irresponsible for me not to inspect what you had built. Say… every two weeks. I expect a reply from the princess within the month, so giving you half the time to build seems like enough. Do you… understand our laws?”

She nearly answered reflexively, but this time Jamie hesitated. It would be trivial for Golden Shine to figure out she was lying, just by asking a question or two. She hadn’t picked up enough over the course of a month to say she understood their religion.

But if there was one thing Jamie could do like a pro, it was acting noncommittally.

“Not as well as I’d like to,” she said. “We can see your nation from up high. But the little rules that govern everyone are… hard to guess from so far away.” Does that even make sense?

“Then perhaps it would be unwise for you to get too far,” Golden Shine said. “I would be willing to host you myself, Emissary. I could instruct you in the ways of Harmony as I might teach one of my own disciples. Then you could send word back to anyone who wants to visit Equestria.”

Like we would just do whatever you said. If her story was true, the idea of following those rules seemed absurd. It was our planet first.

“The construction crew will be sent in anyway. Tell him that the builders will arrive before anyone moves in.”

“That sounds… like a good idea,” she admitted. As loathe as she was to even think about spending more time with this creature. The same one who routinely punished people for incredibly stupid things. Kiss the wrong kind of person? That wasn’t allowed. Say the wrong words? That was a whipping too.

“We will send our builders, but no visitors until I can understand your laws fully.”

Golden Shine looked like he might be about to argue with her, until he shrugged. “Just remember, the princess might revoke that permission. Your servants may build for nothing.”

Jamie shrugged. “I don’t think your princess will turn us away. Twilight seems like an enlightened ruler. Forward-thinking! Having friends in the sky will surely benefit Equestria. Maybe she’ll want to build a city of her own in our world one day.”

There was another awkward silence, broken only by the clacking of the keyboard. Finally the clerk nodded, and Golden Shine rose. “We can begin with your accommodations. I’m sure the princess won’t mind if you use her royal quarters. Until she arrives, of course. Then I’ll have to put you somewhere else. But it should do for the moment.”

“Certainly,” Jamie said, rising too. “And, uh… I would like to visit your town at least once each day while I’m studying here. You could show me how… how your laws are enforced.”

Golden Shine grinned wickedly at her. “I will take special pleasure in demonstrating that for you, Emissary.”

“I can’t believe they picked us for this,” Star whispered, as they crept through the tunnels of Hollow Shades. They weren’t so deep that they could do whatever they wanted, though—this mission took them right to the surface. If she bumped the wrong bit of metal, she’d make some noise in the middle of the market, and the entire thing would be ruined.

I’ll probably be whipped for climbing somewhere I don’t belong, too. There’s no end of good news.

“It makes perfect sense,” Ginny said. She’d changed into a pony, something Star had almost never seen her do. A bat, like a female version of the creature everyone knew as Geist. There just wasn’t enough space for something as big as a griffon, even a female one. Star guessed that staying female was for her, though she was beginning to wonder. Mares did run the world, maybe the stallion was more the disguise.

“It’s risk minimization, sweetie. We’re not from here, so if anything goes wrong, we’re less likely to be attached to the rebellion. We’d also be the perfect saps if they were trying to get someone caught, but I don’t think that’s the case. Delivering a message to a pony already expecting a message, that just wouldn’t be the way to get rid of us.”

“You think they’ll do that? They seem so…” She thought briefly of Windbrisk, and his passionate defense of those little creatures. “Sincere.”

Ginny chuckled quietly to herself. “Some of them are. But just because someone’s a fanatic doesn’t mean they’re any less insane—probably it’s the opposite. No creature is more dangerous than somepony who knows they’re doing the right thing.”

They traveled in silence for a bit, Star clutching the satchel close to her chest. More than once she’d thought about opening it. But the spell wasn’t something she could foil. The short-term message would erase itself in moments after she opened it. Her best chance of reading the rebellion’s letter would be to take it back after their mark had it.

“An Alicorn that fell from the sky…” Ginny muttered. “I wonder whose clan wants to die.”

“You… what?” Star stared in her direction, entirely baffled for a second. “What are you talking about?”

Ginny watched, silent for a few seconds, apparently considering whether or not to answer. Eventually she did. “Changelings. We’re separated into clans now, depending on the emotions we prefer. And no, it’s not—we don’t harvest ponies anymore. It’s a mutual thing. We get magic from our friendships, and the harmony we share with other creatures. Or… other ways.” She leered, and Star Orchid needed no more detail than that. She knew where Geist worked, so she could guess at where the bug got her magic.

“This ‘Alicorn’ who landed here. There’s no such thing as other Alicorns, so she’s a changeling. Whoever’s clan had the balls to claim the princess’s own glory like that… if they’re lucky, they’ll just get dissolved into the other clans. But the princess might just burn them all.”

Star stopped in the tunnel, turning to look back in shock. “You’re not… you’re not worried it might be your family?”

Ginny shoved past her. “Not worried, because it didn’t happen. Clan Devotion, we’re simple creatures. We do what the princess says. That’s got to be some moron from Joy, or maybe Ambition. Yeah… I figure it’s Ambition. Too bad about losing another clan. Guess that’s the way it goes.”

Why? Star asked. “What’s the point of pretending to be an Alicorn? Seems like the quickest way to get the princess to tear them apart, if they’re pretending.”

“It’s the fastest either way,” Ginny said. “But mainly the story. Pony from above the sky, huh? Yeah right. Quick Trick says they came down with a lightshow and a magical dress and everything. It’s too convenient. Stygian’s Gate has all their power all tucked into Hollow Shades, right down to an underground fortress they can’t move. Where do they land? Right here. And sure enough, we’re carrying a message to them. I’m going to take a guess that you’ve got their next instructions in there. What’s the next stage of the act? How do they undermine the princess’s authority?”

“We can’t open it,” Star said hastily. “I told you. I can’t stop it from burning once it opens. I’ll have to try and read it after we give it to her.”

“Can’t put all that unicorn magic to more productive use, eh?”

They fell silent again, sneaking through the tunnels until they reached their destination. If their instructions were correct, the Emissary was being treated to private time in the town’s only luxury spa. She’d insisted on Golden Shine not joining her, some stupid story about not wanting a stallion in at the same time and her strange customs. Even Star could see through the insanity of that ruse to the plan underneath. She was making herself accessible, and they were just the ponies to deliver.

Star could tell they were getting close when she started sweating, and the walls around her became so hot that she couldn’t touch them without feeling like she might burn herself.

“You get up there and deliver,” Ginny instructed. “I’ll make sure nopony disturbs you from this end. You’re bucked if somepony comes in from up top, though.”

“Thanks for your support. For a changeling, you don’t use your powers productively very often. You could look like a city magistrate, or somepony important. You could be the one taking risks.” Star wedged herself into the narrow service passage, tucking her ears and lighting up her horn. According to the resistance’s sketches, she’d fit. Barely.

“Keep working until you’re in charge,” Ginny said flatly. “Then you can tell the newbie to do all the risky stuff too.”

Star reached the end of the pipe, then settled one hoof against the metal and pushed. It came off with a loud click, letting her climb up into the spa.

There was enough space for half a dozen ponies in here, though she could see only the one. The Alicorn who had ripped off her towel and was backing into a corner of the room, eyes wide with shock and surprise.

Star Orchid froze too, momentarily overwhelmed. This was an Alicorn, something so powerful that she was a brief speck, destined to exist for seconds in comparison to her own vast timeline. Yet…

I’ve seen you before. She couldn’t quite tell if it was a memory or just a dream. But she had seen her before. Only… she’d been smaller then. Had she not been an Alicorn?

“Don’t be afraid,” she stammered, very afraid herself. “I’m with Stygian’s Gate. I have a message for you.” She fumbled in her satchel for a moment, removing the sealed envelope. “Take that, read it, and give it back as quickly as you can.”

“Oh, r-right. Yeah. Of course.” She settled down, wings folding to her sides. That horn did seem small for a being of cosmic power—more like something a filly half her age might’ve had. But the Alicorn herself didn’t seem terribly old. Younger than Star, for sure. Shorter too, so she didn’t have Twilight’s noble build. “Message. The human sent you.” She extended a hoof, and didn’t take the letter from Star’s magic with her own. Just… waited for Star to pass it to her.

She tore it open with her mouth, horn entirely dead as she flipped it open. She muttered quietly to herself, glaring at the page. Her eyes darted over the message as she read. “Fucking hell. That’s the best they have? Great.” She passed it back a second later. “Tell them I’ll try. That’s… all I can manage right now. I’ll try.”

Star caught the letter in her magic, turning it so she could see the letters before they vanished.

It was scrawled entirely in an ancient alphabet; the same script she’d seen on that first artifact they’d discovered during her first excavation for the rebellion. Even now the edges of the letters were getting fuzzy, burning slowly away. It was only the ink that would vanish, leaving the paper blank. There wouldn’t even be pressure marks of where the letters had been.

She can read an unimaginably ancient script. Maybe she is a real Alicorn. “You can read this?” Star asked, before she could stop herself. “These… weird symbols? What is this language even called?”

She climbed back onto the empty bench, grabbing the towel with her mouth and tossing it over her back. “Simplified English. Or System Common, if you’ve got no soul. It’s the only language I can read… ever been stuck in a house with an evil monk who’s trying to teach you their weird religion and have to pretend you can understand their bible? It’s my first time. And now I’m stuck with it a little longer. The things I do to save the world.”

“I think they’ll send me again,” Star stammered, folding the letter back up. “In a few days. I’ll… tell them what you said. You’re going to try?”

“Yep,” she answered. “Way over what I’m qualified for. But try or die… I’ll pick try.”

Chapter 22: Canis

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Star Orchid stared down at the scroll in front of her, chewing subconsciously on the feathery tip of her quill. This message wasn’t scribbled hastily, but copied with perfect calligraphic order, exactly as she wrote any court document she thought the princess might see. As perfect as she could create, though from her that was never quite good enough.

The little fireplace against the far wall crackled merrily, turning dry wood into an uneven orange glow. Star hadn’t seen any of the other residents here use their fireplaces, and she was sweating enough to know why. But she didn’t want to take any chance of being seen. Even the magical lights might be suspect if she let them run.

She kept glancing up at the wall of her cramped quarters, waiting for some army of rebels to arrive and seize it. The Iron Lord’s eyes would be on her, surely. Maybe Windbrisk would be the one to execute her, before those helpless children he’d saved.

It was all here, every detail she could think of being useful to the princess. Enough trips to the surface had given her a fairly good idea of where the Undercastle was built, even if the specific tunnels to reach it might change. She’d named as many ponies as she could, described their cutie marks, and had paragraphs about their weapons and techniques.

Each stroke of the quill felt like she was flaying those children. Maybe if they were lucky, they’d just be burned alive. An agonizing way to die, but faster than some of what happened in the palace’s darkest corners.

She squealed as something moved behind her. She was alone, that was the entire point! She tucked the sheet away as the pillows on her bed exploded outward in a flash of green changeling magic.

She sighed, slumping slightly as she saw Ginny standing there. “Thank the stars, it’s just you,” she said, picking up her quill from where she’d dropped it. Ink seeped out on the carpet. “I thought you were on a job.”

“I was,” she answered, lifting Star’s legs with a claw and snatching the scroll away. “Had to be sure of what we were sending. I’ve had missions get this far before a pony snapped.”

She skimmed the entire thing, flipping it over and reading what Star had written there too. Finally, she seemed satisfied, and settled it down on the desk in front of her. That made her chest flare with guilt far more than a dagger to the gut would’ve done. “Impressive work, Star Orchid. First assignment on the ground, and you haven’t completely lost your nerve. Installed with the enemy for weeks and you didn’t forget why we’re here.”

She turned for the door, grinning. “You should really think about what I said. Working in the court might be comfortable, but it’s nothing like this. Don’t retire when you’re done, don’t waste your potential.”

Star raised an eyebrow. Her hooves were shaking under her, but she managed not to look away. “When we’re done here, won’t the world be harmonious forever? These rebels and their Devourer… they’re the last ones. When they’re gone, ponies like you will be out of job.”

Ginny broke into booming laughter, echoing off their silence spell. She stumbled closer, resting a claw on Star’s shoulder. “And you’re still so naïve, after all this time. It’s adorable.”

“B-but…” She took a deep breath, keeping her emotions under control as best she could. “What evil will be left when we’re done here?”

“I see where you’re confused.” Ginny patted her shoulder with a claw. “It’s nothing to do with morality, Star Orchid. Everypony thinks they’re doing the right thing, all the time. Even the darkest creatures of disharmony think they’re justified. For them the evil was okay, just this once.

“There’s no such thing as good or evil. We serve the crown because that’s how a government survives. Harmony’s religion is for other creatures to worry about. It’s just another shortcut for the same thing: obedience to the princess. The two of us just skip the pomp and circumstance and get right to the meat.”

Then she winced. “Right, insensitive expression. You don’t know what meat tastes like. Just… think of it as one more thing you’re needlessly sacrificing. When this is over, Star, Clan Devotion will welcome you. It’s a rare opportunity, not one shared lightly. Think about it.”

She leaned forward, pecking Star on the cheek. It didn’t even seem like an act as she did it, Geist meant it. Star didn’t need magic to tell she meant all of it.

“Get that scroll off to the princess as soon as you can,” she said, turning to go. “I really do have to do that job now. If I run, I probably won’t be late.”

She turned, and her claws echoed away down the stone hall outside.

Star Orchid stared at her report for a good long while. How many creatures would die because of the words on these pages? There’s no such thing as good or evil. We serve the crown because that’s how a government survives.

Was the crackling fireplace a preview of the fate these creatures soon faced? It would be the kindest end for rebels.

Star aimed her horn at the scroll, finding Twilight’s little sending charm stamped into the paper. She unraveled it, then tossed her report into the fire.

If Ginny returned now, if this had all been a test, or even if Ginny planned on counting their sending scrolls later, her efforts would be doomed. Buck, Star would be doomed if they ever actually talked to the princess again. Was she giving up her life of service, just like that?

You’re wrong, Geist, Star thought bitterly, taking her pen again and starting over. I’ll show you what good looks like.

Her replacement report wasn’t as finely formatted or typographically perfect, but it would still have passed a first-year style review. Probably the princess wouldn’t care about that anyway. She just wanted to know what was going on in Hollow Shades.

Regent of Creation,

We have investigated Hollow Shades at your order. Geist and I believe previous intelligence putting the rebellion here was mistaken, as they use the city as an intermediate point to contact other forces.

You will probably have heard about the Alicorn who arrived in the city by now. Geist thinks she must be a traitor from one of the changeling Clans, though we don’t know for sure. I have spoken to her several times and couldn’t find any signs of your tremendous power in her.

Whatever forces sent her also seem to want to build a new settlement far from Hollow Shades, at the following location. You’ve probably seen this demand too, or you soon will. Perhaps if we track down whoever sent her, we can also discover the rebellion’s true location?

There are certainly ponies hostile to Concord passing through Hollow Shades, but I don’t believe the nexus of their influence is here. If it pleases the Regent, please respond with instructions.

-Star Orchid

Star didn’t wait a second from when she finished. She didn’t proofread what she’d written or fix the few stray drops of ink. She tied the sending scroll closely with a little ribbon, then levitated it towards the fireplace.

This time the flames caught the catalyst of Twilight’s magic. Instead of charring the whole thing slowly orange, they grew to a bright green flash, consuming the scroll and taking Star Orchid’s gambit with it.

Jamie had known the instant she heard the plan it was a bad idea. All Jamie had to do was a single completely impossible task. Convince Golden Shine to let her leave the city, then visit a specific cave where she could have a meeting with the rebellion’s leader. Couldn’t they just send her a damn radio or something?

But they hadn’t, nor had they left her any way to redesign the plan. She had no choice but to keep going with what they’d given her.

She only had three days to get to the requisite spot, so there was little time for planning. There was nothing to do but just slam her head into the simplest solution and hope they didn’t kill her.

Golden Shine didn’t keep her a prisoner in the Hall of Justice, though it seemed like he wanted to. He had his own duties, and when they were “too sensitive” for a visitor to Equestria to see, he left her with a pair of city watch. Simple guardsponies, who carried crude metal spears when she’d already seen more in the Hall.

She tested the bounds of her sway with them with requests for spas, shops, and restaurants. All accepted without any objections.

“I want to explore the wilderness outside the city,” she said, as soon as Golden Shine had left for his duties. “Come hiking with me.”

They shared a look, but she didn’t give them a chance to say no. Jamie left the hall through the gates, then continued all the way up the road until they’d reached the edge of Hollow Shades.

“I really don’t think we’re supposed to leave,” said the pegasus. “If we aren’t back by the end of the Commissar’s duties, he’ll be… furious.”

She didn’t stop, just shrugged one of her wings. If there was one mercy to the AI’s hasty bioengineering, it was that most of the ponies were terrified of her. Alicorns represented incredible power in their world, power that could easily kill them if they angered her.

“I will lead you,” Epsilon said. “The trip is not long, less than a kilometer. Think about what you will tell them when you arrive.”

Instead of going straight there, she ignored the AI’s instructions for an hour, traveling at random and never listening to their pleas to slow down. Neither of her guards were earth ponies, so none could keep going quite so far.

Only when they were clearly limping along after her did she finally travel to the cave entrance she’d been told about in the secret note. It was there, with the little curtain of ivy in front.

“Let’s go!” Jamie proclaimed, lifting it away with a hoof. “I’m, uh… I’m just so excited to see a real cave! Isn’t having ground amazing?”

“Why don’t…” Both had dropped behind her, one leaning on his spear, the other just flopped sideways in the grass. “You shouldn’t go in there. There could be… all kinds of dangers. We aren’t… don’t have the skills to protect you.”

“No need.” Jamie turned, smiling at them. Hopefully they wouldn’t notice how much she was shaking. “I’ll just poke around for a minute or two. You two catch your breath up here. I won’t go far.”

They shared another look. For one terrible moment, she thought they might still try to stop her.

The pegasus dropped to the ground too, bending down to take a long drink from the pond. “If you… say so, Emissary. Don’t take too long.”

Jamie picked her way cautiously over rough ground, with no obvious signs of previous travel. For all she knew she’d gone completely the wrong way and might waste what little time she had won here.

I’m not alone. It’s worth any risk to meet them for the first time. Buck Epsilon. But she couldn’t escape the consequences of her failure, and Hollow Shades even less. It wouldn’t be her fault if Twilight murdered everyone, that would still be the evil dictator’s doing. She’d feel responsible.

And she would probably be one of the first people the princess murdered, so at least she wouldn’t have to stay guilty for very long.

Jamie gritted her teeth together, stopping every minute or so to focus on her forehead again. A little glow from her horn was the most she could manage, with what little time to prepare she had before her mission began.

In the faint purple glow of her horn, Jamie could make out spectacular stalactites, weeping down with speckled reds and creams. Formations like this took centuries to appear, or longer. Eventually the princess would be here with her city, and it would all be chopped to rubble. Somehow.

Come to think of it, Concord sounds a little like a terraforming machine. Processing the surface of the planet at an industrial scale the way it does. There might’ve been hundreds of them, much earlier in the process.

“Stop where you are,” said a voice, harsh and abrupt. “Alicorn Empathy, is that right? Emissary of Persephone?”

The shock was all the stress it took for her to lose concentration on her horn and plunge herself into darkness.

For a few seconds, anyway. Brilliant spotlights suddenly shone on her, or at least she felt like they were. She whimpered, shielding her eyes with one leg. So adjusted to the gloom, it didn’t seem to help. “I thought you wanted me to come.”

Another voice answered a few moments later. “We do, Empathy. But we need to make sure you aren’t being followed. Our leader is… vulnerable. A personal meeting is both rare and stupid. But he insisted. We insist on a few precautions.”

Someone emerged from the gloom beside her, using a cold metal rod to lift her wings, and embarrassingly her tail as well. At least it only took a few seconds before they finally let her go. “No weapons.”

“I don’t know how to use weapons,” she said flatly. “Only job I ever had was data entry, and they fired me after my first month. You’re worried about nothing. I can’t hurt any of you.”

The same speaker as before laughed into the gloom, her voice echoing in the cavern. “Says the Alicorn. Princess Twilight once fought an army of a thousand stallions on her own.”

“Then you’re wasting your time either way,” Jamie said, folding her wings back to her sides with difficulty. “Look, I don’t have much time. Maybe ten more minutes before they get worried and come looking for me. Let’s move this along.”

“I agree,” said another voice. There was something over the speaker’s mouth, distorting their words a little. Even so, Jamie couldn’t identify any of the usual pony accents. “Come now, Wellspring, you’ve taken precautions. Let her join me. Empathy, nothing but apologies. But I suspect that isn’t your real name.”

The lights dimmed, finally pointing away from her face. Jamie caught another look at the cavern, which seemed as untouched as the others she’d been navigating. Except that a section of smooth polished wall had been lifted away, and now rested on its side.

Even electric lights were visible from within, and a tiny furnished chamber. Long thin lanes, with little tables at one side. A firing range?

All the furniture had been shoved aside, making room for a single table in the center. Behind it sat… the one she’d been waiting for.

The “Iron Lord” sat in a worn-down portable life-support navigator. Two of its eight service lights flashed amber. Connections meant to be temporary on wrists and back were red and inflamed, suggesting long use. What little skin she could see was sickly gray—necrosis kept at bay only through regular medication.

“The Iron Lord,” the pony beside her—Wellspring said. “Leader of Stygian’s Gate. His work saves hundreds of lives.”

“Damn.” Jamie settled into the waiting cushion across from him, staring openly. “I thought my cryocell was bad. What happened to yours?”

The room echoed with gasps and stares. This was apparently someone important, and they didn’t seem too keen on her insulting him. But if she’d been the one in the chair, it wouldn’t make her feel any better to have people lie.

The Iron Lord laughed. The respirator on his chair grew louder as it cycled in time with his breath, though it could do only so much. Sooner or later those half-rotten lungs were just going to stop. “I can see your name is ironic, Empathy,” he said, raising a shaking hand to stop one of the guards. Whatever they’d been thinking of doing to Jamie remained decisively undone.

She nodded. “It’s a fake name, might as well be a lie. I’m Jamie Sanders. No titles, no… nothing special. All that Emissary stuff is just a lie the emergency intelligence came up with. I don’t even think it’s a very good lie.”

“And I’m Ferris Abrams,” he responded, offering his hand. “I like this, right to the point. It’s our only chance of surviving the next few weeks.”

I give it even odds you don’t live through them regardless. Modern medical science didn’t let people die anymore, not without a fight. But Ferris wasn’t so much showing signs of doctor treatment as a hasty butchering. Yet he still sounded alert, and that was the most important thing.

“If you wanted to ask me about my shelter’s emergency program, it’s fully functional. It gave me this body after I got… maybe as freezer-burned as you.”

She could see his excitement, though it didn’t last for long. He didn’t want to admit just how much the news relieved him. How could she blame him? I’d trade being a horse if the alternative was being dead. In fact, she already had.

“Something to explore in the coming weeks. It might be my first request, if it weren’t for…” He trailed off, glancing up at the high ceiling. “Well, you did announce your arrival to all Equestria right on our heads. I’m told that you’re already familiar with some of the political situation here. You understand why we would be unhappy with Twilight showing Hollow Shades more scrutiny?”

She nodded. “I spent a month living with Shy. I didn’t become an expert or anything, but I tried to pick up what I could.”

“But you still chose us,” Wellspring said, glaring at her. “All the hallowed foundations in Equestria, and you choose the one place that’s going to cripple our chances of freedom.”

Jamie spread her wings reflexively, rising from her cushion. “I didn’t know you were here!” she squeaked. “More importantly, I didn’t choose to come here. The emergency intelligence picked somewhere close to where it wanted to build its city. It’s close too. If Concord tears up the ground, it will kill us.”

“Wellspring, relax.” Ferris glowered at her, until she sat back down. He didn’t even twitch in his wheelchair, yet his glance was enough to silence objection. “You don’t know all the facts.” He waited until there were no further signs of argument from her before continuing. “Your shelter is intact? How much of the population survived stasis?”

“I can’t talk to the AI down here, but I saw the numbers a few times. The shelter was a standard Yun-3. I think preservation was in the ninetieth percentile somewhere. Call it 700k?”

The Iron Lord swore loudly, hands gripping the sides of his wheelchair. Even then, he might’ve fallen, if it weren’t for the life support. “God in heaven. Even if that’s overrepresenting and some sensors died, that’s easily half a million.”

He grinned sidelong at his escort. “Turns out you didn’t need me after all, Wellspring. We won this war before it started. Forget what I was planning: get to the surface, and radio your shelter. Get everyone with munitions and fabrication experience to whip up a fusion explosive using whatever emergency stores are left in your RTG. We can send Twilight and her Unification Army into the next life.”

And how are we going to get the princess and her soldiers far enough from the city that it doesn’t burn everyone living there? Of course, there were concerns that made the question pointless, so she didn’t bother. “You’re… a little off, Ferris. Shelter 198.64-Beta devoted everything to keeping us alive. The whole base is falling apart. I think it squeezed every spare resource to get me made. There’s nothing to scavenge, and no one awake down there. It was fucking lonely, actually.”

“Oh.” He slumped into the seat, staring down at his hands. “That isn’t what I wanted to hear.”

She was running out of time. Jamie had no magic to tell her, but she got the sense that the ponies up above would be running out of patience. This whole trip already looked suspicious. “Look, I wanted to help you people. Beating dictators, I’m all aboard. But I’m not sure what we have to offer. I tried to get the AI to give up on this plan. I told it how suicidal this was. But it’s just an emergency intelligence. It doesn’t really think much.”

The others stared back, defeated. Ten seconds passed in silence before the Iron Lord reached down, removing a clipboard from the side of his chair and flipping back a few pages. “In that case, we… must prepare to evacuate. It will not go quickly—we have no airships and can’t send many using the railway without being noticed. Our most vulnerable are least able to evacuate, since they’ll be identified and killed by any royal authority they encounter…”

He held one finger against the page, and Wellspring nodded. “It’s the best option we have.”

“Jamie, Stygian’s Gate needs you to stay on your insane mission. Whatever we can do to help you succeed, we will do. If you can somehow convince the princess that you arrived from… Persephone, I believe your story was. I assume your AI was thinking of expanding into the land you asked for, and begin waking the population?”

Jamie nodded. “I don’t know the details, except that there’s already equipment there. Once there’s enough saved up to wake a construction team, they’ll get to work. Epsilon is betting on building a defense before Twilight decides to attack.”

“Foolish,” Wellspring said flatly. “You are not the first powerful enemy Equestria has destroyed. How do you think she even knows what Darktech is? I don’t… it was a long time ago, details are blurry. But I know the princess fought Devourers.”

“Emissary!” The voice echoed suddenly through the cave, drifting down from distant heights. “Emissary Empathy? Are you down here?”

“Shit.” Jamie got up, turning back towards the entrance. “Sorry, out of time. You said your only plan was to keep going with what I’m already doing? Not what I was hoping for.”

“It’s all we have,” Ferris said. “Before you go, what’s your shelter’s radio frequency? It should be easier to use it as a middleman than sending spies to meet you each time.”

She told them, then turned to go. She tripped over herself squeezing back through the opening, and hardly moved until she heard the door seal shut behind her.

I could probably work with this. Jamie might not be an expert spy, but she was a domain expert at looking pathetic. She rolled around in the grime, getting her feathers and face as disgusting as possible in the thin layer of mud. Then she started crawling along the cave, vaguely towards the opening.

“I’m down here!” she yelled, needing very little acting now. She was in total darkness, and things wiggled in the mud around her. Any second now they’d be biting at her naked flesh. “Ponies, help! Please!”

They appeared a few moments later, spears clutched in their hooves. She could see them stop in the entrance, sharing a glance that was some flavor of “this pony is a joke” before one stepped forward to offer a hoof. “Emissary? What happened?”

“I’m, uh… I may’ve overestimated my caving abilities,” she said, climbing to her hooves and shaking herself out as best she could. “I was appreciating the… formations and stuff, when I tripped. We don’t have caves in the sky.”

“Or any sense,” whispered one of the escort ponies.

The other chuckled. “Well, Emissary, perhaps we should stop at the lake? You would probably feel more comfortable returning to Hollow Shades… less muddy.”

“Yes,” she said hastily, following closely as they left the cave behind. “That would be great.”

Chapter 23: Malus

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In time long ago, Twilight Sparkle had once overseen a navy of a thousand ships, from the smallest tugs to the mightiest destroyers. Her fleet could darken the sky over a city, bringing unification against even the fiercest resistance.

Couldn’t trust them. Disobedience is weakness. Devourers wiggle in, steal what we’ve built. Ponies’ greatest strengths were also their greatest weaknesses: they were far too compassionate. When dangers beset them, they betrayed orders, sparing enemies to attack again tomorrow.

Equestria’s great navy had dwindled since Twilight’s Unification Army was founded. She stood aboard their last destroyer, which hadn’t even seen battle in three centuries.

The ESS Harrow hadn’t floated in some cloud to rot, however. While she waited for a crew fit to fly it, her runesmiths toiled night and day.

Should we have come further than this? Twilight found herself thinking, resting one hoof against the helm. A light aluminum wheel, with engine controls off to one side. The ship’s weapons had their own crews, though stations to relay orders for each were present around the bridge. Why can’t we do better?

A tiny voice in the back of her mind whispered the same message over and over. Equestria hadn’t come far enough, and the still-living destroyers would slaughter them all. Would Equestria be something more, if she hadn’t been using Concord to so energetically hunt the Devourers?

“Princess Twilight, the general is coming,” Captain 133-Unicorn-S said, jarring her forcefully back to reality. “Do we allow him?”

Twilight nodded. “He’s expected. Allow any others he brings as well. He has prepared a crew to operate this vessel.”

“Yes, Princess.” She saluted, then retreated to relay the instructions to the other soldiers. No hint of frustration that the Unification Army wasn’t having the mission trusted to them alone. Envy was far too complex an emotion to preserve, at least with any solution Twilight had devised. And even if she could, she wouldn’t have bothered. Only collected calm and rage mattered, to be activated at need.

She paced back and forth through the bridge while she waited, occasionally glancing to her scroll of orders and checking over it with a faint glow from her horn. These were only for the ponies of course; her Unification Army would not need references given so explicitly. Once she told them what to do, they would remember until they got it done.

Finally, Pike emerged, trailed by a small escort of other officers. They were like all officers, serving Equestria without conversion during their lives. Unless they made too many mistakes, or the soldiers under their command did. Either they would be returning with honors after this mission, or all of these would join the ranks of her Unification Army.

General Pike saluted, joined by each of his companions in turn. Not as crisp as she would’ve liked, but they were only ponies after all. “Forgive me for not arriving sooner,” Pike said, slightly out of breath. Yes, his age really was the critical factor here. This is probably your last mission with me, Pike. I’ll be sad to see you go.

“No forgiveness necessary,” Twilight said, nodding for them to relax. She levitated her tightly bundled orders, then walked away down to the helm. Without prompting, Pike knew it as the instruction to follow. The others did not, spreading to take their stations around the bridge. “Your response was… adequate. I have information to share with you, obviously what prompted this mission.”

She levitated a single sheet out from within, with the block letters copied from the messages she had received. Not word-for-word, but exactly as much detail as she wished to share with Pike.

“I’m eager to hear it,” he said. “It must be good news, if you wished to see us mobilized so quickly. The vestiges of rebellion have been located at last?”

“No.” Twilight levitated the sheet in his direction, then waited impatiently while he read. She didn’t give him even a second to process—as soon as he’d finished, she snatched it back. “This information requires immediate action, General Pike. My suspicions about the location of the rebellion might’ve been wrong, but instead we’ve discovered something far more important.”

“Another Alicorn,” he whispered, ears flat. “I didn’t think it was even possible.”

Twilight felt a brief twinge of guilt, a sense so atrophied in her that she scarcely recognized it. She saw a false panel in the back of her lab, with a teleportation resonance crystal tuned far too tightly for any unicorn to notice. She shook her head vigorously, until she stopped hearing screams.

“Crimson Shine would tell you there could never be another,” she said, her voice shaking until the other sounds in her mind finally faded. “But this isn’t strictly true. It’s more accurate to say that Alicorns like myself don’t occur naturally. I don’t believe the circumstances required to create one could have arisen without my notice. This means one of two things.”

“The rebellion we’re looking for is festering in a changeling clan,” Pike suggested. “This is why we’ve had so much trouble pinning it down. It never wears the same face in any city it goes.”

Twilight nodded her approval. “That’s the simplest option, and the more desirable.” She glanced out the window, looking as high into the sky as she could. If a pony knew where to look, she could find them. The seams in the sky, where blue was broken with a slightly fainter shade.

“This is the option I send you to investigate. You will take this vessel and fly directly to Hollow Shades. Concord will follow, but it will take weeks to complete the trip. When you arrive, barricade the city, and dismantle it. Every creature is a suspect worth scrutiny. Above all, you will detain this Alicorn. Take any steps required to capture her but cause her no harm. Any hurt you or your troops inflict on her, I will inflict on you a hundred times. Are we clear?”

Pike’s eyes got wider and wider. But as eager as he was to obey, he also had enough practice with her not to just tell her what she wanted to hear. He shook his head. “Princess, I brought the navy crew you requested. They can operate this ship, fly it anywhere we need to go. But there’s only twenty of them, and not a single marine. I don’t believe we could carry out your orders with that number. I’ll need royal guards, at least five hundred. A thousand would be better.”

Twilight’s smile widened, just a little. Pike had served for many years; he knew exactly how the Unification Army worked. He’d probably seen them thronging all over this ship and assumed they were just the caretakers. She could take joy correcting him.

“You have an entire detachment of the Unification Army aboard this vessel, along with four interceptors that are trained to operate in any capacity required for your mission.”

Pike glanced back at the front of the room, where his soldiers had already taken their stations. Past all of them was a pair of marines, waiting just inside the bridge wearing full gear and carrying light lances. His voice dropped to a whisper. “Princess, there must be something I’m failing to understand. What am I missing?”

“The heart of Concord has been reproduced aboard the ESS Harrow. It sacrifices power significantly—the detachment serving on this vessel is the maximum number that can be maintained. But its range is unchanged. Anchor above Hollow Shades, and anywhere within five kilometers can be reached.”

He gasped, mouth opening and closing several times before he managed to say anything. “P-Princess, that’s… incredible. I had no idea your royal technicians had come so far!”

She levitated the orders towards him, finally releasing the bundle. “When you capture the Alicorn, I wish for you and a minimal number of your crew to fly an interceptor directly back to Concord. There is a chance, however miniscule, that she actually is an Alicorn. If that is true, her life is worth far more to me than any number of those in Hollow Shades. Do anything to capture her.”

Pike’s mouth fell open. “A-after we capture her, princess? As in… after we deploy the Unification army into one of our own cities?”

Twilight raised an eyebrow, daring him to argue. She’d chosen every one of her leaders for their loyalty, greatest of all virtues. That was certainly true about Pike. “Yes. Equestria can’t afford the delay.”

He nodded resolutely, and didn’t argue the point further. Pike flipped through the orders quickly, though there was little there he hadn’t already heard from Twilight. Finally, he found the transmissions, and looked them over again. “Princess, if she’s really… if she’s really an Alicorn, does that mean her other message might be true as well? Maybe she really did come as an ambassador from the sky.”

Twilight nodded grimly. “I considered that impossible, but I am open to correcting my impression. While you go to Hollow Shades, I will travel to Persephone.”

“Good.” He relaxed visibly, tucking the sheet away. “I guess you’ll be negotiating with them directly?”

“No. I’ll be making sure they’re as dead as I left them.”

Jamie’s instructions were neither reassuring nor useful. Whatever faint hope she’d been harboring—that Discord’s rebellion would give her some magical escape—was painfully dashed. All they’d left her was a nearly useless demand to “keep going.”

She did her best, though the weight of that demand settled heavier and heavier on her shoulders with each day. She didn’t just have to keep pretending that she was an ambassador from another world, though that would’ve been hard enough. She had to keep studying their cult-religion, so she could make sure visitors from the sky followed it.

“Learn as much as you can,” Epsilon told her, while she stared down at a book she couldn’t read. She’d tried to tell Golden Shine that more than once, but each time he’d seemed to think that her Alicorn magic was itself enough for her to read “a work of such perfection.” “We will need to feign obedience to these restrictions while the settlement is built. Passing inspections may be key to rebuilding enough to protect ourselves.”

But whatever he might think about the Words of Harmony, there was no magic to tell her how to read it. It did have illustrations, which at least gave her something she could try and use to comment on its contents when Golden Shine asked her what she had learned.

“How the fuck are we going to protect ourselves when we have humans walking around?” The weighty leather-bound copy of the Words kept at the Hall of Justice had tabs for easy navigation and had been worn down with much use. Finally, she found the section she wanted, showing each of many different races and their placement in the faith’s mythos.

The tribes at the top of the pyramid, slightly favoring earth ponies over the other two if their relative placement meant anything. Then lots of other things, which Jamie had never seen. Lumpy-looking dog people, and other smarter-looking versions of animals she knew. There were so many variations of horse in the world, and all of them were up here.

Then came griffons, along with a half-dragon looking horse with scales on its back. And below them, a bug-looking creature the same general shape as a pony, and something that was unmistakably a dragon.

Finally the bottom of the page was dominated with illustrations of… monsters. She couldn’t make most of them out clearly, though one was two legged and thin, with glowing eyes and metal skin. Is this an artist’s rendition of a powered exoskeleton?

Jamie’s quarters were sparsely appointed, though they did have a window to make communication possible. Unfortunately for her, Golden Shine always kept a guard assigned to her, waiting just outside. Ostensibly “to provide any service she required.” In practice that meant following her everywhere and stopping her from wandering into most parts of the Hall of Justice.

It meant she had to whisper to reply, making as much noise with the chair as she could to cover it up. “If he sees a single human walking around, it’s game over.”

“This information has been considered,” Epsilon replied. “Citizen Jamie should be advised that she will be required to invent a reason that her ‘sky city’ has members of ‘inferior’ races living in it.”

At least that one had a few answers jump out at her, the simplest of which would be calling the visitors some flavor of servants. Equestria didn’t have slavery by that name, but service to the crown might as well be. “You’re changing more people? And… not into Alicorns.”

“Your transformation produced consequences that were not anticipated. Citizen Ferris Abrams has provided genetic samples from other species that should circumvent this problem.”

So maybe this isn’t completely helpless. The rebellion was in touch with her shelter now, though Jamie’s confinement meant that she knew very little of the specific details involved. Presumably they were getting lots of things done as fast as possible.

“You’re allowed to change other people without their consent?”

She flipped through a few pages, back to the middle of the book. She couldn’t read it, but showing progress was good. Progress, and she could pay special attention to Golden Shine whenever he spoke. He liked to ramble about the aspects he was most likely to quiz her about, anyway.

“The emergency intelligence is at liberty to alter any individual who would not ordinary survive revitrification. Informed consent is obtained when possible, to secure a greater likelihood of cooperation with the relevant individual.”

Jamie felt a familiar annoyance rising in her chest, duller than it had once been. Whatever frustration she felt with being a pony, she knew that it was possible to adapt. Hopefully the others in her position would be able to do the same.

Heavy steps sounded from the hall—probably Golden Shine was back from his latest assignment too private for her to ask about.

“Emissary Empathy!” he said, as he appeared in the open door. “How goes your study of our enlightened ways? I’m sure any reading you do here must be… merely review. No doubt your world has these same concepts by other names.”

“I, uh… no doubt,” she squeaked lamely, shutting the book with a snap before he could get a good look at what she’d been reading about. This same moment came in every lesson: if she didn’t ask the questions, he’d start quizzing her, and would inevitably become dissatisfied with her answers.

“We don’t have, uh… Exemplars of Harmony,” she stammered, adjusting her mane awkwardly. “I was hoping you could explain that to me. They seemed to be mentioned an awful lot.”

Really it was their cutie marks she found a lot, in sections she could only guess were relevant to their domains. “Who were they? Why are they so important to you?”

“Ah, that one would make sense. They were born down here, not up in your home. Perhaps you never needed them, with such strict obedience to Harmony’s precepts. We were sent the Exemplars because so many creatures are chaotic and unharmonious. Many ponies require correction. The gentlest correction was the teaching of the Exemplars. Follow me.”

She did, though thankfully not to the side of the Hall of Justice that always seemed to be producing screams. Instead she walked closer to the entrance, where the halls were wider and decorated with tapestries hung every so often. The Commissar slowed to appreciate them as they passed, apparently recognizing what was on them. Most focused on a purple Alicorn accomplishing various feats. Defeating an army of dragons, blasting the sun with her magic? And covering a city up in light? What did any of that mean?

Commissar Golden Shine didn’t even slow down to elaborate on those questions, and instead went straight to a set of wide double doors. He pushed them open, revealing… a church?

It had a single aisle down the center and pews on either side, anyway. There was an altar at the front, where she’d expect a priest to give sermons. A tile mosaic covered the entire wall behind it, lit by perpetual spotlights on the ceiling. Twilight was depicted overhead, forelegs spread like a god embracing the congregants below.

The marks of each exemplar appeared on the wall below her, as though she were reaching for them too. Apple, diamond, balloon, rainbow, and positioned right behind the pulpit, a butterfly. It wouldn’t be visible while anyone was standing there, yet it wasn’t that much lower than the others.

“You have… worship services here?” she asked. “For your princess?”

The Commissar shook his head once. “No, no. Princess Twilight is Harmony’s speaker, it’s that ideal we revere. Salvation does not come through her, she only points to it. The other Exemplars do likewise, in lesser ways.” His eyes lingered on the butterfly, and he turned sharply to the side.

There were more paintings along the room, the way Jamie had seen in the shelter’s single Sanctuary. It was a Catholic thing, maybe? Jamie didn’t know much about religion.

This first painting depicted a barn on fire. Ponies gathered around it, watching with horror as it went up. Only one creature seemed serene—an orangish earth pony, depicted with the sort of saintly calm Jamie always imagined from religious icons. So, this is the virtue of ignoring the pain of others? The hell is wrong with you people?

“The five Exemplars lived long ago, before the Immortal City was given its timelessness. At first, they were ordinary creatures, until chosen by Harmony to give the ponies of Equestria a lesson they desperately needed. This one’s name was Honesty. She tried to warn the creatures of her town of the dangers of storing their harvest improperly. But they didn’t listen, and one day lightning struck the town’s hay supply. Many starved that winter.

“This teaches each of us that we always be honest, even when those around us don’t want to listen. Especially when they don’t want to listen.”

The Commissar led her around the room to the next one, this one with a pale unicorn… leading a riot? A towering city rose in the distance behind her, more like something out the 1900s than anything she’d seen in Equestria so far. Half of it was burning too.

The Commissar introduced her to Generosity, Laughter, Loyalty in turn. Each seemed as twisted to her as Honesty; Generosity led a revolution that butchered the city’s elected officials when they refused to be generous with needed supplies. Loyalty led an army to die heroically in Harmony’s name. Laughter was all about how to passively tolerate a miserable life when Harmony did not see fit to grant you more.

Finally they reached a blank section of wall, with a tiny butterfly but no scene painted.

I knew I’d seen that before. The colors weren’t quite right, and Shy had three of them, but… This is her, somehow. “This is Kindness, the least of all Exemplars. She is a reminder to each of us that merely receiving a charge from on High is not enough. When she could’ve demonstrated her virtue to all Equestria, she selfishly abandoned us instead.

“The princess believes that one day Kindness will see her evil, and repent. Until then, there is nothing to remember.”

Jamie paused, looking thoughtful. Or trying, anyway. “How long ago did the Exemplars live?”

Golden Shine shrugged one shoulder. “They were born… nine centuries ago, perhaps ten. But their message remains timeless, and ponies everywhere would do well to remember it. Perhaps you… already have some version of their stories? How do the ponies of the sky keep their lessers following the path of Harmony?”

Jamie winced, ears flattening at the attention. “Well we don’t believe in—” She stopped suddenly. If she was going to call their builders servants later, explaining that the idea of having lessers was itself absurd probably wasn’t a good idea. “Doing anything bad!” she finished lamely. “I think we probably did have, uh… stories, a long time ago. About ways to keep from being evil. There was a whole book of them that everyone studied, just like here in Equestria. For a while it seemed like no one would know how to be good without it. But eventually, we just, uh… didn’t need the reminder anymore?”

She pretended to be very interested in the tile butterfly, even if it was by far the least interesting thing in the room with them. I’m so bad at this.

“Perhaps there are some blessings to a world of Alicorns,” Golden Shine said. “When the generations of glory and obedience never pass away, then maybe a book of their accomplishments would be unnecessary.”

“Yeah, that!” She forced a smile. “Thanks for explaining all that, Golden Shine. I look forward to sharing it with the creatures of Persephone. Maybe I could get a copy of your book to bring them when I go? Do they print smaller copies?”

Twilight’s hooves echoed through the empty metal deck of Persephone, the only interruption to a silence that was otherwise just the low hum of machines. After teleporting aboard in the only location she remembered, Twilight made her way through its open market district, where once thousands of monsters had gleefully celebrated their slaughter of everything she loved.

In the glow of her horn, Twilight passed between skeletal trees and over grass that was only a faint gray stubble. In the sterile conditions of the orbital platform it had barely even decomposed.

The bodies hadn’t faired so well. Thousands of them had fought here—some with strange weapons, others with their fists or bits of metal or anything else they could get their hands on. As she walked, Twilight’s vision shifted. She saw not the pale purple of her horn, but simulated sunlight shining out from above, over a blue sky that was projected flatly on the domed ceiling.

Smoke filled the room, echoing with the constant flash of gunfire. Her war mages fell one by one, more victims of the Devourers cruelty.

“Princess, please!” a voice cried. An earth pony clutched at his chest, blood oozing from a hole in useless metal armor. “H-help—”

He was just a corpse now, bones bleached white where they emerged from rusting steel plates. The platform had cleaned away the flesh but left the corpse behind.

He wasn’t the only one—every pony body lay where it had fallen, five centuries ago. Many had crumbled beyond belief, but bits of weapons or clothes remained where they dropped. The Devourer bodies were all gone. The soldiers she’d hunted for killing this stallion. The group of smaller ones, no doubt fleeing for their weapons down another hall. Their voices had seemed almost like laughter as she burned them, sharp teeth glinting at her from the gloom.

I saved them from you, Twilight thought. You can’t be back.

Yet the Emissary had named this place specifically. Was that evidence she really was a rebellious changeling? Maybe she’d just named one of Twilight’s greatest agonies because she knew it would hurt her.

I must be sure. They’re all gone, they have to be gone.

Twilight passed through more crumbling shops, kicking aside the flat glass panels Devourers used to suck knowledge from the universe never to be seen again. She stooped as she climbed into the elevator, resting one hoof against the scorched metal along its far wall. Half a dozen Devourers had been waiting for her here, with more of their weapons. The last of her troops fell around her then, bodies steaming. Her Alicorn magic alone kept her going.

A single overhead light flickered on as she climbed in, stepping onto bare metal instead of soft carpet. “While in emergency mode, all destination restrictions are lifted. Where would you like to go?”

“Command deck,” she instructed. “Now.”

The doors slid closed, metal grinding against metal as it failed to shut. But when the floor lifted her, it moved smoothly. All these years, and it still works. She longed to travel down to engineering instead and leave the whole thing a smoking ruin. But without its guidance thrusters, Persephone’s orbit would eventually decay. It would strike its sisters, and rain death down on Equestria for thousands of years.

Not to mention the more important things that would be irrevocably lost. Twilight touched her horn once for reassurance, right about the time the elevator stopped. Her body kept moving, propelled towards the ceiling. Twilight squeaked, spreading her wings in surprise and beating furiously. She caught herself in the air as the doors ground open. “What is going on?”

“Gravitational array on command deck has failed,” said the voice, as sickly sweet as ever. “Repairs not available.”

Twilight flew out the open door, lowering her head again to avoid scraping her horn against the metal ceiling.

She’d been alone the last time she was here too, blasting back wave after wave of Devourers. It felt good to give them a little of the destruction they had brought to Equestria—but not as much as it could’ve, since she wasn’t sure they could even feel pain.

Instead of luxurious, the command deck was naked metal, though thanks to their primate stature it was still plenty large for her. At least there were no more pony corpses as she reached the doors to the bridge. A metal door as thick as her whole body was still melted in a puddle where she’d last left it, shoved aside by the force of magic. The armored demons she’d killed on the other side were gone too.

For a terrible moment Twilight could see the room brightly lit again, with Devourers gathered around a glowing parody of her cutie map planning Equestria’s destruction. She hadn’t ever heard them while they were doing it, but she could imagine. This was where they’d kill innocents next. Look at all the ways they’d recorded pony suffering to enjoy later. When every pony was rotting, they would need to prolong their joyless lives by reviewing it over and over.

“She was lying,” Twilight muttered, ducking again as she slipped through the warped metal doorway. Darktech screens along the walls still flashed, filling with text and mangled images. Their glowing map in the center was inert glass now, shattered into a few large sections. There was nothing alive in here, no sign of any rebirth for this dead place. The monsters Equestria had nearly died to defeat were still in their graves.

Twilight turned to go, until something against the far wall caught her eye. But when she was so ready for attack, no detail could escape her.

A patch of ground about a meter square had been cleared completely of rubble, with broken chairs and furniture shoved aside. A Devourer symbol of conquest and slaughter leaned against the wall here, a long vertical section with a shorter piece perpendicular and most of the way to the top. She might’ve thought it was just another piece of rubble, a crossbeam fallen from the torn wall perhaps. Except there were words written in greasepaint on the wall, letters thick enough Twilight guessed they’d been smeared with a Devourer’s foul digits.

Bis interimitur qui suis armis perit.

She didn’t know the words, but the princess could guess what they meant. The Devourers had cast some evil spell, probably some necromancy meant to bring back their dead army to oppress Equestria once more. The Alicorn was no emissary at all, unless she’d been sent by the failed reanimators of Persephone.

Twilight aimed her horn squarely at the evil icon and blasted it until it was glowing orange. It puddled on the metallic floor, hissing as the steel itself started to burn. Only a faint residue of ash remained on the wall.

“Persephone, are you listening?” Twilight demanded.

“Yes,” said the same voice from the elevators, as cheerful as ever. “What can I do for you, Orbital Correction Agent?”

“Is anyone alive on Persephone?”

“Emergency clearance granted. There is one life sign detected aboard the platform. One Orbital Correction Agent present on the command deck. Would you like directions?”

Twilight forced herself to smile. “It’s me, isn’t it?”


She turned to go, leaving the still molten symbol of conquest behind her. She could rest a little easier now—at least one ancient enemy had remained dead. She could leave this graveyard of the damned and return to the mystery waiting in Hollow Shades. There are still Devourers on the surface. But why lead me here? Do they think they can torment me into surrender?

It wouldn’t work. When Twilight found the ones who had been attacking her ships, she would show them even less mercy than the demons on Persephone received.

Monsters could not show kindness, they would receive none in return.

Chapter 24: Phoenix

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Days passed. Star Orchid waited nervously for new orders, expecting to receive a call from Golden Shine about a telegram any day. Maybe she’d have to intercept it, or creatively interpret its instructions so things wouldn’t be so obvious to Geist. Though it was also possible its message would be impossible to hide. Maybe she should be pulling Windbrisk aside to warn him of what had happened.

What would the Iron Lord do to her if she admitted her real purpose? He was still a Devourer, wasn’t he? Even if his focus had somehow changed to less evil directions, she was admitting to trying to destroy him. The princess certainly wouldn’t show mercy, how could she expect it of a monster?

Maybe I could leave them a note and run away from everyone. Geist doesn’t know all the magic I’m capable of.

Days passed while Star debated with herself, until the decision was abruptly snatched from her.

Sirens blared, though it wasn’t the noise that woke her. Ginny shook her violently with a claw, pointing at the wall. “I think it’s showtime, Star. I’ve got the emergency supplies, time to fly.”

She rolled out of bed, shaking herself out. It was still the middle of the night, and she was nowhere near awake enough to be thinking straight. “What’s… going on?” She brushed an awkward hoof through her mane, horn lighting to provide an illumination that didn’t flash. “Do they know?”

Geist rested a claw on her shoulder, rolling her eyes. “How long has it been since the scroll? Four days? That’s enough time, Star. Enough time for us to make ourselves scarce.”

“But… we haven’t heard back,” she croaked. Geist yanked her forward, and she wasn’t quite awake enough to resist. She slid along the carpet a short distance, before nearly falling on her face.

“Of course we haven’t,” the bird responded, not slowing down. She barely even slowed enough for her to catch her breath. “Telling us anything is a chance for a message to be intercepted and the intelligence ruined. We won’t hear back—it’s on us to get out without getting captured and killed. By our side, or theirs.”

She lowered her voice, yanking Star’s head suddenly close to hers. “Nopony knows about our assignment, Star. If the ones who set off that alarm catch us here, then we’re rebels to them.”

“What about Golden Shine?” she squeaked. Despite Ginny’s insistence that she didn’t need to grab anything, she removed her saddlebag from its hook. It was already packed with what she usually brought to the surface. It would have to do. “He knows we’re here. You’re friends even.”

“Golden Shine understands that a spy is only as useful as they are competent,” Ginny answered. “Don’t get too stressed about it. This is never as hard as we think it is. We just don’t want to be down here when they make their heroic last stand, that’s all. I know a half dozen ways to the surface, we just need to find one that hasn’t closed yet.”

Something banged on the door ahead of them, followed by a familiar voice. Wellspring. “Everypony out, right now! Stars help us if this keeps happening.”

Star nodded once to Geist, then levitated the door open. Getting out of the city was the smartest decision, she needed little persuasion to change her mind. “What is it this time?” she asked, not needing to pretend that she had just been asleep. “Another sky-Alicorn?”

Wellspring managed to laugh, her voice strangled by the blaring siren behind her. “It’s in the sky, anyway. Not as friendly as an Alicorn.”

“Concord?” Ginny asked. She’d gone from cold and calm to panicked in the blinking of an eye, wings flustered and tail whipping back and forth. Damn Star if the spy didn’t know what she was doing. “Is it Concord?”

“No, no.” Wellspring waved a dismissive hoof. “But it isn’t much better. You know where to go, be there.”

They obeyed, at least until Wellspring walked past them to start rousing ponies in another barracks. Star made for one of the inner wall exits she’d been told about, but Ginny caught her with a claw on her shoulder, stopping her up short with a harsh whisper. “We need to see what’s happening first.”

She couldn’t dare be more expressive, but Star understood. For all they knew, this might be about the mysterious Alicorn attacking the town. Just because it happened to line up with the fastest Twilight could’ve arranged a response…

The Undercastle had been crazy since Wellspring’s announcement that everypony needed to be ready for an emergency evacuation within the month. The Alicorn’s presence in the city, nothing to do with them. With that long, Ginny had suggested Twilight had plenty of time to respond. And if she doesn’t, we’ll go with them wherever they evacuate, and make sure the princess knows where they’re hiding next.

To her surprise, the Iron Lord wasn’t at the stage this time to lead the meeting. A few of the mid-level rebellion leaders thronged there, waiting nervously for Wellspring. Eventually she stepped up, tapping one hoof loudly on the stand for silence.

“Listen close and quick, ponies. Hollow Shades has a visitor. No, you can stop panicking about Concord, I know you’re all thinking it. It’s still traveling towards the Crystal Empire, you can relax. But it isn’t much better.”

The Darktech surface behind her flashed, then filled with the image of an airship. The ESS Harrow, flagship of Equestria’s navy. It was an ancient vessel, yet the zeppelin design had been remade a dozen times. Once it had relied on gas alone, now it had a lift-crystal somehow strong enough to hold the entire mass in the air without distorting gravity for the passengers.

Star Orchid had seen the vast sums of bits allocated to it—enough to build a dozen such airships from scratch. But instead of a vigorous interrogation, she gave the royal technicians who worked on it a blank check.

“It approached at night, stopping a full kilometer outside the city and dropping low. We can’t confirm a visual anymore, but the Iron Lord believes they’re unloading troops.”

“Concord isn’t here!” somepony shouted, from the front row. “That means it isn’t the Unification Army. We’re not dead!”

There were a few tired cheers and shouts of agreement scattered around the room. Star jolted to one side as a bird appeared there. Windbrisk waved once but didn’t interrupt the ponies downstairs. Did he come all the way up here just to check on me?

“Quiet!” Wellspring shouted, waiting until everypony had fallen silent again. “Pear Brilliant is right, we have every reason to think there are royal guardsponies on that ship. It seems likely they’ve come because of the Sky-Alicorn. Some of you know we’ve been talking to her. Believe me when I say the Iron Lord is heartbroken, we can’t help her from whatever’s up there. If we send a team to bring her down, then the princess will never stop hunting. She’ll bring Concord and tear Hollow Shades to rubble, nevermind the foundation. We’ll have to hope she can use her own magic to escape another way, or… maybe that ship is just a royal visit for some diplomacy.

“Whatever’s happening, Stygian’s Gate is hunkering down as of now. We’re sealing every primary passage to the surface, in case that army decides to come looking for us while they’re here. We’ve got sledgehammers and maps up here. You’ll break into groups of three, then take a tunnel assignment. Collapse it, and a build team will follow with cement. There’s no way to evacuate so soon, so we’ll have to hide.”

“We’ll be trapped down here?” somepony asked. “What will we eat? How will we breathe?”

“That’s taken care of,” Wellspring answered. “Don’t stress on it now, I can explain all that once we’re safe. For now, you have to seal our entrances before any creature comes poking around into the sewers looking for them. Break into teams and get down here.”

“Want to work together?” Windbrisk asked, right along with a wave of noise as dozens of other creatures did the same thing. “You and your… girlfriend. I’ve worked with griffons before, I’m sure we can be one of the first teams finished.”

Buck no, not now. Anytime but now.

“Sure will!” Ginny exclaimed, spreading her wings. “I’ve been hearing all about you from Star. Let’s work together.”

Nopony woke Jamie when the world ended.

It was like that the last time—she had so few friends around her that there was no one to come rushing to her habitation block, screaming of the necessity to get on the first evacuation ship. By the time she woke, Persephone had been a deserted wasteland. She’d seen the debris when she finally went down, and worried that the ships that preceded her had been destroyed.

She never learned whether they had been. And maybe there were no humans left anymore—maybe Twilight’s city of death had torn them right out of the ground and mulched them into paste.

She woke groggily, to an urgent voice speaking from only one side of her body. She knew on a conscious level that Epsilon talked to her that way, vibrating her ear bones or some related technology. But it took her a moment to wake up enough to process that information. “Hollow Shades is under attack. Citizen Jamie, you must react.”

She blinked, eyes scanning the spartan bedroom. It was far smaller than the place Shy gave her, with only the bed, a desk, and the “luxury” of a private toilet. She scanned the room, then shoved her head back down into the rough sheets. “What are you talking about?”

She had a window here too, though she suspected it had been purposefully chosen for its size. The slits were large enough for a songbird, but not even thick enough to get a hoof through. As much like a prison cell as a bedroom.

“A sizeable vessel landed covertly not far from the city. Its troops marched here and are now capturing Hollow Shades. Don’t you hear it?”

She strained, perking one ear towards the window. Yes, there was something there. A distant screaming, maybe the occasional crack of gunfire. “You aren’t the one doing this, right?”

“No,” it answered. “The vessel’s trajectory suggests it originated from the capital. It seems loaded with thousands of soldiers and possesses a heat signature equivalent to a modest orbital platform all on its own. At the vessel’s size, that would require at least a fission reactor of reasonable complexity, or a fusion containment toroid. The surface population is not known to possess either.”

Jamie shook off the sheets, chancing another glance at the window. Some part of her thought she might take a bullet to the face in the act and end her day about as well as it began. But nothing shot her, and she could see something glowing from the edge of the city. Flames, with a deep orange reflecting off some other buildings.

Are they burning the city down? Or was that an accident? That was the trouble with war—there was no easy way to tell if the evil was intentional or merely incidental.

“What should I do?” She glanced at her doors. Probably not locked, but there would be soldiers there at all hours. If they had any reason to think this was about her, they probably wouldn’t let her leave. They might take the initiative and decide to kill her themselves.

I really need to learn their magic stuff. Making my head glow isn’t enough to get out of a situation like this. But if I could teleport like the others, I could get out the window. Then I could use my wings and fly away.

Unfortunately for Jamie, she was a terrible waste of space who could do neither. She couldn’t even lift things with her mind.

“It is suggested that you attempt to escape into the jungle. Stygian’s Gate has just confirmed they are not able to reach you in time. You should endeavor to reach the site of new construction if possible.”

“Sure, just get past an army invading the city. That sounds so easy!”

“It won’t be if you remain in here and wait for capture.”

Jamie strode swiftly up to the closet—just an empty-walled section of the building with a metal bar across the center. Jamie eyed the glowing ambassador’s dress. There was something to be said for trying to intimidate her way out of this. Or rather, there would be, if she had any of the skills that would take. But Jamie’s lack of social skills was probably why this had happened in the first place. Oh sure, she couldn’t think of why it could be her fault yet. But by the time the soldiers tied her up for the firing squad, she’d think of something.

Instead of the dress, she chose a brown cloak that had been hanging in there when she arrived. It was a standard garment here in the Hall of Justice, worn by those who devoted their lives to the study of Harmony in poverty and obedience.

Jamie’s wings and body didn’t want to cooperate with it, but she was small enough to wiggle in anyway. So maybe being a little smaller than she liked could sometimes have its advantages. She pulled up the hood, doing her best to hide her face. But a horn would still poke out from inside. Hopefully the ones who saw her would just think she was a unicorn.

She reached the door, then nudged it with one hoof. It moved, and she poked her head out. “Excuse me? What’s happening?” she asked, trying her best to sound like she expected an answer.

She got none, because there was nopony there. Dark orange light streamed in through the windows, but Jamie herself could see no creatures. No guards here, none at the end of the hall. Was the entire place just… abandoned?

Maybe they knew this was happening and ran away? I wouldn’t stay behind to watch my city get burned down.

Jamie didn’t know the Hall of Justice well; she’d hardly been given a chance to explore. But at least she knew the fastest way out. She didn’t run—the way to be identified would be to act like she didn’t belong. But she walked as quickly as she could, expression as confident as she could manage.

She made it most of the way to the front gate before the doors went blasting off in front of her. She squealed in protest, shielding her face with a hoof. Was that a cannon? Did I just step into a civil war?

Pony figures stepped out of the smoke, which at first, she took to be city watch. But no—their armor was thicker, particularly around their sides. They wore heavy helmets, with visors that only had little slits for eyes.

Jamie spun as she heard another set of hoofsteps hurrying down another hallway, one that led to the basement below. A second later and Golden Shine emerged, wearing his full-body armor and carrying a strange spear in the air beside him. “Whatever outrageous error prompted you to attack the princess’s own—”

Then he stopped dead. In the door, more soldiers filed in—each wearing the same armor. Jamie kept retreating, though she didn’t quite have the courage to turn and start running. For all she knew, that would get them to give chase, or maybe use whatever made that almost-gunfire sound.

Golden Shine’s objections died, and he dropped instantly to his knees, the spear clattering to the ground beside him. “Soldiers of Unification. I did not know Concord was so close.”

Over the next few moments, more of them filed in. They crossed all the breeds of pony Jamie knew about, though there was something strange about them. All this time she’d been living with creatures as colorful as an art-supply accident, yet every single one of these were different shades of gray. Only their eyes had any color left, the rest of their bodies could’ve been easily colored in charcoal.

Jamie had seen soldiers, seen the UN’s security forces in her shelter, and the Orbital Coalition’s security drones. These seemed more like the latter, each one standing rigidly at attention with their spear held in the same position. Those with horns didn’t use them, they just… froze.

Jamie dropped into a low crouch, creeping slowly backward. She had another hundred meters to go before she rounded the corner, and she could still hear them clearly. It helped that there was so much noise outside to cover her whispers. A battle, one that didn’t seem to be going well for somebody.

One identical figure out of many stepped forward from the formation. There was nothing to set her uniform apart, no plumes or different colors, but she spoke with command. “You are Commissar Golden Shine of Hollow Shades.”

“Yes,” he said. “I have done my duty faith—”

The soldier didn’t seem to care, speaking over him. “You have interacted with the one called Empathy,” she said. “Lead us to her at once.”

Their voices were fading now, as she rounded the corner. But where am I going to go from here? Is there a back exit? Forts did tend to have secret exits, or maybe a postern gate to use during an invasion. Trouble was, Jamie didn’t have a clue where that might be.

And they’re coming. This was about me all along. “I know you’re too dumb to understand ‘I told you so,’” she hissed, choosing a downward stairwell at random and darting along it. “But I told you so.”

Epsilon’s response came very faintly, melting into a blur of hissing static that made it impossible to understand. Not that I fucking care. You’re the reason Hollow Shades is in this position in the first place. I could’ve hidden here for months without any problem, and you had to kick the hornet’s nest.

The ramp took her to a wide hallway, with metal doors along the sides. None were labeled, not that she would’ve been able to read what they said. And each step she took, she could hear hoofsteps getting louder. Those robotic-acting soldiers were on the move again, towards her.

Eventually she reached the end of one hallway, and a rickety metal door covered with a thin layer of rust. A platform waited inside, with an ancient-looking mechanical lift. A mining elevator? “Everything in this damn town has to be underground.”

But Stygian’s Gate was underground. They couldn’t save her, but maybe Jamie didn’t need to be saved. She could get to them, and damn Epsilon for cursing them all with this invasion. The caves couldn’t be worse than her shelter, and she’d have the company…

“Pony, do not move.” The voice was entirely emotionless, but that somehow made it seem even more deliberately threatening than if it had been screaming at her. “If you attempt to flee, you will be killed.”

Jamie winced. She glanced one last time into the elevator—but she didn’t know how it worked, let alone if it even did. She spun slowly around, and sure enough there was another gray pony facing her. A pair of yellow eyes stared out of a helmet covered with dents and scratches. Blood trailed down the front of their armor, though she could see no sign of injury. It wasn’t their blood.

“I won’t,” she said. “You can, uh… put the spear down.”

It had the same general profile as a spear, anyway. But the top half of the shaft was made of polished crystal, with a tip that reminded her vaguely of a magnifying lens. Was it just something to threaten her with, or could it actually kill? Jamie hadn’t lived this long by testing questions like that.

“Walk slowly past me,” the soldier said. “Return to the top surface for inspection. If you flee, you will be killed.”

Jamie nodded, then began to walk. The robotic soldier fell into place behind her and one glance over her shoulder told her that the not-quite-gun was still aimed squarely at her back. It had a faint internal glow, about what she might’ve expected from a laser pointer.

But considering what these soldiers had done to the front doors, Jamie didn’t intend to test them now.

Jamie was joined by several other figures in similar robes, though most seemed to be wearing things designed to fit their bodies. She joined them against the wall. Most of these were monks and apprentices, ponies that barely knew more about the cult than Jamie herself. I won’t be able to hide here.

She took a split-second to consider what to do, then flipped her hood all the way back and shook out her mane. The motion attracted the attention of several staring soldiers, though at least they didn’t shoot her. She counted down from ten, psyching herself up. I’m going to fuck this up I’ll be shot this is all your fault I’m going to turn you into a calculator when this is over Epsilon.

Jamie couldn’t use magic, but she could stop on the edge of the robe with one hoof, yanking it up and over her head. At least she’d learned one useful skill in physical therapy.

“Excuse me.” She stepped forward, eyes scanning for anything like a leader in the crowd. She recognized the gold eyes of the soldier who had been giving orders. Would these strange soldiers respond the way most other creatures did? “I don’t know what you’re doing in this city, but it doesn’t concern me. I demand to be taken promptly away from whatever this is.”

She closed her eyes then, expecting the shower of bullets to begin. At least her last memories would be brave ones.

Instead, she heard a single set of hooves, somehow louder than the dozens of others as the search continued. “You are the Alicorn called Empathy?”

Jamie opened one eye. There was the soldier, inches from her. She hadn’t even raised her strange spear, and none of the other soldiers did either. She felt the stares of apprentices and other Hall of Justice ponies on her back. Somehow, she doubted she would be inspiring any of them to action. She barely even knew their names. “Yes,” she said simply. “What is this about? I’m an Emissary of another kingdom. I should be treated with respect. Even if your princess has decided to, uh… don’t I get special privileges or something?”

Why did standing so close to this soldier remind her so strongly of her primary school’s science lab? Jamie half-expected to find the pony’s face was made of plastic pieces, and the eyes were a careful simulation concealing cameras underneath. But no—she could even see the moisture glistening on her eyes. Watching her for even a few seconds was painful. Her whole body was tense, like she was in constant pain under that helmet but too afraid to show it.

“You will now be taken away from whatever this is,” she said, tapping her hoof lightly on the stone floor three times. Exactly three soldiers broke away from the assembled formation. She lifted one hoof, pointing out towards the door with exaggerated stiffness. “Join the honor-guard outside, and you will be escorted to the ESS Harrow. Please do not wander, or you may be harmed accidentally.”

The soldiers fell into formation around her, two beside and one behind. They didn’t prompt her to go faster, didn’t even point their weapons at her. They just stood still, expectant. Maybe they thought she would be as obedient as they were.

Maybe this really wasn’t about me. If they’ll just lead me away.

She started towards the door, glancing back down the hall for any sign of Golden Shine. She could see no hint of what they’d done to him. Maybe that was for the best.

She stepped over the ruined doorway and out into the sweltering heat of a jungle night.

Around the hall of justice, Jamie saw what had become of the guards—all dead. She covered her mouth with the back of a hoof, fighting back her gag reflex.

Hundreds of soldiers stood out here, assembled in perfect blocks of twenty men. They stood without regard to the dead guards around the little fortress, trampling them to bloody ruin wherever the dead had fallen.

I wonder if the Olympus colony ever got this bad, when they realized they weren’t getting any more shipments from Earth.

There beside the door was Swift Wind, the same pony she’d tricked into letting her contact the rebellion a few days ago. His chest and torso had been burned beyond recognition, and he obviously wouldn’t move again.

“Who are you guys?” Jamie asked, finally swallowing a mouthful of bile.

One of her escorts turned rigidly towards her. Their eyes were pale green, though showed no more emotion than their leader had back inside. “We are the Army of Unification. Our hooves unite Equestria forever.”

Jamie sped up, passing between the line of assembled soldiers on either side, expecting them to turn on her at any moment. Now she knew where the blood came from on the armor of the ones inside. They could be dripping with it and not even care.

Outside the gates, Hollow Shades wasn’t doing much better. Several structures were burning, all in a straight line from the Hall to the jungle. Where that ship landed?

“You must not allow yourself to be captured,” Epsilon said into her ear. “You must escape at whatever cost.”

And get myself killed? Go to hell.

More soldiers gathered outside the Hall, marshaled in formation. They didn’t seem to care as the actual population of the town cowered in terror all around them. Anything that wasn’t in their way had been ignored. Every structure, every unfortunate soul on the streets between them and their destination—hopefully those weapons killed quickly.

As Jamie stepped through the gates, the sound of shifting metal and lifting hooves echoed all around her. She twisted around and saw that several large blocks of soldiers had begun to advance. While her mouth hung open, they split into ranks around her, weapons aimed outward.

Oh God. If anyone tries to rescue me now, I’m sorry for what happens next.

“Where am I supposed to go?” Jamie asked. She could guess based on the direction of the sound, but…

One of the armored figures pointed straight along the greatest destruction. “Destroyer ESS Harrow is this way. Please do not wander or you may be harmed accidentally.”

Please. Jamie started walking again, and the entire formation kept perfect pace with her. After a few steps she stopped for a moment, nearly tripping all over again with so many thumps sounding from around her. They weren’t robots, but how could they act so much like them?

She was probably pushing her luck, but all this death—her sensible instincts faded. “I’ve heard about you. I thought you worked for Equestria.”

“We serve the princess,” echoed the same one who had spoken before. She was certain it was a mare by now. That armor was all the same size, sometimes straining to fit the pony inside and other times it barely even stayed on.

Jamie didn’t argue—she didn’t believe for a second that the soldiers now escorting her could change their minds. Maybe Jamie was a coward, but she didn’t want to be another corpse in the street.

“You must not surrender,” Epsilon said again. “The risk is too high.”

And if you’d listened to me, this wouldn’t be happening. Were all these deaths somehow Epsilon’s fault?

Jamie dismissed the thought, whimpering. That means it’s your fault too. You could’ve just let Epsilon shoot you. You wanted to live, and all these people died for it.

Chapter 25: Crater

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Star Orchid could hear the echoing gunfire overhead, the pounding of hooves on stone, the distant shouts. Yet those weren’t the shouts of royal guardsponies giving orders, but the screams of anypony getting in their way. At least she hadn’t heard more orders echoing down the halls behind, perhaps warning that soldiers had found another entrance and would be flooding the Undercastle. The rebel ponies had weapons of their own, didn’t they? How long could they last down here?

Windbrisk’s sledgehammer struck the side of a stone support with a resounding bang, tearing loose another huge chunk of stone. He was no earth pony, but whatever he lacked in magic he seemed to make up for in simple determination. Star had taken a few swings with her magic before he took over—not because she didn’t have the strength, but because he seemed to want her to know just how strong he was.

“Help me,” Ginny whispered after one swing, securing another wooden support in place. They were all connected with robe at their bottom sections, so they could be yanked aside at once to let the tunnel collapse. That was the theory, anyway. “Distract him a second. We can’t let this tunnel go any further.”

She pressed low against the growing pile of rubble that had once been supports, twisting one of her forelegs sideways and exposing the sharp claws waiting there.

Oh buck, she’s going to kill him. From there it was easy to imagine the rest. Star wouldn’t have to attack Windbrisk to escape, they’d just have to run past him. This meant she wanted a tunnel open. Windbrisk dead, and we can reach the surface and bring soldiers down here.

Star walked along beside her in a stupor. Ginny was already advancing, without any overt signs of hostility. Geist was an expert at this. Despite everything Star had seen living with him—he was still a pony all of Concord feared. Dozens of ponies had fallen to him over the years. She’d respected that number once, as seeds of disharmony removed from Concord’s perfect greenhouse. Now she wasn’t so sure.

Windbrisk is a hippogriff; he can’t help being evil. The tremendous evil of rescuing children and bringing them here, where they clearly lived lives of endless misery. But if I can’t trust the Words of Harmony, what can I trust?

As Ginny approached, Windbrisk lowered the sledgehammer, wiping away the sweat from his brow. “You want to take a turn? I guess it was only a matter of time. The griffons I’ve known… you wouldn’t want a half-pony to do more work than you.”

Ginny nodded noncommittally, bending down as though she were going to take the sledgehammer. Which would put her only a few centimeters from Windbrisk’s neck. Star watched, her body on the edge of a knife. All she had to do was keep her mouth shut, and she could probably go back to Concord. She’d make some excuse for her first letter—maybe she sent the wrong one, maybe it was intercepted somehow. It wouldn’t matter if she still accomplished her mission and the rebellion’s connection to the Devourers led to their ultimate destruction.

Star heard children laughing, then she saw Ginny’s claws in the dark.

She barely even thought. Her horn flashed, shoving Windbrisk stumbling backward in a wave of force. Ginny’s claws sliced harmlessly through the air, centimeters away from Windbrisk’s exposed throat. The world moved in slow-motion as Ginny flailed wildly for a second, before landing on her claws. She spread her wings wide in the cavern, hissing at her. “You were doing so good at this, Star! Don’t forget your duty now! You want to die with them?”

She didn’t wait for an answer, pouncing down on Windbrisk.

But she’d lost her element of surprise, and the hippogriff was ready. Her beak dug into his shoulder instead of his neck, spraying red blood. But Windbrisk wasn’t a helpless victim anymore. While Ginny bit into him, he smashed up against the wall with all his might, until Ginny made an uncomfortable crunching sound.

She melted, feathers fading into a shell of black chitin crushed where Windbrisk’s claw had held. But in that single instant Geist had lost half their size and rolled out of Windbrisk’s reach. Towards the open passage to the surface. “Are you bucking insane?” Windbrisk asked, ignoring the wound to heft the sledgehammer in his good arm. He threw it with all his might, but with blood pouring down his side his strike went entirely off-course. “You’re a changeling? And you attack me now?”

Geist deflected the hammer with their magic, not quite stopping it. They didn’t pick it up, but maybe they couldn’t while that badly hurt. “You can still fix this, Star Orchid!” she called—a distinctly feminine voice to match the slimmer insect body. “I’ve seen your magic! Kill the bird and come with me. Don’t let your emotions blind you.”

Those words served a double purpose, obviously. Windbrisk looked between them, confusion turning into horror. “B-both of you? All this time? We thought we’d stayed safe from Equestria, but… you still found us?”

“The princess finds all creatures in time,” Geist snapped. “You had to know your time had come. Now my partner's magic will end this. She was trained by the princess personally. Your physical strength means nothing to her.”

“How?” Windbrisk backed up against the wall, glancing rapidly between them. “How could you, Star? You’re going to invite those soldiers down here to kill all of us? What did my sister do to deserve that?”

“Nothing,” Star said. Geist was right about one thing: she had been trained by the princess. Not so much for combat, but there were plenty of other useful spells.

Star Orchid focused on the ceiling above Geist, held by a thin length of feeble stone. She screamed, blasting it with enough magic to shake the tunnel around them as it hit. Windbrisk stood still, closing his eyes as though he expected the killing blow Geist asked for.

Stone exploded from behind him, followed by a subterranean roar as the passage collapsed. Powdered rock blasted around them, momentarily blinding them. Hopefully Geist is down there.

Star Orchid stood frozen at the pile of rubble, breathing heavily. She watched closely for any sign of the changeling emerging from within. Maybe Geist’s magical skills were more than she thought, and this was the moment she retaliated with some terrible attack.

Then Windbrisk flopped to one side, trying in vain to staunch his bleeding shoulder with the force of just one claw. Star darted past him to the tunnel, raising her voice as loudly as she could. “We need help! Windbrisk is hurt, and our tunnel just collapsed!”

She could see no light coming, either the flicker of a lantern or the steady glow of a unicorn. She rounded the corner again, dropping down beside the hippogriff. “Hold still, I can—”

Windbrisk retreated from her, head swiveling so his beak was in her way. “What even are you, Star? A changeling spy, like Ginny? You must be… living together the way you were. I’ve seen the way you watched her. I thought…” He groaned and spluttered, backing as far away from her as he could. The blocked tunnel stopped him from getting too far before he smacked up against it. “I thought your relationship was strained. Ginny was just too intense for a city pony like you. I was wrong, wasn’t I? You weren’t together at all, except in wanting us dead.”

She opened her mouth to argue—of course she didn’t want to hurt him, or his sister, or even the Devourer who had hidden all this deep in the earth below a hallowed foundation. But she had come down here to do exactly what he thought. He wasn’t wrong to think she was a spy sent to destroy everything he loved.

All her energy melted away. “I saw I was wrong. Instead of telling the princess about you, I sent her lies and tried to lead her away. You’re still bucking alive!” She pointed at the collapsed passage, tears streaming down her face. “Please, Windbrisk! I didn’t… I had no idea what you ponies were really like! You can’t know how hard it is to defy the princess!”

A handful of ponies appeared in the open doorway behind them. Two had strange weapons slung over useless-looking cloth uniforms. The other four pushed a strange machine with oversized black wheels and a huge tube emerging from it.

“Damn, Windbrisk,” said one of the ponies, dropping down on one knee beside him. “Swung the sledgehammer a little hard, don’t you think? You weren’t supposed to knock down your own neck.” He lifted a black box up from where it was clipped on the breast of his uniform. “Medical detail needed at grid 17-5. Doesn’t look life-threatening, but there’s a lot of blood.” Pause. “Not a battle injury. Construction accident.”

It was Star’s turn to retreat into a corner, ears flat. Maybe this wouldn’t be as bad as she imagined? Windbrisk cared about her, didn’t he? Hadn’t she just saved his life?

“We have a spy!” Windbrisk shouted, pointing with one bloody claw. “Star Orchid! Grab her!”

They weren’t the quickest with their weapons. Ginny probably could’ve used that little delay to affect an escape. But Star just… couldn’t make herself care. She stood stupidly in place as both soldiers pointed their weapons at her.

I betrayed Harmony, and Stygian’s Gate is still going to kill me for it. Maybe there was some justice in that. Ginny might have survived—maybe she was gathering soldiers to press underground and attack. Maybe Star’s change of heart had come too late, and they would all still die.

The soldiers didn’t fire. “Come with us,” the first said. “Medics are on the way, Windbrisk! Don’t bleed to death.”

Star followed without a fight. She probably could’ve used her magic to overpower them a dozen different ways, assuming she was quicker with a spell than they were with a trigger. But she didn’t try. She dragged her hooves, eyes fixed on the stone. They passed many forks in the path, and the sound of many demolition crews hard at work. Maybe they would manage to close every entrance before the army could reach them.

She barely even listened to one of her escorts speaking into the Darktech transmitter again. “Windbrisk says we have a traitor. Yeah, found him bleeding bad. No weapons she could’ve done it with. Right, that’s what I thought.”

“It’s not you I betrayed,” Star muttered. “It’s the princess. I tried to protect you from her.”

She expected fury on the ponies’ faces, or maybe the same betrayal Windbrisk had displayed. Instead they were almost completely neutral. “I don’t have a bucking clue what just happened,” they said. “If Stygian’s Gate lives through this, we’ll sort through the details in the morning. If you are a traitor, maybe hope we get wiped out while you’re in jail, eh?”

They didn’t lead her to anywhere in the upper castle, but down twisting passages she knew well. Windbrisk had taken her there a dozen times by now.

“Why are you bringing me to Discord?”

No soldier of Unification would’ve answered questions, and most guards probably wouldn’t have tried very hard to alleviate her confusion. These weren’t soldiers as she knew them, though. “You’re a unicorn,” said the other fighter—a bat, with burn scars running down half his face. “Only one creature down here that can keep you contained without a gun against your head.”

They emerged from a side-passage into the school. The classrooms were dark, the playground empty. Only one door was open, a single figure visible inside.

“Doctor!” shouted the unicorn guard. “We have the prisoner we radioed about. Suspected spy?”

Discord stepped out, and brilliant white overflowed from behind him. There was a patient on his operating table, a pony covered mostly in cloth. “Leave her here and go,” he said. “Quickly, ponies. Those rifles will be sorely needed.”

He tossed something through the air towards Star. She shielded herself with magic, catching the assault rather than deflecting it like Ginny had done. Not an attack, though—it was a papery-looking dress, complete with a mane-net and mask. “Put this on, Star Orchid. Then get in here.”

The soldiers left without another word, barely even watching them. Does Discord have any magic left at all? Maybe she could still escape. To where, though? Ginny thought she’d betrayed Equestria, and Sygian’s Gate would soon think the same thing.

She pulled on the strange hospital uniform without objection. She’d seen them used before in the ancient walls of Canterlot General, the few times she’d been there. “If you’re going to use your hooves, sanitation is against the wall,” Discord said, turning his back unceremoniously. “Magic can’t contaminate, so stick to that.”

Star’s mouth hung open, stupefied. “Did you hear what those soldiers just said? They just called me a traitor. Shouldn’t you be… locking me up? Isn’t it dangerous to let me just…”

Discord spun around, glowering down at her with a face suddenly furious. “Are you telling me I should operate on this patient without a nurse because she happened to have sudden weakness of moral fortitude? We don’t have time to waste, Star.”

What could she do? Star followed, half expecting to see Windbrisk already on the operating table. But of course all he needed was a few stitches. This… this kind of medicine was like nothing she’d ever seen.

The Iron Lord lay in one corner of the room, his chair stretched all the way back into a comfortable reclining position. With his layers of robe and obscuring cloth removed, Star could see clearly just how frail this creature was. His body was shriveled and skeletal, with skin green in patches and angry red in others. Tubes of red and black and other colors ran into his torso at various points, along with several interlocking plates secure across his chest.

More disturbing was what waited on the operating table. It was a changeling, and simultaneously not at the same time. Instead of colorful, its outsides were soft-looking and as white as fresh snow. The head was completely submerged in something flexible and clear, filled with pink fluid. Was she hallucinating, or was part of the skull detached?

There were other strange things she’d never seen before, boxes of little machines and bags of fluid arranged neatly against the wall.

“What in the princess’s name are you doing?” she asked, before she could stop herself. “What did you do to this changeling?”

“Nothing,” Discord answered, fury entirely wiped from his face. “It’s fresh. Nothing grows faster than an insect. Our mutual friend is starved for choice.”

The Iron Lord looked up with glassy eyes and limbs that shook as he moved. “I’m sure I… this isn’t the night to do this, Discord. Even a full brainpan like mine isn’t successful with every transplant. Stygian’s Gate needs me.”

“Precisely why we’re doing this now. One of our spies will be your nurse. That way the rest of your medical staff can be out in the field when the Unification Army reaches us.”

“What?” Star Orchid probably should’ve kept her mouth shut. She wasn’t just suspected of betraying them, Discord just went out and said it like it was true. Which it was, but still. “They can’t be here. The army never deploys more than ten kilometers from Concord. If the city was up there, we’d know.”

“I know.” Discord pulled on a pair of gloves, which barely fit his strange mismatch of limbs. He probably had to use different sizes to make that even a little bit possible. “I don’t know how they’re here, but… they’re here. Half dead monsters, screaming in silent agony. Is it chaos to be a puppet of corpse-flesh, or just evil? I think my younger self would’ve laughed at the question.”

“I thought you said we couldn’t fight them,” the Devourer said. He watched Discord’s approach, eyes lingering on the tray of knives and strange sealed vials. “If the Undercastle falls today, get me out of all this. Put a gun in my hand. I’ll die with the others.”

Discord smiled at him. “If it comes to an open war, we’re certainly doomed. But I wouldn’t count on that just yet. Tunnels are narrow, and you know them well. Don’t underestimate your fighting ponies. They may surprise you.”

He sighed, folding both arms across his rotten chest. “I suppose I’m not getting out of this, am I? What do you think, spy? Better to leave Stygian’s Gate without its leader during an invasion? Have me now, but probably have me die in front of them a few hours later.”

“Why are you asking me? You think I’m a spy. Discord just said—”

The Iron Lord didn’t even need to move to silence her. He just fixed her with a glare, intense enough that she trailed off and stared down at her hooves. “Well, are you? A spy.”

She hesitated, then caught one of Discord’s wide yellow eyes fixed on her. She wouldn’t be able to fool him, any more than she could trick Ginny. But I did. Ginny didn’t know until the end that I’d changed sides. She wasn’t expecting me to save Windbrisk. “I was. But then I saw what you were doing, and I realized I didn’t want it to stop.”

“See, there you go. What becomes of the Undercastle without me? You ponies… you’re adorable, but so clueless. You don’t know how to fight, even if you’re just as good with the violence as any… anyone else.”

“I d-don’t…” she whimpered. “You shouldn’t ask me. But Discord is old, and powerful. If he thinks… Stars, what am I saying? Listen to the avatar of chaos? He’s an aspect of evil back in Canterlot. His face is used for warnings on road signs and building construction. Watch out, chaos ahead!”

Discord removed and filled a needle, then injected it into one of the many tubes. “Either this works, or you don’t wake up. Sweet dreams.”

“You know, when I thought I was dead the first time, I fought so hard to die under the sky. But now here I am, deep underground. Am I dying for anything, Discord?”

The creature shrugged one shoulder, expression entirely without compassion. For all that Star had seen good, maybe it was wrong of her to think that everything was evil. Discord might be helping, but did he care? “You’re in good hooves, Ferris. Well, there won’t actually be any hooves operating on you, but I hope you appreciate the sentiment.”

He didn’t answer. A few seconds later and he slumped to one side, his face going slack. At first Star thought he was dead, but… no, that clearly wasn’t the case. The machine breathing for him was loud enough that she couldn’t miss it.

“Please bring over that yellow package. Tear off the shrink-wrap and line up the bottles inside beside the machine on my desk. There’s about a five-minute window between removing a brain and its destruction. If he dies because of you, I’m going to be quite cross. My wife even more so.”

Less than an hour ago, Ginny was trying to kill Windbrisk. Now I’m going to have the rebellion’s human leader within striking distance of my knife. Are these creatures insane?

And for better or worse, Star Orchid was with them now. “Did you tell him the truth, Discord? About… the Unification Army? Are they really here?”

He nodded solemnly. “I don’t lie to those I respect. I don’t know how they can be here. I don’t know how long the magic animating them will last so far from Concord. But while it does… I suppose we’ll see what kind of warriors a single man can make of the desperate and dispossessed.”

As if on cue, the ground shook, to the terrible sound of tearing rock far above. Discord reached out to steady a tottering Darktech machine, the one with a multi-jointed arm and something almost like a paw on the end. “The Unification Army may be unfeeling monsters of flesh who fear no enemy—but Stygian’s Gate are defending their home. Who do you think will fight harder?”

Jamie could only feel relief as they left Hollow Shades behind. The more of these creatures she led away, the more relieved she felt. Every one of them escorting her wasn’t murdering people.

Just leaving the city behind wasn’t enough, not when there were still hundreds of the monsters back there. Stay safe, Shy. I hope that mansion of yours has a panic room you never showed me. Either that, or maybe her creepy-looking husband could use some strange magic to keep them out.

They marched Jamie through the jungle some distance, until the outline of an airship appeared in the gloom overhead. It wasn’t that impressive to her—Jamie had spent most of her life living on an orbital platform, an insignificant sliver of the Earth’s shell. But for a zeppelin, this thing was massive. Spotlights ringed its outer edges, shining down on a slowly expanding war-camp. The trees beneath it had already been reduced to stumps, with the jungle floor charred to trim away the underbrush.

More armored ponies were hard at work, digging trenches and hammering pickets and preparing heavy mounted guns. White tents stood in military rows, all stinking of the same chemicals. Formaldehyde, maybe? Was that what disgusted her about being around them? No, it was probably still the blood.

They were challenged at the gate by one of many identical soldiers. Each had a different voice but spoke as though they were the same pony. Like ants from the same colony, greeting a group of returning scouts.

She didn’t see a single pony off-duty. There were no gatherings around campfires, no music. The alcohol she could smell was more what she would’ve expected from a hospital and less an army’s camp.

“General Pike is waiting for you aboard the Zapapple,” said one of the soldiers escorting her. She couldn’t really keep track of them, and maybe there was no point trying. “Please step onto the transport platform and hold still.” They pointed towards a slightly raised platform, lined with faintly glowing gemstones. Jamie needed no knowledge of the natives to guess at what it did.

“Am I being imprisoned?” she asked. “What will happen on the Zapapple?”

“The Zapapple is a lancer and will take you to Concord far faster than the ESS Harrow could. It has accommodations suited for the princess. You will be housed there during the trip.”

If there was one source of comfort while Jamie stared into the face of this monster, it was that she didn’t think it could lie. Lying took calculation, emotional understanding, and she felt nothing from these ponies.

“What are you?” she asked. Maybe unwise, but the walk had shown her no violence from any of them. They treated her with such respect, not even getting close enough to touch her by accident. Yet they’d slaughtered every pony who stood in front of them, probably without the ones they were fighting even trying to resist. “Are you androids?”

The eyes looking back at her didn’t even have the decency to seem confused. “Are you refusing to comply with instructions, Empathy?”

“No.” She groaned, stepping up onto the platform. “I’m just asking. Ponies act like people, but you don’t.”

“You must not comply,” Epsilon said, as it had been doing every few minutes. “You must prompt them to destroy you. It is the only step that can preserve the secrecy of 198.64-Beta.”

Jamie laughed. Maybe it was stress, or maybe so many eyes on her. These probably-robots wouldn’t be able to identify her behavior as crazy when they didn’t act alive themselves. But then, neither was Epsilon. It had rules, and at least some of those could be used to her advantage. “I invoke the UN universal privacy statute,” she muttered. “I revoke my consent to electronic communication.”

Epsilon did not reply. Maybe it was listening, waiting for her to reinstate her consent. But how far was the Zapapple traveling, anyway? Radio’s range wasn’t infinite.

“Do not move,” said one of the soldiers. “Remain still, or you may be accidentally harmed.”

Jamie opened her mouth to ask exactly what kind of vehicle she was standing on—before the world fuzzed around her, jungle trees and army of strange soldiers blurring to nothing.

Her hooves settled on an identical platform, though instead of raised above the jungle this one was set into the center of a small room. A handful of creatures waited there for her—uniformed soldiers, rather than armored. None of these were the washed-out gray white of the creatures below. “Emissary Empathy,” said the one in the fanciest uniform, extending a hoof towards her. He was an older pony, maybe the oldest she’d ever seen. But those eyes were still alert and lively, even in a face covered in wrinkles. “My name is General Pike. Welcome aboard the Zapapple.”

She took the offered hoof, though it filled her with disgust. She was looking up at him, but suddenly she found the anger came naturally to her. “Pike,” she said, as scornfully as she could. “Are you the one responsible for the disgusting waste of life down there, or is that someone else?”

His face twitched, and he pulled his hoof back. “If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you to your quarters. The royal suite will be yours for the duration of the trip. Only the finest for our ambassador from the sky.”

“I’d rather figure out what happened back in Hollow Shades,” she said. “There are ponies dead down there. Is this how your kind normally handle civic disputes? Murder?”

Pike cleared his throat, and the four other ponies in the room drew their weapons. At least they had enough respect not to just go out and point them at her. “Please, you need to be situated before we can get underway. I have instructions to make the trip as expeditiously as possible.”

Jamie had no choice but to follow.

Chapter 26: Bootes

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Star Orchid worked through the night. It was a bloody business, ensuring that she saw more of the Devourer than she ever thought she would. There were no ancient magical secrets to discover—the Iron Lord was no hidden Alicorn. It was a good thing she’d been exposed to so much of what happened in the dungeons beneath the castle, or she might not have been able to keep up her composure around so much blood.

Star did not fake some accident to murder the Iron Lord, though it was hard to imagine needing to. Star Orchid might not know the process that created the Unification Army, but it couldn’t be more horrific than what Discord had done. Some part of her still loyal to the life she’d been taught felt some satisfaction there. The Iron Lord tolerated a creature like Discord to dwell below his fortress? He eventually suffered the same fate as so many others.

But maybe just like them, he’d recover. None of those operated on seemed to mind in the end, when they got back whatever abilities they’d lost. Even that little changeling with the broken wings was flying again.

Star knew nothing about medicine, but she followed instructions without complaint. The monster called Discord might want to spread chaos across Equestria, but he kept that chaos out of the operating room.

She worked until exhaustion wore heavily on her, and the job was done.

She couldn’t have said what happened to her. The next thing she knew, somepony was shaking her. She blinked, scanning the world around her. She was on the floor, curled on some folded blankets against a corridor wall. She still smelled a little like antiseptic. “W-what…”

Wellspring stood over her, looking worn. Her mane was shorn aside from half her face, with bandages wrapped tightly there. Her uniform was stained with blood, and she had a strange weapon slung over her shoulder. Apparently, the standard tool for the rebellion, whatever it was. “Star, we need to talk.”

Star sat up, eyes scanning to try and recognize where they’d brought her. But one length of tunnel looked much like another. Just supports along the sides and a bundle of cable running along the roof. She could’ve been meters from the surface, or she could’ve been deep below the Undercastle in virgin rock. “Sure.” She brushed her mane straight with a little magic, meeting Wellspring’s eyes. “This is… about Windbrisk?”

Wellspring settled on her haunches, removing her weapon and leaning slightly on it. For as bleary as Star felt, it seemed this pony hadn’t slept at all. How long had Star been asleep? She couldn’t hear any sounds of distant combat anymore. No tearing stone, no light lances blasting away at rebellion soldiers. Had they somehow won? Nopony ever won against the Unification Army!

“You could say that. He had an interesting story to tell. Then I hear you were down with the Doctor and may’ve saved the Iron Lord’s life. I’ll admit it’s left me with more questions than answers. Why don’t you start by telling me what happened to Ginny?”

“That isn’t her name,” Star said flatly. Maybe if she was a little more alive, she’d think things through, carefully ration information so it couldn’t come back to harm her. She didn’t try. “Ginny’s real name is Geist, have you heard of—” From Wellspring’s eyes, she didn’t need to wait for an answer. Even in her exhaustion, she seemed shocked.

“The assassin?”

Star nodded. “We were sent here directly from Concord. Equestria has been discovering more and more Darktech. The princess thought this meant the ancient Devourers might still be alive somewhere—she thought they were here, working with the rebels.”

To her surprise, Wellspring didn’t react with violence. She seemed perfectly calm as Star admitted to serving the princess directly. It was only her last words that drew a response. “Wait, she knew we were here?”

“Yes. I can’t tell you why she hasn’t moved before now. I replaced her last adviser less than a month before she sent me away.”

Wellspring nodded, looking thoughtful. “Probably Commissar Taproot. He never knew anything useful, but we had an understanding. We took care of the city’s hungry and sick, and he wouldn’t send ponies underground looking for us. He disappeared in the middle of the night a year ago, same day Golden Shine showed up. I guess the princess wasn’t happy about having a pony with a conscience working for her.”

If that was a jab, Star ignored it. She had come here to discover every detail of the rebellion and get the army to murder them all. She probably deserved it.

“Geist attacked Windbrisk. I don’t know much about royal assassins, but I know my own soldiers. Windbrisk is tougher than he is clever. I don’t think he realizes that you saved his life.”

Star nodded. “We sent our first detailed report back to Concord three days ago. We weren’t supposed to write until we knew everything, since you might have mages who could detect the sending spell. I rewrote the report, taking out everything that was true. The princess doesn’t know anything we discovered during our investigation here. At least… not until Geist gets back. I was more worried about sealing the tunnel than stopping him.”

Wellspring looked thoughtful, otherwise silent. Creatures carrying construction materials and weapons passed going in both directions. They stared openly at Star but didn’t say anything. Was her betrayal getting around Stygian’s Gate that fast?

“Why?” Wellspring asked. “Assuming you’re telling me the truth—your mission could be done. I’m sure the princess would’ve rewarded you handsomely for all our lives. With Geist out there, it might still be happening. I don’t see any reason she would spare you after a betrayal. Unless all this was… a way to endear you to us? To keep a pony on the inside until we’re destroyed?”

Star shook her head. “I know you won’t believe me, but… I’ll never be able to go home. Every few days we’ve been here, Geist reminded me what would happen if my loyalty to Equestria faltered. Geist is Equestria’s longest-serving Spymaster. He’s killed hundreds of ponies over the years. And he’s a changeling, so there’s no way to watch for him. I’ll probably be dead within the week no matter what happens.”

Wellspring rose to her hooves and slung the rifle over her shoulder. “There are ponies down here who want me to find a cell to lock you in for a few weeks. If we’re still alive, maybe then we can figure out if we can still trust you.”

Star didn’t move. If you were going to lock me in jail, I wouldn’t be out in the open. Are you going to kill me after all? “What do you think?”

Wellspring shook her head. “If you’re telling the truth, we can’t keep you in a cell. We’d have to break your horn, and that’s…” She shuddered. “Stygian’s Gate used to be ruthless. We saw ourselves as so outnumbered and overpowered that our only hope was destroying as much of Twilight’s world as we could. Only the ponies Twilight had already broken found their way to us.”

She leaned forward, resting a hoof on Star’s shoulder. “What good will it do the ponies of Equestria if we cast off one kind of tyranny only to take its place? We stand for the glories of Equestria’s past, long forgotten by most. A world where Kindness was one of the greatest virtues, not the least.”

She turned away, pointing down the hall. “We barely survived last night. Maybe it was your friend, Geist. Brought the undead down on us. But they stopped when morning came. We didn’t win—we were barely holding the tunnels they’d found. They just turned around and left.”

Discord was right. “How many did we lose?”

Wellspring glanced back, ears flattening. “Too many. Even if it was just a few, it would be too many. Come with me. We don’t have many surface ponies left—our soldiers are strained to the breaking point. I need a partner to come with me to the surface. We’ve received a message, and I don’t want anypony else at risk when we answer it.”

A message? “Not from the Unification Army?”

She shook her head. “Radio. That’s the, uh… I guess you’d call it ‘Darktech’. It’s one of the ways we communicate.”

“What about your vision of the world above?” Star rose to her hooves, stumbling along after Wellspring. Maybe she’d get a chance to see Windbrisk? He had to be around somewhere, right? He’d be stitched back up and helping somewhere instead of resting like he should. “Why send someone, just use your magic?”

“There’s no magic,” Wellspring called. She didn’t slow, forcing Star to hurry along if she wanted to catch up. “No one can use the computer but the Iron Lord. We had some succession plans, but his heart attack came so suddenly… we can’t use it until he recovers.”

Star didn’t have a clue what a computer was, though she didn’t need to know to guess at the implications. “You ponies seemed so clever before. Where’s the strategy in having your most powerful weapon useless if you lose a single creature?”

Wellspring shook her head. “Every member of Stygian’s Gate would be vulnerable if the princess got into our database. Every cell in every city. Anypony else might be a changeling in disguise, or maybe they could be captured and tortured. Not the Iron Lord.”

She didn’t know where they were in the Undercastle, but the path did seem to be sloping upward. The tunnels were filled with the familiar antiseptic odor of Unification Army preservative. They’d managed to kill a few, then. More than some rebellions could claim.

“Right, Devourer. His dark powers protect him from ordered magic?”

Wellspring stumbled, nearly broke into laughter. “You met him. Did you sense any dark magic?” She didn’t wait for an answer—she could see it in her face. “You’ve lived in Concord; you must’ve wondered why we couldn’t heal him. A creature as important to Stygian’s Gate, surely we could’ve found a doctor to help. Even if our resident surgeon doesn’t have the power he once did.

“Magic seems difficult for their species. The stress for a healthier creature might be endurable, I do not know. But his body was so frail—even the princess couldn’t probe into his mind without killing him.”

Star thought better of pointing out how they were giving up that protection now, and it hadn’t even ever helped them. She wanted to go to the surface. Unification soldiers might be waiting, but she’d dealt with them before. So long as they didn’t attack immediately, Star was reasonably sure she could get past a few. It was a lesson ponies learned quickly while serving in the palace, or their service didn’t last long.

“So you want me to help investigate what’s happening on the surface. Even though you know why I joined. Even though you… know an assassin is probably waiting for me up there?”

Wellspring shrugged. “That sounds about right.”

She walked along in silence, waiting for the reason all this made sense. It didn’t come. “So why trust me?” she finally asked. She would’ve shouted if there weren’t so many other eyes on them. Every soldier was watching her. But Stygian’s Gate had lasted this long—she doubted it could’ve if it hadn’t somehow kept up its own security.

“We don’t have a choice. Said it yourself, Star—Geist is already out there. The only hope we have now is that what you know might be enough to make up for what she knows. Maybe we can stop her, or… maybe you’ll be able to prepare us for whatever the princess has in store.” They emerged into the Undercastle’s central hallway, into a room filled with the injured. Ponies lay against the walls, each one sporting various wounds. Most were resting now, with young ponies delivering supplies or caring for them.

“Before we go up there, I just need to know one thing,” Wellspring went on. “Are you with us? Look me in the eye and say it.”

Star hadn’t been able to lie about being a spy—not to Windbrisk, and not to Wellspring. That kind of honesty might be hard, but there were times it was an advantage. Like right now. “I don’t know if I agree with everything you all believe, but I want to stop Twilight from finding you. I think you’ve done…” The words burned as she spoke them. She would probably catch fire any moment just by forming them on her tongue. But she didn’t. “I think you’ve been helping ponies, doing the things I wish the princess was doing. I’ll do anything I can to keep her from finding you.”

“Good enough.” Wellspring gestured again. “We don’t know what we’ll find out there. But it smelled like burning. Your princess sent a wartime army into a city that barely even knows we’re here. We need everypony we can get against a force like that. We can’t match the princess in gall, so we have to make up for our weakness with friendship.”

There was no mistaking where the battle had taken place. Instead of cots for the injured to recover, the ground here was lined with lumpy cloth, occasionally broken by a hoof or some other limb. Even underground, humidity would speed the rot until the caverns were overwhelmed, unless they acted soon. But Star couldn’t smell any of those rotting-flesh odors. The preservatives were so thick in the air here that she had to cover her mouth for a second. These aren’t our dead, this is the Unification Army. They held them off.

Then they passed through a narrow tunnel, blasted away from the other side. There hadn’t been much magic—very few could still cast spells beyond levitation once they joined. She wasn’t surprised to see the doorway hadn’t been opened very far. Thousands of little impacts broke the stone, tiny bits of metal reflecting in the glow of her horn. “What kind of weapon do you have that can fight the Unification Army?”

Wellspring levitated her own slightly off her shoulder, holding it out for Star to inspect. It was dense and mechanical, with a rounded drum on the bottom. “It’s called a rifle. It uses chemistry to propel bits of metal fast enough to kill. It helps that we’ve been preparing for an attack like this. You were going to find us eventually, and when you did…” They emerged from within, into a much wider tunnel. A sewage access from the city above. Just around the corner, Star could see… figures. Massive and hulking, with shells that reflected her horn like dragon scales. They stood near the fort, and so tall they had to stoop in the sewage access.

At least they didn’t attack right away. They were as big as minotaurs and might be just as fast.

Those aren’t Unification Army soldiers. Standard procedure for Equestria’s army facing an entrenched foe would just be to surround and wait for Twilight. These four… didn’t even seem ready to fight. They were certainly big enough for violence, but…

“You two the ones who held back the army?” called a voice, interrupting Star’s meandering thoughts. The accent was strange, but the words were clear enough. If anything, it seemed to resemble the Iron Lord.

“Here we go,” Wellspring muttered. “If you think of anything I might want to know about this—something you know from your time with the crown, something you figure out, you tell me privately. With the Iron Lord recovering from surgery, I’m in charge. I need all the help I can get.”

Then she straightened, bounding a few steps forward until she faced them openly. “We represent them,” she said. “I was fighting, my friend here was working in the hospital.” Wellspring waited until Star had caught up with her, then lowered her voice a little. “Are you the reason we aren’t under attack?”

One of the figures stepped forward into the light. Star couldn’t see any flesh under all that metal, the shell was thicker and more secure than any dragon’s hide. But she could imagine the Devourer shape inside even so. Two arms, two legs, and a curved helmet to deflect blows.

“Incidentally,” the figure spoke with a deep, masculine voice, deep enough to send rumbles through her chest and hooves. “You weren’t responding to our radio messages, and then we saw why. Thought you might be more willing to talk if we took a little pressure off.

That’s one way to call it. The longer these creatures went without attacking them, the closer Wellspring walked. Until they were only a few steps away and could see the group clearly. There were four of them, three several times her size and one that was smaller than its fellows, with armor that was closer to the models worn by the royal guard. There were weapons attached to their armor, like the rifles carried by Stygian’s Gate than anything she’d seen in Equestria.

“We appreciate the help,” she said. “Not just for us, but Hollow Shades. The city doesn’t deserve to burn because we’re hiding under it.”

“Won’t be able to protect it for long,” said another figure. This one sounded feminine, though her armor looked very little different. Maybe some of the colored stripes and symbols were changed. It was the same alphabet she’d seen on the princess’s most ancient relics. But she’d already known to expect that. She would have to tell Wellspring as soon as they had a private moment. “That zeppelin is flying back home to mommy. When Laputa gets here, you’re fucked.”

“A little more compassion, Landon,” said the first. He reached up, fiddling with something around his neck. His helmet hissed, then clicked as he lifted it up and set it down. Then he dropped to one knee, ending up near their eye level.

Yes, this was the same sort of creature as the Iron Lord. Only this skin was dark instead of pale. The other basic features were the same. He thrust one limb forward, gauntlet and all. “I am Yeoman Kondrak. These are my high officers, Captain Landon, Captain Hopson, and Engineer Renfield.”

Wellspring glanced sideways at Star, as if to ask if the exchange was safe. Star could only shrug, confused and overwhelmed. How was she supposed to know? They saved us. That counts for something.

“I’m Wellspring, the uh, current leader of Stygian’s Gate. This is Star Orchid, my assistant. Please don’t call me rude, but… as you say, this is urgent. When Concord arrives, we will all die. Whatever you did to draw away the Unification Army, why? We don’t know you.”

“I can answer that,” said the one introduced as Engineer Renfield. He touched his helmet as he approached, and the solid silver faded to clear. She could see his face underneath now, like Kondrak, but with a general shape closer to the Iron Lord’s if he were a few decades younger. “We’ve been reading construction transponder signals under this location for the last six months. Curiously, the machines refused to be rerouted to other tasks. Do you know why that might be?”

Kondrak rose, though he kept his helmet tucked under one arm.

Star Orchid was just baffled by the request, but Wellspring’s expression remained even, obviously trying not to show any emotion. “If I knew what you were talking about, would you be here to try and take them? We aren’t prepared to give away our machines.”

The machines that Star Orchid had barely even seen. Other than to hear them grinding away at the stone at night and see the Undercastle keep growing. “We are ultimately not searching for machines,” Kondrak said. “But what they indicate. We are searching for a backup of the governing intelligence. Does a mechanical mind help lead your… Stygian’s Gate?”

Wellspring shook her head, glancing to Star for support. From her face, Star didn’t need magic to know she had no idea what they were talking about. What was a mechanical mind?

“No. There are no mechanical minds here. Unless… could they mean the Iron Lord, Wellspring?”

She considered that a moment, then shrugged. “We had one like you until last night. Are you searching for your lost companion?”

“The companions we have lost are long dead,” Kondrak answered. “No, though… you say had? It would be good for us to speak with them. That way we wouldn’t have to explain everything we mean.”

Wellspring pawed at the ground under the force of their stares, before finally answering. “He is… recovering from surgery. His body was failing, so he needed another. I don’t understand how it works, but he… said it might be some time before he is functional again. Days or even weeks. I’m afraid we’re the only ones who can answer your questions right now. I will try to give truth in return for the kindness you showed to us. If I know the answers, they are yours.”

The little band of Devourers shared a meaningful look. Maybe they had ways of speaking to one another within their armor, ways that Star and Wellspring would be powerless to overhear. If so, it would make this negotiation quite unfair.

While they considered, Star acted. There were some things she had to know. “So, the Equestrian army up above us… you scared them off? There aren’t any left in Hollow Shades?”

“Not anymore,” Landon said, reaching sideways to pat something on her side. “There’s some saying about a kind word and a gun, but we skipped the kind words.”

Star stared back, stupefied. “I’ve never… Did you see how they were able to reach so far? I’ve never seen the Unification Army travel more than fifty kilometers from Concord, even at the most extreme. That’s why the princess bothers to train other ponies at all. She needs to leave some behind, and she needs to send some out on missions.”

There was a much longer silence this time, and the Devourers all shared a look. “Now that she says it…” Kondrak muttered.

“We weren’t aware of that restriction,” Landon said. “And no, didn’t see anything specific. Other than their zeppelin. We were itching to shoot it down, but I guess that wouldn’t be fair.”

“It would not be honorable,” Kondrak corrected. “So we did not. Neither is attacking a city of innocent people honorable, however. So here we are.” He turned back, looking suddenly urgent. “Please, it is imperative you allow us to see one of your machines. We need to know where it came from. We search for… relics of a civilization long dead, that the ruler of your world is constantly seeking to destroy. We will not take your machines from you, but we would like to follow the trail of their manufacture back to its source.”

Wellspring nodded. “Would you like to see this?” She slung her rifle off her shoulder, offering it up to Kondrak. Landon tensed, hand darting to the side—but as soon as she realized they weren’t being attacked, she relaxed again.

You must be the bodyguard, here to protect these other creatures. Yet they all seemed like warriors who needed no protection, except maybe Renfield.

The devourer took the weapon in hand, knowing instantly how to hold it. He turned it over, studying something marked into the underside of the stock. “Fabrication print… Emergency Shelter 198.50. Where is that, Renfield?”

The other hesitated, lifting something made of glass into spidery digits and fighting with it for a moment. “Rio, Yeoman. That’s a status-red ruin. Took direct entropic bombardment during the Scourge.”

“And yet.” He held up the rifle, twisting it so the engineer could see, before handing it back to Wellspring. “Thank you for showing me this. You have given my crew and I some hope—something we desperately need. Perhaps there is something we can offer in return.”

“Why run?” Wellspring snapped, without a second’s hesitation. “I’m guessing you’re afraid of the same enemy we are. Help us fight the princess. Then you won’t need to hide from her.”

Kondrak reached up, securing the helmet back onto his neck. “Some of my crew wishes to try. But we must be prudent as well as just. The orbital correction agent wields powers no intelligent creature was meant to hold.”

“You fought her army and won,” Star pressed. “The Unification Army are… so powerful. No enemy ever wins against them. But you drove them off.”

“They didn’t seem interested in a fight with us,” Landon said. “Soon as we showed up, they marched right back to their ship and flew off. Give us a few points for being scarecrows, maybe. But this was your victory, not ours. We don’t have the men or the tritium for a war.”

“What my officer means to say is that our kind has… tried war as a solution to our ills,” Kondrak corrected. “Yet here the world is, ravaged beyond recognition. Trust us in our promise that we fight for the same goal—to rob your tyrant of her fangs and make the world safe.”

Wellspring seemed to falter at the edge of a decision, though Star couldn’t guess what she was thinking. She hadn’t been leading the rebellion herself, after all. She didn’t know all its secrets. Finally, she went on, spilling everything in a rush. “There’s something else you should know,” Wellspring went on. “There’s another like you, one sent from somewhere else. She dropped from the sky onto Hollow Shades about a week ago—probably what drew the army here in the first place. She was sent from… somewhere not far. The one who sent her gave our leader a new body as well in exchange for our help. The Iron Lord has been sending messages back and forth ever since. But when we asked for help fighting Twilight, it denied having the strength. Apparently no one does.”

The Devourers turned again, apparently sharing some rapid, silent conversation.

“The one sent by this… other faction,” Kondrak continued, as though he hadn’t stopped for a second. “Where are they now? If your leader isn’t available, we must speak with them immediately.”

Wellspring shook her head. “They were holding her in the Hall of Justice, on the surface. The metal fort near the center of town?”

“Nothing alive in there,” Landon declared. “Already swept the building. No humans, though. So there’s some good news.”

“We would like a description,” Kondrak said. “But first, please. Take this.” He reached into a pocket, removing a compact piece of Darktech. “When your human wakes, give him this. And as for the rest of you… evacuation seems prudent. We won’t promise to save you from an enemy we cannot defeat.”

Chapter 27: Carina

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Shouting sounded from down the hall, accompanied with a hissing and squawking from Kondrak’s helmet. More of that almost-magical communication called radio, perhaps?

Star Orchid would’ve been completely lost, except that the Devourers spoke the same language. “They’re coming back!” shouted a human voice. Not terrified, but urgent. “Kondrak, they are marching. Drones say it’s even more than last time!”

The human straightened, twitching towards the exit. “It seems this conversation will be cut short, I’m afraid. The army of automatons is marching, and we must depart.”

“You bucking realize what that means?” Wellspring asked, suddenly harsh. “We don’t even have a leader until he recovers from surgery. We haven’t evacuated any of the most vulnerable, and our troops are barely hanging on. If they get here, we’re all dead, and everything we have will be taken back to Concord.”

Kondrak froze, glancing over to one of his companions.

Landon shook her head. “They’re cute, sir, we want to help them too. But we can’t win a land war with a country. We’re down to our last box of curatives. Next soldier to lose their armor will be fighting as naked as the horses.”

The aliens retreated uniformly, towards the passage upward, taking any hope of survival with them. Kondrak moved the slowest, his helmet still under one arm. “I want to help you,” he said flatly. “But my ship must survive. Protecting its crew is the only thing I’ve ever done right.”

“You don’t have to fight a whole war,” Star snapped. Every word was another little betrayal—here she was, revealing the secrets few in Equestria knew to the very monsters she had feared for her whole life. She spoke anyway. “The Unification Army… shouldn’t even be out here. They have weaknesses you can use.”

Kondrak stopped, extending one hand to the others. They turned back, watching expectantly. “We already know much. They’re algorithmic in their thinking, they can’t survive without the life-support they carry on their backs. But it takes days for them to rot once their support gear is broken, and there is great security in the error-checking they rely on to determine orders. Even projections and voice simulations of their leader fail. They act as Concord’s army, and so we’ve tried everything we can think of to exploit their flaws. Their creator has proven to be one step ahead.”

“Nothing like that,” Star said. Every second she stayed out here was one where the Unification Army got closer. If that wasn’t enough, there was probably an assassin lurking out in the city, waiting to leave her gutted and finish her work. “The army can’t leave Concord, not more than twenty kilometers or so. I’m guessing that the Harrow contains some… miniaturized version of what the city does. There’s powerful magic on there somewhere to keep the army alive. Destroy it, and all those soldiers stop fighting too.”

“Escalation,” Kondrak whispered bitterly. “Neutrality dies along with these soldiers. They represent only a small number of Equestria’s full strength, but they will be enough to provoke a war. She will never stop hunting the Hippocrates after today.”

“She already won’t,” Wellspring offered. “Unless you plan on killing all of us before you go, those soldiers will interrogate us, learn about you. Devourers living and fighting her… she’ll never allow it, no matter how balanced and neutral you think you are.”

Hopson moved swiftly, lifting the weapon hanging from her shoulder and taking it in both of those strange human limbs. “I like the side where we help the innocent people, Captain. Rest of the crew thinks the same, promise. Having boxes of ammo in stores doesn’t help us if we aren’t going to shoot any of it.”

Are you Devourers, or aren’t you? Star thought, staring at the captain. This would be the moment to show us what you’re really like. Act like you’ll help us, but really you just wanted something for yourself. Now that you can’t get it, you’ll abandon us.

Star Orchid had betrayed the princess… betrayed everything she’d ever known was true. It would be appropriate for that betrayal to kill her soon after. At least I won’t have to face the princess. The Unification Army won’t be able to tell me apart from the rest of the rebels. If I’m holding a weapon when they get here, I’ll die too.

“My second,” Kondrak said, meeting Landon’s eyes. “Will you consent to this choice? Our lives exchanged for aliens.”

She nodded curtly. “It’s a stupid reason, but we’ve been in orbit long enough. Let’s go.”

“On one condition.” Kondrak pointed towards Star with one gloved hand. “You bring this new information, but you are a stranger. The artifice you call magic is… not well understood by any member of my crew. If you wish us to fight, put your life in the same peril as we do.”

A dozen different objections ran through her head—essentially the same ones she would’ve given to the princess to stay in the court, if she could have. How different Star’s future would’ve been if she’d managed that. But Twilight never changed her mind. Once she was sure about something… it was absolute.

“I am not a soldier,” Star said, advancing towards them. “I would only slow you down, and put you at more risk. But… if that’s the exchange, then take me anyway. My life in trade for all the creatures I put at risk down here.”

She glanced over her shoulder, meeting Wellspring’s eyes. “If I come back, we’re even.”

Wellspring nodded her approval. “I’ll tell Windbrisk what happened. If we can hold out long enough for it to matter.”

“Come on then, small horse,” Kondrak said. “You may be no warrior, but all of you can run. To the surface we go.”

Jamie felt the deck jerk as they accelerated, a sudden burst of force that rattled everything in her room. She walked all the way to the back, where a set of windows gave her a commanding view of Hollow Shades as the ship retreated. Even if she’d been able to fly, the window wasn’t quite large enough for her to climb out into the sky. Maybe if she was a contortionist she could’ve squeezed out.

But even if she could, it would just be to fall to her death.

This army had not been gentle with Hollow Shades. From up here, the damage it suffered was even clearer to her. The dense favelas might’ve been easy to build, but they were also apparently flammable. A whole city block had burned, and the ponies who lived there were occasionally visible cowering in the jungle, little bursts of motion as they kept their distance from the Unification Army.

This is all my fault, she thought, as the green and brown of towering jungle trees blurred together beneath them. They wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for me. If I’d just let Epsilon kill me, nopony would be dead.

It was an uninvited thought, and part of her balked. Why should the actions of an evil dictator be her fault? She hadn’t sent an army of strange monsters rampaging through the city, attacking ponies regardless of their loyalties. Twilight had done this, and maybe Epsilon too. If only it had been a little smarter, maybe it would’ve listened when she told it that its plan was braindead.

Jamie sighed, drawing the curtains closed with her mouth. There was nothing she could do for those creatures now. If anything, it might be about to get worse. I’m not some Peacekeeper Commando. I can’t resist torture.

Epsilon had been right about one thing. Jamie didn’t know where the shelter was buried. She couldn’t get them killed, only a living human and the last vestiges of a frail rebellion.

That soldier had told her the truth—these really were comfortable accommodations, made for a ship’s captain. Or even a princess. A single chandelier lit the space with dozens of little glowing stones. The furniture was carved from fine hardwood, with an oversized bed in one room and an elegant writing desk in another beside a library with dozens of heavy books. In the center of a room was a fine dining table with four seats, though it was entirely bare except for a cloth.

She might’ve taken this opportunity to learn more about the ones who were about to torture her to death, except that she couldn’t read the text on any of the covers. All except one.

Desperate for anything to distract her, Jamie leaned down and took the book in her mouth, settling it on the table. The spine wasn’t like many of these other books—it was printed with a graphic instead of foil stamped, in bright colors she’d never seen from a pony book.

Principles of Electrical Engineering, 8th ed” proclaimed the cover, its edges worn and pages yellowed. She hooved through them and found the book nearly crumbling to dust at her touch. Yet flipping through led her to exactly what she might’ve expected. It was a college textbook, ancient and missing some pages, and not even pretending to be made by ponies.

Of all the relics to survive, why this? Jamie hadn’t attended any University; she didn’t qualify for it. But even in her day, physical books were rare.

She spent a few minutes in Twilight’s chair, reading Twilight’s relic for the simple glimpse back into something familiar it could give her. None of it made any sense to her, and from the scribbles in the margins it didn’t seem like it had made much sense to the last one to use the book either.

Whoever had written them hadn’t been using English, so their meaning was impossible to discern. Their writing was neat and precise, each one a masterpiece of calligraphy. I wonder if this made more sense to you than it does to me.

Jamie thought about trashing it—then maybe moving on to the porcelain pony busts resting on the bookshelf. But she dismissed that thought quickly—trashing the place wouldn’t make them turn around, it would just end with her in a worse cell. Assuming they didn’t just decide to beat and kill her right there.

I’m not ready to die.

She was alone for hours after that, long enough for the sunlight streaming through her covered window to turn orange, then fade. She moved from the seat to the bed, contemplating what tortures might wait for her in Twilight’s castle.

She would probably rate right up there with some of the great evils of her own world—enslaving the planet, torturing dissidents, suppressing information. What would all those brave revolutionaries think about the world they made?

She wrapped her forelegs around the pillow, sobbing quietly into it. Jamie just wanted to go home.

She woke abruptly, to a polite knocking on her cabin door. She sat up, wiping away the slime from her face. Sunlight streamed through the curtains now, faintly purple with the dawn.

The knock came again, and this time there was a voice to join it. “Emissary Empathy,” it called—Pike again, though his polite visage had returned. “I would be flattered if you would take breakfast with me. Would you mind?”

“Yes,” she snapped. “Go away.”

The door opened, and he entered. Not flanked by soldiers as last time, but a group of other creatures—coats of shiny yellow and red and blue, more like shells than fur. Their eyes were entirely inhuman as well, broken into dozens of alien facets.

“Forgive my imprecise language,” Pike said, stepping inside and gesturing to his servants. They brought trays, hurrying over to the table and spreading them there. Jamie’s nose was assaulted by smells—fresh bread and eggs, apple juice, and other horse-foods she couldn’t quite place. “I meant that I would be eating here, and I would be flattered if you chose to join me. If you choose not to, that’s up to you. Stay in bed if you wish.”

She tried, though she couldn’t stop hearing the clanking trays. Pike’s servant bugs unloaded plates and utensils from their pushcart, laying out two place-settings on opposite sides of the table with food in-between. A single glance told her there was even more here than she’d initially thought. They were trying to torture her with this stuff.

Then Pike began eating, and she swore he was making as much noise as possible with that fancy silverware. He ate without shame, his back to her, with only one servant left. Could she overpower him?

Maybe if she had a gun.

She rose, shaking herself out, and running a hoof through her mane. She stalked over to the table, grabbing a roll in her mouth. She started to spin, leaving the whole arrangement behind—but there were fresh carrots on the table, oranges already peeled, a plate of soft pastries…

She grumbled, then took the only remaining seat. Pike’s servants had already pushed the other chairs away. “This isn’t a very polite way to treat an emissary,” she grumbled, as soon as she’d swallowed the roll. “Dragging me out of the city and locking me up like this.”

Pike raised an eyebrow, inclining his head slightly. “Forgiveness, Empathy. I thought that providing you with the finest of everything at my disposal would be enough to satisfy your tastes. I will endeavor to do better if we encounter each other again.”

She reached across the table with one hoof, snatching the entire bowl of carrots and dumping them onto her plate. He watched intently, one eye never seeming to blink. But he didn’t stop her. He didn’t so much as twitch in his seat, in fact.

Maybe she should’ve worried about this stuff being poisoned, since she hadn’t watched them set any of it up. But she found it hard to care. Pike could kill her if he wanted, he could force her to drink poison or throw her into some horrible horse-torture machine. Why should he bother hiding his evil when she couldn’t escape no matter what he did?

“You’re a creature like nothing I’ve ever encountered,” he continued, unconcerned with her anger. “Equestria has spent centuries waiting for another Alicorn, did you know that? The princess has always known that one would arise to succeed her, just as she arrived to succeed the ancient sisters. Do you think that could be you?”

Jamie burst out laughing, her voice high and awkward. She kept going for several seconds, with Pike and his bug staring at her. “Me, rule a country? That’s insane. I couldn’t even keep my bedroom clean back home. I couldn’t even stop myself from getting kidnapped twice. I don’t think I’m fit to succeed your princess’s janitor.”

I’m not sure I know how to clean up an evil dictatorship after its ruler is overthrown, either. I’m sure there’s someone in the rebellion who knows more about political science.

Pike nodded, scooting his chair out from the table an inch or so. Was that fear on his face, or just surprise? “I’m sure there are ponies in Equestria who will be disappointed to hear that. Maybe even Princess Twilight herself.”

Jamie shrugged. “I don’t mean to disappoint. But it would be worse to lie. I’m an ambassador, not a king. I just came with a message.”

Jamie turned back to her plate, scooping on a few pastries next. Golden Shine had given her nothing but bland boiled vegetables and oatcakes every day, but this… this almost made up for it.

“And what message would that be?”

The same one I told Golden Shine. You must know what it is. She glowered up at him, but saw no sign of recognition there. Finally she went on. “My people want to build a city on Earth, in the position we asked for. We want to be allowed to live there, so we can experience life on the surface again.”

“Earth?” Pike repeated, one eyebrow going up. “I’m afraid I don’t know where that could be. There’s earth everywhere, except the oceans. But probably at the bottom of those too, if we could get down deep enough.”

Dammit. She wasn’t a very good pretend ambassador. “It’s what we call the planet we’re on. I think you call it, uh… Equus! Yeah, that’s right. Shy said that when we—” She stopped abruptly, ears flattening. “When I stayed at her home. The night I landed.”

All of Pike’s annoyance was gone, replaced with simple curiosity. “You say it like there are others. Equus is our universe, large enough for hundreds of cities if we grow harmonious enough to be worthy of building them. We need not aspire to more.”

“One of eight,” Jamie answered. “There weren’t people living on most of them. There are gas giants out past the belt, can’t really build on hydrogen. But they had moons, and the good ones had a few…” She shook her head, wincing. “My message is for the princess. I shouldn’t be sharing these, uh… secrets of heaven. With the unworthy. Not that… I know anything about you. But she’s the princess. She’s real harmonious, that’s what you all say!”

“Princess Twilight is Harmony’s speaker. She’s the only pony to have fully rid themselves of chaos, and become ordered in Harmony’s way. Her influence has saved all good creatures on Equus more than once. Her hardships overcome are an inspiration to ponies in every caste.”

Shine said things like that, but it mostly seemed memorized. Do you believe this? Jamie almost asked—what more could they do if they were already going to torture and execute her? But there was still a chance she’d walk away from this, however vanishing it might be. There was no sense in inviting them to kill her.

“I can’t wait to meet her,” she said instead. “That’s why I was sent, after all. Meet the princess… Do you think she’s going to grant my request? My people would really like to come down here. Equestria has, uh… great… cooking! Yeah, this stuff is fantastic.”

She lowered her head and took another bite, getting half her face smeared with orange glaze. Embarrassing enough without the general of an evil army staring at her.

“I’ve given you silverware,” he answered, nodding towards it. He hadn’t been selective with it either, there were two knives and three forks here, in shapes that weren’t quite familiar to her. “You don’t have to eat like an earth pony. So long as you don’t use your magic to harm my crew or try to escape, feel free to cast whatever spell you wish.”

Now he was grinning at her, infuriatingly smug. He knew she couldn’t do it, all right.

Fury boiled in her gut. At his stupid attitude, and the flaming ruin he’d left behind where his army moved. Her napkin lifted off the table, glowing faintly green. She dabbed at her face, then dropped it.

Shame she didn’t have a camera to capture his shock. Or know what the hell she’d just done, that would’ve been great too. “Thank you for the permission, General Pike. I usually don’t, because… because not everyone on your world can. And it doesn’t seem polite to show off. If everyone else can deal with how awkward and clumsy and stupid it is to have bricks for hands, I can too.”

Pike rose abruptly, chair scraping as he stood. “We’re making good speed towards Concord with the wind behind us, Emissary. We should reach the city by nightfall. Please make yourself prepared to meet with the princess before that time. I know that she’ll be waiting for us when we get there, and Princess Twilight loathes tardiness.”

He left, stalking out the door. His bug-servant stared helplessly after him, one hoof still resting on the edge of the cart. Then the door slammed and locked, trapping them inside with Jamie.

Star Orchid hadn’t been much for athleticism back on Concord, beyond the morning’s mandatory calisthenics. Life in the field had taught her differently, and now she was ready to run. Through an enlarged tunnel in the rocks, cut straight through the maze concealing the Undercastle below Hollow Shades. The humans in their massive armor had to get down on hands and knees and crawl through the rock, occasionally brushing it mechanically aside.

Then they emerged from the wreckage of a burned building out onto the streets of Hollow Shades, and Star was momentarily frozen with horror.

Some part of her had known, instinctively, what the Unification Army would do. But seeing it in person—dozens of little fires burning, and the dead scattered before her eyes. They hadn’t been hunting creatures down—rather, they’d killed anything that got remotely in their way. The army was precise in its obedience to instructions, but less precise in its ability to recognize threats.

Or maybe they just choose to kill everything they can, because they know that we’re alive and they can’t ever be again. Maybe it’s revenge.

They were near the marketplace, and Star could see that no parts of the city were safe. The Magic district with its greater harmony had done no better than Kindness—in fact it was right in the path of the storm. Those fires seemed to burn directly to the Hall of Justice, where they stopped completely.

But the city hadn’t been killed yet. Star caught more than one set of eyes peering from the shadows of still-intact buildings. All of them stared at the object in the center of the marketplace.

It looked a little like a beetle made of spun gold, delicate and beautiful. Multi-jointed metal opened to expose a boarding platform as they entered, with a dozen oversized chairs against the walls and a silver door leading to the smaller “head” section.

Kondrak spoke silently to several of his companions from within his protective shell, then turned back towards Star. Even through it, his voice was urgent. “I have seen men at the edge of their fighting strength before, Star Orchid. Those below will not survive the hour if the army reaches them. We can make the trip to that vessel far faster—but can you assist us in locating this weakness soon enough that the numbers do not overwhelm?”

He gestured around, at the gaggle of hulking figures. There were eleven of them in total, most wearing armor that was beaten and scratched and many-times repaired. “My ship had only a dozen marines when we launched. Three of them are buried now.”

“I don’t…” She shivered, feeling the eyes of many hidden ponies on her. She’d now been seen consorting with the Devourers. If she survived today, even if the rebellion somehow escaped, knowledge of this would make it to the princess sooner or later. Keeping Hollow Shades safe would be her own undoing. “I know exactly where the princess would keep her new magic—there’s only one source of power strong enough, the float core. I know the way—but I don’t know how nine soldiers could possibly get you there. Even on a standard ship, the reserve would be there to preserve the core. There will be at least a hundred fighting mares and stallions in our way.”

“Just a hundred?” said another human, voice strangely cheerful. “Come on, Captain, you gotta let us go now. The Rogue is begging us to take her fancy ship away.”

Kondrak didn’t delay this time, just gestured sharply off to one side. Either one of his human companions was watching, or maybe the splayed beetle itself, because the walls closed abruptly around them, settling into place and hissing faintly for a second. Without a word, the other armored figures moved to the massive seats waiting for them, which reached out with little metal claws to grab and support them. All except Kondrak, who gestured down the hall.

“Come, Star. You must direct the pilot.”

The door opened for them with an almost living contraction of metal, into a hallway of polished silver. The ground itself was painted yellow and black around a sphere near the center, with wires covered in frost leading in from all directions. Star pointed with one hoof, unable to hide her confusion. “Is that… you use lift crystals too?” Now that she stared at it, Star realized she could feel it. With her eyes closed and mind relaxed, it felt like a spell—one being cast by a novice with very little magical experience. The matrix was fragile, balanced seconds from collapse. A single failure in concentration would tear the whole thing apart.

It was there in the center of the restricted space, shielded protectively in a metal cage lined with coils of wire. Metal supports connected to it, each one as thick as a human’s body, though still elegantly curved.

“That’s not what we would call it,” the human answered, his helmet becoming transparent. His voice still echoed slightly, even if he obviously wasn’t trying to intimidate her. “Gravium is an absolute nightmare to work with, but the alternatives are a nightmare to maintain. Maybe one day we’ll figure out the ‘magic’ you ponies use on yours. Until then, don’t get too close.” In that moment he extended one armored hand between her and the space, stopping her firmly. “It likes to rip lungs out. Keep yours in your chest, yes?”

Star shuddered, hurrying past the cage as quickly as she could go. Given how fragile this spell felt to her, she no longer had any desire to be near it. Or even in the same ship.

Star Orchid thought she knew what to expect from a helm. There would be a large wooden wheel, and other controls for the other axes of rotation. Twilight had standardized the design long before she was born, so pilots trained in one airship could adapt to others with minimal effort.

The room was narrow, particularly at the doorway, where only one of them could pass at a time. Inside was another human—the same one she’d seen earlier with his heavy clothing, but no metal shell. A harness wrapped around his face, connected by a golden thread to the ceiling. He didn’t recline before the helm, but stood within a marked section of the bridge, his body held in the air by a dozen little metal grips. As he moved, the ship responded, as though he were outside flying with real wings.

“How can you see where you’re going?” she asked, horrified. “There aren’t any windows in here!”

“You brought the horse?” asked the pilot, his voice skeptical. “If the Rogue interrogates her, she might track the make of the Hippocrates, Captain.”

“We’ve elected for a total investment in their success,” Kondrak declared. “Give us a projection of the enemy vessel, Renfield. She’s going to tell us where to hit.”

“Trusting her too,” he said, clicking his tongue. He didn’t look away from his flying—it would be hard to move when the whole airship reacted almost instantly to even his small movements.

But then something did appear, an illusion painted in the air behind the pilot. It was marked with hazy green lines, becoming fully visible only as a faint mist passed through them. Yet between them Star could clearly make out the shape of the ESS Harrow, as though captured in a strangely geometric painting.

She circled around it to the other side of the cockpit, her legs wobbling briefly as they turned.

“Where is this float core you mentioned?” Kondrak asked. “So we can plan the strike.”

And this is the moment where I explain to Equestria’s greatest enemies how to destroy a warship. But the alternative was the death of everyone in the Undercastle. At once what she’d been sent to do and a possibility she didn’t want to imagine.

Star jabbed a hoof into the map. “Right there, that’s the core. It’s… in the center, six decks from the landing bay at the bottom and the poop deck on top. Our best chance is landing here and…”

Kondrak waved her off, reaching forward with one hand. He matched the position she had indicated, and a sphere appeared in the center of the ship, glowing bright blue. “Right here?”

She nodded. “It won’t change how we go in though, will it? We must fight our way down. And… get past their defensive spells. I don’t know what it will have running—probably not very much, since we’re so far from Concord. They’ll be using all their spare magic to keep the soldiers alive.”

The pilot laughed—though how he could see or hear what they were doing, she couldn’t guess. “The horse thinks we’re going to use the front door, that’s cute. Get her a seatbelt, Captain, this is going to be bumpy.”

Kondrak nodded, then folded something out from the wall—a chair, with straps coming down and ending in strange fasteners. “Hop up here, Star Orchid. We don’t have the hardware to make more armor anymore, so… a seatbelt will have to do.”

Chapter 28: Equuleus

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The bug turned, wings buzzing nervously. They bowed, and spoke in a nervous, faintly feminine voice. At least Jamie thought it was a girl, under all that reverb. “Please, uh… finish the meal, Emissary?”

Jamie did, with far less fear and impotent frustration than she’d felt with Pike watching her every motion. If having to deal with him for a few minutes was the price for getting something she wanted to eat, she could live with that.

When she was done, Jamie couldn’t exactly just go to bed—not with some stranger working in her room. So she sat at the writing desk, opened that Electrical Engineering textbook again, and pretended to care about what it said.

She took every opportunity to watch the strange servant-bug. Why weren’t there any of you in Hollow Shades? At first it was easy to think she must be like the Unification Army’s evil soldiers, built for service instead of war. But why would the princess send ordinary-looking ponies into battle when these bugs with natural armor cleaned dishes and served food?

But any illusion that they might’ve been mindless monsters didn’t survive having just one of them near her for an hour or so. The bug worked efficiently to clean up what was left of the meal, packing dirty trays back on her cart and cleaning up the table. She had the same levitation that unicorns used, the same one that Jamie herself had briefly invoked.

And I still don’t know how. It had been tied to her emotions somehow, that much was obvious. Could I do it again? At least there was one piece of good news in this nightmare: she could be tortured to death knowing that Epsilon had made her body correctly.

The bug pushed her cart to the door, knocking urgently. “I’ve, uh… finished with the meal,” she squeaked. “I’m ready to go.”

Nothing happened. She knocked again, then tried the handle. It didn’t budge. The bug sighed, running one hoof through the sparkling yellow fin running down her head like hair. She glanced fearfully at Jamie, then sat down beside her cart.

“You weren’t supposed to be locked in here either?”

The bug looked up, briefly meeting her eyes. Her wings buzzed, and she looked away moments later. “N-no, uh… Princess? Apologies, I’m… not trained for… I just work the kitchen.”

Some part of Jamie still threatened to drag her back into swirling black apathy, but she resisted. She couldn’t control what would happen when she arrived at Concord. She didn’t even have the tools here to off herself as Epsilon suggested. But this poor bug didn’t seem much better off than she felt.

“Don’t worry.” Jamie rose from the chair, snapping the textbook shut. “I’m not a princess. My name is J—Empathy. That’s all you have to call me.”

“No it isn’t,” the bug said reflexively. Then her eyes widened and she gasped, backing away. “A-apologies again, Empathy. I didn’t mean… Of course you can call yourself whatever you like. I’m just a kitchen servant. Forgive the ignorance of one who has risen so far beyond her station.”

What genetic engineer would build something with so much anxiety? “No, you’re… you’re right. Empathy is just a pseudonym, but it makes more sense with how everyone down here names themselves. How’d you know?”

Her wings buzzed in response. The bug strained towards the door for another moment, pushing with her rump. But it didn’t open. She was still trapped. She sighed, spinning back around to face Jamie. “I’m a changeling, obviously. I mean… not that I expect it to be obvious to someone who isn’t from here. You came from the sky, that’s what everypony says. Well first they said you were a changeling, but then they brought us to meet you and it was obvious you weren’t, and…”

She blushed, flopping down into an awkward sitting position. “I’m not supposed to be with royalty. I really just shouldn’t say anything.”

I’d really prefer if you kept talking. Jamie couldn’t say exactly what good it would do her to learn all these things. By now she was probably outside Epsilon’s range, even if she did want an AI telling her to kill herself. Unless she could somehow convince the princess to let her go, she’d take everything she learned to the grave.

“I don’t know what changelings are,” she admitted. “You, obviously. You can read minds?”

The bug’s mouth hung open. “You really don’t know? I mean… no, we can’t. Mindreading is dark magic, because messing with ponies’ minds usually makes them go insane. We can’t do it anyway—changelings sense emotions. The other kind, the dark ones need to eat it. For changelings like me, the ability is left over from before. I eat the same things as ponies now, or else I’d be a really bad cook…”

Is it rude to ask someone about their species? The person Jamie really wanted to talk to wasn’t in the room with her, anyway. She’d have killed to find whoever was going around genetically engineering all these weird horse-creatures. The world had changed while she slept all right, in ways that made less sense the more she learned.

“What’s your name?” she asked suddenly. “I mean… is that too forward?”

“Basal,” she answered. “I never thought I’d be introducing myself to an Alicorn.” But for all her smiles, she kept looking at the door, occasionally testing the handle to see if anything had changed.

You’re terrified of me, Jamie realized. Why? “This will be my first time traveling to Concord,” she said evenly. “Have you ever been?”

Basal nodded nervously. “I, uh… I grew up there in the Kindness district. My clan has been serving the harmonious ponies of the city for centuries. It’s leaving that’s the exception. I guess I’m a bit too brave for my own good.” She chuckled nervously, like an abused pet expecting someone to hit her.

Jamie didn’t, obviously.

“Could you tell me about it?” She turned, walking away from Basal so she could pull aside the curtains. She expected more jungle beneath them, but in that she was disappointed.

The landscape below was a mess of rough rock and torn crags, with a thin layer of grass occasionally broken by low bushes. If there was even a single tree down there, it was lost in the unhealthy green.

Jamie couldn’t help but think of volcanic islands just formed in the Pacific, covered in primitive plants. Maybe there were mice nesting in the ruins somewhere, but that was all. “Oh my god. Was the planet nuked again?”

Basal followed reluctantly, leaving her tray by the door. She stopped well out of reach of Jamie, watching her fearfully. “What is a… nuke?”

Jamie flung the window open, pointing down with one hoof. “Something that can do that. Flattens and kills everything, nothing left behind.”

“You really don’t know,” Basal whispered, amazed. “Concord did this, Empathy. The city cleanses the world below of disharmony, leaving only torn rock behind us. The city doesn’t usually move very fast, so creatures have plenty of time to get out of the way. It hasn’t flown over an actual city in my lifetime. But there are stories…” She looked down, ears flattening.

Jamie kept staring out the window. So many little things ponies had said during her time in Hollow Shades now made sense. She’d believed that ponies could have a flying city—she’d lived on one her whole adult life. This was why they cared so much about building on “hallowed foundations.” Those were the only parts of the world safe from Twilight’s wrath.

I probably shouldn’t say it like that. “What is the city like?” she asked instead. “Is there anything I should know for my first visit? Since I’m… going to be making it now, whether I want to or not.”

Basal glanced at the locked door again, though it seemed like the longer she remained with Jamie the less fearful she became. “I, uh… I’m probably not the one to tell you. I’m barely harmonious enough to live in its least district. I leave it only in service of those more in tune with Harmony’s will. I can’t have anything worthwhile to say to a creature like you.”

That’s not true. You’re the only one who told me anything useful on this whole damn ship.

“I won’t repeat it,” Jamie said. “This isn’t some… secret way to judge you. I really want to know. The only creatures I met in Hollow Shades were afraid of it more than anything.”

“Because they’re exiles. I may be a lowly changeling, but at least I’m worthy to live in the sky with those other worthy creatures. If the ones you met are anything like the other clans, they’re probably full of envy. They’re afraid of Concord because they know they’ll never be worthy to travel there.”

That doesn’t answer my question. Jamie shifted in annoyance, pulling the window closed behind her. “What is it like to live there?” she asked again, voice firm. “Are there any rules of the city I should know?”

“Oh, rules.” Basal nodded hastily, buzzing over to her and wrapping one leg around her shoulder. She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “That’s a good question to ask. There are so many rules about living in Concord that even the highest unicorns sometimes forget them.”

She took a deep breath. “Morning bell sounds at dawn, which is always scheduled for six AM wherever the city is flying. All creatures have one hour to reach their work or school assignments. Don’t be late, or Smile will see. Always wear your uniform, always walk quickly and with purpose, never interrupt a pony while they’re speaking, never raise your voice after evening bell…”

Basal went on, and on, and on. She spoke for so long that Jamie almost wondered if she enjoyed following all those rules. Maybe it was a game for her, keeping track of deeply nested restrictions that might make behavior entirely appropriate one moment and a serious offense the next.

To Jamie herself, it might as well be a documentary about life inside a rogue state, one of those little pan-govs still insolating in some remote corner of the globe.

Except instead of some little dictatorship ruling over a few poor cities, this dictator was… well, still only ruling over a few poor cities, but this time because she’d murdered everything else.

What kind of monster would do that to the planet?

Thanks to whatever genetic quirk gave Alicorns immortality, she hadn’t even been defeated by the enemy that ultimately took care of even the worst human tyrants. She could keep doing this for another thousand years, and who would stop her?

Once they lock me up and start the torture, nobody. I’ll tell her everything. Jamie could only hope that Ferris and his organization realized that too. Maybe they could escape before the hammer of Jamie’s failure came crashing down on them.

Eventually the door did open, and several more bugs appeared in the doorway accompanied by a single soldier with a rifle.

“Basal!” one of them cried, apparently surprised to see her. “You’re… alive.”

Why is that surprising?

She was still talking about Concord. Basal stopped, eyes wide. “Forgiveness, Empathy. I… get carried away sometimes.” She backed away, lowering her head into a bow. “I should probably get back to the kitchen now.”

Jamie gestured absently with a wing. She tried in vain to come up with something to make the bug stay—but her friends seemed so relieved to see her, she didn’t have the heart. Jamie was already a prisoner; she had no desire to put anyone else in the same conditions. “Go on.”

She hurried over to the door, taking her cart. “Enjoy the rest of your trip, Empathy,” she called. “I think you’ll be gone by dinnertime, or I would ask what you wanted.”

Jamie nodded. “Yeah, thanks.”

The door shut behind her, and she could hear their nervous muttering vanishing down the hall as Basal shifted smoothly into telling her story.

There was little for Jamie to do then but flop back into bed and wait for her death.

She knew they had arrived long before anypony came to retrieve her. They began to decelerate, rattling everything in her compartment again and jostling her in bed. Jamie sat up, rising slowly to her hooves. She made her way to the window and pulled the blinds open.

Jamie’s cabin was at the back of the Zapapple, so she couldn’t get a good look at the city. Even so, what she could see rendered her silent with awe.

It didn’t look so much like one city but two, grafted together in different sections the same way the oldest platforms had been built around the space stations of the last generation. Ancient buildings of stone and brick were surrounded by crystal spires and semitransparent fortresses of purple and pink.

Even the basic layout reminded her of the little platform model she’d had as a kid, except that it obviously didn’t use plastic fans to stay up. Those crystals were somehow standing in for Omnium beams, with lateral and vertical supports to keep the incredible structure together despite its many ancient parts.

In Hollow Shades Jamie occasionally stopped to stare whenever a pegasus or griffon flew overhead. They were so large and unwieldy, yet their wings worked.

The Zapapple pulled into a busy skyport, and the air was filled with creatures. Some rode in little airships. Like the Zapapple, there was no sign of primitive lifting mechanisms. Maybe less of her civilization’s technology was lost than she’d thought.

They settled into place at a massive mooring large enough for a vessel several times their size, bumping and jostling before finally falling still. Jamie hurried to the tiny bathroom, and did her best to compose herself with what few moments she had. There was nothing to do but straighten up her mane and pick one of the perfumes to cover the smell of travel. Maye it would be enough to make a difference.

Then came the knocking, and her door opened again. Pike, flanked by more of his marines. “The princess waits to meet you, Emissary. Please come with me.”

Star could see nothing of their flight as they apparently flew straight for the Harrow. She kept glancing back at the projection, as though it would open to her what the humans were planning for their attack. A way to bypass the decks and fight less of the Unification Army? But if any creatures could ignore the regular rules of war, it would be them.

“Breaching!” Renfield called, his voice echoing through the cockpit and simultaneously through the whole ship as though aided by a speaking spell. “BRACE BRACE BRACE!”

The whole flying insect pivoted, and Star was suddenly hung from her side, supported only by the tight straps all around her body. Kondrak hadn’t been meaning to imprison her after all—she would’ve fallen and smacked right into the pilot otherwise.

Then they struck, hard enough that Star was momentarily dazed by the force of the impact. Lights flashed in her eyes, and her body ached where straps held her upright. She groaned, shifting uncomfortably in the restraints. They had moved like they were alive during the impact, but now they loosened, enough that she might be able to squirm out of them if she wanted. Assuming she didn’t care about dropping three meters or so when she did.

“Direct penetration of the tail section,” Renfield said, sounding a little dazed himself. But he’d recovered far faster than Star did, already coherent again. “Boarding boarding boarding!”

A terrible groan echoed from behind them, rumbling through the ship and shaking Star again in her straps. She heard distant wood splintering, and metal groaning with incredible force. Then came the sound of bounding feet, and a steady crack-crack like they’d just released half a dozen angry woodpeckers.

Less than a minute later, and the door opened. They were still sideways, and Kondrak had to crawl over the deck. Somehow his boots held to it in a way that pony hooves couldn’t. “Star Orchid, we’re aboard. My marines and I will protect you, if you will guide us to the core. The Unification Army reacts too swiftly for us to delay—I can see from the drones still holding above the city that the natives have already launched every one of their pegasus soldiers towards us, and their army is turning around.”

“We already don’t have enough time to get away,” Renfield said absently. He reached up, pulling the helmet up off his face. His skin was red from where it met, and his eyes were bloodshot—but there was nothing otherwise alien about him. “They fight us like insects, you know. Their laser pointers can’t get through armor, but they’re strong enough to pull you apart at the joints. I’d like to keep all of mine.”

Star shuddered at the thought of a few Unification earth ponies loose against this Devourer pilot. He was old and strange, but he’d risked his life to fight for ponies he didn’t even know. He deserved better than that.

“Help me out of this… thing,” Star said, struggling with the straps. Kondrak pressed one button, and they all released her at once, dropping her limply into the air. He caught her in one metallic arm, helping her into the rear section.

The image of a stinging insect came again to Star’s mind as she saw into the rear chamber, which had bent and stretched outward until it tore straight through the Harrow. Steel armor plates and wooden structural beams gave equally little resistance, and lights within flickered in familiar military purple.

Even the floor curved now, so Kondrak could set her down and let her walk the rest of the way out without feeling like a filly who had slipped in something.

As she stepped out, the sound of groaning metal returned, and the rear wall began to shudder. Spikes retracted, and the strange insect that had flown them detached, leaving only blue sky behind.

“Not to rush the horse, but we have five minutes to find this thing,” Landon said. “We melted the stairwell door with a thermite charge, but they’ll get through before too long. Would be good to know where we’re going.”

Star scanned the wreckage, trying to make sense of where they’d boarded. This was the central deck, thought to be the safest aboard. Where the armor was thickest, and the most valuable supplies were stockpiled. “Powder magazine is that way,” she pointed. “Careful with fire in that direction. Good thing you didn’t hit it by accident, or…” The thought of that much cannon-powder going off at once broke her concentration for a moment.

“Core is through there.” She pointed again. “Expect two security checkpoints. Once you get inside, you’ll find royal technicians. They aren’t soldiers, so leave them alone. You’ll be looking for something… I guess you don’t know what necromancy looks like. Look for the green light. Leave anything else, or the ship comes down with us still inside.”

“Enemy techs,” someone whispered. “In the field? Rogue’s going sloppy in her old age.”

“So are we,” Kondrak said. “First squad, get us there. My squad, we’ll play rear guard for the VIP. Go.”

They went. Star watched with the four humans of the “rear guard” as they ripped a security door right off the wall, and heard the terrible battle as they went through soldiers of the Unification Army. The stench of formaldehyde soon filled the ship, joined by the sickly-sweet of rot underneath.

The human weapons resembled the ones Stygian’s Gate used, but they were so large by comparison they seemed like tools made for earth ponies. When a side door opened and half a dozen Unification soldiers poured out, she got an intimate view of the captain firing his much smaller sidearm towards them. Even that little weapon left smoldering holes through steel deck and fleshy pony alike, passing through Unification armor and exploding into shrapnel on the way.

She felt too sick after seeing the first few shots to really know what happened next. There was fighting and she followed, trusting to these strangers to protect her the whole way.

Finally she got a sense of greater desperation from both sides. The humans rejoined their groups, tucking in together in a tight mass as the Unification Army’s soldiers flooded in from all directions. They protected Star with their armor, shielding her from light lances and crossbow bolts and melee weapons as well.

Eventually one of them went down, armor beaten by so many small wounds that an earth pony’s spear could pierce his chest. He limped along in the center, doing his best to keep up and moaning through the thick metal of his armor.

“Do you need help?” she yelled, over the roar of gunfire and the shouts of her Devourer allies. The Unification Army remained eerily silent as they died by the dozens. They gave only nonverbal orders to each other, filing in as fast as they could and totally unmoved by the mountain of the dead. “I don’t know much about first aid, but… I could probably try.”

“No,” the human answered. “Just, uh… maybe take this?” He held something towards her in one shaking hand. “In case something gets too… cozy.”

It was a gun, exactly like the one Kondrak used. It was about as thick as her hoof, heavy enough that she felt it even in her magic. Gold filigree traced its edges, as much a work of art as anything Princess Twilight might keep in her archives.

“Point end towards bad guy, pull trigger,” the injured human continued. His helmet became transparent, and she could see a pained face within, pale and strained. “Don’t fire it too close to your face, either. Kicks like a horse.”

Then they were through the final barricade, and into the core. The Harrow’s central support beams ran straight through here, a boxy steel column divided into structural triangles that the rest of the ship relied on. All of it connected to the lift crystal, a chunk of glowing blue rock about the size of a pony in repose. And… disturbingly shaped like one too, now that she thought about it.

As she’d expected, past the soldiers and the steel barricades were a silent caste of creatures wearing white. They scattered and fled before the Devourers, without so much as even a feeble resistance.

The monsters didn’t kill them as they fled, as the Unification Army probably would’ve done. A few brandished weapons, or yelled through their armor—but once the ponies ran, they let them run.

“I wouldn’t want to alarm you,” Kondrak said, nudging her shoulder with one hand. “But you wouldn’t want to see what this ship looks like on the outside. We have hundreds of them boarding, all flooding this way. I have several on last magazines, or fighting with sidearms already. We can’t fight our way off this ship. Time for the Hail Mary.”

“I, uh…” Her ears flattened, wilting at the pressure of so many eyes on her. But Star had been overwhelmed before. If she could survive working for the princess in person, she could survive this.

“Right there.” She pointed towards the float core. Sure enough, another large thaumic device was built beside it, connected with dozens of pipes and tubes. The apparatus whirred and hissed, loud enough to hear even over the shouting and occasional gunfire as more creatures rushed in behind them. “Not the blue thing, that’s the lift crystal. That other thing… switch it off, and the Unification Army goes with it.”

Of course that wasn’t strictly true. The real army was on Concord, this was just one ship’s worth. There would be no winning their rebellion in a single stroke.

“On it, Captain!” Landon closed the distance in a few strides, hefting her weapon as she went. It was different than most, with a thick drum under the barrel instead of the single magazine.

Something moved from behind the controls—a Unification soldier, though she wasn’t wearing armor. Star might not have noticed her at all, except for her pale coat, and the satchel of identical gear.

Were you in storage? Why would the princess keep unarmed soldiers somewhere so important?

“Stop!” she yelled, as though it would’ve made a difference. “Leave my ponies alone!”

Landon ignored her completely, bracing herself firmly on the steel deck-plating before unloading into the complex machinery. She kept her aim away from the float core, but these other machines were far less lucky. Angry green light roared out from within, as bullets tore through metal and glass and crystal with equal enthusiasm. After ten seconds of firing, Landon’s weapon clicked, its barrel still glowing bright orange.

The Unification soldier stopped running towards them. She wobbled in her path, as though she were going to keep running. Then she fell on her face, smacking painfully into the deck and falling still.

“That’s it!” Kondrak yelled. Evidently he had the same kinds of eyes as the Iron Lord, because he sounded perfectly confident as he continued. “They stopped dead. Horses… falling right off the ship, plummeting to their deaths. Not even trying to fly.”

“Can’t kill what’s not alive,” Landon said, nudging the nearby pony with one boot. Her head flopped to one side, revealing a mane with a few faint traces of orange. Her eyes were wide with terror, or a terrifying simulation of it. “Ship’s yours, Kondrak. Looks like we’re joining this war with a bang.”

Chapter 29: Leo

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Jamie had seen plenty of Perspective Entertainment in her idle time aboard Persephone, watching as brave heroes fought off dozens of opponents with makeshift tools and their wits one moment while inventing incredible devices or negotiating treaties the next. But putting on a VR headset and watching trained actors perform the stunts was one thing—doing any of it herself was another.

There were no daring escapes as they led her from the Zapapple. Maybe if she’d been able to fly, she might’ve tried something while still close to Hollow Shades. Even if she could somehow kill everyone around her and blast through a wall, it would just be into the arms of Twilight’s evil empire. The princess herself was through that wall, waiting for her.

It wasn’t just the general and his marines leaving the ship, either. Several of the bugs were joining them for the trip, including Basal. She followed at the very back, and avoided Jamie’s eyes whenever she looked at her.

“I suggest an increased level of politeness when you’re with the princess,” Pike said, as they descended a spiraling ramp through the bowels of his ship. “Her time is precious, and she has little patience for those who would distract her from Harmony.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she said, wings spreading involuntarily in her exasperation. “I was sent for this. Just… maybe didn’t expect the kidnapping in the middle there.”

They passed through a metal door near the prow, out onto an extended platform without handrails. On either side was a drop down to nothing. What was worse, the wind caught her wings almost instantly, threatening to tear her right off into the void. Pike had to catch her, pressing on her with that strange force ponies called magic. She assumed it was him, anyway—he was the one glowing.

“Forgive me, I should’ve warned you that there would be wind. Concord is traveling at speed, and even within the shell the air is always somewhat disturbed until we slow again.”

She opened her mouth to say something snide, the rudest thing she could think of. But the words dissolved, as she got her first look at the one who had created this world of misery and suffering.

She was the tallest creature Jamie had seen in her new body, except for Ferris. Even then, she probably would’ve been nearly as tall, and several times heavier. Princess Twilight Sparkle didn’t wear a multilayered dress covered in enchantments, or much of anything for that matter. She had purple metal shoes, and a circlet of dark purple perched on her head. Both glowed slightly, as though they were being moved by a unicorn. Or… more likely, they contained some other magic, which Jamie couldn’t easily understand.

The princess watched them approach with a single sharp eye, which cut straight through the general and his marines to Jamie. She hardly seemed to blink, watching without the slightest distraction. More like Epsilon than any living creature Jamie knew.

“Princess.” Pike stopped them just before her, dropping into a low bow. At once every other creature in their group was imitating him, many bowing even lower. Jamie was caught off-guard, and only managed a slight inclination of her head before the others were already standing. “I have done all things as you ordered. Hollow Shades has been occupied, and we will soon dismantle any resistance there. It was likely already done in the time since—”

Twilight’s horn glowed faintly for a moment, and Pike fell silent. Twilight stepped around him, apparently uninterested in whatever else he had to say about Hollow Shades. Does she not even care about the ponies they’re killing? Maybe it was her idea to begin with. “That will do, General Pike. Prepare your crew for debriefing and compose a full report. I require nothing further from you at this time.”

He saluted sharply. “At once, Princess.” Then he gestured, and his group parted around Jamie like she was the rock at the center of a river. Even the bugs, which cowered before Twilight and never looked in her direction. In moments they left her alone, standing at the base of a steel ramp over a terrifying drop, with the wind constantly pushing her slightly to one side. And right in front of her was the princess who ruled the world—the one who tortured and enslaved and wrote a maze of confusing laws. The one who would murder Jamie.

Twilight extended a hoof to her. “Welcome to Concord. I think you’re going to enjoy your time here.” Her accent was strange, even compared to the creatures she had been living with for the last month. Sometimes Shy had sounded a little like this, though only when she was reminiscing. “I’m told you call yourself Empathy. That sounds like a pony name though, and wouldn’t be a good fit for you. It would be better if we can begin our relationship with honesty.”

She twisted slightly, offering a hoof. “I’m Twilight Sparkle. Everypony else calls me Regent or Princess, but you can forget about the formalities. It’s wrong for Alicorns to lean too much on pomp and circumstance.”

What’s your game? Jamie almost backed away, or maybe just gave her the same name over again. But this wasn’t a being she could resist too strongly. If Twilight wanted to end this, she could. Maybe if I cooperate, she won’t hurt me. “Jamie,” she answered. “Empathy was the name of my… position.”

“Jamie.” The princess let go of her hoof quickly—the gesture really didn’t make much sense for horses anyway. She turned away from the ramp, looking thoughtful. “That’s a very old name. Well, we can get to the complex business of discussing your purpose here in Equestria another time. I have an urgent appointment in an hour, and a long trip to make to get there. But… before that, I would like to introduce you to where you’ll be staying for the duration.” She pointed with a wing, right behind them. Jamie didn’t have to look very far.

It was a castle, built of the same structural crystal that spiked through this atmospheric platform at various points. It was nothing like the Hall of Justice in Hollow Shades—this palace was built far more for beauty and luxury than defensibility.

Twilight smiled, reaching out to gently push her mouth closed with a hoof. “I suppose you’ve never lived anywhere quite like the Concord Castle before. There’s no shame in that—I hadn’t either, until I had it built. Even my predecessors never… fully explored what magic could offer ponies who master it.” She stepped to the side, nodding towards a trail of bright gold leading to the palace steps. “After you, Jamie. I think you’ll find the trip enlightening.”

Are you going to kill me in there? Jamie didn’t argue, though her steps weren’t rapid. She was in no hurry to get where Twilight wanted them. The docks themselves were deserted near this mooring, but at all the others…

This was a military dock, packed with the Unification Army’s finest. These wore polished boots and dress uniforms, instead of the practical armor and olive drab of the ones who massacred innocent people. They all had heavy packs of gear, all moved like robots…

Jamie sped up, eager to get away from the dock as fast as her hooves could carry her. She had the dignity not to sprint away, but only barely. “So, uh… your city here, Concord. Are you using a gravity refractor?”

Twilight’s eyebrows went up, though her expression was otherwise so neutral that Jamie couldn’t have said if she was furious with her or impressed with her insight. “Concord uses lift crystals, the same as most airships only… larger, obviously. It’s the single largest thaumic storage and processing medium ever constructed. Maybe we’ll have time to visit in the next few weeks.”

Weeks. But did she say that to trick her into compliance, or did it really mean… “I’m sorry Twilight Sparkle, I’m not a very good emissary. I didn’t even give you my formal greeting from Persephone. The creatures there—”

The Alicorn rounded on her in an instant, horn glowing faintly. None of these robotic soldiers seemed to even see them, keeping their distance. Twilight’s act of neutrality was gone in a flash. “I asked for honesty, Jamie. You can’t have any relationship without a foundation of trust. Nopony on Persephone is sending anypony anywhere, seeing as they’re all corpses. I personally lobotomized the supervising computer, so I know it didn’t send you. Would you like to try again?”

Star Orchid had stood on half a dozen Equestrian naval ships before—working as the princess’s personal advisor meant plenty of interaction with her military, something that she kept as far away as possible from ordinary citizens. Even with a lifetime in the civil service, she’d only stood near the core of an airship once—though even that had only been a little personnel carrier.

Now she had unfettered access, without a single Unification Army soldier to get in her way.

Apparently it was the same way for the humans who had taken this ship, because they sounded almost giddy with excitement as they called back and forth to each other. Several ranged about the room rounding up the engineers, bringing them to stand in a group near the center of the deck. Landon had something even Star could guess was a camera, taking pictures of anything that looked technical.

Captain Kondrak was the only one whose attention was elsewhere—he crouched beside the fallen soldier, his own helmet off and working skillfully with his medkit.

Star approached slowly, not wanting to interfere. After working with Discord, she realized she’d seen those tools before. “That’s an auto-suture,” she muttered. “Discord has Devourer medicine?”

Kondrak didn’t look away from his patient. With the armored breastplate removed, the deep gash cut straight through uniform and flesh beneath. Kondrak had already cut away the clothing, and patiently sealed the torn flesh with the quietly humming auto-suture.

“Discord is super dead,” the soldier said. He leaned up against a bulkhead, clutching a length of metal to keep from moving. The steel bar twisted slightly under his grip, the way it might for an earth pony who was having trouble sitting still. “If we still had him, you really think we’d have people out here doing this ourselves? We’d sleep this nightmare away, and wake up with our world back.”

“That was partly the problem,” Kondrak said. He glanced to the side, fishing through his medical bag while he used his other to keep the patient still. “Pony, do you mind, uh… I need the Pharmablue coagulant.”

She levitated it out of the bag for him. Kondrak caught it in his free hand, eyes widening. “Looks like our guest is lucky.”

“Just had lots of practice with rapid memorization,” she countered, settling down beside the medkit. This kind of field medicine might’ve been horrifying for her, except Discord had done so much worse. In a purely physical sense, it had looked like he was killing two patients, instead of only saving one. “Princess never really gave me much time to learn things. I had to remember everything she ever said, and be able to recite it back to her without the slightest mistake. If I couldn’t do that, I wouldn’t last a week. I’m more interested in why a captain would be a healer. Those are separate professions for ponies.”

Kondrak chuckled, twisting off the cap of the vial and sliding it into place in the side of the auto-suture. It chimed cheerfully, and he went back to work. “I’m the captain of the Hippocrates—she isn’t a warship, like this vessel. She’s a Saint class, designed to place a field hospital on any platform within 24-hours. That she survived when the others…” He looked away, back to his patient. “Later, Star Orchid. When our situation is less urgent. I’ll leave you with the assurance that I have served far longer in hospitals than at the helm of starships. Marlay here is in capable hands.”

She left him to his work, though what Marlay said still lingered. He’d known the name of Discord, and apparently believed that he was dead. His magic is. Maybe that’s what he means?

She walked back to where a half-dozen royal technicians had been herded, tucked up against the wall without any controls within reach. As usual for the royal technicians, they were completely silent, though mares and stallions alike were utterly terrified. I would be too, if dead monsters from the ancient past took my ship and destroyed my life’s work.

If this ship had a living captain, Star had no doubt they would’ve been forced to join the Unification Army in penance for their failure. But it wasn’t the royal technicians’ fault they’d lost, was it? It’s my fault. But if the princess ever finds out about that… Would she have something worse than an assassin hunting her after this? If Geist was still here, if he’d seen the fall of the Harrow, then he would certainly know she was the one responsible for Harrow’s loss. Who else could lead the enemy directly to its heart?

And now they know how all our ships work. Even if the ones near Concord won’t be able to stop the whole army they command. They’ll still know.

Her eyes fell on the fallen Unification Army soldier, the only they’d seen past the barricade. Was it her imagination, or had she slid a little closer to the ruined core?

Star slowed as she passed the royal technicians, more than a little curious about what these engineers might know. Maybe there were some old childhood friends in their number, their secrets forever silenced. “Don’t bother trying to get them to talk,” she said to the human soldiers, speaking confidently as she passed. “They can’t, they don’t have tongues.”

“Excuse me, what?” Landon blocked her path, expression indignant. “You’re shitting me. You’re telling me the Rogue is butchering her own crews? That’s ridiculous.”

“You.” She pointed towards the nearest pony, a soft pink stallion with a vibrantly rose mane. “Show them.” When the royal technician didn’t seem cooperative, she lit up her horn, glaring. “You’ll be happier if they know you can’t talk. Do you want to get left alone, or interrogated?”

A nearby mare shoved him aside, opening her mouth wide for Landon to see. Star didn’t look away in time to avoid seeing the old wound, still seeming swollen and unnatural despite probably decades of time to mend.

“We’ll have to do something about that,” Landon said, deflating. “And those scars on your necks… damn. Captain should be able help you once we have you aboard the Hippocrates. Listen closely all of you—I fucking hate shooting civvies, but I’ll do it if I think you’re trying to take us down. We’re marching the lot of you out of here. If you try to run…”

Star left her behind. There was nothing more for her to contribute at this point. Though from the way Landon said it, it sounded less like they were going to try to get them to write their answers and more like they planned on giving them back their voices?

She never would’ve believed it was possible, except that she’d seen what Discord could accomplish. If the Iron Lord survived his operation, then she had no doubt they could return a mute pony their speech.

The fallen soldier slid along the floor, a little closer to the magical core. What had Twilight called it, a pseudo-phylactery?

Even that, Star was certain she wasn’t supposed to hear. Maybe Twilight thought her advisor would be taking all her secrets to the grave. Given how long they lasted, most of them probably did.

“Five minutes until we move!” Kondrak called. “I almost have Marlay here stable. Nobody ask if we can keep the ship—she’s already spoken for.”

Star continued to where the pony had fallen, nudging her with the edge of a hoof. None of the human soldiers were close, maybe she should’ve been afraid. But there was nothing to be afraid of, right? The Unification Army relied on Harmony’s light to keep them fighting. Without it…

The pony moaned, withdrawing slightly from the pressure. The movement was so subtle she almost could’ve dismissed it as some drop of reflexive magic left in the pony’s body. But that wasn’t possible.

Star focused her magic, pushing the pony sideways so she could get a better look at her face. Her expression was still twisted into terror—and her eyes were still moving.

“Oh Harmony.” She retreated, gasping and breathing heavily. “You’re supposed to be dead. Without the phylactery… why aren’t you dead?”

The pony only twitched, one leg spasming slightly. Was she trying to reach for Star Orchid? She didn’t have a weapon, not even a knife—but she was a unicorn. Star couldn’t underestimate the threat she posed.

There was one way to investigate—one she never would’ve considered back on Concord. Touching a soldier’s gear was one of the things that meant instant execution even for the members of important families in the Magic district. But she’d already betrayed everything Twilight stood for. She could hardly be more dead.

Star gripped the edge of the fabric, pulling gently. This was no vault, just resealable Velcro meant to keep the contents safe from dust and casual observation.

The pony was almost dead, a thin film of preservative solution dribbling from her lips. But she didn’t fight.

Inside was a curved metal shell, shaped to match the saddlebags but protect the delicate contents from accidental or deliberate destruction. There was no lock though, just a simple unicorn-knob. The mechanism was indicated only by a horn icon set into the metal, which meant it had to be twisted from within, using levitation. It clicked, and the top popped out suddenly enough that she jumped away in surprise.

Within the protective metal cage was a little bank of thaumic crystals, so dim they were almost dead. There was also a reservoir of preservative, about a liter’s worth. And connected to them both, protected by metal ribs, was a heart, deep red and sealed in glass.

It twitched as she watched, almost making her turn and run all over again. She clutched her chest, but didn’t run.

Are you all really this complicated? She’d expected a simple bellows, maybe a thaumic battery to work them. This heart, with living red flesh instead of corpse-yellow… how?

“P-ple… p…” the pony coughed. With the bag open, Star saw her heart beat again, and the thaumic crystals dim still further.

“You’re… an older model,” she said. “Or maybe you aren’t quite the same as the others. What makes you different?”

Her head turned towards the satchel, as though whatever she had to do was inside.

This is incredibly stupid, Star thought. There was no way it didn’t end badly. But if she walked away, those spells were going to die.

You’ve suffered as much as anyone under Equestria’s rule.

“You try anything, and I’ll…” She brandished the human weapon in her magic, shaking it threateningly. Then she focused her magic on the thaumic crystals, and hit them with all the power she could muster.

It might’ve been harder for her if she hadn’t made charging simple spells her job for weeks during this undercover mission. Even so, the drain on her magic was staggering. The gun dropped right out of the air as her ability to levitate was momentarily suppressed, and the spell took every drop of magic she had.

She severed the connection, but even so she dropped limply to the ground, breathing heavily. Probably shouldn’t have done that right before we run from this place.

Her effort wasn’t wasted, at least. The crystals were glowing now, solid blue to match her magic. The strangely preserved heart began to beat, and the pony looked up. “Mind… clearer,” she whispered. “What is… assigned… confused.”

“On your feet, everyone!” Landon called. “Moving out, nice and easy! Nobody runs, nobody else gets shot.” She was gathered along the float core with a few other humans, adding little yellow boxes hidden among the structural links. Star could guess what those were for, even without a word spoken between them.

“I need some help over here!” she called, glancing back towards Kondrak. If she had left the pony to die, they could’ve left without much worry. Now, though…

The captain appeared moments later, his helmet back on and medical bag over his shoulder. At least the glass was clear as he spoke. “This one is… still moving,” he observed. “Why?” Something flashed over his eyes, and she caught a tiny reflection stretched and distorted. Was he somehow… seeing outside the ship again? “The others are still inert.”

“Human…” the pony muttered, seeming suddenly alert. “What are you doing outside the reservation?”

“Taking you prisoner,” he said, drawing his handgun in a single gesture and aiming at her head in the same smooth motion. “Please, join the others.”

I shouldn’t have helped her. Star followed behind the captain, watching the Unification solder seal her satchel and rejoin the others. As exhausted as the drain was on Star’s magic, it probably wouldn’t last more than a day or two. There was a reason the Army never left the phenomenal power of Concord’s core.

I probably can’t make things worse. I’m already a traitor.

Chapter 30: Pavo

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Jamie wilted, glancing nervously to either side. But there was no retreat here. They neared a thick fortress wall, manned by a dozen more of the weird-smelling soldiers. She wouldn’t be getting away from this. “S-sorry. I guess you… probably think I’m a changeling or something. From one of the… clans?”

The princess relaxed, her anger fading as though it hadn’t been there. She turned back to the gate, and waited for Jamie to catch up with her. “It was one possibility, and I admit I did consider it likely. But the Zapapple sent a report ahead of its arrival, and Pike said the changelings all insisted you weren’t one of them. Were they wrong?”

Her horn glowed faintly, and the air around Jamie seemed charged. Her mane lifted slightly. Through her forehead, it seemed suddenly that an incredible pressure weighed on her, slowing her thoughts and her progress forward. “No. I hadn’t even met one until the servants on the Zapapple.”

Twilight nodded her agreement. “It’s quite fortunate you aren’t. Equestria can’t afford changelings getting the idea that they can ignore Harmony’s decrees by pretending to be something they aren’t. You would’ve made an example to any others who had the idea.” She sounded so cheerful as she said it, though the violence implicit in those words… “That leaves only one other option, one I wasn’t sure I would ever see again.”

Soldiers in thick armor saluted for the princess, then opened the gate without a word exchanged. Inside was a concrete tunnel about twenty meters long, with slots running through the ceiling and a drainage grate in the floor. Crystals studded into the walls, glowing in different colors as they approached, then fading as they walked past.

Jamie watched each one, ready for the moment when the magic of this place realized she was human and killed her. It didn’t come. “What’s that, Prin—Twilight?” Jamie asked. “If I’m not either of the things you thought.”

“Well, there are certainly many unanswered questions about you,” Twilight said. They reached another heavy gate, metal and covered with intricate carvings of an Alicorn—this one with a sword raised. It was probably meant to be Twilight herself. “How you could know about Persephone to lie about it will probably make for an interesting story. Where you found that orbital cargo launcher. Why Hollow Shades, of all cities you could choose in Equestria. Interesting questions.”

After a few moments the gate rumbled and slid sideways, and they emerged into a massive courtyard. It was as beautiful as the castle behind it, at least past the guard post inside. But the ones who saluted the princess on this side were very different than the not-robots behind them. They wore gold armor, and more importantly they moved like they were still alive.

“The regent returns!” called a voice from the gate. Trumpets sounded a second later, and creatures all through the courtyard turned to bow.

Twilight barely seemed to see them, walking between the crowd of visiting creatures all supplicating themselves before her. Jamie was forced to follow, ears flattening to see so many all looking at her. The visitors didn’t look too closely—but the guards were different. They stared at Jamie as she passed, a few whispering and pointing when Twilight wasn’t looking.

“But those can wait,” Twilight finished, stopping at the castle gates. The doors swung open, lifted by a pair of bright purple changelings wearing adorable little vests. “Your arrival brings hope for all creatures in Equestria, even if most of them can’t possibly know why. Alicorns can grow from ponies, without the corrupting influence of Sovereign. If we take your arrival as typical of the half-life based on Equestria’s current population… Concord should see its second Alicorn within another five centuries. We may not even need them. We’ll see.”

Why are you looking at me like that? Jamie stopped in the doorway, frozen for the second time in just a few minutes.

Twilight’s castle was built around a massive central tower, which spiraled high into the sky like a unicorn horn. The space was so cavernous that Jamie could even see small clouds forming near the top. Rather than built as any other structure, the castle had dozens of wings and thousands of rooms, all floating up ahead. Sunlight was stained purple by the crystal walls, then seemed to grip rooms large and small, suspending them in the air.

It’s like the docking segment on an orbital platform, but without the computer to manage it all. “The interesting sections are all below-ground,” Twilight said from just beside her, voice smug. “But I’ve given up on keeping just one castle up here. At first I was strictly utilitarian, concentrating on only what I thought I needed. But the longer I rule Equestria, the more I realize that anything I need once will eventually be useful again, if I wait long enough.”

She walked past Jamie, past more insect servants in their adorable little uniforms. A bridge of gold and gemstones stretched out from the ground over a cliff. Jamie followed, and saw a round opening below a small section of the castle, maybe a hundred meters across. Castle rooms were melted and burned away, and from some of them she could still see sparks and flashes of magic of things broken awkwardly and never repaired.

Twilight’s horn glowed a brilliant purple, and the whole room groaned and shuddered in response. Whole rooms began gliding down towards them, passing narrowly between hundreds of others with scraping stone and groaning metal. The lower they got, the more glimpses Jamie got between them. A shallow pool in one, a massive bedroom made of marble, and many other sections with shut doors and better-connected walls.

The entire mass, probably several tons of brick and steel and glass, settled into place at the edge of the bridge, a gold door mating perfectly with the railing.

Lights flickered inside, then started glowing on the other side of a stained-glass window. “And just like that, we have somewhere appropropriate for a visitor as… significant as you.” Twilight turned back, breathing heavy. Jamie remained silent and still, not rushing her. She didn’t want to stand particularly close to anything that could move so much matter around, be it alive or simple machinery.

“That’s incredible,” she muttered, wings spread to either side. One rested on the railing, though it would do little to catch her if she fell. The opening didn’t just pass through the castle, but past hundreds of meters of rock and crystal until she saw blue sky and a far-distant, mossy plain. If she jumped now, she would basically fall forever. “You can just do that with anything you want? No cranes or construction crews, or… How do you bond the different rooms together?”

Twilight seemed to appreciate the attention. Maybe she wasn’t used to the company of someone who felt brave enough to make demands. “That’s subtler magic, but sadly can’t be automated by the support systems. I have to manage all that myself. Nothing you should concern yourself with, Jamie. Look.” She reached to the side, pushing the door gently ajar with one hoof.

Lights glowed to life inside, leading to a sitting room with space for dozens of creatures. Jamie glanced once more over the edge, before stepping through the doorway. Somehow these rooms were suspended over a cliff—but if Twilight wanted her dead, she didn’t need to drop her down a hole to do it.

She rushed over to one wall, where boxes of fresh flowers seemed still to be blooming. She touched one with a hoof, and her eyes grew wider when she felt living petals. “How?”

The princess followed her into the doorway, banishing any fears that this might be an elaborate (and very expensive) execution. “I used to have a maintenance schedule for these stored rooms. But keeping them all clean was just like having a castle several times larger. I keep these extra rooms in stasis now, and it’s much simpler.”

Stasis. Jamie balked indignantly at the suggestion. Was there really a way to preserve living things without cryogenics? The human method took dozens of different drugs, careful control of body temperature, and frozen people still slowly cooked in the radioactive decay of their own cells. If we could do stasis, I wouldn’t be a horse right now. “How?”

Twilight extended a wing, silencing her. “I do appreciate your curiosity. Healthy interest in learning is a virtue I value. But… this isn’t a thaumic fundamentals class. Maybe one day, if I’m pleased with your cooperation.” She walked right past Jamie, towards one of two identical golden doors. Exactly like the ones that led into this room, with the same sturdy frame on the outside ready for claws to grip it.

They’re standardized. Each one could be connected to the bridge, or each other.

Twilight pushed this one open, and the lights came on. An oversized kitchen, though rather than luxurious this one seemed to be about cramming the most facilities it could into a small space. There were more identical doors. “This is for your staff. Obviously I didn’t lock them in here too… no telling when I would’ve needed it again, and retraining is such a hassle. I’ll have my steward find a crew before lunch, don’t worry.”

She opened the next doorway, this one leading to a private study. It was quite a bit like the cabin aboard the Zapapple, with fine furniture, shelves and shelves of dusty books, and plenty of dated-looking scientific and navigation equipment. That was certainly a sextant on display on one shelf, and there was even more that Jamie couldn’t name if she wanted to.

There was even a fire still burning in the fireplace, warm and comfortable. And… impossible. But clearly not. By now Jamie should consider just throwing out what she thought could and couldn’t happen, clearly her impressions weren’t suited to the world she’d woken up in.

“I thought you would be locking me in prison or something,” Jamie said instead. Hopefully not sounding too disappointed by that fact. “This doesn’t look like a prison.”

Twilight shook her head. “There are some similarities, I suppose. You won’t be able to leave until I’ve fully investigated you. That’s where the uncomfortable similarities end.”

She stopped just beside Jamie, meeting her eyes. “Ruling Equestria is a terrible burden, Jamie. The creatures outside this castle cannot possibly imagine the danger they’re in all the time. I’ve tried so many times to tell them… but they’re too simple. I suppose they… just weren’t built to understand. A few years go by and we’re back to magical thinking and religion all over again. At least with the canon codified the laws don’t drift anymore, and I can focus on what matters.”

Every tyrant has reasons to justify what they do. That’s all this is, just her rationalization. But there was still some part of her, however small, that wanted to believe this princess could have a reason for all this. It didn’t seem possible, but maybe… “Like what?” she asked. Not doubtful, not trying to argue with her. She was only curious. “Why is Equestria like this?”

The princess turned upward, as though staring at an enemy Jamie couldn’t see. “Our world is not what it appears. The truth of that revelation took more from me than… more than you can imagine. But it’s more than I can possibly share with you in the time we have left. When I return… maybe you’ll be able to comprehend the gravity of the threat to Equestria.”

She wrapped one leg around Jamie’s, dragging her along. Her grip was iron, but Jamie didn’t resist, and so it didn’t hurt. More was the fear of what this princess might do to her, any moment.

Through another modular door was a palatial bath, with marble columns along the walls and statues of dignified ponies beside fonts of stone and tile. The water was still steaming hot, and the shelves of soaps and oils smelled wonderful even just walking past them.

“Until then, I’ll leave you with some homework. Consider what you’ve heard while playing ambassador in Hollow Shades. Everypony knows the commands I send keep you safe from chaos. I defeated the betrayer centuries ago, and his magic is no longer a threat to any creature. The question I wish for you to answer is: why? What do ponies fear?”

She extended a few feathers, silencing her. “Before you do, here are some hints. I’m not just doing this to exercise greater control. If ponies’ actions didn’t have a real threat of harming us, I wouldn’t try to stop them. You will receive bonus points if your answer somehow involves new information that I have not been exposed to.”

Through a final door and they reached a bedroom, a round space that could’ve been ripped right from the top of a tower. The massive four-poster in here could certainly be used for plenty of royal debauchery, and from its age maybe it had been.

Everything else was in line with the royal bedroom facade. An oversized wardrobe, a telescope tucked in one corner, even the tiles depicting the constellations covering the ceiling. All ancient and fading, but preserved by the stasis spell.

There was one exception: in the center of the room was a stone obelisk, about human height. It was covered in English text, in little lines numbered from one to ten.

Twilight finally let go when they were beside it, smiling at Jamie. “I wasn’t sure where to put this—just don’t break it, otherwise I’m not terribly concerned what you do.” She turned, backing towards the doorway. “You should have a day or two to think. But like I said, the steward will take care of staffing your wing while you’re here. Be careful with them, if you can—good servants are hard to replace.”

There was a flash of bright purple from in front of her, along with a loud bang—when it faded, the princess was gone.

Well, I’m not being tossed into a dark cell to rot for the rest of my life, and I’m not being tortured to death. This isn’t the worst thing that could happen to me.

Jamie rested one hoof on the obelisk, her eyes skimming involuntarily over the text. It was the sort of artifact she expected to find in an ancient Egyptian tomb, except that it was written in English. Its rules didn’t make as much sense as she would’ve hoped, but… that probably didn’t matter.

I have homework, she thought, smiling despite herself. She wandered to one corner of the bedroom, stopping beside an old piano and poking at the keys with her hooves. They were already oversized, only a tiny bit narrower than a hoof. How someone could reach enough of them to play anything was beyond her.

Why would she bother? Was there any reason the princess would want to convince her to her side?

“I grant my consent for electronic communication,” Jamie muttered, barely above a whisper. Only silence answered.

If she was going to be locked in a pony prison, then the least Jamie could do was try and learn some useful information. She turned from the piano, then crossed through the baths, leaving the bedroom behind. Maybe Princess Twilight had left her something more interesting to read than an old textbook.

They passed dozens of dead Unification soldiers on their way to the deck. Though considering it, “dead” probably wasn’t the most accurate description. How could something that could’ve been dead for centuries be even more dead? Maybe “inert” was more accurate. Without a core the spells they carried could not work, and so they lay where they had fallen without so much as a twitch. She saw no other signs like the one she had saved. That was probably for the best—if they were wrong about the Unification Army’s weaknesses, then they were all doomed.

The top deck was a frenzy of activity, with hundreds of inert soldiers blocking their path. They had to dodge around them to get anywhere.

The golden insect landed on the patch of open ground, though it couldn’t avoid landing atop a few of the dead. She winced even so, looking away and humming to herself to cover the terrible sound. They might be unsteady monsters now, but once these ponies had been part of families, they’d had friends and hopes and desires…

“Star Orchid,” Kondrak called, touching her shoulder gently. “I have one final task for you, one in service to those who fight against the Rogue Agent and all the evil she has done to this planet. You must take me to the bridge.”

She pointed to a metallic building rising from the deck, its doors still open and soldiers pouring out. A little fortress meant to protect the ship, now apparently abandoned. With no weapons firing and the ESS Harrow holding position, the sky was eerily silent. Only the dripping of preservative fluid interrupted the occasional howl of wind. “Are you going to commandeer this ship?” she asked. “It isn’t meant for creatures your size. It won’t, uh… be easy.”

She made her way to the bridge, dodging between fallen Unification Army soldiers. With every step, she found herself wondering if it would’ve been easier if they were just corpses. But after the pony she rescued she couldn’t help but wonder. How dead were they? Could she open their support gear and wake them one at a time?

Not at the same time, anyway. Star’s magic was so drained that she would probably just collapse if she tried to cast anything more demanding than a single-object levitation. There are levels to this that the princess even hides from us. Being her advisor doesn’t mean knowing all the nation’s secrets.

“It won’t be for us,” Kondrak called, having to stoop as they passed through the outer door. Star waited to one side as he lifted the blocking ponies out of the way one at a time. But why was he acting like this was so urgent? They’d won, hadn’t they? If any city watch survived the attack, they’d be no match for the rebellion’s own fighters. “We’re going to land this ship directly over your city… Hollow Shades, if I am not mistaken. From there, you will be free to board it and take it for yourselves. Knowing the Rogue’s previous pattern, she’s likely to fly that destroyer platform of hers here and tear things up right down to bedrock. You needed to evacuate, well… this is your evacuation.”

Star’s mouth hung open as she considered the possibility. Stygian’s Gate with a warship, fully stocked for an entire army and with weapons to match. In a single moment, they would go from insignificant to a genuine threat. Assuming they could stay ahead of the princess. If Twilight ever boarded…

“I don’t know how to fly anything this size,” she admitted, as they finally reached the bridge. It was the same as every other Equestrian vessel—altitude control, pitch and roll and yaw, engine direction. There were a dozen little consoles around the room, some attended by an unarmored Unification Army pony, others just abandoned. There wasn’t a single living pony up here when we took the ship. Where did they go?

Star could imagine plenty of ponies willing to heroically scuttle the ship with an enemy aboard, hoping for eternal glory in Equestria’s memory. Maybe they’d even get some of it, instead of being remembered a failure like the rest of the soldiers here.

“I have some experience with your vessels,” Kondrak said, holstering his sidearm and heaving several more bodies aside. How long until these soldiers start rotting, anyway? The rebellion will be flying on a ship of the damned. “I wanted a pony here in case I made a serious error. I’ll admit we have yet to encounter any number of friendly creatures. Perhaps you could help me resolve a few of my misconceptions.”

Captain Kondrak wasn’t lying, he really did know quite a bit about flying their ships. Star sat beside the helm, reciting volumes worth of information Twilight had forced her to memorize. She might not know how any of the magic worked, but she knew a great deal about the Harrow’s technical specifications. She watched the exterior windows, waiting for the golden insect to return to the sky with their prisoners and soldiers aboard. It never did, but tore deep holes in the wooden surface to hold in place as Kondrak’s inexpert piloting made them swerve and tilt from side to side.

After half an hour of nausea and a near-catastrophic impact with the side of a low hill, they brought the Harrow down directly over Hollow Shades. The human captain used more of his unexplainable extrasensory perception, and somehow knew when the landing ramp was in position even without one of his soldiers to tell him so.

Finally he locked the ship back into a stationary position, grinning with satisfaction. “Your insight has been a great service, pony Star Orchid. Now our exchange is complete, and your allies receive this impressive destroyer in the bargain.”

“Why?” she asked, before she could stop herself. “Not keeping promises—that makes sense, I’m glad you value honesty the way we do. But you don’t have to give us all this. Stygian’s Gate has so little to offer you. There’s not even a guarantee leaving us with this will mean we survive long enough to ask a favor from in the future.”

Kondrak shrugged ambivalently, leading back the way they’d come, and out onto the deck. “If the Rogue Agent leaves your city a smoldering ruin and you’re all dead, then we certainly won’t be able to collect anything, would we?” He retreated from her, until he stood beside the railing.

From down below, Star could just about make out ponies looking up in their direction. Horrified, probably—if the Harrow had come right above the city, it could only mean to bring them something terrible. Of course there would be no more Unification Army soldiers disembarking from it today.

“Let me tell you a story, Star Orchid. Before the first of your kind was created to dwell upon this planet, my kind were the only species of consequence. We ruled from the deepest depths of the ocean to mining platforms orbiting distant Pluto. I was not alive in those days, so I do not know what provoked our wars. What I can tell you is that too many people think only of what they could gain, and too little of what it would cost. If we wish to make a different world, we must start by acting differently.”

Then he laughed, low and rumbling through the deck. “Besides, the ceilings are too short.”

Star Orchid was at the front of their little procession as they exited the Harrow, beside Kondrak and Landon. The others had gone with their new prisoners on the golden beetle.

Ponies scattered before them, those few brave enough to come out to look. The city had already been attacked once, so creatures were ready to flee. She couldn’t blame them. Though what future they could hope for when Concord arrived… whatever the truth of Kondrak’s stories, his guess about Twilight was probably right.

But what am I supposed to do about it? I’m not a princess, I can’t make Twilight change her mind. Until last week, she wouldn’t have even believed there could be another princess. Now she’d met one, and… that pony was probably gone too. The Army had gone straight for the Hall of Justice, where Empathy was staying.

Is she locked up on this ship somewhere? Oh buck we need to find her. What did an army even do with an Alicorn, anyway? How could they possibly keep her from breaking out?

She waited nervously for the inevitable moment when the creatures left in the city watch made their brave defense and tried to stop them… but it never came. They made it all the way back to the shattered magical crater near the marketplace, with ponies watching their every step.

Star kept far enough away from all of them, though there was no looking like a prisoner. She still had the gun, and none of her companions made any hostile motion towards her.

But it wasn’t her reunion with these ponies she was waiting for—several probably knew her, if only thanks to Golden Shine’s punishment. Whatever they might think wasn’t going to get friendlier after this. Did we save your lives by stopping the Harrow, or only damn you all?

“One other thing,” Star said, as they passed out of public earshot and back into the dark. “That strange prisoner, the Unification Army soldier… the spells keeping her alive are going to die if she stays away from Concord. I charged them, but… I don’t think any of you can do that.”

Kondrak shook his head slowly. “My crew are all too vanilla for that. Whatever advantage we might gain is not worth the price of vulnerability.”

“It’s all managed by dumb systems,” Landon supplied helpfully. “They don’t like harming humans with construction equipment. But you change just a little too much, and you don’t qualify. It would be better to learn everything we can before the spells expire, then let go. How much can we really have to learn from another enemy shock-troop?”

“Enough,” Star snapped. “Please, she’s… I know she’s different. If you don’t want to deal with it, leave her here. I’ll share anything you want to know.”

Kondrak held up a hand, interrupting the two of them. They had already reached the same place they’d met last time. There were a pair of rebellion ponies here in bloody uniforms, watching nervously. At least they hadn’t fired. “This isn’t a conversation to have between us. Your assistance has been invaluable, Star Orchid. You’ve proven yourself a woman of honor by risking yourself in the name of your successful suggestion. Nothing has been lost that cannot be replaced, and much was gained. I wish to express gratitude to your leaders in person.”

Star separated at last from the towering Devourers, who waited behind her as she stopped beside the soldiers.

“Star Orchid?” one of them asked. “The one we’ve been waiting for?”

“Yeah,” she snapped. “Get Wellspring up here. Tell her the Devourers have a gift for us, and it might help with the evacuation.”

She waited impatiently, occasionally glancing back to Kondrak and his few crewmen apologetically. What could possibly be taking them so long? It wasn’t like Stygian’s Gate had anything more important to do while they waited for Twilight to come and kill them all.

Then somepony rolled the stone aside, and she finally saw.

A little gaggle of exhausted-looking guards were first out the doorway, each one carrying their weaker versions of the Devourer weapons. Wellspring came next, looking even wearier than last time. She was helping somepony along, a soft blue insect with green fins down his back.

The one Discord had insisted was hollow until Star’s own help with the operation. And now he was moving, so did that mean…?

The changeling’s head was heavily bandaged, though more interesting was the thing he used to walk. An external skeleton of metal links, bridging back to limbs and then to his skull. His body shook with each step, rebelling against him. But still he moved.

“You’re the reason there’s a destroyer parked over my head!” he called across the room. His voice shook like the rest of him, but there was still confidence.

He reached Star, hesitating as he saw her. His insect eyes were hard to read, but at least there was none of the hostility she’d felt from Geist. Or… any attempt to murder her. “And you, Star Orchid. The Doctor tells me you were party to the transplant.”

It wasn’t the Iron Lord’s voice. His tone reverberated strangely through his chest like all changelings.

She nodded, retreating a step from him. She’d seen inside that body last night. Though after the brief battle she’d joined atop the Harrow, maybe she could learn to live with what she’d seen in Discord’s operating room. “I helped. Discord was the one to save you, I just… helped with the tools.”

He lifted one shaky hoof, settling it briefly on her shoulder. She was frozen, trying in vain to process how a demon that had towered over her could go from that to a changeling shorter than she was, with an awkward metal contraption to help him walk. “I won’t forget, even so. If Stygian’s Gate makes it out of this, when I’m healed… I will owe you a debt.”

Then he let go, continuing towards the waiting Kondrak.

“I’m afraid we haven’t been introduced,” the human said, removing his helmet and settling it under one arm. “We negotiated with her the last time—Wellspring. Who are you?”

“Her boss,” he said, extending a shaky hoof. “I had just been under the knife when you were last here, forgive me. My name is Ferris Abrams, leader of Stygian’s Gate.”

Kondrak didn’t take the offered hoof, watching skeptically. “We were told you were led by a human overseer. That was part of what brought us here in the first place.”

“I am,” Ferris said. “Or was, until… last night. The emergency intelligence in my shelter let all of us go rotten, I was just lucky enough to keep my head properly frozen the whole time.”

He took the hoof in one gauntleted hand, shaking briefly. “Then I am Captain Kondrak of the HMS Hippocrates. I look forward to a long and productive relationship—but for now, you need to start evacuating. The Rogue Correction Agent is on her way here as fast as her platform can travel. When she arrives, you will all die.”

“Unfortunately many of us are in the same condition I am, recovering from surgery. If the Doctor was still down here, he’d be livid I was out of bed so soon. We cannot possibly outrun Concord through the jungle.”

“We agree,” Kondrak said. “That’s why we brought the Harrow. I understand it flies far faster than the platform can glide in low altitude. If you hurry, maybe even fast enough to flee.”

Chapter 31: Antlia

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Jamie knew she would have to make her time in the royal castle productive. With no creature coming to rescue her and no skills to escape, her only hope of survival transformed to simple cleverness. Maybe there was some fact she could use as blackmail hidden away, or some weakness of the princess’s defenses.

And maybe there was, but if that was the case, Jamie just couldn’t figure out what it might be.

The dictator hadn’t left her any human books either, so she wouldn’t even be able to learn the secret history of the planet before she was tortured and interrogated. Everything she found was written in the pony language, which of course she couldn’t read.

Twilight didn’t act like she was going to hurt her, but that didn’t necessarily mean very much. While Jamie searched through the books, she could imagine being left here in relative kindness until she was just begging to share everything she knew if only it would make Twilight let her go.

At least the princess kept true to her word about giving her a staff. They appeared in time for dinner, with a familiar bug rolling in a serving tray. They had half a dozen other creatures behind them, though none of the other insects seemed brave enough to face her.

“Are you hungry, uh… Princess?”

Probably still the best name. “Yes, please.” Jamie pushed aside several of the unreadable books, clearing the spot in front of her. The prison had a well-appointed dining room, and she could sense the anxiety from these bugs not being allowed to use it. But Jamie didn’t much feel like leaving. She couldn’t help but see each of the identical doors as a chance to be dropped into the void.

“Sorry you got roped into working with me again,” she continued. “I can’t be the most prestigious assignment.”

The other bugs kept their expressions neutral at her remarks, but Basal either wasn’t trying as hard, or just wasn’t as good. “This is far from the worst place we could work, Alicorn Jamie. The others of my tribe just expect you to be similar to our other assignments. They’ll relax when they learn you’re different.”

Is that a good thing?

Jamie hardly felt motivated to fight, not when she’d basically already lost. Dinner was right here, and that was much higher priority.

Maybe the princess would use it as a way to poison her, but if so she’d chosen quite an expensive ruse. It tasted more like it had come from Twilight’s own table—a dozen different little plates, each with just a sampling of wonders Jamie couldn’t even name. A few bites of fish on thin bread, whipped cakes that dissolved against her tongue, and strange vials of sugary nectar.

Jamie couldn’t care less about food most of the time, but the combination of hunger and boredom made her take the first thing she’d found in the room worth investigating.

“What did they tell you?” Jamie asked, around the time she finally felt full and she was winding down. “How long are you here, Basal?”

“As long as you need me, Alicorn Jamie. We’re already installed in the servants’ quarters, and all of us will be exclusively focused on your comfort as long as you’re a guest of the castle.

Several of them had taken her meal as an opportunity to do just that, preparing the massive bed with new blankets and manually fluffing each of the pillows.

Even before the end of the world, this was more luxury than any normal person could afford. It was like Jamie had stolen a forbidden glimpse into territory she was not meant to visit. As soon as the guard realized where she’d gone, it would all be snatched away.

“Does that mean helping me in other ways?” she asked. “Besides just bringing me food and cleaning stuff?”

“Anything you require.” Basal met her eyes, and for an instant Jamie caught something that was almost afraid. “Do you require physical companionship? I can conform to any desire you require of me.”

Jamie jerked backward, the legs grating against the floor as they dragged. “No. No no no no no no. You have no idea how many layers of illegal that would…” Then she realized how stupid she sounded. She was a magical horse in a floating prison surrounded by bugs. “That isn’t what I meant. I would like to refresh my knowledge of history with some of the books in your library, but I can’t, uh… I don’t read your language.”

Basal seemed instantly relieved at that pronouncement. Apparently she hadn’t been excited by the prospect, and Jamie couldn’t blame her. “I’m not much of a teacher, Alicorn Jamie. But I could probably read anything for you that you wanted interpreted. Would that be helpful?

Better than nothing. “Sure, that would be great, Basal. If you don’t mind. If you’d rather take your crew and go, I won’t be upset. It seems wrong to expect you to serve me like slaves.”

One of the other bugs actually laughed, at least until they realized Jamie had heard, and she was staring in their direction. “I mean it. I’m not going to be upset if you leave.”

“What kind of Alicorn are you?” asked the one she’d heard. The voice seemed deeper, more masculine. But the differences were so slight, she could hardly tell.

“Not much of an Alicorn,” Jamie answered honestly. “I grew up like anyone else. I’ve never had servants.”

“We’re here to be useful,” Basal insisted. “Keeping your quarters in order and helping you with a few books is fine, Jamie. Serving is what the castle staff are supposed to do.”

She didn’t argue further; saying even that much had already attracted enough whispers. What would the servants whisper about her now? If Twilight had sent them to spy on her, she looked forward to seeing how the princess reacted. I should probably think about her homework assignment, too. Twilight wanted Jamie to justify why she ruled Equestria so harshly. But studying history would help her give a more convincing answer.

Twilight might not have left her any human books to read, but at least she’d left plenty of records on other subjects. Maybe she hoped that visitors would read from those and believe their contents over whatever knowledge of the real world they actually had.

Whatever her reasoning, Jamie could be thankful, even if she had to listen with the knowledge that she probably wasn’t hearing the truth. But knowing what Twilight wants ponies to know about their history could be just as important as what actually happened.

Basal read from stories of an ancient Equestria, a land of friendship and harmony that had existed uncorrupted for basically forever.

But when the Devourers sensed the harmony and joy, they were driven to madness by the envy, and rose from their graves to destroy Equestria.

Basal told her of the ancient princesses, realizing they weren’t strong enough to fight, turning over control of Equestria to the only one who was—Twilight.

Then came a long list of Twilight’s triumphs, against versions of the “Devourers” that Jamie instantly recognized as pure fiction. The princess had invented champions who opposed each of the six Elements of Harmony, and armies of the damned who followed them, along with detailed accounts of how each was defeated.

“And Equestria has been at peace ever since,” Basal finished, snapping the book closed.

Jamie looked up from the desk, eyebrows going up. “What about the next volume? That was… a thousand years ago, according to the story. Where’s the record of that?”

Basal seemed confused by the question, shifting uneasily in her seat. She levitated the book back open, studying the last page again. As though Jamie had seen something on the unreadable pages that she hadn’t. “We’ve been at peace ever since,” she said again. “What else are you looking for, Alicorn Jamie?”

She didn’t know how to reply to that, and for a good few seconds just stared back at the bug, entirely baffled. “There was a big war, and lots of battles. But those don’t take very long, and most of the creatures fighting were the Exemplars, mortal ponies. So it couldn’t have been longer than a lifetime. What happened for the rest of the thousand years?”

“Peace and harmony?” Basal said nervously. “What else would there be to write?”

Jamie couldn’t contain her laughter. She’d seen the way creatures lived, and had no illusions about the amount of “peace and harmony” that existed down on the ground. But maybe Concord was different? Maybe the princess only cared about the health of her capital, and everything that happened on the ground was incidental to her?

“I would like to know more about the Devourers next,” Jamie said. She extended a wing to stop Basal before she even opened the next book. It was covered with religious icons, the same symbols she’d seen over and over in the Hall of Justice. “I don’t mean about their champions, or the war. That all makes sense. I mean before that. Who were they, why did they attack Equestria?”

By then, all the other changelings had taken the opportunity to leave them behind. Even so, Basal stiffened at the question, wings buzzing in a show of her agitation. Apparently reading emotions didn’t translate to any ability to hide them.

“That isn’t something creatures are supposed to ask about,” she answered, retreating a few steps. “We, uh… we recognize the dangers they brought to Equestria. But learning more about the Devourers is like… inviting them to return. You don’t want that, do you Jamie?”

I think I do, if they’re the people I’m guessing they are. Twilight’s history hadn’t even attempted to share anything true, except for the obvious conclusion that humanity had decided the terraforming was done and tried to retake their planet. Without much success, apparently.

“How can you fight something you don’t understand?” Jamie countered. “If the Devourers are so evil, wouldn’t you want to know as much about them as possible?”

“That’s the princess’s job,” Basal said. “The princess knows the dangers to Equestria, and Concord travels. We bring the Unification Army, and they fight any evil that we find. For the rest of us, the safest thing to do is study the Words of Harmony. We want to become better creatures, not learn from evil.”

She rose, packing up her little pile of books. “You won’t find anything on evil in your library, Alicorn Jamie. If the princess brought you here to study under her, you’ll need to get that directly from her. I can’t help you.”

And just like that, she was gone, leaving Jamie alone with her thoughts.

Jamie wasn’t kept waiting for that moment. After an awkward breakfast with remarkably non-communicative serving staff, Princess Twilight arrived in her prison. She didn’t intrude on Jamie’s bedroom at least, but sent one of the bugs to call her into the entryway.

She came when called, a little surprised at the princess’s respect. It was Twilight’s castle, and she could’ve gone anywhere she wanted. But she didn’t.

The princess looked worn from the day before, expression haggard. Her mane was slightly frizzy at the edges, and her armor wasn’t straight. But she’d come anyway, and apparently hadn’t noticed. “Jamie, I hope you’ve found the accommodations to your liking. If there’s anything else I can do to make you more comfortable, I would like to know.”

Jamie hesitated. She didn’t want to antagonize the princess, but her curiosity was hard to resist. “Could I have some real history books? There’s a library, but the one book I found was just propaganda.”

Jamie probably should’ve stopped about halfway through, as Twilight’s expression turned from weariness to frustration, and then to anger. The princess rose, storming past Jamie and through the door behind her. “What did you read, Jamie? I demand to know.”

Jamie hurried to catch up, though the princess had much longer legs and didn’t seem to care much whether she could stay close. They reached the sitting room, and the shelf where Basal had replaced all her books. Without prompting from Jamie, the princess went straight to the book they’d read from the night before.

“Was this what you studied?” Twilight levitated the volume up into the air, holding it directly in front of Jamie.

How did you know? Jamie nodded awkwardly. “Y-yes Princess. I didn’t finish all of it, but…”

“But?” Twilight prompted. Her expression was entirely unreadable, though her eyes were dark. “I wrote this history to educate the citizens of Equestria. Now you’ve called my own work propaganda. Justify your statement, Jamie.”

She winced, but there was no changing tact now. Let’s see if you really want the truth from me or not. “Once the Devourers appear, you describe something that’s… obviously not true. If the Devourers are humans, then—”

Twilight’s eyes narrowed, the glow brightening around her book. Maybe this was the moment she prepared a spell to blast Jamie. Or at least throw her into a proper prison, instead of her luxurious quarters.

“Humans don’t see the world in terms of the virtues ponies’ value, they’d never create armies to oppose your beliefs. They wouldn’t have champions either—until the Crash, every conflict was fought between Warminds.”

The politics of the world before the Crash was a hazy thing for Jamie, one she’d barely followed. Like so many others she lived in complacency, expecting she could keep living that way forever. Until the day she couldn’t.

But Twilight wouldn’t be accepting that answer. She replaced her book on the shelf, bearing down on her. “You don’t think humans would create an army of slaves and monsters to remove Harmony’s virtues from Equestria? How would they fight?”

Twilight hadn’t batted an eye at the name, all the confirmation Jamie needed of that particular detail. “Well, uh… governments and corporations usually had a single AI to handle defense. You could never perfectly trust the motivations of another person, but if you know the incentives guiding an AI, then you know it will fight for your goals, even if you don’t understand the choices it makes.”

The glow in Twilight’s horn changed subtly. It was the same purple, yet somehow Jamie found she recognized the specific way it shimmered. There was a pressure on her forehead, and a faint grip around her neck. It’s the truth spell. How long has she been using it on me?

It hadn’t hurt her yet, because Jamie was telling the truth. “When countries fought, they sent drones after each other. Destroy the factories, destroy the power plants, or capture the Warmind. The only time I ever heard of people getting hurt was during the—” She hesitated, feeling that pressure constrict around her neck just a little. The spell could sense her intention.

So she said something else. “Crash,” she finished lamely. “So the book is obviously lying. The armies would be machines, and they wouldn’t care about your religion.”

Twilight settled back onto her haunches, and the spell vanished from around Jamie’s throat. For nearly a minute the princess said nothing at all, eyes glazed as she stared off at something Jamie couldn’t see.

“Leave us,” Twilight said, snapping suddenly back to reality and glowering at the servants lingering by the door. Basal and her companion scattered, bowing politely before snapping the door shut behind them.

Finally Twilight turned on Jamie, looking older and weaker than Jamie had ever seen. “You guess correctly, Jamie. The knowledge I make easily accessible to common ponies in Equestria is carefully curated. It is less important to me that creatures can name locations and individuals from the past than they’re morally prepared to resist reconquering when the Devourers return. None of the events in that book actually happened, but the spirit of those events is true.”

Twilight levitated the book back over, flipping through its pages. Probably so Jamie could see the intricate illustrations. Massacres of ponies, cities burning, volcanoes erupting. “It doesn’t matter if ponies expect armies to fight a different way. What does matter is that creatures understand there are enemies out there who would kill everyone they love, and who hate the things that give us joy. If they know we might have to fight again one day, they won’t be taken in when the Devourers come to corrupt them.”

Jamie nodded silently. She needed no magic to sense the princess’s sincerity. The declaration was half-insane, but Twilight made it with confidence.

This was her chance to show the princess that she could accept her world. And the less you ask me about how I know all this, the better. “I haven’t seen very much of Equestria, but it looks like you kept them safe.”

And enslaved by lies. “What really happened? Why would humans want to attack Equestria?”

The princes rose in a rush, dropping the book callously to the floor. It landed with the pages crumpled, but the princess didn’t seem to care. “I can show you, Jamie. There are secrets forbidden to common ponies, but you aren’t one of them. If you are to one day serve Equestria, then you should know what we’re up against.”

Jamie followed. The princess led her from her prison, past a military fortification that hadn’t been there the day before. At least two dozen soldiers patrolled a makeshift barricade, with barbed wire along the top and strange weapons mounted to rotating fortifications. A primitive Gatling gun maybe, with a crank for ponies to operate?

The not-quite-alive soldiers rose to attention as they passed, filling the air with the stench of laboratories and morgues.

The defenses were equally strong in both directions, with soldiers on either side. Ready to keep Jamie in, as much as other creatures from reaching her.

I can’t forget I’m in a prison, no matter how comfortable it is.

Curiously, the soldiers didn’t seem terribly threatening. They watched silently, keeping their distance from Twilight.

Eventually they reached an opening in the floor, with a massive spiral staircase. Jamie did her best to commit every direction to memory, in case they passed some way out. But there was only passages down.

“I appreciate your honesty with me, Jamie. Sharing your impressions of our history was very brave. But what I’m about to show you requires the virtue of discretion as well. You may discuss anything with me. Tell me what you think, even if that’s an accusation that my history is propaganda.”

She stopped in the Spartan stone staircase, meeting Jamie’s eyes. “What I share with you now should not be discussed in the presence of any other creature. Should they hear it, I would be required to induct them into the Unification Army immediately. If you force me to replace my castle servants, I’ll be upset. Is that clear?”

Jamie nodded hastily. There was something obviously euphemistic about the “Unification Army.” Was that Equestria’s version of an execution? Her soldiers did seem dead. “Just between us,” Jamie agreed. “I promise.”

Twilight led them to an oversized stone door, one covered with more unreadable pony language. The large block letters seemed like a warning. There was no knob, no lock, or other visible way to open the door.

Twilight’s horn glowed for a moment, then there was a flash from around them. Jamie gasped, breathing sharply.

She wasn’t standing in that stairwell anymore, but in a brightly lit room with a floor of even tiles. “This is where I keep the relics of the past. Relics, Darktech… and memorials.”

It was arranged a little like a museum, with exhibits protected in glass at regular intervals. Some were unidentifiable metal objects, but others were photos, covered with dark glass that would conceal their contents except from very close.

“Inert gas?” Jamie guessed. “Is that why it’s all sealed up?” She couldn’t think of any other reason to wrap things in glass that no one but the princess herself would see.

And now her Alicorn prisoner.

Twilight nodded, smiling faintly. “That’s correct. Tell me Jamie, did you do your homework? I should’ve asked you before our discussion today. I practically gave you the answer for free.”

“You think humans might be coming back one day,” Jamie whispered. “You think ponies might… maybe not help them exactly, but not be able to fight them again.”

“I don’t think they’re coming back,” Twilight muttered. “I know my work is incomplete. The… ‘Warmind’ you called it?” She took Jamie by the leg, dragging her up to a glass exhibit. A little light came on as they approached, illuminating the contents of the case.

It looked like a melted section of QE-processor board, production numbers visible stamped into the plastic. “DEV-01-R”

“When I found it, the attacks on Equestria ceased. I couldn’t bring back the lives…” She sniffed, wiping at her face with the back of one leg. Like a child who didn’t want Jamie to see her crying. “The damage was done. Equestria was destroyed, reduced to the shadow you see now.

“But from the prisoners I interrogated, I know there is a greater evil, hiding out of my reach. Tell me Jamie: who is greater than the Warmind?”

The truth spell returned so fast that Jamie couldn’t even open her mouth. The pressure constricted around her throat, just daring her to lie.

She didn’t. “Only one I can think of. After the Crash, humans made something to supervise the terraforming of Earth. The Governing Intelligence, the smartest AI ever built.”

Twilight nodded, apparently satisfied. “I never found it. Even after all these years, I see the hoofprints it leaves behind. Slight alterations in the orbital platforms. Soldiers and ships attacked by enemies that vanish back into high orbit. Darktech discovered in the hooves of rebel elements on the borders of Equestria.”

She reached down, turning Jamie to face her. “Where is the Governing Intelligence, Jamie?” Her horn burned so bright that the electric lights overhead were eclipsed with her bright purple.

But it didn’t matter how strong the truth spell was. “I don’t know.” The magic grew hot around her neck, as though wanting to kill her. But nothing happened.

“Do you know anything about it you aren’t telling me?”

She squirmed for a moment, then nodded.


Jamie strained under the force of the spell, feeling the heat of it against her throat like a test she hadn’t studied for. Without any other idea of what to do, she started spewing everything she’d ever heard. “It was made using Non-D quantum processing based on an amalgam scan of terraforming specialists, generals, and engineers. It’s redundantly self-repairing. It has a holographic self-reconstructing, uh… something. Database? Yeah, that’s it.”

The princess watched her, unblinking and entirely unsympathetic to the spell aimed at her like a gun. “That’s all very interesting, Jamie. But I’m not trying to build one. I just want to know where it’s hiding. What haven’t you told me about that?”

There was only one thing. “The other machines think it’s dead too,” she exclaimed. As she said it, the pressure instantly relaxed from around her neck, and she could breathe freely again. She finished anyway, more out of fear it would return. “It was meant to communicate with hardware all over the planet, telling it what to do and when to wake people up. But it never did, and so all the little computers are freaking out.”

The princess turned away, her horn fading as she screamed. Her tortured yell echoed in the small space, enough that Jamie’s ears flattened and she cowered, as far away from her as she could. “Why do you keep hiding from me?!” she yelled. “You can’t stay hidden forever! You think capturing my ponies after they reach Harmony and tampering with their minds is going to stop me?”

Twilight stopped beside the largest exhibit box, which lit up as she approached. Chunks of mainframe were inside, balanced precariously on thin metal rods.

She glowered into the box for another moment, resting one hoof on the glass. She seemed to be muttering something to herself, eyes wide. Then she let go, spinning on Jamie. “Well, that’s enough of that. I’m sorry you had to see that. Normally I… well, it’s been some time since there was another Alicorn in Equestria. Pressures build up over time. I had hoped you would be able to help me finally put an end to all this.”

“I would if I could,” Jamie said. She didn’t really mean it, but the truth spell was gone. There was nothing to strangle her now. “I told you everything I know.”

“You did,” Twilight agreed, stopping just before her. Jamie half expected her to start yelling again, but instead she just rested a hoof on Jamie’s shoulder. “That’s very good, Jamie. You’ve chosen the right side. Service to Equestria protects thousands of creatures. It might be there’s something you know that will help me find the Governing Intelligence. But not today.”

Twilight led her back through the castle, up to her little prison. Jamie kept her mouth closed, afraid that any moment Twilight might think to force her to answer something that would reveal the flaws in her assumptions.

How long until you realize I’m one of them, Twilight? Will you blame me for what the Governing Intelligence did?

They reached the barricade, and Twilight waved a wing at one of the soldiers. He hurried over, stopping a meter away and saluting. “Princess.”

“Our guest has demonstrated her cooperation and is now permitted to leave her quarters. Please make sure she has an escort at all times, but otherwise she is permitted to go anywhere in the palace.”

The soldier saluted. “Yes, Princess.”

Twilight only made it as far as the doorway, before lowering her voice to a whisper. “Remember your promise, Jamie. Continue to earn my trust, and I’ll make you a member of my household. Do not disobey me. I am no longer a believer in second chances.”

She turned, leaving Jamie there by the entrance to her wing. She lingered near the door a moment, feeling the unblinking eyes of a dozen soldiers on her. She hurried inside, feeling more confused than ever.

At least she isn’t gonna torture me.

Chapter 32: Aquarius

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Hollow Shades was evacuating.

It wasn’t like Star Orchid had expected anything different. Once they’d taken a ship for themselves, flight was the only possible option. But as Star watched ponies flee up the ramp, carrying what little they could bring of their lives, she couldn’t help but feel empty inside.

How much of this was because of her? None of these ponies could ever go home again. If they were lucky, Equestria would just forget they existed, and let them fade into the crowds of displaced exiles living outside the grip of her power.

But they had to get far enough away first. There was no train in time, and even if there was Star expected it to be searched and emptied. It was possible, though she couldn’t have said she thought it was likely, that the princess would force every creature she caught anywhere near the city into mandatory military service. She could certainly imagine Twilight doing something like that.

Down in Hollow Shades, a mountain of bodies rose from the dirt. She could smell the preservative even from up here, as rebellion ponies cleared out the last of the ship’s old crew. There was no time for burials, so a massive pile in the center of Hollow Shades would have to do.

Once the jungle heat gets to them, this city is going to smell so bad no creature will ever live here again.

“I can see your thoughts,” said a voice from behind her, so abruptly that she lurched right into the railing.

Good thing it was there, or she might’ve gone soaring off into the void with nothing to stop her.

“Well, technically not the way I used to. But I’m old enough that I can guess. Woe is me, I’ve brought such terrible suffering upon this innocent village. I am truly the center of all evil in the universe, and undeserving of love. Sound familiar?”

She spun slowly on her hooves, eyes narrowing. Discord. She should’ve known he would be joining them, despite every objection she might otherwise hold. And of course, why wouldn’t he? He’d saved the Iron Lord’s life, and half a dozen other creatures in the rebellion. I was wrong about the Devourers, or at least Kondrak and his crew. Could I be wrong about Discord?

“Am I wrong?” she asked, glaring anyway. “Isn’t all this happening because I came to Hollow Shades?”

Discord’s presence here did explain why so many others had given her such a wide berth. If Twilight ever captured any of the ponies of Hollow Shades, they would have some interesting stories to tell about the one they’d seen lording over the evacuation.

“Tracing causality has always been a fool’s errand, little pony. But in this case, no. I believe the Emergency Intelligence caused this particular nightmare. I wonder if it realizes that by attracting Twilight’s attention here, she’ll excavate this jungle for years until she finds the shelter and turns the little human popsicles inside into…” He winced. “Well, nothing alive.”

“There are humans near Hollow Shades? Underground?”

Discord nodded absently. “Of course. The emergency shelters are all underground, or they were. Why do you think Concord flies the way it does, tearing up kilometers of rock as it passes overheard? You think she does that just to be spiteful and destructive?”

Star Orchid shook her head. “I… I still think the princess has a plan in mind. She’s not an emotional pony, she’s… purposeful.”

“Obsessed,” Discord corrected. “The princess was not built for immortality, as no natural organic truly is. Without the proper mental conditioning, her psyche fractures and crystalizes with every passing century. Living all that time in absolute power has accelerated the deterioration to something I would almost find admirable, if she didn’t spend so much of her time murdering. She’s killed far more of her own ponies than the Governing Intelligence ever did.”

“She’s… trying to dig up emergency shelters filled with humans?” Star supplied. “Why?”

Discord shrugged absently. “I can’t even speculate at her motivations anymore. Fighting the Governing Intelligence was one thing—we all had to fight, or Equestria would die. But we won, and she just… kept fighting. I wanted to live as much as any other creature, but I’m less supportive of her determination to murder sleeping children. She’s been at it for so long, she probably thought she got them all. Covered every inch of the globe she could.”

He began to walk away, muttering to himself as he went. “Except for the oceans, I suppose. She can lift mass all day through her little stolen platform, and there will always be more. And all the little warzones even the Intelligence couldn’t fix. Steelbones Canyon, the Badlands, Everfree, places like that. But they’re so dangerous on their own that no emergency shelter could survive. Oh, and you probably shouldn’t tell anyone my name. They don’t know what I look like, think I’m dead. Let them keep believing.”

Why are you telling me all this? Star nearly let him leave—the strange creature might not even have a reason she could understand, or maybe it was just about tormenting her with knowledge of things she could do nothing about.

Still, she didn’t ask outright. Somehow she didn’t take Discord for the kind of creature who was likely to give a direct response when questioned. But if she played along, maybe.

“You’re coming with us now?” she asked, hurrying to catch up. “Aren’t you worried that the princess will be hunting us?”

“Oh, I expect her to be hunting us.” Discord didn’t glide through the air, despite all the stories of his ability to fly. His body seemed awkward and unwieldy on the ground, but he kept going anyway. “That’s part of the fun. She has all the magic from every platform, she has the whole world at her command. Yet we still escape. If we make it a week, it will be worth the effort. If we can stay ahead of Concord for a whole month, I’ll have something to tell stories about for the next century.”

Not very optimistic about our chances, are you? She almost got indignant with him right there, screaming that they did have a chance. They had a ship that could outpace Concord a dozen times over, that was why it had been sent in the first place. And they had new friends no previous rebellion had ever had before.

They even had an insider from Twilight’s own court, ready to betray everything if it meant a greater chance for the rebellion. In a way I’m even worse than he is. We’ve always known that Discord was spreading disharmony in his hoofsteps. But the princess trusted me.

Star dismissed that thought, before it took her back into an endless loop of doubt and disbelief. “I don’t believe that,” she argued, though it wasn’t strictly true. The old Discord would’ve been more than capable of all that. The Discord she’d grown up learning about would sow disharmony for its own sake. “You don’t have to put yourself at risk. The princess won’t tolerate your exile if she thinks you’re going to keep doing this forever. If she thinks you’re responsible—”

Suddenly Discord was right up in her face, looming over her. Even compared to the humans he was tall, about the same size as one of them in full armor. “Careful, Star Orchid. Eventually you wander far from the trunk, and you fall. Don’t worry about me—you should be far more concerned about your own future.”

He pointed up to the open bridge, where a familiar figure lingered. One she’d been simultaneously expecting and dreading. Windbrisk had finally come looking for her. “I suggest you turn that charisma up to eleven, little pony. You’ll need a creature like him where you’re going.”

Discord didn’t have his magic, so obviously he couldn’t have teleported away. But just because he couldn’t have apparently didn’t stop him from not being behind her anymore when she looked.

There were plenty of other creatures gathered up here—the leaders of the rebellion stood in little groups, some gathered around folding tables with papers and maps. A few humans moved between them, though she couldn’t make out what they were saying.

Star’s whole world narrowed, until Windbrisk was the only creature in it. He approached her deliberately—maybe he’d been dreading this moment as much as she had. “So you, uh… you’ve been busy,” he said, stopping just ahead of her.

She nodded, ears flattening. It was probably just the chill of the high air that made her feel so warm all the sudden. “I guess so.”

“You worked all night with the doctor to save the Iron Lord,” he began. “Then you befriended these… strange creatures, and persuaded them to save us from an invading army.”

Star nodded again. “I can’t get credit for saving anyone, though. Discord did the operation, and Kondrak’s crew were the ones who fought. The only one I saved was this… strange prisoner.”

He was silent for a long time, watching her. “My memory of the attack is hazy, Star. Did you come here with your girlfriend as a spy for Equestria or not?”

“She was never really my girlfriend, but… yeah. The spy part is true.”

He tensed again, though at least he didn’t start screaming and thrashing around like last time. Granted, he hadn’t been stabbed. “You’re not a very good spy.”

She shook her head. “Geist, the one who took me down here—he talked about trips to the surface like they would corrupt anypony he brought. He said he’d be waiting to kill me if I ever turned away from the court. He expected me to see what you were doing, and change my mind about who I thought was evil. He was right.”

Windbrisk remained silent for several seconds, looking her up and down. Maybe he was using some arcane hippogriff sense to read her emotions—but that didn’t make sense. He wasn’t the changeling, that bug was still out there hunting her. “And now you want creatures to trust you?”

She shrugged. “I want creatures to live through this. If they don’t trust me, I’d only point out that I’m as dead as the rest of you. I fought alongside Devourers to capture this ship. There’s no possible chance the princess won’t find out.”

Star expected she’d have as much time to convince him as she needed. Apparently not, because the Iron Lord had noticed them, and was headed over. Kondrak followed close behind, along with Wellspring. What they had to say, it must be important if it took all three.

“You really weren’t dating her?”

She choked back a laugh. “No, I wasn’t. That was just my cover-story for why a unicorn would leave the Magic district and come down here. Part of me thinks that Geist just picked it hoping he’d get some extra love if I pretended long enough.”

Windbrisk didn’t get a chance to say anything else, just stepped back and lowered his head respectfully as the Iron Lord neared them.

He waved a dismissive hoof. “No, stay. This concerns you too, Windbrisk. I’ve heard you were healing well from the injuries you sustained in… defense of the Undercastle.”

Windbrisk nodded. “How’s it feel to be able to walk on your own, sir?”

The bug looked down at his hooves, suddenly distant. “You cannot possibly imagine. The agony of living in a body overcome with rot, but undying. Without such an important cause, I would’ve welcomed death many times. Finally I have reason to be glad I didn’t.”

“We all are,” Wellspring added. “Nopony wants to face this next nightmare without you.”

“Yes, well. We need to survive it first. I was hoping both of you would join us on the bridge. We have much to discuss as we depart. Windbrisk, it involves your next assignment, so you should join us as well.”

Star Orchid watched from the bridge as the Harrow finally took to the air above Hollow Shades. Its new crew knew far less about operating it, but between Kondrak and Star’s advice, their single military defector of a pilot managed to keep them from tipping over.

She could only imagine what the Harrow must look like to the crowd of ponies down in the city below—loyalists to Equestria, who trusted in the princess’s mercy at their loyalty over the ample evidence to the contrary.

Like all the old destroyers, it was more like a squat castle, and far less like an actual ship. The lower section of the hull curved into the wind, but not gracefully. Their hasty patch of the hole into engineering would do the ship’s aerodynamics no favors.

“Now that we’re moving, we can talk.”

The bridge was big enough that their group could retreat to the navigation desk in back, where maps and charting tools were left by the old crew. She didn’t long consider the question of whether a Unification Army soldier could have done something so complex, and instead turned her attention to the Iron Lord.

“It won’t surprise any of you to know that we’ll be working together,” Kondrak said, as soon as he had their attention. “There are very few on this planet who aren’t loyal to the princess, she’s made sure of that.”

“You should really just get to the point where I explain where you’re sending these creatures,” Discord said, swiveling around from one of the navigation chairs. Had he been there the whole time, waiting?

You don’t have magic, how do you keep doing this?

Ferris Abrams cleared his throat. “Welcome, Doctor. If you could let me explain. We do plan on asking, rather than demanding.”

Discord shrugged, swiveling his chair back around. “Take your time then, I’ll be here.”

Kondrak continued where he left off. “We’ve been considering ways to remove the Rogue from power for many years now. Ultimately it all comes back to the same fact: her city makes her invincible. While it is nearby, its core connects to her in a magical symbiosis that has rendered her immune from assassination.”

“So we have to lure her out of the city,” Windbrisk suggested. “Away from the evil magic making her invincible.”

Star Orchid might’ve already been frothing with confusion and religious disagreement with what was being said here, if she hadn’t spent the last few months adapting. The talk still made her sick, even if she no longer felt the need to shout about how something was impossible.

“Either that, or remove the core. This would also eliminate the Unification Army. If we weren’t careful, it would also crash Concord straight into the ground and kill everyone living there. This is unacceptable, so another solution must be found.” Kondrak removed something from his armor—his flat projection surface, which could show almost any image.

This time, he showed a map of Hollow Shades, all the way to where the coast fractured into impassable canyon. “The Hippocrates and I will attempt to lure her away from her city where she can be neutralized with minimal loss of life. We’ve recently gained intelligence that something we’ve been searching for is located beneath these ruins.”

Star Orchid jerked to attention, eyes widening. “That’s Steelbones Canyon, Kondrak. The air is poison, and the princess has the whole area watched by loyal pegasi. She’ll see you.”

He nodded slowly. “That’s the intention, Star. The Hippocrates will have to be there to make it worth a trip. Otherwise, she’d probably just send another ineffective army after us. It needs to be her.”

“You’ll die,” she whispered. “I know you creatures don’t think highly of the princess and what she’s built… but she’s strong. Even if she’s far away from Concord, she’s still the best spellcaster who ever lived.”

Kondrak nodded grimly. “That’s assuming she can be lured. It is still possible she is too cautious, which is why—”

“Where you come in,” Discord said, swiveling his chair around eagerly. “Please let me tell them, Ferris. It’s my forbidden knowledge, and I’ve been dying to watch something happen all this time.”

The changeling only shrugged. “Don’t embellish then, Doctor. Remember that I won’t be requiring their service, only asking for it. If you scare them off, we’ll be in terrible danger.”

Discord barely seemed like he’d even heard the instruction. “The core of Concord is a spell which receives its power from somewhere else. You’ve probably heard of the Immortal City. What you probably haven’t seen, is anyone who has ever gone in and left again. “But if you could somehow bypass the troops guarding it, slip past the barrier, and destroy the spells… the core would instantly begin to drain.”

How could Discord know so much? Even the royal technicians didn’t learn about such sacred subjects. Yet he mocked the Immortal City like it was just a patch of dirt with some magic around it.

“So you’re asking both of us?” Windbrisk said. “Because I can fight, and Star is a court-trained wizard?”

“You won’t be fighting,” Discord said, covering his mouth in mock-horror. “What do you think Twilight would do if she even hints that her precious Harmonic Singularity is in danger?”

He didn’t wait for a response. “If you can destroy it, the princess won’t know her city’s protection is waning. This is the opportune time to, well… do whatever you feel is necessary. That’s the grim choice for you to make. But be warned, whatever course you take must be taken with great urgency, because there is no damage you can do that Twilight cannot repair.”

“You see the division of labor,” Ferris finished for him. “Kondrak and his ship will attempt to lure Twilight away. Even if they can’t kill her, they give you an opening to dodge Concord and reach the… Immortal City. I don’t know what that is, but I assume you do, Star?”

At her nod, he continued. “Meanwhile, Stygian’s Gate will focus on keeping this city’s population alive, and preparing for our confrontation with the princess. If we’re very lucky, she’ll be so busy hunting us that she never learns there’s a shelter still intact somewhere near Hollow Shades.”

“Not likely,” Wellspring said. Not exactly confrontational, just matter of fact. “Don’t forget, she has the Alicorn. Any one of us she met is compromised, our old safe haven is… meaningless now, I suppose. But the princess will have her sharing everything she knows about her own shelter.”

Kondrak’s frown deepened. “I will give her something else to think about. Given how vital your mission is, I’d like to assign one of my finest marines to accompany you.”

“A human?” Windbrisk muttered, raising an eyebrow. “Wellspring, I’m sure they’ve got vital contributions to the mission and all, but… humans aren’t changelings. Are we supposed to walk the whole way?”

“She’ll be transporting you herself, actually.” Wellspring didn’t sound very pleased about it, but at least she was confident. “Apparently they have ground transports almost as fast as you can fly. Which you… wouldn’t be able to do, given your company.”

“I could carry her,” he replied, without a second’s hesitation.

“Maybe, but there’s another going with you. A volunteer from the… Unification Army.” The Iron Lord rose from his seat, expression haunted. “Kondrak, you explain. Thinking about it makes me sick.”

Star didn’t hesitate, not nearly long enough for him to answer. “That isn’t how that works, Iron Lord. Respectfully… the Unification Army can’t be corrupted, persuaded, or cajoled. They can’t be tortured or pressured or tricked. There’s no possible way to sway them to our side, no matter how badly we want to, or how convenient having one of them would be.”

But even as she said it—obvious truths, so far as she was concerned—she thought of someone else. That strange soldier with ancient equipment. The one who had begged for the lives of the other Unification Army soldiers. If they could even be called lives.

“It’s the soldier you recovered, Star,” Kondrak said. “Your doctor and I had her under the knife during the last eight hours of the evacuation. After a regenerative graft to the—”

“Save it.” Discord banged one paw on the table. “We’re pretty sure we’ve repaired her brain. She’s able to communicate, recognizes where she is… and most importantly, she’s willing to help.”

“You’re asking me to fight beside one I thought was a traitor,” Windbrisk muttered. “I can accept that Star has proven herself. But now you’re asking for us to put one of the princess’s undead demons at our back? Or is the Doctor reporting that he’s somehow restored it to life?”

“Oh no, she’s quite dead,” Discord said, grinning wickedly at them. “Not even a full brain-scrape and cranial imprint can bring back the dead. Maybe a cyber-conversion, but we don’t have the hardware. Even if we did, what would be the point? As you say, every creature knows the Unification Army is beyond reproach. They are incapable of disobedience, entirely beyond suspicion. Consider that for a moment. Even a changeling can’t impersonate a Unification Army soldier. But now we have one.”

If we have one.

But as brave as Star Orchid was, she didn’t quite have the gaul to suggest that Discord might be wrong. Besides, the strange soldier had already seemed on the edge of lucidity before. With the other marvels Discord could accomplish, why not this?

“We’re prepared to deploy the LEV as soon as you’re aboard,” Kondrak said. “Assuming you decide to fight with us.”

Star Orchid would not have said yes for the Iron Lord. He was a stranger, and just now her stomach twisted at the sight of changelings even when it wasn’t his fault. I still have one hunting me, even now. Geist was probably aboard the Harrow, waiting for the perfect moment to silence her.

Discord might’ve claimed that creatures never left the Immortal City—but that wasn’t true. Some might not, but that was only because they’d been welcomed into that sacred land of immortals and perfect friendship. It was big enough for the thousands of creatures who hadn’t come back.

“I’ll go,” she said. “Hopefully the changeling hunting me will realize I’m gone and leave your city behind. If not… you should know that the deadliest assassin in Equestria is somewhere on this ship. Never trust a single creature to anything vital. You should probably keep a dozen swords in the core, more if you can spare them.”

“And if she’s going, I’m going.” Windbrisk rose from his cushion, walking past Star. “She came straight here from Concord, she won’t be safe on her own.”

Star turned to glare at him, but he was already leaving. I probably could use the company of someone who’s done missions like this before. If a non-changeling can survive in a whole world that wants him dead, then he can probably get me anywhere.

It took them less than an hour to prepare to leave. Even the waking spells she’d learned from Twilight herself were failing by then. Maybe an hour or two of dozing she’d managed while the Harrow was loaded just wasn’t enough to refresh her.

The LEV Kondrak warned about turned out to be something like the troop carrier they’d used to attack Harrow the first time, an intricate craft of white with gold trim. It was quite a bit smaller, with a crew section in front and a bunkroom in the rear—but since everything was sized for the towering humans, even that little space felt big.

Landon rose from her chair as they entered, seeming… quite a bit smaller than before. She wasn’t wearing her clunky armor, and without it she seemed quite a bit less intimidating.

The other passenger more than made up for the lack of terror, in any case.

She’d hardly changed since Star had seen her last, except for the pale bandages wrapped tightly around the back of her head. Now none of her mane was visible, which hardly helped her look normal.

She still has her life-support spell. It might be a good thing for her that she was coming on a mission like this—she’d need a fairly-skilled unicorn to keep magic like that running in the absence of Concord’s core.

She was a unicorn herself, for all that was worth. Star hadn’t actually seen her use that magic, and didn’t expect she would. Obviously she wouldn’t be able to power her own spell that way, even if she’d been one of the greatest mages ever born. Thaumic conservation was a ruthless mistress.

“I remember you,” she said. Her words were a little slurred perhaps, but also far more purposeful. “You saved my life. Who are you?”

You’re probably still loyal to the princess. You’ll take everything you learn with us and bring it right to her as soon as you get the chance.

Star glanced briefly over her shoulder to see what Windbrisk was thinking, and found him lingering outside. He shifted nervously from foot to foot, looking up at the pony only with nervous fear. “Get in here, bird,” she called, voice teasing. “Unless you’re saying a helpless pony mare is braver than you are.”

“You can’t call yourself that and have me believe it,” he answered, climbing up the steps. The door slid shut behind him, a contraction of somehow elastic metal that sealed away the last vestiges of light.

“You’re just going to ignore me?” the dead pony asked. There was annoyance in her voice as she said it—she was actually offended that Star hadn’t answered her yet. “Aren’t you supposed to be terrified? I’m an undead killing machine. Shouldn’t you be afraid I’ll snap or something?”

“Sorry, sorry.” Her ears flattened apologetically. “I’ve never actually, uh… You’re already saying more to me than any Unification Army soldier I’ve ever met. Most of you can barely manage more than repeating your orders, or reciting the same expressions over and over. ‘Move along please’, or ‘surrender or you will be killed.’ That kinda stuff.”

Without her armor, she barely even looked like a soldier. Her body was lean and withered, with a coat that was flat and waxy. I bet you can relate to how the Iron Lord felt. “I just wanted to thank you,” she continued, ignoring Star’s diversion. “I have not been able to… do that. It’s been so long, I…” She stuck out a hoof. “I would feel better if I knew.”

“My name is Star Orchid.” She took the offered hoof. “I’m not sure if I’m more or less of a traitor for saving you.”

The pony shrugged. “And I’m Sunset. Sunset Shimmer.” She sat back, chuckling to herself. Even her breath smelled like formaldehyde. “It’s been so long since I told anyone that. I always knew… but I couldn’t. Why?”

“You were nerve stapled, horse.” Landon walked right past them, settling in front of strange controls. They swiveled forward to accept her arms, covering much of her body. “Even before the whole planet went crispy, there weren’t many doctors with hands steady enough. It’s Captain Kondrak you should be thanking.”

“Him too,” Sunset whispered. “If it lasts.”

Chapter 33: Aries

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Jamie half-expected retribution to be waiting for her as soon as she returned to her quarters. She’d been too bold, and Twilight would send someone to remind her of her place.

Nothing happened, though. The princess didn’t even send guards in. The servants kept bringing her meals, though even Basal was subdued.

When the next day came, still there’d been no retribution for her, though something had changed. Whenever Jamie pressed her head against a wall, or lay down in bed, she could hear a persistent, grinding rumble. Concord is eating ground again. I hope it doesn’t find the shelter.

While all Epsilon’s plans had failed, at least one of its ideas was well-placed. Jamie had never learned where the shelter was concealed, so she couldn’t reveal it to Twilight no matter how many truth spells she used.

“Where is there to go in the palace?” Jamie asked Basal, once she’d finished with breakfast. “The princess gave me permission to leave yesterday. Is there anything worth seeing?”

Basal tensed at first, but seemed to relax as soon as Jamie didn’t ask about more forbidden knowledge. She’d now learned too much from the princess herself to have much hope of finding more anywhere else.

“In the palace? You’re in the center of Equestrian civic life, Alicorn Jamie. It would be easier to tell you what you can’t do in the palace.”

Jamie stopped her with an extended wing before she could begin. “Maybe you could just tell me what visiting tourists come here to see? I should probably just start there and work my way up. I don’t understand Equestrian society yet, so I think it makes the most sense to see it all in the same order you would.”

Basal sat back, looking thoughtful for a moment. “There are several things visiting ponies do here. Activities reserved for the most harmonious creatures. A changeling like myself would distract others from their worship.

“The royal sculpture garden is filled with rare and interesting plants from all over the world, with monuments to villains Equestria has defeated. The princess has a royal spa that she sometimes shares with her important visitors. Then there’s parliament twice a week, if you’re interested in politics.”

What does a dictator’s parliament do, anyway? “This confinement is going to drive me crazy,” Jamie said. “I think I’ll see the gardens.”

“Excellent choice, Alicorn Jamie. I wouldn’t miss the opportunity if I was in your hooves.”

Jamie rose, grinning weakly at her. “Good, because I don’t want to go alone. I need you there, for… servant-related matters. In fact, I order you to come. This is entirely against your will, and not at all your fault.”

“Oh.” Basal smiled up at her. She hadn’t looked this relaxed since the second day of the voyage. “I suppose I don’t have a choice. Give me a moment to prepare some refreshments for the trip.”

A garden sounded about as exciting to Jamie as anything else in the castle, which was to say that reaching it took more of her focus than when she actually arrived there. If Twilight had let her free to explore the castle at her leisure, then she wouldn’t turn down an opportunity to search as far as possible for an exit.

The soldiers outside didn’t make that task easy on her. As Jamie and Basal crossed the ramp together, one of the strangely armored soldiers approached her.

These were no less inhuman up close than they had been in Hollow Shades. Well, they weren’t human, but they didn’t seem alive like the other creatures she’d spent time with either. Every coat was gray, and the eyes reminded her of a shift-worker who had stopped doing anything but watch the clock until it was time to go home.

“You must bring an escort with you,” he said. His voice was stiff and somehow rehearsed, as though even this much talking was difficult for him. “Two ponies will join you until you return. You may not leave the palace.”

She nodded grimly. This was the real challenge she would have to overcome if she wanted to escape the palace—this and barely understanding anything about the civilization she was in. Even if she could get away, she didn’t know the first thing about how to hide out there. What would she do, try and reach the rebellion? How would she find them?

Don’t think about that now. One goal at a time, Jamie. She had to focus back on her immediate surroundings, or else end up completely overwhelmed.

“We’re going to the gardens,” she said. “We are not going to leave the castle.”

The pony—not a pegasus or a unicorn, but with batlike wings Jamie hadn’t ever seen before—just stared back at her, uncomprehending. Did I get off the script that easily?

“We’re going now,” she said awkwardly, walking slowly past him. “Feel free to send ponies with us.”

She took her first few steps away, and when he didn’t react, started off again, trailing a nervous Basal behind her.

Would the guards just give up and not send anyone? No, apparently. As she reached the barricade, a few separated from the group, falling into line behind her. A unicorn and an earth pony this time, though there was very little distinguishing them. They both looked and smelled like they’d come from an anatomy lab.

“I have a question,” she whispered, as Basal led them out of the vast space of floating rooms and towards a little metal gate near one wall. “Why are they all ponies?”

Basal raised an eyebrow. When she spoke, it was even more subdued than usual. “I don’t understand what Alicorn Jamie is asking.”

“All kinds of different species live in Equestria,” she said. “I’ve seen all the different ponies, I’ve seen changelings, griffons, minotaurs, and I’ve heard about dragons. But the only creatures I see in your army are ponies. Why is that?”

Basal glanced over her shoulder at the soldiers, wings buzzing nervously. But they didn’t seem to be listening. Jamie didn’t doubt that they would intervene if she tried to leave. But otherwise, they didn’t get close.

“I’m not sure. Maybe because they serve in the castle, the princess didn’t want any creature that wasn’t harmonious enough?”

Jamie shook her head stubbornly. “Can’t be that, you’re here.”

Jamie looked back at the guards again, searching for whatever had triggered her senses about them. There was some weakness here, maybe something she could use to escape. They all wore the same packs, the same armor, and carried the same weapons. They were made with the “most harmonious” creatures in Equestria, despite ending up like half-dead monsters on the other end.

If this was a racial supremacy cult, why would Twilight be giving the worst jobs to the ones she says are the purest?

Basal only shrugged. “I guess it’s too sacred for me to understand, Alicorn Jamie. You should ask the princess about it next time you’re together, maybe she can explain.”

“Maybe I will.” Jamie trailed off, silent as they crossed the castle grounds. She kept alert for every exit, though it didn’t seem like there were any. Every passage lead down into the underground castle, or up into unseen towers. If I could fly, I would just need an upstairs window.

“Do you think someone in the castle could give me flying lessons?” Jamie asked suddenly, splaying her wings. “I’ve been gliding in zero gravity tons of times, but that’s not the same as flight in an atmosphere. And I’ve never done it with bird wings.”

Basal nodded, apparently eager for the change of subject. “The princess has experts in every field on retainer. I think she probably studied with them a lot a few centuries ago, but now she knows everything and mostly they’re paid to sit around and do nothing. I know she has an aerobatics trainer.”

Basal lowered her voice to a nervous whisper. “You really don’t know how to fly, Alicorn Jamie? But you’re an Alicorn!”

Jamie sighed. “I would really like it if you stopped calling me that, at least while we’re together. Using my… species… before you address me is super weird.”

Basal looked away, eyes downcast. “Forgiveness, Jamie! What, uh… what title would you find more appropriate?”

“None,” she said. “I’d rather have someone I can talk to. You can keep doing it when there are other people around who would think you’re being disrespectful. Just not when we’re alone.”

They weren’t alone, there were still a pair of soldiers following them. But Basal nodded anyway. “I’ll try.”

At least Basal hadn’t been exaggerating about the gardens. Just outside the imposing palace of white and gold marble was a wrought iron fence maybe three meters tall, surrounding a garden larger than any park of Persephone.

It definitely felt more like a platform garden than any of the thick jungle she’d experienced while down in Hollow Shades. The path was soft moss, carefully trimmed and softer than any carpet against her hooves. It was sculpted into nearly natural curves, but had clearly been crafted to lead a visitor through the garden’s several structured sections.

Much of the plants she saw on display here were familiar to her, including little ornamental flowers popular as decoration in Persephone family suites. But there were other things—towering trees she’d only seen in photographs, and stranger animals that matched no fauna Jamie had ever heard of.

The gentle perfumes and perfectly organized colors would’ve made for more than enough to be worth visiting. But they weren’t the real center of the garden. Neither were the little streams and waterfalls that served as natural barriers between each area, or the hedges sculpted into pony shapes.

The real focus of the gardens were the sculptures. Each one was at the center of a display, with plants apparently specifically coordinated to each one. For a warlike zebra rearing back on his hind legs, the white and black roses had been alternated in neat rows, somehow remaining perpetually in bloom.

Equestria has gene tailoring?

With all Jamie’s time spent in the jungle of Hollow Shades, she couldn’t have said what season it was meant to be on the planet’s surface. How could Twilight keep plants from so many climates all simultaneously beautiful?

Each statue had its own bronze plaque, proclaiming the story of its owner in symbols that looked perfect even to someone who couldn’t read them.

“This was Zayd,” Basal read. “Separatist general from the southern Badlands. He refused to bow to Equestrian authority, and led his nation in rebellion against the princess. The war lasted for eighty days and eighty nights, until he surrendered.”

Jamie nodded, listening as politely as she had about the dragon statues. “This next one is really interesting, you’ll like it. Or I think you will? You seem to really like history, and I actually know some.”

Jamie followed Basal across the bridge, through sculpted evergreens punctuated with holes growing oddly in the trees. Some kind of bark-beetle infestation?

The next sculpture wasn’t up on a hill, but tucked away in a little stone grotto kept wet by the trickling river.

A pair of figures posed on a platform, captured in a moment of shock and confusion.

Jamie extended a wing, stopping Basal before she could launch into her explanation. “This garden is amazing, Basal, but there’s one thing bothering me.”

Basal looked up from the platform. She’d been cleaning it with one hoof, brushing away a few fallen needles around the plaque. “What is it, Jamie?”

“I’ve never seen plants arranged so well,” she began. “I’ve never seen such variety kept so perfectly healthy. It’s amazing.”

“I’ll tell the gardeners,” Basal said. “They’ll be pleased someone as important as you enjoyed it here. The garden was meant to be visited.”

“So you’ve got gene-tailored crops. You’ve got perfect climate control. Why didn’t you get a sculptor who made the statues look more…” She shook her head, looking up at the freaky bug creature. There were a few similarities to Basal, though they seemed mostly superficial. The wings were different, and those holes couldn’t be healthy. “Does Twilight not want her enemies to seem impressive? They’re all carved so weirdly.”

Basal tapped lightly on the side of the statue. This was the strangest of all they’d seen so far. In addition to the bug thing, there was a little pegasus pony at her hooves, barely older than a child. The platform was large enough to accommodate an even bigger creature, but instead there was only scraped gray rock.

“Carved?” Basal pointed up at the statute. “This is Queen Chrysalis, the first queen of the changelings.”

“Okay, so why wouldn’t Twilight want her defeated enemies to look powerful and imposing? If you beat someone pathetic and weak, that isn’t much of an accomplishment, is it?”

Basal only seemed more confused. “I don’t think most of them knew they were going to be turned to stone, Jamie. Even if they did, evil creatures probably don’t want to pose for Twilight’s garden.”

Jamie took a few seconds to take that in, eyes widening with shock and surprise. If it hadn’t been for her last few weeks, she would’ve dismissed the claim outright as simple superstition. But now things were different. Equestria really did have an army of the dead, and Concord flew through the air like an orbital platform ruled by an immortal Alicorn.

Jamie retreated from the statues, both wings spreading in sudden distress. “Why would anyone come here then, Basal? This is… horrible. Like a museum of corpses.”

“They aren’t corpses,” said a voice from behind her, so sudden and unexpected that Jamie’s whole body froze. She blinked, staring at the figure who followed them into the little cavern. No other visitor to the garden got anywhere close to the soldiers, but this pony walked right past them without the slightest hesitation.

They watched him pass, but didn’t do anything to stop him. They didn’t so much as touch their weapons as he stepped around them.

He was what Jamie imagined attractive must look to a pony, though that knowledge seemed mostly academic. Tall, muscular, with confident strides and a carefully cut suit. His horn was long and sharp, glittering like a shard of crystal where it caught the sunlight. “Forgive me, I don’t believe we’ve met yet. I’m Solar Lens. My family manages the princess’s estates. I heard we had an Alicorn living in the castle, but I wasn’t prepared to believe the story. You’re as remarkable in person as I might’ve imagined.”

He stopped just in front of her, taking her hoof while she was still stunned and kissing it. Jamie balked at the contact, frozen as the figure loomed over her.

He was lying, obviously. She was so much smaller than he was, without any of the maturity she’d seen from other ponies. But at the same time, it wouldn’t be right to just accuse him of lying. She would need to be at least a little diplomatic. What’s your game, horse?

“I’m Empathy,” she said. “Your rules are a little hard for me to figure out, but I’m working on it.”

She pulled her hoof free, in a way she hoped wasn’t too forward. “What were you saying about the statues?”

Solar stalked past her to the plaque, touching her shoulder with one hoof to prompt her forward. Where so many other creatures had acted terrified of her, this stallion only got closer by the moment. It was more attractive than any part of how he looked. “Well, Empathy. Strange name for a princess, I would’ve expected it to come after one of the higher virtues.”

He tapped the foot of the statue with a hoof. “While managing the princess’s estate, we’ve learned facts that aren’t widely known. Including the fact that the creatures here are not dead. They weren’t transfigured permanently—the stone only entombs them. Should the princess wish it, she could release them.”

“So it’s… torture?” Jamie suggested. She looked up into those wide, empty eyes. The first changeling queen, with sharp fangs and fury on her face. They were probably better off the longer she remained frozen. But even if she was as evil as she looked, was it right to keep her here, cursed to watch and never interact with the world around her?

Solar shrugged one shoulder. “I’ve never had the opportunity to speak to them. Perhaps they can see and hear us. I’ve heard whispers of rebellious creatures who come to beg for their help. Fools all—why pray to a god who failed? It’s better to serve the winning side. Is that why you’re here?”

Jamie raised an eyebrow. The princess had told her almost nothing about local politics, and little Basal had said could prepare her for this. But did she actually care if she made things worse for Twilight? How much could she do before the princess got upset?

“I don’t think that Princess Twilight would like me to talk about it,” she said flatly.

Solar paced past her, circling the statue. Jamie followed him, and realized there were other creatures lingering just outside the grotto. He had guards too, though they wore golden armor instead of the strange silver and equipment that the Unification Army carried.

But while the undead had let him pass, his own soldiers were kept waiting. Are you a prisoner too? Or just too important not to have protection?

“Of course I would never suggest that you should move against the princess’s will. Forgive my questions asked in ignorance. I only know that we’ve traveled suddenly to Hollow Shades, and at the present rate the Concord will soon overfly the hallowed foundation itself. Something truly remarkable must’ve happened there to prompt such a serious reaction.”

Jamie nodded. “It’s where I came from. I don’t know very much about Concord, or why the princess would bring it there. I’m sure she had a reason.”

“Indeed.” Solar lingered a moment longer, eyes settling briefly on Basal. His expression turned to disgust. “I have no doubt I’ll see you again sometime, Duchess. Perhaps next time we could meet somewhere with fewer… distractions.”

He turned, leaving before she even had the chance to reply.

Star watched the world blur past them outside the craft’s tiny windows. She had expected them to fly at the speed of the Hippocrates, crossing all the way to the Immortal City in a few moments.

She was wrong, though. They didn’t fly so much as fall off the edge of the Harrow, catching themselves only a few meters above the ground. That was where they stayed, gliding just above the trees. It was still faster than any pony could gallop, and maybe faster than a pegasus could fly.

Tap, tap, tap. Sunset’s hoof clicked against the table every few seconds, marking a perfect tempo just loud enough for Star to hear. She’d been doing that since Star climbed inside, and she kept doing it while they rode.

Much more importantly, it was also so small that Geist couldn’t possibly be hiding here. Aside from the stretched and alien Landon, there was only Windbrisk and the Unification Army soldier to keep her company. Though… it was probably wrong to see her that way. She’d been someone once, before joining the army. She was Sunset Shimmer.

It felt like Star ought to know that name from somewhere, maybe an obscure note in one of the histories she’d summarized at the princess’s request. But when she actually tried to think of where she’d read it, she came up empty.

But why struggle to remember the contents of her ancient studying if she could just ask? It wasn’t like they could go anywhere. And when we get where we’re going, there’s a good chance I’m just going to get us killed anyway.

“So, Sunset,” Star called, over the low hum of the engines. Landon was still in the pilot’s chair, though it had rotated back around for her to recline. Apparently the ship didn’t need her direction at all times, that had only been for the descent. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I’ve never heard of a Unification Army soldier who could ever, uh… who ever had any desire to fight against Equestria.”

Windbrisk had curled up across several seats, lounging there like a predator with nothing to hunt. Now he sat up, suddenly attentive.

For all that the unicorn was apparently restored, she hadn’t been doing very much of anything. Just sitting there, staring down at the table. The act of focusing on Star seemed to cost her, and she looked up only reluctantly. “I don’t want to fight against Equestria. I just don’t think that… what I’ve seen… is very good for Equestria. The human Kondrak, showed me what Twilight did to Canterlot, and the cities on the ground. It’s wrong.”

Were you recruited against your will, maybe? But in some ways, every creature who served Twilight did so because it was the only way. The princess had that luxury when she ruled the world.

“You expect us to believe you turned that easily?” Windbrisk asked. His voice was even the whole time, yet his eyes flashed gold and dangerous. He might not have a weapon in hand, but he might as well. “We killed dozens of you a few days ago, and you just kept coming. You’ll keep killing innocent creatures, but stop as soon as you see a few photographs?”

Sunset stiffened, rubbing the side of her bandaged head with one hoof. “Twilight said she had the secret,” Sunset whispered. “The spell Celestia never shared with me. But does this look like eternal life to you?” She stretched out one withered hoof, holding her leg out far enough that the end of the circulation tubes was visible sunk into her veins. The flesh Star saw there was gray and bloodless, stained slightly yellow by centuries of preservative liquid.

“She lied, and I didn’t even realize until Star saved me. Then the human surgeon… it’s so hazy. But I can think clearly again, for the first time in longer than you can imagine. There’s more than just numbers.”

“The princess promised that joining the army would bring you immortality?” Star asked. It was the same lie that thousands believed all across Equestria. No one ever got the remains of their slain children in the Unification Army. They served forever, long after their families had faded. “She told you that, herself?”

Sunset nodded, glaring down at the table. The more they interacted with her, the more she seemed to wake up. Remembering what it’s like to be alive, even if she’s not alive herself. “Are you saying I shouldn’t be upset? You’re right, I’d be long dead by now if she hadn’t. But that wasn’t the promise. I was Celestia’s student first.” She laughed, her voice bitter and strange. “Princess Celestia… thought I wasn’t good enough to be princess. But Twilight was. Twilight, queen of the planet.”

Windbrisk rose from his seat, stretching his wings and turning so his claws were constantly facing Sunset. Of course, he still had his own bandages from their encounter with Geist. But which was stronger—a forbidden half-breed, or an army traitor?

“You’re that old?” Star asked. “That would explain the spells running in that bag of yours. Probably saved your life. It didn’t fail with the others.”

“I’m very thankful,” Sunset muttered. “To you. I should’ve been an Alicorn like she promised. But she lied, and now I’m whatever this is. Not a lich, I’m not feeling any of the right spells for that. Too intelligent for a zombie even before. Revenant, maybe?”

Star could only stare back, increasingly baffled. Sunset spoke with such confidence, but if they were magic terms Star hadn’t learned them.

Landon cleared her throat, smacking a little metal cup onto the dining table between them. “This is all very interesting. But I was hoping we might have a conversation about our mission. Kondrak said the ponies thought this was supposed to be hard. I don’t know why, but I know my captain wouldn’t send me chasing superstition. Someone explain what this ‘Immortal City’ is.”

“Propaganda,” Windbrisk snapped. “A magical death-camp disguised as a religious monument.”

“That doesn’t sound like a place we need to go,” Landon said. “But clearly we’re going, so there’s something more at work.”

“It is a holy place,” Star agreed. “We’ve always believed that creatures who are pure enough can live there forever.” She winced as she said it, flushing as she felt Sunset’s eyes on her. If Twilight was a liar, she wasn’t a terribly inventive liar. “It’s protected by a powerful shield, which can only be opened in a few places. We can’t dig under it, or fly in over the barrier. We’ll have to use one of the checkpoints. And nopony knows what we’ll find when we get inside.”

“I do,” Sunset whispered, voice distant. “You’re talking about Twilight’s big project, before me. Ponyville is in there.”

Chapter 34: Venatici

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Twilight took each step slowly, conscious that each moment might bring some new danger. Some part of her had to keep that thought present with her at all times, fully aware that even a few steps out into the world imperiled her. Her power might be vast, her preparation exhaustive, but that didn’t mean she was invincible. The ones she fought had defeated an even more harmonious civilization before theirs, after all. Humans knew how to kill Alicorns.

It was rare for her to venture so far from the protection of Concord and its core—but just now it was imperative her troops ensured no survivors escaped. Word was already spreading of the defiance of Hollow Shades. If she didn’t turn that defiance into an example, it might one day become the first martyr in a revolution.

But if Twilight didn’t act, she would have to let an opportunity to eliminate the Devourers for good slip past her. That conundrum had only one solution: take a few risks. I owe Sunset that much.

She wouldn’t blunder in naked, though. In the days Twilight led great wars against the ancient evils of the world, she had made armor for herself after the fashion of Celestia’s own, hammered of thin thaumium inlaid with enchanted crystals with various protections.

There was a sheath along the back, where she held an awkward silver sword. No pony smith had wrought the weapon—its blade was crude, hammered of scavenged plates of strange metal. It held its edge better than any alloy Twilight knew, as sharp as obsidian while remaining as strong as steel.

Some parts of the world were too dangerous even for Concord to purify, and Steelbones Canyon was the quintessential example.

Here the very stone was poisoned, with a corruption that no spell could purify. As Twilight looked down over the canyon, she saw the corpses of ancient leviathans—monsters of metal that could’ve made dragons look puny. Now they were dead, and half-encased in many layers of rock. She could see some evidence of recent landslides, and there more of the monsters’ true flesh was exposed, sickly yellow and oil black.

Hundreds had died the last time Concord flew this way. While it was true she had verified personally that no human could live here for long, that didn’t mean they wouldn’t visit.

They had their own devices, sufficient to protect them for short periods just as Twilight herself was protected by a shield spell. What Twilight couldn’t protect, she had surrounded with spells.

These humans were particularly brazen, perverting her own loyal ponies to rebel, stealing a ship, then flying right for their own ruins like she wouldn’t be watching?

The Hippocrates hovered over the deepest part of the canyon, suspended with a crude and unsteady levitation spell. Were they not even watching for her? Didn’t they know what their intrusion would mean?

Twilight’s protection spells activated in an instant, without any input from her. One of the little crystals shattered, conjuring a barrier centimeters from her head.

A bullet froze there in the air, breaking into metallic shrapnel against the shield and steaming as it hit the ground. So maybe they weren’t quite as stupid as they looked. They were watching.

Twilight concentrated for a moment, then vanished from sight with a simple invisibility charm. While lesser creatures would leave footprints, or bleed heat into the air around them, she did neither.

She felt it coming more than she saw it, a rocket tearing the air towards her from the distant Hippocrates. But now she had line of sight, and a fair idea where the one who had tried to shoot her must be hiding.

Twilight teleported to the other side of the canyon, where an ancient skull of rusting steel gaped open from the cliffside. She watched invisibly as the hill she’d been standing on turned into a crater, showering molten stone down into the canyon. These might be monsters bent on the destruction of everything she’d ever built, but at least they were taking her seriously.

That’s only your pride that’s soothed, Twilight. If they see you as a danger, they’ll be harder to eliminate.

Like right here. Twilight’s guess had been right—there were a few reddish nets hung between two gigantic teeth, and a rifle resting on a swiveling metal tripod. There was no shooter, only a—

She couldn’t have possibly reacted in time. Something flashed, and another surge of energy rolled around her. It would’ve meant instant death, except that another fuse of her armor shattered, teleporting her exactly one kilometer vertically.

She fell for a few seconds, still dazed by the flash. It couldn’t have seen me. That must’ve been timed.

Despite the air rushing past her, Twilight Sparkle felt her breath catch in her chest. Someone had baited her into danger, and would’ve killed her if she weren’t so well-prepared.

Her enemy hadn’t blundered into these ruins to get themselves killed. Their starship hovering here was a trap, just waiting for her to spring it. If she turned around, all their preparation would be wasted. The canyon would poison them, or they would flee.

But not where I can get them. They’ll take that starship back up into orbit, out of reach until they go back to spreading disharmony.

Without their starship, they could never really escape her. There was nowhere on land or in the sky her troops wouldn’t eventually reach.

Twilight spread her wings wide, catching herself in the air. Sunlight blasted down around her, a reminder of the reason she fought. I’ll keep them safe for you, Celestia. I’ll do what you couldn’t.

Twilight began with the simplest strategy, albeit the least likely to succeed. She began the words to a spell, more powerful than anything any other creature could conjure. Her invisibility spell sloughed off around her, burned by the energy of her preparation.

Space itself curved as she finished her spell, aiming it squarely at the center of the ship. That was where the magic came from, the only thing holding it up. Without that, every creature aboard would perish in the fall.

Her eyes began to glow, her whole body illuminated as she briefly served as a conduit to something far greater. Harmony’s power, concentrated in the hooves of a single pony.

Then she targeted the ship, and let it loose.

Even expecting it, Twilight was momentarily stunned by the shock. The spell dissolved into the air around her in a terrible flash of light and heat, while the spell she held in her concentration was scrambled into meaningless gibberish. Blood trickled from her nostrils, running down her face.

“Force vector denied,” Twilight’s mouth muttered, against her will. “Force vector denied. Force vector denied.”

The hangover lasted for nearly a minute after. She let herself fall, gliding away from the canyon to break line-of-sight as fast as possible. Just because she’d come to this conflict well-prepared didn’t mean she needed to squander scarce thaumic resources. Each crystal in her armor took her best Royal Technicians weeks to craft.

She landed in a jungle of badly mutated plants, with nothing more complex than a cockroach skittering out from the rocks. There were birds, the corpses of anything that flew too close or stopped to drink the water here. But she might’ve mistaken the trees for normal, if they weren’t so lopsided and with splotches of different greens in their leaves.

You knew that wouldn’t work, Twilight. There are humans on that ship.

It was the reason the Regent of Equestria bothered with crude things like swords and armor, even though she had the power to command the daylight and tear mountains from the earth.

The Devourers’ great secret, their greatest perversion of all—magic couldn’t hurt them.

Twilight could, though.

She drew the sword, its hilt springing to life in a violent glow that matched her magic perfectly while not drawing any power from her. It was still linked to her, obedient to her will. But it wasn’t her magic.

As Twilight returned to the edge of the canyon, she found her enemy still hovering there, exactly as she’d left them. This time she kept her own shielding spell a single syllable from complete, in case she felt another attack coming for her. But whether because her flash had blinded their sensors, or just because they hadn’t seen her yet, none came.

It was far too dangerous to teleport herself into an unknown vessel, which was almost certainly a trap. They’d probably be expecting her to go right for their float core. Maybe they’d imprisoned unicorns there, strong enough to trap her in an antimagic field long enough to sink the ship with her still aboard.

She had to do something unexpected, something they couldn’t possibly be prepared for.

Twilight focused on the underside of the ship, where most vessels usually could open to receive supplies—and teleported herself there.

Twilight conjured her shield in that same moment, strong enough that the shell became fully opaque. In her mind, she was suddenly outside a very different vessel, bombarded by surface guns that turned the soldiers flying around her into reddish paste.

Twilight opened her eyes, lowering her forelegs from in front of her face. There were no guns—no place to put them, actually. The side of the Hippocrates was completely vacant, except for human writing in fading paint.

“HOSPITAL CARRIER HIPPOCRATES” it read, along with several familiar red symbols. So universal in fact, that Twilight could remember seeing them all over Equestria with very little alteration. I’ll have to do something about that. We can’t be inheriting corruption from the ancients.

She’d been wrong about the need for a shield, but right in her other guess. A section of the wall nearby was not perfectly uniform with the hull of the Hippocrates, but formed of a complex jointed assembly of flexible sections.

Twilight Sparkle took a moment to catch her breath, waiting to see if any other defenses were mobilized against her. Nothing appeared—no unseen windows opened, no gas sprayed from the side of the ship. Are they so desperate they think using the injured as a shield will stop me? A monster did not become suddenly kind just because it had broken a leg. If anything, it was an opportunity to eliminate a problem before it got worse.

Then Twilight swung, slashing into the metal with the sword levitating beside her. It bit deep, slicing along the junction. Where an ordinary blade would’ve done little but score it, this was wielded by an Alicorn, and strong enough to survive the abuse she put it through.

She swung again and again, until even the vicarious effort made her sweaty and breathless.

The door finally parted, grinding and sparking and a section fell past her into the void. The hole she’d opened wasn’t large, but it was big enough for Twilight to crawl through, past the jagged edge of angry steel to a vacuous cavity within.

In a way it looked like its own little dock, with railing high above and an empty space for her to fly through. It did say it was a carrier. Even so, Twilight wasn’t worried. If the Hippocrates had a smaller section, it was probably down in the ruins recovering whatever they’d come to steal. Even if it had fled hours ago, it couldn’t possibly be large enough to reach escape velocity. Anyone on it could run for a short while, but they would eventually be found.

So long as I destroy this ship, I can end this.

Twilight landed on an empty dock, covered with litter and debris. It did look like creatures had been here recently, if the trash and personal effects scattered here were suggestive. Not weapons and the blood of ponies they had tortured, either. There were clothes, plastic human books, children's toys.

More signs this is a trap, Twilight. They already evacuated. It’s time to turn around.

The last time Twilight had fought against the Devourers, she had a whole army of ponies at her back led by her best general. But she’d also been contending against incredible numbers, and thousands of years of evil plotting. What kind of princess am I if I can’t even sink one ship?

A security door waited in Twilight’s path, or maybe it was just an airlock. Either way, the door wasn’t human. She angled her horn, slicing evenly through the steel where it joined with the hallway around it. It wobbled on its side for a moment, before crashing down in front of her, buckling the deck and finally letting her through.

Alarms blared through the ship, along with the deceptively friendly voice of the ship’s automind. “Breach detected in docking bay two. Airlock fault in docking back two. Extreme chemical hazard detected! Please follow the flashing lights, and report to medical if you experience necrosis in any soft tissue within the next twenty-four hours.”

Twilight ignored the voice—she wouldn’t need its permission today, or any help finding where the lift-core operated. She wouldn’t necessarily need to fight any human warriors—their deaths could all come later, so long as she destroyed their ship.

Airlock doors closed ahead of her, with more warnings about the breach and hostile conditions outside. I was right, they can’t stay here very long either. At least she could settle that particular fear, and not need to worry that the forbidden technology flowing across Equestria was coming from here.

She sliced through two airlock doors, before realizing that they weren’t even trying to lock her out. She passed through a third, waiting for it to spray her with harmless white decontamination foam. Once she was through, the ship stopped resisting her.

Your automind isn’t half as smart as the Persephone’s, Hippocrates. Don’t you know what I’m going to do to you when I reach the core?

Something clicked, and a voice echoed from all around her. Not the genderless, emotionless automaton. In a way it was a welcome change. She’d heard enough simulated voices telling her it was time for her species to go extinct.

“There’s no point telling you to stop,” it said, a voice so deep she almost didn’t recognize it as speech at first. It must be low even for one of the monsters. “But I’ll suggest you should, anyway. You violate international treaty by attacking a hospital ship. But you’re already a war criminal.”

Could he hear her? The Twilight of centuries ago would have ignored it, focusing on her mission. It didn’t matter what the Devourers wanted. Their world was dead, and soon the last of them would be too.

This time she couldn’t help herself. “You’re honestly trying to play on my good nature, demon? How many innocent foals have you strangled? How many cities have you burned?”

“None,” came the reply, sounding so damn sincere. “I’m the captain of a hospital ship, Orbital Correction Agent 97. Until I saw what you had done to the world, I’d never even taken a life. You made me break my oath. When your tyranny ends, I’ll never be able to be a doctor again.”

The further Twilight got, the less refined the ship became. Instead of perfectly flush white panels, the engineering section had naked steel plates, and panels removed from the walls for servicing and just left on the ground.

The Hippocrates isn’t a warship. She can barely even fly anymore.

Twilight resisted the urge to drag her blade through all that exposed wire and pipes, severing as much of the ship’s spine as possible. But to do that would be to suggest she feared she wouldn’t be able to sink it from the core. She wouldn’t give the distant voice the satisfaction.

“That would mean more if you hadn’t left a trail of destruction behind you, Devourer. Hollow Shades is damaged beyond repair. Hundreds of Unification Army ponies were killed.”

“You killed them when you recruited them,” the voice answered, confident. “Look in a mirror, ruler of Equestria. Everything you touch turns to nightmares. Your citizens live in tyranny. You lead an army of corpses.”

“They aren’t dead,” she spat, her sword slicing through a bundle of glass fibers. There was no dramatic shower of sparks, just a bundle flashing uselessly, their lightspeed signals silenced. “They’re free of disharmony and evil forever. Perfectly loyal, perfectly obedient. Emotions you couldn’t understand.”

She was getting close now. Even unfamiliar with this particular design, Twilight turned into a much wider corridor, with doorways large enough for industrial equipment and a recessed track in the floor.

“CHARGED GRAVIUM IN OPERATION, EXTREME DANGER” the walls proclaimed. She ignored them, of course. There would soon be far greater dangers to all those cowering on this ship.

“Your solution is crude, but it was effective at preserving a significant percentage of the prefrontal cortex in three of your captured soldiers. I suggest a network-grafted neural restorative along with a lifetime prescription to an antirejection and anti-necrotic. The treatment showed considerable promise with our first volunteer. With regular therapy, they might even be able to return to their families.”

Twilight stumbled to a stop, eyes widening. She’d known from their first attack that these monsters understood the Unification Army far better than any she’d fought before. Had they become so evil they would openly admit to butchering her ponies? “They’re immune to evil forever,” she whispered, her sword drooping in her grip. “You can’t corrupt them, no matter how hard you try.”

The voice rumbled, a pained laugh she could barely even hear. “And for you, I’d recommend an introductory dose of antipsychotics and several months of in-patient therapy. Listen to yourself, Rogue. You can’t even rationally assess your world anymore. I’m trying to help you. If this ends differently than I expect, take the hardware on our fabrication deck and produce the curatives your people need.”

Then she reached it—a single heavy door, similar to the exterior docking bay, over a section of the ship covered with caution lines and red flashing lights.

This was somehow studier stuff than anything outside, even the Hippocrates’s reinforced hull. After resisting strikes from her sword, Twilight had to take a few moments muttering the words to a spell. It had to be very narrowly focused, to avoid the disruptive effect humans had on magic.

The door crumbled away, shattering into a dozen pieces that flew wildly through the room. A few collapsed and fell inward for a moment, before smacking up against the hallway behind Twilight. She felt the strange lurch of gravity as though the ground were suddenly behind her, and she was standing up against the wall.

She pressed herself downward with a harsher force, then advanced her way into engineering.

Signs of the Hippocrates’s haphazard maintenance were everywhere—toolkits left discarded on the floor, spare cable in spools or piled against the wall. From the patterns on the floor, Twilight guessed there were some parts of the room less vulnerable to the strange spatial warping of their levitation spell, and others that were safe.

A figure stood in one such spot, directly between Twilight and the core. His armor was an older model, dented and scratched and covered with little burns. It made the human within seem even larger, more like a mountain than a man.

His visor was up, and a pair of large eyes watched her as she approached. When he spoke, the voice came just from his armor now, instead of echoing from the ship all around him. “There’s still time to change your course, Rogue. Easier a thousand steps back, before your soul went so rotten. But I don’t think it’s impossible. Let your people go.”

The Hippocrates’s float core hung in the air behind him, about the size of a carriage. It was formed of a single sheet of chalky brown stone, a concave mirror that faced downward and constantly shook and twitched as a thousand little motors and actuators bent and deformed it with delicate metal rods. It sounded a little like an insect clattering over its surface, as little hisses and pops of compressed air worked the delicate machinery.

“I’m the only thing protecting Equestria from monsters like you,” Twilight said, advancing on him. Her magic couldn’t target him, but her sword would still cut. “Without my leadership, every pony would be rotting in the ground just like the ancients you murdered before us.”

The human was well armed, though he hadn’t drawn any of his weapons. He had an oversized tablet in his gloves, which he could only manipulate with crude taps from his gauntlets. “That was the Governing Intelligence, not me. The error that would have been obvious if it were a man. The machine couldn’t imagine it would create something that could care when its time terraforming was over.”

He slipped the computer back into a waiting holster on his leg. “We don’t have to fight anymore, Orbital Correction Agent. There’s enough planet here for all of us. You already destroyed the Governing Intelligence, it can’t hurt you again. Put down your sword.”

Twilight ignored him. There was still a part of her that welcomed such an inviting lie. There was nothing to fear, no more reason to fight. What a perfect world that would be, if only he was right. But humans were incapable of living in peace with other creatures. Incapable of even simple honesty.

“Why did you stay here, human? You can’t think you’ll escape from here. Every one of you I kill is less corruption spread over my planet. Did you really think you could trick me?”

“No.” He sounded so sad, exhausted with years he couldn’t possibly feel. “If someone wasn’t still aboard, you could destroy the Hippocrates from miles away, without ever stepping inside. It’s the ancient privilege of every captain to die for their crew, if the need arises.”

Every word she heard was another drop of acid in her brain. Obviously his sincerity was a ruse, his calm only a carefully constructed front. Humans were compulsively destructive, and even a polite conversation should be too difficult for them to maintain for long. Everything they did served violence.

“I’m going to take your ship away,” Twilight declared. “Once it falls, you won’t be able to wage war on Equestria anymore. No more fleeing to the low orbitals after your attacks. It will only be a matter of hunting down the other monsters you released into my kingdom. It won’t take me long.”

“We’ll see.” He met her eyes, little white pinpricks surrounded by dark skin. “Seven-Zulu-Orange-Romeo.”

Every drop of hesitation Twilight had been feeling faded in an instant, and she slashed violently at the human’s middle. He dodged with incredible speed, sparks showering from his armor, and the floor buckled under his legs. “You think it’s that simple, demon! You think I’ll keel over and die like my friends?”

She could still feel the stone against her face, see the skeletal robotic workers picking past Celestia’s corpse, wings splayed awkwardly in death. Twilight’s fury had kept her alive then, with a focus powerful enough to keep her heart beating. Now she barely even felt a twitch.

The human answered with a spray of bullets from his other hand, sending up pained sparks from the equipment against the wall. “Had to try.” His visor slid down, and bright red lights began to flash all over the room. Not a single alarm, though.

Twilight responded with a roar, her body following in relative stillness while the sword slashed and spun far more quickly than he could hope to respond. Each slash took metal with it, or sprayed bits of creamy white lubricant from the armor’s hydraulic strength-assist.

“I was going to let you go down with your ship, Captain,” Twilight called. “I’ve changed my mind. I’m going to take my time, make sure you’re completely dead. I don’t need whatever you think you know, I can interrogate your underlings. They won’t be nerve stapled.”

She backed him up against the wall, hacking away at him in little bits before finally stabbing right for his chest. The sword stuck there, magic grounding out as it sunk deep in human flesh.

The captain wobbled on his feet, dropping to one knee. Lubricant sprayed from the suit as he did, which whined and squealed with every little movement. “Was never… meant for this,” he croaked. Despite the pain on his face, despite the blood running from his lips, his eyes remained focused. “Lucky we didn’t have any gene-corps left.”

“You did before,” Twilight said, grinning as she closed on him. “Over a dozen, during the battle for the Persephone. They didn’t stop me, and now neither have you.”

The human twitched and spasmed, and Twilight took a reflexive step back. That armor could still crush pony bone with ease, if it had power left. But he wasn’t crushing her. In spite of his injuries, the captain brought both gloves together directly over the hilt of her sword.

There was a harsh mechanical sound, then an oozing drip as the wetware seeped out onto the floor. “Take my ship… I’ll have your… sword.” He wobbled, toppling over sideways.

As he died, Twilight felt another flash of heat, far too sudden to react. Every last crystal in her breastplate shattered at once, spraying her chest with shards of thaumic residue.

She vanished, ripped a kilometer up into the air, then another and another in quick succession as a fireball hotter than the sun chased her faster than the speed of sound. Her shield went completely opaque to protect her eyes, with enough spent magic that she could do little more than hang there, dazed.

Eventually she had gone far enough that the shield went transparent again, and she could see the place where the Hippocrates had been. A towering cloud of molten light rose from that place, flattening as it struck the upper atmosphere.

Dead man’s switch. Killing him was part of the bait.

Twilight’s breastplate crumbled away from her body, thaumium going chalky white as it tumbled into the high air. Every last protection spell she’d invested in it was gone now—but the armor wasn’t wasted. By saving her life, it had also saved Equestria.

The princess remained there in the upper air, watching as the Steelbones Canyon got a little wider and a little more poisonous. At least she wouldn’t have to waste any more Unification Army soldiers scouring the place—if the poison wasn’t enough to kill any humans below, that explosion certainly had.

He was willing to die to protect his friends. Isn’t that loyalty? Selflessness? Twilight dismissed the thought with fury over her stolen weapon. The Devourers were barely living to begin with. His death had probably been a relief, knowing he would be stealing from her.

Now to find the rest of them, and make Equestria perfect forever.

Chapter 35: Auriga

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Star couldn’t say how long she slept aboard the not-train and not-airship. Probably at least a day, with how long she’d been fighting sleep to keep working. But if anywhere was going to be safe from Geist’s reach, it would be aboard a Devourer vehicle speeding far away from the Harrow. It was hard to imagine doing any better.

But then she woke, and they were still moving. That put some limits on how fast they could be going, given she knew how long to expect travel to the Immortal City to take.

She dragged herself to the little bathroom, and spent a few minutes staring at the thing she guessed was a Devourer shower. She probably would’ve been amazed to find such luxury in something so small, if she hadn’t spent some time living with the rebellion in the Undercastle. But building things with Darktech was part of what made the Devourers so dangerous.

Sunset Shimmer waited outside the bathroom, watching her with unblinking eyes. The smell of preservative solution hit her nose like a punch compared to the Devourers and their fragrant soaps.

“I didn’t want to bother you,” she began, shifting nervously to one side so the saddlebags faced her. “But I think this thing is running out.”

It probably was, Star realized. At least two days had passed since she first charged it, maybe three. She nodded, stiffening at the drain she anticipated. “Sure, Sunset. It would be easier if we can find other unicorns to help with this down the road. But I can do it.” She reached down, and nearly pulled back from opening the satchel. It was a death sentence every time she did it, nevermind everything else she’d done to betray the princess.

She opened the side, exposing the spell’s ancient machinery. The glow was feeble, and fluid pulsed sluggishly through the filters. “You could tell?”

Sunset nodded gravely. “It feels like getting tired, except you can’t sleep. No spirit to touch the dreamlands, I guess. It’s probably related to giving up our cutie marks, but that was never my area. Ask Starlight.”

Star wasn’t sure who that was, and focused her attention on the spell. Windbrisk appeared in the hallway, watching silently. But he didn’t interrupt, and Star managed to finish her spell.

Her horn flashed, then she stumbled back, breathing heavily. She leaned against the wall for support, and in so doing felt what she should’ve already realized. We aren’t moving anymore.

“Much better.” Sunset reached around, levitating the armored case closed. “Thanks, Star. I don’t remember ever feeling tired when I served the princess, but… I don’t remember very much of anything. I think… I was proud, of everything I’d done. But that could be something else.”

Windbrisk cleared his throat. “The human wants to talk to you,” he said. “We’re close, she wants to come up with a plan.”

“A plan,” Sunset repeated. “For the Immortal City? So you all still don’t have a clue what you’re facing? That’s fantastic.”

And you do? Star brought up the rear as they returned to the not-ship's central living area. Ellie Landon already sat at the head of the table, which was covered with images. Images of the Immortal City, as though taken by a passing pegasus from above the highest clouds. An incredibly detailed map.

“I hope you had a chance to rest,” she said, without looking up. “We’re going to need everyone at their best to crack a hard target like this.”

“I thought that was why we brought her,” Windbrisk said, flicking his tail back towards Sunset. “She can fool the Unification Army, letting us walk right in.”

Sunset settled down on the other side of the map, her movements formal and crisp. “That’s true, I can fool the Unification Army and get us in. With the possible exception of the demonic horror bent on destroying all life on Equus, which would probably set off some red flags.” She looked back at Landon timidly. “Err—no offence.”

The human’s expression was unreadable, though Star couldn’t have said if it was something about all humans, or just because she was a soldier. “We do not want to harm any of you. If we wanted a war, we could’ve left you to your own devices. There was no need to give you a ship, the Rogue would’ve destroyed the resistance when she arrived. Our actions do not lead to the conclusion that we have any hostile intention towards you.”

“Unless you don’t think you can fight any of us on your own,” Star said, joining the table. She kept her voice level as she spoke, there was no need to start an emotional argument right before beginning a dangerous mission. But she wasn’t going to throw away everything she’d ever known without at least investigating it. Why would Twilight bother lying about the dangers of the Devourers? Something had to justify the horrors she inflicted on Equestria. “Hypothetically, I mean. You could be trying to pit us against each other so we waste resources and we’re easier to fight. Rebellion vs ponies, ponies die either way.”

Windbrisk eyed her, sitting down just out of reach. “If you believed that, why did you do so much to help them? Wellspring didn’t force you. You could’ve run away whenever you wanted.”

It would’ve been easier to answer if it was just him. But the others would be on their mission too, so avoiding the question probably wouldn’t help. “I’m not saying I think they’re really out to kill everypony. But I spent my whole life in Concord. There’s good historical evidence we fought Devourers before. They tried to kill everypony long ago. There are some artifacts left over from back then.”

“The Umbra,” Sunset Shimmer whispered, voice cold. “When Alicorn magic failed. The skies turned black, poison rained, earthquakes shook the foundations of cities. If you listen, you can still hear the screams.”

There was deadly silence in the car. Windbrisk and Star watched Landon. Her expression was impassive. She wasn’t trying very hard to deny it, though.

“Look, I’m not the one to explain all this. I’m going to do my best with five minutes, and you all are going to cooperate with our mission, okay? It doesn’t matter if you hate me—you all agree the world is better off without a sociopathic dictator running it. So whether you believe me or not, you should be willing to fight beside me. If I can’t get that promise, we’ll scrap this whole thing. My people can go back to high orbit, and sleep a few decades while we wait for another shot. Can yours?”

Only Sunset was brave enough to answer. “I won’t promise to help you if this is the first step in killing everypony. But don’t try to lie to me, Landon. I was there. I saw the old princesses die. You can’t tell me you didn’t try to wipe us out. Without Twilight, you might’ve gotten your way.”

Landon sighed, reaching down one side of the table. Star stiffened in horror, preparing a reflexive shield spell—but instead of a weapon, she tossed something flat onto the table between them. A screen, showing Equus from above. Except it was the planet as she’d never seen it. It didn’t look so much like a green and blue ball of life as a metal sphere, with layers out in overlapping sections that passed slowly over one another. Only very rarely did openings appear, giving her a brief glimpse of ocean or rocky continent below.

“Ask Kondrak if you want someone to get all philosophical about this. He could give you hours about the deep sins of humanity and all the ways we create our own hells. But fuck all that, here’s the short version:

“Long time ago, this planet was all humans. Something bad happened… I don’t know what, but everyone knew the world was gonna die. We saw it coming a long way off, like centuries off. We prepared. Lots of people left, some dug real deep holes to hide in, some tried to stop it. But some—the smartest ones of all—built a machine to fix things once it all went tits-up. We didn’t have the time to get very specific with that AI—far as I know, we just told it what we wanted the world to be like, and told it to wake everybody up when it finished.”

Windbrisk nudged her with one claw. “Is that what they taught in Canterlot? Devourers came around before us?”

She nodded, remembering those ancient skulls preserved in glass. “Before us. The princess thought we had ancestors from then too. They were bigger and stronger than we are, more harmonious and purer. But they’re the ones who made the Devourers.”

Landon laughed. “If you mean horses, that’s hysterical. But let me finish. Figure out if you’ll believe me when I’m done, if you want to. Point is, the thing that ran this huge machine was called the Governing Intelligence. Smarter than anyone who ever lived, with the scans of the best terraformers and engineers and scientists all churning away on the problem. I don’t know what the hell it was thinking, but the solution it came up with was you. Well… after thousands of years of doing other things. After that it made you. Well…” Her eyes briefly settled on Windbrisk. “I don’t know if it designed you, you seem more emergent. But I’m not a biologist.”

“Made us,” Sunset said, her voice flatter than Landon’s. But she did have a thousand years of practice acting like an emotionless killing machine. “You expect us to believe that? And… I guess it’s okay if you kill everypony, since you made them first? You’re just… taking it away again.”

“No, no.” Landon fidgeted in her seat, digging something out from beside her. A knife, longer than anything a pony would use. Sunset jumped to her hooves, sliding away from the table. Windbrisk scooted away, eyes going wide. Star remained where she sat. A knife couldn’t hurt her, not while she had the magic to push it away. “Chill out you two.” She set it on the table, handle facing Star. “I know you won’t believe me. If we’re going to have a working relationship, you need to know I tell the truth. You need to be able to trust when I tell you to do something, and not be wondering when I’m going to betray you, or lie to you.”

She spread her arms, grinning wider. “Star, your name was? Could you please use your magic to stab me with this knife. Lift it up and gut me. Or try and throw it, either way.”

“Because it won’t cut your uniform?” Sunset didn’t sit down, but at least she hadn’t attacked. Then again, she didn’t have a weapon of her own. Whatever Kondrak had done to heal her, he hadn’t left her with the standard Lightlance. “We won’t be fooled by magic tricks.”

Landon groaned, unzipping her uniform right down the middle. She pulled it away, exposing her chest. There was another set of garments under there, probably supports for the grossly oversized mammaries weighing Devourers down like bulbus weights. “Right here,” she said, tapping her bare skin with one hand. “Stab me, Star. I’ll be fine, promise.”

“I would be too,” Sunset Shimmer said. “Don’t bother, Star. It doesn’t prove anything. Except maybe that the Devourers are undead. That does begin to explain how the leader knew enough to help me…”

Star levitated the knife up into the air, testing the weight. She brought it closer, then jammed it down into the table. It dug straight through the map, grinding against the metal table before she stopped pushing. “Not enchanted,” she said. “Or a trick.” She spun it back around, facing Landon. “Are you completely sure about what you’re asking? You want me to stab you in the chest?”

“With your magic, yes.” She let go of the shirt, lifting a free hand between herself and Windbrisk. “Before you say anything, no I don’t want you to attack me with your claws or bite me. We aren’t invincible, that’s not what this is. Just watch her.”

Windbrisk sat back down cautiously. But he hadn’t ever seemed as afraid of her as Sunset. “Maybe you should aim for her arm instead, Star. If this doesn’t work, we don’t want to kill the ride back by mistake. Our new allies wouldn’t be happy either.”

Star nodded. “Hold out your hand.” Landon obeyed, looking serene. Star had seen crazy ponies before, unafraid of violence. But few creatures could face pain like this without even a hint of fear. She thrust forward with the blade, aiming for Landon’s hand.

A wave of terrible nausea washed across her, shattering her concentration and making her flop sideways in her seat. She hacked and coughed, fighting back bile rising from her throat. She probably would’ve lost her breakfast if she’d eaten something. She heard the others shout, Sunset’s voice louder than Windbrisk’s—but she couldn’t make out the words.

Star sat up slowly, wiping slime from her mouth with the side of one leg. “W-what… what the hell was that?”

Sunset’s eyes were on her, intense. “It was an evil spell, right?” she asked, leaning in so close her formaldehyde breath made Star feel like she would start coughing all over again. “I think I remember these. Some kind of… evil curse they wore.”

“There’s no curse,” Landon said. “The thing you call magic, I couldn’t do if I tried. You’re interacting with machines built specifically for you—my body doesn’t respond.” She sat back in her chair, zipping up her shirt. “It was part of the design. The same machines that make your magic work won’t let you use it against humans. Well… that was the theory. Obviously your princess has proven it wasn’t an insurmountable goal. You can try again if you want, Star. Just… please, only use magic. If your friends grab that knife and stick it in me, I’ll bleed and die the same as you. It only works on magic.”

Star lifted the knife again, and her stomach clenched reflexively. She fought it, and in a few seconds the pain passed. It hadn’t taken her magic away. She twisted the knife back through the air, pointing it towards Landon. This time she calculated her spell, charting a path to throw it into her arm.

The spell fizzled, and she slumped forward to the table. The knife clattered limply beside her, and words screamed into her head, booming over and over. “Force vector denied. Force vector denied. Force vector denied.”

“That’s probably enough.” Landon scooped the knife off the table, holstering it on her belt. “Don’t push too hard, kid. I’ve seen a unicorn fry his brains crispier than a chicken sandwich trying that for too long. It will kill you before it works.”

Windbrisk slid along the bench beside her, resting one claw against her back. Star relaxed, letting the strain of the failed magic fade. A little blood trickled down her nose, spreading the taste of iron in her mouth. She felt disoriented, but other than that…

Was the Iron Lord protected the same way? She’d never tried to kill him, but come to think of it Discord had been the one to cut into him. He had no magic anymore, so his claws did all the actual work.

“The Governing Intelligence made you all to rebuild the planet for us. Think about it for a second: ponies are split in three groups. Ground ones rebuild the biosphere. Flying ones clean the air and stabilize the weather. Your magical ones organize and repair the infrastructure. Great plan, except for one thing.”

“We fought back?” Sunset asked. “When your ‘intelligence’ was through with us, it tried to wipe out Equestria. But we weren’t going to curl up and die for you.”

“Well yes, but actually no.” Landon sighed, folding her arms across her chest. “None of us wanted to kill you, pony. We didn’t want you to exist in the first place. But the Governing Intelligence didn’t care about lives. It made you smart probably because that was the fastest way to do its job. It didn’t care that you’d made something of your own in our dead world. It didn’t care about your lives, because when we made it there was only one kind of life that mattered. Otherwise, you guessed right. You finished terraforming for us, and it was time to get our planet back. The intelligence tried to get rid of you and make room for humans.

“That’s when you didn’t want to die. I don’t fucking blame you. I’d fight too.”

“Your kind did fight,” Sunset muttered. “Against us. I may not remember much, but… I remember being up there. We were up higher than any pegasus could touch, fighting an evil in the sky. You seemed just as happy to kill ponies as your machines.”

Landon made a dissatisfied sound. “Now you’re talking about my grandparents. Ordis Mundi—they didn’t know what any of the machines were doing. When ponies showed up to kill them, they didn’t know why. Your princess murdered women and children like animals. They didn’t come to hunt you—they fought for their lives, and they lost. The Hippocrates got away, but nobody else did. We’ve got the recordings to prove it, too. When we get back to the Hippocrates, come with me to the archives and I’ll show you. If you’re okay watching the Rogue’s army killing kids.”

Sunset finally fell silent, looking to Star in desperation. “Your magical senses haven’t dulled like mine. Is there really no curse on her, protecting her from magic?”

Star could barely focus, but she didn’t need a spell for this. She could already answer. “There’s no magic coming from her,” she said. “I can’t feel anything.”

“I’m sure you’re telling the truth,” Windbrisk declared. “The Iron Lord didn’t know anything about ponies. The longer he lived with us, the more he showed his ignorance. I spent a long time in his company, and never smelled a lie. But… how can we work together, Landon? If your ruler demands that you kill every creature, that sounds like the tyrant stumbled into a truth in all her atrocities. We really can’t coexist.”

“Except for two things.” The human held up her fingers. “One, we don’t give a shit what the Governing Intelligence demands. It controlled us because most of us were asleep. I don’t have any problem sharing the planet with you guys. You’re cuter than most of the people I know. Also, your princess killed the Governing Intelligence, so we don’t have a leader anyway. Closest thing we have left is Kondrak, and you’ve met him. He’s a doctor first—doesn’t like killing anyone. He saved her.” She nodded towards Sunset. “Even though we had nothing to gain and would likely only waste irreplaceable medical resources doing it. The only reason you can think to be upset is the implant we put in your skull. Helping you think and all, after the Rogue deep fried your brains.”

“So Devourers—humans, want… what, exactly?” Star asked. “Ponies serving you, the way we were created?” Even saying those words made her sick. It couldn’t be true, obviously. Even if she still couldn’t hit Landon with any magic. If she gave it enough time, she’d probably figure out some other explanation.

But she hadn’t yet.

Landon shook her head. “There’s a homicidal dictator flying her earthmover around murdering all the sleeping humans we buried. Emergency shelters—there were thousands of them once. Now who knows, maybe none. We’d settle for having somewhere to live again, without worrying about invasions. You ponies keep doing your thing, and we do ours. After being hunted to extinction, your standards get really low.”

It sounded so reasonable when she put it like that, except of course that she admitted to wanting to kill the one person Star had grown up worshiping. “Do you think…” she began, voice tentative. “Do you think maybe the princess never knew? Like… this whole thing could be a misunderstanding. If she knew that humans didn’t want ponies dead, that it was just the machine… the fighting could just be over.”

It wasn’t Landon who answered, though. Windbrisk gestured at the map, new hole and all. “Star, maybe that was true centuries and centuries ago, but the princess you know is evil. She does to hippogriffs the same thing humans tried to do to ponies. She’s no better than their machine. I think if there was any chance of changing her, it died centuries ago.”

“She lied to me,” Sunset added. “I’m not ready to believe that ponies were… machines built by an evil computer. But otherwise, I agree she’s the one we should be fighting. Look what she did to me. Look what she does to thousands of ponies. No offence to the hippogriff, but you’re lucky she only kills you. At least she didn’t turn your corpses into puppets to murder more of your friends when you were gone.”

Windbrisk looked like he might argue, but then he just turned back to the map. “We agree we’re fighting for the same thing,” he finally said. “Sunset, you said we don’t know what we’re up against with this place. Tell us what we’re up against.”

The rest of the day passed without much fanfare for Jamie. The princess hadn’t given her any assignments, nor had she warned her about more upcoming torture. She took the opportunity to explore as much of the castle as she could.

Whether she was searching for weaknesses they could exploit while attacking the place, openings to escape from—or just getting to know her new home—Jamie didn’t know yet. Some combination of the three?

At least getting out and exploring the palace meant she wasn’t alone—every part of the building was packed with creatures, many of which dropped everything when she approached and tripped over each other to make her feel welcome wherever she went.

The castle did have a spa, enough to make even Persephone’s facilities seem impoverished. There was a banquet hall on standby at any moment, ready to satisfy her with any meal she required. She could go basically anywhere in fact, except into Twilight’s personal tower, or underground into the place Basal just called the “dungeons.”

“There’s nothing worth seeing down there,” she said, steering Jamie away from a spiral staircase. There were no guards on this one, no sign at all that she wouldn’t be allowed. “How about sports? There are lots of activities to do, you could pick one of those!”

She might’ve accepted doing something else, but using “sports” as an argument certainly didn’t convince her. Yet when she took another step towards the stairs, this time her escort finally seemed to notice. Armor shifted as they readied weapons. None spoke, but maybe they couldn’t. Or maybe the threat was supposed to be enough.

Jamie took a step back from the stairs, and they relaxed. “Maybe you could just tell me what’s down there? What’s not worth seeing?”

She spun slowly back around, hoping to catch a useful look at the guards. But the robot-people showed no sign of aggression, or even interest in what they were saying. Maybe they couldn’t understand the conversation.

“Like I said.” Basal nudged her shoulder, pushing her away from the stairs. “Nothing interesting. The spells that keep Concord running are under the palace. If somepony with lots of magic and not a lot of training went down there, they could damage something—knock the city out of the sky without even meaning to.”

“Oh.” She blushed, ears flattening. “Is magic that dangerous? Am I going to hurt people with…” She looked up, eyes settling briefly on her little stub of a horn. Without the help of a mirror, she could only really see the tip emerging from her mane. She could probably hide that with a little creative hairstyling. She’d have to let her mane grow out a little more.

“Is magic dangerous?” Basal’s eyes widened in obvious disbelief. “That’s an interesting question from an Alicorn. How can you not know?”

Crap. Jamie hurried past her, choosing a random direction. “Forget I asked, Basal. I’d rather not focus on all the things I’m terrible at. Believe me, if we went down that road, we’ll never do anything else.”

The soldiers fell into line behind her, before Basal had even started moving again. At least she hadn’t chosen another forbidden direction. She’d have to keep an eye out for other ways down. Anything severe enough for the guards to stop her probably led to a way out, if she explored it thoroughly enough.

Jamie skidded to a halt as the ground under her hooves began to rumble. Distant cracking and grinding sounds grew louder, until every other sound in the palace was covered up. She turned, wobbling slightly on her hooves as she looked for Basal. “Uh… please tell me I didn’t just sink the city by thinking about it. Magic isn’t that powerful, is it?”

Basal shook her head once, apparently unaffected by the noise. “No Jamie, the city’s not sinking. We’ve just settled into position to dig deeper, instead of scraping away at topsoil. Bedrock is a lot louder, that’s all.”

The soldiers didn’t seem to mind the noise either, though there wasn’t much of anything that seemed to affect them. Her ears perked, pointing her towards a nearby fork. The noise came from everywhere, though it was the loudest by far in that direction.

She set off, breaking into a trot. She slowed for a moment until she was sure the soldiers were keeping up. She didn’t want to make it look like she was trying to escape. “Why does Concord do this?” she asked, as soon as Basal appeared beside her. The changeling flew to keep pace, her transparent wings buzzing into a little green blur. “Are you mining? It seems needlessly destructive.”

Basal looked away. “If you’re asking the reasons for the princess’s choices, those are beyond my understanding. I’m a humble insect, not fit to stand in her presence. She might choose to illuminate you if you ask.”

Jamie slowed, as much because she was annoyed as because of how much louder things were getting. She recognized this hallway, she realized. This was the castle’s hollow, central chamber, where her quarters floated over a chasm. Of course she should’ve expected it to be the loudest—that hole had to serve some purpose.

“Come on, Basal.” They weren’t the only ones in the hallway, though nopony else dared interrupt her. Jamie didn’t have to worry much about keeping her voice down with the low thunder-rumbling of rock splitting, and the grinding not much further away. “Ponies must have some idea about what it’s for. Are you not allowed to guess?”

“N-no,” Basal sighed. “But it would be a guess. Nopony knows for sure, and if I was wrong—you might repeat my mistake to the regent.”

And she would blame you for it, Jamie finished for her. Right. “Between us, then,” she promised. “I know you’re just guessing and you could be totally wrong. What do ponies guess it’s for?”

“It’s well known the least-harmonious creatures live underground,” Basal explained. “Diamond dogs are greedy and shallow, unable to care about anything but themselves. There’s changelings, which… used to be that way. Before the princess and the Exemplars reformed us, long ago. Then there are the, uh… Devourers.” She twitched nervously as she said it, as though she expected someone to hit her.

Jamie didn’t. Humans. “So Concord is trying to kill every settlement that might be hiding underground? Wipe out resistance?”

“There’s no resistance to Harmony,” Basal snapped, so fast Jamie was sure every word was memorized. “All creatures accept the regent’s divine rule.”

“But maybe it wasn’t always that way,” Jamie prompted. “So Concord flies over the whole planet, digging down…” Most shelters weren’t even five hundred meters down. Even the best shelters only went down a kilometer or so. But if Concord can get through more than that, it’s stronger than the worst tornadoes.

“You’re asking the wrong creature,” Basal said, stiffening again. “The regent can explain, if she wants to.”

Jamie didn’t go to ask her, even if she could’ve. She followed the sound a little further, where her tunnel opened up into the gigantic chamber of the palace.

Her own floating quarters were still there, though the rooms that weren’t in use had all risen to float much higher, up near the ceiling.

There was no railing, but Jamie approached the edge as close as she could, both wings spread even though they would do her almost nothing if she slipped.

A faint purple glow shone down from overhead, getting darker and darker as it approached the ground. In that light, chunks of stone larger than light rail cars came, rising through an almost liquid sea of sand and gravel and dirt.

Most of them didn’t reach the palace level. Stone rose up towards Concord, becoming briefly transparent as it approached—then continued on past the edge of the field to plummet away.

The loudest noise she heard wasn’t from the city at all, it was the ear-splitting crack of stone striking the ground.

A few rare chunks did continue up into the space the unused rooms had vacated, and Jamie’s stomach turned as she saw them.

Rusty metal sheets, parts of brick walls, half a market stall. That had been Jamie’s favorite place to eat in Hollow Shades, with veggie wraps that almost tasted fresh.

As she watched, stone monuments began to rise up through the foam, paint blasted away in random patches from the dirt and collisions. The Exemplar monuments from outside the Hall of Justice. Did that mean…

It wasn’t just structures that had been broken by the terrible force of Concord’s touch. Half a pony floated up past her, one eye still frozen in the horror of death. It was soon joined by others. There was the factory lead who had taken Jamie for her first job. Here an elderly old stallion who wished her good morning every time she passed him, regardless of the time of day.

Jamie collapsed, clutching her gut as she lost her banquet-style dinner all over the floor. She coughed and spluttered, gasping for breath. But just looking away didn’t hide the viscera from her mind.

“It’s terrible, I know,” said a voice from overhead. A single feathered wing rested on her back, as gentle as one of Shy’s hugs. “The lives we must sacrifice to keep Equestria safe are unacceptable. When we finally find the enemy requiring such terrible things, we will extract vengeance for everyone.”

Twilight loomed overhead, a few feathers burned and body covered with blood and bits of half-melted metal.

Is this when you let me die with them?

Chapter 36: Vulpecula

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The princess loomed over Jamie, looking as much like death as the city dying just behind her. “Get up,” she instructed. She was barely even loud enough to be heard over the cataclysmic explosions of rock behind her. Yet somehow, she remained totally calm.

Jamie rose, wiping the rest of the slime from her lips with one leg. Her whole body shook in the princess’s presence—but she didn’t run. She wasn’t going to die feeling like a coward in her final seconds.

“You lived in Hollow Shades,” the princess continued, urging Jamie forward with a wing. Not off the edge, but along the palace. Now Jamie knew the purpose of the ramp—walking it took them past the remains of whatever was destroyed below. There was some organization here, with some things rising while others sank. But Jamie couldn’t look without seeing the corpses, making her look quickly away again. “How long were you there, a month?”

She nodded. “About a month, Princess Twilight.” That smell on the princess, that burning mixed with a faint touch of cherry. That was synthoil. Were you crawling around in old starships? At least if she focused on the princess, she didn’t have to see the horror behind her.

“Then you’ll feel the same rage I do, that this was necessary.” She stopped abruptly, turning Jamie’s head with one leg, forcing her to look. From up above, everything taken from Hollow Shades was below—bits of structures on one side, with the dead together on the other. “Look at what the Devourers have done. At the last census, there were five thousand six hundred twenty-six creatures living in Hollow Shades. That’s five thousand six hundred twenty-six more lives ended because of the Devourers’ corruption.”

More dead eyes stared up at her. A librarian, a street vendor, the monks she had met only briefly in the Hall of Justice. Even worshiping the princess’s religion hadn’t been enough for her to spare their lives.

“Princess, Concord killed these creatures, not the Devourers. All we had to do to save them was fly your city anywhere else in the world.”

She’d known it was the wrong thing to say before she’d even opened her mouth. But while Jamie could keep her head down to avoid torture just fine—how could she watch Twilight murdering people and pretend it was humanity’s fault?

“Is that what you think?” Jamie’s body lifted suddenly off the ground, in a glow not unlike the one that had killed many of the creatures below. But Twilight didn’t throw her over the side to join them, she just started walking again. “I understand this is personal for you. This was your town, you think that the ones living there should be spared. Is that it?”

Jamie couldn’t do much to fight, but her head was still free. She could speak, and so she did. “They were good to me. They worshiped Harmony. Those ones wearing purple, they were your monks. Why kill them?”

The princess didn’t answer for a long time, only sped up. A set of metal doors banged open, and Jamie caught one last look of Basal and her military escort, stopped there. Apparently they’d been following the whole time.

This part of the palace was nothing like the wide-open spaces with fancy tapestries and sculptures—Twilight took her through a Spartan tunnel, with thick bundles of wire along the ceiling. Electric lights glowed overhead, flickering slightly in their sockets. They passed a unicorn wearing black and white robes, dodging out of Twilight’s way and dropping into a bow as they passed.

The princess didn’t even notice him. “I used to be just as limited in the shallowness of my thinking. It’s natural to want to preserve the ones we love. That used to be an Element of Harmony—Loyalty. But Equestria needs you too badly to afford sentimentality right now. You need to see this, and understand what we’re up against.”

They passed through another doorway, this time made of dense metal mesh. Another, inner door was made of more copper mesh, with slightly larger holes.

A platform lifted from the center of the room, maybe ten meters across. Glowing crystal studs surrounded it at even intervals, humming faintly with electricity. “I’m sorry you have to see this.”

There was a harsh crack, blinding Jamie with a sudden explosion of light. The world faded.

Sunset rose, pacing once around the map. She squinted down at the image, studying a few parts of it in detail.

Star Orchid tried to follow her gaze, maybe understand what Sunset thought was the most worth understanding. Her eyes were so pale it was impossible to see.

The map also wasn’t terribly helpful. The border checkpoints themselves were visible in startling clarity, from the sturdy fortifications to the powerful repeating lightlance mounted to a building. As to the city itself, there was very little to be gleaned from the map.

It was about the same size as the other hallowed foundations, which made sense on a spiritual level. Each sacred city stemmed from the example of its greatest cousin. But where the other hallowed foundations were filled with ponies who failed to meet Harmony’s standards, the immortal city was perfect, shielded from the rest of the world by an unbreakable barrier against all things impure.

Or so Star Orchid had always thought. “My first question: how are we going to get in there? I kind of imagined Sunset would be getting me in alone, but… the more I think about that, the stupider that sounds. But I’ve had relatives who tried to visit, and they were turned away. I guess you would say that the princess made her magical barrier to forbid people who don’t follow our religion. But whether it can sense Harmony or not, uh… Windbrisk, you’re forbidden by her religion, and Ellie is an actual demon.”

Sunset laughed, voice bitter and grating. Star imagined she could hear all the damage to that ancient body, preserved only so well by the constant infusion of her solution. “If there was a magical way to know who believed, there wouldn’t be a rebellion, would there? She could have ponies casting the spell in every city, find the ones who don’t believe, and send them to be reeducated. There are spells for looking into somepony’s thoughts, but they’re invasive and the harm they do is often permanent.”

She waved a dismissive hoof. “Landon, do you have a pen?” The human tossed her one, and she started drawing. She outlined the positions of buildings, connected roads, pulling the map closer and closer all the time. She didn’t use her magic, forcing her to stop whenever she wanted to say something.

Maybe you can’t. Or maybe you’re just trying to save power in that spell. Lucky for Star, then. Casting that spell even once a week would be taxing, and she’d need to do it at least twice as often.

“How do you know all that?” Landon asked. She didn’t stop Sunset, didn’t seem to mind that she was drawing on the map. Her tone was only curious.

“There when it was built,” she said. “Part of it, anyway. I don’t know what else Twilight might’ve done since I was last here. But if she’s anything like the pony I knew, she’s probably still… sentimental. Ponyville was somewhere important for her. It was the version of Equestria she wanted to survive forever. It doesn’t matter if she ripped the earth up by its foundations, killing every forest on the rest of the world. Ponyville will be left alone.”

She continued sketching in silence for a few minutes, gradually populating the opaque shell on the map with roads and structures. Some got little labels in neat hoof writing, with the flourishes of truly ancient script. But despite Sunset’s own great age, Star found the text perfectly comprehensible.

“City hall,” “Carousel Boutique,” and “Castle” among others. None of it meant anything, but at least she could read the notes.

“We’ve been watching the checkpoints for a long time,” Landon said, pointing at one with her spindly digits. There are two kinds of visitors—the big groups of tourists, and the little military ones. Big ones obviously won’t let us in—Maybe with the right costume Windbrisk here could pass as a pony, but there’s no chance in hell I ever could.

“Military groups, though… seems like they never ask questions. When the Unification Army brings prisoners, they just walk straight through. But it’s always at this checkpoint, and always in the middle of the night.”

“There’s only one way that could go sour for us,” Sunset said, finishing with the pen. “If the officer on duty understands that the Unification Army shouldn’t be here with the city so far away, they might call for their superiors. There could be a thousand soldiers in that barricade, and I don’t think this motley band of heroes is enough to fight odds that bad.”

“They won’t know,” Star said confidently. “Almost nopony knows that. I didn’t learn you couldn’t leave the city until I made it to the Purple Court. Royal Guards are never included in those conversations. I wouldn’t be surprised if the princess has all kinds of rules in place to keep them from getting too close to anything interesting.”

“Suppose we get in,” Landon said. “We’ll have two people in pony costume—and let me tell you, they’re not terribly convincing. We don’t exactly have a prop department on the Hippocrates. What’s waiting on the other side?”

“A city frozen in time, animated by living death. I don’t know what she built it into—but I saw the number of corpses on the ESS Harrow. Stars know how many crews like that she has in her service. All that power comes from somewhere, and this is where she gathers it. It’s the power that lifts Concord.”

“There should be thousands of ponies living there,” Star declared. “I know the harmonious from Concord and lesser cities have been visiting for centuries. I had an uncle who was accepted into the safety of the Immortal City.”

Sunset reached across the table, resting one leg on her shoulder. “You worked in the court, Star Orchid. You’ve seen Twilight’s ledgers?”

She nodded. “Not all of them. She was protective of the military stuff, managed all of it herself. But I’ve seen everything else.”

“How much food did you send?”


“Necromancy taints everything it touches,” Sunset continued. “That shield isn’t there to keep anypony out.”

“All this sounds like you don’t know what’s inside the shield,” Landon said. “We have a target. I’ve got explosives. Put the two together, and we’re done. Are there guards waiting inside?”

Sunset shook her head weakly. “She did all this… without me. I don’t think the Elements would’ve been okay with it either. Sacrificing the lives of ponies like this… we were going to find another way. We had to. But it’s the necromancy you need to know about. You’re all alive. The tainted land is going to drain you until you’re withered husks, then grind up what’s left. I don’t know how many dead are stuck in that dome, but… thousands? Tens of thousands? Celestia save us.”

“So we bring hazmat gear,” Landon said, annoyed. “Honestly, there’s no reason to get superstitious about all this. Magic is just your way of describing the systems we built. There’s no such thing as ghosts, or spirits, or souls. You’re not alive again because of necromancy, it’s just life extension. We all do it.”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “If you’re determined to keep believing that, there’s no chance you will escape the Immortal City. Time curves inward, and death is a river that will carry you to destruction.”

“Is there anything we can do to protect ourselves?” Windbrisk asked. “Star’s a wizard, maybe she can enchant something.”

Sunset shook her head. “Time. We’ll need to get in and out as fast as possible, but even time can’t be trusted in there. Expect it to warp and twist around us, speeding and slowing and maybe even trapping us there forever. There’s a real chance we’ll just never leave, and a thousand years will go by out here. That was Twilight’s entire goal—keep that little perfect piece of Equestria safe. First from humans, and then just from time.”

“Alright, enough of this shit.” Landon stood up, holding her wrist up to a section of wall jointed with little metal lines. She touched and it opened, revealing several sets of the armor she usually wore underneath. “If you won’t give us a plan, I will. We go in at dusk, right before the changing of the guard when they’re exhausted and hungry and aren’t ready to ask too many questions. We get in there, we blow up whatever evil mumbo-jumbo the princess uses to keep herself invincible. Well… you all do.”

She stalked back over, dropping a bundle of cloth and something softer out onto the map. “Here’s the best pony costume we could come up with under short notice. It’s going to look great from far away, and like dogshit if you get close. Sunset’s the escort, obviously you two are the prisoners.”

“You aren’t going in?” Windbrisk asked. “You just showed us humans are immune to magic, and you’re not coming with us into the place overwhelmed by dangerous magic?”

Landon was unfazed. “I’m not going with you because I’m going to be orchestrating a distraction to cover your retreat. Once you blow up the evil, we’re on borrowed time until we can get back to the great dictator and pull the trigger. That fuse is shorter if she knows what we did, so the escape has to be quiet.”

Windbrisk turned away from her, unrolling the costume. It was fairly convincing fake fur, but the face really made it fall apart. It was a mask, with little eyeholes hidden in the blacks of fake, unmoving pony eyes. Any kind of inspection was bound to reveal exactly what was going on.

“You worked in the court, right?” Landon asked, nudging Star. “Do you know if anything ever leaves this place? If nobody ever does, then maybe stealth is pointless. They’ll never buy anything walking out again.”

“Ponies leave all the time,” she said. “I’ve known about, uh…” Then she stopped, expression twisting into a frown. “I’m sure they leave all the time. But… I can only think of ponies who were refused at the gate. They weren’t pure enough, and they returned home in shame. It wasn’t their fault, most creatures don’t belong in Harmony’s presence.”

“Yeah don’t care about the cult.” Landon slumped into the chair again, frowning deeper. “That probably means there’s no way to open the bubble from the inside. So I’m going to have to create some distraction that pulls troops away, and open the door for you.”

“You won’t know when we’re ready to leave,” Sunset said wistfully. “I know how badly you want to find a way around the magic, human. But there isn’t one.”

Landon rose, stomping away again. She returned seconds later, a plastic box under one arm. She banged it down on the table, flipping it open. Inside was dense foam, and a set of… necklaces? Cheap jewelry, with imitation glass gemstones. Star’s family never would’ve tolerated her wearing anything so obviously worthless.

“My ship is mostly medical people, but we do have a few engineers. They came up with these in case we ever had to work with native auxiliaries.” She spent the next few minutes showing them how to put them on and off, and how to talk so their words would be sent to everyone else wearing one.

“Your radio technology won’t work through the bubble,” Sunset said, as soon as Landon had finished. “The shield keeps out all kinds of energy, or it wouldn’t be worth anything.”

“Maybe,” Landon responded, noncommittally. “But even if it does, it has some other functions, including a chronometer. If there’s something in that bubble to trick your vision of time, then the solution is a device to remind you. We’ll set a timer to keep synchronized, say for… a twelve-hour mission. I’ll knock the door open just before dawn, before the shifts change over again. That’s when I crack the door open for your daring escape.”

“It’s the stupidest thing any creature has dared against the princess,” Windbrisk said. He hefted the floppy rubber mask over his face. At a distance it might pass, but even the scale had to be wrong to fit his beak. It was a face not even a mother could love. “Let’s do it.”

Jamie could still remember the battle of Hollow Shades—though it had been far more of a massacre than anything else. The “Unification Army” swept across the city, killing everything that got in their way. She had seen the wreckage of that battle on her way across town, and the mostly ordinary citizens of Hollow Shades who had died in the process.

She had not seen anything like what waited when the teleport finally ended, and she materialized on solid ground.

Twilight dropped her unceremoniously to the floor in front of her, hard enough that she tumbled in the jungle dirt.

A stench hit her like something solid, unlike anything she had ever experienced or could easily describe. It was death, at a scale that even the end of the world could not prepare her for.

“Get up,” the princess commanded from behind her. “See what the Devourers have done. See what they would bring to all Equestria.”

Jamie rose, her legs shaking under her. Any second now she was going to break down, and Twilight would probably kill her. Maybe she’d try to run, maybe she’d break down into a sniveling wreck. I ran away from this. It was supposed to be safe in the shelters! The world was supposed to be waiting for me to live in, already fixed!

A mountain of the dead rose before Jamie, piled stories high. The jungle heat and humidity had not been kind to them, and she saw things she’d only ever seen sketched in anatomy textbooks. An ocean of fat black flies hummed over the gruesome mass, loud enough to be heard even above the distant crash and rumble of stone.

The mix of harsh laboratory smells did little to mask the stench, even if the not-blood seeping away from the artificial mountain turned every plant gray and withered.

Some of them were still moving.

Her stomach rebelled and she started to gag again, but now her stomach was empty and only a few drops of steaming yellow bile emerged.

“This is the fifth regiment of the Unification Army,” Twilight Sparkle said, her voice strained. “Every one of these was a brave volunteer, who sacrificed everything to protect Equestria. Hollow Shades killed them, left them to r-rot in the sun.”

Was she crying? Twilight stiffened, turning away from Jamie. She didn’t dare look. “It’s happening again, Jamie. Long ago, Equestria was in a fight for its survival. This is one of their best tactics, turning us against each other. There are… certain truths about the way pony bodies are organized, that I was unable to repair. Some of us are more vulnerable than others. Only my Unification Army is immune. They are the only creatures standing between civilization and oblivion.”

She led Jamie past the corpses, where a swathe of jungle had been cleared. Hundreds of Unification Army soldiers were here. Many were occupied digging a vast grave ditch, though not all. As they watched, a pair carried a single corpse on a stretcher, up to a medical tent. Ponies wearing gas masks and white robes did something to the satchel attached to the corpse, storing it while the disposal team carried the body to the grave.

The things they wear are more valuable to you than the ponies wearing them. Jamie had thought it was strange that the robot-soldiers wore the same equipment.

“Equestria is stronger than one regiment,” Twilight said. “I always knew Equestria would be left to fight for its survival again. Even as the faith I constructed gains followers, my commissars discover Darktech in every city. You can’t know what it’s like, Jamie—you’re immune. But ponies couldn’t help it. All it takes is for the enemy to use the right words, and they’re all enslaved. Their essence is corruption, spreading to everything they touch. If the rot ever reached Concord, even once… our civilization would end.”

Twilight turned towards the terrible noise, and Jamie followed her gaze. Concord was perhaps one kilometer away, close enough that bits of gravel and dust rained down near them. But given this camp, it seemed they wouldn’t be coming back. She wouldn’t bury her dead, then send their bodies through that machine anyway, would she?

Seeing it from afar was far worse than just watching the top layer. So much rock moved through the air that it was almost a solid column. Bits of metal roofing and sections of wall and bodies all swam together, crushed and pummeled until none were recognizable. “What do we do?” Jamie asked. “If Equestria is really up against something like that, how do we win?”

“I’ve been preparing.” Twilight’s horn glowed, and they vanished—though the process only lasted a moment. Suddenly they were standing in another ring of stones, like the one on the Concord itself. The same transport mechanism she’d used to board that airship. “We will need many more volunteers to replace the dead, from all over Equestria. Many more families will weep for their lost sons and daughters. But as they serve this higher cause, we can prepare ourselves for the final confrontation.”

She circled around Jamie, pointing her horn at each of the stones in turn. They came to life, a few moving and rearranging as they did so. Presumably there was a technique to this, but it was complex enough that Jamie couldn’t even remember their final configuration. “I can’t do it alone anymore. But just when Equestria was straddling the precipice, Harmony sent you. I hoped to have a few decades to test and teach you. Our enemies won’t give us that much time.”

She spun on Jamie, looming over her with bloody wings spread. “You’ll help me, won’t you Jamie? You’ll help keep Equestria alive?”

Jamie looked, and saw a mountain of the dead in a sea of flies. Her courage faded, and she nodded. “Y-yeah. Of course I’ll help!”

Chapter 37: Caelum

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Twilight did not take Jamie back to her prison, though part of her longed for that return. Jamie could find a quiet corner and curl up until the horrible images had faded from her mind. She couldn’t look up kitten pictures on her phone anymore, but she could make do. The pain would go away eventually.

But the princess didn’t give her that chance. At least she didn’t drag Jamie through the air, letting her follow at the best possible pace through the regular grid of corridors until they were out again.

“I’ve had eyes on you since you arrived,” Twilight said, as though she were remarking on knowing her birthday. “You’ll need to enhance your abilities as rapidly as possible.”

Twilight levitated a door open, and suddenly they were in the open air again, crossing out of the palace on a narrow bridge of white stone. They crossed over the fence, and Jamie had to take each step slowly to avoid slipping. That was probably by design—a few soldiers on the top of the ramp could hold it against dozens of others, letting their weight all crush them together.

Even up here, high above the grinding machinery processing stone, Jamie could hear the sound. Hopefully those ponies died quickly.

But there was a mysterious comfort in all those bodies. Jamie hadn’t killed them, nor could Epsilon inside the shelter have done that. Twilight had come to fight someone else—she wasn’t the reason all those ponies were dead.

What if she’s right? If there really is some invisible infection that can spread through a population, killing anyone with even a little exposure—what else is she supposed to do, leave the incurable population to multiply and spread? They could use Hollow Shades’ train station, and travel all over the country.

Jamie spread her wings, beating futile as they descended the ramp. It wouldn’t have been enough, except that Twilight just got faster as Jamie threatened to slide into her. Where Jamie was nearing exhaustion, the princess had infinite energy, even after teleporting her around and discovering a devastating defeat.

“Where are we going?” she asked, as they neared ground level. It didn’t lead outside the palace compound, but to another building not directly attached. A structure of crystal and metal, twisting into a single spire like an upturned shell. There were no guards outside it, just unicorns wearing white robes. The cut was different than the ones Concord had killed—this was more scholarly.

“This is the Arcanum Well,” Twilight said. “For lesser ponies, its application is limited. But you’re an Alicorn—your body and mind are strong.”

I don’t feel strong. But when she opened her mouth to say so, no words came out. It can’t be worse than what I already saw. Maybe she’ll give me a chance to rest.

Most of the unicorns circling around the building lined up as Twilight got closer, dropping into low bows. A few approached—one younger-looking stallion, with a brownish splotched coat and a gold cap.

Jamie stiffened as he got close, eyes widening in sudden recognition. She’d already met him, this was Solar Lens, the one she’d spoken to in the gardens earlier today.

“Solar,” Twilight said, waving off his bow with annoyance. “What is the state of the Arcanum Well?”

“Ready for your use whenever you ordain it,” he answered. “I could prepare a selection of the finest—”

Twilight shook her head, silencing him. “I lack the time for ceremony today, Solar. This is Jamie, my apprentice. Yes, I know her name is irregular, perhaps that’s something your scholars can resolve. Either way, this visit is for her. Equestria requires a master of all tribes, and what we have was an earth pony until last month.”

Solar’s eyes widened. “It’s true what they’re saying, then? It really is possible for a common pony to be elevated? By… strict adherence to Harmony’s precepts as taught by its words, of course.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Obviously it is, as that’s what I’ve just told you. Solar, you have seven days to teach her imperial magic. Expend any resource required to make that happen. And make sure she’s sane, as well. She’ll be stronger than any ordinary pony, but don’t expect her to have my tolerance. At first.”

Solar Lens lowered his head in a polite bow, far shallower than any of the others. “The Arcanum Well will provide what you require.”

“Good.” Twilight turned, shielding Jamie with one wing and lowering her head. “I have to warn you in advance, Jamie. This process will be difficult for you. But Equestria can’t wait for you to slowly grow in power over centuries. I might need you to fight beside me far sooner than that.”

Jamie probably wouldn’t have dared question her, but she was so tired. Why couldn’t she just go back to her quarters, with the friendly changeling servants and the trips to the spa?

“Can’t we just negotiate with them, Twilight? Whoever it is who wants to kill Equestria—can’t you just split the land and agree to go your separate ways?”

The princess’s face hardened, and she turned away. “When you are done at the Well, you will know enough to understand why that question is absurd, Jamie. What you have seen today will seem like a trickle of blood compared to the river that nearly washed us away.”

Twilight turned, then vanished in a flash of light and ozone.

The unicorns remained bowing to her empty place for a few more moments, as though making sure she hadn’t just become invisible.

Solar Lens was the first to rise. He reached out, extending one hoof towards Jamie. For all the anger Twilight had shown, Solar’s smile felt like cold water on a burn. “So you’re the princess’s apprentice now, Empathy? You must’ve impressed her.”

Jamie took the offered hoof, letting Solar drag her up towards the building. “I don’t know what I could’ve done. Felt like I might not live through it.”

While many of the other unicorns returned to their duties—some cleaning, some gathered around easels—a few closed in around them, an escort of robed bodies too dense to see through. At least they gave her enough personal space that she wasn’t bumping into them.

“That is not an uncommon sentiment,” Solar said. “Alicorns like you exist on another frequency from the rest of us. Staying close to that much power for too long can feel like it’s going to char us to ash.”

You can say that again.

A pair of monks up ahead opened a pair of massive crystal doors for them. “But before you take your first dip in the Well, perhaps… some more conventional soap and water. And maybe something for your stomach, hmm?”

Jamie slumped against his shoulder, overcome with a wave of sudden relief. “That would be… great.”

Star Orchid felt the distant hum of powerful magic, shaking through her hooves into her chest and making the whole world seem insubstantial. The Immortal City rose ahead of her, its faintly glowing purple outline visible in the growing darkness.

“If either of you tell any creature I dressed up like this, I’ll kill you.”

Windbrisk marched just ahead of Star, his steps jarring and unsteady. Every few moments Star would see his front “hooves” catch the light, bending and warping as no proper hoof could. When he spoke, his voice was badly muffled inside the mask—except it also sounded perfectly clear through the necklace around her neck.

“Can’t kill me,” Sunset said, voice distant. “I’ve been dead too long. Honestly it would be more threatening if you said you would try to make me alive again. Undo Twilight’s necromancy, and I’d probably just turn to dust and blow away.”

“Be careful not to use the necklace while creatures are watching us,” Star muttered, ignoring the threat. “It’s loud enough that every creature can hear.”

Windbrisk made a frustrated, noncommittal sound, then focused on his hoofsteps.

They’d done everything they could to dress him up, concealing him in a thick cloak that would make his hidden tail less noticeable, as well as concealing his face in shadow.

“You’re getting close, cut the chatter,” Landon’s voice said from the necklace. “I’ve just sent a timer, twelve hours on the clock. Your necklace will vibrate every hour, and give you a verbal notification ten minutes before twelve. Hopefully we’ll be able to talk normally—but even if that barrier does block radio, you should all be able to talk fine while you’re all inside.”

“Can’t help but notice the human is sitting back while all the ponies risk our necks.”

Landon laughed, though her voice was distant. “When you get back, remind me to tell you what Kondrak is up to right now. I’d tell you in advance, but you might get captured and tortured for information, so… Godspeed. I’m watching you from our recon drone right now—I’ll try to keep in touch as you cross.”

“Shh,” Sunset commanded. There was no argument on the subject this time—they stepped out from the trees into plain view of the gate.

This was the standard entrance for visiting pilgrims, which meant it was beside the train station and the dormitories. There were a few lights on in each one, though no creatures waiting in line. A covered marble queue ran from the dormitory to the oversized metal gates, with statues at regular intervals.

Sunset crossed in front of them with orderly, stiff steps. She marched straight up to one of the chains, disconnecting it so they could cross, then closing it again and guiding the way out the other side.

By then, Star could feel the eyes on them. The metal gate was fortified with two mounted turrets, with at least a dozen ponies emerging from behind.

At first they seemed bored—their golden armor was a little tarnished in the moonlight, and they held their crossbows at odd angles. Then they saw Sunset, and everything changed.

Half the pony figures vanished as they got closer, emerging atop the wall of sandbags, while both turrets rotated around to face them.

Star fell into line beside Windbrisk, walking as close to him as she could. While he was covered in robes, she had only the cheap necklace. Hopefully that meant she would be the one to draw the eye, and they would ignore the lumpy, bulbus mess.

“Ponies of the gate,” Sunset said, her voice perfectly flat. “Open the way immediately.”

They stared, glancing between each other in utter bafflement. But all eyes settled on one pony, and they emerged from the front of the crowd. A stallion with a bright purple officer’s ploom on his gold helmet. “We weren’t expecting you, soldier of Unification.” He levitated something beside him—a black ledger, with a conspicuous wax stamp of the princess’s cutie mark across one edge. “There wasn’t supposed to be a visitor tonight.”

Sunset stopped about ten meters from the barricade, spinning abruptly and fixing them both with a fierce glare. “Wait here,” she commanded, before spinning back around.

Does it hurt you to act like this? Maybe we shouldn’t have asked. This is probably traumatic, having to reenact the time you were a slave.

But if it bothered Sunset, she showed no sign of it. Her face was as flat as everything else for the brief moment Star saw it. She nodded once in obedience, then sat down directly in front of Windbrisk, obscuring his face. Hopefully that way even the ones up on the wall wouldn’t get a good look.

Sunset stalked right up to the officer, close enough that he would smell the preservative solution and see the paleness in her coat and eyes. Ponies tensed as they watched, but none moved. Even one soldier of the Unification Army was a dangerous foe. Those crossbows would probably not even hurt her, unless they scored a lucky headshot, or drained too much fluid from her veins.

“I was told to commend you if you objected to our entrance. The princess wishes to say that you are a credit to the Royal Guard for such fine attention to administrative detail.”

She paused just long enough for the ponies further from the wall to start whispering. Star couldn’t hear them, but she could guess at what they were saying. She would be thinking just as she was, that was exactly the kind of thing Twilight would’ve said.

You really did know her. Sunset had talked about the ancient past as though it were recent, but that wasn’t the same as proving she actually knew.

“This transfer is a matter of national emergency,” Sunset continued. “You must open the gate and permit us to enter.”

Star watched, and she could see the officer begin to hesitate. She looked at the other soldiers, searching for any sign they might be about to attack. But she could see no sign of violence from them. These ponies probably never had to fight here—what insanity would possess a creature to attack the most sacred place in all the world?

She did catch a moment of shock from an older pony near the back, though she only saw his face for a second. Did she know him from somewhere?

Apparently Sunset was done waiting. “The princess further instructed me that if you refused, I was to execute your commanding officer for treason, and open the gate myself.”

Star suppressed a shout, eyes widening with horror. Of all the stupid things to do, had Sunset just threatened a far superior force with dozens of weapons? Do you even know how to fight anymore, undead pony? Just because their swords won’t kill you doesn’t mean they won’t kill us.

Star went over the words to her own shield spell, eyes fixed on those crossbows. If they failed today, she wasn’t going to stand stupidly and let them kill her.

The officer took a single step back, flipping the ledger open almost violently. He drew a quill from somewhere, face hard. “Tell me your identification, soldier of Unification. I will add you to the ledger.”

“J-24601,” Sunset said. She spun back around, without any hesitation about exposing herself to attack. But nopony did. She marched right up to them, and spoke just loud enough for the ponies to hear. “We will be allowed to continue. Prepare to follow me.”

The name “gate” was an imperfect match for what waited beyond the fortifications. A rail was sunk into the ground, and on it rested a complex metal mechanism. The guardsponies on both sides rushed to a set of cranks set into the floor, taking positions and beginning to push. With their labor, the car rumbled along the track towards the barrier.

It looked a little like someone had taken a passenger railcar and sliced it at both ends, creating a hollow tube. On their side it was smooth, with a set of steps and the symbols of each of the Exemplars around the outside. The other end was made of sharply pointed metal wings, like the petals of a flower spreading from the point of contact.

Dad probably wouldn’t believe I was about to do this. The Immortal City. She’d never tell Sunset, and certainly never argue about it, but some part of her still expected to find some of her ancestors here. They’d lived lives of Harmony, serving the Crown until the end. This was their reward, wasn’t it? This was the place where fear and pain and all need were washed away in Harmony’s true vision for all ponies.

The gate touched up against the shield, and ripples shook through the barrier, humming quietly. This gate is just a Thaumium tube. We could probably cut our own way through if we had enough.

Of course they didn’t—the secrets of how it was made were unknown to all but the Royal Technicians, and they were not keen on sharing what they knew.

Within the gate, the shield flickered once, then went out. Sunlight shone from within, almost blinding against eyes that were far better adjusted to the night. A marble gateway stood on the other side, with more noble ponies standing guard. Green grass grew, and she could smell the sweet perfume of distant flowers.


Everything Star Orchid had done to betray Equestria—all that faded suddenly from her mind. Bad, certainly—but ultimately she was attacking Harmony’s appointed speaker. If she stepped through that door, she would be spitting in Harmony’s face directly.

She stepped back, eyes widening. Through the doorway, birds sung, and a pleasantly cool breeze lifted her mane. “I can’t,” she muttered. “I can’t go in there.”

“Star?” Windbrisk hissed. He extended one leg out from the cloak, wrapping around her shoulder and squeezing hard. Hard enough that she couldn’t get away. “Star Orchid, what the buck are you doing?”

She squeaked in protest, shoving vainly against him. She might as well be fighting an earth pony for all the good it did. “The Immortal City!” she yelled. “Please, no! I can’t go in there! It’s only for the worthy!”

She kicked, sudden enough that Windbrisk actually let go with a grunt of pain. She took another few steps back from the opening, and her world went fuzzy around the edges. Anything she wanted to do to save Equestria—none of it mattered if she spent an eternity in hell. She could only imagine the agony waiting for her if she tried to trespass in that sacred space after all her betrayals.

“I am alone,” Sunset said, her voice distant. “Royal Guard, assist me. Apprehend the prisoner.”

Star’s horn glowed as she ran through the words of a desperate teleport. She could flee back the way they’d come, then run as far away from this place as she could.

Something smacked her in the gut, and she flopped, gasping desperately for air. Two sets of hooves began to drag her. “No, please!” she screamed, desperate. “Forgive me, Twilight! Princess, I didn’t mean to come here! I don’t belong here! I don’t want to be here!”

She fought and squirmed, but it was no use. Her stomach twisted as two ponies lifted her into the air, then tossed her through the open doorway. She landed in the grass on the other side, landing with a painful thump. She didn’t get up.

Star heard the crash of distant thunder as the Immortal City’s barrier closed behind her. For a moment she was still, legs tangled underneath her. This was the moment she was damned. Fighting against the princess was one thing—but now she’d done enough to deserve true damnation. Harmony would leave her in misery forever.

“I don’t know if that was brilliant or bucking pathetic,” said a voice from overhead, filled with sarcasm. “But they can’t see us anymore. How about drop the act so we can get things bucking done.”

Star looked up, eyes dripping with tears. “I’m sorry,” she said, wiping away the moisture from her face. “I know I deserve judgement. I accept whatever punishment Harmony has in store for me.”

“Not quick-thinking unicorn getting the guards to look away from rubber pone, then.” Sunset reached down, yanking her into a standing position. Her rough hooves dug deep into Star’s side, and she didn’t show even a hint of gentleness as she let go again. “You saved my life, so I’m going to be nice about this. Whatever happened to your spine, it’s time to grow a bucking new one. Whatever you’re afraid of right now doesn’t exist.”

“But we’re here!” Star insisted. She spun slowly around, gesturing at their surroundings.

The grassy field under their hooves was soft and comfortable, with a gate as wide as any they might’ve found in the palace. A single pony rested on each side of the gate, one in silver and one in polished gold. They were Alicorns, though Star hadn’t ever seen them before. Their cutie marks were enough to guess at who they were supposed to be, even so. This was Celestia and Luna, the princesses who had yielded the land to Twilight.

“Alright, I’m done.” Windbrisk emerged from Sunset’s other side. He was still wearing the robe, but claws emerged from underneath and the pony mask was gone. He reached down, resting one claw on Star’s shoulder.

She froze, feeling the claws press into her coat.

“Look at me,” he commanded, and she obeyed. “I know you grew up in Concord. If you need to take a minute to calm down, take it. But while you’re doing that, look at me. I’m an abomination, remember? I’m so unholy the princess has us executed the same day we’re found. Is anything happening to me?”

She opened her mouth, then shut it again. Obviously nothing was happening. “Then why…” She looked to Sunset, desperate. “You said this would be horrible! Necromancy, remember? I only see blue sky, clouds, birds… this place is paradise!”

“It does look that way.” Sunset Shimmer took a few nervous steps away from them, onto a dirt road waiting just beyond the gate. Despite her betrayal of Equestria, nothing happened to her either. Harmony’s champions didn’t come to take her away to endless agony. She just stood there, untouched. She spun back around, expression growing darker.

“I’ve seen necromancy before. Nothing grows, foals get sick and die. Old nags wither, and the land bleeds. This isn’t right.”

Star walked around the gate. It wasn’t hard, there was no fence, no spells set into the ground. She rested one hoof on the road. It didn’t catch fire.

“We’re here for a purpose,” Windbrisk said. His wings flexed under his robe, though he didn’t pull it off. “Star, you’re classically trained. Our target should be the most magical thing here. Can you find it?”

She shouldn’t. Harmony would be watching. It wouldn’t allow this betrayal. She’d already gone too far. “I c-can’t. We aren’t fighting the navy anymore. This is the Immortal City.”

The hippogriff met her eyes again. “Star Orchid, please. Think about everything your princess has done. Harmony isn’t her domain. She’s a murderer and a tyrant. Harmony didn’t make this place, she did—with evil magic. She’s using it to kill the ponies who visit, and feed on their souls. We’re going to stop it, and avenge every creature she murdered here. Okay?”

Star sniffed, nodding weakly. “I-I… yeah. Right. We’ll stop it.” She waited one more moment, just in case. But if Harmony was as real as this heaven constructed for it, it didn’t appear. Star closed her eyes for a second, concentrating. “There’s something big coming from down this road. Probably…”

Her eyes were adjusting to the sunlight that shouldn’t be here. But if there wasn’t some source of light in here, it would just stay dark all the time.

“Then that’s where we go.” Sunset turned, glancing back at the gate. She pulled out the necklace from under her Unification Army gear. “Landon, can you hear us? We’re through the shield. Minor deviations from the plan, but basically what we were expecting. Say something if you can.”

Landon didn’t answer. After a few moments, Sunset turned back to the road. “Alright then, Star Orchid. We’ve got twelve hours to save the world.”

Chapter 38: Camelopardalis

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Star Orchid was in heaven.

At least her body was physically located in the place she’d heard her whole life was the divine resting-place of all who followed Harmony’s laws. With every passing second, she found herself more convinced there was at least some truth to those stories.

The air all around them was fresh and alive with the pollen of new plants, without the sterility of Concord or the oppressive humidity of the jungles around Hollow Shades. The little dirt road led them swiftly to a red schoolhouse, then a sprawling orchard of fruit trees bowed down with life.

“Sweet Celestia,” Sunset whispered, resting one hoof on the edge of the fence. “It’s really all still here.” She slumped onto her haunches, eyes losing focus. “She saved all this, and still lied to me. I’m going to bucking kill her.”

“Is there something we should know about this farm?” Windbrisk asked, stopping in the center of the road and turning to stare back at Sunset. “Star said it was this way.”

Something moved in the trees just ahead, a flash of pale yellow and red. An older mare, though not yet hunched with age or covered in wrinkles. “Afternoon, strangers!” Windbrisk backed away, covering his face with his hood and turning away.

But it was too late to try and hide. They’d been seen.

Star waited on the other side of the fence as she trotted over to them. Despite her age, the earth pony wore a heavy harness across her back, securing baskets of apples on either side that probably would’ve broken Star’s spine. Like many earth ponies, she wasn’t even sweating with the work.

“On yer’ way to Ponyville for the festival, right? A bigger group just passed this way. You’ll probably catch ‘em if you hurry down the road.”

Star nodded, already turning away. But Sunset didn’t let them.

“You’re her younger sister,” the soldier whispered. “Apple Bloom? Don’t you remember me?”

The mare tilted her head to one side, confused. “Yer right about my name, strangers. But no, I can’t say I recognize any of you. But that’s an easy one to fix. Hippogriff, you don’t need to get all shy over there! Yer as welcome to visit Sweet Apple Acres as any other creature. If you three ain’t terribly bothered about bein’ separated from your friends for a bit, I could fix some refreshments, just like my granny used to make.”

Windbrisk turned, flipping his hood down. His face was shocked. Star couldn’t blame him—this pony lived in Harmony’s Immortal City, and spoke to an abomination like him with kindness. “I don’t think we should stay—” he began.

Sunset cut him off, nudging him sharply in the shoulder. “We’d love that, Apple Bloom. We’ve come a long way. A chance to get out of the sun for a few minutes would be wonderful.”

The mare beamed through the fence. “Walk back up the hill a few steps, strangers. I’ll just get these here apples covered in the barn, and we can sit for a spell. Oh, and sorry if we did know each other once and I up and forgot. Memory just ain’t what she used to be.”

They followed the mare along the fence, with Star growing more tense with every step. They were heading away from the source of magic, down a fork in the road instead of towards where it transitioned from dirt to cobblestone.

We have half a day. We’re not going to run out of time because we stopped to talk with a farmer.

At the crest of the hill was a gate, old and rickety like everything else. The mare stopped them just inside, pointing to a little farmhouse at the top of the hill. “You all make yourselves at home. I’ll be just a few steps behind.” She continued past them without waiting for a response, into an old barn.

“I hope you know what you’re doing, Sunset,” Windbrisk said, though his anger had already mellowed. “We have twelve hours before Landon opens the door for us. We probably shouldn’t be wasting time talking to the creatures living in an impossible prison.”

Sunset spun, glowering at him. “I knew that pony while I was alive, Windbrisk. Not well—but that’s not the point. Did she look undead to you?”

She might’ve been hiding something in that basket. But Star didn’t even say so. Sunset Shimmer radiated dark magic, enough for Star to know where she was standing even with both eyes closed. She hadn’t felt anything like that from the earth mare.

She thought back to everything she’d ever learned about the Immortal City. Most of it was religious, and hadn’t come from her time in the court. She could barely think of any mentions of the place from within the palace.

It was a perfect land, populated only with the creatures who most deserved it. It had a shell to keep necromancy inside, except there wasn’t any necromancy to be seen. “She’s not like you,” Star answered, wilting under the pressure of Windbrisk’s glare. “I don’t know if there’s no other magic at work. Maybe she’s an illusion, or some manifestation of the magic that wants to kill visitors. She’s just here to lure us into a false sense of comfort, then make sure we never wake up.”

Sunset shook her head. “I’m telling you, Twilight wouldn’t do that. She knew that filly. Well… not a filly anymore, but still. Equestria that came before was a perfect, wonderful place to her. She wouldn’t use dead friends to murder creatures, intentionally or not. I think she might still be alive. What I don’t know is how. If Twilight had another way to make creatures immortal, why would she keep it for these and not share it with the rest of Equestria? This is an opportunity. Apple Bloom will be honest, she’s like her older sister. She might be able to tell us what’s going on, so we don’t blunder in blind.”

There was no more time to speculate, because the mysterious pony named Apple Bloom returned from the barn. She was no longer wearing the baskets anymore, just a lacy mantle around her shoulders that looked even more ancient than all the structures they’d seen so far. At least it matched the inside of the farmhouse, which was furnished with appliances so strange that Star couldn’t have named them, much less guess at how they worked.

“Sit down a spell. I already had some cobbler in the oven, so this shouldn’t take long at all.”

Star’s neck twitched once, as the necklace shook again. A subtle effect, but it was as unnerving as the first time. Ten hours to go.

Soon enough they were gathered around the kitchen table, watching while the mare cooked. She’d provided them with cold glasses of something, but Star didn’t drink, just covertly dumped some of it out the window behind them while the mare wasn’t looking. Even not knowing anything about how this place worked, eating the food seemed like a bad idea.

Sunset didn’t seem to care. But Sunset didn’t really eat anything, just went through the motions. “How has Ponyville been doing for the last, err… thousand years or so?” Sunset asked. “Must’ve been pretty eventful.”

The mare glanced back at Sunset, giggling. “‘Fraid you’re overestimating how old and important Ponyville is, strangers. My grandmother was there when we were founded. That should make it clear about how old we are.”

Sunset was unfazed. “Right, we should introduce ourselves. I’m Sunset Shimmer, we met briefly during the evacuation. I was your team leader, remember?”

Apple Bloom stiffened, her cooking forgotten. Star worried that she might have frozen. Was she going to attack them, or maybe just call for soldiers? “Right. It’s been so long, I… forgot about all that. Sometimes you curse a bad memory, sometimes you wish you could forget a little more. Sure you understand.”

“Of course,” Sunset agreed. “I didn’t mean to resurrect the hardest time for Equestria. Let’s talk about something better—how’d the rebuilding go in Ponyville? You replanted the orchards, that’s great!”

“The… rebuilding, right.” Apple Bloom stuck her face in an oven mitt, removing a tray of delicious-smelling apple-something in a doughy crust.

Star’s mouth began to water. After so long living on bland paste in the Undercastle, suddenly she was back in the palace dining hall, where she could have as much of fine luxuries from all corners of Equestria.

“Yeah, that went well. Ponyville did better than some towns. The mayor wanted everything to be exactly how it was, so if you knew Ponyville then, you know it now.”

Sunset nodded, though from behind Apple Bloom’s back she was obviously growing frustrated. That won’t help us find the core.

“And you said there were other visitors earlier?” Sunset asked. “How often does Ponyville get visitors?”

“You came for the festival too, didn’t you? You’re not dressed like pilgrims,” she said, looking between them. “I reckon I’ll visit eventually, but… parties feel like they’re for the young. I’m just happy so many visitors enjoy themselves. If you like the cider, you’ll know where it came from. Old family recipe, not changed in a hundred years.”

“What about the rest of the year?” Star asked. “How often are new ponies moving in?”

“Well, uh…” The mare tilted her head to the side, frowning. “You’d have to ask the mayor, but I’d guess not too many. Back when we rebuilt, we knew lots of old places wouldn’t have ponies living there anymore. Hoped new folks would move in, but they just… found better places to live, I guess. Canterlot’s more exciting to new ponies, even after everything.”

She lowered her head, scooping out several plates worth of apple cobbler, carrying them over to the table between them. “Now, eat up, but no seconds. You should save some room for the festival.”

“Thanks,” Star said, forcing herself to look anywhere but at that plate. Those were real apples, gooey-dough, and syrupy gold dripping out from underneath. “It looks fantastic.”

Sunset Shimmer took the first bite, glaring at Star. Resisting it was easier for Windbrisk, whose meals she knew often included fish or grilled mushrooms, rather than purely vegetarian fare. But there was no way he could sit here smelling this and not be tempted.

Sunset waited until both of them had put their utensils back down, then turned towards the older pony. “Apple Bloom, there’s something you need to know. The real reason we’re here.”

She looked back, confused. “And what do you mean by that, strangers? Err… Sunset. Apologies again for my memory.”

“It hasn’t been a few years since the war,” Sunset said. “It’s been a thousand. We’re here because Ponyville is trapped under a bubble, and there’s some evil magic hiding somewhere in the village. We need to find it so we can stop it.”

The mare looked back, expression confused. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but are you sure you ain’t been on the road a little too long? I’ve heard some zany theories about life and all, but… now you ain’t making any sense.”

Sunset sighed, rising from her seat. “I was afraid you’d say that. Thanks so much for the dinner, Apple Bloom. But we really do have to get back on the road, or we’ll… miss the festival.”

“But yer’ friends, they barely touched their food. Shouldn’t you give them a little more time.”

“No,” Star added, rising and hurrying away from the table before she lost her battle with hunger. She could only stay close to something so good for so long before her discipline failed her at last. “It’s very generous of you to share with us, but we should save room.”

“If you say so.” Apple Bloom walked with them to the door, eyes narrowing. “You ponies best not be saying things like that around town. Not to come off unfriendly, but… you know how creatures can be after the war. We’ve all been through a lot. You shouldn’t scare folks with talk of dangers and such that just ain’t real.”

Before Sunset could reply, she snapped the door closed in their faces.

Despite the urgency of Twilight’s pronouncement, Solar Lens didn’t rush Jamie into some terrible torture, irrespective of her fears. That was all probably still coming, but her next few hours gave her plenty of time to recover. The well was not some vast empty building, but more like a university, with visible lecture halls and posters with the achievements of their graduates and many young ponies thronging back and forth.

She wasn’t taken to any of that, but to a modest private bathroom. When she was done, a white robe in the same cut as every other creature waited for her, and Solar just beyond the door with half a dozen scholars. The escort of many ponies with very little to do had gone, replaced with just a few carrying vast bundles of scrolls. Only Solar had his legs free when she emerged, and so he was the first to greet her. “Are you feeling better, Lady Jamie?”

She nodded. Floating with her eyes closed in the warm water had done a great deal to restore her sanity, even if some of the images she’d seen still lurked in the darkness there. It might be weeks before she could mentally recover from the pain of it all—assuming she ever did. Regular people just weren’t meant to see such terrible things. It was the reason so many soldiers came back with PTSD, and why so many people spent their time in VR.

I haven’t played a real video game in months. Now if Twilight gets her way the shelter is going to be ground up into paste. At least the princess hadn’t tried to interrogate her about its real position. She still doesn’t know I’m human. God, if she finds out…

If she hadn’t hated them before, her army getting beaten had certainly agitated her back into a rage.

“Would you prefer a proper meal before we begin? I’m afraid we can’t quite afford to wait until tomorrow, though I know that would probably be best for you. The princess was explicit about the urgency.”

She shook her head. “Those crackers were enough. I’m not sure my stomach is ready for anything heavier.”

Solar gestured to the other scholars, and most scattered from around them, vanishing into the nearby hallways, or up stairwells within reach. What were they doing? “Well then, if you’d follow me. Most ponies have their worst experience on their first visit, and recover quickly thereafter. We’ll try to take advantage, giving you only a few moments of exposure tonight and prepare for a more thorough experience tomorrow.”

“Exposure to… what?” She did follow, first through a metal door, then down a sharp stairwell past weakly glowing lights. “Something in here can make me into a… more powerful Alicorn, somehow? Is this where you keep the video tutorials?”

He stared back at her, no sign of recognition on his face. “I’m afraid I don’t know that term. But otherwise, your suggestion is correct. Exposure to what we store here will improve your abilities.”

“Or kill you,” said an old nag following at her heels. One of the few ponies that had remained with them, scrolls levitating behind her in an intricate cloud. “Some creatures don’t survive the process.”

Jamie’s ears flattened, and she slowed in her steps. If there was anyone not likely to survive, it was probably the one who was only an Alicorn thanks to a questionable surgery performed by an insane computer.

We’re back in range. I could talk to Epsilon if I wanted. But the process of activating it even once might be detected. Did she want to hand Twilight an excuse to kill her? Or worse, follow the radio signals back and forth and find the shelter. How fast could Concord destroy jungle?

Solar nudged her shoulder with a hoof, urging her through a wide archway at the end of the hall. There was no door, just crystal bricks of many different colors and a floor of something black and featureless.

“Vantablack?” she asked, sticking one hoof through the doorway and pulling it back just as swiftly. “It’s so… dark.”

“We operate it from below,” Solar said, pointing one hoof towards a doorway she’d missed, a little way back in the hall. “But the princess prefers to present the illusion that it all works by itself. If she desires, she can march straight into the well to drink deeply, and never encounter another creature.”

As Jamie watched, the other creatures retreated one by one, through the door behind them. Once the last unicorn shut it, the brick pattern sat perfectly flush with the other stones. Only Solar remained. “Are you going to tell me what it is before we start?”

He nodded, striding through the colored doorway. He remained clearly lit, but with the walls and floors so dark, he seemed to be floating in the void. “The Arcanum Well is a secret from most creatures—but if you’re going to use it, there is no reason you shouldn’t know for yourself.

His horn glowed, and the light illuminated an opening in the floor beneath him. Not a gap in the way it was built, more like the space itself was stretching, and the light he conjured spiraled and warped lower and lower until it vanished completely.

“I can’t tell you what it is or where it came from, because I don’t know. I can tell you what it does, though. The well is a repository of magically significant memories. Contact with it can expose you to those memories, or share them with others.”

She followed him through the doorway, and instantly felt the pull. It felt as though she was suddenly balanced precariously on the edge of a cliff, standing on a thin barrier between herself and oblivion. The slightest twitch the wrong direction, and she’d go tumbling.

“So I touch that thing, and I can… experience things other ponies did?” she asked. “Where did those memories come from?”

Solar settled onto his haunches near the center of the room, near the place that felt so much like “down”. “Ah, well… therein lies the catch. To borrow from the well, you must add something equally significant to whatever you took. There is a balance to it—the number of senses involved, your personality, the personal truth you assign to what you experienced.”

“And then…” She retreated a step. “I put things in there, and you’ll see them?” Oh buck.

“Not typically,” he said, resting one hoof on her shoulder, before she could get any closer to the door. His grip was firm, enough that she froze completely. “It takes some time for a memory to reappear after being added to the Well. Many will never resurface, since for reasons I do not understand the Well itself does not preserve duplicates. So if you’re worried about your humble past in… Hollow Shades… resurfacing, relax. It will be weeks before any creature could see. They probably won’t, in any case. We don’t have precise control. One of the reasons we avoid exposing other creatures to it. Ponies controlling the well make a request, and it tries to deliver. Some future visitor may experience what you share, but only if it is significant to their request.”

Or you’re just telling me that, and this is actually some enhanced interrogation technique.

What could Jamie possibly share with the well that wouldn’t instantly reveal the truth about her? There was my time in Hollow Shades. Living with Shy, working the little farms, and feeling like she might actually belong somewhere. Some of that was probably safe.

“And we can’t wait until tomorrow?” she asked. Not so much because she actually expected a positive result. But Solar did seem to like her. Maybe if she just looked pathetic enough…

“I’m afraid not. This way you can sleep off your first exposure, and begin fresh tomorrow. If we start tomorrow morning, half your day will be wasted in bed. Unless you have the regent’s tolerance right as we start. The Well is ancient, and I don’t know of any writings that describe Twilight’s first encounters. Maybe princesses are invulnerable?”

She glanced back the way they’d come. There were no guards waiting, no robot-ponies. After seeing inside them a bit, Jamie would be happier the less of them she had to see. “How do we start?”

“I want you to know the sensations first.” He circled around the opening in the floor, his horn glowing a little brighter by the second. “If I contribute a memory while you’re here, you will share it with me. Listen, then prepare to share something of your own. If you have an equivariant exchange in mind, it’s possible to decide what the well will take. Otherwise…” He shrugged his shoulders. “It has a mind of its own.”

“Wait, not y—”

His horn flashed once, and again the light trickled down, trailing the edge of the opening like water down a drain. Except now that Jamie was beside him, it touched her too. The sound of her panicked breathing and the distant crashing of stone far away all went dead, replaced with something else.

It was music, played in a style that she’d never heard before. Jamie was fairly sure that instrument was called a harpsichord, a plodding rhythm accompanied with a choir singing so strangely that she couldn’t understand the words. It reminded Jamie a little of a Gregorian chant, and ordinarily she wouldn’t have listened for more than a second.

This time it was different. There was significance to the sound she couldn’t explain. The musicians recreated a feeling of perfect order and harmony, letting Jamie feel almost as though she could step into a world better than hers. They sung of Equestria before, when all creatures felt only Harmony and the Devourers had never soiled the Earth.

This is what Solar feels about the music. He was the one who heard this.

In a touch that wasn’t quite words, Jamie felt something probing her in response. Its feelers slipped into her memories, searching for music.

It found her thousands of years ago, packed into the evacuation transport watching Persephone fading into the distance.

Jamie didn’t have a ticket, but she’d squeezed in anyway, pulling her legs up to her chest and wedging into a window awning. She had no restraints, but it didn’t matter. The transport wasn’t fast, and she could brace her legs up against the wall if she had to.

It was better than being stuck up there.

Babies screamed, and somewhere close people broke into a fight. She didn’t know what they were fighting over. Jamie reached one sweaty hand into a pocket, taking her headphones and slipping them onto her ears.

Her phone didn’t care the world was ending. As soon as her headphones were in, the world went abruptly silent, and the music played.

She watched explosions shake the platform from far away, wondering how much of the station would vent into space. How many of her friends had died in that moment.

The last mournful chord drifted away, and Jamie was on her hooves. The smoke and blood was replaced with the plain soap she’d just used to clean herself.

Solar stared back from a few feet away, eyes wet with the same horror Jamie had felt. “Stars above, Lady Jamie. That was supposed to be some… primitive exile drums. What music was that?”

“Your song was old,” she answered, without thinking. “That’s the oldest song I ever heard. Felt like the right thing to share. Did I do something wrong?”

Solar backed away, no longer meeting her eyes. “I had no idea life was—” He froze, recognition dawning on his face. “You’re from Hollow Shades. You saw…” He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Lady Jamie. You must’ve had family down there, friends. Who thought they were safe, building on a hallowed foundation.”

He clutched his chest with one hoof, taking a moment to catch his breath. “This is… part of what makes the Well so dangerous for common ponies. You aren’t submerging yourself in facts. Each memory in the Well carries a piece of the pony it came from. You feel what they feel. This is…” He turned towards the door, eyes losing focus. “You saw your city destroyed, didn’t you?”

She nodded. She’d half expected sharing the memory to take it away, but no. The pain she felt was fresher than ever. “You saw all that?” She looked down, and for a moment felt that rush of shock that her real body wasn’t down there. Just the stupid pony fur, ill-fitting wings.

“No.” Solar straightened, adjusting his robe methodically. “You received the memory of sound, so sound was all you shared. Like you were there at the moment it fell. I could almost hear their screams.” He retreated through the doorway, walking backwards until he crossed it. “I’m afraid that was only meant to warm you up. A few seconds of one sense won’t prepare you to serve Equestria’s magical defense. You’ll need something more substantial.”

Maybe this won’t be so bad. I’ll need to be able to use magic to escape. Maybe I can keep the shelter safe, somehow. Twilight might be teaching her magic to fight in the war, but there was no way to decide which side she’d be fighting for.

“How do I make it start?” Jamie asked, sitting calmly in the center of the room. Maybe it would kill her, the way it had apparently killed other ponies who used it. Somehow, she wasn’t afraid.

“The ponies operating the Well should be selecting a memory now,” Solar said, relaxing only once he was on the other side of the arch. “When it begins, you don’t have to do anything. Maybe sit down and find a comfortable position? Time is strange and twisted within the memories, but your body might be holding still for hours.”

Jamie’s eyes scanned the room, and she found no sign of what she’d been searching for. There was nothing left in the room with her, just that uncomfortable feeling of almost falling. “You guys should put in a couch or something.”

Something touched against her mind, the almost-alive tendrils overlapping her sensations one at a time. Maybe that was why the room was so dark and plain—without anything better to look at, her mind welcomed the alternative. Before she could say another word, she tumbled down that slope, and her body fell still.

Chapter 39: Reticulum

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Jamie woke to another perfect morning in Ponyville.

Far from unusual, Jamie’s mornings of cloudless sunlight and tuned birdsong were an expected function of life here. Twilight might have long moved to Canterlot as she served as Equestria’s monarch, but that didn’t mean the town of her apprenticeship could fall to imperfection.

With the castle’s true owner gone, Jamie had the treehouse basically to herself. Only her mother’s Crystal Guards interrupted her otherwise comfortable seclusion.

It was the opposite of the constant pampering she would’ve felt at home in the Crystal Empire, where every possible task in the castle had a crystal pony whose family had done the same thing for generations. Jamie obviously deserved that kind of pampering, but that didn’t mean she enjoyed it. How could she enjoy living in a world with boundaries so well known, where every danger was trapped in stone or reformed into a perfectly sweet and innocent little pony?

She cooked her own breakfast, and nearly burned the omelette. It wouldn’t have made one star in Zesty Gourmand’s review, but it didn’t matter. She’d cooked it herself, and that was what made it worth doing.

Jamie wandered the castle after breakfast, through rooms that her aunt Twilight had once kept perfectly organized. They weren’t anymore, now that each space was a physical representation of the things she was exploring.

She didn’t let anything like a curriculum dictate where she would work today, but that didn’t mean she would lurk alone in the empty castle growing fat and lazy. Right now Princess Twilight and her friends could handle every danger Equestria faced—but she knew it wouldn’t be like that forever. Sooner or later, she would have to take up the mantle.

“Jamie!” called a familiar voice, before she could reach the laboratory doors.

She stopped, wings spread in momentary agitation. She took a deep breath, then spun slowly around. It’s not her fault. She’s only doing what she’s been told. “Yes, Starlight?” She leaned back, kicking the door closed with a back leg. “I thought you weren’t coming until Tuesday?”

The mare was more like her father than her mother—she was a little thinner than Jamie’s earliest memories, a little grayer. She was still the wisest living unicorn, now that Starswirl had passed. She’s worth listening to, even if she’s insufferable.

“It is Tuesday,” Starlight said, levitating a little clipboard from her saddlebags and spinning it around. “See?”

The checklist could’ve been written by Aunt Twilight, except for one obvious detail. Instead of itemizing every task, there was just a thick block around the afternoon with Jamie’s heart-shaped cutie mark on it.

Mine doesn’t look like that. Jamie felt the sudden realization hit her like a wave, and she backed away in horror, legs smacking into the laboratory doors. She didn’t belong here, this wasn’t her life, she didn’t know these ponies. She didn’t even know where she was!

“Jamie,” Starlight Glimmer said, resting one hoof over her shoulder. “You can’t keep working so much without it wearing you down. Your aunt used to be this way too, and she had to learn. You need to learn a proper work-life balance.”

It didn’t matter she was out of place, surrounded by locations and people she didn’t know. Starlight’s affection was sincere—she really wanted the best for her. Of course she should listen to the friendly unicorn, even if everything she said wasn’t always easy to hear.

“It would be easier if I understood what I was doing a little better,” she admitted, wings flattening again. “Crazy magical surges were apparently my thing when I was a baby, but… they don’t solve any complex problems. Usually they just screw things up.”

Starlight laughed, hugging her briefly. Jamie never let Aunt Twilight get that close—but Starlight and her husband were different. They didn’t just pass through her life, they were part of it. “You got that right, sweetheart. Unfocused magic is like a wildfire. Buck if she isn’t hot, but… you better not be fond of anything growing nearby.”

She let go, lowering her voice almost apologetically. “You know, you could… you could apply for Celestia’s school a second time. I’m sure the admissions board would be interested in everything you accomplished since the… first time.”

Jamie huffed, turning and storming away through her laboratory doors. She probably should’ve chosen a different direction, maybe flown off through town until Starlight got bored of following. But she’s the only unicorn in town who could probably keep up if she wanted. There’s no point trying to run.

The lights came on as they walked in—Twilight’s spells, left over from when this was her laboratory. All the really interesting magic from that era was gone, except for a few tomes of forbidden spells tucked away on locked library shelves. When Jamie arrived, she’d found only empty tables waiting for her contributions.

To her great pride, plenty weren’t empty anymore.

Jamie hadn’t taken rejection lying down—she’d already done more with magic than most of the unicorns who went to that school would achieve in their whole lives.

More precisely, she’d half-done many different things. Jamie had the raw power of a firehose, and could feed magic into a spell until it (and everything nearby) exploded. But raw power was only half the battle, and sooner or later she always ran up against barriers that couldn’t be forced open.

The first table she passed contained a breakdown of “Limbo” and a few simplifications for the spells that had created the Elements. Then came a simpler mystery—why did the diamond dogs want magical gemstones so badly, when they couldn’t cast any spells to use them? Jamie was particularly proud of this one, since she’d built a brass apparatus to accept any of several different gems, and produce heat for hundreds of hours once activated. The bins containing the exploded previous versions were well-hidden behind the table.

But neither of those projects interested her today, and she stopped in front of the most infuriating of all. Even her most speculative ideas seemed like detailed magical instructions compared to the table at the back.

Half the table’s contents were collected stories from a local resource, the Cutie Mark Crusaders. A few “borrowed” volumes of royal census data, collected from farms and villages all across Equestria. Even a few memoirs from Starlight’s earliest shame.

If I don’t ask her about it soon, I might never get the chance. “Well color me impressed,” Starlight said, stopping in the center of the room. She spun in a slow circle, showing no sign of more or less interest in any of Jamie’s individual subjects of inquiry. “I’ve met ponies who were furiously devoted to questions that no other creature could answer. I’ve never met one who was trying to answer all those questions at once.”

Jamie shrugged a dismissive wing. If the complement was meant to distract her, it wouldn’t work. “You’re willing to accept everything we don’t know, Starlight? You?”

The mare followed her reluctantly to the table covered in cutie marks. Even from across the room, she couldn’t miss the sketch of the Staff of Sameness, and the wall where creatures had sacrificed their individuality in the interests of a collective whole.

It was only a small part of the study, but probably a much bigger part of Starlight’s shame.

“Ponies aren’t meant to know everything. But each generation that goes by, we figure out a little more. A few thousand years from now, and a few more generations of princesses, and we’ll probably understand everything.”

“No we won’t,” Jamie snapped. “Ponies aren’t really like that. Most of them don’t even bother learning the weather schedule. They walk around in ignorance, then one day they’re out reading or something and they get mad at the weather team when their books get wet.”

Starlight chuckled. “Well it’s a good thing we’re not all like that. Your parents will probably be thrilled to hear you’re so interested in all this.”

No they won’t. Twilight would care, but they wouldn’t. It’s not love or politics, so why bother? “Some of these things don’t seem to matter much, they just seemed interesting at the time. But this?” She gestured at the cutie mark display. The back was just a blown-up photo from the Cutie Mark Clubhouse, with a wall covered in the marks of every creature the local chapter had helped. Many of those were the marks of creatures Jamie knew from around Ponyville, albeit too old to be much interest to her.

“Don’t even start with ‘they come when they come, and you’ll accept your mark for what it is’ with me.” She began pacing, accelerating as her mind raced. “Equestria always has the right mixture of marks for all the jobs it needs, did you know that? I went through the census three times, and it’s always the same. Always exactly the right proportion of farmers. A century ago, when we started using tractors, the number of farming marks went down. Why? Did ponies suddenly get way worse at growing things?”

Starlight opened her mouth to reply—but instead she shrugged. “I didn’t know that, Jamie. That’s very interesting.”

“It’s the same thing with new inventions,” she continued. The fewer openings she gave, the lower the chances that Starlight would be able to interrupt her. “New instrument gets made, and suddenly there are creatures who can play it. When Los Pegasus made the first electric guitar, there’s a case of a colt with a mark for it showing up in Trottingham the same year. Even though he’d never even see one for years, when the CMC moved into Trottingham and recognized the image.”

With each new piece of evidence, Jamie selected the supporting documents, levitating them into the air in front of Starlight to collect.

“And where’s all that knowledge come from?” she went on. “Having a mark makes you good at it, as good as somepony who studied for years. But mind magic is evil, you know that better than anypony. And if you take a pony’s mark away, you take away most of their magic too.”

Starlight tensed at her words, though Jamie hadn’t meant to sound accusatory. She hadn’t been born back then, it wasn’t like she blamed Starlight. She probably wouldn’t even know, if Sunburst didn’t bring it up occasionally.

“You think I might know something about how they work?” Starlight asked, voice nervous. “Because of… my past?”

There was no use hiding it. “You came here to tutor me, so why don’t we start with cutie marks? Where does the power come from? How can they share information, then take it back again when they’re gone?”

“You know what your aunt would say,” Starlight said halfheartedly. But apparently even she couldn’t bring herself to sound like she believed it.

“A harmonious theory of everything,” Jamie recited, voice annoyed. “I know she’d say that. But even if the math is as pretty as she says, I don’t care if it doesn’t make sense. Somebody had to know how to farm before a cutie mark could make a pony good at farming. If you get the cutie pox, that comes from somewhere too. And when you took cutie marks away…” She trailed off, ears flattening.

“Sorry. I’m not trying to—”

Starlight cut her off, covering her mouth with a hoof. “Are you sure you want to learn, Jamie? You did come to the right pony. But you won’t like it.”

Jamie didn’t even hesitate. “Show me.”

The place its natives called “Ponyville” wasn’t far from the Apple farm. A brisk trot down a hill and across a single bridge, and already its ancient structures came into view. Star had seen buildings styled similarly in the lower districts of Concord, where few buildings were more than three or four stories. Even Hollow Shades had probably looked like this once, with many years of makeshift repairs using whatever happened to be handy.

Ponyville looked like something out of her idyllic history books, with thatched rooves packed in around a few central streets. There were no fences to separate districts—no suggestion of districts at all, at least not from outside.

“Where’s the magic?” Sunset asked, stopping them with an extended leg. “If I had to guess where they’d put it, either in the School of Friendship, or the ruins of Twilight’s old castle. There isn’t anywhere else magically insulated enough to store it.”

Star closed her eyes for a moment, then pointed into town, straight towards the power she felt. “It’s that way, tilted slightly down.” Her necklace buzzed against her coat, in a silent message she knew instantly. Their time was ticking away.

“Castle then.” Sunset pulled her leg back and started walking again. Star tensed briefly as her neck shook again, and she wasn’t the only one to freeze. The others knew what that meant as well as she did. “Only the trunk survived, so she would’ve buried it. Hopefully that means we can do some damage without creatures noticing.”

“Are we going to talk about how obviously wrong this is?” Windbrisk asked, following just behind Sunset. He still wore the robe, though he hadn’t bothered covering his face up again after the friendly response from Apple Bloom. Maybe there was nothing to be afraid of. “Like, maybe the part where everything we expected was wrong and there are actually immortal ponies living here?”

“Not quite.” Sunset did stop, but not because of anything Windbrisk had said. Star froze just beside her, as they crossed the bridge and got their first clear view into the streets of Ponyville.

Sure enough, creatures were setting up for a festival. Green and gold decorations covered everything in sight, and the streets were full of refreshment stalls, tables of gifts, and costumes. There was just one thing missing: the ponies.

“Apple Bloom didn’t give us much, but I think she told us how Twilight has been preserving all this.”

“No she didn’t,” Windbrisk snapped. “I get that you used to know her, but that doesn’t change anything. She’s working with the enemy. For all we know, she warned the Royal Guard we were here.”

Star reached up, touching one hoof to his shoulder. “No, Windbrisk. Sunset’s right. That pony might have a bad memory, but no creature could stay at the same place for a thousand years and not know it. Either she’s lying, or…”

“Or we know what Twilight did with time,” Sunset finished for her. “Explains why she didn’t spread it around Equestria, too. The ponies here aren’t immortal, they’re just on loop. I even know the artifact she’s using.”

Windbrisk didn’t pull away from Star, at least. Maybe he was forgiving her. “I don’t see what that gets her,” he said, finally turning to pace across the edge of the bridge. “She’s a tyrant, she’s evil, I got that. But she’s not insane. She thinks all her evil has a reason, even if the rest of us can tell how horrible she is. So what the buck is the point of taking some town she used to love and sticking them in time?”

Sunset Shimmer could only shrug. “It must be related to the energy she harvests from here. Ponies are flowing in all the time, but they never leave. How many do you think have come here over the years, Star? Enough to fill up this little town?”

She nodded without hesitation. “Whole trains of pilgrims come here every year. More than half aren’t harmonious enough, and get sent home. That leaves… I dunno, maybe a thousand ponies a year? They’d fill up this place in a decade. We’d have to tear these old buildings down, pack in skyscrapers. Even then, they’d be halfway to the shield by now, or just spreading out in all directions until there was nowhere left to farm.”

“The point is, ponies don’t come out,” Sunset said. “That might be related to however time is looping. And… probably all the more reason for us to get out as quickly as we can. I don’t think we want to be here when it resets.”

“Hopefully that’s dawn,” Star said. “Most spells can keep going comfortably until sunrise, presumably that’s when this one rolls over. Or…” It was such an insanely complex suggestion she never would’ve believed it about any other creature. But this was the princess they were talking about now. “Maybe the time-loop is cheating the cost of the other magic she used? Cast it for a day, then you’re only paying for one mind-numbing cost in magic, instead of two.”

She tried to imagine what the spell’s runic outline would look like, and the complexity made her head ache. Such an achievement would be the life’s work of the most talented engineers, something they would craft, then store away in a library for the princess’s own edification, never to be cast.

“We don’t really need to know how it works anyway,” Windbrisk said. “Lead us to the spell, Star. Destroy it, and we get out.”

They crossed the bridge into Ponyville, and without a word exchanged between them they moved into a tight formation, all within reach of each other.

Star would’ve thought the village was beautiful, if she didn’t expect the creeping strangulation of death to be waiting around every corner. The builders had used soft pink glass for many of the windows, heart shapes in the molding and doorframes were as common as the little sun and moon cutie mark illustrations.

Star watched the windows up above, searching for any sign of life. Most of those shutters were open, exposing empty interiors stained with the light of an approaching sundown.

Within this strange pocket with its own day and night, the night was coming. The transition made it hard to know whether she should be awake or asleep, but she fought through it. “Maybe we should’ve had some of that cobbler,” she muttered, voice low in the deserted city. “It was just one meal. I don’t think Twilight would want visitors poisoned before they can get to the core.”

“Apple Bloom wouldn’t poison us,” Sunset answered, her voice just as low. “Not intentionally, anyway. She takes after her older sister’s honesty. That’s what made her a perfect source. If she knew anything about my questions, she would’ve had to fight to keep herself from answering. It’s hilarious, and hard to hide. But you probably know well enough what happens if you’re sympathetically tied to a time spell when it gets cast. Do you want to be part of it, or an outsider just exposed to it? One is probably worse than the other.”

When you say Apple Bloom is like her honest older sister. Star didn’t want to sound stupid, but Sunset had already mentioned the Elements once. “Was that Applejack’s younger sister? As in the… relative of one of the Exemplars, still alive?”

Sunset nodded. “Not sure what an Exemplar is, but yeah. Elements of Harmony.” She lowered her head, touching one hoof to her chest for a moment. “Celestia remember them.” It wasn’t an invocation she’d ever heard before, but it also didn’t seem like worship. More like… remembering dead friends.

“Twilight might’ve been the only one who came back from Oravantrix, but that doesn’t mean their whole families came. Only Twilight had a relative in the Royal Guard to be part of that expedition. He didn’t come back either.”

The decorations were at least leading somewhere—through town to the other side, where a sprawling building surrounded by shallow pools and a waterfall off to one side dominated the landscape. The entire grounds around the structure had been illuminated with oversized lanterns, each one filled with candles. Balloons rose above each one, yet somehow they kept in equilibrium, not drifting up into the sky.

Dozens of ponies gathered in front of the building, surrounding banquet tables and a performance stage packed with instruments. It had everything a venue needed to entertain hundreds at a time, missing only one thing.

Staff. There were many ponies spread all around—some dancing, others enjoying the refreshments, or occupied with party games Star couldn’t easily see at this distance. But every one of them dressed in the robes of a pilgrim, with cloth in four colored strips. White, blue, orange, and pink all twisted together in a chaotic mess meant to be individual to each creature.

They were all ponies, of course. But Star didn’t try to get a good look, just lowered her head and hurried past the road. A set of sandbags blocked the path beyond, with decorations that ended as abruptly as the streetlights. There were still plenty of buildings on that side, just no sign of any occupation. Not where the princess wanted pilgrims to go, then.

It was where the magic was coming from, growing stronger the closer they got. “How long until we find the evil magic that tries to kill us?” Windbrisk asked, pulling the hood of his robe up. “Because there’s no bucking way some of those ponies didn’t see us.”

Those pilgrims are probably here to be fed on like all the others who enter. If we can break the spell, we save their lives.

“They saw us, all right.” Sunset broke into a trot, passing between them. “Don’t look back, it will make us look guilty. Just seem like we’re trying to get somewhere in a hurry. They’re coming.”

Star didn’t look back, following along behind Sunset. Even if she didn’t have strong magical senses anymore, the mare seemed to know their destination. Maybe she even knew the streets, because she dodged suddenly down a nearby alley, fast enough that Windbrisk nearly tripped on the hem of his oversized robe. Star caught him with her magic, levitating him along for a few steps until he had his claws under him again, and they were away from the main road.

“We hide,” Sunset whispered, trying the first door they came to. The lock held. Probably not nearly strong enough to keep a determined Unification Army soldier outside. But if we break in, they’ll know where we went.

Windbrisk tried another nearby house, with similar results. They were all fairly upscale houses compared to the ones on the other side of town, several with fences and real ceramic tile rooves.

One was the largest and fanciest of all, though more importantly it also looked more like a store.

She pointed at the building, a rounded, purple affair. “Come on.” They didn’t have time for an argument—the hooves behind were getting louder.

What happens if we do hide? Do they just think they imagined it and give up? Star didn’t let herself get distracted, she just hurried up to the building. Ancient fashions rested in the windows, each one as elegant as it was obscuring. The door swung inward, and she held the door long enough for the others, locking the obvious mechanism and gesturing towards an open changing room shielded by mirrors. “In there!” she urged. “That way they can’t see us from the windows!”

Whether it was how commanding she sounded, or just the others agreeing with her obviously good idea, they followed. Strangely there was no ocean of dust to rise around them, but a fairly clean shop, even if all the lights were out. They all packed into the changing room, and Star pulled the lacy curtain across the doorway. Then they waited.

“How much do you think they saw?” Windbrisk whispered, so quiet that Star could barely make out his words. “Maybe they’ll think they imagined it.”

Sunset didn’t answer, because a pair of hoofsteps crunched on the gravel road outside. Bright white shone suddenly into the room, flooding across the empty space.

“Nothing there, Slice,” said a voice moments later. “Just like the other ones. Should we search this one too?”

“No,” answered another, voice suddenly sharp. Almost… afraid? “Not that building. I don’t want any of your ponies touching it. Get to the old castle and stay there. If anypony comes—” The speaker’s voice faded into the distance as they walked away, taking whatever secret they knew with them.

Star remained in place, frozen and barely daring to breathe. It could be a trick, an attempt to lure them out if they were hiding. But seconds turned to minutes, and still there was no sound of the ponies returning.

“So, good news and bad news,” Sunset whispered, hopping down off the bench. “They didn’t find us, but… whoever’s in here knows where we’re going. We’ll have to get past them, maybe fight. I wonder how many guards—”

Something thumped loudly over their heads, loud enough that Star actually jumped. She winced, glancing to her companions for support. She saw only shock and horror as deep as anything she felt. “Did you two just—”

BANG! Another strike, louder this time. Is it trying to call the guards? Had they been gone long enough not to hear something so loud?

Windbrisk shrugged out of his torn robe, revealing the harness underneath. Saddlebags packed with human explosives were strapped tight to his body, where they wouldn’t move when he ran, or disrupt his wings if he needed to fly. Star had no idea how any of it worked, but she wasn’t the one who had to use it.

He hefted the heavy crossbow from his back, pulling the curtains away. There was no fresh wave of flashlight illumination pointing to them, but another moment later and the ceiling banged again. Something metal scraped against the stone. “What the hell would be hiding in a clothes shop?”

Sunset unclipped her dagger—it was the only weapon they’d given her, after all. “Nopony should be living here anymore,” she whispered, gesturing to a door against the far wall. “She’s dead.”

Star pushed it open with her magic, revealing a plain-looking kitchen beyond, and what looked like living quarters. The shop was attached to where the pony who owned this place lived. Or at least, had lived.

“I’ll check it,” Windbrisk declared, just in time for a fresh bang from overhead. “Wait here, I’ll be right back.”

“That’s cute,” Sunset said, shouldering past him. “Except I know where this is. Don’t bucking shoot anything unless I tell you.”

Maybe Star should’ve stayed on the ground floor to watch their retreat, in case some inexplicable monster wanted to follow them.

She didn’t, and was just behind Windbrisk as he crested the stairs.

Past a narrow hallway was an open door to an extensive workshop, packed with various pieces of sewing equipment and bolts of cloth in open wire racks against the far wall.

Something banged again, and not from the dusty workshop. There was a locked door across the hall, one with a cutie mark in faded paint. Something smacked up against a wall on the other side, shaking the whole house again.

“Hello?” Sunset called. “Is somepony in there?”

There was a brief silence—then a series of sharp bangs, louder and faster than before. Desperate to be heard, maybe.

“We hear you! Stop making so much noise, we’ll get you out.” Sunset lifted her dagger in faint green magic, holding it ahead of her. So she could still do that. “Open it, Star.”

The door was locked from their side, so Star didn’t even need to stop to prepare an unlocking spell. At least they would’ve had the luxury of enough time to do that.

She swung it open, slowly enough that she wouldn’t smack it into anyone if they were right beside the door.

There wasn’t anypony by the door, though there was something on the bed. A metal desk sat beside the wall, its edges flattened strangely and the wall covered in white powder. Something was under the blankets, vaguely pony shaped.

This is it. This is the horror we all knew we would find. Maybe this was the awful thing Sunset had hinted at, where the princess tried to turn the already-dead into soldiers. She couldn’t smell any more preservative fluid than usual, but there was no being sure.

As she hesitated, the desk levitated up into the air again, banging sharply against the wall before thumping back down.

Star yanked on the blanket, pulling it back in a single snap, tossing it against the wall so it wouldn’t block their line of sight if they had to attack.

There was a white unicorn under there, with a curly pink and purple mane and her whole body bound in tight restraints. Star had seen their like before, on prisoners about to be executed. At least her horn hadn’t been snapped off first.

The pony’s mouth was tightly bound, and blinders covered her eyes—but her ears were open. You heard us talking downstairs. You didn’t start banging until after the guards had left.

Sunset advanced on her, lowered the knife to her bindings. “Hold still, Sweetie. I’ll take care of these.” She started with her head, slicing away the top of the harness, and the gag. She was older than Star, probably about the same age as the mare they’d met earlier today. There was something similar about that cutie mark, come to think of it.

The pony within stared at them, bright green eyes shocked and bloodshot. “I… I…” She coughed, and a little blood seeped out from the bandages.

Star kept her distance in case she attacked, her magic alert and ready for a counterspell. This pony might not have her talent, but she was powerful enough to throw furniture around when she couldn’t see it.

But she didn’t attack, even when Sunset finished with the last of the thick fabric straps. She reached out, touching Sunset’s shoulder with one weak hoof. “How… how are you here, Sunset? Shouldn’t you be dead?”

“Could’ve, should’ve, would’ve,” Sunset answered. “Nice to see you too, Sweetie Belle.”

Chapter 40: Serpens

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Jamie knew that Starlight Glimmer’s secret knowledge must be hiding far from the world she lived in. Obviously, her secret must rest somewhere that nopony else would ever go, or else it would’ve been revealed years before. But when she turned towards the train station, Starlight gently pushed her aside, gesturing to a trail leading east of town. “The Gem Caves?” she asked, eyebrows going up. “I thought you grew up in northeast Equestria. Wouldn’t your secrets be up there?”

Starlight didn’t answer until they had set off. “You have to understand, Jamie. This information is so secret, so dangerous, that I can’t imagine sharing it with anypony who wasn’t a princess. I haven’t even told Princess Twilight yet, and I don’t think I will. She has enough to worry about with all Equestria on her mind. It might be smart not to be burdened with the knowledge either.”

Jamie shook her head. “Burdened with knowledge” was the sort of thing Twilight would say, as an excuse to keep her from whatever she wanted to know. She hated that explanation, no matter who gave it. “I’ll keep your secret,” she said. “But I want to know. I don’t care how scary it is. Twilight and the Elements fought nightmares. My mom and dad fought monsters. I can fight them too.”

Starlight was unwavering and said nothing until they’d left the busy streets of Ponyville behind. Even her friendship school had faded into the distance before she would talk about anything relevant again.

“It wouldn’t be that scary if it was just about monsters,” Starlight Glimmer said, as though they hadn’t already been walking for half an hour. “Monsters don’t challenge us. Every creature realizes there are others out in the world who want to hurt them, that’s just part of growing up. There are dragons who can’t be convinced to be friendly. Spirits of the ice and snow who want to feed on disharmony, and spirits of chaos who need to keep things changing no matter what. Those creatures exist.”

“But if it’s not a monster, then…” Jamie furrowed her brow, wings spreading as she tried to figure out what this could have to do with cutie marks. “What could be scary to Equestria?”

Starlight Glimmer touched one leg to her shoulder, pointing her away from the comfortable trail and out into the abandoned mine. A single “closed” sign was overgrown with weeds, and the road itself was choked with undergrowth. Grass blanketed much of the pit, covering up holes of various sizes.

“The scariest thing a pony has to do isn’t fight monsters—it’s realizing that something they loved about the world was a lie. What do ponies care more about than our cutie marks? Everypony has their story—they brag about how their special talent has made them special or directed their lives. There are chapters of the CMC from Vanhoover to Trottingham for a reason.”

Oh. Jamie hurried to keep up. Rather than fight her way through the reedy brush, she lifted into a low hover, gliding until she made it over the thorns and onto soft grass. “So we’re wrong about cutie marks? They… don’t make us special?”

Starlight seemed to know where she was going, but Jamie couldn’t imagine how. An old mechanical digger lay in the dirt, rusting into nothing. Whatever attempt she might’ve made at navigation was made more difficult by seemingly random piles of dirt, breaking the grass in patches.

Well that’s odd. If this place is abandoned, who kept digging?

“I can’t say they’re wrong,” Starlight said. “What makes a pony special is up to them. If they feel like their special talent is something to give them purpose, they’re right. That’s as much as most ponies need to know.”

Jamie landed right in front of her, settling down onto her haunches. “So why did you want to come out here, Starlight? I don’t see how you would’ve learned anything here to make that village all those years ago.”

“I didn’t,” Starlight said. “That’s the flow of information backwards. I learned of the significance of this place much later. But we still have a long way to go—I’ll explain on the way.” She pointed down into a great wide pit, big enough that Jamie could barely see the bottom. Strangely it hadn’t collapsed, but there was an opening down there. A tunnel, held up with old wooden struts?

“Is it safe?” she asked.

“It gets safer as we get deeper. They want it to look as unfriendly as possible to ponies who wander past it. But a little further down and it’s all well-maintained, you’ll see.”

They. Jamie would’ve stopped right there if she were talking to anypony else. It was so easy to blame a mysterious other for all kinds of terrible things that happened around Equestria. But Starlight of all ponies wouldn’t waste her time. She was one of the few ponies who had bothered keeping Jamie in her life once she failed the entrance exam, and her intricately planned life went off the rails.

“First, Jamie… did you know there are ways to send messages across Equestria instantly, without dragonfire or the telegraph?”

Jamie lit her horn as she landed in the dirt. The mine looked the way she expected it to, with rusting tracks and a few overturned carts. In places the supports had collapsed, and the ceiling had caved in. But most of the area was clear, and that was where Starlight took her. “If you tell me there is, I believe you. Sounds like powerful magic.”

“That’s just it—it isn’t magic. About a decade ago, the Royal Institute of Sciences was studying something they’d learned while observing the telegraph stations. While attempting to boost transmission power to avoid repeater stations over long distances, they discovered that nearby metal surfaces sometimes picked up messages, buzzing and heating up without any contact to the telegraph line. After some experimentation, they discovered how to make these signals intentionally, sending them out in all directions.

“You might be aware that I had… similar luck, getting into Celestia’s school. But when Sunburst left me, I explored all the alternate avenues my city offered, including the outpost of the Royal Institute. They had a receiving station for these invisible waves, and they were experimenting with a sister station all the way in Canterlot, with the eventual goal of eliminating the need for telegraph wires entirely.”

Jamie shook her head. “They must not have succeeded. We’re always building new telegraphs, even today. I’ve never heard of, uh… what’s it called?”

“Radio,” Starlight supplied. “And you’re right in your observations, great use of critical thinking skills. You’ve just drawn the wrong conclusions. It isn’t that radio doesn’t work, it’s that it had other effects.

“The observatory in Sire's Hollow had to keep listening all the time, since they didn’t know when an experiment from Canterlot might be coming. It was their task to get as much as possible and copy it back as soon as they’d finished. When the old scientists got bored of sitting there doing nothing, they hired a few local ponies to do the listening for them, including me.”

She stopped Jamie with an outstretched hoof, blocking the widest path and pointing instead towards a narrow staircase. Jamie only shrugged and followed, though the area Starlight seemed intent on visiting looked increasingly dangerous the further they walked.

“It was the perfect job for a student who needed some bits. Most of the time I didn’t even do anything. The station had hundreds of magical textbooks for me to study while I sat there listening, collecting royal bits. But that doesn’t matter—what does, is that the radio listener started picking up messages when nopony was sending things. They seemed more like someone had left a hoof on the transmitter for a minute or more, but Canterlot always denied they were responsible.

“They never figured out where the messages were coming from, or what they are. But I lived in Sire’s Hollow, and I eventually did. They always came right when a pony got their cutie mark. I snuck off with as many recordings of these signals as I could, and eventually I figured out how they worked.

“I’m not going to teach you the specifics, so don’t ask. I made my mistake trying to control cutie marks. Just know that anypony could do it if they wanted. With the right signal, you could give anypony whatever mark you wanted, or take their mark away. That’s not a power Equestria would want anyone to have.”

Jamie glanced backward at her own mark, forever proclaiming her connection to the Crystal Empire and its creatures. Could somepony just come along and take it away? Yes. Starlight can. She did it to a whole town’s worth of creatures. It wasn’t just her, either. Celestia and Luna had somehow passed their powers to Twilight, to keep their magic safe from Tirek. So the power was known to the Alicorns at some level.

For a second, she felt content with the answer. But only a second. “That doesn’t explain anything about how cutie marks work, it only passes the question back one layer. Instead of ‘why do we get cutie marks?’ the question is ‘where are they all coming from?’”

Starlight patted her on the shoulder with one hoof. “What did I tell you, Jamie? Those ponies at Celestia’s school didn’t know what they were missing. You don’t just have power; you’ve got just the right attitude to break problems down.

“If you’re looking for the answer, well—my younger self didn’t know. I was a little curious, like you, but I only cared about things that would help me get the power I thought I wanted. I stole their tool, that was what mattered. I spent a few years ruining ponies’ lives, even if I did have the best intentions. But when that was all over and I was Twilight’s personal student, I had some time to think back on all the questions I hadn’t answered.”

“Including—” Jamie froze, her ears perking. There was sound ahead, coming from the same direction as a set of faint white lanterns glowing in the distance. Creatures moving towards them. “Buck. Something lives down here?”

“Lots of someones,” Starlight corrected. “Yes. That’s why we’re using the front entrance, instead of picking a tunnel at random. Don’t worry, diamond dogs won’t attack ponies. They’re actually quite friendly, if you know how to approach them.”

Jamie tilted her head to the side. “What’s a diamond dog? I don’t think I’ve seen any of those at Twilight’s school.”

Starlight set off again, towards the gigantic outlines closing in on them. “No, you wouldn’t have. They’re very private creatures and don’t talk with other creatures much. Or… not with ponies.”