• Published 27th Nov 2019
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Hour of Twilight - Starscribe

Twilight Sparkle was Celestia's chosen heir, and under her rule Equestria was destined to prosper. But then her friends passed, as mortal ponies always do, and she was left to rule alone. The years were not kind to her after that.

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Chapter 31: Antlia

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.

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