• 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 37: Caelum

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.”

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