• 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 38: Camelopardalis

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.

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