• 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 39: Reticulum

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.”

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