• 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 42: Lynx

Jamie was bigger now. Her wings had filled with feathers that caught the wind almost effortlessly. She couldn’t walk down a street in Ponyville without stallions stopping to notice her. She’d known a few of them intimately enough by now, but ultimately their company had never interested her for long.

She had never managed to secure herself a 3D-projector, despite Dawn’s friendliness. So Jamie’s map of the world had to be built of real material—a cross-section that showed the surface of Equestria as its center. Every new thing she learned about it was added to the model, gradually expanding to greater detail as she learned more.

Constructing her model had cost Jamie the tender illusion that Equus was built for ponies, or even built by them. She couldn’t attend the Festival of the Two Sisters without realizing that Twilight wasn’t moving the sun in the sky, but only controlling the shell of ancient orbital platforms that surrounded the planet. In the end it might amount to the same thing—but still, the magic was gone.

She could no longer appreciate astronomy either, knowing that the beautiful constellations and galaxies and stranger things were not out there—they were just images, pictured on the inside of a shell, and manipulated by pony magic.

We can’t move the stars. We don’t even understand the way it all works.

But none of that was as bad as the simple truth that ponies were not their own creatures. Everything they built—everywhere they felt the drive to go, as they expanded across the world in all directions—it wasn’t their decision, but an unseen hand, manipulating them over the generations. Meanwhile, the creatures she had once pitied, lacking very much magic of their own—they had something ponies couldn’t dream of.

They hadn’t been created by an inscrutable mind, and weren’t being puppeted by it to this day. The griffons and changelings and yaks and all other creatures were incidental products of human genetic engineering, or in some cases, failed experiments with magic that predated ponies. The Governing Intelligence didn’t care about them anymore.

For that, they were free.

But the worst part by far was having nopony to tell about it. Starlight Glimmer was getting older, though like any powerful unicorn she would probably live more than a century before her body gave out. But Starlight didn’t seem effected the way Jamie did. Whenever she visited, she always tried to turn Jamie’s fears into something positive.

“It sounds like we’re the ones who got lucky,” she had said, only a few weeks ago. “The other creatures aren’t part of anything bigger than themselves—there’s no plan for them. Their lives only mean as much as they can find, then they’re over. But ponies—we’re part of a purpose bigger than ourselves. Even the smallest, most insignificant pony is helping with a mission thousands of years in the making.”

“It means we don’t get to decide!” Jamie argued. “What if I don’t want to fix a planet some other creatures wrecked? Eventually, they’re gonna want it back!”

Starlight Glimmer shook her head, patting Jamie on the shoulder with one shaking hoof. “We’ll never have to worry about that, Jamie. Dawn says it’s going to be another thousand years before the last orbital deviations have been corrected and the debris has all been cleaned from the upper atmosphere. The humans would feel hopelessly caged if they woke up on a planet they couldn’t leave. In a thousand years, she’s sure that ponies will be more advanced than they are. We’ll be like… kind, nurturing parents to the ones who wake up. When our great-great-grandchildren show them kindness, we can repay our creators for making us, and live as equals from then on.”

Starlight wasn’t the kind of pony to be easily persuaded. After all, she had been so committed to a noble impossibility that she had once tried to rebuild society to realize it.

The Governing Intelligence was probably responsible for that too. If ponies gave up their cutie marks, then they wouldn’t have to listen to its plans anymore. We wouldn’t be its loyal slaves.

Jamie had her mind made up after that. There was one creature who would take the threat against Equestria seriously, the same way she took all threats against her ponies. She would need to talk to the princess.

Her aunt had become increasingly aloof as the years wore on, enough that ponies without some connection to her found it difficult to get time with the nation’s sole ruler. But with more of the world’s other creatures befriended, there was less for her to do. The free Zebra tribes were now on cordial terms with Equestria, the Yakyakistani didn’t threaten the northern border—even the dragons refrained from making threats with Spike sitting so prominently on the court.

I only have one chance to make her see. For all she knew, Twilight would be ruling for another thousand years, possibly with Jamie at her side one day. They might be the very creatures ruling when humans woke up and wanted their planet back.

She worked for over a year before her evidence was finally compiled. Jamie traveled to distant lands, she spoke with folklorists, gathered artifacts of the most ancient cast. She even visited the fearful Dawn in her shelter, and fought her own shame at the betrayal long enough to extract evidence from her too.

Finally the day of her time in the Purple Court arrived, and she was hovering nervously outside the throne room. Guards on either side shuffled and avoided her, and Jamie couldn’t really blame them. How often had they seen another Alicorn in the royal court?

“A whole day,” somepony whispered—a brave mare, to be addressing her directly. “Is there some fearful news to Equestria, Princess?”

Jamie nodded gravely, landing in front of her. Her heavy saddlebags dug into her back, a great deal of weight even for an Alicorn like herself. “Equestria is strong,” she said, in a voice she hoped was confident and comforting. “By working together in friendship, I’m sure we’ll overcome this too.”

Finally a bell sounded from inside, and Jamie marched in.

It had been so long since she’d visited the throne room for herself. Aside from the Gala, which even Twilight never let her skip, she spent as little time in Canterlot as she could.

“Princess Jamie!” Twilight looked up from her throne, settling down a scroll and quill in front of her. From the shelf beside the throne, she guessed writing was something the princess must do a lot. “It’s been too long since I’ve seen my niece.” She vanished from her seat, appearing before Jamie in a flash of magic so faint Jamie almost didn’t notice. That was magical power.

But Twilight was so big, enough that her wings seemed to completely swallow her. Jamie accepted the hug, though she squirmed almost as soon as Twilight had her in her wings, and didn’t stop until she was free again. “I’m most interested in why you insisted on a slot in my court, instead of just visiting the palace whenever you wanted. You know we would’ve been here for you.”


But then something stirred behind the throne, and Jamie saw another figure. A towering quadruped, with rippling muscles and deep purple wings. Spike wore a breastplate and carried a sword—though the armor was soft gold, and the sword completely dull. A weapon of honor, not war. “Are you sure this is the same foal I remember, Twi? She’s so tall!”

“Yes,” Jamie answered, before they could wander down a path of reminiscing and memories and waste what was left of her timeslot. “Princess Twilight, I believe Equestria is facing an existential threat.” Hopefully Twilight appreciated the number of times she’d rehearsed this conversation. She’d even looked up the right words.

“Oh?” Twilight’s jovial grin vanished, her tail stopped flicking back and forth. The lights of the chamber dimmed. “Which disaster are you referring to this time, precisely? Another summoner breaching the dimensional fabric? Water shortages, invasive plants, slowing of the ocean currents, a second changeling invasion, Tirek getting loose…”

She trailed off, looking like she could’ve continued her list for some time. But her wings shifted uncomfortably to either side. “None of those? I’ve been taking a proactive view towards Equestria’s protection in my twenty years on this throne,” Twilight continued, pacing slowly away from her and forcing Jamie to follow. “I’ve built reserves of food and supplies that make every city independent in the event of a natural disaster. I’ve built dykes and reinforced skyscrapers and trained SMILE agents in every village to confront our most common magical predators. I’ve placed eyes in every friendly and hostile neighbor, watching for signs of war. Equestria even has a vault of seeds in case a deadly magical famine extinguishes some staple crop we depend on.”

She finally settled on her haunches, grinning in a way she probably thought was reassuring. “Tell me, niece. Is your fear something that my careful preparation will not protect us from? I loved and cherished Celestia’s wisdom—but I don’t intend to leave you as the last line of defense against disaster. That’s too much pressure to put on just one pony, even if she might be ruling Equestria one day.”

I can’t believe you don’t know. “It’s none of those things,” she explained. “And honestly, it might not even be a danger for hundreds of years. But the sooner we start making plans, the more control we have over our future.”

Twilight Sparkle wasn’t the sort of creature to be easily convinced. It took well over an hour of persuasion, and even with all her evidence, there were some things she wouldn’t accept. But Twilight didn’t need to believe the Silurian elder race that had once inhabited Equestria was their creator, or even that they were controlling Equestrian society with cutie marks.

She refused to be convinced of any of that, insisting as so many others did that the magic of unified harmony could not be faked. But facing such overwhelming evidence, Twilight couldn’t just argue against it all. Jamie could prove that creatures were sleeping under the ground, and one day they would wake to take the planet that so many ponies had worked to repair.

Despite his sword, Spike spent most of their meeting furiously scribbling things down on a clipboard, and by the time they’d finished his scroll was easily twelve feet long.

Twilight slumped into her throne, taking in the pile of evidence in front of her again. A stolen tablet computer, fossilized bones, stories of the ancients, and detailed photographs of the shell around their world. More than any creature could possibly ignore, no matter how much they might want to.

“These humans could be a serious threat,” she finally admitted. “If there were really that many of them living on Equus all those years ago, there might not be enough space when they wake up.”

Flurry nodded her agreement. “I think we should start the search for every one of their hidden bases. Once we know how many there are, Equestria can understand the size of the danger. If we confront them, we should be able to force them to wake up only a few at once over a very long period. That way we can keep their numbers smaller than ours. Pony magic can keep them peaceful, and we keep our home.”

And once I’m in charge, I figure out a way to replace cutie marks without taking away our magic.

“No no.” Twilight spread her wings in a placating gesture, even as she was arguing with her. “That isn’t the pony way, Jaime. It’s not wrong to be afraid. My school proved that all creatures could be taught the magic of friendship. These humans might be dangerous, but as soon as we convince them to be our friends, that won’t be an issue. We must convince their leader, just like we did with the dragon lord. After that, everything falls into place.”

Jamie could barely believe what she was hearing. “Who would we even talk to, Twilight? There’s… Dawn is already friendly. But she won’t be alive when the others wake up, she’s not the one we have to convince.”

“You called it the… Governing Intelligence,” she answered. “That’s who we find. If we make friends now, we might even be able to get some kind of… treaty. We won’t have to wonder where those numbers will live, because they won’t try to wake up too many people at once.”

“I don’t know where it is,” Jamie said, her tone growing more desperate by the moment. It was going wrong so fast! Sure, maybe they would make the best friends’ ponies had ever known. But if the new creatures weren’t kind, they’d be giving away their knowledge of the scheme to the ones who had power over their civilization. “I don’t think we can do that. Even Dawn didn’t know where it was. Said it was… deliberately hidden to prevent destruction during the war.”

“Maybe it was,” Twilight agreed. “But there are creatures older and wiser than Dawn. My mentor, Princess Celestia.”

“They’re…” Jamie hesitated for a moment, ears flattening with embarrassment. This was a sore subject for the other Alicorn, even if Jamie herself hadn’t been old enough to remember them very well. “I didn’t know they were still around.”

Her fear was in vain—the Alicorn princess only smiled knowingly down at her. “After ruling over Equestria for a thousand years, you think Celestia turned to dust in a decade? Her sister was far younger—technically she didn’t age at all while she was on the moon. They’re just retired, that’s all. Ruling Equestria was wearing Celestia down, and Luna never much cared for it.”

She turned, meeting Spike’s eyes. “When is the soonest we can visit Silver Shoals?” she asked.

It took the dragon a moment to answer. He fished around through several scrolls, considering carefully. “Next month,” he finally said. “Unless you want to cancel the peace conference with the Minotaur chiefs. Or skip a few of the Festival events two weeks from now.”

“No no, that won’t be necessary.” Twilight grinned. “The ancients have slept for thousands of years; they can keep sleeping another month. Besides, that will give my niece a little more time to think of how she’s going to explain this to Great-Aunt Celestia.”

“No!” she exclaimed, stomping one hoof abruptly. Loudly enough that guards from all around the room jumped in surprise, or even started backing away, horrified. Who would argue with a princess like that?

Twilight didn’t seem angry, only confused. “What do you mean?”

“I think it’s the wrong plan,” she finally said. I might not get another chance, better do this right. “Dawn is only one human, and she has the loyalty of hundreds of diamond dogs without even trying. The secret city she comes from has another mind inside it—mechanical and cold, like the Governing Intelligence.

“Humans can be friendly, but that mind can’t. It used our lives for a hundred generations of ponies without caring how we suffered.” It made us create ice-ages to manipulate the climate, even when hundreds of thousands of ponies would die. It let us face invasions without enough protection. It plans to replace us.

She retreated from Twilight, lifting into the air in a low hover. “What you’re doing is… flying right up to the monster about to eat us, and warning it that we know its plan. We shouldn’t, and I won’t. If you wanna do that, go without me.”

Princess Twilight Sparkle took a long time to answer. By the time she did, her face had lost any of its familial friendliness and become cold, the way she looked for court.

“I hope you change your mind, niece. But if you don’t… I’m still convinced the pony way is the right way to disarm this threat. Even Discord adapted to a world of friendship with ponies. Even if they’re strange and old, these ancients seem far more like us than they are different.”

Sweetie Belle was in no condition to travel anywhere quickly. Unfortunately for her, they didn’t have the luxury of enough time to go slowly. When the sun came up and time looped back around, that would represent mission failure—and possibly getting erased from existence. They’d have to wait and see about that part.

After a short distance, Windbrisk let her climb onto his back to start carrying her. He was no earth pony, and the unicorn wasn’t weightless—but he didn’t complain. Windbrisk’s dedication to their mission was strong enough for that.

For better or worse, there was little stealth involved. Their destination wasn’t anywhere in Ponyville—if it had been, the princess probably would’ve found it herself through simple exposure. Rather, they continued around it in a wide arc, eventually reaching an abandoned gemstone mine.

“My sister used to come out here looking for the best rocks for work,” she explained. “She got kidnapped once, and that’s how we learned about the diamond dogs living down there. It took a lot longer to figure out what they were digging for.”

She gestured to an open burrow, identical to all the others. “Apparently this shelter is special—I don’t know how the technology works, but this one had enough space for the Governing Intelligence to hide in, once its old home was destroyed.”

“I have no idea what that means,” Windbrisk muttered. “No wonder every creature thinks they killed it. How can a creature be dead and alive at the same time?”

Sweetie nodded sympathetically. “The Governing Intelligence isn’t a creature, it’s a thinking machine. Like I said, I can’t get specific… but I know the humans like Dawn made lots of them. Most aren’t very smart, and they put them everywhere. They talk to their machines, and the machines talk back.

“A few they made smarter, and those could only live in special… shells. They were hard to make, and so there weren’t very many. One was here, the one trying to figure out how magic worked. Once we killed the last Governing Intelligence, it escaped down here, where it has been hiding ever since. Or… I guess you’d probably say it was trapped down here.”

It was enough explanation for her to accept, given the circumstances. As they crossed deeper and deeper into the dark, she occasionally checked her pendant to see how much time they had left. Once the day came again, the resistance was finished.

All she could do was marvel that Sweetie could find her way through the dense caverns. One tunnel was much like another to her.

“Something’s coming,” Windbrisk said, taking off to hover in the air at the back of the group. His ears twitched, and he gestured off a seemingly random passage. “Rapidly. Several creatures, moving like they’re made of iron.”

Sunset drew her sword in feeble green magic, glancing towards Sweetie. “You didn’t say anything about company.”

She shrugged. “I guess they’ve been trapped down here all this time too. Dawn’s dog friends, the Last Pack.”

Windbrisk wasn’t wrong about them being made of metal, either. The side-passage exploded out to one side, showering them with clumps of dirt and rock. Three upright figures appeared there, dressed in armor that would’ve terrified Star a month ago.

She’d seen its like before now. It was the same heavy interlocking plate, with a narrow visor of glittering glass sensors instead of actual eyes. Complex joints covered weapons larger than anything a pony could lift—blocky rectangular shapes, with openings as wide as her eye.

There was only a slight change from the armor she’d seen before—the legs bent backwards the wrong way, and a brace ran down the spine, probably keeping them upright. “REMAIN WHERE YOU ARE! IF YOU RESIST, YOU DIE.”

Windbrisk landed. Sunset dropped her sword. There would be no getting through armor like that.

“What are you doing here?” asked their leader, stomping to the front and glowering down at Sweetie Belle. “Core asks what else you want to take? How many more lives?”

Sweetie stared him down, gigantic weapon and all. “Tell Core that we have been trapped in looped spacetime for centuries now. If you do not help us, you’ll continue repeating this day for centuries more.”

Whatever the dogs were expecting, it wasn’t that. They turned, glancing back to each other. There were no faces to read, no tails, no scents. But in a few hurried moments, the same figure stepped forward. “The Core says your declaration is outrageous. It would detect…” The deep voice faltered. “Any stable… time like… curves.”

“We aren’t here to talk to Core,” Star said, shoving forward to the front. The armored figures twitched, though none moved to stop her. “We’re here to talk to the Alldeath. Isn’t it the smartest thing alive? It will believe us.”

There was another silence, far longer than the last. Star counted the seconds, and part of her wondered if there were even enough of them left to make it back to the castle in time. But she couldn’t start doubting herself now. We better. It’s our only chance.

“Come forward,” said the leader again. “Follow to camp. The Great Alpha will see you there.”

There was no choice but to obey. At least the armored creatures were fast enough that they didn’t slow down their travel.

“I hope you have a plan,” Sunset asked. “I don’t think the Alldeath is particularly interested in conversations with us. It can kill two of you with a word.” She nodded towards Windbrisk. “He’s not pony enough, and I’m dead. But you two… you’re not immune.”

“It won’t kill me,” Star said, as confidently as she could. “It had all these years to fight, and it hasn’t won. It must be willing to try something new.”

Except that it hasn’t had a thousand years to contemplate its failure. It thinks the war is still happening. Twilight trapped it without either one of them knowing.

Eventually they came to a camp, and the proof of Sweetie’s claim about diamond dogs was plain. Whatever else might be said, Princess Twilight had been right about where diamond dogs were getting their Darktech.

The village looked like nothing that could be found naturally on Equus. Caverns were cut square, with perfectly ordered electric lights, along with swiveling metal shapes that rose from the ground and tracked their movements with eerie precision.

“Those are turrets,” Sunset whispered into her ear from behind. “They can kill a pony at two hundred meters with one shot.”

“The Alldeath doesn’t need magic words to kill us, then,” she whispered back. “It can just use those.”

Star had seen illustrations of that death, in the same texts she sometimes saw Discord’s betrayal. A monstrous shape with six horns and six heads—each one matching the anti-virtues to the Elements, of course. It always insisted on a terrible price, even just for a conversation. The only ones who left its presence were those it knew could do even more evil in the world.

They were all lies. There’s nothing holy about Harmony, nothing unholy about the Alldeath. We were enemies in a war, that was all.

Past the strangely dressed diamond dogs, they reached a large central chamber, where a thick slice of nearly perfect quartz crystal was suspended by a few metal spikes. Light shone up from below, and in that light a figure appeared.

Humans were already huge, but this projection must have been three meters tall, almost large enough to scrape the top of the building.

You’re doing the same thing Twilight does to us, aren’t you? This is all about image. You’re trying to impress the dogs with all this, the same way she scares ponies.

For all that, the figure was not terrifying and unearthly. A willowy human, in a formal-looking suit with patches and flags visible on the shoulders. Strangest of all for the leader of a race, it was clearly male. “Step through that archway one at a time,” it instructed, extending one hand and pointing toward a metal gate. “Marines, assist them through, then mobilize every fighting dog in the village. There will be blood before morning.”

The first dog stopped in place and howled, throwing his head back in a roar loud enough to hear through the metal. Soon the others joined, and the call was taken up in dozens of dark caverns.

Star obeyed the command, walking through the strange arch and feeling her fur lift as it passed. But nothing else seemed to happen. It didn’t kill her, anyway.

The others followed one at a time. The giant’s face blurred and twisted for a moment, and suddenly it vanished—appearing in the crystal just ahead at a more reasonable height. “Why are you mobilizing?” Sunset asked as soon as she was through. “One as powerful as you shouldn’t need all that to fight us.”

“There is no reason for us to fight,” the Alldeath said, his voice no longer booming. He seemed almost polite, his skin wrinkled near his eyes and forehead. Like a human scholar, who had spent many years reading. “I can see the information you shared with Core Node 004.12-Psi is correct. No signal can exit a bubble with an internal volume of twenty kilometers. A hostile penetration device might cut through, but would certainly expose the location of this shelter.”

It turned on Sunset. “I detect a transponder signal from a neural weave curative subprocessor. Its date of manufacture is out of sync with my internal chronometer by almost nine hundred years. Why did Dr. Kondrak implant you with that device?”

Sunset shifted on her hooves, retreating under its gaze. Those eyes were blue, so deep they seemed to drain away into an ocean darker than forever. “I don’t know,” she stammered. “He knew I wouldn’t remember very much. He wanted to see if he could help undo what Twilight did to me, so he could help the others too.”

It spun on Star, seeming to advance towards her though the crystal. But it was just an image, stopping at the edge. “The structure of your brain is off-pattern for biosphere correction agents by almost 30%. I detect no signs of gene forming. Selective breeding over many centuries would be required.”

Alldeath shook his head sadly, a few strands of black hair going askew as he did so. Sweetie Belle was right. This is a mind-creature, not a real one. Maybe being made of light helps it be so much smarter than us.

“We’re trying to destroy the loop and escape,” Star said, before it could wander back down its strange path of confused logic. “We will need your help to get inside long enough and plant the explosives we brought. If you could give us something that would lead the defenses back to you, it won’t take us long to fight. Just hold your ground, and we’ll destroy the spell powering them.”

“Your suggestion is needlessly complex,” Alldeath said. “But participating is essential. I must conclude that I did not detect the loop in all these centuries, or else we would not be having this conversation. In this moment, we are allies.”

“What about when it’s over?” Sweetie asked. She marched right up to the crystal, staring straight in at the demon twice her height. “Can you be done killing?”

The creature of light looked back, unimpressed with her fear. “Soon, but not yet.”

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