• 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 46: Mensa

Jamie knew terrible things were waiting in her vision, and the results did not disappoint her. Though in the moment her vision was entirely in Flurry’s role, there was very little magic needed to overlap her perceptions with those of the memories. She had seen genocide too.

The Governing Intelligence—or the Alldeath, as the visions called it—acted with its own unique flavor of callous brutality. Jamie watched from the castle windows as it rained poison down on the world. Those who were caught in it were horrifically burned and often died. But ponies could get out of the way. Crops couldn’t.

A terrible snowstorm moved across the globe, except that the dusty white particles killed every growing thing they touched.

Jamie and her mother fought back together as best they could, mobilizing Equestria’s bravest pegasi with protective spells to drive back the storm and shelter their fields.

It worked, and the toxic storm blew harmlessly into the sea. But the storm came again a few months later, when the weight of refugees from territories without weather magic was threatening to completely destabilize Equestria. This time, the storm had an escort—a flock of metal birds that could kill a pegasus pony at three hundred yards. So their corpses rained down over the fields they meant to protect, and the countryside was bleached white.

Jamie visited Canterlot almost every day, checking to see if her aunt had woken. Her wounds had left her comatose however, and not even Discord could help them. The spirit of chaos wasn’t helping anyone, despite his professed loyalty.

It was on one such visit that Flurry finally tasted her first devastating loss at the Alldeath’s murderous hooves. Twilight’s resting body, now settled into Celestia’s own converted tower, wasn’t lying in stillness with a single nurse in attendance today. When she arrived with her change of flowers from the Ponyville greenhouses, she found the room packed with spellcasters.

That wasn’t unheard of—Jamie had seen plenty of inventive new treatments tested on Twilight, and all had met with failure. Equestria needed her magical strength most of all, and still she slept.

“You’re here already?” Cadance asked, appearing from around the corner.

Her dad walked beside her, his eyes swollen and his otherwise powerful muscles atrophied from much disuse. “I’m glad you’re here, sweetie. Maybe you can talk your mother out of this.”

Cadance sighed. Unlike her unicorn father, Cadance was apparently unaffected by the plague that had swept Equestria—or by time itself. Her mane was cut short now, but that was the only difference. She wore Celestia’s old headdress, while Jamie herself wore Luna’s.

“Nopony can talk me out of it.” Cadance gestured, and Jamie followed her to a shut and sealed window. There was no toxic snow falling now, but there was no telling when the Alldeath would bring another flurry. Every opening to the outside had to be sealed, except for filtered inlets for fresh air. Even Jamie had a scar on the back of her neck from the poison, which ached late in the night when she was trying to sleep. She’d seen ponies covered in weeping boils.

“Look out there, Jamie. What do you see?”

Jamie hesitated. She didn’t want to give her mother the answer she was looking for. If she wanted to do something that Shining didn’t agree with, it couldn’t be good. But she couldn’t bring herself to lie.

Through that window was a city with too many empty houses. Many new greenhouses had been built, wherever there was enough glass and skilled workhorses to construct them. Dozens of sparkling glass ceilings all reflected the same bleak, lifeless sky. The countryside around Equestria had gone from lush fields to a strange yellow moss, which always seemed to grow on poisoned soil.

“The last autumn,” she whispered. “Our world is being devoured.”

Cadance nodded once, resting one wide, soft wing on Jamie’s shoulder and pulling her in close. “I’ve done everything I could to help, I know you have too. But the Alldeath doesn’t feel love—I can’t change the way it feels about us. I just don’t have the expertise to save us. But she does.”

Cadance nodded towards Twilight’s resting body. “Princess Twilight was always Celestia’s favorite student. Her chosen successor… not just the magical accident that inherited a little too much power. She knows more about magic, more about friendship, more about… everything Equestria needs.”

She turned, her eyes welling with tears as she stared back at her husband, occasionally glancing at Jamie, then back again. “Without Twilight, Equestria won’t last through a year. I’ve seen the numbers, Jamie. There isn’t enough food. All the earth pony magic in the world isn’t enough to feed everyone now.

“We need something radical, magic so powerful not even an evil like the Alldeath can stop it.”

Jamie nodded weakly, feeling more confused than ever. “I think everyone agrees we could use my aunt. That’s why the Alldeath didn’t let her come back to us. It had to stop her before she could save Equestria. But there’s no way. We’ve already asked the best doctors in the world. We’ve gathered every artifact. Nothing works.”

And you already know that. You wouldn’t be saying this unless there was something I don’t know.

“There’s one thing I haven’t told you, or any other creature—until a few days ago. When I saw how drained Canterlot’s granaries had become, I knew it was time.”

She leaned in close, resting her head on Jamie’s for a second. “I’m so sorry, Jamie. But there’s no other creature who can do this.”

“Do what?” she asked. Jamie had started to cry too, if only vicariously. Nothing good could have her father desperate to convince Cadance to stop. “I’m an Alicorn too. Whatever you’re doing, you’re not alone.”

“You don’t know everything I do.” Cadance walked away, past the many dense marks on the floor that outlined the spell. “I know you’ve been studying magic. You’re probably better at it than I am by now. Is Starlight still tutoring you?”

“Every few days. But I know I’ll never be as talented as she is, even if I have more raw power. She…” This wasn’t the way to convince her mom not to do something stupid.

“Your mother is going to trade her life for my sister’s,” Shining said. “Some… Alicorn magic. What did you call it?”

Cadance retreated to join her husband, but for once the unicorn backed away from her, horrified.

“It’s not unique to Alicorns. There was a time, very long ago, that the solar council ruled the stars. In their day, moving the sun was so taxing that it cost the life of a unicorn to bring the dawn.

“I’ll tell you something you won’t be taught—it isn’t something Celestia wanted unicorns to know. When you use magic, you first use your own reserves. That’s the most a normal pony can reach. But with enough will, you can use yourself as the fuel.”

“See?” her father said. “I’ve tried to tell her it was crazy. Nopony in the world would ask her to… We love you. We need you too. My sister might recover on her own. But if you do this—”

She held up a wing. “The ponies of Equestria don’t have the luxury of enough time to wait. Princess Celestia… she always said that what made the Alicorns different from everypony else wasn’t our power. It was our willingness to sacrifice ourselves so the ponies of Equestria could live happily.

She stomped one hoof, and the rocks shifted slightly under the force of her strike. “I’m not going to face Celestia after months of starvation in a castle, Shining. I’ll be able to tell her I gave Equestria everything.”

There was no persuading her. Once her mom made up her mind about something, she was as stubborn as love itself.

They spent a few more hours together. After one last private family meal, Cadance gathered together the ponies of Canterlot Castle.

Where once they’d been made of the finest servants, now they were a motley assortment of refugees. The castle was one of the safest buildings left, and so almost all of it was housing the needy who flocked in from all over.

There was standing room only in the throne room, with ragged, hungry-looking creatures from all corners of the globe. Jamie followed her mother’s instructions, and made her way to the front.

“Tonight is a night of mourning and joy,” Cadance said, as soon as silence had fallen on the desperate crowd. “I do not know if I will survive the night.” It was a lie, of course. She knew full well that she wouldn’t. She waited for the gasps and terror to subside. “But my life is given in exchange for a creature better able to help us win this war. Give all love and respect to Princess Twilight Sparkle. When she recovers, she will save all Equestria.”

“And if she does not…” Cadance levitated Celestia’s crown gently to Jamie’s feet. “Then my daughter will give to you what I could not. Jamie alone knew this disaster was coming. She warned us, and we did not listen. She is wiser and more powerful than her youth suggests. Treat her with the love we always treated you.”

Then she was gone, up the stairs to cast the mysterious spell. Jamie cried into her mane, she begged, and she pleaded—but it didn’t work. Ultimately her mother was right. Twilight Sparkle was probably their only chance.

“It’s not fair,” she sobbed, when all her excuses were out and even her father had slumped into a chair, defeated. “Your life isn’t worth less just because you know less magic!”

“I know.” Her mom embraced her one last time, holding her tight with both wings. “This is the reality of the war we were placed in. It’s not about how much we’re worth. Some families were out in the open, and died by the poison. Others were inside, or sheltered under trees. They weren’t less valuable either.”

She leaned in close, whispering into Jamie’s ear. “Win for me, sweetheart. Together with Twilight, I know you can do this. Erase the horror of the Alldeath from Equus forever.”

She couldn’t be there to watch it happen—the magic was apparently so powerful that it could catch anypony who was too close, and possibly suck their lives away too. But after many months of study, she knew the feeling of terrible focus that came to the castle, as though the whole world were watching one tiny point in space.

It felt like even the bleak gray wind stopped to listen. The nervous crowds down below all huddled into the corners they’d claimed, watching the ceiling fearfully as even the weakest felt the power channeled there.

When morning came, the castle was eerily silent.

Jamie and her father made their way to Celestia’s old tower, finding more shattered light spells on the way in, but nothing else. Cadance wasn’t waiting for them, exhausted but somehow alive. Whatever hope she might’ve held that the Alicorn would be waiting for her was dashed when she finally came to the door.

Even magically reinforced with the best protection a pony could provide, the door had been blasted back. Much of the old princess’s possessions had fared little better, smashed up against the walls or crumbled to chalky white ash.

The hospital equipment had suffered a similar fate, the modern metal and glass objects shattered right along with the gold and wood of Celestia’s prized possessions.

Twilight lay in the center of a crater, where once she had rested atop a hospital bed. Her gown and blankets were all gone, yet somehow her body was unhurt.

Completely unhurt, in fact. Even the scars from her encounter with the Alldeath were gone.

Jamie’s mother was here too—or what was left of her. A bright pink crystal lay on its side in the dust, at the center of where all the spell diagrams had been carved. At first Jamie thought that she had somehow survived, but that hope failed in an instant.

Her mother had transformed into a single unbroken thaumic crystal, as pink as her coat. The first faint rays of sun coming through Celestia’s shattered window fractured and sparkled in that single, perfect gemstone.

Jamie lifted her body up. She looked like she’d been sitting on her haunches at Twilight’s bedside, before she froze in place and never moved again. Her eyes looked down at Jamie, utterly featureless.

“T-Twily, please. Please don’t be… She can’t have died for nothing.”

Jamie turned, and sure enough her father was at Twilight’s side, prodding her gently with one hoof. “Equestria needs you! We need you.”

Even Jamie looked away from her mother’s body. She was prepared for this. Now all that was left was hoping that her mom had been right.

Twilight coughed and spluttered, taking a single deep, raspy breath. Her eyes fluttered open, and her voice squeaked, desperate and confused. “Spike, we have to run! My shield won’t last much—” She froze, looking around in surprise. Her eyes settled on Shining. “H-how… how did I get here?”

Neither of them had the heart to answer.

Star Orchid watched from the sidelines as the humans packed up their emergency camp. Even for a place that was mostly made of tents and collapsible furniture, the efficiency was amazing. She woke up in the morning to a city, and by the time the sun was going down, she climbed into a heavy transport plane overlooking a nondescript clearing in the woods.

She wanted to help, if only because it would get them back to the Harrow faster. The crew politely declined—apparently they were eager to have something to do, even if it was just taking down their hospital.

She spent a few hours with Windbrisk, hoping he would notice her enough for some meaningful stress-relief. But the hippogriff was so wound up with worry over the fate of the Harrow that he barely even heard her. “We’ve already done the impossible,” he kept saying, or something similar. “The Alicorn’s invincibility is gone. Now we just have to get an assassin into the most heavily fortified place on Equus, to kill the most powerful warrior who ever lived. Simple.”

When you say it like that, it just sounds impossible. “We’ll figure out a way,” she said. Even now, Star couldn’t quite bring herself to explicitly state their goal. Killing the princess was a bridge too far for her conditioning. “That magical research container seemed… useful.”

“How?” Windbrisk looked up from the oversized human chair, his wings opening and closing in little twitches. “What even is a ‘strand’, anyway? Are Alicorns weak to them? It feels like we’ve already done everything a creature could, and it won’t be enough.”

“Well no, but…” How could she even describe the being she’d seen? “I talked to the doctors who took the storage container apart. Apparently they’re useful genetic samples. Sunset already volunteered her new body for testing. Maybe they’ll make her into the… assassin… we need.”

Even saying the word was a struggle for her, but she managed. “She’s as old as the princess, and used to know her. She’s just the pony we want on our side for this.”

“I hope so.” Windbrisk slumped back against the window, resting his head on his claws. This particular human aircraft wasn’t in a terrible hurry to get anywhere, but the clouds outside still rumbled by faster than any carriage or pony airship. “We’ve tried to kill Twilight before, and no creature could ever get close. Twilight gave these humans a scary name, but big metal armor and powerful Lightlances won’t be enough.”

Star leaned over, resting her head briefly against his. “I’ll go check on Sunset. She’s probably getting ready for surgery already. Knowing her, she’ll want to start as soon as we get back to Discord.”

Windbrisk patted her weakly on the shoulder with one claw. “She’ll be in good claws with the doctor. Let me know if there’s any good news.”

Star left. She passed Sweetie Belle by the entrance, who had spent all of the last few days reading from one of the changeable-text interfaces that humans used. She slowed as she passed, noticing the text printed there. The trick of making it look like paper was interesting—the princess probably would’ve loved it. But even more interesting to her—

“You can read that?” she asked. “Who taught you to read human?”

Sweetie looked up. “Dawn,” she answered. “It’s not as hard as it looks. Their letters look funny, but it’s actually the same language. I just practiced for a week with a printout of their alphabet and the sounds their letters make, and I got it. They could probably make one for you.”

Really? Star Orchid had seen writing like that her whole life—mostly on old machines deep in Concord’s infrastructure. “I thought it was supposed to be so hard that nopony could learn it.”

Sweetie laughed bitterly. “Guess that would fit with everything else they tell you.”

Star Orchid made a mental note to ask for that guide the next time she spoke to Landon, then walked out into the hall. It sure would’ve been nice to be able to read “human” right about then. The layouts of human buildings and ships made no sense, but they were always clearly labeled.

There were no armed guards waiting outside their room—no soldiers in sight, in fact. A younger-looking woman wearing white and red slowed slightly as she passed, covertly glancing at Star. But if she thought she was being subtle, she was mistaken.

“Hey, uh… I’m looking for my friend! Her name is Sunset Shimmer, and she’s… preparing for surgery I think. Do you know where I could find her?”

The human stopped right in front of her, straightening her uniform. A strange hybrid of dress and jumpsuit, or maybe both at the same time? The skin of her face went bright red. “R-right, you guys can… talk.” She glanced to both sides, as if expecting someone more important to relieve her. But there was no one there, just the slow rumble of the engines. “I, uh… I’m just a nurse, but… what you’re trained for doesn’t matter much when the world ends, does it?” She turned, pointing down the hallway. “There aren’t very many horses on board, so I can guess where your friend is. Would you, uh… like me to take you there?”

“That would be great.” She held up a hoof to shake, in a similar gesture to the one she’d seen humans do plenty of times. “I’m Star Orchid.”

“I’m Christy Vega.” The nurse took her hoof, bending down slightly and squeezing with delicate, warm digits—like a spider was wrapping itself briefly around her hoof. This time her eyes settled on Star’s hat, and the new rank pins positioned there. “And you’re an officer,” she squeaked nervously, quickly pulling her hand back. “Sorry, uh… sir? Just follow me, I’ll… not waste more of your time.”

Star did. She kept silent as they navigated the narrow metal corridors. Well, narrow for the humans. But wide enough for them felt spacious and comfortable to her. After all her time with soldiers and leaders, she’d just assumed that every human had the courage of a minotaur and the will of the strongest pegasus. Along with the intellect of the cleverest unicorns, judging by their machines.

But Christy didn’t seem to have any of those traits. She kept as far away from Star as she could, speeding up gradually as they walked. She debated whether to say anything else at all—she might give this poor nurse a nervous breakdown if she pressed her much harder. But talking to someone who wasn’t a soldier or a leader could probably teach her things that she’d never learn any other way. “Are you, umm… are you young for a human? I’m trying to figure out how things work for you.”

“I guess so?” Christy slowed, looking thoughtful. “Age is confusing right now. Technically I was born thousands and thousands of years ago. But when the world ended, I… slept. And some of my friends woke up first, and they’re all old and worn down, but I still look like this.” She held out one hand in front of herself, showing her the smooth, delicate skin. “I’m… I only woke up when we evacuated the Hippocrates. I guess that means I was one of the most useless members of the crew. I was only an overflow nurse—barely trained, barely passed comps. Talking animals and magic are still hard for me to understand.”

Star giggled. “I don’t know what the other humans think, but I appreciate the directions.”

They arrived at a sealed metal door, which hissed open as they approached. Inside the hallway was suddenly larger, with smooth white surfaces instead of rough metal. Another human watched them from a desk, expectant. “Well, uh… this is the place. Visitation will probably depend on how your friend is doing. But if surgery won’t happen today you should be able to see her.”

“Well she’s been dead for centuries now,” Star answered, before she could stop herself. “I guess that means there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to see her.”

Christy squeaked again, backing away from her. “Have a nice day, uh… sir.” She turned and hurried off, before Star could get another word in edgewise.

She approached the desk slowly, but there was none of the shock or fear on the face of the man behind it. “I’m guessing you’re here to see the other horse?”

She nodded. “Pony is the more correct term. Horses are… probably extinct by now.” She knew what the word meant, anyway. It had survived in Concord as an anachronistic complement, mostly for the tallest, most athletic mares. But she’d seen its origin hinted at in plenty of old files.”

“Sorry. The other pony. Sunset is our only patient right now.” He held up a file—a dense packet of real paper, probably hundreds of pages long. “I do not envy the doctor who has to take over for Kondrak on this one.” He gestured. “Room seven, only one with any lights on.”

“Thanks.” She slid past the desk, eyeing the empty rooms as she passed. Each one was well-equipped, probably could’ve handled four patients at once if the number of beds was any guide. The Hippocrates was a flying hospital. Even the little planes she carried were probably designed for that too.

Sunset’s door was open, so her view was uninterrupted. Sunset had her back to the door. She wore a loose robe of gray cloth over her body, covering up the numerous unhealing wounds.

This room was far larger than any of the others, and Star could see why. A large machine was mounted to the wall where there were windows in the other operating rooms, a cylinder of metal easily large enough for a human as big as Kondrak to fit inside. The back of the room was packed with support machines—tanks and pipes and other things she couldn’t even name. A larger version of the complex life-support machines the Iron Lord used, maybe?

“What is all this?”

Sunset turned, and Star saw her face was covered just like the rest of her. Only one eye poked from the gauze wraps. “My future. No more sapping the life force of a generous unicorn to stay alive, or feeding on what Concord harvests.” She rose, passing a single empty operating table and tapping on the cylinder with one hoof.

As she approached, the front became transparent, and Star stared in horror at what was inside.

A human body lay inside, her eyes closed and asleep. Clear tubes ran into her wrists and neck and stomach. Her skin was as pale as any Unification Army soldier. But there was one difference, one that Star felt only as she stood beside Sunset. Her eyes went wide, and she jerked away from the glass. “She’s alive.”

Even with her face mostly covered, Star could hear the smile in her voice. “Kondrak promised. Humans don’t use necromancy. They’ve mastered the chemistry of life.”

She reached up, touching the glass over the human’s face. Then Star noticed the hair—vibrant orange with streaks of red and yellow. A few of the human crew had strange hair-colors, but it always looked dyed. This hair obviously couldn’t be. “I thought you were going to be a…” She blushed, backing away from the cylinder. “They made a pony body for the Iron Lord. Don’t you want to be yourself?”

“I almost asked for one,” Sunset said. “But I lived through the Umbra. You saw it yourself with Landon—magic doesn’t work on humans.” She tapped the glass one last time, then backed away. As soon as she did, the glow from within went out, and the body’s pale outline vanished. “I knew from the first that none of Kondrak’s crew would be able to handle Twilight Sparkle. The humans already tried to kill her once before. They sent their best warriors. They sent star-marines, and stranger things. They tried to blow her up, they tried to poison her. The Alldeath tried to switch her off. None of it worked.”

Sunset spun, resting one hoof on Star’s shoulder and whispering as quietly as she could. “The Devourers aren’t strong enough to fight her. But I can. Celestia was wrong all along. She couldn’t handle being an Alicorn. Twilight owes a debt to Equestria for what she did to us. On behalf of every mare and stallion—I will collect.”

She let go, wandering over to the machines. She never got close enough to touch them, but she pointed at a single tank, one filled with a shiny metallic substance. It ran into the side of the main cylinder with a single makeshift pipe. “They want to grow new bodies with what you found—but Dr. Medina said they probably have years of research before they can do that. They’re adapting this one somehow, using the magic you unlocked for them. Maybe I’ll be able to keep my magic?”

She shrugged one shoulder. “I haven’t had much magic for the last thousand years anyway. But now that you’re here, there was something I was hoping to ask you. I know you helped Discord the last time he gave someone a new body. I was hoping you’d be there to help him again. Not that… I don’t trust human doctors. But it would mean a lot to have someone I actually know be part of it.”

“Sure,” she whispered, her voice shaking. “I’m not a doctor, but… I’ll be there for the transplant, in case Discord needs me.” Besides, she probably wouldn’t have to do anything with all these real doctors around. She was just saying something nice to a pony who needed a little reassurance, that was all.

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