• 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 48: Monoceros

Jamie stared at the shut door, her ears pressed flat with nervous fear. She’d learned so much over the last few days—with a few weeks of practice, she could probably really contribute. As to which side she would be helping, that was harder…

She slumped to the ground, resting her head on her hooves. It would be easier if she could believe that Twilight was showing her lies, trying to brainwash her. But nothing she saw felt like a lie. Flurry Heart and Starlight Glimmer and Cadance were all real.

My parents might still be alive in a shelter somewhere. Or if they’re dead, it might be because Twilight intentionally built a weapon to tear up and destroy their home.

She might’ve asked Epsilon, if they were still in range. Except that Basal was standing in the room with her, getting closer every second.

She stopped nervously as Jamie looked up at her, the tray wavering in her changeling magic. “Do you, uh… do you want some tea?”

“Sure.” Jamie took it without objection, levitating the whole tray until it was in front of her, and pouring herself a glass. She passed most of it back a second later, while keeping the glass for herself.

It smelled pleasantly herbal to her nose. A calming blend of real plants, not the reprocessed protein served to her in an emergency shelter.

“Forgive me if I’m being too forward, Jamie. But your magic has become much stronger than the last time we spoke.” Then she winced, taking a few steps back. “I’m sorry, I’m saying too much, aren’t I? I’ll just leave you to—”

“No!” Jamie spread her wings, though hers weren’t wide and majestic like Flurry Heart. She couldn’t actually stop Basal the way her memories could. “I mean… no. Please stay, Basal. I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be here before the soldiers come to drag me off again.”

She rose to her hooves, making her way to a nearby cushion. “Pour yourself some tea. Twilight didn’t stay for hers, so…”

Basal’s eyes got even wider, though there was no reading the expression on those multifaceted colored plates. “You’re serious? Wait, you’re Jamie. Of course you’re serious.”

She giggled. “No pressure. Maybe you don’t like tea. That’s fine too. I just haven’t got a lot of time to talk to other people for the last few days. I’ve been locked in a small room looking at memories.”

“The Arcanum Well.” Basal didn’t sit down, but she did take a cup, placing the tray in front of them both on a nearby table. She sipped at it a few times, expression a curious mixture between delight and disgust. “Not many creatures have the chance to look inside it. Is it true it holds the history of all Equestria?”

“It…” Jamie hesitated. “I’m not sure how much history is down there. The princess sent me there to learn magic. But it goes back to before Concord was founded, when everyone lived on the ground. When the other races lived in their own kingdoms, instead of Equestria.”

Basal gasped, holding one hoof up to her mouth. “Separate kingdoms? That doesn’t sound… harmonious. I thought creatures were better in the old days. The Words of Harmony are all about returning to Harmony’s service from disorder and chaos…”

Jamie shrugged. “I don’t know how to judge that—I think that’s what Princess Twilight is good at. But the creatures back then seemed nice. Basically the same as any pony I’ve met since coming to Concord.” But way less uptight and not indoctrinated into an insane cult.

“Incredible.” Basal took a few nervous steps back from her, eyes scanning the room around them. But if she expected some reprisal for learning this apparently forbidden information, there was none. “You’re going back? The regent is going to let you see even more?”

“Any minute now. I was going to learn magic, not history. Picking up all these interesting details about the way the world used to be is just a bonus. Apparently Princess Twilight wants me to open that thing.” She nodded towards the obelisk. “But I don’t have a clue how I’m supposed to do it. There were no ancient relics in the past for me to magic open, just… a terrible war.”

“The regent can’t be wrong,” Basal said confidently. “She knows more about magic than any creature alive. If she thinks you can open it, then she’s right.”

Someone banged on the front door, harsh and abrupt. Jamie sat up, making her slow way over. She wasn’t surprised to find four Unification Army soldiers waiting there, looking up at her with the same blank expressions. The stink of formaldehyde did not get any milder with exposure.

“You are instructed to come with us,” said the pony. She wasn’t sure if it was a soldier she’d seen before, but it probably didn’t matter either way. “Will you comply?”

“I will.” She took one last longing glance back into her quarters, then joined the soldiers for a march back across the castle.

Solar almost seemed surprised to see her. He dropped a scattered bundle of scrolls as she appeared in his office, soldier escort behind her. “Sacred Dean, we have returned the young princess to your custody. Twilight instructs you to complete her training in the remaining 24-hours. Any failure on her part will reflect on your office.”

The soldiers saluted, then turned and marched back the way they’d come, no longer paying the slightest attention to Jamie.

Solar’s horn glowed, and the various bundles and papers stacked up on his desk in semi-orderly rows. “Welcome back, Jamie. I didn’t expect you to be returned. Did something happen?”

Twilight didn’t say I’m not allowed to talk about it. Maybe she was getting probed as a pawn in castle politics again—but Jamie didn’t care. “Twilight wants me to finish my magical training. There’s an… artifact, with Devourer writing all over it. Apparently it has some tools to fight them locked inside, and I’m the only pony who can open it.”

Solar stiffened slightly at her admission, expression shifting rapidly through curiosity and satisfaction before returning to his usual friendliness. “So the rumor that we suffered an unknown defeat is true, then? The regent feels the urgency of the situation and searches for new weapons.”

Jamie nodded. “Something about the Immortal City… I’ve never heard of any of it. I just need to be able to open a locked relic that probably wasn’t made by ponies. Do you think we could focus on that?”

“The Well does not permit us to control it,” Solar responded matter-of-factly. “We state our desires, and it responds with the closest match. It might be possible to deviate from your instruction. If the princess wants you for a specific task, it would be no crime to cater specifically to her command.

“But if you’re wrong in your assessment, or the Well lacks the memories you need… it will show you the next closest match, wasting hours of our time.”

He settled into his chair, pulling it right up to the edge of the desk and resting both hooves on it, staring across at her. “Shut the door, Jamie.”

She did, levitating it closed with ease. Pushing and pulling things around was trivial after so many hours in Flurry Heart’s body. Even if she didn’t have the strength that Flurry had. So long as she didn’t try to move anything too heavy, she would probably be fine.

“I have seen some of those memories. The death of Old Equestria, and the war against the Alldeath. The regent’s recruits often see these memories, albeit from different eyes. The horrors of the Alldeath can bring even a rebellious creature to see the merit of union with Equestria.

“But what you haven’t yet seen is the price victory cost us. But even if you do not see it in the Well, you can still see it in the world around you. Look into the face of a Unification Army soldier, and find their soul. Walk out onto the streets of Concord when an execution is scheduled. Listen to their charges.”

Jamie blinked, eyes widening. Her confusion only grew. “B-but… what do you mean, Solar?”

“If only we had more time,” he said, eye haunted. Maybe he could see those same executions he described, right before her. “There is more we could do to prepare you. More useful to fight for the good of Equestria. None are equal with Twilight, nor could they hope to be. She’s continued to study for so long she can defy what we consider the laws of magic, wrought in stone.”

Jamie turned, following Solar towards the door. But it was still shut. Twilight would be furious if she heard this.

“We have one day left. Enough time left for one memory. One that no living pony has seen. I don’t know what’s in it… but I know it is my charge to protect it. To ensure that no creature has the words to ask for it. Whatever it is, we can only hope it holds what you need.”

She tilted her head up towards him, confused and desperate. “What do I need?”

He levitated the door open ahead of her. “The way to save Equestria, of course.”

Star Orchid soared on beams of light through a field of impossible stars. She imagined she passed from one end of the universe to the other, seeing things that she could not comprehend.

Her flight was not directionless, and in the way of dreams she soon found herself somewhere she had stood once before—the center of a starry greenhouse, where a strange human tended to a single miniature tree.

“Sooner than I expected,” he said, turning to grin in her direction. “I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure you would use the strands at all. I should have involved another person sooner than this. Machines and men spend all their lives together, but trust is only known to one. They can’t even see the same universe we do.”

Star stumbled and fell, catching herself on her forelegs. She felt so strange, so unbalanced and stretched-out. But she didn’t dare voice her objections to the speaker.

It was like standing in the presence of Princess Twilight, but without the weight of thousands of murders. All the power, but none of the guilt. “I don’t know what that means. The last thing I remember is helping with Sunset’s surgery. Then I was here.”

She crawled forward through the white grass, scraping her knees as she went. But that didn’t matter. She had to get… somewhere. “Are you even real?”

The strange human chuckled. “Much to the chagrin of those who hope for mankind to stay frozen in the image of evolution, I’m real. Soon you will be too.”

I was plenty real before. But she didn’t argue, just looked up at the watching human face. Maybe if she was cooperative enough, he would tell her how she had gotten back here again so soon.

“I hope you survive,” he went on, holding out one arm toward her and dropping what he had been holding. His clippers fell through the air, before sticking blade-down in the dirt in front of her.

“Judge them gently, Star Orchid. I see so much pain waiting ahead of you—but you seem strong enough to bear it. This was the cause you chose. The world is yours to reclaim, if you want to.”

“I do!” she snapped. “Though I’m not sure who I’m taking it back for. Humans, or ponies, or… you, the Starmind?”

“If you’ve found yourself a cause, then that makes one of us. Make it count.” He stopped beside her—not that much taller, not the way she expected. He rested one hand up against her shoulder, shoving her backward. It only took the slightest pressure to unbalance her, she didn’t have a hope of resisting him. She tumbled backward, throwing out both legs wide to try and catch herself. They waved through the air, but nothing happened.

She splashed into a pool of water, thick and suffocating. She took in a few lungfuls of moisture before she even realized what was happening, and by then it was too late. She struggled, limbs flailing for the surface. Why would Starmind give her his help, then kill her right in front of him?

Something smashed into her chest with the force of a bucking earth-pony. Her whole body spasmed under the pressure, and fluid sprayed from her mouth. A bright line of light cut through the amniotic lake, but it was just out of reach.

The force came again, another blow to her chest strong enough to wind her instantly and dislodge the rest of the air from her lungs. White swallowed her, and the force jerked her upright.

Star was in a hospital bed, wrapped in papery human cloth. She looked down and saw half a dozen tubes and little pipes running down past the cloth wrap and out of sight. Into her body?

“Doctor, I think she’s conscious,” came a voice—not one she recognized, though she’d heard so many different humans over the last few months that they often blurred together.

She was in a hospital room, one of the standard-sizes with several beds. Two were empty, though one across the room from her wasn’t. She knew that face, that too-pale skin, and the strands of yellow and red mane. The eyes were watching her now.

“Star’s awake,” Sunset said. Her voice was different now, a little deeper. But her tone and cadence were both unchanged.

Several people stepped in front of Star, cutting off her view of Sunset. Most of them were human nurses, though the one dressed like a doctor was known to her far better.

“So thoughtful of you to join us,” Discord said. He leaned towards Star’s face with a scanner device of some kind, jamming it up against her neck and holding it there for a few seconds. He lifted her head with one hand, and the sensations didn’t make sense. Was Star so hurt they had to shave off part of her coat for treatment? Even her burns in the Immortal City hadn’t been that severe!

“Looking at steady cardiovascular rhythm. Your scanner doesn’t seem equipped to make sense of her biorhythms otherwise, but it all seems normal to me.”

He took a step back, offering it to the nurse. “You’ve come back through the looking glass, Star Orchid. What did you see on the other side?”

“I don’t—” She stopped short of denying him. Her voice was raspy, but didn’t sound the same either. Like hearing somepony do an impression of her, someone who had never actually met her in person. Is that how Sunset feels?

“I just donated some magic to a surgery. That’s all.”

A young female nurse squeaked at her words, the only one brave enough to make any sound at all. The others all turned to look at her, and Star found herself instantly recognizing her. She’d seen this human before, though the hospital bed made her seem far less intimidating in stature.

“Go on, Christy, spit it out,” Discord prompted. “Star Orchid has no idea what you mean. I believe a direct approach will do the least harm.”

Several other nurses backed away at Discord’s words, leaving Christy to her fate. At least a few of them stayed to tinker with the human machines behind Star.

“What happened to me?” Star asked, more directly this time. She tried to get out of bed, but found her forelegs restrained. Her hindlegs were too—she was stuck. She reached down with her magic, and sure enough she had been strapped into place. She lifted the straps out of their buckles one at a time, setting her forelegs free.

“I did warn you,” Discord said, watching her with amusement on his face. “Or did you honestly think you could bring a pony back to life without paying a price? That isn’t how this works.”

Star lifted one of her forelegs out the side of her thin blankets, and for a moment she was struck with profound vertigo. It wasn’t just her neck that was missing fur, but her whole arm was pink. Not so pale as Sunset’s new body, but still nothing like a proper foreleg.

Hooves weren’t supposed to end in a fleshy mess of so many spindly digits, either.

“I don’t know how it happened, Star Orchid…” Christy squeaked. “Nobody does. But you’re, uh… you changed too. Technically, you changed before the patient, since they had to finish the rest of her surgery, but you just… suddenly looked like that.”

Star reached up, pressing her hoof up to her face the way she’d done so many times before. Only it wasn’t a hoof, and the fleshy lengths protruding from it made the whole process awkward and difficult.

More naked skin, no muzzle, a tiny nose and shrunken eyes. “How?” she whispered. The nurse’s kindness was appreciated, but now she turned her attention fully on Discord. “I knew I was giving up magic for Sunset to be alive again. That was always going to be part of the price. But how am I…” She held her foreleg out in front of her, turning it over once in the light. She couldn’t twist it as far as she was used to, but there was enough of a view even from a limited angle.

“That is the question, isn’t it? How on earth could using your magic to activate an Imperial Spell given to you from the Origin’s own hands possibly have side-effects? I’m still struggling to figure it out. If only you were warned that ‘you’d pay a price you couldn’t imagine,’ maybe you could’ve made an informed decision.”

“Discord, stop,” Sunset called from the other side of the room. Her voice was as flat and grumpy as ever, and her glare was visible between the nurses who remained. Objectively she couldn’t look anything like her old self. But somehow Star could still feel Sunset in the room with her.

More than just a corpse, too. There was a flush of moisture in her pale, human cheeks. Her eyes visibly twitched and jerked slightly from Star to Discord and back again, not the rigid, unblinking mechanism of a Unification Army soldier.

“Star Orchid didn’t volunteer for this like I did. She sacrificed more for the rebellion than she meant to.”

Discord strode back towards her, holding something up in one palm. A tiny mirror. Had he been hiding that for this precise moment, waiting to show her? “We’ve all made sacrifices to keep Equestria safe, Sunset. They say no creature is fit to rule who is not first fit to give of themselves for the ones they love. Now Star Orchid is fit to rule.”

Star stared into the glass at a creature that wasn’t her—couldn’t be her. Yet the image responded to her every motion. Somehow, she was looking at herself.

It was strange just how similar the alien could look. Her orange mane, though it now came from all her head instead of just the middle. A pair of smaller, green eyes, the same shade she’d seen since childhood. She could only guess that her other features were the human equivalent of the way she had looked like a pony, though it was harder to make direct comparisons.

“I’m a… Devourer,” she said, and the strange reflection of herself said it too. “There wasn’t a second body. You didn’t cut my brain out, or put me on life support… this shouldn’t be possible.”

Discord waved one claw towards the nurses. Apparently they were eager for an excuse to leave, because they scattered—except Christy, who lingered near the entrance. “You say that like magic hasn’t been used to do far more. How much more complex do you think it is to terraform an entire planet? Do you have any idea what kind of miasma festered on the surface of this hulk when the Governing Intelligence began its work?

“Of course the task is more complex than any human could manage on their own. But the one who changed you isn’t human. Neither are you, even less than Sunset over there. Maybe that will be enough to dethrone Twilight.”

He spun, making his way to the door. “Or maybe she’ll capture and murder all of us anyway. Guess that’s up to you to decide.” He slipped past Christy, then out into the hallway, leaving them almost alone in the recovery room.

Star watched the entrance for a few seconds more. Shouldn’t someone be here to help? At least Geist won’t recognize me like this. Maybe he’ll give up and go home.

Star lifted the thin human blanket from her front, exposing a strange dress made of waxy paper. Underneath was the outline of a human, seen far closer than she’d ever thought she would.

The hippogriff will never want to sleep with me now.

Of all the things to worry about, why was that bothering her now?

“Oh, uh… would you like some privacy, Star?” Christy rushed over, pulling on something on the ceiling as she did so. A curtain, that ran in tracks across her side of the room. Soon enough she was surrounded by an opaque white mesh. Light shone through without much obstruction, though she couldn’t see anything more than vague outlines of anything outside.

The nurse lowered her head respectfully to her, offering something in both arms. A bundle of cloth, in the same colors she’d seen from a few of the humans around camp. Not the white of doctors, or the blue of the skilled soldiers.

“We took measurements while you were unconscious. This should fit. I could also help you get dressed, if you prefer.”

Star reached out, levitating over the top layer of cloth. It was in a shape she couldn’t recognize, with two round sections and straps in back. She spun it in the air in front of her, eyes narrowing. “I’ve never seen a human wearing one of these. Do I need it?”

Christy dropped the bundle of clothes onto the floor, mouth hanging open. She pointed at the bit of floating cloth. “How are you doing that?”

“How am I…” It stopped glowing, landing on her lap. Then she remembered: humans didn’t have magic. Yet she was clearly using it. She had already seen her reflection—there was no bizarrely out-of-place horn poking up through human skin.

“I have no idea,” she finished lamely. “Starmind didn’t have a horn, and he could levitate like a unicorn.” And based on everything I felt, cast other spells too. He shielded that container strong enough that there was no nonmagical way to get it open.

“I know ponies could do amazing things,” Christy muttered. “But if you keep those powers once you’re made into humans…” She backed away, to the edge of the curtains. “What’s the point of keeping us around?”

Star watched her, unsure of what she was even asking. She twisted around in the cot, removing the restraints binding her legs and twisting to the side. It would’ve been easy as a pony, but now her legs were so heavy. They tugged her right over the edge.

Christy caught her with both arms, straining under her weight for a moment, before settling her down onto the ground. “Easy there, pony. Don’t want a concussion your first day on two legs.”

She caught her under both arms, trying to hold Star in what must’ve been a basic standing position for a human. “Try to put weight on your legs. Sunset figured it out without physical therapy, I’m guessing you can too. Somehow. Wait, don’t say it. It’s magic.”

“I wasn’t going to,” Star said defensively. The things that weren’t hooves on the end of her legs touched painfully against the floor. That bare skin had no resistance to the chill of the metal below her, and would probably be cut by a little uneven gravel. Stars help her if she had to cross glass or something.

Star Orchid had seen enough humans in her last few weeks to know how they moved. She tensed, settling her weight through her legs and adjusting her feet subconsciously.

After only a few seconds, Christy loosened her grip on Star’s shoulders, gripping her by her wrists instead. “There. You can stand up. Don’t ask what sense that makes. You don’t even have a shell around your brain. I’m not sure how your heart is beating, and your lungs are working.”

Star resisted the urge to say it was “probably magic,” though that answer was likely true in her case. She looked down, past her paper-thin gown to the floor so far away. If her old self had been standing in the room with her, she would’ve towered over her. She was probably the same height as Princess Twilight now.

The curtains rustled, and Sunset appeared in the opening. She was wearing a green uniform just like the one Christy had dropped, though the top was unzipped the way Landon had often done, so only a thinner top layer was visible on her upper torso.

“It’s wild, isn’t it?” Sunset said. “I always wondered how the Devourers had gone so far that they ended the world. But all the power up here… maybe I know.”

“Excuse us!” Christy barked, glaring furiously at her. “I know you’re an alien, but it’s extremely impolite to walk into a patient’s privacy screen. She was about to get dressed.”

“Star doesn’t care,” Sunset said. “Go on, ask her. She thinks you won’t want me to see you nude, Star. It’s one of the quirks of human psychology I haven’t unraveled yet.”

“Oh.” Star gestured, and her fallen clothes levitated back up onto the bed beside her. “Sunset’s right. But I’m grateful for your help, Nurse Christy. If you could maybe explain what each of these pieces is for, that would be… great. Unless you think I could get away with not wearing any of it.”

She reached down into the pile with one of her strange human limbs, selecting a familiar hat. She shook it open, then settled it onto her head with both hands. “My rank pin is on here. That’s enough for me.”

Sunset laughed, and for the first time there was no bitterness in the sound, no anger and regret. She was breathing too, Star realized. Though the price was terrible… the spell had worked.

“I don’t think that would be a very good idea,” Christy said, her face now bright red. “Wearing a medical gown around the ship, or… even less… isn’t something people do. Clothing is part of what makes us civilized! It protects us from dangers in our environment. Please just put it on. You can talk to the captain if you want. I’m sure she—”

“I’ll just put it on,” Star said. She pulled away one of her hands, and didn’t fall over. Though she was wobbling a little more without the support. “I’m supposed to be a pony. First my life was taken, now my body too. Some funny clothes are the least of my worries.”

“Don’t sound so negative.” Sunset Shimmer reached her in a few awkward steps, wrapping one arm around her shoulder. She nearly fell over again, though this time Sunset was the one to hold her up. Her whole body felt warm.

“You wanted to help save Equestria, right? Now you get to take a more personal role than you thought.”

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