Elements of Harmony

by Starscribe

Chapter 7: Military Intelligence

Twilight was in the back of the group as they made their way out of the train station and back to the Obsidion Fortress. She almost didn’t notice as a set of hooves wrapped around her neck and yanked her suddenly down a side-corridor. She didn’t so much as squeak before she was pulled into a bubble of silence, and any crying out she might’ve done was quashed.

She faced the unicorn who had pulled her in, eyes wide with shock and surprise. Sunset Shimmer hadn’t changed much since the last time Twilight saw her, except for a few telltale signs of mental decay. There was no mistaking the pony’s frizzy mane, or the smell of a pony who hadn’t used their soap in a little too long. Sunset held her firmly by one shoulder, bloodshot eyes reeling. “Twilight Sparkle,” she said, her voice harsh and rough. “I need an explanation.”

“I will, uh… try to help?” she said, raising one eyebrow. “What’s wrong, Sunset?”

Sunset had pulled her into a little storage closet. There was nothing in here but spare parts for the trains and some janitorial supplies. Sunset didn’t seem to notice as she sat down right onto a toolbox, knocking it sideways. “I looked, Twilight. I saw.”

“You saw…” she began, raising an eyebrow. “What?”

“The temporal anomaly near Ponyville,” she snapped. “The one you said you came through. It’s real.”

Twilight stared. “Uh… yeah? What did you think it was?”

“Your stupid cover story!” She rose, storming around Twilight, knocking over a few boxes of screws from the nearby shelf. “It seemed like something calculated for Nightmare Moon. Something broad and powerful and just plausible enough for her to pay attention. Everypony knows she’s an egomaniac! She bought it. It wasn’t supposed to be real!”

“It’s real,” Twilight said. “Everything I told you is true.” She tilted her head, glaring up at her. “Didn’t you tell the princess you’d already investigated it?”

“I know what I said!” Sunset yanked her firmly by the shoulder again, before she could reach the door. There was acid in her eyes—almost rage. “I saw things through there, Twilight! I saw a world without Nightmare Moon! A world that was still green.” Twilight opened her mouth to respond, but she didn’t get the chance. Sunset’s horn flashed, and she vanished from in front of her, appearing between her and the door. “I saw a world without me! Equestria was happy and perfect and the two perfect princesses sat on their stupid thrones! No… not two, four. Cadance was there, and you were there. But not me. It was like I didn’t even exist. I wasn’t in Canterlot, I wasn’t anywhere.”

Twilight’s heart sank. But it wasn’t like she hadn’t known this might happen. Sunset had even said she would investigate the opening. Now, apparently, she had. And if she reveals this to Nightmare Moon, she’ll stop supporting us. She’ll banish me like her sister. Twilight didn’t have to look very long at the sunless, empty world that Equestria had become to know that it wouldn’t survive a thousand years. There would be nothing for her to return to, unless she could somehow stop Sunset.

“That’s because you weren’t in our world,” Twilight answered, her voice defeated. “But you have to let me finish. I knew you, Sunset. I know what happened to you.”

Sunset took a few steps towards her, horn glowing dangerously. But there was no actual spell there, no preparations for violence. Just the power that came from unfiltered emotion. The dangers of an undisciplined unicorn. Maybe Twilight could still stop this. Somehow.

“In my Equestria, you were Celestia’s apprentice for years.”

“Everypony knows that,” Sunset snapped, eyes narrowing. “Don’t say it like you’re sharing some proof with me.”

“I…” Twilight sighed. “But Celestia takes every promising applicant she can find. She took on another pony, one that started to upstage you. You were upset, and eventually… demanded the secrets of magic Celestia had promised you. When you didn’t get them, you went to another source.”

“Through the mirror,” Sunset whispered. “Where Star Swirl sent away all the magic that Equestria couldn’t handle. All the power of our history in one place.”

Twilight stifled a laugh. Sunset seemed to think there was a locked room on the other side filled with artifacts, not an entire world in its own right. “Yes,” she said. “In my Equestria, you liked the world on that side better. You found your magic, and decided not to come back. Well… not to stay. I think you made a trip back once or twice. There’s a machine for making the mirror work whenever we want it to… that doesn’t really matter.”

Sunset stared for a long, silent moment. Twilight expected her to teleport off to Nightmare Moon at any second. But eventually she just nodded, settling onto her haunches again. “Nothing happens until you get all six of these ponies together. I’ll have to decide… how much of this to share, when that happens. Princess might not like what you’re doing.”

“I thought you were going to go get Alicorn magic for yourself,” Twilight said. “Why do you care?”

“Working on it,” Sunset said. “Getting into Canterlot isn’t easy. My name is… well known. It turns out impersonating a changeling is much harder for us than impersonating a pony is for them. But I’ll get in. And… come to think of it, you make a good point. I think I can use the quality of your answer to know whether I should share this with the princess. I think she’s waiting for you to fail… proof that you were a liar, that other Alicorns can’t be trusted. But I don’t think you will.”

“I won’t,” Twilight agreed. She couldn’t hear anything, but through the door into the hall she could see the outlines of a few ponies in motion. “Because I have friends fighting for the same thing. Friends are more powerful than any spell.”

Applejack emerged from the doorway a moment later, poking her head towards them. Sunset’s horn flashed, and the spell faded away, letting Twilight hear her again. “There you are, Twilight! I was worried we had gotten turned around somewhere.”

She met Sunset’s eyes as they left, still tense, but apparently cooperative.

Please don’t turn us in.

There were no military police waiting to arrest them as they made their way through the offices of military intelligence to the 109th, where they could find the officer who represented Rainbow Dash. Each unit had its own tiny room with a single bedraggled pony inside, each one with their own mountain of paperwork. For all that Nightmare Moon had done to change the natural world, almost nothing had changed about Equestrian bureaucracy. It was just moving from one type to another.

The officer they were looking for was an old stallion, obviously too old to be fighting anymore, though he kept his uniform pressed and the paperwork in his little office straight and sorted. He nodded respectfully to Rarity as they came in, then bowed to Twilight. “Duchess? I’m officer Sturdy Shield. I struggle to imagine what benefit I could offer a pony like you. Whatever you need… surely you come to the wrong place.”

“Oh, we’re quite sure,” Rarity said, sounding exasperated. She’d been that way ever since they arrived, but… she also apparently hadn’t shared her suspicions with Nightmare Moon.

I’m walking on a knife with her. If we don’t win her over soon, we’re all going to fall off.

“We’re looking for a pony in your unit. We need to find out anything you can tell us about where she is. Maybe her service history too, if it comes to that.”

“Uh… sure, certainly. Anything the princess requires will be done.”

“We’re looking for a blue pegasus named Rainbow Dash,” Twilight said. “Rainbow and cloud cutie mark, short and sleek, rainbow mane. We learned she’s assigned to the 109th.”

“Oh, sure.” Sturdy Shield sat down, then lifted his binder and ruffled through it with unicorn magic. After only a few seconds, his eyes went wide, and he let the binder fall flat in front of him. “O-oh. Duchess, I… I’m so sorry.”

Twilight felt the whole world grow suddenly cold. Rainbow Dash was dead. Without her, there could be no Elements of Harmony. She had learned during Discord’s escape that there was no substitute for true friendship. No one could hold her place. Without her, Equestria was doomed. Nightmare Moon would make sure that the night really did last forever, assuming Equestria’s enemies didn’t devour her first. It was inevitable.

“What does it say?” Rarity asked, her voice terse. “Please, we need to know exactly what’s in that record of yours. It’s critically important.

He hesitated for a few seconds, then lifted up the binder to read. “The lieutenant was behind enemy lines during a covert mission when her squad was captured. No ransom was asked, nor were there demands for her release. It is presumed she is a prisoner of war in one of Sombra’s Crystalariums, if he did not kill her outright. Her family has been notified, and awarded the customary sum in compensation by the Crown.”

“You just… let her rot in prison?” Twilight asked, outraged. Yet for all her anger, there was also hope. For thinking she had been dead, and everything was doomed moments before, this was incredible news.

Rainbow is a tough pony. No prison could kill her. “Does it say anything about what prison?” Twilight asked, talking right over Sturdy Shield’s mealy-mouthed response about how many prisoners of war there were and how none of them could be worth the many deaths it would take to recapture their POW camps.

Sturdy Shield blinked, taking another moment to register what she’d asked. Then he stiffened, clearing his throat. “I, uh… no, Duchess. I have no idea where she’s being held. It’s a tragedy to lose a mare or stallion under my command. It’s the worst feeling any officer can suffer. But we’re all fighting for the realm. Protecting our families. We understand the risks when we set out.”

That used to be true. But Nightmare Moon doesn’t take volunteers, she conscripts. She has a register of everypony in the country to take her recruits from.

Twilight stiffened. “Officer. I’m not asking you or your unit to make any additional sacrifices. I am only asking if you know where she might be held. You’ve done nothing wrong.”

“N-no,” he stammered. “There are only a few prison mines, everypony knows that. But I don’t know where they are, or which one. You could talk to Intelligence. Find the one closest to her last assignment. She was working, uhm…” He fished a few pages back, then turned the binder towards her. There was a map there, a map that showed a new crystal pony settlement fairly close to Vanhoover. “The village of Agate. We thought they were preparing for an offensive against Vanhoover. It’s possible they would have, were it not for Rainbow Dash’s heroics, and the heroics of other ponies in the 109th like her.”

“Yes, yes.” Twilight nodded. “Thank you for your time, officer.” They left without another word.

“I’m sorry your mission has to end like this,” Rarity said, as soon as they’d made it far enough down the hall that there weren’t any other ponies nearby to listen. The others in the group were all there—Pinkie Pie with her increasing pinkness, Applejack looking like she was out of place and wanted to find the nearest way out of the building. “I had hoped you might succeed.”

“Oh, I haven’t given up.” Twilight didn’t even hesitate. “She’s a prisoner of war, that’s not going to stop me. I’ve rescued prisoners before. Been a prisoner myself… and so has Rainbow Dash. She’s tough as horseshoes. We just need to find out where the prison is, and go there.”

We,” Rarity repeated. “You expect us to go with you behind enemy lines. Traveling into Sombra’s territory. Do you know what he does to his prisoners? What would be waiting for us if we were caught?”

Pinkie Pie bounced a little closer. “Oh, I know this one!” She lowered her voice just a little. “They’re enslaved eternally to the rightful inheritors of Equus, to work at their whims for all eternity. Those that please him will have their hearts encircled in crystal, to become his citizens, while the rest will die in whatever way brings him pleasure.”

“That’s… very nearly word for word.” Rarity nodded in satisfaction. “Anyway, that’s what’s waiting in the Empire. It’s nowhere we can go. Princess Cadance gave herself to him, and it did not stem his lust for power. Imagine the gift it would be to give him all of us!”

Twilight shrugged. “Then we’ll just have to make sure we don’t get captured. Rarity… this ends the war. If we get everypony together, there is no more Sombra. That’s worth fighting for. Besides, I know none of you remember her, but Rainbow Dash is our friend. We can’t leave her a prisoner. We have to go in and save her while we still can. I’m probably the second most powerful pony in Equestria… after Princess Nightmare Moon, of course. And in my Equestria, each of you were powerful in your own ways. Nothing to be underestimated.”

“Is this convincing either of you?” Rarity asked, her voice just a tad condescending. “Neither of you are soldiers. Yes, Sergeant Pinkie, I’m sure you’re brave and your record at Elkatraz was exemplary, but this is different work. We’ll be sneaking directly into a prison. If Sombra’s ponies catch us, they won’t even have to take us anywhere—they can just throw us into the cells beside our ‘friend’ Rainbow Dash. Except for Twilight, who Sombra will probably take as another concubine. Don’t think he won’t just because you’re an Alicorn. His appetites are the stuff of crass legend!”

“I’m going,” Applejack said, before Pinkie could answer. “Twilight here might have strange things to say, but she hasn’t led us wrong yet. If she says she can get us there, then I’m sure she can get us there. It’s just the matter of figuring out the right plan. Finding the right way to sneak into his land, the right disguise. I’m sure there’s a way.”

“I’m really just along for the ride,” Pinkie said. “If we’re sneaking into a prison, then I only hope we’re there long enough for me to hold a secret breakout party on the way out. And… maybe help all the other ponies out? I’ve been guarding a prison for months and months now. It’ll be fun to try to go the other way. For the good side, too! How lucky is that?”

Rarity made a frustrated groaning sound, stomping one hoof on the ground. “You all are going to be the death of me! Traveling to Elkatraz was hard enough! Some of the representatives we send to Iron Will don’t return! But as if that wasn’t bad enough, we’ll be traveling all the way to the front, sneaking into Crystal Pony territory, and… who knows what else. Nightmare only knows if we’ll be able to find the location of the prison. And we might make it all the way up there only to discover we’ve broken into the wrong one and all our effort was for nothing! What would you think of that, Duchess? We might break in, subdue the guards, and find an empty cell waiting for us. Your friend might be dead!”

“Then my Equestria will die with her,” Twilight said. “Please, Rarity. We won’t be able to do this without your help. I know someone in this building knows where these prisons are. But getting any of them to talk to us is going to be another kind of battle. One you’ve already proved you can win. If you can help us win here, I can get us to the prison.”

“And out again, I hope,” Applejack added, her voice small. “Not that I don’t trust you or anything, I just wanted to make sure you didn’t forget.”

“And out again,” Twilight agreed. “In and out. Together.”

“Alright!” Rarity yelled, so loudly that ponies on either end of the hallway stopped to stare at them. Rarity winced, muttering an apology under her breath, then pointed. “That’s going to be top secret intelligence… top floor. I did a favor for the clerk a few weeks back, I’m sure I could slip into the records room for a few minutes.”

And that was exactly what she did. Twilight and the others waited while Rarity flirted with the clerk, slipped into the room, and returned a few minutes later with a file-folder under one leg. She gestured urgently for the door. “We, uh… better get going. I’m not sure they’ll be happy with me actually taking anything out. But if we’re in the castle, they know they can’t touch me.”

They made it to the castle. Twilight was tense every moment, expecting Nightmare Moon to swoop down and imprison her. But apparently she hadn’t spent the last few days studying her magic for betrayal, or doing anything else even remotely concerned with what Twilight’s plan really involved.

Eventually they reached somewhere safe—Rarity’s own quarters. Despite leaving on this mission, it seemed that Nightmare Moon either respected her enough to keep everything in place, or possibly just assigned her replacement to live somewhere else.

For the steward of the entire castle, the space was barely large enough to fit their group, particularly with the little pony already inside.

“You’re back!” Sweetie Belle exclaimed, as Rarity led the way into her bedroom. They met in a tight embrace—tight enough to tell Twilight everything she needed to know about Rarity’s skepticism for their plan. “They said you might not be back for a long time… did you save Equestria already?”

“Not quite, darling,” Rarity answered, returning the hug for a few more seconds before finally letting go. “These are, uh… my new friends. We’ve still got two more to find before Equestria is safe. We have a mission to plan.”

“Oh, can I help?” Sweetie Belle bounced up and down beside her, watching the rest of them enter with wide eyes and a grin across her face. “I’m smart! I’m even, uh… better with my magic than I used to be! I can do levitation spells all by myself now!”

“I’m afraid not, Sweetie,” Rarity answered, voice pained. “The princess, uh… doesn’t want you to leave the castle. For your own safety. You’ll have to stay here, unfortunately.”

She doesn’t have her cutie mark. Twilight stared openly at her, unsure of what she was seeing. But no, she wasn’t hallucinating. Why do my friends have theirs when other ponies don’t?

“Rarity, uh… maybe you should send your sister away for a bit. She’s probably safer if she doesn’t hear any of this.”

“Yes,” Rarity agreed. “Unfortunately she’s right, dear. We need to uh… ask you to run down to the kitchen for tea. I’m sorry there isn’t a more dignified task for you, but… think of it as a test of your magic! You could levitate the tray all the way back here.”

“I get it.” Sweetie’s ears flattened, and she slumped her way past them. “I’ll get the tea.” She shuffled out, leaving even Twilight feeling a little guilty as she watched her go.

Pinkie shut the door gently behind her, before bouncing back into the center of the room. “So where are we going next?”

Rarity opened the file, shuffling through it for a few seconds. “There are… three mines still open, according to our thestral spies. This one here is clearly the closest to Agate. Looks like the city has emerged around it, and they even have some trade with Equestria across the border. Some… highly illegal trade in Equestrian contraband and crystal inventions.” She sat back, fuming. “It’s oversights like this that keep the war going. Don’t ponies know that trading their safety for conveniences across the border won’t keep them from ending up in the mines too?”

“Rarity, focus. We’re not here to stop the black market, we’re looking for a pony. Rainbow Dash, right? Prisoner of war, fighting for your side. That should be enough for you to want to rescue her.”

“For our side,” Rarity corrected, raising an eyebrow just a little. “Equestria’s fates rise or fall together. Don’t think I’m going to sit here turning a blind eye to treasonous suggestions in my own—”

Twilight stomped one hoof, loudly and suddenly enough that all eyes snapped to her. “Rarity, please. We’re not suggesting otherwise. Applejack is right that we need to save Rainbow Dash first. There won’t be a black market when we finish. The Crystal Empire will be part of Equestria again, the way it should’ve been.”

“Besides…” Pinkie squeezed into the tiny couch beside Applejack. There was only really enough room for three ponies in the tiny sitting room, which meant Twilight sat on the floor. But she hardly noticed. Only the documents on Rarity’s little table mattered. “The market might work to our advantage! It’s a shame ponies are giving their bits to somepony as evil as Sombra… but that means they’re crossing back and forth. There’s got to be a way across the border for us too, right? We can… go across to shop, or… as merchants, or something. Then all we have to do is sneak down into the prison, save Rainbow, and we’re done!”

We still need to find Fluttershy, Twilight thought. “That’s a solid plan, Pinkie. Unless somepony here can think of a better idea, that’s probably a good place to start. We can go to…” She squinted down at the map for a second. “Vanhoover. We ask around, pretend we’re big clients making a trade across the border. Can’t be that hard.”

“I suppose that sounds as plausible as anything,” Rarity said. “A shame we don’t have the soldiers to organize an offensive and take the city across the border. Ponies couldn’t trade contraband if the enemy was destroyed. But since that’s impossible, a more covert approach is sensible enough. I’ll arrange passage for us tomorrow. And… lodging for the three of you in the meantime. Make any preparations you need to while we’re still safe in civilization. I’m sure I’ll find passage out before Eventide.”

They didn’t depart on another Flim-Flam industry armored trains. Twilight was grateful for that, considering what had happened to the one they rode in when they arrived.

Unfortunately there were no other means of transit quite as efficient. Instead they had to wait for a hot-air balloon to take them to Seaddle, then catch an ordinary train bound for Vanhoover on the border, a trip of several days marked by frequent stops and rerouting thanks to the ongoing conflict.

Twilight took advantage of the long trip to do a little spellcasting, taking a spare vest she’d borrowed from Rarity and enchanting it with a simple illusion. Once she slipped it on, her wings would vanish, leaving little magical signature behind that couldn’t be explained by her already being a unicorn.

Of course, that wouldn’t hide the other signs she was different—her horn was still longer than a unicorn’s, she was still taller, and her magic was much more powerful. But at least this way she could walk through the streets without seeming like an obvious anomaly to literally everyone who encountered her.

They did eventually reach Vanhoover, and Twilight emerged from the car to see just what life was like in an actual Equestrian city.

The first thing she noticed were the crystals—bright green spires similar to the ones she’d seen from Applejack’s farm, only far larger and spread between the buildings. There were also bright amber streetlights, instead of the dull purple glow that Nightmare Moon kept to her castle. Ponies here could actually see.

Yet just because the ponies in Vanhoover were still alive didn’t mean they were still living. For every two civilians, Twilight saw one soldier, patrolling the streets or manning the entrenched barricades along Vanhoover’s northern border. There were frequent security checkpoints, and constant requests to submit to a spell to prove they weren’t crystal ponies. Twilight’s illusion vest could survive that much scrutiny.

They purchased rooms at the most expensive hotel in town, which also happened to be the only hotel.

“Alright, everypony,” Twilight said, as soon as she’d enchanted the room with the protection spells necessary to keep their conversations private. “Pinkie, I think you said something about knowing where to look on the way over?”

She nodded. “Oh, sure! Every town has the same places. They need to be easy to find, or else it would be hard to get clients. You all just wait here, and I’ll take care of everything!”

“Should we be worried that you’re so good at this?” Rarity asked, raising an eyebrow. “I mean… Sergeant, you were working at one of our most important prisons until recently. I shudder to think what contraband you might’ve been arranging for the prisoners there.”

“Nothing dangerous!” Pinkie exclaimed, grinning. “It’s easier to keep prisoners who don’t want to escape very much. Iron Will agreed with me. Didn’t you say it was expensive to get me out? Now you know why!”

He didn’t agree enough to try and break the usual assignment system, Twilight thought. But maybe he didn’t have a choice. If the drawings of assignments were public, and they amounted to a death sentence for many of the ponies who got them, then he couldn’t have been seen violating them.

“Alright Pinkie,” Twilight said. “You can go ahead and look. See if anyone will take us across the border. Just don’t tell them who we are and don’t commit to anything.”

“Do you… want any of us to come?” Applejack asked, raising an eyebrow. “I mean… I don’t know anything about arranging business deals that skirt inconvenient regulation—but you still might want backup.”

Pinkie shook her head. “Better off alone. Then they think I’m desperate. Think they can take advantage.” She lowered her voice, eyes narrowing. “They’re wrong.” She bounced out the door without another word.

They waited. Twilight watched the moon go down, then rise again on the other side of the sky. Activity slowed as Eventide began, with most ponies asleep at home. But then a single figure bounced her way back up the street towards the hotel, with a cloaked figure following behind.

“Well what do you know,” Applejack muttered from over her shoulder. “She actually did it. I never should’ve doubted her.”

“Doubted isn’t quite the word I would’ve chosen,” Rarity muttered. “Perhaps—’worried that she might implicate us in treason.’”

Applejack waved one hoof. “The princess herself approved this mission. You can’t honestly think she’d be worried about crossing the border with the right forms.”

Rarity huffed, then marched into a corner and sat down, defiant. She went back to her sewing project—a dress of some kind, covered with semi-precious stones. It seemed to be doing for Rarity what other ponies might get from counting to ten, or pacing.

A minute or so later, Pinkie knocked on their door in the arranged pattern. Twilight prepared a defensive spell in the back of her mind, then opened the door a crack. There was Pinkie, with the robed figure a dark blob in the hallway behind her.

“I did it,” Pinkie muttered, the only answer they needed. Twilight swung the door open, watching the figure carefully. Beneath their dark robe, she could see the outline of a horn, the only clue at the pony’s identity.

She shut the door behind them, then locked up all the defensive spells.

“I found us a way across the border!” Pinkie exclaimed, gesturing at the pony beside her. “You won’t believe it, but there are ponies pretty excited about helping us!”

The pony flung back her hood, and Twilight’s eyes went wide. “The Great and Powerful Trixie is pleased to save Equestria today!”