Twilight hated to admit when Trixie was right, but there was no getting around the good sense of having a base of operations. By letting Twilight and her friends stay close, Trixie was taking on much of the risk herself, since she was likely to be implicated if any of them were seen breaking the rules. It’s okay, we won’t be. And even if we are, we’ll reverse all of this. It won’t matter.
She still felt guilty taking advantage of Trixie’s kindness, as well as feeling a little skepticism bubbling at the back of her mind that there might be a betrayal coming in moments. It doesn’t make sense, Trixie doesn’t know me. She has nothing to get revenge for. She has no reason to hate me here.
“We’re going to split up,” Twilight whispered to her friends, huddled as they were in the single tent they shared for sleeping. The caravan could sleep two with only a little squeezing, but Trixie hadn’t let any of them share it. Even Rarity and her obvious nobility had been stuck in a tent with the rest of them. “Two ponies can see what they can learn from the camp, see what kind of security we’re dealing with. The other two… can go to that hotel, and see how hard it would be to set ourselves up as nobility. They must still have some free ponies, right?”
“If they do, I’ll find out,” Rarity declared. “I think Sergeant Pinkie would make the best match for me. No… offence to the rest of you, but a single noble pony and her escort could probably pass easier than a larger group. Particularly since we might be able to… repurpose a few stage props to conceal our appearance. There might be plenty of traffic through Agate, but we did just put on a show for everypony. They’re not blind.”
“That means I’m going with you, I guess,” Applejack muttered. “I don’t know anything about covert missions, but I’m not afraid. I’ll… help however I can.”
Applejack would be going with her as a spy. But really, when Twilight thought about it either job involved things that her farmpony friend would be terrible at. She would be actively lying if she went with Rarity. At least with her there was a good chance they wouldn’t talk to anypony.
“Sounds good,” she said. “We’re a few hours into Eventide now. We have until night starts. Don’t take too many risks.”
“We should probably agree on some… fallback decision,” Rarity said, voice tentative. As though what she were saying were extremely awkward to her, but she forced herself to say it anyway. “Assuming half of our group is captured. It would be far better for the other two to remain free, so they might… find a way to get them released? We really should’ve arranged a Shadowbolts team for this mission. What if we lose two of us to recover Rainbow Dash? The exchange doesn’t seem terribly wise.”
“We won’t lose anypony,” Twilight muttered. “But if you want, all three of you could wait here while I scout the camp. I can teleport back here if there’s trouble. Might be safer.”
“Yeah, no,” Applejack said. “I know you think you’re clever and all, Twilight. And you are, don’t get me wrong. But magic alone isn’t the only important thing. There’s an element of practical thinking. You still act like a princess, no matter what illusion you use.”
Twilight’s ears flattened. Do I? She thought she’d been doing a pretty good imitation of a regular pony. Trixie hadn’t figured it out! But then, Trixie rarely saw past the edge of her own nose even on a good day. She probably wouldn’t have noticed she was an Alicorn even if she hadn’t been hiding the wings at all.
“And I don’t think this plan of Trixie’s is tenable in the long-term,” Rarity added. “Hiding at the bottom of society is a fool’s task. Hiding at the top, though… that we can do. I know there are traitors from Equestria among the crystal pony’s ruling class. I will play one of them. Ask for, uh… Lady Platinum. I’ll be playing her at the hotel. Assuming it worked. But ask quietly, in case it didn’t and we’re already arrested.”
Twilight rose, shaking herself out. But the stiffness couldn’t be dismissed so easily. Her wings were hidden, but they were still there. Pegasus wings weren’t meant to be folded and unused for days at a time. She could start losing feathers that way—and she was already starting to smell the need for a preening. I’ll find somewhere private to stretch. Maybe once we have that hotel room.
“And if something goes wrong, don’t come back here,” Twilight said. “You can hide… outside the city. That forest we went through, it looked like it had some great places to hide. Lots of snow on the ground would probably make it good at muffling sound, hard for the guards to search. Run there if you’re being followed.”
“Sounds good,” Rarity said. “Well, no. It sounds dreadful. A tent in a city is bad enough. But it sounds like a better option than leading them right back here. See you all tonight.”
They split up. Twilight watched them go, considering if she should bring anything. But for all Applejack had been worried about her ability to go on covert missions, Twilight wasn’t any better. The last time she’d tried to sneak in anywhere, it had been with Pinkie Pie, and she’d been seen by just about everypony in the place.
“I think I’m going to… try an invisibility spell,” Twilight said, as soon as Rarity and Pinkie had dressed themselves and were gone. “I can cover both of us. But…”
“But what? That sounds… amazing! What we get for having an Alicorn on our side. We can walk right into camp, save Rainbow Dash, and walk right out again!”
“Well…” Twilight winced. “It’s energy-intensive. Once I get it up, I can do… maybe an hour for both of us? Also, it won’t cover sound. That’s a Perfect Stillness spell, and for two ponies… we would get maybe ten minutes. Not long enough. We have to make it all the way across town, close enough to look into the camp and see what defenses they’re using, then back here.”
“So we can’t talk much,” Applejack said. “And we have to be careful where we go and what we do, so none of the ponies listening can find us.”
Twilight rummaged around in her saddlebags for a few seconds, lifting out a length of braided black rope. She tied one end around her foreleg, then offered the other to Applejack. “Not just that. We won’t be able to talk or see each other. You’re going to have to follow me. Obviously you will still be able to make any sound you want, and we’re still physical. Just… we’ll be noticed. Not to mention there’s a chance that my magic won’t work at all, because Sombra’s really old and powerful and we barely beat him last time, and he might know wards I’ve never studied.”
Applejack smiled weakly. “Don’t worry about it, Twilight. It’s a prison, right? We just visited one of those. All that magic was focused on keeping the prisoners in. I don’t think he’ll be too worried about keeping us out. And since we’re not mounting the rescue right now… we’re not mounting the rescue right now, are we?” Applejack finished tying off the length of rope, with enough slack that they could get a full pony’s length away before it would get pulled taut.
“Not today,” she agreed. “Unless… there’s such a good opportunity that we have to take advantage. But I prefer to do things in a more… systematic way. Careful planning, redundancy and backup plans, lots of research… That’s all we’re doing now, the research part.”
Agate was all quiet at Eventide, just like the Equestrian settlement around the Castle of the Two Sisters. This was a blessing and a curse for the two of them—it meant there were few ponies to avoid bumping into in the streets, but it also amplified any mistakes. Applejack kicked over a bucket a few streets away, and a guard-pegasus actually landed from above to look around. But after a few tense minutes, where they barely dared to breathe, he shrugged and returned to the sky, letting them continue across town.
Agate was built on an increasingly steep slope, with more frequent switchbacks and hastily carved steps to link city layers as they approached the camp. Instead of putting the nobility up high and the lowest caste down below, Agate had been forced to follow the minerals.
But whatever else Sombra understood, railroads apparently weren’t on the list. As they got closer, Twilight saw more heavy wooden carts of rock, each one drawn by an earth pony in chains and supervised by another creature with a whip.
She could feel the tether to Applejack twitch with each one they passed, and could practically hear the gears turning in her head as she considered how to free these prisoners. The carts were loud enough as they rumbled along that Twilight dared a whisper as one went by. “Don’t even think about it, Applejack. I want to save them too, but that’s selfish. We’re saving all of Equestria this way. We can’t help everypony today.”
“I know,” Applejack hissed back, her voice burning with guilt. “I hate it just the same. There’s got to be something we could do. Rolling carts like that… how far do you think they go?”
“Probably to the foundry and forges on the other side of town. This is… fuel for the war machine.”
“Unless we can shut it down.”
But there was no time for more conversation as they got closer. There was a thick stone wall up ahead. Though instead of being carefully mortared and meticulously constructed, this one was made of mountains of castoff stone, cemented together with a growth of sickly green crystal. It took the same shape as the ancient walls Twilight had seen, but was probably stronger. And uglier.
There was a gate, and plenty of guards to stand around it. Twilight stopped on the side of the road and watched it open and close a few times. There were papers to exchange, then a lift as a cart went in or out, then the weight of the mechanism would slowly lower it down. Her concentration was holding strong for now, though the longer she maintained invisibility the harder it became. And worse than simple difficulty, she would be left weakened if they were actually caught.
Twilight followed the tether back to Applejack, then waited for the gate to open again before whispering into her ear. “I’ve got another twenty minutes or so of magic in me. There’s an empty cart coming up the hill behind us. Once they go through, we rush right behind them before the gate closes, okay?”
Applejack nodded. “Okay, Twilight. I’m with you.”
The cart approached, pulled by an elderly-looking earth pony that seemed surprisingly strong for his years. He hadn’t been weighed down nearly as much as many of the other ponies coming and going up the hill. His rapid steps would be perfect to conceal them along the gravel path.
The pony’s overseer—a crystal pony this time, with an annoyed expression on her face, presented her slip of paper, and the gate opened. Wooden wheels on the gravel path were more than enough to conceal the out-of-place hoofsteps of a few more ponies as they passed under the gate and into the camp proper.
There was a thin road on the other side, running around the edge of a huge crater. For a few seconds Twilight was stunned completely, staring down into the reddish glow with horror on her face. She had thought Nightmare Moon’s prison was bad—she’d been wrong.
The crater was a strip mine, a little less wide the further down it went. Ponies at the bottom probably wouldn’t have been able to see the sun, if there had still been a sun to see. As it was, the thousands of little torches looked like distant fireflies, singing a song of pickaxes and wheels. There were thousands of ponies down there. And up here, not even a crude building to hold the slaves. They were left thin cots right on the bare ground, with only small fires to keep them warm. Twilight was shivering, and she had the warmth of an active spell in her chest to keep off the chill. The non-earth ponies must be freezing in the constant near-winter.
So far as defenses, she could make out guard towers along the rim of the crater at various points, and at least a hundred armored ponies she took to the be the camp’s guards.
There’s only room for a few prisoners up here, and there are hundreds down there. They must sleep somewhere else. Unfortunately, she couldn’t make out Rainbow Dash, not from up here. Maybe if we could get into that administration building. Looks like Sombra keeps things just as organized as a pony.
Unfortunately for Twilight, she also didn’t notice the guard walking along her routine patrol from behind them. She passed between the two of them, and tripped on the invisible rope, stumbling forward in the dirt and dropping her spear.
For a single, agonizing second, Twilight stared down at the guard. She backed away, towards the direction of the pull, urging Applejack follow her as best she could. But now there was a pony right beside them, no chance they could speak without being overheard. Oh no no no.
The pony jerked to her hooves, picking up her spear and swinging it wildly around. Twilight kept backing up, yanking Applejack along with her.
“There was something there!” she yelled, voice stubborn. “I swear!” She slashed the spear through open air again, closer to where they were standing than the last time. More soldiers approached from all directions, though only some of them were actually concerned about security. It looked like most of the crowd was just coming down to point and laugh.
Time to go. Twilight retreated all the way back, until she was in contact with Applejack. Teleporting away so soon would mean not learning the information they actually wanted about whether Rainbow Dash was in this particular camp. But with the camp on alert…
“Hold still,” Twilight whispered.
“I heard something!” the soldier squealed, moving towards her suddenly, spear aimed near where Twilight was actually standing.
All the guards would certainly hear the little implosion of air when she took the two of them away. Twilight got one last look at the spear coming for her head then she was standing outside Trixie’s camp.
She waited a few seconds, long enough to make sure they weren’t getting mobbed by soldiers. But no, things were as quiet as she remembered. Trixie was probably still asleep in her caravan, there was no one nearby, just the windows of the various buildings facing the empty town square.
Twilight let the invisibility falter a few seconds later, dropping to the ground with exhaustion. Her horn was practically steaming from the effort of so much magic so fast, and she barely even felt it as Applejack worked the rope down off her leg.
“As far as saving goes, I don’t know about our first attempt,” she said from beside her. “I think we’ll need to come up with something better than a rope next time.”
Twilight nodded weakly, though she didn’t have the strength to reply quite yet. It was a little like brain-freeze, except that the pain was focused on the base of her horn and spread through the rest of her head as a dull ache, throbbing in time with her heartbeat. If we get attacked in the next few minutes, I am bucked.
“I think… maybe just one pony gathering the information,” Twilight eventually said, her voice weak. “They wouldn’t be able to pull off a rescue alone, I agree they would need more help. But just sneaking into the office… maybe I should do that one alone tomorrow night.”
Applejack looked doubtful. “Unless they increased security. After what just happened…”
She was probably right. A pony tripping and blaming it on a ghost was one thing, but the teleport would’ve been loud and dramatic, even if there was nothing to actually see. Maybe they would think a captured unicorn was escaping. I really hope none of the ponies working there get punished because of us.
Just because Twilight knew on an intellectual level that she planned on reversing all of this, essentially erasing all their suffering, she couldn’t separate that from what was really going on. Applejack had been right about that. There was still a chance she would fail, and they would be stuck with the world they had.
Twilight eventually had the energy to get up again, if only to move back into the tent and flop down on her cot. Part of her was listening for the suspicious troops to arrive outside, maybe to try and arrest the magician. But they never came. She probably slept at some point, because when she opened her eyes again she was on her side and a blanket was over her shoulders.
Twilight sat up, levitating the blanket off, and massaging her horn. She looked around, but only Applejack’s bed was occupied. Uh oh.
Twilight rose to her hooves, creeping slowly out of the tent. Her friend didn’t stir, and she was able to make it out.
Eventide was just about over, judging on the activity of ponies making their way out of their bunkhouses around the city center. Even Trixie was up now, making oatcakes over a fire. Her mane was a mess, and her eyes were tired as Twilight approached. “Talk to me after coffee,” she grumbled.
“Did you see Rarity or Pinkie during Eventide?” Twilight asked. “Did they… go into the caravan with you?”
Trixie raised an eyebrow, and just a little of her regular attitude seemed to surface. “If you’re such good friends, why would you think they had come in with me?”
“So no.” Twilight turned away. She still remembered where to find the hotel. Now that night had fallen, plenty of ponies were moving up and down the streets. Twilight would not stand out, not with her vest. “I’ll be back.”
Take a deep breath, Twilight. It’s probably nothing. They just succeeded, is all. They’re staying at the hotel and they couldn’t come back without giving themselves away. Just give them time. Or maybe they’d been captured and they were being dragged away to work the mines.
Twilight picked a dark robe from her saddlebags, then joined the throng of ponies moving away from their bunkhouses towards the factory district. She tried not to overhear them—but there was no way to ignore it. These ponies were freezing in their homes, they weren’t eating enough, they weren’t receiving medical care. A few were talking to each other about failed escape attempts, or hoping that Nightmare Moon would be coming to rescue them “any day now.”
“She isn’t,” someone else argued, her voice bitter. “She doesn’t care about us, not like Celestia. She only wants to sit on the throne. Look what she did to daytime. It’s killing everything and she doesn’t even care.”
I’m helping you! Twilight wanted to say. Just hold on a little longer! But the crowd wasn’t just made of captives—there were guards here too, using clubs and whips to encourage anyone who slowed down a little too much.
Twilight dodged into an alley headed to the upper city. She wouldn’t be able to blend in as much up there, given all the ponies she could see out the other end wore chains and were already at work. Cleaning the streets, hauling garbage—all Agate’s menial labor.
But it wasn’t strictly a racial split between crystal ponies and the Equestrian sort. There were plenty of nobles there as well—mostly unicorns from the look of them. Noble refugees. Fleeing from Luna, probably.
Could Twilight be one of them? She could try.
Teleporting herself all the way back to camp would probably take so much energy that she would have to wait until the next day to try an infiltration. But grabbing an inanimate object from the cart, that was easier. Twilight’s horn glowed, and she summoned her dress from the caravan.
The real subtle part was summoning it onto her body, instead of the ground. That was delicate magic, particularly since she had a robe to switch it with. Rarity’s adjustments had done wonders for the dress—it might even be nicer than what the ponies here were wearing.
Best chance I’m going to get. Twilight straightened, then marched out onto the street. She did her best impression of a Canterlot pony, keeping her back straight and her nose so far up it hurt her neck. She stubbornly kept right on walking when anypony got close to her, expecting them to move—and they moved. She was easily the largest mare here, imposing even without her wings.
She didn’t stop for anypony, except for the occasional crystal pony. She wasn’t sure exactly how their social order worked, so she just slowed down a little if her steps would take them across their path, waiting for them to pass.
The Lustre Inn was located on the edge of a cliff, its construction the same fusion of stone and crystal as all the buildings in the upper city. Five stories, with crystal supports and wooden floors in-between. It was nothing near as nice as what she’d find in Canterlot, but the glass looked real and the building was clean. That made it better than anything in the lower city.
Her disguise apparently worked on the bellhop pony, who lowered his head politely and rushed to get the door for her.
Inside was a large fireplace, filling the lobby with natural orange light. The floor was soft carpet instead of crystal, a path all the way to the desk and then up to the floors, with a few dozen little boxes behind it.
A crystal pony waited behind the desk, their body slightly transparent. Even in her own world, Twilight had never understood the details of how these creatures worked, and did her best not to stare. It’s a good thing Spike never got an appetite for this kind of gemstone.
“Welcome to the Lustre Inn,” said the pony, their voice the same antiquated Crystal-Empire that she remembered.
But Twilight was used to understanding it, so it didn’t slow her down. “I sent a pony ahead to reserve space for me,” she said, as though even mentioning that were beneath her. “I’m sure she’s in your records there. Lady Platinum. You haven’t forgotten.”
“Oh, yes. Lady Platinum.” The pony glanced rapidly down at their book, then back up. “That’s, uh… top floor suite?” She laughed nervously. “O-of course that’s where she is. Where else would a pony like you want to stay? Lady…” Now she actually did look down at the book. “Lady Twinkleshine.” She took a key from somewhere under the desk. “J-just… come right up with me, yep! Right up the steps. I’ll take you there.”
She stepped out, then scurried across the carpet as though she thought Twilight was a predator, prone to attack her if she remained in place for too long. This isn’t good.
Some part of Twilight wanted to run, though this was far worse than “something invisible” getting caught in the prison. She was wearing her only fancy dress, and going right out into public with her real face and cutie mark. This is bad.
She wasn’t sure she had enough energy for a teleport back to camp. She got one ready anyway, holding it in the back of her mind in case she needed it. Whether or not she would have the strength when she got there.
It’s okay. This is where Rarity and Pinkie went. They’ve just been here. The pony confirmed it.
Twilight felt a little awkward following her up the steps in total silence. She wanted to make small talk, or interrogate this pony about life on the border. Maybe she could find out what crystal ponies thought about working for Sombra. But that just didn’t fit with the role she was playing. She wasn’t going to give herself away before she’d even begun.
They reached the top of the steps. There was the door to the “princess’s,” elegant wood instead of black crystal. The pony reached to open it, dropped her keys, swore under her breath. “Apologies, Twinkleshine. I’ll, uh… I’ll get that.”
Twilight glanced over her shoulder, expecting some ambush of soldiers up the stairs. But she hadn’t heard any—nopony else had so much as used the stairs since she’d started climbing, as far as she knew.
The pony pushed the door open a few seconds later, revealing a comfortable-looking parlor with its own fireplace and refreshments already out. There were real bookshelves covered with glass. A great deal of effort had obviously been spent to make the place seem as royal and comfortable as possible. “Your accommodations,” the pony said, nodding for Twilight to enter. “Thank you for staying at the Lustre Inn.”
Twilight walked past her, her horn glowing faintly with prepared magic. But it was dim enough that she hoped her host would just think it was a light spell. “About time,” she said, doing her best Rarity impression. She made it as far as the table of refreshments before the door snapped suddenly closed, and the locks clicked.
A pair of soldiers stood on either side of the door, very much unlike any that Twilight had seen so far.
Instead of wearing metal with black accents, these wore armor apparently made of crystal, black and shining and covering every inch of their coats.
Both pointed crossbows at her. “Whatever you’re doing, unicorn,” said one, “stop. You’ll be dead before you finish casting.”
Twilight spun around, reaching through space towards camp. Her horn glowed brighter for a few seconds, as she poured every ounce of energy she had into the teleport.
Then something smacked her in the back of the head, and she dropped like a rock.