Elements of Harmony

by Starscribe

Chapter 10: Heart of Onyx

Twilight Sparkle woke with a throbbing ache in the back of her head, splitting her vision into different colors and making her wish she could just close her eyes and go back to sleep. But something jostled her again, and she sat up a little, moaning in pain. What was she doing here again?

Something attacked me. I came investigating where Rarity had gone, and… Twilight tried to cast a spell, maybe take herself home or something similar. But it hurt so badly that her magic flashed and spluttered, then went out again without effect. Who ever heard of bashing a unicorn in the head so they couldn’t cast spells?

Someone here apparently. Something shook her again, much more violently this time. “I said eyes up! If you try and do that again, we’ll have to get more violent.” The voice sounded rough, angry.

Twilight moaned and opened her eyes a crack. She was still sitting in the hotel, though she could feel rough fabric wrapped tightly around her mouth, and hobbling both sets of hooves. Dried blood was on her face, though not much of it. From the look of it, she’d been tied directly into one of the couches in the sitting room, securely enough that she could barely even wiggle. Somepony had removed her dress, but not her vest.

“The Lady will be here in a few minutes,” said the voice from beside her. “She wanted you to see that.” It was one of the guards from earlier, one of the ones that had been lurking just behind the door. Twilight followed his wing to the other couch—and solved the mystery of where Pinkie and Rarity had gone. Both of them were awake, bound and gagged just like she was. Rarity looked the worst—whatever they’d done to her to keep her from casting spells had left her a little bloody too. Pinkie seemed less concerned, bouncing slightly from one side to the other despite her bonds. Or maybe that was just the sound of her breaking down.

“Now you see,” said the soldier from over her shoulder. “You see what your plan got you. Trying to impersonate what you aren’t. As though the eyes of our king would not have seen through your ruse. Ponies are simplistic creatures, easy to predict. Perhaps he will give you freedom as he did us… but I doubt it.”

Another soldier laughed, and the one jostling Twilight finally let go. “Do not move,” she said. “If you try, you’ll get what the white one did. Sit still and wait for the Lady.”

Twilight wanted nothing of the kind. A few desperate escape-plans ran through her head, each one more desperate than the last. But no matter which one she considered, no matter how she thought about escaping, she couldn’t see a way she could get out now. Even a desperate teleport, somehow completed before she got a spear in the gut, would leave two of her friends behind. Rarity had already been mistreated—these guards might kill one of them if she ran.

I’ll have to wait until after this Lady. They didn’t send us straight to a work-camp, maybe they have something in mind. Twilight tried to relax her mind as much as she could, clearing her thoughts so she would be ready for a quick spell if an opportunity arose.

The master bedroom door banged open, and light spilled out. Twilight could see an outline there, a towering pony with huge wings. She wore no armor, just an elegant dress of something spun and completely transparent. “This is the best Equestria can send…” she said, her voice distant and cruel. “Two ponies who couldn’t fool a hotel maitre d’?”

“Three, my queen,” said one of the guards, their voice timid and careful. But if they expected reprisals for correcting her, none came.

“Three,” the pony said, settling into the armchair right in front of the fire. Twilight couldn’t even look at her anymore, not without her pain and injured head making the pony’s outline change into one solid pink blur.

“Three ponies that—” She stopped abruptly, her glittering eyes fixed on Twilight. A long silence descended between them, broken only by the spluttering of dead wood in the fireplace. “No.”

She scooted the chair back, rising suddenly to her hooves. “You can’t be here! I thought… aren’t you lost in the desert somewhere? Military infiltration… you’re not here.”

“What’s wrong, Queen?” asked the female soldier. “Is something wrong? We can kill her for you, if you wish. Or call the city watch to have them all taken away. It just seemed like you might have a punishment to distribute personally, after the audacity to—”

“Quiet!” the pony roared, so loudly that the building shook. Windows rattled in their frames, and the fire blew out in a rush of wind. Gloom descended around them all, broken only by the glow from the pony’s horn. “All of you, outside! See that we aren’t disturbed! I will handle this myself!”

The guards rushed to obey, saluting her before galloping past Twilight and out. Even the one that had been standing there every moment ready to distract her was gone. For all the good it did. She doubted she would be able to get a spell past this pony.

Horn. Wings. No. Twilight’s addled mind finally connected all the dots. She knew this voice, just as she knew this pony. Knew her as well as Twilight knew anyone. As she looked up at the pony, she felt something around her mouth--a faint glow of magic, peeling away the gag. “Cadance,” she muttered, voice strained and aching. “You’re… here. How are you here?”

“It is you.” The pony stepped closer, her face coming into view in the glow from her own horn. She was the same pony Twilight knew, though her mane had been dyed completely black. Her features were gaunt, worn low by the struggles of her life. But apparently not low enough that she gave up. “Twilight. You’re so big… bigger than the last time.” All the anger she’d had for the soldiers was gone, her fury burned away in a few seconds. “Why are you here?”

With her horn, Cadance started untying her bindings, starting with the rope coiled tightly around her forelegs.

Twilight coughed and stretched her aching legs. “I’d ask you the same thing. Why are you… in the Crystal Empire? Those ponies… they looked like they worked for… Sombra.”

“They’re the Diamond Guard,” she said. “Most powerful, dangerous ponies in the empire. King Sombra sends me with them all the time. Couldn’t take the chance I might try something. Sombra is protective of his wife.” All her bitterness returned, and she seemed to glare off at nothing for a few more moments, out the nearest window. “He’s probably right. If they left for too long, I might… but it isn’t like I have anywhere to go.”

Twilight reached out with one leg, resting it on Cadance’s shoulder. “You remember me! You’re the first pony…” She was crying. “First pony in the whole world who did.”

“Of course I do!” Cadance softened again, staring down at her. “Sunshine, sunshine, ladybugs…” she sighed. “Just doesn’t have the same ring to it without the sun anymore.” Her horn flashed one last time, and Twilight’s back legs came loose. “There you go, try that. I’m sorry the Diamond Guard hurt you. They didn’t know. You shouldn’t be here…”

“Nothing should be this way,” Twilight responded, sitting up on the couch and twitching once at the vest. But she didn’t pull it off yet. Cadance would probably sense the spell, but if she hadn’t removed it—maybe it would be easier not to explain everything. “Sombra is your husband?” she asked. Her mind was clearing now. Alicorns were sturdy creatures. “Not Shining Armor?”

“Your brother?” Cadance raised an eyebrow. In that second, Twilight could see a little of the pony she knew. That was the attitude she remembered, not this bitter pony full of scorn and anger. “I mean, he was cute. But we never… I didn’t see him much after you failed your entrance exam. And it wasn’t much longer before Celestia was gone, and…” She sighed, slumping onto her haunches. The weight of everything seemed to come crashing down on her then, her eyes sagging and her ears flat. “Everything is wrong.”

“It is!” Twilight said, gesturing with one hoof towards Rarity and Pinkie. “These are my friends; can I release them too? We shouldn’t leave them like this!”

“Oh, uh… sure.” Cadance flicked her horn in their direction, and the gags ripped out of their mouths. The ropes around them started untying, with far less care than she’d given to Twilight.

The door banged loudly, and swung open. Twilight froze, completely still as the Diamond Guard marched right back in, carrying a huge squirming bundle between them. They tossed it lightly onto the ground in front of Cadance. She caught stares from them as they saw what Cadance had done, but none questioned her.

“Found this one sneaking around the building,” said the mare. “Should we kill it?”

“No!” Twilight said, at the same moment that Cadance looked up.

“You may leave them,” Cadance said, gesturing towards the door. “I will deal with them as well.”

“Like you dealt with the unicorn?” the stallion asked, eyebrow raising just a little. “You aren’t planning on releasing them, are you? These ponies could be intruders. They deserve to be interrogated!”

“They are not intruders,” Cadance said, rising to her full height. “I am familiar with this pony. She has come to our Empire to serve me.”

“What about her deception?” the mare asked. “They had the audacity to impersonate those given an office by our king.”

“A necessary step,” Cadance argued. “Until they reached my presence.” She stood up straighter, spreading her wings. “I have already given the two of you a command. You may wait outside. What I do to these is my decision.”

“As you command,” they said, retreating the way they’d come with far less urgency than they had last time. The door shut, and finally they were alone.

Twilight lurched forward off the couch to open the bundle, but she had no doubt in her mind what she would find inside.

Applejack had been beaten, hogtied, and gagged, badly enough that her coat was rising in welts in places. Twilight winced as she saw it, then moved as quickly as she could to get her out. Applejack took a huge, deep breath as the bag came off her head, wrapping one grateful hoof around Twilight. “Could… barely… breathe in there…” she said.

“This is going to be hard to explain if my husband finds out…” Cadance muttered, her voice distant. “Twilight, I need an explanation. What are you doing up here? Ponies like you… shouldn’t be putting their lives at risk. The world is dangerous enough. Living out in the desert wasn’t the worst decision you could’ve made. This, though… this is.”

“Ponies like her,” Rarity said. Apparently her own beating had addled her mind a little, because from her words she wasn’t thinking very clearly. “Twilight is going to save the whole world. She’s the reason any of us are here. Taking us away from warm hearths and cozy castles to… this nightmare.”

“Really?” Cadance’s eyebrows went up. “Saving the whole world, huh? I guess you… found a little ambition out there after all.”

Twilight nodded. “You could say that.” She glanced at the others, who had all gathered by the fireplace. Her friends looked much the worse for wear, but they were alive. We might not have much time. Those guards didn’t sound too obedient.

“We’re here looking for somepony,” Twilight explained. “I have a… a spell prepared, one that could save Equestria from every disaster at once.” She didn’t elaborate, though she could see from Cadance’s expression she didn’t need to. There was no anger there, only resolve. “She was captured during a mission near here, a prisoner of war. We need to find her and bring her back. Once we find her, and one more… Equestria is saved.”

“Why… ponies?” Cadance asked. “I was never much for the academic side of magic, I’ll admit it. Couldn’t even cast it while I was still a pegasus. But I’ve never heard of anything like that. A spell that could… ‘save a country.’”

Twilight could see that there was no other choice. I need to decide right now if I can trust her. Cadance is bitter and angry, and she’s married to King Sombra. If she shares any of this with him, it could ruin everything.

But what else could she do? Cadance had saved them, and their lives were still in her hooves. She was their only chance.

“It’s like this…” Twilight began, tugging the enchanted vest off her shoulders.

It didn’t take that long to explain everything, given the circumstances. Cadance seemed to expect Twilight to be somepony else—a pony who had failed her admission tests to Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns, a pony who would never amount to anything aside from a historical footnote in some entrance textbook somewhere.

Cadance never went out and said as much, but her repeated expressions of amazement at Twilight’s real accomplishments were evidence enough. Twilight would have to do her best not to let it go to her head.

“So that’s why we need that specific pony,” she said, after about twenty minutes of explanation. “The Elements of Harmony won’t work without her, and we know she’s a prisoner here.”

“You’re obviously in a position of power…” Rarity said, speaking cautiously. She was still woozy from whatever they’d done to her, though she was recovering her dignity faster than some of the others. “Surely there’s something you could do. You want this all to end, don’t you?”

Cadance’s softness vanished instantly as she glared at Rarity. “Don’t think I forgot you, Rarity. Steward of Nightmare’s castle. A pony who did nothing to discourage her master from bartering me away. I won’t ever forgive Nightmare Moon for that. I was willing to give her all the respect I’d given Celestia, but… she wouldn’t accept it. She deserves this war.”

I think I know why Cadance didn’t stop Sombra from invading, Twilight thought. “Maybe Nightmare Moon does,” Twilight said, as disarmingly as she could. “But what about the rest of the ponies of Equestria? What about your citizens in the Crystal Empire? None of them should be going through this. They should have repelled this invasion. You should be ruling over the Crystal Empire with a husband you love. Not… not this.”

Cadance turned her head away, walking past them all to the window and looking away into the gloom. Maybe Twilight was imagining it, but she thought she could see a distant crystal spire glowing on the horizon. It would’ve been much too far away to see from out here, yet there was certainly something there. “You don’t understand the risk you’re asking. I’ve seen her. The pony you’re describing… she’s not here.”

“She’s not?” Applejack asked, her voice becoming distant and desperate. “We were sure she would be! Taken prisoner right here near the border. Why would the queen have been anywhere near prisoners of war, anyway?”

“Not just any prisoner,” she said. “My husband, Sombra… he is always looking for ambition. Ponies who can contribute something special to the Empire. He wants to make them into crystal ponies, so he can control them. But the process is… willing. The ones that refuse rot in the Crystalarium in the capital, until they die. I remember when they brought her in. Rainbow mane, metal wing… you don’t forget a pony like that. I used to go down into the prison, to urge the ponies there to join. Sometimes they did. It’s better than the alternative.” She spun back around.

“Twilight, I think it’s… amazing how much you’ve grown. You’ve really become something special, and that’s… that’s wonderful. But what you’re asking is impossible. My husband wants that pony for himself. The Diamond Guard are all over that place, and they won’t obey me like the two I have. I can probably find a way to get you and your friends back to Equestria, but… that’s the only thing I can give you. If we go into the city, my guards will be back under my husband’s control. He might just make them arrest you all and send you down with your friend. If he knew you were an Alicorn… I’m sure you’d have something worse waiting for you.”

“But we’re going to save everypony!” Twilight argued, her voice desperate. “We can’t use anypony else, only Rainbow Dash will work. We have to get her out! Isn’t saving the world worth any risk?”

Cadance sighed. “I used to think like you, Twilight. But the real world isn’t that way. The real world is cold, and desperate. Equestria abandoned me. Now Nightmare Moon abandoned you too, sending you into the Empire, probably knowing you would be captured here and end up like me. Maybe you shouldn’t go back… except there’s no choice. You should probably put that vest back on. I can’t trust my Diamonds not to report if they saw another Alicorn.”

Twilight obeyed, levitating the vest back on over her shoulders, and wincing at the feeling of being trapped all over again.

They had been so close. Twilight had found half of her friends without much effort, and even Rarity seemed to be coming over to their side. How could everything unravel now?

Do we really have a chance to sneak into the Crystal Empire again after Cadance sends us back? At least we know where Rainbow is now. In the Crystalarium. Rainbow Dash was in prison, apparently being forced to convert or die. If Sombra could control the crystal ponies, then that conversion probably meant losing her for good. It was just like with Pinkie, only worse. Their window was closing.

Pinkie Pie stepped up beside them, holding something out towards Cadance. “Cupcake?” Twilight looked up, staring in complete befuddlement. She recognized it from a few days before—it was one of the many she’d cooked for the Crystal Empire soldiers. But how had she held onto it all this time? How had she been tied up and restrained without squishing it? Even the frosting looked perfect.

Cadance took the desert in her levitation, apparently just as confused as she was. “What—where did you get that?”

Pinkie ignored the question, circling around her to the piano resting by the wall. “I think the queen of the Crystal Empire shouldn’t be so sad,” Pinkie said, sitting down to play. A thick layer of dust rose from the instrument, apparently not touched since it was installed here. But though not in tune, Pinkie began to play it anyway, and to sing.

“I know this isn’t the way you are,” Pinkie sang. “I know that you remember! The princess of love that used to—” And on and on she went. Twilight expected Cadance to shut her down, maybe to blast the piano apart with magic, or to call for the guards or something, but the pony only watched.

Then she helped. Twilight lit up the room with bright pink light, Rarity opened the windows and let the fresh air in. Applejack took over for Pinkie once she’d started dancing. Heartsong couldn’t be predicted, it couldn’t be forced. But Pinkie sure seemed to be feeling what she was doing.

Somepony banged on the suite’s front door. “Princess, is everything alright?” asked a voice from the other side, harsh and low.

The music stopped abruptly, and everypony froze in place. The spell was delicate, and now it was broken.

But Cadance was smiling. “Everything’s fine!” she called. “My old friends were just… playing some music. Nothing’s wrong.” She looked back down, eyes darting between them. “Your friends,” she said, a little quieter. “You sure have met some interesting ponies.”

“The best,” Twilight said, removing a paper party hat. She wasn’t sure where it had come from, but she was prepared just to accept it at this point.

“You really think they can do this? Save… everypony in Equestria? Fix the past?”

Twilight nodded. “They’ve saved Equestria before. We were the ones who stopped Sombra the first time, and Chrysalis, and lots of other creatures. I know we can do it.”

“Then…” She winced, ears flattening. “I know I’m going to regret this. And all of you… there’s a good chance you’ll end up with your friend. That’s if Sombra thinks you’re worth it. He might just throw you into a mine somewhere to work to death. But you, Twilight…” She reached out, settling one wing on her shoulder. “Twily, if he discovers you… it’s going to be much worse. He’ll want you for a trophy, like me. And there won’t be anything I can do to get you out. Are you sure this is worth taking the chance?”

Twilight considered that for all of a few seconds. There was no hesitation, no chance in her mind to give any other response. I came here to save Equestria. I’m going to get my world back. There’s no risk too extreme for that.

“Yes,” she said. “We’ll find a way to stay hidden. You’re… really smart, Cadance! And clever. I know you’ll be able to get us in. And once we have everypony… I’ll just teleport us all back to Equestria! You too, if you want to come.”

Cadance chuckled weakly. The doubt was all over her face, though she didn’t argue. “Even if we can do all that, I have to stay. If you took me back with you, then Sombra would invade all over again. Best to… wait until your spell works.”

Over the next few days, there were some changes to make. A change in wardrobe for one, as Cadance gave them all uniforms of her household and Rarity tailored them to be “wearable.” A change in habit, as they were all given servants quarters to live in, and plain servants oatcakes to eat. Rarity complained privately about it whenever Cadance wasn’t around, but Twilight did her best to keep her calm. Their ruse of being Cadance’s friends from Equestria come to join her household wouldn’t work if they walked around like royalty.

Twilight made a brief visit back to Trixie’s little camp, thanking her for her help and wishing her safety on her way. “Trixie is worried that you will fail your mission without her help. But she hopes you don’t.” Not exactly an affectionate farewell, but Twilight could hardly expect more from this pony.

You’re less evil than the Trixie I know. That should scare me.

She also couldn’t suspend her plans in the city. Cadance had inspections to make, tours and parties to attend—two whole days of royal functions that she couldn’t skip without looking suspicious. But when Twilight asked, she insisted, “Your friend was only moved a week ago, she was in a weather camp before that. Ponies can last months in that camp. Unless you think she wasn’t loyal.”

Twilight couldn’t argue with that. There wasn’t a pony in the world more loyal to Equestria than Rainbow Dash. Eventually, after several days doing menial work for Cadance and putting on a convincing show of being her servants, they were finally setting off from Agate, up the narrow roads of the Crystal Empire towards a distant capital city.

“You’ve got them, so we won’t need to pull the carriage back,” Rut, Cadance’s stallion guard said. “Two sturdy earth ponies—it’s about time you accepted pony slaves.”

“They’re not slaves,” Cadance corrected—out on the carriage, she wore a huge black dress, and boots made of crystal that made her seem even taller and more imposing. The wife of the Empire’s ruler couldn’t very well get her hooves in the mud like common ponies. “They’re friends and volunteers.”

“Whatever they are,” Mainstay said. “So long as they work, call them what you want. The king was right—you are coming around to the proper way of doing things. It was only a matter of time.”

Twilight winced as she saw Applejack’s expression. The one she knew from her own world probably wouldn’t have objected to a little physical labor. She even seemed to enjoy it sometimes. But this one—she managed a factory, she didn’t have half the muscle of her old self. She probably would’ve collapsed after a few hours on the road if it wasn’t for earth pony magic.

Crystal Empire roads did not get better as they traveled deeper. The snow on either side of the carriage was so thick in places that they had to break it apart to make forward progress, and more than once Twilight or Cadance had to blast away a collapsed section of tunnel. Many of the other travelers they saw abandoned the roads entirely and used snowshoes to hike atop the permafrost.

After a few more days of hard travel they reached the train tracks, with bright orange crystals suspended along the tracks and connected with a constant, beating glow. The soil all around the tracks was always damp, and bright green plants grew there—grass that Rut and Mainstay insisted they eat during the rest of the trip.

“These conditions are insufferable,” Rarity said, from inside their cramped tent. “I don’t know how much longer you can expect us to keep this up, Twilight. Even saving Equestria won’t be worth much more of this.”

“Not long,” she promised, hoping it was true. “We’re almost there. Soon we’ll be living in the palace with Cadance! Just long enough for her to get us to our pony.”

“Can you really teleport five ponies that far?” Applejack asked, her voice low. “Like you promised Cadance. I’ve not had any formal training with what magic can do, but that sounds a little extreme.”

“Not easily,” Twilight admitted. “That was only while I…” But going into the period she’d had the magic of all the Alicorns was probably a little much for right now. “If I prepare well enough, have the right ingredients and make the diagrams correctly, I can. We’ll need privacy and a few hours to work. I could probably take myself back to Canterlot alone…”

“But that wouldn’t be a good idea,” Rarity finished for her. “Because that’s where Chrysalis rules from, and I don’t think you want the hive to capture you.”

“No,” she agreed. “But we won’t be teleporting anywhere until we finish. Just… a little further. I’m sorry you have to do this, Rarity, but we’re almost there. We can last a few more days.”

They did.

After a few more days of pulling along the train-tracks, without once actually seeing a train pass them, the Crystal Empire finally came into view.

Even in this nightmare world, Twilight was awed by the scope of the city. A carefully planned metropolis, with buildings densely packed into ordered streets with all the city services hidden below and magic worked into every foundation. It was a construct from a better day, from a time when magic had been rigorously understood instead of mythologized.

And now it was being adulterated. Sharp spikes grew up out of the city walls, long enough to impale a dragon who fell there. Huge smokestacks of common brick rose up from the city at random, like earthy tumors on the otherwise pristine city. A curtain of enveloping smog surrounded the city constantly, making the buildings hazy and indistinct in the weak starlight. The city was brightly lit from every structure, but at this distance the pollution in the air made the light seem yellow instead of white.

“Welcome to my home,” Cadance muttered from atop the carriage, her voice weak. “The Crystal Empire.”