“Okay, Trixie, you're up!”
“Silence!” the light blue unicorn cried, her star-covered cape billowing around her as she reared back. “The Great and Powerful Trixie will go on when she feels like going on!”
“And that is right now,” Trixie said hastily. She shifted to a gallop and burst through the curtain onto the stage. Her soaring spirits fell somewhat. The seats in the great tent were barely half-filled, and many of the inhabitants were not the best sort, scraggly old ponies who had drunk too much cider at the bars on the edge of town. “Hear ye, hear ye!” she cried nonetheless, summoning all her years of showmanship. “Bask in my glory, you eager eyes! Tremble at my might, you lowly seekers! You are about to be dazzled by the prestidigitation of the one, the only, the Great and Powerful Trixie!”
Somepony coughed. Other than that, silence.
“Anyway,” Trixie said, “for my first trick, I shall make a rabbit appear from my hat!” Her horn shimmered blue and her wizard's cap levitated off her head. “Behold!” The rim of the hat flickered, and from it burst an adorable bunny rabbit, nose twitching as it hopped across the stage. “Bask in me! Bask!”
The sound of somepony snoring could faintly be heard at the back of the tent.
“Next, I shall make this sword-” she levitated a head-sword into the air- “disappear down my throat. Behold!” She opened her mouth wide, and the sword slid down her throat. With a sparkle around her lips, it vanished. “Ha ha! Brilliant, no?”
“I think I'm gonna hurl, man,” somepony said quietly.
“Just hold it in you loopy fool,” somepony else whispered.
“Ahem!” Trixie cried. “Now, for the grand finale! I'm going to eat this banana!” A banana appeared, and Trixie quickly gobbed it down, deep-throating it with a vigor that made some of the stallions in the audience sit up. “Done! Now I'm going to use this peel,” she tossed it over her shoulder onto the stage, “to grow a whole new banana tree, right here!” She stood back on her hind legs and spread her front legs wide. “How about that!”
The sound of vomiting suddenly arose amidst the seats. One of the ponies who'd had a bit too much cider was currently losing it all over the seat in front of him, causing the few ponies near him to scatter in disgust.
“Oh, for Celestia's sake!” Trixie cried. “Can't any of you ponies appreciate the marvels you're witnessing?”
“You suck!” somepony called.
“What?” Trixie cried, her voice ratcheting up in pitch. “Who said that?! Who are you?”
“Boo! Get off the stage!”
“How dare you!” Trixie was screeching now, her cloak billowing as her horn blazed with fury. “I am the Great and Powerful Trixie!” She was walking slowly backwards, her step becoming more animated the more incensed she grew. “I am on a whole other plane of existence compared to you plebian fools! I am as unto a goddess in your sight! I am- whoop!” Trixie had set her back hoof on the banana peel, and it slid on the stage, flipping her all the way over and sending her crashing to a heap. The ponies in the audience howled with laughter, save the one who was vomiting, of course. “You-” Trixie's neck was bulging with veins, “You-!”
“Hey there, folks!” said a beige, broad-chested pony who burst through the curtain. He had a circus tent for a cutie mark, and wore a top hat on his head. “Hope you've been enjoying the show so far! And now for something I know you'll like: those sensational starlets of the big top, the Dynettes!” Five tall, beautiful unicorn mares trotted out onto the stage and broke immediately into a dance routine. The audience erupted in cheers. “Come on,” the beige pony said, trotting to Trixie and helping her up, “let's get out of here.” They slunk back behind the curtain; no one in the audience noticed or cared.
“How dare they!” Trixie growled, breath huffing out of her nostrils. “How dare they laugh at me!”
“Trixie...” the beige pony said. “You can't lose your temper when the act goes bad. You know that. First rule of show business, the show-”
“Must go on,” Trixie said. She rolled her eyes. “Ring Master, sir, you can't expect me to just ignore it when I'm made fun of. I am the Great and Powerful-”
“Great and Powerful Trixie, yes,” Ring Master said. “Only when you throw a tantrum you don't seem so great or powerful, do you?”
Trixie scrunched up her face in indignation, but had the sense to hold her tongue.
Ring Master sighed. “Trixie, when I took you on last month, you promised me magic shows that would wow the masses. You said we'd be rolling in bits after the first week. But so far you're costing me more than you bring in.”
“I've been learning a whole boatload of new tricks, though!” Trixie said. “Just yesterday I learned to breath both fire and ice!” Her horn shimmered, and she loosed a torrent of flames from her mouth. “I'm going to knock them dead next time, I'm sure of it!”
“It's not what you can do, Trixie, it really, truly isn't,” said Ring Master. “You're a supremely talented sorceress. But nopony sees it because you're so full of yourself. Your own attitude undermines your performances. If the slightest challenge to your act arises, you totally lose it.”
“I am not-” Trixie stopped in mid-sentence as she thought. Even in the security of her own mind, she had to admit there were times when she got a teensy bit self-important. She sighed, her ears drooping. “Ring Master, maybe you're right. But I am trying, I swear I am.”
“I'm sure you are,” Ring Master said, “but while you try, you're losing me money. Your time on the stage is taking away from paying acts.”
Trixie's lavender eyes wavered. “Please, Mr. Ring Master, sir, you've got to give me another chance! This has been the only stable job I've had in months!”
“I want to give you all the chances in the world, Trixie,” Ring Master said. He patted her shoulder. “Your pride notwithstanding, you seem like a good mare. You've got definite potential. But like I said, you're costing me money, and this circus operates on pretty tight margins as it stands.”
“I promise I can succeed! Give me one more chance and I'll come up with an act that will bring down the house!”
“Okay, Trixie,” said Ring Master. “One more chance. For now, you can be useful and help Bicep Curl give the elephants a bath.”
Somewhere in the forest, a shadow slithered through the dark. It didn't drift or glide as one might expect a shadow to do. Rather, it crawled, scraping along the dirt floor of the woods as though each motion was an effort. Finally, it stopped, settling as a pool of darkness in a clearing.
Then it began to expand. It spread out in tendrils, like the tentacles of some dark octopus. Those tendrils wrapped around the trunks of the nearby trees, and one by one the trees began to die. Their trunks grew cracked and gray, their leaves turned brown and fell off the branches. And in the middle of the clearing, at the center of the shadow, something white began to grow- bone white, for it was bone. Vertebrae, femurs, tibiae, ribs, a whole skeleton sprouted from the center of the black.
More trees died. The small pond just beyond the clearing bubbled, and one by one dead fish rose to the surface. Birds dropped dead out of the air. And everything that was dead did not merely die- it withered, its body growing gray and losing moisture.
Layers of black wrapped around the skeleton. A thick, powerful form took shape: a deer's form, tall and strong. Its antlers were like stalks upon which nests of thorns were bunched, with two nests protruding toward the center of its head in roughly the shape of a crown. More and more trees died, more and more animals withered. At last, the tendrils of shadow withdrew to the clearing, where they were sucked into the body of the black deer. Crimson eyes creaked open. Crimson fire flashed between antler tines.
But the black deer nearly toppled to the ground. Weak. He was so weak. Preserving his essence against annihilation had drained nearly all his strength. And he would hardly be so lucky as to find another Titan to feed on. He had managed to keep his youthful form, but the strength that mattered was almost wholly gone. So he curled up in the middle of the clearing, head resting against his side. Sleep. How many millennia had passed without slumber? Even in his hateful prison, he had remained awake. He would sleep now, though.
Trixie huffed as she left the confines of the circus. It was situated in the wide fields on the edge of Hoofington, bordering the forest that rose into the hills beyond. A bucket was held aloft by her telekinesis, and she glowered at it as she walked.
“'Trixie, get some water to help wash the train engine,' I can't believe I've been reduced to this!” she snarled. “The Great and Powerful Trixie, some scullery maid! I ought to... ought to...” She stopped. She sighed, standing just at the edge of the woods. “I do sort of deserve this,” she sadly admitted. If she had put on a truly great show, Ring Master would likely have given her the night off.
With another sigh, she plunged into the forest, heart rapidly filling with shame. Ring Master was absolutely right. She had lost her cool tonight, and it wasn't the first time. If she'd been smart, she would have played her accidental pratfall for laughs, and that probably would have truly won the audience over. Now it was just one more notch in her bedpost of failures.
Ever since losing the Alicorn Amulet to Twilight Sparkle, Trixie had drifted from town to town. She had thought her newfound attitude- contrite, even a little humble- would translate to success, but she found that making amends with Twilight had not improved her fortunes. She had worked various odd jobs, trying to save enough money to restart her traveling magic show, but had always found bad luck that forced her out before she could gain any kind of financial base.
Then had come Ring Master and his circus, which she'd encountered when they'd passed through Fillydelphia one weekend. Her heart had soared at their presence. A circus was the perfect opportunity to restart her magic career! She had dazzled Ring Master with a few tricks and he'd agreed to take her on. He'd even let her be the opening act in the circus' slate of nightly shows. But a month had passed and most of her performances had been much like tonight's. They would start well enough, but there would be some slip-up or some missed detail, Trixie would get high and mighty, and Ring Master would have to rescue her by shoving on some other act to calm the audience.
Now he was threatening to drop her altogether. What was worse, if he fired her now she'd be totally lost. The circus had left the familiar confines of Eastern Equestria behind weeks ago, and was now pushing deep along the rail lines into Western Equestria, into towns and cities that Trixie wasn't familiar with. If she were cut off now, she'd have no money to catch a train back to her old stomping grounds, and she knew absolutely nopony out here.
If only I still had the Alicorn Amulet, I'd- no! Trixie cut her thoughts off.
No amount of power was worth the terrible spell the Amulet had cast upon her mind. It had fed upon her worst tendencies, warping her into a mustache-twirling villain that she had never before come close to, even in all her brattiness. She should consider herself lucky that Twilight Sparkle had taken the Amulet from her.
Twilight Sparkle... Trixie pondered the lavender unicorn. They had parted on surprisingly friendly terms this second time; Twilight had even told Trixie that she forgave her. What if she wrote to Twilight and told her of her plight? Maybe Twilight could help her, she was one of Princess Celestia's prized students. She was even supposedly an alicorn princess now! If royalty couldn't help her, what could? No, she thought suddenly. I'm not asking for help. Not yet, anyway. She was determined to try to make it on her own. She was going to stand proud, like her mother had taught her to.
Trixie was walking deeper into the forest. She was certain one of the other circus ponies had mentioned a pond or a small stream in here. She happened to glance upward-
“Why are the trees bare? It's almost summer,” she said. But she barely dwelt on it. She had to come up with a new act! Something that would leave ponies cheering and clopping and throwing their bits on the stage! Something nopony could find anywhere else but with her! What, though? What could she offer that was unique in all Equestria?
Trixie came to a clearing. Her magic circuit suddenly flared to life.
“What is it?” she swept her horn around, pulsing the area with seeking spells. She scarcely noticed the dead grass beneath her feet. “What is-”
Her eyes bulged. The pail clattered to the ground beside her.
“Come on, come on, come on!” Trixie cried, her horn shimmering as her magic pushed Ring Master's bottom forward.
“Trixie, can't this wait til morning?” Ring Master asked, stifling a yawn. He was wearing a nightcap and carried a candle on his back.
“I'm sorry, Mr. Ring Master, but no it can't,” Trixie said giddily. She was pushing him toward the animals tent. “It's too important!”
Ring Master didn't bother hiding his yawn this time. But he picked up the pace, and followed Trixie inside the tent. The elephants and the giraffes were either reading or sleeping in their stalls, while the okapi were playing poker by the light of a few candles. Trixie led him past all of them, toward the far corner of the tent. “Can you at least tell me what it is we're here to see?” he asked.
“The salvation of my act!” Trixie said. “You wanted me to revise it, and I have! You won't believe what I've found for the main attraction!”
Glancing up, Ring Master's eyebrows rose. There was a large, iron cage in the tent's corner, and if he squinted he could make out something inside, something far bigger than a pony. “What is it?”
“I found him sleeping in the forest when I went to go get water,” Trixie said. “Ponies will come from miles around to see him! Behold!” Her horn shimmered blue, and a gentle light shone into the cage.
Ring Master's eyes bulged. “A deer?” he asked.
“Exactly!” Trixie crowed. “The Great and Powerful Trixie has done it again!”
“I... well, I wasn't expecting this,” Ring Master said. “I've never seen a deer this big before.”
“Neither have I,” Trixie said, “but I know about them. I know what he is. Don't you see? He's a high deer! One of the four larger, rarer species of the deer! I bet there are only a handful of ponies alive who have ever seen one! If I feature him in my act I'll be the talk of Equestria!”
A shifting in the cage caused both ponies to whirl around. The deer, which had been curled up, now raised its head, its mighty antlers stretching wide. Its eyes opened, revealing infinite pools of crimson light. “Wat is dit voor dwaasheid?” it said, its voice low and thick.
“He can talk!” Trixie cheered, clopping her hooves together. “Even better!”
“I don't know, Trixie,” Ring Master said. “He's not just some animal. He's a thinking, speaking creature. Is this right?”
“Oh, we can treat him well,” Trixie said. “I'll personally ensure that he's well cared for. The okapi can talk, but we still feature them in the main act!”
“I... I suppose,” Ring Master said. He tried to look into the deer's red eyes, but found he couldn't bear it.
“Trust me, Mr. Ring Master,” Trixie said, “ponies are going to be dying to see this.”