A banana tree grew tall above the wood of the stage. Its broad leaves sprouted flowers that soon gave way to the curved green fruit, which in turn ripened to yellow on the vine. “Voila!” Trixie cried, stomping her hooves. “Behold my power! How was that?”
There was some scattered clopping in the audience, but no substantial noise.
“Hmmm, tough crowd,” Trixie said dramatically. “Fortunately, I've saved the best for last. I bring you, not a trick, not a spell, but a sight- a sight you have never seen before, and are unlikely ever to see again!”
The audience seemed to perk up at this. Ponies whispered to each other, nudging their comrades in the sides. Trixie's horn shimmered blue.
“I give you a relic of the ancient past, of those wild, forgotten days when ponydom still chomped raw grass and huddled in caves!”
With a squeaking of wheels, a great cube was rolled out from behind the curtain. The audience was now sitting up, their attention rapt. The cube was covered in a sheet of effervescent blue.
“In those primeval days, the world was ruled by a race so great and so wise, they were like unto gods! They lived in cities of crystal, practiced strange magics, and wielded incalculable power! Now I give you the last of their number left alive, the last of the mighty, ancient folk that dominated all the world! Behold!” Her horn flashed, and the sheet disappeared in a puff of smoke.
The audience gasped. The black deer was sitting on the floor of the cage, dark as pitch save for his crimson eyes. Ponies murmured excitedly, pushing each other aside to get a better view.
“Yes!” said Trixie. “Behold, one of the high deer, the ancient and unfathomably powerful creatures whose civilization was the envy of the world! He probably has more magic in his hoof than all the unicorns in the audience put together! But he is here for us, for you!”
The audience began to talk loudly. Suddenly a squeal broke out. The black deer, as if on cue, had stood, rising on his powerful legs. His thorn-tined antlers scraped against the bars of the cage with a ringing sound. Then, with everypony's eyes on him, he yawned, and so displayed his rows of gleaming white, razor sharp teeth. The ponies in the audience shrieked and gasped in terrified delight.
“Yes!” Trixie said, nimbly taking advantage of her subject's behavior. “A real terror, isn't he? But don't worry, I've got him under control.” She turned to the cage. “You mighty brute, do you think you can match the Great and Powerful Trixie? We'll soon put an end to that. Begone!” Her horn flashed. In a burst of blue light, the black deer and his cage vanished. Trixie held her head high, her cape billowing behind her. “Not bad, eh?”
Cheers rose from the ponies in the audience. Golden bits were thrown onto the stage; many more were stuffed into the bags the circus ponies passed between the aisles.
“Thank you, thank you!” Trixie cried. She stood on her back legs and bowed. “You're too kind! Remember where you saw this amazing sight: at Ring Master's Famous Three Ring Circus! Tell your friends! Tell your coworkers! We'll be here two more days!”
The cheering grew louder, accompanied by ponies stomping their hooves on the ground. Trixie drank in their esteem like a thirsty farmer.
“Trixie, that was brilliant!” Ring Master said upon seeing her enter the animal tent. “I've never gotten so many bits from one act before.”
“What can I say?” Trixie responded. “The Great and Powerful Trixie never lies about spectacle.”
“Do you really think we can keep it going?” Ring Master asked. “I mean, it was amazing enough for these ponies to see the deer, but if they come back tomorrow night they're going to want a little more of a show, I think.”
“Really?” Trixie asked.
“One of the rules of the circus,” said Ring Master, “is to start low and end high. You showed them a glimpse of something incredible tonight. What are you going to do for an encore?”
Trixie glanced over at the cage where the black deer was sitting. “I...” her mind raced, “I guess I could try to enhance the act a little.”
“Thatta girl,” said Ring Master, clapping her on the withers. “I don't expect anything spectacular, not with you just starting out. But maybe you could get him to do some tricks? Walk around a little bit, show off his antlers. That sort of thing.”
“I'll do my best, Mister Ring Master!” Trixie said, snapping off a crisp salute.
“I know you will,” said Ring Master. “Now I've got to go count all that money.” He rubbed his front hooves together in delight. “This is just what we needed. Good night, Trixie!”
“Good night!” she called, watching him walk away. When he had left the tent, Trixie sighed. She trotted over to the cage of the black deer and glanced through the bars. The deer was awake, and he turned toward her as she approached. “I need to spice up the act,” she told herself. She stared into the deer's crimson eyes. Maybe she could work the eyes into it? She herself had a hard time meeting the black deer's eyes for long periods. Something about it deeply unsettled her. Ring Master seemed to feel similarly. If it was universal, she could play up the thriller and terror aspects of the show. Ponies already seemed uneasy around the deer, albeit in a delighted way. She glanced away, staring at the ground as she thought. “Spice up the act, spice up the act,” she repeated. “Spice up the act. But how?”
“Perhaps I can make some suggestions.”
“Well maybe you- eek!” Trixie vaulted back. She stared at the cage with wide eyes. “Did you just.... did you...”
“Speak?” said the black deer. “Of course I did. You surely heard me talk the first night you brought me here.”
“Well, yes,” said Trixie. “But you haven't said anything else all week! And now, I can understand you! How did you learn Equestrian?”
“Oh, I have my ways,” said the black deer.
“Come on, I'm a professional magician,” said Trixie. “Explain the trick.”
“No trick,” said the black deer. Magic. Of a sort you're perhaps not used to.
“Ack!” Trixie jumped at the words in her head. “How did you do that?”
“It is the special talent of my species to peer into the minds of others, and to project my thoughts upon them,” the black deer said. “That is how I learned Equestrian, and how I familiarized myself with the history of this land, Equestria. I pulled it from the minds of the ponies at this circus.”
“Wow!” Trixie said. “I've never heard of a telepathic deer before.”
“There is much your kind does not know about mine, it seems,” the black deer said. “And the same is true in my case; there is still much I do not understand about you... civilized ponies.”
“Is it so odd that we're civilized?” Trixie asked.
“Yes,” said the black deer. “You must realize that the last time I was out and about in the world, ponies could neither speak nor write. You had barely discovered fire. You were a late-blossoming species, especially in contrast with the deerfolk, who had been a sentient people for thousands of years.”
“Amazing,” Trixie said. “So you've been gone all this time?”
“I have been... away, yes,” said the black deer. “I have been in distant lands. Not of my own volition, either. But now, here I am, and I have begun to learn. In particular, I have learned a great deal about you, Trixie.”
“You have?” Trixie said. She squirmed in place. “Have you been reading my mind?”
“Yes,” said the black deer. “But there is much I have also learned simply from your interactions with others. You are very proud, for example.”
“Oh, yes,” said Trixie. “Sorry.”
“Don't apologize,” said the black deer. “If you are superior, never apologize to the inferior. And you are superior, Trixie. These ponies cannot appreciate it, but I can.”
“Hmm, well,” Trixie smiled smugly, “I am the Great and Powerful Trixie, after all.”
“That you are,” said the black deer. “You have ambition, moreover, and this is something I understand very well. You chafe in these pedestrian surroundings. You wish to be something marvelous, something overweening.”
“I do!” Trixie said, stomping her hoof and striking a pose. “I want to be the greatest magic user in all of Equestria. I want to be so great that even the princesses look up to me.”
“Why stop in Equestria?” the black deer said. “Why not be the greatest in the world?”
“Oh,” Trixie said, “I guess I wasn't thinking that far. I'm not sure I'm capable of that, either.”
“You are,” said the black deer. “And you especially are if you allow me to help you.”
“Help?” Trixie repeated. Her jaw dropped. “You want to help me?”
“I want to make you truly great and truly powerful, Trixie,” said the black deer. “And I can do it. Have no doubt of my abilities. But in return, I shall need something from you.”
“Anything!” Trixie said, her throat going dry.
“Of old, my... followers provided me with much help, and I helped them in return,” said the black deer. “There was only one thing I ever asked of them. I wanted their loyalty- their total, unwavering loyalty.” His crimson eyes suddenly shone. “Can you give me that, O Great and Powerful Trixie?”
“Yes!” Trixie cried, pumping her hoof in the air. “I'll stick by you, no matter what!”
“Then we have a deal,” said the black deer. “And to begin, I shall help you enhance our next act together. I believe we-”
“Hold on,” Trixie said. “If we're going to work together like this, I really want to know your name.”
“Name?” the black deer said.
“I mean, you know mine, and I'd hate to just call you 'Mister Deer' all the time.”
“Hmm,” the black deer glanced downward. “I had a name, once. Then I took on a second name. In the end, both were stolen from me, so now I have none. I suppose I shall need a new one, though.” He scratched his chin with his hoof. Then his eyes bulged. “Ah, there we go.” He turned back to Trixie. “You may call me... Reiziger.”
“Okay!” Trixie said. “Sure thing, Mister Reiziger. So what did you have in mind for the act?”
The next evening, ponies by the hundreds streamed into the tent. They bore saddlebags filled with golden bits, and as they took their seats they glanced eagerly at the stage. Everypony had heard the rumors by now of what the circus had to show. Everypony who was new wanted a glimpse, and everypony who wasn't wanted to see the phenomenon again. In no time, the wooden seats were packed, and ponies stood in the aisles and along the tent's edges. The air quickly grew stuffy.
“Good evening, fillies and gentlecolts!” Trixie cried as she burst from behind the stage's curtain. “Tonight I have a magnificent show for you! A glimpse of wonder and delight, a true treat for the eyes and ears!”
“Show us the deer!” somepony cried.
“In due time, friends, in due time,” said Trixie with a smile. “First, I bring you a feat from olden days. Behold! Fire breath!” She took a deep breath and belched a torrent of flames.
“The deer!” the voice rose up again.
“Oh, be patient,” Trixie said. “Have you ever seen a pony copy herself? Observe!” Trixie's horn shimmered blue. Instantly, like an accordion unfolding, copies of her sprang from either side of her, three to a side. “Well?” all the Trixies said at once.
“Bring the deer out!”
“Fine, fine,” Trixie said, the copies vanishing with puffs of smoke. “I suppose it's time for the main event.” The lights in the tent grew lower, until much of the stage was cloaked in shadow. “Do you know what things were like in the olden days, the far ancient times before ponies could speak or write?” An eerie red light appeared under Trixie, casting her in unsettling shades of that color. “An ancient, powerful race walked the earth, constructing impossible cities and mastering magics modern ponydom can only dream of. A race of gods and kings, secret beyond measure, powerful beyond approach! Well, wonder no longer, for there is a member here in our midst! I bring you the greatest of all the ancient deer! The inscrutable, the mystical, the incomparable- Reiziger!”
With a flicker, Reiziger appeared on stage, to the gasps of the audience. The ponies who had come the previous night were even more shocked than the new visitors, for the black deer was no longer inside his cage. Instead he stood tall in the open air, antlers pointed and menacing, eyes glowing empty red. He did not speak, but his eyes shimmered, and red fire burned upon his antlers. With yells of terror, all the ponies in the audience were lifted out of their seats into the air, their bodies shimmering with the red glow of Reiziger's magic. They were flown around the tent, looping and spiraling in ways that made some of them ill.
“All right, that's enough!” Trixie said. The fire on Reiziger's antlers billowed, and the ponies were set back in their seats. “Disappear!” Reiziger vanished. The ponies looked everywhere- “He's right there!” Trixie exclaimed, and Reiziger was standing in the aisle, sending ponies both recoiling back in fear and leaning forward in rapturous delight. “Begone!” Trixie said; Reiziger vanished again.
“Look!” somepony exclaimed, pointing upward. Reiziger was walking on the ceiling of the tent, clinging to it as though it were solid ground. Amid their howls of delight, he vanished, then reappeared onstage next to Trixie.
“Now for a glimpse of his true power!” Trixie said. A few iron discs were sitting next to her on the stage. She levitated one into the air with her magic. “Pull!” she cried, flinging it out with her telekinesis.
Reiziger's antlers burned with crimson fire again. A blast of red magic flickered from the tines, and the disc blew apart into smoldering particles of metal.
“Pull!” Trixie exclaimed, sending another disc shooting out; Reiziger blasted this one apart also. “Pull!” she said, and another disc shot out only to be destroyed. “Pull!” she said, the fourth and final disc firing outward.
Reiziger did not destroy this one. He caught it in a glow of red magic, making it come to a stop. He floated it in front of the stage where it was visible to all. Then his eyes gleamed. The disc began to heat up, first dark red, then light red, then orange, then yellow, then it was blinding white hot. Reiziger floated it out into the audience, then up to the very summit of the tent. He made it expand, wider and wider, until-
Boom! The disc exploded in a shower of white hot sparks that fell like stardust down onto the ponies in the audience. They cheered and whooped, stomping the ground with their hooves in a show of wild appreciation. Bits flew onto the stage, and more went into the bags passed around by the showponies. Ponies dropped their whole week's wages into the collection bags.
“Thank you!” Trixie exclaimed. “Thank you!” She bowed and bowed and bowed again. Reiziger stood beside her, solid and unmoving. “You should bow,” she whispered.
“I bow to nothing,” Reiziger whispered back.
“Suit yourself,” said Trixie.
“That was stupendous!” Ring Master cried later that night in the animal tent. “It went better than I could have hoped! We made more tonight than we've made in the last three cities put together!”
“Am I not perfect?” Trixie said, her nose in the air. “Am I not the apex of showponyship? Of course it went well!”
“All credit in the world, Trixie,” Ring Master said. “And to you as well, Mister... what did you say your name was, again?”
“Reiziger,” he said, sitting down inside his cage.
“Well, it was marvelous!” said Ring Master. “I can't wait to see what Peltington thinks of your act. Mayhap even I can get in on the show.”
“What?” Trixie asked, an edge in her voice.
“Just a thought,” said Ring Master. “It's been ages since I've been on stage, and I'd love to be a part of something this wonderful. Anyway, Trixie, remember, I'll need your help first thing in the morning taking down the tents and guiding the elephants onto the train. Be sure to get to sleep very soon.”
“You got it, Mister Ring Master!” Trixie said.
“In that case... good night!” Ring Master said, trotting off. “You two sleep well.”
When he was gone, Trixie repeated, “Get in on the show?”
“He wishes to usurp you,” Reiziger said. “Isn't that obvious? You have power and fame now, and his control over you is weakened. This makes him fearful, insecure. He wishes to compromise the strength you have gained; he wants to retain the place of primacy in your mutual association.” Reiziger's eyes flashed. “You cannot let him, Trixie. When you have gained power, you can never give it up, for any reason, and all those who strive to part you from it must be undone.”
“You're right,” Trixie said, narrowing her eyes. “He's clearly jealous of my newfound fame and glory. If he tries to muscle in on my act, I'll-” she stopped abruptly. Her eyes went wide as she realized just what words she'd been prepared to finish that sentence with.
Reiziger smiled. “Go on, finish your thought. You'll what?”
“I'll... I'll... I'll deal with him,” Trixie said.
“That wasn't what you were originally going to say,” said Reiziger.
“I got a little carried away, is all,” said Trixie.
“For all the right reasons, I assure you,” Reiziger said. “Now, I'm told we leave tomorrow morning?”
“First thing,” Trixie said. “Would you be willing to help with the packing?”
“Of course,” said Reiziger. “And on that note, you should get to sleep. You must be tired.”
“I suppose I am,” said Trixie, stifling a yawn. “Good night, Mister Reiziger. See you in the morning.” Allowing herself to yawn the second time she was tempted, she trotted away towards the exit of the tent.
Reiziger did not answer her. He merely sat and waited. He waited until the last round of caretaker ponies had passed through the tent to give the animals food and water for the night. He waited until the okapi had finished their game of gin rummy. He waited until the old bull elephant finished the final chapter of the book he was reading. He waited until the giraffes had said their good nights to each other. He waited, and he waited, until at last, both the animal tent and the whole of the circus were slumbering, quiet and still.
Then he stood up. His eyes shimmered, and he walked forward. He passed right through the bars of his cage as though he were a ghost. Walking to the edge of the tent, his body collapsed into a pool of blackness, which slid beneath the flaps of the tent and out into the night.
And throughout the town, the shadows swelled.
“All ready to go, Mister Ring Master!” Trixie said thirteen hours later, standing outside the closing door of the car at the back of the train.
“Thanks, Trixie!” said Ring Master. He turned to Reiziger. “You'd better get in your cage too, Mister Reiziger. We've got to get going.”
“I understand,” Reiziger said. “But will you be able to leave in this heavy fog?”
Ring Master glanced around at the deep gray clouds that covered the landscape all around them. “I think so, as long as we go slow at first. I'll say, though, I can't begin to imagine where this stuff came from. The skies were clear last night.”
“As long as we can move with safety,” Reiziger said. “The health and well-being of this circus is my highest priority.”
“You're very kind,” said Ring Master. “Trixie, if you would get him in his cage.”
“Yes, sir,” Trixie said. “Come on.” The two of them trotted toward the front of the train.
A sky blue unicorn with a purple mane and tail trotted up. “Ring Master, sir, I still can't find the station master.”
“Really, Sparker?” Ring Master said.
Sparker shook her head. “I can't find anypony at the station. The whole station's abandoned! We're not up that early, are we?”
“Of course not,” said Ring Master. “Everypony who works at the station ought to be there by now.” He glanced at the ground, brow lowered in thought. At last he raised his head. “Well, we can't wait around too much longer. We've got to be in Trottingham by the end of the day. We have clearance to leave, right?”
“Last I checked,” said Sparker.
“Then we'll just have to get going!” Ring Master said. “If the station master has a problem, he can send a letter to Trottingham about it.” He galloped toward the front of the train. “All ponies, aboard! We're leaving! All aboard!” Within ten minutes, all the ponies and animals, Trixie and Reiziger among them, were securely aboard the train. The whistle blew, the engine rumbled, and the train pulled out of the station, heading down the track in the distant direction of Trottingham.
The fog covered the whole town. It was also covered in silence, for the streets were empty, the storefronts bare. The town seemed to still be asleep, for even the lamps were still lit, though a few had gone out from lack of oil. Hours and hours passed with nopony moving in the streets.
At last, an orange pegasus with a blue mane and tail fluttered down out of the sky. “Mail!” he shouted, bursting through the door of the town's post office. Nopony greeted him. Nopony was there. “Hello?” he called out. No answer. “Hello?”
After thoroughly searching the post office and finding nopony, the mail pony trotted out into the foggy streets. It was softly, deathly quiet.
“Hello?” he cried into the fog. “Hello? Is anypony there?” His voice was swallowed by the fog, not even echoing. He walked up to a house on a side street, pushed at a door, and found it unlocked. “Hello?” The house was deep and dark. The hairs on his tail rose up as he walked further inside. “Hello?” Finally, he reached the bedroom door and pushed it aside. He jumped back in fright. The bed was occupied by two ponies, but they were decidedly not normal. He rushed to the side of the stallion, putting his hoof on his neck. Both ponies were utterly ruined. They were thin and dry, as though all moisture had been sucked from them. They were gray, as gray as the fog outside. And they were- “Dead!”
The mail pony galloped out of the house. He pumped his wings and flew to another house further down the street. He kicked the door down and found a pony sprawled across a sofa.
“Dead!” he cried, for this one was the same as the ones in the bed. He burst through the glass window and flew to another house, hurtling through an upper window. It was a bedroom, and the young filly inside was, “Dead!” House after house. “Dead!” Street after street. “Dead!”