• Published 8th Feb 2019
  • 2,538 Views, 184 Comments

Elements of Harmony - Starscribe

Starlight Glimmer rewrote history, erasing the Sonic Rainboom and stranding Twilight in an Equestria that suffered one disaster after another until it was barely recognizable. Twilight has to act fast if she ever wants to see her home again.

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Chapter 4: Parlay

It became immediately clear to Twilight that they weren’t visiting the private study this time, as they ascended only a single set of stairs before turning sharply into the castle proper. For all that Nightmare Moon’s ponies had repaired and overhauled the castle fortress, they had done nothing to the basic layout. So Twilight found herself walking up the stairs of the massive throne room, its sloped layout unchanged from when she’d once explored it with her friends.

“This shouldn’t take too long,” Sunset whispered, as they set off up the stairs. “I spoke with the princess about your plan, explained that I visited the artifact and can vouch for its existing. You should… probably focus on the Sombra and Chrysalis sides of it. That’s what she wants you to do.”

“Right.” Twilight might not be an expert at court life, but she wasn’t stupid! She could tell the princess what she wanted to hear.

At least I have Applejack. And Rarity soon, too. The unicorn in question was waiting at the top of the stairs, beside the massive throne of Equestria’s despot. The second throne had been ripped out, along with any of the art that honored or referenced Princess Celestia. It was all darkness and moonlight now, with glowing purple crystals providing a constant, low light. I guess that’s why she has mostly thestral guards. They’d be fine in the dark like this.

Poor Applejack barely seemed to be able to stumble ahead. If we’re going to be living here for a while, I should try and come up with a night vision spell. But maybe other ponies light their homes better than Nightmare Moon does.

They reached the top of the steps, and their escort dropped into tight bows. “The Alicorn Twilight Sparkle, as requested,” Sunset said, bowing least of any of them.

Nightmare Moon’s throne was carved from a single, solid slab of onyx, with a tall back and sharpened protrusions along the sides. Pearls and diamonds had both been set into the stone, so that they caught the light of the crystals above and twinkled like the sky.

“You may rise,” Nightmare Moon said, her voice booming through the hall. Their escort scurried away, retreating to the walls and standing at attention beside the other soldiers already present.

For once, Twilight was disappointed to see them go.

“I have carefully considered your case, Twilight, and determined that your account is accurate. Equestria can use your service—from henceforth, you will be appointed a Duchess of the Realm, with all the rights of that title. Your mission will be to complete the time travel spell you described, and return Equestria to its ruler. Can you do this?”

“Yes,” Twilight said. “It will be my, uh… my honor, to serve you, Princess.”

She could feel Applejack shifting uncomfortably on her hooves beside her—apparently she had a better sense for the lie. Nightmare Moon only nodded, gesturing away. “My steward is… loathe to leave my presence, I’m sure. The castle will be poorer without her influence.”

Rarity looked up, apparently confused. “P-Princess? What do you mean leave? You know I have nothing but loyalty for the crown—”

The Alicorn waved a dismissive hoof. “You can ask the new duchess. Her plan apparently requires you personally. I have granted her request, reluctantly.” She turned away, and behind her the magic of her mane seemed to froth and spread, filling the space. “I am granting great trust to you, Twilight. More than I would grant to an ordinary subject. Our goals align… now it falls on you to demonstrate your competence is genuine. If you fail me… if you allow any of my subjects to be harmed, or your magic is less than you promised… a wrath waits for you the likes of which only my sister experienced. Are we clear?”

Twilight nodded, retreating from the princess and lowering her eyes, so she didn’t have to look at the magic. “I won’t fail. Equestria is depending on me.”

“My steward will see to any arrangements you need to make. You have my permission to do whatever is required to find the other ponies you’re looking for, so long as it does not compromise the war effort. Now, be gone from my sight.”

They left, Rarity and Sunset glaring daggers at each other all the way back down the stairs and into the open hallway. There were no guards escorting them on the way down, though they did still watch Twilight’s every movement. As though they expected her to change her mind and start fighting at a moment’s notice.

Their group remained silent until they were out of the throne room, before Rarity turned her attention on Twilight. “You, Alicorn—Duchess.” Despite her outward respect, there was no hiding her fury. “I cannot imagine why in the world you would need me of all ponies, for Alicorn magic. I assure you my magical talents are quite limited. I am much more a manager than a spellcaster here, despite my appointment. The princess casts all the spells the castle needs.”

Sunset Shimmer, meanwhile, remained just as close, her expression meaningful, demanding. I expect to be paid.

I hope this version of you gets a chance to turn into a better pony one day, Twilight thought, but she wasn’t about to deny her. She just needed to find a way to share the information that wouldn’t also involve revealing it in front of Rarity. I hope we can win her over soon. I shouldn’t have to hide things from my friends. “It’s no spell you would cast, Rarity,” Twilight said. “It’s that… where I come from, there were six ponies who could do incredible things with the power of their friendship. You were one of them. Applejack was one, and so was I. There are three others. Once we find them… together, we can cast a spell that will free Equestria from Sombra and Chrysalis. The war will be over forever. Isn’t that worth doing?”

“Well…” Rarity glanced sidelong at Sunset. “If you convinced the princess’s vizier that your spell is plausible, I suppose it must be more realistic than it sounds. Few ponies would wish to see the war ended as much as I do. I see the casualty reports. I meet the widows… I know our princess would want that all to end too. I suppose that’s enough justification for a bit of a trip. To… find these other ponies, I assume?”

“Yes,” Applejack said. “And maybe since a fancy pony like you knows so much, you’ll know where we can go to find them.”

“Well, I…” Rarity stood a little straighter, puffing out her chest. “It’s unlikely that I know the name of three citizens from across Equestria. But I will know the strategies we can use to find them. Tell me what you know.”

“There’s an earth pony named Pinkie Pie,” Twilight began. “She lived in Ponyville before—” But then, maybe she hadn’t. She’d grown up on a rock farm somewhere, and with no Rainboom… “Okay, actually I don’t know if she ever lived in Ponyville. She has a pink coat with three balloons as her cutie mark. Then there’s Rainbow Dash, cyan pegasus with a rainbow and a cloud, and… Fluttershy. Yellow pegasus with three butterflies.” At least, she had to assume the details about cutie marks were accurate. There was no reason for them to be, with no Sonic Rainboom anymore. But maybe that didn’t matter—Rarity and Applejack still had the same marks, and there was no reason for that she could discern.

It’s got to be the Elements of Harmony. They’re magically connecting us, even now. They survived Starlight Glimmer’s curse.

“Well, that’s… not much to go on, but we should talk to the military registrar. Everypony in Equestria had to sign up, in case they were needed for our defense. Your friends may be working in essential positions, like Applejack was… or maybe they’ll be enlisted somewhere. Either way, that’s where we should start.”

“You two go ahead,” Sunset Shimmer said, extending one hoof to stop Twilight. “The duchess and I need to discuss something before she begins her mission. I’ll take her to the registrar once we’re finished.”

Rarity raised an eyebrow, but apparently her position as steward didn’t give her the authority to argue. “Oh, well. Of course, certainly. Come on then, Applejack. I suppose we’ll be traveling together soon anyway, might as well start now.”

Sunset Shimmer waited until they were out of earshot, gesturing down a side-corridor. It took them out into an enclosed courtyard, filled with blue flowers and herbs. She glanced around, then her horn glowed faintly. A little bubble of silence, just like the one Twilight had cast the day before. “I did what you asked, Twilight. Now you do your part. There’s no reason for us to be enemies.”

“There isn’t,” Twilight agreed. “In my Equestria, I was an apprentice to Celestia… like you. I don’t know how that relationship worked in your world.”

“I’ve never seen you before,” Sunset answered, looking her up and down. “I knew all of Celestia’s apprentices. She… recruited them from her magic school, I think. I don’t know you.”

“No…” Twilight agreed. “Because things are different here. I was just a unicorn, like Cadance was a pegasus. After several years of field study, Celestia gave me a spell… a spell that Star Swirl the Bearded had left unfinished. I think it was stored in the forbidden section of the Canterlot Archives, at least I’m guessing it was because that’s where Celestia stored it when I finished…”

“What does that have to do with the secret to Alicorn magic?” Sunset asked, impatient. “Unless… Star Swirl was working on it too, and you finished what he couldn’t?”

She nodded. “I don’t know if becoming an Alicorn was a direct consequence of the spell or finishing it was just the last thing I needed to master before it happened naturally. But either way, that’s when I got these.” She spread her wings, before folding them awkwardly back against her side again.

For several long moments, Sunset Shimmer just stared. Twilight winced, wondering if the unicorn was going to argue with her. Or worse—if she didn’t think that was enough, would she try to sabotage the mission?

“Canterlot Archives, you said? In the forbidden section?” She started pacing. “I hope the protection spells are still in place. Changelings probably aren’t interested in esoteric lore like that, or reading at all. Mostly underground… should’ve survived no matter what they did to the building. Would be dangerous to retrieve…”

Twilight tapped her once on the shoulder. “Now you know. My secret, as promised. Now I expect you not to interfere with my mission.”

“Sure, sure.” She waved one hoof, barely even seeming to be listening anymore. “You can do… whatever it is. Try to save Equestria. End the war in one spell, all that stuff. Maybe you’ll succeed. Hopefully you will… but if not, Equestria’s going to have one more Alicorn. If we can’t win with magic, we can still win on the battlefield.”

Sunset Shimmer didn’t even escort Twilight all the way—just gave her directions across the castle grounds to an auxiliary building surrounded by soldiers. They saluted as she approached, backing out of the way—apparently news of her judgement was traveling fast. Of course it is. It’s not like there are any other Alicorns around here.

“I have friends already in here,” she said, to the secretary just inside the door. “You should know one of them—Rarity, Princess’s Steward. And a farmer…”

“Records room,” the pony said, pointing down a stairwell. Far from looking bored, her eyes never looked away from Twilight—just like everypony else in the room. But whatever they were afraid she was going to do to them, they would be disappointed. Twilight left her behind, passing military banners and recruitment posters and mounted weapons taken from their enemies. Down a flight of stairs and into the stone of the Everfree, she wandered for a good few minutes, passing rooms filled with ponies on typewriters, writing hunched in the crystal glow overhead. Glad I don’t have to do that.

Eventually she heard Rarity’s voice from down the hall, annoyed. “I don’t care how confidential the information is, it’s for an important mission. The princess herself has given us permission to peruse it.”

“Then you should have told her to come here,” said the speaker, his voice flat. “I’ve been told to protect this information with my life. I’m going to follow my orders.”

Twilight pushed the door open with her magic, striding in another second later.

It was the records room, a massive vaulted space with filing cabinets and drawers that towered as high as the ceiling. Everything carefully organized, though only a pegasus could reach them. Or a bat, like this one. I haven’t seen a single pegasus during my entire time here. There must be something magical there. Except whatever it was didn’t work on her, or even Nightmare Moon herself.

“I’m not a princess,” Twilight said, striding right up to the desk with the scowling clerk behind it. “But I’m a duchess, and I’m going to need your help.”

Rarity and Applejack were already here, the farmer slumped in a corner snoring. Rarity was the only one helping here—and apparently the military didn’t care much about her castle position. Even with an evil princess ruling Equestria, we still have the same factions.

The dark-furred bat took several long seconds to collect his wits. He moved through routine on the desk in front of him, cleaning the edge of a quill, straightening his forms, readying his stapler. Twilight stood inches away, not angry, but still directly into his personal space. She wouldn’t move until he got her what they needed.

“Well, it’s… not a simple question. The location of a few recruits, taken from anywhere in Equestria. Almost everypony is registered, that’s why these records are so valuable. They allow the princess, or one of her generals, to select the most qualified troops for any position. They’re not to be misused.”

“I’m not misusing them,” she said. “We were sent by Princess Nightmare. We’re gathering soldiers for a dangerous mission, one that could turn the tide of the war. To do that, we need to find three ponies.”

“I’m sure a skilled, attractive record-keeper like yourself is prepared for an unusual request,” Rarity said, standing just beside the desk with Twilight. She was doing something with her eyebrows, though Twilight couldn’t have said what.

“Well, uh…” He sat up suddenly. “If the princess really sent you, then…” His eyes settled on Twilight’s wings, and he almost jumped. “I’ll see what I can find.” He took a sheet of paper off his desk, one that had three descriptions on it, and vanished into the shelves.

“I would’ve taken care of it,” Rarity said, as he moved away. “I’ve never been denied what I need before. That’s why I’ve been such a good steward.”

“I’m sure you were great at your job,” Twilight muttered, settling back onto her haunches to wait for the clerk to finish his search. “In my Equestria, you were one of the best fashion designers in the world. You could open a franchise shop wherever you wanted. Everypony wanted to wear your creations.”

“No need to flatter me,” Rarity muttered, waving a dismissive hoof. But Twilight knew her better than that—she was making an impact. “You think that… do you really think I could do it professionally again? Equestria’s become such a practical place. When the nobility in Canterlot all fell to Chrysalis, well… that was the end of anyone ever buying one of my dresses again. Nightmare Moon keeps all the power for herself, there isn’t noble class anymore. It’s all bureaucracy.” She gestured around the room, voice wistful and bitter.

Twilight was intrigued for other reasons—just what kind of world had Nightmare Moon created, now that her sister was gone? But now wasn’t the time to find out. “I’m wearing one of your outfits right now, Rarity. I think it’s necessary.”

The unicorn looked up. “Yes, well… ‘wearing’ is a bit generous of you. It was never designed to fit someone with your perfectly measured proportions. Those legs, that waist… I’ll need to adjust it. Take it out a few inches, flare it in the back perhaps… your next appearance in the castle will properly fit your station.”

Twilight chuckled. “Sure, Rarity. Go ahead. Just so long as you help us find our friends, I’d love a dress that fits. Once we do… Equestria won’t be at war anymore. Then I’m sure ponies will have the bits to spend on fancy dresses again.”

“I have something!” called the pony from across the room. He landed with a thump, far less gracefully than a pegasus might, bringing a thickly bound pad of paper with him. He flipped it open to a bookmark he’d placed there, right on the desk in front of them. Twilight leaned down over the edge, squinting in the gloom at the writing there.

“Rainbow Dash, recruited out of Cloudsdale three years ago, near the beginning of the war. Want her unit number?”

“I want everything,” Twilight answered. “Copy the whole thing for me, please.”

“Well, that was… more successful than I feared,” Rarity said. “We can take that upstairs, and—”

Twilight stuck out a hoof. “We need all three, Rarity. Unless we get everypony together, we can’t do it. It’s all or nothing.”

“All or nothing,” she repeated, slouching back onto her haunches. “Of course it is. Six perfect strangers, including one Alicorn who appears apparently out of time…”

“See if you can find the other two. There should’ve been another pegasus registered in Cloudsdale at about the same time. Fluttershy, is she in that record book? She’s the same age…”

The stallion flipped through the pages again, and eventually shook his head. “Nothing matching your description here, unfortunately. I’ll see what else I can find. But this ain’t a swift process, uh… Duchess. They’re sorted more by ability than by name and cutie mark.”

“I know,” she said. “Do what you can.” Even if he doesn’t find anypony else in there, we’ll be one pony closer than we were before. Of course Rainbow Dash would have joined the military. Protect Equestria from King Sombra… In their own ways, all three of her friends were serving Equestria. Though maintaining a castle for Nightmare Moon… how much had Rarity done? Did she stand by as Nightmare Moon executed ponies?

No. She wouldn’t do that. That was just a threat for assassins. It isn’t something they do to innocent ponies. Princess Luna was still in there somewhere, wasn’t she? She would never kill just because.

Applejack apparently had the right idea, because hours passed in that record room. Rarity went for tea, and a few hours later she called in for supper too. Twilight could tell how badly she wanted to leave and return to the castle—but she resisted. Loyalty to the princess’s commands was enough to keep her with them. I wonder if that was why Sunset was so willing to help me. I took a rival out of the castle for her.

“Here!” the bat pony exclaimed. “I almost thought I wouldn’t find it… here it is.”

Twilight jerked into an upright position, drifting through the air before landing in front of the desk. “Of course. Who’d you find? The other two?”

“No,” he interrupted. “And before you ask, that other pegasus isn’t in here. I went through every pegasus index we have. But I thought to check for the earth pony, and here she is. Looks like she volunteered… not an active duty unit, a guard battalion. I’ll write her information down for you.”

“Which battalion?” Rarity asked, her voice cautious. “Not all of those positions are safe. But I suppose the active-duty pony would be in even greater danger.”

“301,” the pony answered, passing Twilight the scroll. “That’s everything you’re getting out of here, Duchess. I promise you the last one isn’t here. Don’t, err… don’t let the princess hear me sayin’ so, but I know there are ponies who dodge the registry. It ain’t so hard, so long as you stay busy. Or maybe they’re out of town, maybe they’re with relatives, maybe they’re living somewhere small enough that no one from the Crown visited. Fluttershy isn’t in my books.”

“301…” Rarity repeated, eyes wide. “Brave pony. I hope she’s alright.”

Two names of three. Twilight unrolled the scroll, committing its contents to memory as best she could. Not that she expected anything to happen. “Thanks for your help, uh…”

“Open Skies,” he responded ungracefully. “Now I did what you asked, please get out of my records room. I have a lot to sort through.”

“Applejack.” She nudged her friend with one hoof.

The farmpony sat up with a start. “What? Oh. We’re done. Finally.”

They walked out into the hall. Rarity tugged on her hoof, and Twilight let her slow to a stop, meeting her eyes. “What is it?”

“It’s the 301st,” she said. “Your friend… they aren’t ordinary guards. The 301 are stationed in the most dangerous locations across Equestria. The best trained, the most reliable. I don’t mean to alarm you, but I believe if your plan has any chance of succeeding, that pony should be our first target. Uh… Pinkie Pie, you said her name was?”

“Okay.” Twilight didn’t even have a set of saddlebags to stash the scroll in. “You know this place better than we could, Rarity. How do we find her?”

Not easily. They spent several more hours wandering through the offices, talking to one orderly or another until eventually they found the officer overseeing that particular group of guards. In a cramped office on the fifth floor, Rarity finally found the pony with the enlistment records and the current assignments they were looking for.

Twilight could tell from the horrified expression on Rarity’s face that they hadn’t just discovered some reassuring bit of good news. But she waited patiently, until Rarity finally turned the book in her magic so Twilight could see.

There was an image of Pinkie Pie, taken with a faded camera and complete with a scar near one eye. Her mane had been trimmed most of the way, and what was left hung perfectly straight. “Tartarus division,” her listing said. “Assigned to guard duty in Elkatraz.”

“Is that what you wanted?” the officer said, snapping her book shut with annoyance and returning it to the shelf. “I’m always happy to serve her majesty, but I can’t serve her well if I’m being interrupted.”

“That was all.” Rarity rose to her hooves, gesturing for Twilight to follow. “Thank you for your assistance.”

“You look like you saw a ghost,” Applejack said. “Something bad happen to our pony?”

“Well… not yet,” Rarity said. “But she’s serving in one of the most dangerous posts in the army. Elkatraz is about the worst place for a pony to be. She’s only been there for two weeks. You think the ones she replaced got reassigned? Into a grave, perhaps.” She swallowed. “We need to catch a train. No time to prepare, nothing to wear… not important. I assume you don’t have a substitute in mind, Duchess?”

“Twilight. Just call me Twilight. And no, there aren’t any substitutes. We need everypony on the list, or my spell fails. All or nothing.”

“All or nothing,” the unicorn repeated. “Well, let’s try to make it ‘all’ then. Come on.”

They galloped together out of the building. Twilight hadn’t seen a train—and with Ponyville gone, she wasn’t sure exactly where they were going. But Rarity knew, and that was all that mattered.

Does this mean we got her onto our side?