• Published 8th Feb 2019
  • 2,536 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 5: Prison

They didn’t have very far to go to reach the railway station. Twilight should’ve known that a capital would need better transportation, and that was what the castle and its surrounding buildings had become. Yet as they reached the station, it wasn’t like anything she knew to recognize. There were weapons pointed at the platform, including a full-sized ballista, though none were armed or ready to fire. There was already a train waiting as well, a train unlike anything she’d ever imagined could be built.

It barely even resembled a transportation method anymore: this was a war machine.

The frame was made of metal sheets instead of wood, with thin slits for windows instead of the wide, safe glass openings. The front of the train had a huge, sloped grate pointing down at the tracks, and all its mechanical parts were covered by protective bars. “Stars and stones.” Twilight stumbled to a stop, a few steps behind the guard checkpoint. “What kind of train is this?”

“One that can defend itself,” Applejack answered from just beside her, before Rarity could say anything. “Even the safer parts of Equestria might be attacked at any moment.”

“Can’t have a hundred soldiers in every train,” Rarity said, watching her with concern. “That would… make it rather difficult to move things, if everything had to be a troop transport. It’s all about force multiplication. These Flim-Flam transports are… perfect for that. Even if they are always breaking down…”

“With a name like that I can’t imagine why,” Twilight muttered, exasperated. Looking at the engine, she could see familiar echoes from the machine she’d once seen make cider in the Apple farm. Similar, but distinctly less custom in its appearance. This machine looked like it had been made in a factory with hundreds of others, with lots of identical rivets and sheets of the same sized metal.

Twilight waited in the back as Rarity had a hurried conversation with the conductor, showed some papers, and eventually returned. “So, they’re running supplies west in two hours. They can’t postpone the supply mission, but we can ride along, and they can extend the last part of the route. It should take us close to where we want to go.”

“Sure,” Twilight said. “If you think that will get us there fast enough.” Twilight herself had been one of the few ponies in all Equestria who could handle a long-range teleport… but magic like that relied on familiarity between her and her destination. Just now she wasn’t sure if there was anywhere in this world that she was familiar enough with to make the magic work.

“No other options,” Rarity said. “Only Princess Nightmare travels by chariot, that’s the only faster way there is.”

“Fine then.” Twilight gestured with one wing. “I trust you, Rarity. You’re obviously just as good arranging things like this as my friend was.” This was also the kind of thing that Twilight herself would’ve done—but not so much the pony side. Twilight would have every schedule memorized, know every leg of the trip, and possibly what alternate methods had been considered and rejected.

Rarity spoke for a few more minutes, then returned with an enthusiastic grin on her face. “They’re leaving in an hour and a half,” she said. “That’s more than enough time for me to requisition some important supplies for the trip. Vapor Trail is going to lead the two of you to the officer’s quarters—Equestria doesn’t have much nobility left these days, so you won’t have any competition. Get some rest while you wait—you’ll need it.”

“And you aren’t running away,” Applejack said, ignoring the soldier who emerged behind Rarity. “This isn’t some clever excuse to put us on a train to nowhere while you go back to what you were doing? Twilight was clear about the need for all of us to be together. You can’t slip away.”

“This isn’t… a clever anything,” Rarity said. “I promise I’ll be on the train when it leaves, alright? Loathe as I am to be riding to… the most dangerous prison in Equestria, during wartime, when I’m needed here in the Obsidian Fortress. But the cause—if the princess says it’s worthwhile, then it must be. So I’ll be there.”

“She’s not lying,” Applejack muttered. “Or if she is, she’s the best at it I’ve ever met.”

Rarity stopped walking away, turning to glare. “You know I can hear you, right?”

Applejack shrugged. “Guess so.”

Rarity made a frustrated sound that wasn’t quite any specific word, then stomped off. The station wasn’t quite inside the castle’s walls, but part of the larger cluster of structures that surrounded it.

“I hear you’re… a duchess,” said a nervous-looking bat, running one hoof through her short mane. “I can, uh… see you to the officer’s quarters.”

“Yeah,” Twilight said. “Please do.”

It looked like somewhere Nightmare Moon herself might stay, a large section of the frontmost car with more rich upholstery and starry patterns on everything. Twilight didn’t spend long investigating it, not after an entire day of digging through books and waiting around in offices. There were rooms for ten ponies in the officer’s quarters, and she picked one at random. But no sooner had she lain down to sleep than the train started moving underneath her, and she jerked back into a sitting position.

Rarity hadn’t been lying about coming on the trip, any more than she’d been lying about gathering supplies. The gaming table in one corner and the dance floor both had been piled high with rough wooden crates. She looked up, watching Twilight come to with surprise. “Oh, Twilight. I’m sorry, did all this work wake you?”

“No.” Twilight picked a chair near the window, so she could watch through the thin crack as they began to move. “Nothing like that. I just… if we’re headed west, I know the route. I want to see what happened to the villages along the way.”

“Ah, well.” Rarity turned away. “Allow me to prepare tea, then. I take it the, uh… farmer, is already asleep?”

She nodded.

“Just as well. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of listening to talk of apple horticulture for the duration.”

At least some things were the same—the enchanted teapot was the same as she remembered, and the smell of chamomile and lemon. Rarity’s favorite blend.

She returned a moment later with the tray, rolling up a screen from the window so they could get a better view outside. Not much better, given that security was obviously the first concern with the way it had been built, but… it helped.

Twilight took a sip, nodding in approval. “You make it the same way in my Equestria.”

“You keep saying things like that.” Rarity took another sip from her own. She looked worn out—obviously she wanted to get some sleep on the trip over too. But she didn’t wander off. “What was your Equestria like, anyway? Better enough that you could convince the princess to send me on this… creative little expedition.”

“Better,” Twilight agreed. “There’s no King Sombra—we beat him together.”

“We?” She raised an eyebrow. “I’m a warrior, am I?”

“Not… exactly,” Twilight admitted. “But you were there, helping the Crystal Empire. Princess Celestia…” At Rarity’s wince, she fell silent. “Right, sorry. I guess you don’t like talking about her.”

“Like,” Rarity repeated. She glanced around the room—but there were no guards, nothing but the clatter of the wheels on the tracks. “Princess Nightmare requires her subjects to look forward to the future, rather than back at the past. Celestia’s crimes were punished—we should not continue hating her now. She will return in a thousand years, once she’s learned her lesson. Our children will forgive her.”

You don’t sound like you believe a word of that. But Twilight wasn’t about to confront her. Rarity was so close to the center of power in Equestria that she might not have been exposed to too much contradictory information. Don’t be too easy on her, Twilight. They had gallows. “In my Equestria, Nightmare Moon… didn’t have to do that to her sister. They ruled together, and their power was greater than it ever could’ve been apart. That’s what friendship is about.”

“Right.” Rarity cleared her throat, pushing her teacup back. “I’m going to retire now, Duchess. Enjoy your window.” She left.

How do we get her loyalty? It isn’t Pinkie we need next, it’s Rainbow Dash.

But there hadn’t been a choice. Rainbow’s unit was on the front somewhere, and reaching it would take more work than a single, safe train ride to a prison. That everypony seems to think is incredibly dangerous. Twilight supposed she shouldn’t be underestimating a place that everypony in the world was terrified of.

She didn’t sleep exactly as she lounged by the window, though she did doze a little. She caught the occasional glimpse of a village through the glass, though far more of what she saw didn’t reassure her. The train passed through dead forests, fields of dead grass, and mountains covered only by snow and ice. Only around pony civilization were there any signs of life, nurtured in little islands barely wide enough to support themselves.

Our planet is dying. It’s amazing we made it this far. Whatever Nightmare Moon had done to try and keep everyone alive, it obviously wasn’t working. We aren’t a frozen ball of ice yet, so she must be doing something.

After a few hours they passed through a larger city, one she recognized as Salt Lick. This more than anything else made her long to step off the train and investigate—there were bright electric spotlights outside, and ponies walking in the streets. This was the sort of place that would show her what life under Nightmare Moon was like. Even if she planned on fixing all of this, there was still some part that needed to know what ponies had suffered.

But she couldn’t take the chance, not if Elkatraz was so dangerous that the ponies who worked there often died and Pinkie Pie’s life might be in danger. Maybe on the way back. I hope wherever Rainbow Dash is stationed is alive. I could do interviews.

Even an Alicorn needed sleep, and Twilight used the unloading interval as a chance to slip back into the room she’d claimed and get a few hours. She slept through as they drove again, and didn’t wake until someone’s hoof banged on the thin wooden door.

“Duchess!” Rarity called. “We’ve nearly arrived at Elkatraz. If you wish for time to prepare yourself, that time has arrived.”

“Thanks!” Twilight shouted back, but then she got up anyway and cleaned up. She was starting to adjust to dim purple lights instead of the bright white ones. I need to make my own flashlight spell. Maybe if she had some spare time on the return trip.

She didn’t bother getting into the fancy, ill-fitting dress rarity had brought her—just cleaned up as best she could with hot water and the sink and emerged into the sitting room just in time to get a good look out the windows.

Elkatraz was located at the very bottom of a valley, which had been stripped of all vegetation by fire just like the Castle of the Two Sisters. Half a dozen little buildings ringed the valley, each building not even half as large as the cannons they had aimed down.

The prison wasn’t what she’d expected—not a fortress of black granite with spies on the walls or guard towers filled with crossbowmen. It was just an opening on the ground, with bits of broken stone and rubble on the slope around it. There were little shapes all around the floor, which Twilight didn’t recognize. Until suddenly she did.

Bodies. Sweet Celestia, how many ponies died in there?

One of the buildings along the outside was much larger than the others, and that was apparently their destination. “Welcome to Elkatraz,” Rarity said, her voice low and solemn. “I’ve never been here… I don’t know that even the princess enjoys coming here.”

“Who,” Applejack asked, from where she was sitting by the wall. “Who does the princess put in here? Ordinary ponies?”

“No!” Rarity rose from her seat, clutching at her chest indignantly. “I can’t believe you’d even… the princess didn’t build this place to trap ponies. There are a few down there, but not ponies the way you’d know them. The things they’ve done… would horrify and disgust you.” She fell silent, ears flattening.

“What things, Rarity?” Twilight asked. The train passed inside the building, and that actually made things brighter as it slowed to a stop. Unlike the purple lights everywhere else, the prison used standard orange and white crystals. “Equestria shouldn’t need a prison like this. There’s Tartarus, but nopony’s been put in there in my lifeti—”

Then it hit her. Nightmare Moon is a monster herself. Cerberus wouldn’t let her open the door. If she went in, she’d never leave. But that still didn’t answer the question of who was being thrown inside.

“Most of them are prisoners of war,” Rarity answered. “The generals and leaders of… our enemies. They’ve done worse than kill, if that’s what you mean. Sombra trains all his crystal ponies with the right competences in… dark magic. It’s impossible to keep them perfectly trapped. Every few weeks there’s another breakout, and only the lives of the Guard can keep Equestria safe.”

“Why not just execute them?” Applejack asked. “I know the princess isn’t shy about killing when she needs to.”

“We do,” Rarity answered. “The ones we can. But I’m not sure how much you know about the crystal ponies. Killing them would just be sending them back to Sombra’s army.”

What? Now Twilight was interested. Crystal Ponies hadn’t been well understood in her world, except that they’d apparently lived a thousand years in stasis and lost their memories in the process. Many of the ones she’d met during her visits were nothing but polite and friendly. “How can… no.” She shook her head to clear it. It made sense that a world with Sombra still alive would be one where crystal magic was used to its fullest potential.

We’re erasing all of this, it doesn’t matter. But there was another part of Twilight, one buried a little deeper down. One she couldn’t quite ignore. This might be Equestria’s only chance to learn. When we put the timeline back to normal, everything Sombra taught will be gone. But if I learn something, I could bring it back with me.

It was a little voice, though. Her fear for Pinkie’s life was louder. Maybe I could ask around after we find her…

“Something wrong, Twilight?” Applejack asked.

“No.” She took a deep breath, then gestured for the door. “We’re already halfway to the ponies we need. Let’s find the next one.”

The fortress waiting for them at the edge of the valley was far from the artfully decorated Castle of the Two Sisters. The walls were made of several feet of solid stone, with a protective moat and pointed spikes and cannons on the roof. And all that was pointed down at the valley. On the back of the building there was only the shuttered metal door, big enough to fit their entire train.

There was an hour or so of ceremony as the fortress’s thestrals took them on a brief tour, shared an ill-tasting meal, and finally brought them to an officer’s sitting room. Rarity silenced any attempt to skip the ceremony with a glare. When it finally came time to ask questions, she did that herself.

“I’m afraid we need to requisition one of your soldiers. I know how inconvenient that is, and we’re deeply sorry. But one of your ponies is needed for an important mission. The safety of all Equestria could be at stake.”

The prison’s overseer wasn’t a pony, though Twilight recognized him anyway. Iron Will towered over her, even after becoming an Alicorn had improved her stature.

At least he wasn’t selling snake oil or useless training anymore. “Iron Will is not happy to surrender one of our soldiers. Protecting Equestria is a difficult task. Never enough hooves, never enough cannons, never enough powder… but I see this is a strange situation.” His eyes lingered on Twilight’s wings. “Maybe… a trade. Next time recruits are assigned, we get… ten more. Ten later for one now—seems fair to me.”

He kept looking to her, but Twilight only deferred to Rarity. “Can we do that?”

“Yes,” she answered, sounding tired, exasperated. “It’s going to cost me a few favors in headquarters. Those ponies already aren’t happy with me. But for you… yes, we’ll get you your ten.”

I knew the old Rarity was in there somewhere. Just keep being generous.

“Excellent!” He stomped one hoof on the stone, roaring so loud that the room seemed to shake around them. “Tell me the name of the pony you are looking for! I will point you to their post, and you can go get them!”

“Her name is Pinkie Pie,” Twilight answered. “She’s pink, with three balloons for her cutie mark.”

“Sergeant Pie! Pity… never had a pony who could organize a better wake.” Iron Will lifted a massive clipboard in his oversized claws, skimming through it with a pair of comically tiny glasses perched on the edge of his nose. “Here we go. She’s…” His expression darkened. “Oh.”

“What?” Twilight asked, annoyed. “Just tell us. We can get her ourselves, we already agreed.”

“She’s at the bottom,” Iron Will said. “That is, uh… why Iron Will is always in need of troops. So many don’t come back.”

“So we go down and get her? Doesn’t seem difficult to me.”

Iron Will laughed, and again the room shook around them. “Not difficult, the Alicorn says. Perhaps not for an Alicorn. Iron Will only knows one other. If it was not hard, ponies would not draw straws for the job. Walking down is not hard. Once you get inside… that is harder.”

“We don’t have a choice,” Twilight said. “We can’t wait for her shift to end, not if… it’s as dangerous as you say it is. We’ll have to go down.”

The minotaur shrugged. “Alicorn probably has nothing to worry. And if you don’t come back—that means you didn’t take my pony, so I guess you don’t owe me the recruits.”

Rarity looked like she might be about to faint. Applejack was better about keeping her expression even, but there was no way of knowing whether that meant she was unafraid or just more disciplined.

“It’s okay, Rarity,” Twilight said, before she could start arguing herself. “You can wait here if you don’t want to go. You too, Applejack. Iron Will is right—I’m an Alicorn. Whatever’s down there, I can deal with it.”

Applejack hesitated, before shaking her head once. “Sending you in alone makes us less likely to complete this. We need everypony for your plan to work, you most of all. I’m going.”

Rarity shifted uneasily on her hooves, before eventually nodding. “I… suppose that’s probably right. I would rather complete this mission than see anypony hurt along the way. So I’m coming too.”

Twilight was the first to clamber out of the guard-building, passing through the narrow opening in the sharpened pikes and past soldiers with their weapons ready. Many of the guards actually raised them to salute as she passed, respect on their faces. These ponies knew the danger that waited at the bottom. She could sense the military camaraderie between these bats. It was the same sort of friendship she’d seen from the Wonderbolts.

Nightmare Moon isn’t turning everypony evil. These ponies are still good. She waved back, and caught the terror on Rarity’s face. You probably don’t know any shield spells. As much as Twilight had told them they could stay behind if they wanted, she was relieved to have friends along. She’d been their friends long enough to know that being an Alicorn wasn’t everything. The more of them she found, the closer they would be to putting Equestria right again.

The valley down towards the entrance was a killing field, with no more cover than the wreckage of a few escape attempts. They had been left unburied right where they fell, and in a few places crows lifted in cawing protest as they approached. Plenty of the “bodies” were made mostly of crystal, and so there was no decay there. Just shattered rock to mark where a crystal pony had died trying to escape. Worst of all was the moisture in the air, which pooled into a visible mist that twisted shapes and obscured the outline of almost everything.

It was a good thing the path they needed was marked in gravel, because otherwise Twilight was sure she wouldn’t have been able to find her way down. Every now and then the building at the bottom would appear through the fog, a huge stone trapdoor leading down into the ground.

“This is… grim,” Applejack muttered. “I hope there aren’t other places like this.”

“Not in our part of Equestria,” Rarity answered, walking so close to Twilight that she almost touched. But they’d been told not to leave the trail straight down—there were traps elsewhere, spells that had no ability to distinguish friendly from foe. Two were all that fit. “There are rumors about how Chrysalis treats her prisoners, and they are…” She swallowed. “Worse. You don’t want to know.”

“I guess I don’t.”

They reached the entrance a few moments later. Without a word of coordination between them, they came to a stop right at the edge. The stone was thicker than a pony’s body, a sturdy frame that seemed to be carved right out of the bedrock. A metal door was set firmly into place in the center. It was covered in runes, for a spell so complicated that Twilight could only guess at its intention. It was similar to the workmanship of Tartarus, probably copied from there. Only this prison made no distinction between the innocent and the guilty.

She gripped onto the door with magic, yanking hard—nothing happened.

“Let me help,” Applejack said, reaching past her and taking the handle in her teeth. She groaned and strained, then yanked sideways, and half of the door banged open in front of them. A spiral staircase opened up below, leading down into the gloom. There was no purple glow of magical crystals from inside, but the crackling orange of torches instead, and a trail of black soot on the walls beside them.

“What a charming place,” Rarity said, sniffing delicately at the disgusting hole in the ground. The rock was stained in many places, with layers of substances Twilight could only guess at. Warm, rotting air drifted up in front of them.

Pinkie Pie, I hope you’re okay down there.

“Time to get our friend back,” Twilight said, hopping over the ledge and onto the steps.

As soon as Twilight passed the threshold of the open door, she felt the weight settle onto her shoulders. It was a passive anti-magic field. It wasn’t the kind of spell that had perfect penetration—it wouldn’t destroy artifacts, or remove enchantments. It was the kind that stopped active spells. I guess that’s why I couldn’t get the door open.

The stairs themselves were freshly cut, with a wide-open space running down the center that quickly grew until it was as big as the doors overhead on its own. Thick ropes ran straight down the opening, with a complex pulley-winch system they had to walk past near the top.

“Ugh,” Rarity whispered, as she joined Twilight on the grimy steps. “This place is like… being smothered by invisible blankets. Why is it so awful? Wait, don’t answer that. It’s because the ponies we put down here are that awful. It’s because we don’t have any other choice to keep them contained. It’s either these locks, or… they’re hurting ponies elsewhere.”

“I sure hope that’s what it is,” Applejack said. “I can see why their guards wouldn’t do well. Everything’s so heavy. I bet pegasus ponies can’t fly.”

“Probably not,” Twilight agreed. “Not well, anyway. I think inherent magic is more resistant. You were able to pull the door open with your earth pony strength, and I couldn’t levitate it.”

“Right,” Applejack said, sounding like she didn’t understand or care. “How many ponies are in here, anyway?”

“I probably shouldn’t… national security and all—”

Applejack growled at her. “We’re on a mission to save the nation. How’s that for security?”

“Maybe… a thousand,” Rarity answered. “That’s too many. The more we put here, the more effectively they can… resist. And that’s bad for all the reasons you’re thinking of right now. The more ponies we lock away, the more lives it takes to keep them here.”

The staircase into the ground seemed to go on forever, but in reality Twilight found the floor waiting for her after only a few minutes of walking. Nightmare Moon had spared no expense in constructing this place—its ceiling explained why they had crossed down so many steps.

The edge of the room was lined with massive metal bars, each one opening into a smaller room filled with shapes. Off on one side of the room she could see crystal ponies—hundreds of them, laying on cots or chatting with each other, or just sitting in front of the bars and staring out at her.

The other side of the room had more exotic creatures, the sort of monsters she’d occasionally caught rampaging across Equestria. Not all that different from what Celestia did, putting them in Tartarus. But Celestia hadn’t forced them to wear heavy iron chains, or branded them with a half-moon where their cutie marks would be.

The center of the space had been made into a makeshift living area, mostly with the help of many identical cargo boxes. They were like the ones Rarity had gathered for their trip over, only instead of two there were hundreds of them. A few were open, holding grain or other supplies that the guards could dispense to prisoners. There were also a few hallways leading away, each one with its own heavy metal door over the entrance and more runes.

The center of the room looked almost like a campsite to Twilight’s eyes, with six guard cots, a little living area, and a simple bucket system for their latrine. The ponies scattered in that opening looked every bit as hopeless and defeated as Twilight had imagined them, with their colors a little washed out and their eyes glazed over. They ran the spectrum of unhealthy, from just a little out of it to nearly unconscious and with visible ribs protruding from their sides.

I think I know what’s killing the ponies who serve in this post.

“Hello!” Twilight called, not so loud that her voice would carry into all the cells. But it didn’t matter—any activity was enough that all kinds of strange creatures were looking at her now. “Who’s in charge down here?”

The ponies in the center all stopped what they were doing to watch her. A few stood up and offered her weak salutes. After a moment of deliberation, one of them approached her. An earth pony this time, instead of a bat, though his uniform was just about the same. “I didn’t know there were any other Alicorns,” he said.

A military pony who isn’t trying to lick hooves. He doesn’t think he’ll ever get out of here. “There’s one.” She nodded slightly towards Rarity. “She has our documentation. We’ve come for a pony in your garrison.”

“Why?” He barely even looked at the sheet of paper Rarity offered him, just enough to see Nightmare Moon’s seal at the bottom. “No reason to execute any of us. Just wait.”

“Nothing like that,” Rarity said. “And… I don’t think the princess knows what conditions are like down here. It wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t have such long shifts.”

“We didn’t used to,” said somepony else—a thestral. “But most ponies who did a week down here would try and desert instead of get another shift. Now we do our whole month at once.”

“Oh.” Rarity swallowed. “Right.”

“Her name is Pinkie Pie,” Twilight interrupted, before that conversation could go any further. The weight of hopelessness was heavy on these ponies, and they weren’t acting rationally. They might attack—or maybe just curl up in a corner and die. “I don’t know how long she’s been down here.”

“Pie,” the first pony repeated. “Bad luck.”

“Probably dead by now,” said another pony. “She volunteered for high-security duty. Hasn’t come back.” She pointed with a wing, towards the largest metal door.

“Give me the key,” Twilight ordered, sticking out one hoof.