• Published 8th Feb 2019
  • 2,537 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 8: Performance

Twilight resisted the temptation to send the pony right back where she came from. For a citizen of this strange, dystopian world that Equestria had become, Trixie seemed basically identical to the way she remembered her. The mane was a little shorter, and not smoothed with the magician’s usual cocktail of expensive conditioners. She looked a little leaner under the robe, probably a sign of just how much worse her act had done. But otherwise, she was the same pony. I guess I should just be glad she isn’t ruling over Ponyville with an iron hoof.

“Twilight, uh… you’re staring,” Applejack whispered from behind her. “Is something wrong?”

“Oh, no!” Twilight straightened, forcing a smile. She’s not the same pony you knew. I’m sure she’s changed by the harsh world she lives in. Probably learned her lessons thanks to the natural hardship of this planet.

“No no, it’s fine.” Trixie waved one hoof towards Applejack. “It’s quite alright. The Great and Powerful Trixie is used to evoking strong emotions from her admirers. I’m sure your friend here is a fan, that’s all. She’s awed by my presence. It is alright, young pony. Take it all in. It’s true that Trixie is as patriotic as she is amazing. She even amazes herself sometimes.”

Nope, she’s exactly the same. In a way, that was almost endearing. Equestria had fallen to several different monsters at once, that had carved it up into various nightmarish kingdoms. Yet here she was, as stubbornly narcissistic as ever.

“Thank you,” Twilight said, her voice flat. “Did Pinkie tell you the specifics of our mission? The dangers you’d be facing by helping us?”

Trixie nodded. “She didn’t share the exact details, but the general idea was clear. I need to get the four of you across the border into the Crystal Empire, yes? Into Agate. That won’t be terribly difficult for me. I’m ashamed to say this, but the crystal ponies don’t fear us nearly as much as we fear them. There are plenty of former Equestrians living there, and even the crystal ponies enjoy a good magic show. So that’s how we’ll get you all across. As my stage assistants!” Her eyes narrowed as she took in Twilight. For a second, the Alicorn wondered if maybe Trixie was remembering a little of the past.

“I’m not sure how many ponies would believe such an outlandish story… but that’s the benefit of having an incredible performer like myself leading the mission! Of course, I’ll have to teach all of you the basics of my routine for it to be plausible. The guards often ask for a free show while I cross, and they might turn you away if you can’t pull your weight. And of course there’s the small matter of my fee for the trip…”

“Don’t worry about it,” Rarity said, exasperated. “The Crown will reward you handsomely for your risk on this important mission, etcetera, etcetera…” She turned to Pinkie. “Are you sure there isn’t another way? We aren’t trying to be caught, are we?”

Trixie’s eyes widened, but Pinkie answered before she could protest. “We really lucked out finding a pony like Trixie. Performances are good for troop morale! They know we’re desperate over here, so letting her cross lets their ponies get her at a reduced rate. Besides, Trixie here is a veteran! She’s done trips like this before, hasn’t she?”

Trixie nodded hastily. “Every few weeks! I’ve been touring the border cities. Haven’t… had as much luck with changeling settlements. They… don’t appreciate the performing arts like crystal ponies do. But I’m sure I’ll crack that audience eventually.”

“It’s perfect,” Twilight said. “I’ve seen her shows. Trixie… has a way with a crowd. She’ll be perfect.”

“I will… I mean, of course I will! The Great and Powerful Trixie will be the pony single-hoofedly responsible for the salvation of all Equestria!” She posed for a few seconds, as though expecting applause. When none came, she lowered her voice back to conversational volume, speaking flat. “But that doesn’t mean I’m giving you a discount. It could take days of practice before we’re ready to make the trip.”

“I can’t wait,” Rarity said.

The process of learning Trixie’s show did take a couple days, a couple days of rehearsal not in the cramped hotel, but outside the performer’s wagon just north of the city. Twilight watched all the while with a surreal feeling of disconnect, as ponies that should’ve known each other interacted like strangers.

But eventually Trixie proclaimed they were ready, and they all crammed into the back of the trailer for the trip across the border.

“Trixie wishes for everypony to remember how important it is for us to act consistently,” she said, beside Applejack who had been foisted into pulling the wagon in alternating shifts with Pinkie. But for all her complaints, she was still far stronger than anypony else in the group, and hardly seemed to even notice the weight that Rarity never could’ve pulled. “That means following my instructions. And putting on a good show. Remember to smile!”

“I’ll do fine for the real thing,” Rarity muttered, glaring down at the floor. “I just didn’t see the point for the rehearsal. No one was there to see us anyway.”

Trixie rolled her eyes. “That’s why you aren’t in performance art.”

The Equestrian border checkpoint was behind them in Vanhoover—carefully avoided thanks to some map Trixie had that could route around the patrols so long as they were leaving from inside Equestrian territory. Apparently the security was only strong in one direction.

The Crystal Empire’s checkpoints, on the other hoof, were… harder to ignore.

Twilight could feel the hostile magic from a long way off, like a set of glaring eyes never looking away from her and her friends. She whimpered at the pressure at first, as she had done the last time she had sensed magic from this pony.

Sombra. Sombra was perhaps the most powerful dark wizard in the whole world. Nopony knew exactly where his forbidden knowledge came from, only that he was the most powerful unicorn alive in his day. Enough that he had frightened even Celestia—long enough to take the Crystal Empire for himself.

But Twilight wasn’t a unicorn anymore. Though her last confrontation with him had left her fearful and ignorant, she didn’t have to be either anymore. I see how this spell works. It was a scrying spell, meant to find intention based on repeated thoughts. Anyone with hostile intentions towards the Crystal Empire would make ripples as they moved, and eventually attract his notice.

But the magic was diffuse, spread so thin that it would take a long time before he could react. We shouldn’t have set it off yet. I can… “There.” Twilight’s horn started glowing faintly. “There’s a protection spell meant to see what we’re doing. I can block us from it, so long as we stay together.”

Rarity poked her head out of the wagon. “Really? Is that why all our covert missions are met with such failure. We always thought… he must’ve had an agent in the ranks. But no matter how many they purged, they always…”

“The Crystal Empire has an artifact in the center… something called the Crystal Heart. In my world, it’s used to send good feelings through all Equestria. It powers some old crystal devices in the city too, keeps it safe from the cold. It looks like your Sombra found another way to use it. Spying on everypony who gets close to his territory, instead of making them feel good.”

“Well, that’s lovely,” Rarity said. “If we make it back, we need to share that information with Intelligence. If you have any way to source it, they would be extremely grateful. We’ve lost too many good ponies like Rainbow across the border. The war might’ve ended sooner if some of their missions had been more successful.”

The border checkpoint itself came into view moments later, spanning the road and the land all around it with gnarled black growths. It was the same black crystal Sombra used for most everything, sharp and strong despite its delicate appearance.

There were half a dozen ponies visible along the top of the wall, with plenty more milling about in the small camp just behind it. Twilight could see several of them pointing despite the gloom. A few seconds later, a massive green spotlight swiveled towards them, tracking the cart as they approached the wall.

Trixie walked out in front of the cart, wearing her full costume and putting on as much of a performance as she always did. “Have no fear, ponies! The Great and Powerful Trixie has finally arrived to entertain!”

“Stop in front of the gate!” instructed a brusque voice, not even a hint of compassion there. “We have crossbows. If you attempt to retreat, or take any hostile action, you will be shot.”

Twilight and the others were wearing simple blue outfits Rarity had made—little vests and boots that did a convincing job making them look like her assistants. But will they really believe that a magician is traveling across a hostile border to do performances? It seemed absurd to Twilight, but apparently it was the truth. Trixie hadn’t hesitated to bring them—whatever else the pony was, she was brave.

If I get home, I’m never telling the real Trixie she helped save the world. She’d never let me live it down.

I hope you’re right about trusting her…” Rarity muttered from inside the cart. But it was too late to reply, too late to retreat. Twilight could probably have teleported away without too much difficulty, but not bringing the whole cart along. That would probably make them look guilty, make them look like a target that was worth following. So that was right out.

Twilight remained behind Trixie as a few soldiers emerged from the gate, watching them with horror. These were crystal ponies—this was what Sombra was doing to the empire.

They wore metal armor not unlike other ponies, over a body that was entirely transparent. But they didn’t look like the pretty sections of a wind chime—instead, they seemed like they were made of broken, discarded bottles, all melted together. Their eyes were little red spots glowing on their faces, and spikes emerged along their backs.

Even knowing that Sombra’s world would be an unhappy one, Twilight was momentarily frozen with horror, staring openly at the soldiers as they surrounded Trixie.

“We’re just performers,” Trixie said. “You’re welcome to search the wagon. Or, if you want to see for yourselves, my troupe could put on a show for your camp. N-no charge.”

The crystal ponies seemed to meet each other’s eyes. Was there some chance that there were still real ponies buried in all of that? Maybe they were enslaved to Sombra’s will by their crystal, somehow.

No, I can’t get distracted. I’m saving them all directly. They’ll all wake up as themselves soon.

“Everypony stand there,” said one of the soldiers, his voice strangely deep. He gestured, and the cart emptied. They all grouped up, with everypony besides Trixie hiding behind Twilight. She couldn’t really blame them—even her friends back in Equestria would’ve been scared of these creatures.

More soldiers emerged from the gate to search them, interrogating Trixie about the length of their stay and their intentions for the trip. She repeated their story without deviating once, even insisting that each member of the crew was essential. And while they spoke, more soldiers ripped everything out of the wagon, searching it for contraband.

The pony interrogating Trixie wasn’t a crystal pony, despite the rank patches on the corner of his armor and the sharp expression always on his face. “Maybe you don’t need so many ponies for a show,” the unicorn said. His horn was slightly red, and his eyes were just as dark as the crystal ponies, even if he himself seemed to be made of flesh. “Maybe I let you keep… two.”

“Trixie needs every one of her assistants,” she argued stubbornly, glancing over her shoulder once at Twilight. “You’ll see. Once the Great and Powerful Trixie performs for your camp here, you’ll be jumping to let her travel the rest of the Crystal Empire. You have never seen anything like it.”

The pony grunted in response. “We’ll see. You can have your performance. Where you go after that… maybe to Agate, maybe the slave pits. We’ll see.”

Trixie laughed nervously. “Y-yeah, we’ll… you’ll see. You’d never want to be the ponies to stop this performance from continuing on, once you see it for yourselves.”

And so they were let through the gate—and all of five hundred feet to the camp of soldiers protecting the border. At least they were given a little space, to gather up everything that had been ransacked and pack it back into the wagon, and to prepare for the show. But half a dozen bored-looking soldiers surrounded the wagon, cutting off any chance of an escape.

“Are these crossings usually so… tense?” Applejack asked, as soon as they were all crammed into the wagon. “I feel like something would’ve gone wrong by now.”

“Most ponies are more… polite when they’re in the presence of power. They don’t usually look so closely. Trixie thinks they must have other reasons to be suspicious. But… it won’t matter. Do not worry yourselves, ponies. Trixie has never failed to move a crowd, even when so many of them are rocks. While they may seem stiff, crystal ponies aren’t so different from us. They still want to laugh… want to be impressed, amazed, astounded! Trixie will make them do all of those things.”

“I hope so,” Rarity said. “Do we have a backup plan? We can’t let them just throw us into a work camp if this doesn’t go well. It won’t be the same one as a true prisoner of war. We will have gone all this way, gotten ourselves enslaved, and won’t even find the pegasus.”

Twilight nodded. “There are a lot of ponies here, but… they think I’m a unicorn. I’ll come up with something.” I better. Twilight didn’t have a clue what they could do, and less so as a crowd began to gather for the performance.

There were hundreds of soldiers here, flocking not just from this camp but apparently several all around. Twilight Sparkle might be powerful, she might know more about magic than any one of these ponies. But there was so much magic here, and much of it she didn’t even understand. She still hadn’t seen the crystal ponies in action.

Their threats about slavery weren’t empty either. As soldiers arrived for the performance, they brought ponies in chains, with shovels and picks to dig out seating for the show. Twilight peeked out through the wagon’s window, but could see no sign of anypony she knew.

It doesn’t matter. They shouldn’t have to suffer like this. This was the future that King Sombra had promised for all Equestria. This was what she and her friends had stopped once.

I hope you’re happy about this, Starlight Glimmer. Wherever you are, I hope you see just what your magic made the world into.

“Looks like the crowd is getting restless,” Trixie said, making a few final adjustments to her makeup. “Come on then, assistants! Let’s make this a performance they won’t forget!”

It took only moments for Twilight to see that Trixie’s promises of just how impressed and amazed everypony would be might have some trouble coming true. Twilight’s pretend job was working stage lights, which she could do quite well thanks to a few basic unicorn spells.

But just because she could do a good job, just because Applejack’s music and Rarity’s costumes were all perfect didn’t mean that the crystal ponies would want anything to do with them. As Twilight watched the crowd from one side, she could see several of the soldiers on the outside passing around weapons, and occasionally gesturing between them.

This isn’t going to end well. If they were captured and imprisoned by the Crystal Empire, that might very well be the end of any chance to save Equestria. She couldn’t let that happen. But what could she do?

Just now, Rarity was serving as Trixie’s assistant, helping with an illusion of sawing a pony in half. With Applejack on the other side of the stage doing music, that left only Pinkie close enough to talk to. Twilight lowered her voice to the quietest whisper, leaning close to her friend. Maybe she would see something that Twilight had missed?

“This isn’t working,” she hissed. “They’re going to try and arrest us once the show ends.”

Pinkie followed her eyes, then nodded solemnly. “They don’t look like they’re having as much fun as Trixie hoped. I think these soldiers are just too stiff. Someone should really help them relax.”

Someone should. Twilight’s eyes widened as she stared at the pink pony beside her, and she very nearly missed a cue to switch gels on the lights. She swapped from blue to red, catching just a little of Trixie’s glare as she did so.

“Pinkie, what would you do? If this show ends and everypony is unhappy… do you have any ideas?”

The earth pony looked thoughtful for a few seconds, glancing briefly back inside the trailer and then nodding slowly. “I think I’d… make treats for everypony. Play some music, maybe change the lights. Make it a party! Everypony likes parties.”

“Go,” Twilight whispered. “I’ll cover for you.” That would mean pulling double duty with the props Pinkie was supposed to covertly pass at the right moment, but that was just fine. Twilight was an Alicorn, she could move lights and levitate things with her magic at the same time. No big deal.

And as the show wore on, she could watch the clear divide in the audience. A good portion of those watching seemed to be enjoying themselves, but just as many were unmoving, apparently more excited by the idea of whatever would be coming to the show as soon as it ended.

Then it did, to a modest smattering of applause. It wasn’t Trixie’s best performance—this version of her didn’t have as much practice, apparently. But at least the soldiers looked less bored.

Except for their captain, the same unicorn who had interrogated them on their way in. He strode up onto the stage before the audience had even finished applauding, a smug grin on his face. All around them, the soldiers were closing in.

He plans on giving them a different kind of show, Twilight realized, horrified. Trixie, how are you still alive?

“That was very interesting,” he said, sounding like he hadn’t even watched any of it. “But we’re not done with you yet. After watching all that, it’s pretty clear to me that—”

If he says what he plans, he’ll have to do it. He can’t let us question his command authority. I have to stop this.

Twilight nodded sharply to Applejack, who started beating the drums again, so loudly that the captain was silenced. Twilight rapidly shifted through the lights, moving them up and down dramatically before stepping out beside Trixie.

“That was the performance!” she said, magically amplifying her voice. “But it’s not the only reason we’re here! What show would be complete without… an afterparty?!” Please Pinkie please be listening. Sweet Celestia we need you.

An explosion of confetti rained down over the entire stage, splattering in the face of many of the nearby soldiers. By the time it landed, somepony had switched the record to something much more upbeat, and a huge tray of refreshments had appeared at the bottom of the stage. From the look of it, Pinkie was rushing around setting up games and entertainment that she’d hastily put together from bits of Trixie’s wagon, or else stolen from scraps around camp. “Who’s ready to party?”

A resounding cheer went up from the audience—most of which had their eyes fixed on the stage and its sugary confections. Whatever the captain was trying to say was swallowed by the rush of ponies all surging forward. Soon the stage was completely overwhelmed, as soldiers mixed in with them, playing the games and enjoying the snacks and generally relaxing.

Twilight watched the captain and his stallions sulk away, and many of them rejoin the festivities a few minutes later.

Except for the captain himself. Twilight didn’t see him again until the celebration was winding down, and most of the soldiers had returned to the camp. Twilight and the others were cleaning up, and he stalked back out towards Trixie.

Twilight made her way over, so that she’d be close enough to overhear. He sounded furious.

“This is… not what we were promised,” he said. “I should send all of you to the pits.”

She watched, expecting Trixie to withdraw in fear—but the mare only smiled at him. “The Great and Powerful Trixie does not think that would be a good idea, Captain Wicket. Word of this celebration has already spread back to Agate. I’ve promised a reprisal performance there in a few days. I don’t think they would be very happy to find out we had been sent somewhere else.”

“Don’t come back this way,” Wicket hissed, before turning and stomping his way back to camp. But it didn’t matter. We made it.

A few hours later and they were on the road, with a surly Trixie upset at all the sugar and flour they had “wasted” to get across. “I’m going to have to raise my rate,” she muttered. “Trixie appreciates your quick-thinking, but reminds you that these things aren’t free. She will have to buy supplies in Agate, and their markets are expensive.”

Twilight ignored her. They wouldn’t be traveling with Trixie much longer. They’d crossed the border—in some ways, that was the easy part. Now they had to find a way to break into where Sombra kept some of the most dangerous pony prisoners.

We’re coming, Rainbow Dash. Just hold on a little longer.

“The Great and Powerful Trixie suggests that you reconsider,” Trixie said, as the cart rumbled along the snowy road towards Agate. There were no more heat towers out here, so the snow didn’t melt in the sun. On either side of the path was a mountain of white, that Pinkie occasionally vanished into. Without temperature fluctuations or ponies to change the weather, it might just keep growing forever as ponies cleared the roads.

“The great and powerful Trixie just wants someone to pull her cart,” Applejack muttered from the harness. “I think once we get inside is where we separate.

But there was light up ahead, brilliantly white and blinding whenever Twilight looked directly at the town. Agate was apparently not shy about light pollution. Even from a distance Twilight could smell the city as well as see it, the ashy stench of a forge constantly coking steel, of other kinds of industrial processes that ponies usually kept far away from where they lived. But apparently Sombra didn’t much care about birth defects.

“No,” Trixie corrected. “Trixie does appreciate assistants, but she is worried for you. Being part of the act will mean that you’re left alone. Sombra’s territory… isn’t heavy on freedom. Anypony who looks like they don’t have a job, they get one. They work as much as they’re told, or they get a harder job.”

As they got closer, Twilight could make out the sounds too. Hammers on steel, grinding saws, pickaxes on stone. The town was growing rapidly—though it didn’t have walls, it probably would within a few more weeks. Work lamps surrounded the city, and ponies in chains worked to lay brick

“We won’t be staying for long,” Rarity said. “I’m sure we’ll be in and out before anypony notices. Besides—they must not look too closely. Somepony has to pay to go to your shows, right? We’ll just… pretend to be them. Upper class. A natural fit for any group I’m a part of.”

Trixie laughed. “They’re all crystal ponies. Good luck faking being transparent.”

Twilight extended a hoof placatingly. “We’re grateful for your help getting this far. But once we get into town, we have a mission. We can’t do it if we’re putting on shows with you.”

Trixie shrugged, though Twilight could see that she was bothered. “Of course. Trixie understands. She is grateful for this chance to serve her country.”

There were no huge walls and army to stop them from getting into Agate, but there were soldiers outside to check them again. Trixie gave the same explanation, and this time they accepted it without complaint. “Don’t go downtown,” one of them said, as soon as Trixie had demonstrated a few basic tricks to prove she was actually a magician. “Don’t go near the mines, or the factories, or the barracks. There should be some land in the public square for your… cart. Stay there until you’re called on to perform. You will accept the payment offered to you.”

“O-of course,” Trixie stammered. And they walked into town.

It looked just as bleak to Twilight inside as it had from afar. Most of the ponies here were the ordinary type, and all of them looked some degree of beaten down. Many had scars on their backs or legs, signs of the whips used to motivate them to work. A few wore hobbles around their hooves, though most only wore collars. Their eyes never left the ground as they walked, and whenever a crystal pony got close they would stop, cower, and wait for them to pass.

A beaten, subjugated class, Twilight thought. They had to do the same—whenever a crystal pony was walking down the same road, Trixie would gesture urgently for the cart to move out of the way, and they would bow in place, waiting for the pony to pass. Many of them were soldiers, but a few wore priestly robes with a mark like Sombra’s horn sewn on as a badge of office.

The town’s square wasn’t full of healthy grass for any hungry pony to eat, as was the case in Equestrian villages. The grass here was either skeletal brown, or long eaten by desperate ponies. There wasn’t even a pond, just a pile of snow for melting that wasn’t close to white.

“I saw a hotel,” Rarity whispered, as they started unpacking Trixie’s wagon for her. There were plenty of ponies watching them now—no way to sneak away. “We could probably buy rooms tomorrow.”

“What if they don’t let regular ponies stay there? Trixie’s right, we can’t pass for one of them.”

“I’ll ask around, see what I can find out.”

After a few hours the portable stage was unpacked, along with everything else Trixie would need to put on a performance. From the little crowd gathering outside the cart, it seemed like they would get a chance for one last reprise.

It ended without any attempted arrests this time, and plenty of donations from the soldiers and ponies that had watched. Mostly small amounts of food, with a few of the thin crystal wafers that passed as their currency. Each one had Sombra’s red horn grown into it, like a tiny fraction of dark magic they would have to keep near them at all times if they wanted to buy anything.

“I think it’s time,” Twilight whispered, once the crowd had dispersed and silence settled on the town from all sides. Applejack had to nudge Rarity, who had fallen asleep leaning against the cart.

“Trixie warns you against leaving,” she said, from where she was going over the contents of her donation box with a pair of glasses and a little ledger. She might not be the best at magic, but she did seem to know what she was doing with the accounting. “You’re safer staying here. Trixie has worked in Crystal Empire cities before. They don’t treat ponies very well. The only safe way is to show them how useful you are. Like I do.”

Rarity yawned, then shook her head. “We’re not helping anypony by performing these shows. We came all this way, took all this risk. I think we should… start.”

“Right,” Twilight said, removing the robe from her saddlebag of supplies and pulling it on. At least from a distance, she wouldn’t stand out as not a crystal pony. There’s probably an illusion we could figure out to look like them. Too bad Rainbow is in a work camp. We don’t have the time to invent new spells right now. “But we wouldn’t mind a… home base, at least for now. If you don’t mind us coming back here a few more times. Best to have somewhere to work from if we can’t find a good spot in town.”

Trixie smiled. “You’ll come to your senses. Just don’t get caught while you’re out there. Trixie promises to disavow anything you did, and leave you to the Crystal Magistrate.”

It took them a few minutes to prepare. Her friends wrapped up in the best costumes they had. “Ready?”

“Ready,” she agreed. “Thanks for your help, Trixie. You’ve… really done a service for Equestria.”

“I know.” Trixie puffed out her chest, posing as dramatically as Twilight had ever seen her. “This is okay. Trixie is happy to serve. She hopes you won’t be caught.”