• Published 30th Mar 2019
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Dissonance: A Hidden World - Braininthejar



"That which can be destroyed by the truth, deserves to be." But does it always? And just what is the truth about the Elements of Harmony?

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Chapter 5: The Cage

Applejack was running through the orchard, Carrot Top barely keeping up with her.

“Wait for… me…” gasped the orange mare.

“Can’t wait if mah friends are in danger,” said Applejack over her shoulder. “Can you show me tha way?”

“You’ll know it when you see it!” wheezed Carrot Top as she stopped to catch some breath. Applejack continued running.

How could it all happen? Yesterday had been a normal day, Applejack working hard to finish her harvest in time. Now the princesses were gone, fighting some unknown threat on the other end of Equestria, and Applejack’s friends had apparently been captured by a dragon.

She kept galloping, through the orchard, past the last trees and into the rocky area that stretched between Ponyville and the Ghastly Gorge. And just as Carrot Top had said, she didn’t have any problems finding her destination. There was a cloud of smoke marking a cave entrance far in the distance. Applejack skulked around it, looking for a less exposed approach, but in vain. Finally she sighed, braced herself and slowly walked up to the mouth of the cave.

The stream of black smoke ended abruptly and then the ground shook. Something moved deep inside the tunnel.

“Who’s there?!” demanded a voice. Reverberations shook the cavern walls.

Her attempt at a stealthy approach thwarted before it even began, Applejack stomped her hoof, trying her best to sound more confident than she was. “I’m Applejack! I’m here to save mah friends!”

She was answered by a rumbling noise that sounded strangely like muffled laughter. A pair of giant glowing eyes approached rapidly. She moved back just in time to get out of the way as the huge red head emerged from the cave.

The dragon was enormous, his red body so large he had to crawl with his wings folded to fit through the entrance. When he got half-way out, he looked down on Applejack. “What is it you want, again?”

Applejack’s ears drooped. “I… want you to let my friends out,” she managed.

There was a shout deep inside the cave, too distorted by the echo to understand, but that was very clearly Pinkie Pie. The dragon twitched, his tail thrashing inside the tunnel. The yelling stopped.

“No way…” said the dragon, straightening to his full height. “Friends are the greatest treasure. They belong in my hoard.”

Applejack blinked at the statement. Something was wrong, but she couldn’t quite put her hoof on it. “Well, they’re mah friends and I ain’t gonna leave without ‘em,” she said, raising her voice so that it would reach the dragon’s ears so far above her.

The dragon’s claw balled into a fist and slammed the ground next to her, causing her to flinch away with a yelp.

“You’re a funny little pony,” said the dragon, lowering his head over Applejack, “and I’m bored. How about a game?”

“What?” This wasn’t what Applejack expected.

“A wager,” said the dragon. “A… challenge. You win, and your friends are free. You lose and you go away. For good. No sneaking up when I try to sleep.”

Applejack backed off, partially to get out of the dragon’s reach and partially to be able to see him properly without looking up. “You expect me to agree to that? They’re mah friends you’re talking about, I can’t bet on that..”

The dragon yawned. “Or you could just go away and never return. All the same to me.”

Applejack took a deep breath. “So, what’s tha competition?”

The dragon turned towards her and smiled. “Rock farming. I heard your friends talking about you and your farm, but there’s nothing here to farm but rocks. So, that’s the game. Do you think you can beat a dragon in a game? Or will you just give up and let me sleep?”

Applejack stood still with her mouth clenched shut, but underneath her stetson her mind was buzzing. Finally she let out a breath. “Fine. Just give me a day to get ready. I’ll save my friends, just you wait an’ see.”

The giant lizard chuckled and then turned, the swing of his tail rising a cloud of dust as he crawled back into the cave. Applejack covered her face with her hat to guard against the debris. Once the dust settled, she shook it off her back and turned around, just in time to see Carrot Top approaching. “Well, that didn’t go as planned,” she sighed.

“Wow,” asked Carrot Top, coming to a halt next to Applejack, “Were you just going to fight the dragon?”

Applejack glared at her. “No way. I thought I could sneak past him, but it didn’t work out. I dunno how he heard me. He challenged me to a rock farming contest. Starts tomorrow.”

Carrot Top forced a smile. “Weeell… a rock farming contest is better than a fight, isn’t it? I mean you rock at all sorts of competitions.”

“But I’ve never done rock farming in mah life,” said Applejack, trotting away from the cave. “He just didn’t give me a choice. I couldn’t abandon mah friends.”

“So now you just have to win,” said Carrot Top.

Somepony cleared his throat loudly nearby. The two mares looked up to see a thin, pale yellow stallion standing on a rocky outcropping above. Applejack frowned as her brain registered the pale coat and the striped shirt and made a connection.

“Flim… What are ya doing here?” she asked.

The unicorn smiled, seemingly oblivious of both her tone and expression. “Just taking a break from testing a new invention of ours. And how fortunate that my stroll would take me within earshot of you two. It seems I might just have the solution for the problem you’re having.” He smiled wider. Applejack’s grimace deepened.

“Them again?” asked Carrot Top with visible disgust. “You know you can’t trust them.”

Applejack sighed. “Won’t hurt to hear what he has to say.” she looked up towards Flim. “What are ya tryin to sell this time?” she asked.

Flim’s grin widened. “Please follow me,” he said, pointing at a trail among the rocks leading up.

***
“So, what do you think?” asked Flim and Flam with wide grins.

Applejack looked at the contraption in front of her. “I don’t know. What is this?”

The device was some sort of a vehicle, superficially similar to the cider machine the brothers had built the previous year. There were wooden wheels, two seats and a bulky frame containing the engine. What made this device different was the drills. The whole front of the machine was a tangle of mechanical limbs, each ending with some sort of a digging tool.

The brothers looked at each other, then at Applejack.

“This is…”

“...our latest invention…”

“...cutting edge technology in earthworks.”

“Behold… the Excavatron!”

“...an invention so new…”

“...we don’t even have a musical number for it yet.”

“Rest assured, in any challenge involving digging…”

“... it will have no equal…”

“...and just tomorrow it will be available for rent…”

“... at a price most reasonable for such a wonder…”

It took a moment for Applejack to be able to form a sentence. “And just what price is… ‘reasonable’?” she asked.

The brothers didn’t stop grinning. “Well, how much do you value your friends?”

There was an awkward pause while Applejack and Carrot Top were standing with their jaws hanging open and the two stallions were looking at them expectantly. Finally Flim cleared his throat loudly.

“Oh, I think that came out wrong. We are realists of course. There are prices nopony will pay, even for a wonder such as this. But…”

“You have a farm, don’t you?” continued Flam. “I’m sure you have some bits left on the side in case of some disaster or emergency.”

“And this is an emergency, isn’t it?” added Flim.

“What a pile of horseapples!” shouted Carrot Top suddenly, stomping her hooves. “You don’t need to… cheat to win this, Applejack! And you certainly don’t need to pay these two… scoundrels.”

“Hey!” shouted Flim indignantly, “It won’t be cheating! It’s a rock farming contest, one on one. As long as you work alone, who cares what farming equipment you bring with you?”

“Your friend means well, I’m sure,” said Flam, leaning forward and putting a foreleg on Applejack’s withers,“but surely you have a clearer view of the situation than her. You know you can’t do it on your own. You need us.”

***
“Where are you taking me?” asked Twilight Sparkle as she followed Obsidian through the labyrinthine staircase.

“I want to show you something,” answered the stallion. “It is connected to what you’ve told me about your princesses.”

“What about it?” asked Twilight. “More conspiracy theories?”

“On the contrary,” answered Obsidian, “this time I’ll simply show you something, and let you come up with theories. But first, a question. Do you know anything at all about the origins of your princesses?”

Twilight shook her head. “No. They have been asked, but wouldn’t tell. They’ve been around for as long as anypony remembers.”

“Do they receive any official worship?” asked Obsidian.

“No,” answered Twilight, confusion on her face.

“They are indispensable though, aren’t they?” said Obsidian, walking into one of the smaller towers and down a spiral staircase. “Immortal rulers that nopony sane would even think of replacing, movers of the Sun and Moon, bearing the names of the Sun and Moon goddesses.”

“Wait, goddesses?” Twilight nearly stumbled down the stairs.

Obsidian rolled his eyes. “So, you didn’t hear that one either? Yes, goddesses. Two daughters of Father Sky and Mother Earth, endlessly circling around the world to bring day and night. Common knowledge in my times.”

Twilight hastened her pace to catch up with the stallion. “So, you’re trying to tell me…”

“That they are obviously frauds,” said Obsidian. “Even if the names are meaningless now, they took them for a reason. How long ago was it?”

He stopped in front of a heavy door and tapped it with his staff, causing a spark of magic to flash briefly. He entered the round chamber, Twilight close behind him.

“How do you know they aren’t real goddesses?” asked Twilight. “They have ruled Equestria for over a thousand years and they move the Sun and Moon with their magic.”

Obsidian walked around the chamber before approaching the pot in the middle, standing on the opposite side of the flower to Twilight. “How do I know?” he asked.

He leaned over the flower and exhaled slowly. Twilight watched, fascinated, as the magical plant started draining his energy.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

Obsidian closed his eyes in focus. “I’m feeding the Amaranthine Flower my essence. In return it will follow my will and focus on the images I want to show you.”

“So,” asked Twilight, “It’s something like a crystal ball?”

“It used to be,” answered Obsidian. “But now it is much more than that. In return for magic, it filters the infinity of Dissonance to find what you’re looking for.”

“Can it find my friends?” asked Twilight.

Obsidian paused. “Your friends?”

“Yes, my friends,” said Twilight. “I told you how I got here. If you can look out of this place, you must show me what happened to them!”

Obsidian opened his eyes and looked at her over the flower. “I must? Hardly. There are more important things now.”

Twilight rose to her full height, her horn lighting up. “No, there aren’t. Show me my friends!”

Obsidian shrugged. “All the Elements of Harmony will be meaningless if you keep sticking to your delusions. But have it your way. Five mares is a very specific thing to look for, but your connection to them will serve as a fine focus. Just extend your energy towards the Amaranthine.

Hesitantly, Twilight leaned closer to the flower. As she focused her energy on the plant, she felt a slight pull, and the light of her horn started to dim. She felt lightheaded, and swayed a bit before regaining focus.

“Now, look above the flower,” said Obsidian. Twilight opened her eyes just in time to see the vision forming.

“It’s us in Ponyville,” she nearly shouted as the scene unfolded before her, the six mares running around the collapsing town, a strange pony made of glowing runes flying in pursuit.

“False,” said Obsidian. “It is you, but it is not Ponyville. Look how it’s falling apart. It is merely a vision, a reality bubble weaved within Dissonance. The six of you were the only real things there.” He closed his eyes and the vision started moving in reverse before suddenly dissolving into nothingness.

“Now, this is unusual,” said Obsidian. “I can’t make the Amaranthine show me how you got there.”

“Didn’t you tell me it can show you anything?” asked Twilight.

“Yes. But that’s not the same as everything,” said Obsidian. “And in this case, there are no trails left in Dissonance for the Amaranthine to find. That means somepony purposefully covered their tracks. Which only makes sense if somepony knew about the Amaranthine, and wanted to avoid detection. It also required magic way beyond your level of skill, and you claim to be the best unicorn there is.”

Twilight stared at him through the swirling white where the vision had been. “That’s… that’s not important now. Where did they go? What happened to them after that monster caught them? Are they… gone?”

“That ‘monster’ is named Verba,” answered Obsidian. “He oversees the Void Passage on my behalf. When I detected that bubble on the edge of the passage, it was already deteriorating rapidly, so I asked him to pop it.”

“What?” Twilight looked at him with confusion, then with anger. “You knew all along?”

“Yes,” said Obsidian.

“Why didn’t you tell me? Where are they now?” Twilight almost shouted.

Obsidian just closed his eyes. For a moment he was calmly focused. Then his eyes snapped open. “No… No! I refuse to believe it!”

“What!? What happened?” asked Twilight, pushing her head through the vision and into Obsidian’s face, her front hooves rustling the flower’s petals.

A smack of Obsidian’s staff propelled her into the book shelves. The stallion walked around the pot to stand over her, his features twisted with anger and his aura flaring up again. “Don’t… touch it.” He breathed deeply. “This flower is my window for looking out of here. Damage it, and I will UNMAKE you. Do... you... understand?”

Twilight nodded vigorously.

Obsidian returned to the flower. His aura subsided, but he was still visibly tense. “This bubble you arrived in was somewhat similar to the way candidates for testing used to be sent here. Except yours was also a prison, an illusion that trapped you inside. I ordered Verba to break it. He brought your friends to the Void Passage. He needed somewhere stable to put them in, and at any rate I wanted to talk to them. The Void Passage could conjure up a vision of me. Not nearly as good as talking face to face, but it would suffice.”

“But now the Passage is closed. That means your friends challenged it. The testing has begun.”

Twilight closed her eyes and banished the pain, allowing her to stand up. “The testing?”

Obsidian looked at her with disdain. “Yes, the testing. Can’t you at least ask smarter questions than ‘whaaaat’? You’re supposed to be a prize student or something?”

Twilight took a deep breath. “Ok then… You have told me what the Void Passage was, but I was kind of busy writhing in pain back then. So, once again, what exactly does it test?”

“It tests whether you have what it takes to become an Element,” said Obsidian. “Back at the beginning there was no time to pick and choose. The world needed saving. You picked a necklace, if it accepted you, you were in. But then times changed. The Elements ruled Equestria. And protected it too. It was too big to give to just anypony. Especially to some aristocratic brat that only just qualified, but had a huge family pushing for him.

“And so they contacted me and I helped them build the Void Passage, the final test to find the worthy and scare away the rest. Basically, do or die, no retakes.”

Twilight’s eyes widened. “So, my friends are trapped in some tests that kill them if they fail? Can you stop it? You said you control it!”

“I do,” growled Obsidian. “But I still can’t get out of here. Verba is the one who handles the testing. Also the Void Passage is sealed during the tests. There have been some fools trying to mess with them in the past. I can send Verba a message, but with the Passage sealed, he won’t receive it right away.” He walked away from the flower and started pacing the chamber, grumbling under his breath.

“But why?” asked Twilight. “Why would he do this? Doesn’t he know they’re there by accident?”

“Not really,” answered Obsidian. “Remember what I told you about melting away in the Dissonance? Verba should have melted away centuries ago. A spell cast on him back when he lived is keeping him in one piece, but time has passed and things happened... He’s much less a pony than even I am. There’s so little of him left, he can actually slip in and out of here. He’s more like a complex spell now, just... doing his thing. And overseeing the tests has been his thing for a very long time.”

“So, is there nothing we can do?” asked Twilight.

“I should have expected this,” said Obsidian. “It was so stupid… Right now there is nothing we can do beyond contacting Verba. Well, you can worry yourself sick, but that won’t improve the situation. Unless, of course, your friends are worthy. Then you should have nothing to worry about.”

Twilight silently considered the situation. “How long will it take?”

“Wrong question,” answered Obsidian. “Time is too fluid a thing here for questions like this to make sense. They will be done when they’re done.”

He walked closer to the bookshelves and stood still, his staff swinging around him, trailing a pattern of glowing lines in the air. When the pattern was complete, it flashed briefly and disappeared.

“There, message sent,” he said. “Now, that this is out of the way, we might as well return to what we were supposed to do here from the start. You asked me how I know Celestia isn’t a real goddess.”

He approached the Amaranthine and fed it some more of his energy, his face blurring as the flower drained him. Another vision started to form.

“Tell me, Twilight Sparkle,” he said “Would a real goddess have need for the Elements of Harmony? Would a real goddess lose a fight to a changeling queen? Would she be powerless to stop a spirit of chaos?”

The light of the Amaranthine grew stronger, the vision swelling in size.

“Would a real goddess care to govern a nation of mortals?”

There was an explosion of golden flame, bathing the whole chamber in blinding light. Twilight squinted, trying to see the details of the vision.

A giant ball of golden fire was moving through the starry void, leaving a burning trail like a tail of a comet. As Twilight’s eyes got used to the blinding radiance, she caught more details. The blazing halo was a wavy mane. A silhouette of a muzzle with bright eyes and a pointed horn was visible among the flames. There were legs, hundreds and hundreds of them in the fiery trail, as if the creature had a body made of burning after-images. As she absorbed the image, Twilight realised that the deafening noise she was hearing was not the roaring flame but the stomping of hooves, like an enormous herd on the move.

“What.. what is this!?” she managed to say over the noise.

Obsidian smiled. “This, little pony, is Celestia.”

***
Pinkie Pie stood as if glued to the ground, stunned by the declaration. The other ponies didn’t give her the time to recover.

“Oh, yes, now I remember,” said Rarity. “And I got replaced with a bag of flour, didn’t I?”

Dash folded her wings, landing in front of Pinkie. “And that pile of rocks you made me argue with? I remember that well. You didn’t need us anymore.”

“You didn’t want friends, just anypony to party with,” said Applejack.

“That’s not true,” said Pinkie Pie, but she flinched at the words, as if physically hit. As the sneering mares advanced towards her, she instinctively took a step back.

“How is it not true?” asked Octavia. “There was the bucket, and the flour. A ball of lint too, I’ve heard. I wonder who that was a replacement for.”

“You didn’t want us,” said Rainbow Dash.

“You didn’t need us,” said Applejack.

“You don’t know what friendship really means,” said Rarity.

“You just keep hurting other ponies,” said Fluttershy.

They kept advancing at Pinkie Pie, who took another step back, tears welling in her eyes as her mane started to deflate. With the softest crack, a piece of stone right behind her hind hoof broke off the edge of the cliff and disappeared in the darkness below.

“Well, we don’t want you either,” hissed Rainbow Dash right into Pinkie’s face.

“Yea, we don’t need you here,” said Applejack, prodding Pinkie in the chest with a hoof.

Pinkie Pie started trembling. “Why? Why do you do this?”

Octavia laughed into her hoof. “Why? Why not? You don’t deserve any better for what you did.”

Pinkie Pie glared at her. “It’s not about deserving. It’s about my friends not being meanies. I may be a careless sometimes or… stupid. But I know my friends! They’d never say that. And I know you too! What happened to you?”

Octavia rolled her eyes. “Don’t be… more ridiculous than you already are.”

“Yea,” said Applejack, “Didn’t we just tell ya? You don’t know us. You don’t care about nopony.”

She pushed forward, and Pinkie was forced back again, rearing on her hind legs. Then the pink mare lunged, stretching her forelegs to hug her four friends and hold them together.

“Hey, what’s the big idea!?” shouted Dash, struggling to break free.”

“Just what are you doing?” asked Rarity.

“Shhhh...Thinking,” whispered Pinkie Pie, closing her eyes. Her ears perked up. “Rainbow Dash, you remember that time we painted all the apples around Applejack’s house?”

“I sure remember,” answered Applejack. “I thought I’d… what?” she stopped and twisted her neck to glare at Rainbow Dash, who was snickering. “What are ya laughing at?”

“Sorry,” said Rainbow Dash, “I just remembered your face when you saw us.”

Applejack kept staring at Rainbow, before shaking her head. “Yea, I guess it was pretty funny.”

“What about all the work you had to do to clean it up?” asked Octavia.

“None,” said Applejack. “Water colors. The next rain cleaned everything up.”

“Fun times,” said Pinkie, releasing her iron grip a bit. “And remember that surprise party you made in your barn for my birthday? I sure looked silly there, but then we had so much fun!”

Applejack smiled.

Octavia scowled. “What do you think you’re doing?” she asked.

“I’m making my friends remember,” said Pinkie Pie, smiling. Her mane inflated a bit and the darkness around the mountain wasn’t quite as deep anymore. “Rarity, what about our last picnic? You did like my pastries, didn’t you?”

Rarity took a sideways glance at her. The unicorn’s muzzle scrunched in an effort to suppress a laugh when she saw Pinkie’s pleading expression.

“Well, I couldn’t take more than a few bites, because of my diet, but you sure put a lot of effort into them,” she finally said. “Perhaps having you around isn’t that bad.”

“Of course, it isn’t bad,” said Pinkie Pie, louder than before. “We’re friends. We have fun together. We laugh together. We save Equestria together. We snicker and guffaw in the face of danger!”

The four mares gave her amused looks.

“I… I really liked the birthday party you prepared for Angel,” said Fluttershy.

The darkness scattered and disappeared. Pinkie Pie released her hug. As her friends spread out, she walked between them, towards Octavia.

“And as for you…” she said, suddenly serious again, “I’m sorry for everything I did to you. I will make it up to you somehow, I Pinkie promise.”

She sat down to free her front legs and touched her heart, but she wasn’t allowed to finish. Suddenly Octavia hissed, and seemed to collapse upon herself, her coat flaking away to reveal a shape of solid darkness within. The creature stared at Pinkie and bared its fangs. Then it collapsed into a point and disappeared.

Awkward silence followed.

“What just happened?” asked Pinkie Pie.

“I think it's safe to assume, this wasn’t the real Octavia,” said Rarity, looking at the spot where the creature had been standing a moment before.

“Well, duuuuh,” said Pinkie Pie. “But that means… I’ll have to find the real Octavia to say how sorry I am.”

“Well, this is good and all, sugarcube, but don’t we have something to do here first?” said Applejack.

Everypony looked up the mountain towards the trail of black smoke.

***
Pinkie Pie stood at the mouth of the cave. Her friends swarmed around her, helping her put on her costume. A paper crown on her head, oversized boots, A gift box covering her torso, balloons and streamers trailing behind her, making her stumble unevenly when she tried to walk. A box of glitter making her face shine like a piece of solid gold. A pair of googly-eyed glasses to complete the image.

She looked silly, which of course was the point. But even so her face was serious and focused, as if she were an ancient queen donning her armor for a decisive battle, the paper crown and balloons her regalia, the glitter - her warpaint.

As Fluttershy flew away with the glitter box, Pinkie Pie breathed in deeply and smiled. Then she charged, stumbling comically, into the cave.

“Prepare for a laugh of your life, dragon!” she shouted, before disappearing into bright light.

***
Twilight was sitting with her mouth open, the vision slowly fading around her as Obsidian broke away from the flower.

“Do you see now?” he asked.

“This is... what the Sun looks like?” stammered Twilight. “She… what is she? She doesn’t look like a pony…”

“Of course not,” replied Obsidian. “She’s older than the concept of a pony. Would you rather she were like your princess?”

“Yes…” said Twilight with a frown. “Wait… would that be a bad thing?”

“A bad thing?” Obsidian sneered. “For you, that would be a disaster. Haven’t you seen her? A force of nature, the Sun itself, unconcerned with anything, but her path across the sky. And you would like her to think and feel like you do? Would you like a volcano to rule your Equestria?”

“Of course not…” said Twilight, stopping when she saw the intensity of Obsidian’s glare.

“If not a volcano, then why the Sun?” he said. “A power of this magnitude subject to the whims of anger, love, or pride? A god with the heart of a mortal…is the most frightening thing you could ever imagine, Twilight Sparkle.”

“But… I’ve seen Princess Celestia move the Sun,” said Twilight. Her voice changed a bit and she was forcing a smile as if trying to persuade herself that everything was in order.

“That’s believable, actually,” said Obsidian.

For what might have been the third time since she arrived in the tower, Twilight’s train of thought ground to a halt. “But.. you said…”

“Back when I walked the world,” said Obsidian “this was not unheard of. Nopony was needed to tell the Sun when to rise, but she could be... asked to stray from her path. Even if she isn’t concerned with ponies, all the souls of mortals come from Gaia. To Celestia, they all speak with the voice of her mother. It’s just a matter of being loud enough to be heard.”

Twilight looked at him with wide eyes. “I’ve…”

Obsidian glared at her through his messy mane. “Just say you’ve never heard of that either. Just try.”

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