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Here at the End of all Things. · FiM Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
Show rules for this event
The Double Bar
The sign above the entrance has no text, just five parallel horizontal lines. A vertical line crosses from the top line to the bottom; a thicker vertical to its right covers the same distance, and the horizontals reach it and stop.

The entrance itself is unimposing and unimpressive, an unadorned wooden double door. It is tall enough for anypony to pass through — even Princess Celestia herself, should she desire — but this is common among Canterlot businesses, as she has developed a reputation of dropping in unannounced to seemingly random establishments over the centuries. The building, too, blends in well among the shops and restaurants lining the block, many of which are multi-story buildings of which the upper floors are living space for the owners.

Beyond the double doors lie two sets of stairs, the one on the left going up and the one on the right going down. A trip up the left stairs leads eventually to a large, brightly lit room with a well-stocked bar on the right wall, a smattering of tables and chairs, and a stage at the far end. Microphone stands are distributed around the stage, and a grand piano sits in one corner. On any given night, the stage might be occupied by anything from a solo piano recital to a country band to a jazz jam session with audience members invited to join in. And the patrons are some of the most musically literate ponies in all of Equestria. A keen observer might spy, in the audience for a string trio, the drummer from the previous night’s heavy metal headliners in conversation with the principal oboist of the Fillydelphia Symphony Orchestra, or might realize that the violinist is going to share this stage with a piper next weekend — and this would not be an unusual week here.

The downstairs area, separated from the space above by a shared kitchen and a heavily soundproofed floor/ceiling, is more of a club, dimly lit, with blacklights, strobes, and glowing decorations on the walls. Here, too, a bar lines the right wall, but the stage is smaller and set up to hold turntables, synthesizers and effects pedals, leaving more of a dance floor for the ravers who come to listen to the latest sick beats spanning the various flavors of electronic dance music. Trance, house, dubstep, and electro-swing are all common sounds here, mixed and manipulated by a different producer every night.

This is the Double Bar, home to the best live music in Canterlot. And the drinks aren’t half bad, either.

Brindisi looked up from cleaning glasses behind the bar at the sound of approaching hoofsteps and saw Octavia Melody wandering into the otherwise empty upper house, looking like her mind was anywhere but there. “You’re here early,” she noted, glancing out the window to the sunny afternoon. “What’s on your mind?”

Octavia sat down at the bar and reached into her saddlebag. “This came in the mail today,” she said, pulling out an envelope stamped with dark blue wax.

“What is it?” asked Brindisi.

Wordlessly, Octavia slid the envelope over to her. She opened it, removed the paper inside, and began to read.

After a few sentences, she looked back up at Octavia. “Princess Luna herself would like to commission a piece from you?”

“Shh! Not so loud,” Octavia frantically whispered, glancing around the room to see if there was anyone else there.

“We’re the only ones here,” Brindisi observed.

“Fine,” Octavia relented. “The thing is, I had no indication that this was coming. None at all. I didn’t even know she’d heard of me.”

“You’re the best cellist in generations, and that recording of Quartet for the End of Time you were on was amazing—”

“She’s been returned for less than a year!” Octavia slumped forward. “I’m not ready for this. I’ve written music for a general audience before, but I’ve never written music for royalty. And since it’s Princess Luna, I don’t know what she’d do if she doesn’t like it. I don’t even know what she might like!”

“The commission didn’t say?”

“Look for yourself,” Octavia said, gesturing to the paper that was still in Brindisi’s hoof.

Brindisi looked. Indeed, there was a distinct lack of anything resembling details or terms of the commission.

“So go ask her,” she said.

Octavia looked at her like she’d just sprouted a second head. “Are you crazy?” she asked. “I’m sure she has much more important things to do with her time! And besides, she might have expectations of behavior that I won’t know and won’t be able to meet!”

“I hear Night Court is usually pretty sparsely attended, it’s not like you’ll be wasting her time,” Brindisi said. “And if you’re worried about protocol, then get there early and ask the court officials. That’s their job.”

This seemed to calm Octavia down. “Yes,” she said thoughtfully. “Yes, I suppose that could work. Thank you.”

“Glad to hear it. Now, since you’re here, anything I can get you?”

“Manehattan on the rocks, please.”

“What’d she say?” Brindisi asked Octavia the next night.

“She didn’t give me much to work with,” Octavia said, dropping onto a barstool and looking out over the audience for the night’s postmodern saxophone quintet performance. “She seems to expect me to be the primary performer, so that’s a bit of a hint for instrumentation, and she felt that five or six minutes was a decent starting point for length.”

“Did she say anything about style? Genre?”

“She admitted that she doesn’t know enough about the various styles of music since her banishment to give me a useful direction there, and told me I was left to my own devices.” Octavia listened to a few measures of the piece being performed, and winced at some of the unresolved dissonances and cluster chords. “Somehow, I don’t think this is quite what she’d be looking for.”

Brindisi went to go mix a few drinks for other patrons, including a refill of Octavia’s Horse’s Neck. When she returned, she asked, “Could you do some sort of ‘music through the ages’? Show off a number of different genres?”

Octavia shook her head. “That’s an interesting idea, but it might take more time than I have. I do like the idea of an old-meets-new approach... Oh! I could take a melody from her time and transform it into something more contemporary.”

“That sounds like a good place to start,” Brindisi agreed. “Do you have any thoughts on where you might get a melody like that?”

Octavia frowned. “A few. But the Symphony’s music library isn’t terribly well organized, and I don’t know how long it would take me to find something useful there. There’s a music historian’s conference in Vanhoover next week, but travel there on short notice isn’t cheap.”

“We’ve got a folk singer playing here this Thursday,” Brindisi said. “Maybe you could ask her.”

Octavia nodded. “That might do it.”

A particularly out-of-tune HONK from the tenor sax player drew both their attentions back to the music being performed.

“I honestly can’t tell if that’s how the piece is supposed to go, or if he’s just having a bad night,” said Octavia.

“He did it in the same spot when they played this piece during sound check,” said Brindisi, “so I think it’s probably intentional. Or that could just be a bad note for the horn.”

Two weeks later, Octavia entered through the door at the base of the lower stairs and made a beeline for one of the tables against the wall.

“Didn’t expect to see you down here,” remarked the lower-house bartender, Bar Line, from his spot behind the counter. “You take the wrong stairs on accident?”

“My roommate’s the DJ tonight,” Octavia explained, sitting down. “I promised her I’d come and listen, and I figured if I got here a few hours early, I’d have some time to work on this piece I’m writing.” She reached into her saddlebag and pulled out a pencil and several pages of staff paper, some of which already had music written on them.

Bar Line nodded. “If you’d like a keyboard to help you hear what you’re writing better, I think we’ve got a spare floating around here somewhere. I know upstairs has one or two that aren’t being used right now.”

“That would be wonderful,” Octavia said.

Bar Line stepped out from behind the counter and went over to a side closet. His horn lit up as he opened the door and started pulling things out until he found what he was looking for. He levitated the keyboard over to the table next to Octavia’s and set it down. “Don’t have to hook it up to anything to make noise, just if you want it amplified, and I don’t think you do.”

“Thank you,” Octavia said, and began to write. Occasionally she reached over to the keyboard and played a few notes, testing the sound of some fragment of melody or some chord progression, but for the most part she was silent.

So when, about an hour and a half later, Bar Line heard her playing the same phrase with slight variations over and over and grumbling unintelligibly, he knew the creative process had hit a rough spot. “Having trouble?” he asked.

“Somewhat,” Octavia replied. “There’s this bit near the end that isn’t quite coming together, and I don’t know what to do to fix it.”

“May I take a look?” asked Bar Line.

“I suppose.”

Bar Line walked over to Octavia’s table and took a look at the music. “Is this the spot?” he said, pointing at a location on the page.

“That’s the one,” Octavia confirmed.

“I assume, since this is near the end, you’re trying to tie everything back together.” At Octavia’s nod, Bar Line continued, “What if you tried this?” He played a phrase that was similar to what she’d been fussing over, but with a couple of rhythms and a couple of pitches changed.

Octavia listened. “Hmm... no, that’s not quite it either, but maybe this?” She played a passage that took his edits and made two more, then continued for a few more measures. “Yes, that should work.”

“Happy to help,” said Bar Line. “By the way, you’ve got maybe an hour before your roommate shows up and we have to set up for the show tonight, and when she does, I’m going to need to put that keyboard away.”

“Of course,” Octavia said, and returned to her work.

By the time Vinyl Scratch arrived to set up her mix tables and recordss, Octavia had more or less finished the melody and had a harmonic outline written. She was still of the opinion that the piece wasn’t quite finished, that there was something missing that would make it what it wanted to be, but she wasn’t sure what.

Bar Line saw the exact moment she figured it out. It was about five tunes into the DJ’s first set, during a more atmospheric piece. Octavia’s eyes widened, and she said something that probably wasn’t meant to be heard by anyone but herself before coming over to the bar.

“I think I’ve got it,” she said, and ordered a shot of Cutie’s Mark whiskey.

“And this establishment has existed for decades?” asked Princess Luna, as she and Octavia ascended the stairs to the upper house, where the commissioned composition was set to be performed. It was early afternoon, so the bar was almost completely empty — which was probably for the best, since the Royal Guard were still not entirely comfortable leaving Princess Luna unsupervised in public.

“So I’m told,” Octavia said. “The basement was turned into a second performance space during a renovation about fifteen years ago, I think, and I don’t believe it always had its current ability to draw performing talent, but it’s been around for a while.”

“Good afternoon, Your Highness, and welcome,” Brindisi called out. “Octavia, you and Scratch can begin whenever you’re ready.” Vinyl Scratch was set up on stage next to Octavia’s seat, with her rig and a set of speakers ready to go.

"Yes," Luna said. "I am very much looking forward to hearing what you have created for me."

Octavia walked over to her cello, picked it up, took a breath, and began playing.

She’d chosen to write a theme and variations, and the theme was one of the folk songs she’d learned from Roan Baez after her performance the previous month. She played the theme unaccompanied, but when she began the first variation, the reason for the DJ’s presence became clear. The cello could cover the lower register just fine, but adding an electronic background on top and a tasteful dance beat fleshed out the auditory landscape and added color to the piece.

The first several variations turned from fast to slow to fast again, to a modal shift from major to minor and back, to a metrical change so that the piece was three beats to a measure instead of four. The last few instead added more and more ornamentation to the melody and more complex beats, making it harder and harder to play each new variation at the same tempo as the last one, but Vinyl wasn’t slowing down for her at all. Which was fine; it was what she’d written, after all, and she could keep up — if she couldn’t, she had no one to blame but herself.

She did notice a few wrong notes slipping into her performance and tried not to wince. The wonderful thing about a premiere was that no one knew how it was supposed to sound, so if she didn’t let on that she’d made a mistake, it could slip by unnoticed.

The final variation was the most high-energy of all, and Octavia felt herself breathing hard by the time she finished her last sixteenth-note triplet run and hit the final chords. The empty room was acoustically live enough that the last note took a couple of seconds to fully decay.

“So,” she asked after the echoes had worn themselves out, “what did you think?”

Princess Luna looked her straight in the eyes. “It is a pity that ‘court musician’ is no longer an appointed position,” she said, “or I would hire you both on the spot. Miss Melody, I may not know much about music in this day and age, but what you played sounded surpassingly difficult and very well crafted, and I am certain that few could have performed it as well as you did.”

Octavia nodded, not trusting herself to speak.

“And Miss Scratch,” Luna continued, “your contributions no less enhanced the piece for being in the background. Support roles are often the most important of all.”

Vinyl, too, nodded silently.

“I may not be able to personally sponsor you as I once could, but I will speak to my sister and strongly recommend that you be first on the contact list the next time we need music written for a momentous occasion.”

“You honor us beyond words, Your Highness,” Octavia said shakily. “Thank you.”

“Princess Luna,” Brindisi spoke up from behind the bar, “would you care to stay for tonight’s performance? We’ve got a Zebrican percussion ensemble, and I’m told they are not to be missed.”

The musicians that come here are a varied lot, but they all recognize quality when they hear it in any style and are willing to help each other out if asked. A popular cellist can get a melody from a folk singer. An operatic soprano might take a duet with a country fiddle player. A mixologist can ply her trade at both alcohol and sound balancing, and be equally skilled at both. Any of these things and more might happen, and do, here at the Double Bar.
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#1 ·
· · >>TrumpetofDoom
I like this look into the world of music in Canterlot. I can't say that I know enough about how music works to be able to audibiilze what the music might sound like, but this is simply a restriction on writing about music in a story.

The seeming dichotomy of the bar is an idea I'd like to see more done on in the future. Here it seemed like most of this story was about one persons story that happened in the bar, and not so much about the bar itself.
#2 · 2
· · >>Baal Bunny >>TrumpetofDoom
Learning to write fiction has taught me how much it shares with nonfiction: you have to do your homework. Your research definitely shows in this piece, and the result is outstanding.

I like the story a lot, and I love the depth and setting. I think it could use a little more oomph, though. It's straightforward with no interesting twists or turns to it—the one epiphany Octy needs to have comes very quickly, and it doesn't provide a payoff that the audience can directly connect with. This is also true of the resolution: we see a bunch of musicbabble near the end that tells us the piece was hard to play, but little else about its significance. It would be nice if our protagonist had some deeper struggles before hitting an epiphanic moment, and for that epiphany to be of a more personal nature (one that anypony could understand and appreciate). You went there early with the 'connecting old and new' idea, but something relevant in that same way really needs to be the product of struggle.

To do this, you'd need to extend the story length. But I think you should, because this is a great story—it just needs more passion given the inherently emotional subject matter you're conveying. Add some drama and spice.
#3 ·
· · >>CoffeeMinion >>TrumpetofDoom
Another nice one:

I like what you do with the perspective and the POV here, author, but I'd like to suggest taking it a step further. Right now, it's all very external, and that works because to my eyes, this isn't a story about Octavia and her composition anymore than The Maltese Falcon is about that weird bird statue. This is a story about the Double Bar and the ponies who make it the special place that it is.

So let's see more of those ponies. Right now, the four internal scenes have Brindisi as the POV for the first two, Bar Line for the third, and Octavia for the fourth. I'll suggest giving the second scene to another employee and giving the fourth scene, the actual performance, to the bar's owner, whoever that is. I mean, how do the ponies who work there feel knowing that the returned princess of Equestria is coming to their place to hear the world premiere of a piece she commissioned from one of their regulars? Get more into the heads of the POV characters, and that'll deepen the emotional impact the way >>Trick_Question suggests.
#4 ·
· · >>TrumpetofDoom
...slice of life, I guess?

This story really doesn't have any of what I'd call 'conflict'. The most difficult thing Octavia faces is composing the end of her melody, which resolves itself pretty easily. As such, I don't find it particularly compelling; I want to see things change when I read, whether that's character or mood or what.

The opening felt rough to me, specifically the description of the sign. I don't like throwing in a bunch of details like that and asking the reader to construct a picture; maybe it's because 'parallel horizontal' sounds weird to me, (if they're all horizontal they're also parallel, right?) or because I'm not the best a right/left, but I nearly had to draw it out to figure out what you were going for, which... doesn't really set a good tone for the rest of the story in my mind. Saying something like 'The sign showed a musical stave, empty of notes' would have worked better for me.

You seem to be going for a 'setting as character' thing here, which is something I did like. You put in a lot of time describing the surroundings at the beginning, which made this piece feel a bit front-heavy, but it did help flesh out the character of the place and the ponies inside it, and wrapping it up at the ending did work somewhat I think. Maybe keeping all your character interactions here, at the bar that you've detailed so carefully, supported that as well - although it did feel a bit strange at first.

All in all, some ups and some downs? I feel like this sort of thing could work for a serial, where the focus is always on the bar, but the ponies come and go. Pretty sure they've done a show like that, actually. Cheers? But I've never watched it. I'd still like something more compelling for the core conflict, personally.
#5 · 1
· · >>TrumpetofDoom
Cutie’s Mark whiskey

I hear they call it that because if you drink enough of them, you'll wake up with a tattoo on your butt.

Anywho, this was an interesting piece, though it would've had more impact had we worked alongside Octvia through the trials and tribulations of music composition. Right now it brushes upon several interesting topics, but doesn't take the time to dwell on them. Maybe you just didn't have the time to fully flesh it out but with some polish, this could be great.
#6 ·
· · >>TrumpetofDoom
Genre: Cheers

Thoughts: Well this is a cozy little piece. I think I’m with >>Baal Bunny, this feels like it’s rooted in being a story about the bar. And yet it’s also about Octavia encountering only the slightest difficulty in writing a beautiful piece of music for Luna. As the former, I feel it doesn’t quite show us enough about the bar ponies for them to make a lasting impression. As the latter, it’s interesting but low-stakes; that is, it seems like Octavia is never in too much danger of failing to achieve her goals. I don’t think that makes this bad; not by a long shot. However, I do think it means that this could do with some tweaking and expansion.

Sometimes I draw an automotive metaphor by saying that a Writeoff story could use a tune-up before going to FimFiction. Here I might instead go culinary and say that the story could do with some more time marinating. I think what it’s trying to build toward is fairly gentle and atmospheric, which would come (in part) from letting the bar develop to the point where it’s almost a character unto itself. IMO, some more development in that vein could lead to a more fully satisfying take on this.

Tier: Keep Developing
#7 · 5

As many of you no doubt guessed, this was my entry this round — I think it's safe to say that this piece could only have been written by a musician, and nobody else here advertises themselves as such.

I came up with the title before I figured out anything about the story. The double bar, as >>QuillScratch noted briefly in the podcast, is the musical symbol for the end of a piece, and I spent a bit of time debating whether to go with that or "Coda", before deciding that not every piece has a coda. Then I had to work out what kind of place the Double Bar would be.

Well, obviously, it would be a bar.

...Actually, it would be two bars, wouldn't it?

And it kinda went from there. (I briefly considered also having every drink served in either half of the bar be a double before deciding that no, that's stupid.)

Those of you who identified it as attempting to be a story about the bar (>>Lamplighter sort of, >>Baal Bunny, >>Not_A_Hat, >>CoffeeMinion) are correct that that was the intent, and I appreciate your suggestions in the vein of how to improve it in that direction.

Those of you who felt the conflict needed a bit more meat to it (>>Trick_Question, >>Not_A_Hat, >>Zaid Val'Roa, >>CoffeeMinion)... well, yes, Octavia having a bit of trouble writing a piece of music isn't a conflict that's going to carry very far. The intended Part B of that, which clearly I didn't play up anywhere near as much as I should have, is that she's not just trying to write music, she's trying to write music that Princess Luna will enjoy, and she's worried about what might happen if Luna doesn't like it — still maybe not super-high stakes, but it would at least be something that doesn't get resolved until the final scene.

The Quartet for the End of Time that got name-dropped is a real-world piece, for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. I have no idea what circumstances might have led to the composer writing Equestria's version, but I think it's safe to say that they wouldn't be the same as they were in our world (namely, it was written in a concentration camp in WWII).

The theme and variations is a fairly standard and fairly self-explanatory musical form: you play a melody (the theme), and then you mess around with it, usually making it more complicated (the variations). Here is one of the classic examples, which does a lot of the normal things one might see in a piece of that form, and pretty much all the ones I explicitly used (also, it's Mozart, so you should listen to it anyway).

On to individual responses:

I can't say that I know enough about how music works to be able to audibiilze what the music might sound like, but this is simply a restriction on writing about music in a story.

Sure, that's a thing that I knew going in I'd have to be aware of. I tried to write it so that you didn't need to be able to hear the music in your head to get a sense of what was going on (because otherwise that cuts out a huge chunk of the potential readers), but that it might add a bit if you could.

(That said, if you're looking for a good auditory reference, about 0:52-1:08 in this video is kinda the sound I had in mind.)

Learning to write fiction has taught me how much it shares with nonfiction: you have to do your homework. Your research definitely shows in this piece, and the result is outstanding.

I agree with the general point, but I'll note that it helps when you're already very familiar with the subject matter.

I was a bit concerned about whether or not the musibabble was going to get in the way; it certainly wasn't as much as when I did Setting the Beat, but that story had a lot of it. From the sound of your review, it looks like there wasn't too much musibabble in that scene, just not enough anything else. Which is a problem with a different solution.

>>Baal Bunny
That's an intriguing suggestion, and I'm not opposed to it except to the extent that it would mean I have to come up with more names (there are fewer terms that work for both music and alcohol than you might think). I'll see what I can do with it.

You mentioned the first sentence during the podcast; I didn't respond at the time, because I didn't trust myself not to break anonymity. I'll say now that I described the sign the way I did because I was trying to avoid actually using the phrase "double bar" until I got to the end of the segment, where I named the place. From your comment, it sounds like you'd be fine with that in theory and it was just a failure in execution; I'll play around with your suggested alternative phrasing and see what shakes out.

The point of having every scene be in the bar was, indeed, to try to strengthen the setting-as-character idea. Thank you for picking up on that.

>>Zaid Val'Roa
Thanks for your time and your suggestion. I'm unlikely to go for this one, because most of the composition would likely be done away from the bar, which... see above.

Absolutely, this piece needs expansion to be what it wants to be. I'm generally of the opinion that perfection has been reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to remove — but with this one, yeah, there's stuff that needs to be added.

Thanks, all of you, for your time and your comments.
#8 · 2
I wish this had appeared on my slate. It was a pleasure to read, one of my favorites this round, and not just because I'm drawn to stories about music and musicians. It was clearly written with care for its subjects and themes.

This story works well as an introduction to the bar, and I agree with others that this would make a great setting for a series. As an arc for Octavia, I found it satisfying enough. For a professional musician, completing a commission for such an important patron would be no small thing. Some more words about her process could help strengthen the stakes and illustrate the conflict. More details about the other characters would also help bring the bar fully to life, and I would read that all day.

In the debut performance scene, I found myself feeling rather separated from the music and, consequently, the events and characters themselves. It's right on the verge of drawing me in, but--somehow the description of the music seems disconnected from Octavia's experience of it (aside from its increasing difficulty.) It sounds like you're already on that, though. I did appreciate all the musical details you took the time to include.

One thing I thought of, which you can of course take or leave, would be a move to Luna's PoV at some point while she's hearing the music. I would love to experience it as she does. Maybe that's a different story? I would read that too. Thank you for writing!