Twilight Sparkle ran as fast as she could through the thick brambles of the Everfree Forest. The vines tore at her coat, but she didn’t feel any pain. All she felt was fear and a complete and utter need to escape the monstrosity that crashed through the forest behind her.
“Twiiiiliiiight…” her pursuer called, voice much too high-pitched for his forty feet of height. “Why don’t you come out and have some fun with me? I’ve missed you ever so much.”
One giant clawed foot slammed down inches shy of her tail. The sudden impact dragged a terrified squeal and a short burst of speed from the pony. Her legs pistoned frantically, driving her through a thick patch of bush and into a small clearing.
Her mind raced madly as she bolted across the patch of grass. This gap in the brush would allow her to pull slightly ahead, but the bushes on the other side would slow her down again. Her pursuer would stomp through those same bushes without slowing. She couldn’t win, not in this environment.
“Oh please Twilight, no need to run. I just want to talk. It’s ever so lonely being trapped in stone. You have no idea.” The tremendous monster’s voice rang with mockery and laughter, as it always did.
Twilight had run out of clearing. This was as far ahead as she was going to get. She took a deep breath and leaped into the thick foliage that was ruining her. As soon as she was hidden completely by the greenery, she dodged to the side, aiming for a tree. She felt her back scrape across the rough bark of a tree, and she dropped to the ground with a thud. The fallen leaves thankfully muffled the sound.
The hidden pony curled into as small a ball as she could, back pressed against the tree. She squirmed against the mat of leaves underneath her body in an attempt to get even closer to the ground. Silent tears of fear and exhaustion streamed down her face as she desperately listened for the resounding thud of those horrific clawed feet.
Twilight ceased her desperate actions, becoming as still as possible. It all depended on the next few seconds. She was betting her life on her ability to hide.
The purple unicorn sucked in a breath and held it. Two more steps. Two more steps and he would be past her.
A green scaled leg slammed down barely a body length from her hiding place. She clamped her lips down tight, knowing the slightest noise would give her away. An involuntary shiver ran up her spine.
Was he pausing? This step seemed longer than the others. Did he know she was there? Was he going to find her? Should she just run now?
A split second before Twilight’s nerves broke and she bolted, the intruding foot lifted from the ground and sailed into the sky. The air she had kept bottled up in her lungs finally escaped with a tiny whoosh.
Before her brain even registered the damning noise, a pony head the size of Twilight’s entire body crashed downwards through the branches above her. The grey, fanged, evil face wrapped twice around the tree trunk, its neck stretching like rubber, before ending up eye to eye with the doomed unicorn.
“Oh, there you are, Twilight Sparkle” Discord chuckled. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were trying to hide from me.”
Twilight whimpered with fear. Her hind legs tensed in preperation to escape, but a lion’s paw appeared out of nowhere – literally appeared, it wasn’t even attached to anything – and grabbed her around the neck. The disembodied leg pinned her to the tree, preventing her escape.
“Oh, now Twilight. You can’t leave quite yet! We’ve so much to talk about.” Discord grinned at her, the carefree smile contrasting the terrible anger and insanity that showed in his eyes. “We’re going to have a lot of fun together.”
His prisoner shied away from his revolting breath, ears flipping back flat against her skull. She tried to summon magic to her horn, but it refused to come. She didn’t know how Discord had freed himself, but he had, and it looked like this would be her end.
“Twi!” Discord abruptly shouted in a voice that wasn’t his own. It was higher, more feminine, with a trace of an accent.
“Oh, damn. Looks like our time is up Twilight. I’ll just have to catch you faster next time” he said in his own voice. Exaggerated sorrow dripped off of every word.
“Twilight!” he shouted again in the voice that wasn’t his. Twilight abruptly recognized it as her friend Applejack’s. As soon as she did, Discord’s head morphed grotesquely into a disgusting mockery of the cow-pony’s face.
“Twi, wake up!” shouted Applejack, standing over Twilight and shaking her. “Are you alright sugercube?”
Twilight Sparkle sat bolt upright, narrowly avoiding colliding heads with her friend. She was lying in her own bed at home, and Discord was nowhere to be found. She sighed in relief, suddenly feeling the layer of sweat that coated her body.
“Oh, yes. I’m fine, sorry. Just a… just a nightmare” Twilight lied. It had been a nightmare, but not just a nightmare. It was the latest in a series of recurring dreams she had been having about Discord. They had increased in frequency and potency over the last couple months, and now she woke up screaming almost every night. It had been nearly a year since Discord had been defeated, but the nightmares hadn’t started until maybe four months ago. A delayed reaction to the stress, Twilight imagined.
Twilight hadn’t told anypony about them. She didn’t want to burden anypony else with her night terrors. She was sure they would subside with time.
“You sure you’re alright Twi? You were screamin’ pretty loud” asked her matronly friend, concern written all over her freckled face.
“No. I mean, yes, I’m sure. I’m fine. What is it, Applejack?” asked Twilight, glancing out the window. It was still dark out. If Applejack was waking her this early, it had to be important.
“Well, I’m afraid I could use your help Twilight. Y’see, the Everfree Forest’s gone up in flames, and we can’t let it touch our apple trees. I was hoping you and the rest of the girls could give me an’ my kin a hand” Applejack explained, clearly bothered to be asking for help like this. She had learned to accept that she needed help sometimes, but that didn’t mean she had to like it.
“Of course Applejack! I’d be glad to” replied Twilight, shaking the sleep from her eyes. She knew she wouldn’t be getting back to sleep anyway, this at least gave her an excuse to get up.
“Thanks so much Twi. I’m gonna go grab Pinkie, and we’ll meet you at the farm. The rest of the girls are already there.” Applejack thanked her again, and then bolted down the stairs. Twilight heard the slamming of her front door as she pulled herself out of bed.
She raised a leg to scrape the sweat from her brow, and noticed a leaf stuck to the bottom of her hoof. Twisting her leg awkwardly, she inspected the offending area. A small amount of mud kept the leaf attached, at least until she scraped it off onto the floor.
Her other front hoof was muddy as well, and while she couldn’t see her back ones, they both left a portion of mud behind when scraped across the floorboards.
“Weird…” Twilight murmured to herself. She must not have cleaned her hooves properly before bed. Oh well, she’d just have to wash the sheets. She briefly considered waking Spike, but she knew from her experience with Winter Wrap Up that he’d be no help at all at this hour. Besides, even if he was up and ready to go, it would only take a single sneeze from him to ruin all their hard work.
She sneaked past his bed, levitating a hairbrush through her mane. She set the brush back in its place and trotted down the stairs and out the door.
A scene of hard work greeted Twilight as she approached the edge of the farm that bordered the Everfree Forest. Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Big Macintosh, and even little Applebloom were carrying buckets of water and dumping them on the edge of the fire. It was just pure luck that a small pond nearby prevented them from having to go all the way to the farmhouse pump.
Rarity was doing much the same, but using her magic rather than her muscles. She wasn’t nearly as magically gifted as Twilight, but a bucket of water or two were well within her telekinetic abilities. She could also reach the heart of the fire that the heat prevented the others from reaching.
Rainbow Dash flew overhead, gathering storm clouds and kicking them to extract the rain within. The spattering of water wasn’t enough to put the fires out, but it did help keep it controlled. Without that constant rain, the fires would no doubt have spread much farther.
For her part, Fluttershy was organizing the animals to help extinguish the flames. Each animal couldn’t do much – kick a little dirt on a fire, drag some brush out of the way – but there were a lot of them. Most were from Fluttershy’s extensive collection of pets, but a growing number had been gang pressed by the yellow pegasus as they fled the forest. They didn’t react well to orders, but were highly motivated to save their home.
All in all, the fire seemed to be fighting a losing battle. It was being pressed farther and farther back into the forest, and Twilight knew she could deal the final blow. She set her hooves firmly in the ground and gathered her power for what she was about to do.
She reached out mentally towards the pond behind her. She felt the coolness and wetness of the water, and let out a steady breath to center herself. Her horn slowly began to glow, and a sheath of energy grew with it. It reached around to the bottom of the pool, and slowly lifted over half the water of the pond into the air. The huge globe slowly rose, and drifted over the heads of the working ponies.
All of them stopped to watch the fantastic sight. Twilight working her magic was always worth seeing, and not many ponies could resist the urge to stare.
The unicorn was lost in concentration as she nudged the water over the edge of the fire. Now, if she could let it out bit by bit, she could probably put out the entire fire without a single wasted drop. She carefully began to relax the telekinetic grip bit by bit…
Suddenly distracted by a movement in the sky, her magic failed entirely. The water all fell at once, splashing loudly and drenching every pony except Twilight and the airborne Rainbow Dash. Rainbow began to laugh uncontrollably from her cloud at the sodden ponies below her, but Twilight was too distracted to notice.
She had seen something flying over the heart of the forest. Not a pegasus, or a bird, it had been the wrong shape for that. Long, and serpentine, it had flown through the air almost like it was floating, too graceful for its size. It had flown like a creature she was all too familiar enough.
“Discord” she whispered, the word leaping to her lips unbidden.
“What’d you say hun?” asked Applejack, ringing her hat against the ground.
“Oh, I said I’m done, that’s all” lied Twilight, not really sure why. I just don’t want to worry them she rationalized.
“Ya sure are. But I don’t suppose next time you could let it down a mite slower? Not that I mind getting wet, it’s Rainbow’s laugh that bothers me” the orange pony responded, shooting a glare at the guffawing pegasus. She threw her now dry hat back on her head, only to have it drenched again when Pinkie shook herself like a dog. Pinkie, somehow now completely dry, gave her an apologetic grin.
“Applejack” began Twilight, still staring into the sky. “You’ve lived next to the Everfree Forest for a long time, right?”
“Mah whole life, you know that. Why?” asked the farm pony, once again squeezing the water from her hat.
“Does the Everfree Forest do this… a lot?” Twilight phrased her words carefully, trying to make it seem like she was only taking a casual interest.
“Well, no actually. That’s the darndest thing. Granny Smith says that there’s never been a serious fire in Everfree before. Says the forest puts all fires out itself.”
The four other girls had gathered around Applejack and Twilight now, curious about what they were discussing. Big Macintosh had apparently slipped back to the house in his silent way, and taken Applebloom with him. The fire no longer threatened Sweet Apple Acres, and as such, it was no longer his problem.
“Umm… Sorry to interrupt, but… the animals say that the fire wasn’t natural…” Fluttershy stammered out, almost too quiet to hear.
“What? What do you mean it wasn’t natural?” Twilight almost shouted, spinning to face the timid pegasus.
Fluttershy’s wings clamped to her side, and her eyes shot to the ground. “Oh, I’m sorry. Was that wrong? That’s what they said, but maybe I misunderstood them.” She seemed on the edge of tears.
Twilight took a deep breath before she continued. She loved Fluttershy, but sometimes the way you had to treat her so delicately got on the unicorn’s nerves. “No, that wasn’t wrong. I just want you to explain what they meant.”
“Oh… well, they said somepony set the fire. But I could be wrong. I don’t really speak their language or anything, it’s just… a feeling…” Fluttershy was still staring at the ground, but at least her wings had loosened from her sides.
“Are they sure it was a pony?” asked Twilight, ducking her head to look Fluttershy in the eyes.
“Oh… no… it wasn’t something from the forest though. I mean, I think it wasn’t… I’m sorry I can’t be more help…” Fluttershy apologized, finally managing to raise her head to eye level again.
“Well what a jerk!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed from her vantage point above the small circle of ponies. “Why would they just light the forest on fire? I’m going to go give them a piece of my mind!”
Applejack grabbed onto Dash’s tail without even thinking about it, stopping the pegasus from in mid flap. She wasn’t sure how she had ended up being responsible for the brash pegasus, but apparently she was.
“Let’s all go!” Pinkie Pie’s voice lacked its usual note of frivolity. “Sounds like a really meanie-weanie bo-beanie is somewhere in this forest. We should go tell them not to be so mean.”
Twilight phased out from the conversation, lost in thought. What if her nightmares hadn’t been a reaction to the events of a year ago, but a prediction of the events tonight? What if Discord had escaped again?
If Discord was out, she needed to tell the princess. On the other hoof, if Discord was out, the princess would already
know. So since she hadn’t summoned them, either Discord’s prison was holding, or the princess was captive herself.
Okay, let’s think about this logically Twilight thought.
Option one: Discord is still trapped. That would mean this is just some jerk pony who lit a forest on fire. We can deal with that ourselves.
Option two: Discord has escaped and imprisoned the princess. He lit the forest on fire. In that case, the princess can’t help anyway. So we need to stop him ourselves.
Either way, they should go into the forest. The forest it was. Now she just needed to convince the others to follow her, without alerting them to her suspicions. She wasn’t sure why, but she didn’t want them to know quite yet. She was formulating a plan to lure them into the forest, when she suddenly realized Rainbow’s face was three inches from her own.
“Hello? Anypony home?” The rainbow pony reached up with one hoof and knocked slightly painfully on her skull.
“Yes? What is it?” asked Twilight, somewhat testily.
“Well, there’s no need to snap dear” replied Rarity. “We were all about to head into the forest, and were wondering if you were going to come. You didn’t respond, which is what drove Rainbow to that rather uncouth action.”
The cyan pegasus stuck her tongue out at the fashionista. Rarity returned the favor with a small smile. Dash’s glare broke into a grin at the sight of the cultured pony making such a face.
“Oh. Yes, I’ll come” Twilight answered, surprised at her own good fortune.
The six friends stepped cautiously into the charred remains of the Everfree forest, and set off towards the source of the fire.
Applejack lifted her head from the charred branch she had been examining. She glanced around at the blackened trees around the six ponies. “Ah think the fire came from this way” she announced, pointing deeper into the forest.
The cowpony headed in the direction she’d indicated, four of her friends following after her. They had gone no more than a few steps when Fluttershy realized that Twilight wasn’t following, and was in fact staring in nearly the opposite direction.
“Oh… uh… are you not coming?” Fluttershy asked timidly. When she got no response, she raised her voice slightly. “Twilight?”
Twilight finally turned to face her, seeming to snap out of a daydream. The purple unicorn knew that Applejack was wrong. She didn’t know how she knew, but she knew. Maybe she could sense something the others couldn’t.
“I don’t think that’s the right way Applejack” Twilight said bluntly. Realizing how rude she’d sounded, she backtracked a little. “I mean, I just have a feeling you should take another look.”
Applejack, turning back to face the dissenter, raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean ah should take another look? You see something I didn’t?”
Twilight almost backed down, but something in the back of her head stopped her. “No, I just have a feeling that’s not the right way.” She paused, considering how best to convince the stubborn earth pony. “Please Applejack. Trust me.”
Applejack’s face softened at the mention of trust. If there was one lesson they had all learned over and over, it was to trust each other. She sighed, but trotted back towards Twilight. She lowered her head to the ground, and examined a few more burnt branches.
A confused look crept over her face as she squinted at the ground. She lifted her head thoughtfully, and trotted in the direction Twilight had been staring. The orange pony examined one of the cracked trunks, and then trotted around it in a circle.
She chewed on her lip for a few seconds, and then mumbled something.
“What’d you say?” asked Rainbow Dash, flying closer to hear her.
Applejack glared at the pegasus. “Ah said, the fire came from this direction, not that one. Don’t know how you knew Twi, but you were right.”
Twilight shrugged, embarrassed by the way she had lucked out. “It was nothing. Just a feeling.”
The six ponies headed through the remains of the forest, hooves stained black from the ashes.
It took the ponies around half an hour to realize they were heading towards the broken old keep where they had defeated Nightmare Moon. The discovery sent an underlying line of tension through all of them, most of all Twilight.
That would be just Discord’s style. Appearing in the castle where they had all become friends, luring them there… It was almost too perfect. She was so distracted by this disturbing line of reasoning that she only sensed the magic buried in the ground seconds before Rarity set her hoof on it.
“Rarity! Freeze!” she shouted, leaping forwards. Her horn was buzzing furiously; there was an awful lot of magic bound up in that patch of earth.
The white unicorn had somehow moved to the front of the pack during the journey. Rarity froze, leg hovering in the air. “What is it Twilight? Is there something on my back?” she asked, trying to speak without moving her lips. Twilight marveled momentarily that, even under the circumstances, she still managed to speak in her usual dignified way.
“Just take a step backwards. I think somepony left a magical trap on the ground right there” Twilight explained, pointing with her hoof. “Can’t you feel it?”
Rarity shook her head, carefully taking a small leap back. “I’m afraid I can’t feel a thing dear. But I’m not the one with a star on her flank” she replied, daintily pointing at her friend’s cutie mark.
Twilight lowered her horn, carefully feeling around the edges of the magic that she was now convinced was a trap. It practically hummed with malevolence. She couldn’t quite figure out what it would do, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to.
Fortunately, it wouldn’t be a problem. “It’s only a few feet wide. We can just walk around it” she announced to her friends. “Just follow me and step where I step.” The unicorn cautiously traced a path around the trap, making sure to keep a wide berth. Her friends followed, making sure to step only where she stepped, except for Rainbow Dash. The habitually airborne pegasus just flew in a wide semicircle.
Twilight let out a sigh of relief as they got to other side. She had been pretty sure of the trap’s limits, but nothing was ever certain with magic, especially with Discord’s chaotic brand of the stuff.
They were only thirty feet or so now from the torn keep, and there wasn’t any question about where the fire had originated now. The charred earth spread out in a cone from the front gate, apparently being somehow directed. All six friends stared at the ruined tower, nervous to be returning there.
Twilight opened her mouth. She had to tell them of her suspicions. It wasn’t fair to let them walk into this blind. She steeled herself to tell the truth, which is why she was so surprised when she instead said “alright girls, let’s go tell off that pony” and started towards the ancient building.
She marveled at her own dishonesty as she walked. Why was it so hard to tell the truth? It probably wasn’t even Discord though. No point in worrying them, she thought as she walked up the stairs.
The six ponies unconsciously formed into a wedge behind Twilight, standing on the steps outside the door of the keep. The resting place of the Elements of Harmony had, if anything, become even more foreboding since they were last here. Twilight looked at each of her friends in turn, making sure they were ready, and then pushed open the door.
The room looked exactly the same as they remembered it, with one big difference. The large stone ornament that had held the Elements was gone, replaced with a sickeningly ornate gold and velvet throne. Draped across that throne was a familiar foe, wearing star shaped sunglasses for reasons known only to him.
“Ah, hello Twilight. Certainly took you long enough, didn’t it?” the reclining draconequus drawled.
“Discord” snarled Twilight.
“What?” asked Applejack over her left shoulder.
“So now what? You don’t have the elements, so what exactly is your plan?” asked Discord, genuinely seeming curious. He stepped off the throne and snapped the fingers of his griffin leg. The throne turned into what looked like grape jelly and sunk into the ground.
“I’ll hold him off girls. You go to the castle and get the Elements” Twilight barked, bracing herself to stall the chaotic spirit for as long as she could. She couldn’t beat him, she knew that, but maybe she could distract him.
“Err… hold who off, Twilight?” asked a confused Pinkie. She craned her neck so she was cheek to cheek with the purple unicorn and looked in the same direction. “What are you looking at?”
“What? I’m looking at…” her voice trailed off as she looked from her confused friend to Discord.
“Oh come now Twilight, you’re supposed to be the smart one. Figure it out.” Discord grinned at her, showing his one sharp fang from tip to gum.
Twilight looked from friend to friend, staring into each of their confused eyes. “None of you…” Her lips moved soundlessly as she tried to figure it out. Only she could see Discord. He must have made himself invisible to everypony else-
“Wrong, I’m afraid. The exact opposite of the truth” Discord chuckled. “There’s no invisibility going on here.”
How had he known what she was thinking? Well, it was the first obvious guess, it didn’t mean he could-
“Oh but I can read your mind. Now you’re wondering if I’m still just guessing.” Discord suddenly burst out laughing.
“Now you’re thinking as hard as you can about rubber ducks. Very good, I didn’t know you had the potential for such randomness.”
His body abruptly coiled and uncoiled, bringing him up to the six ponies. He leaned casually on Rarity’s back, the white unicorn not reacting in the slightest.
“This is getting boring, do you want me to just tell you?” he asked, face becoming sullen and annoyed. “Come on, you can figure it out. Something’s not quite right, is it? All morning, you’ve been doing things without quite knowing why.”
A sudden pressure on Twilight’s shoulder made her jump as her head snapped around to look at the source. A miniature Discord with a tiny red pitchfork sat there nonchalantly.
“Almost as if you have a devil on your shoulder” he continued casually, fiddling with the pitchfork.
Twilight gasped as the realization gripped her mind. She didn’t want to believe it, but it fit. She’d been the only one to see Discord, she’d been the only one to sense the trap, she’d somehow known where to go… it had all been in her head.
Discord was in her head.
“Ah, there we are” sighed the draconequus, jumping off her shoulder and snapping back to his original size.
“Twilight, are you alright?” asked Rarity, the concern in her eyes matching that of all of her friends.
“Moment of truth Twilight Sparkle. Do you tell them that your mind is housing the physical incarnation of chaos, or tell one more tiny lie?” Discord hissed, lowering his head to her level. “Tell the truth, and I’d say the best case you can hope for is the mental hospital. Worst case, well, let’s just say I don’t think you’d enjoy being stone.”
“…Everything’s fine. I’m fine. I just haven’t been sleeping properly, and… and I thought I saw something in the shadows” Twilight said between gritted teeth. She hated herself for it, but she couldn’t tell them what was happening. She needed time, to figure out how to fix this.
“That’s my girl.” Discord patted her on the head.
“Well… alright. We’ll ask around town about the fire tomorrow I suppose” Rarity replied cautiously. She could sense something was wrong, but she wouldn’t pry. Neither would Applejack or Fluttershy, and Rainbow Dash hadn’t even noticed something was wrong. Nopony could really tell with Pinkie Pie, but she wasn’t asking.
The six ponies turned down the stairs and walked back the way they had come. Five of the six walked in silence, but the trip was anything but quiet for Twilight Sparkle.
“I suppose you’d like to know exactly how I took up residence in your skull” mused Discord as he floated carelessly beside her. “Perhaps you remember when I showed you a memory? It was to clarify a riddle, if I remember correctly.”
Twilight did remember. He had touched her horn, and she had suddenly been transported back into the throne room. At the time, it had scared her how easily he’d brushed past her mental defences.
“Yes, that was it. Well, when I did that, I left a fraction of my power in your head. Call it an insurance policy. It was plenty spacious after all. I don’t know how you find anything in here.” A frown skipped over his face as she realized what that meant. “Yes, I’m not actually Discord. Just a fragment of him. It took me some time to gather the power to manifest myself like this.”
“Until around a week ago, all I could do was give you those bad dreams. Which you may have noticed I did with glee. It was then I discovered I could use your body while you slept, but only for things you would do yourself. I couldn’t, for example, slit your friend’s throats.” He snarled. “Not that I didn’t try.”
Twilight swallowed hard. An image of her standing over a bed with a knife filled her mind, one of her friends sleeping happily underneath her.
“Yes, it was quite a lot like that. I could never get you to bring it down though. You would never kill your friends. Burn down the mean old Everfree Forest, on the other hand… oh yes, you would do that.”
The mud on her hooves…
“Didn’t you notice you woke up sweaty? Almost as if you’re walked to the middle of the forest, cast a simple fire spell, and ran all the way back home.” He chuckled beside her. “Barely made it back before that country bumpkin, too.”
But why? Why would Discord burn down the-
"Why do I do anything Twilight? For fun, of course. You can look forward to a number of these sort of pranks. I'm hoping that I'll gain more power so they can become... even more fun."
Twilight began to panic. This was bad. But she could fix it. There had to be a spell, something that would purge her mind…
“Save yourself the reading, there isn’t. Or if there is, not even Princess Luna could find it. Oh, that’s right, I’ve done this before. Left a little of myself in Luna when she and Celestia defeated me. I drove her insane. Nightmare Moon, they called her. She held out for around ten years.”
Twilight suddenly found herself face to face with a wickedly grinning Discord.
“How long do you think you’ll last?”