"Twilight!" The name escaped Twilight's mouth as she shot up with a start, then the world was knocked into a spin as she also happened to slam her head against the underside of a small rocky overhang.
"Ouch, Celestia damn it!" the dragoness cursed as she rubbed between her horns, her vision swimming for a moment before coming back into focus.
She was still in the cave, it was still damp, cold and pitch black outside with the storm's war cry now reduced to an ever-present patter of light rain on slick, wet rock. Her whole body felt stiff, yet for some reason, the air around her was almost liquid. As she recovered from the sudden awakening she staggered to her claws, the motion feeling even more awkward than before. It was almost like moving through water, the atmosphere was thick and soupy, the dripping of water in the cave reverberating through the gloom.
"What in Equestria?" she asked herself, yet for once every voice in her mind simply shrugged without an idea.
That was when she heard it, and her leathery draconic ears perked at the sound of a voice calling on the wind.
"Twilight!" She could not make out who it was, the rain along with the odd echoing effect of her reality distorted the tone, yet she heard her name and that's all that she needed.
They've come to find me... but... Her thoughts paused as she was caught between two ultimatums. Do I really want them to find me like this?
Her wings drooped again, tail coiling around her talons as her dragon self snickered something about how useless it was to care anymore. Yet regardless of what she thought, that voice drew closer, until it was virtually at the mouth of the cave. Caught by confusion, Twilight planted herself and resisted the urge to flee.
No, no more running. They're my friends and they'll care for me no matter what, she declared to herself. And I'd never let myself do anything to hurt them!
She furrowed her brow and straightened herself out. A dragoness that had crashed horns first into a hedge she may look like, but that was not who she was. This mess was not hopeless, she just needed to stick it to her new lizard side and do what she knew her true self would do.
"Twilight, where are you?" called the voices again, echoing as if coming from all around her.
She closed her eyes, face contorted and muzzle wrinkled as she finally bit back her fear and stepped up to the mouth of the cave.
"I'm here, girls, and I'm..." She opened her eyes, a sudden swell of happiness at the thought she'd get to see her friends again, only to find there was nothing there but the dripping cave mouth and the storm outside. "W-what... But I could have sworn..."
"Twilight, what in Equestria do you think you're doing out here!" The dragon-mare went stiff, wings rustling like paper as she turned around to find that somehow the voice was behind her.
It was there she found the scowling faces of five very disappointed looking mares. Rarity, Pinkie Pie, Applejack, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy all stood in the cave, and not one of them looked as happy to see her as she was to see them. Or at least as happy as she'd felt before seeing their scowling faces.
"G-girls... You came out here... I... I know what this looks like, and I'm sorry, but I can explain..." Twilight began, folding into her wings and bowing her head as she rubbed one foreleg against the other.
"Darn tootin', ya' got some explainin' ta do, Twi," Applejack was the first to declare, jabbing a hoof at the mare turned dragoness.
"I... I know, I'm sorry... I should have told you all," Twilight relented, peeking out from her wings.
"No, what you should have done, dear, is not show up at all. You're an utter danger to everypony," snapped Rarity and Twilight flinched.
"W¬what... I... I never meant to hurt anypony, I swear... Spike... He's okay, right?" Dread flooded into her mind at the thought that she may have somehow burned the dragon.
"Oh, he's perfectly peachy!" declared Pinkie Pie, before somehow miraculously appearing behind Twilight's head, swinging from her horns as she added. "But I wouldn't count on talking to him again, danger dragon. You've lost his trust fooooreeeever!"
The bubbly pink mare darted over Twilight's shoulder, materializing beside her other friends as the dragoness took in a staggered breath, clutching her chest.
"I... what do you mean, I couldn't control myself... I don't know what's happening to me," Twilight retorted, spreading her wings as anger spiked.
Fluttershy gave a small eep of alarm at the display, darting back. Like a bolt of cyan lightning, Rainbow Dash was at her foalhood friend's side, a wing wrapped around the butter yellow pegasus.
"Oh, I know what's happening to you. You're turning into a monster, Twilight. I saw what you did back at Sugarcube Corner, who's to say the whole of Ponyville isn't next?" Rainbow asked and Twilight shrank back, shielding herself from the pegasus' harsh gaze with a wing.
"No, I'm not a monster. I didn't do this to myself... It's some stupid magic I don't understand," she tried to reason.
"Then why did you try and eat that poor doe yesterday, don't think I don't know about that?" Fluttershy asked between tears as she looked up from Rainbow's comforting wing.
“Fluttershy, you keep carnivores… I was hungry… I…” Twilight once again felt the blood drain from her scales as she looked from horrified face to horrified face.
"Sure sounds like a monster ta meh," Applejack agreed with a firm nod from Pinkie Pie.
"Positively barbaric, I concur. Not to mention the amount of my fine work you destroyed, Twilight, and that you lied right to my face about this." Rarity added, throwing back her head with a 'tsk'.
"I... I..." Twilight desperately attempted to formulate words, yet nothing came to her that could even begin to excuse her actions. Neither could she think of any way in which her friends were wrong about what she'd done.
"Oh, Twilight, what have you done now?" sounded one last voice and the dragoness looked up to see Starlight looming over her from a ledge. "How does it feel to be driven away from all you love and forced to hide in a cave?"
With a flash, the lilac mare appeared between Twilight and her other five friends, a smirk plastered on her muzzle.
"S–Starlight... You... what are you talking about... That was years ago?" Twilight responded, shuffling back as the mares started to advance as one.
"What, and you think I've forgotten? Sure, I have a life now with you guys, Trixie..." Starlight twiddled a hoof in the air. "But what are we all without you?" She jabbed the hoof right at Twilight as she felt her back hit a damp cave wall.
"I–I don't understand... We... we're nothing without each other," she insisted, and Starlight rolled her eyes.
"Wrong. You're the only one who is nothing anymore, no magic and..." Starlight looked back at each of the five mares behind her for confirmation. "Oh, and wouldn't you know it, no friends anymore. Who knew setting fire to Ponyville would do that?"
"What, no. I didn't set fire to the town, I swear. Girls, you know I would never..." Twilight pleaded, yet nopony looked like they even cared.
"The damage don't lie, Twi. Saw it with mah own two eyes," Applejack insisted, backed up by her wife soon after.
"Yeah, I find it hard to believe you didn't plan to use some crazy monster magic on yourself. Last time I brought it up, you told me how dangerous it was, yet here you are," Rainbow accused.
Twilight lifted a claw and opened her muzzle to argue, yet all that escaped was a dry squeak.
Starlight finally looked back at her with a smirk. "See, you're a danger, Twilight, and we can't have danger in our lives."
Only a hoof step away from the cowering dragoness Starlight's horn began to glow as she finally added. "Now, do you remember what we have to do to things that put us in danger?"
Utterly stunned, Twilight could only stare into the bright cyan glow of her former student's horn as it grew brighter. Her mind was like a wasteland, all hopes and dreams shattered. The open space just enough for her draconic self to take control.
"No, you won't take anypony from me!" Fire erupted from her mouth as she surged upwards, wings spread.
A gushing river of amethyst flames poured over Starlight and the others, smothering the light of the unicorn's magic as Twilight dropped onto all fours, claws digging at stone and teeth bared. The fire faded, leaving behind glowing hot rock and steam. Twilight narrowed her eyes, muzzle wrinkled and nostrils flared as a wall of cyan magic sat between her and her friends. The magical shield dropped with a flick of Starlight's head, an odd shimmering light passing over the six mares as it did so.
Like starlight, the glow twinkled, and when it had passed her friends were not the same. Each bore a golden neck brace, the signature look of the elements of harmony on each of them respectively. All save for Starlight who took one step forward and looked right at the snarling dragoness, a golden tiara topped by a cyan gem in the shape of her cutie mark atop her head. Twilight's eyes went wide, sensation coming back to her as the gleam of the Element of Magic flashed in her vision.
"My point exactly, Twilight," Starlight boasted, spreading a new set of lilac and purple wings from her sides before adding, "It looks like you've been replaced."
"Enough!" The image slammed into Twilight like a brick wall, seconds before a literal explosion of dark blue light blasted outwards from Starlight's crown, along with a booming voice.
Forced to the floor by the explosion, Twilight only caught a brief glimpse as the faces of her friends disintegrated into the inky gloom and sound left her reality. In their place, descending on a light beat of shadowy wings, appeared a midnight blue alicorn.
"Twilight Sparkle," Princess Luna greeted with a bow as her silver shoes gently touched the floor. "My apologies, I should have come sooner."
Twilight peeked up, eyes darting from left to right lest Starlight and the rest of her friends still be around to banish her. When the mares in question failed to show up and try to blast her, she locked eyes with Luna. For the first time, it was not the dragon side of her mind that was angry.
"You, you..." she stammered, shooting to her feet and glaring at her fellow princess. "What you said last night... lovesickness or whatever, you knew this was going to happen!" she declared, jabbing a claw at Luna as the whole world started to shake around them.
Luna took a long look around at the dissolving dream, then looked back at Twilight and sighed. "I had my suspicions, yet what you have experienced is far beyond anything I have seen. But please, try to calm down, you're destabilizing the dream."
So this is a dream? Oh Celestia, aren't you glad? Her mind added, before one more observant part of her noted. Wait, so she really did know?
"Calm down? You're joking, right?" Twilight snapped, gesturing to herself as rocks and dust started to fall around her. "Look at me... Look at what they just accused me of, that could be real for all I know!"
Luna took a step back, a pained and guilty look crossing her often stoic face as her ears folded and she looked at the collapsing dreamscape unsurely.
"Twilight, please. I have many things to tell you, yes... I should have been more direct, yet I did not believe things could go so far so fast," Luna stammered, but Twilight continued to advance, the anger at having seen her friends abandon her at the forefront of her mind.
"You have things to tell me? Luna, if this is seriously one of your pranks it's really, really not funny!" Twilight pressed.
"What... No! I would never take things so far. There are simply things I know that others are better off not knowing. Twilight, please, I would never seek to ruin anything of yours... I..." Before Luna could finish her words were lost in a flash and a loud gong like chime.
The world almost seemed to be sucked away under Twilight, like water down a drain as reality dove head first into a disorienting swirl and darkness sank its long, winding tendrils into everything. Just like that, the world was gone, and from nowhere distant sounds came racing to Twilight's senses, then smell and finally a blast of light.
With a groan and the scraping of a foreclaw on top of her head, one of Twilight's slitted eyes popped open.
"Urg, my head... I... Luna!" Her head shot up, and much like in a certain dream was sent spinning as she smacked it right into a rocky outcrop. "Ouch, not again you stupid thing!"
She glared at the rock, and it seemed to glare back with an unrivaled smugness. That was until she took it in a claw, snapped it off with a surge of draconic strength, and tossed it out into the early sunlit morning outside the cave.
Definitely hurts more in real life, her mind declared, yet the recollection of the dream made her feel both empty and furious. My friends, they'd never really... and Luna!
She narrowed her eyes, teeth grinding as she snorted fire. What did Luna know, how long had she known it, and why had she failed to help? Those questions spun in Twilight's mind for a long moment before the clap of wood against wood caught her attention and she looked to see she was not alone in the cave. Then she froze at the sight of somepony looking at her with a pair of curious blue eyes.
"Ahh, so you are awake I see. So tell me, Twilight, would you care for some tea?" asked, not some pony, but some zebra as she poured a steamy liquid from a kettle she had over a cooking fire into a small coconut cup and held it out to the dragoness.
"Z–Zecora?" Twilight stammered, rubbing her sore head before realization dawned on her. "I–I... this, me..." She gestured to herself in a fluster. "I can totally explain!"
Zecora chuckled. "Dear Twilight, I can see you have some issues, yes, but please do not fret. I know that as a dragon, you are no threat."
The zebra smiled, and for once Twilight gave up on any kind of improvised explanation as she slumped and took the tea Zecora was offering.
"Thanks... Sorry, I'm just kinda expecting everypony who sees me like this to freak out," Twilight confessed, taking a sip of what she discovered was wonderful herb tea.
Any particular reason why she's not freaking out, Twilight? She wondered as the minty freshness of the tea trickled down her throat and soothed her singed muscles. She lives out here, she's probably seen enough dragons to last a lifetime. Oh Celestia, she knows just what to give them too.
Twilight pressed a claw to her neck, rubbing her throat as she coughed. "Wow, that stuff is strong..." Her voice caught, breaking as her airways cleared and the sting of smoke disappeared. "M–my voice... I have my old voice back!"
Twilight spread her wings, almost impacting the cave roof as she jumped up. Adopting a triumphant stance, she was oblivious while Zecora rushed to settle her tea and stop the bubbling brew from spilling.
"Oh, Zecora, thank you, I..." Twilight paused as she turned to see the zebra with the kettle in her forehooves, then blushed, sinking into her folded wings. "Oh, sorry."
"Worry not Twilight Sparkle, I am very aware of what you're facing with this debacle," Zecora responded as she finally steadied her cooking stand and leaned back to take a sip of her own hot drink.
Twilight once again sat down, heat pooling in her scaly cheeks. "I guess you saw me last night then?" she asked and when Zecora gave a solitary nod she buried her face in her foreclaws.
"Urg, I just don't know what's happening to me... I've done all kinds of magic and never have I been stuck like this!" she declared, gesturing to herself.
Zecora leaned back against a rock at the dragoness' rather loud declaration, and Twilight once again felt a swell of guilt below that fire in her chest.
"I..." She sighed. "You shouldn't have followed me, I don't feel like I have enough control over myself right now." The grinding of her claws on stone only reinforced the dragoness' words as she glanced down at them.
Zecora gave a hum, drawing Twilight's attention as she pressed a hoof to her striped muzzle and seemed to think for a long moment.
"Hmmm. While usually coming out here to try and soothe an angry drake, would seem to be a great mistake. I can see you are suffering from great heartache. Twilight, I know you are not one of those things, so trust me, I can take whatever else the forest brings," Zecora assured with a smirk, then stood up, taking a stick that had been laying against the rock at her side.
Twilight observed the curious mare suspiciously, considering her cryptic words as Zecora took the stick in her mouth and trotted over.
"So you're saying you did not come out here because you saw me demolish half the forest?" she asked as Zecora paused at her side, propping up the stick with a foreleg.
"A few trees you smashed in the gloom, hardly something that will result in the forest's doom," she muttered, cocking her head and seeming to scrutinize Twilight's scales in great detail. "Yet, being so vigilant, I could not resist observing your predicament."
Twilight felt her muzzle wrinkle as confusion pooled in her mind, then that all went away in a yelp as Zecora jabbed her side with the stick.
Oh, you are so, so unlike a dragon. This is embarrassing! Twilight's inner draconic thoughts snapped as she jumped away from the offending zebra, growling. No, no, you are not setting her on fire!
"Hey, what in Equestria was that for?" Twilight asked, rubbing her side with a claw and finding, much as her draconic self had told her, that it did not hurt half as much as she was used to. "I'm still a pony in here you know?"
Zecora gave another curious hum, mumbling to herself. "As true as I suspected that would seem. Twilight Sparkle, you still are in mind, so this must really be some kind of scheme." She rubbed her chin with a forehoof again, setting down the stick.
At her words, however, Twilight's leathery ears perked, and her attention spiked. Is she talking to herself or to me... What does she mean a 'scheme'?
The dragoness edged back towards the striped mare. "Scheme, what scheme... Do you know what's wrong with me?" she asked hopefully.
Seriously, if this ends up being another of Discord's pranks I'm going to turn him back to stone myself! she declared internally, and for once her dragon side didn't disagree with the threat.
"Legends I know speak of afflictions from worlds beyond ours. Yet, as far as I know, they can only be caught when meddling with higher powers," Zecora elaborated, drawing out a picture of a dragon in the moist dirt, then a line and on the other side of the divide, a pony. "Some say that half our existence is an illusion. Yet when we meddle with one half, it affects the other, and can cause a fusion."
She drew a line through the central divide from the mare to the dragon, then scribbled out the two entirely.
Twilight's thoughts were spinning. A fusion, two sides of reality? This sounds something like that teleportation safety manual, remember? You know, like that one stallion who ended up fused with a Parrasprite?
Twilight shook her head with a grunt. "What, so you're saying I blurred the lines between myself and a dragon? How In Equestria does that work, every time I use magic I make sure to be as safe as possible," she exclaimed, wings flaring again.
This time Zecora didn't even flinch as she addressed the angry dragoness. "You say that you were the one to take the utmost care. Yet, I must wonder, were you the only one there?"
At the zebra's question, Twilight paused. "No, I do my magic practice with Starlight most of the time, sometimes her wife Trixie too," she retorted.
Thinking back to her recent dream Twilight felt a twinge of doubt in her mind. That couldn't be it, Starlight was trying to help me. She's my friend, why would she curse me to turn into a dragoness?
"Hmmm," Zecora hummed, forehoof on the tip of her muzzle once again. "Then this magic, what is it? If what I suspect is true, it may just fit."
The gears in her own mind grinding, Twilight scratched the back of her neck as she answered. "Transformation spells. All body, no soul. Only into other pony tribes too, we didn't even go inequine!" she exclaimed, but at those words, Zecora seemed to reach her conclusion.
"Practising the art of altering one's self on one side of the line." She gestured to the scribble in the muck. "The sickness that you have is a sure sign."
Twilight glanced at the ruined scribble, then at Zecora before seconds later her head was back in her foreclaws.
"What in Equestria does that even mean? So I'm sick, this is lovesickness, that's what Princess Luna called it! So that means you could cure it, right?" she offered and Zecora once again seemed to consider that.
"If love is what your Night Princess believes is the cause, then it may be true. Yet this is not a sickness that can be cured with a simple brew," Zecora responded.
Twilight sat up, no care for the intense heat surging to her cheeks. "I'm not in love with anypony. All the feelings I had in the past week were for Spike and Ember, and that's just because of this stupid dragon brain!" She jabbed a claw to her head, growling smoke.
"Love is a powerful emotion, even across reality, it can set things in motion. To think that the love of another is affecting you now is not out of the question. Yet whoever thinks about you in such a way must have great power to leave such an impression," Zecora elaborated.
Oh, that sounds great. So what, some great, all-powerful, cosmic being from another world has a crush on you? Twilight wondered as pieces steadily began to form in her mind. Wow, who knew inter-dimensional monsters had a thing for sexy dragons?
Twilight shook all but the most pressing questions from her mind, leaning closer to the zebra, claws tapping against stone.
"So you do know what's happening to me, Zecora? Oh, please, please tell me you do!" Twilight practically begged.
Zecora lifted a hoof. "Know what ails you, I have a theory, yet I warn, the truth may be a little eerie," the zebra offered, but Twilight had no care for how dark the truth may be as she nodded rapidly.
"I need to know, I really don't want to be stuck like this forever, so please, tell me." Zecora nodded once, lifting a forehoof and opening her muzzle to respond.
Before the striped mare could utter a single word, however, there was a sudden flash of bright light and the cave was consumed by a blinding glow. Instinctively, the dragoness lifted a wing to shield her eyes, wincing. Beyond her leathery curtain, there was a frazzle and a pop, magical lightning sparking to all corners of the cavern. Then a whoosh as the whole phenomenon faded.
Wait, that magic... If I didn't know any better I'd say that was a temporality shift teleportation! Twilight lowered her wings, hoping that she'd once again been greeted by the one mare she figured could offer all her answers.
"Twilight, thank Celestia, I... Oh, wow, that curse has really come along." What the dragoness found was a very surprised looking Starlight Glimmer turn to face her.
Zecora's words about her magical partner's effects lingered in Twilight's mind as the zebra too regarded the suddenly appearing mare with shock.
Moments later, Starlight shook her head, frazzled and singed mane waving as she announced. "I'm just glad I finally found you... and don't worry, I'm here to finally put an end to this."