Twilight’s whole body went taut with energy as she heard the horns blare again. The reaction from the others in the room with her wasn’t blind panic—ponies took their spears off the wall, hurried to the door. Meanwhile, those who hadn’t been soldiers and didn’t wear weapons turned to the stairs leading deeper into the tree, fleeing together in an orderly row.
“We should help,” Rainbow declared, watching Fluttershy move for the door. “That’s… that’s what we should do, right? Twilight?”
Zecora didn’t even give her a chance to answer the question. “New Dawn is happy for whatever you can do. But I will not stay to force you.” She hurried away, followed by many guards.
“Yes,” Twilight said. “We will. Everypony else, stay here.”
“What about me?” Pinkie bounced past her, over to the doorway. “I know how to fight! Er… I guess technically know how to guard things, but that’s almost the same things! Keep ponies from getting out, keep them from getting hurt. Protect the fort, keep ponies in. Keep them out. Not too different.”
“You’re right…” Twilight scanned the rack, her eyes settling on the single spear that had been left behind. The New Dawn guards were already all gone, so they wouldn’t need it. She levitated it over to Pinkie. “Take the others down where those ponies are going, keep them safe. I need everypony for the spell to work. Keep them alive.”
“Right you are, Princess Twilight!” Pinkie saluted. “Alright you civilians, down the stairs!” She didn’t quite yell, but she did bounce, and that was good enough. Before another argument could start, Rainbow and Twilight had slipped out onto the balcony.
Rainbow spread her wings, and Twilight followed. She still had the makeshift spear she’d made along the way, though she wouldn’t be able to fly very fast while balancing it. “You ready?”
Twilight nodded, taking off. “You can fly with that wing?”
“Yeah!” Rainbow zipped past her, almost as fast as she remembered. She probably wouldn’t have any problem with traditional flying—she’d have to try something like a sonic rainboom for it to make a difference. “I’m still faster than you, alicorn or not. But where the heck are the changelings?”
Twilight didn’t know any of the strange magic this world used to find them—but maybe she didn’t need it. The horn blared again, and she could see ponies from all over New Dawn rushing to the ramp leading up. There were apparently ponies up there, looking like a random assortment of tribes all wearing armor.
Oh Celestia, those are the ponies who live here. They’re trying to confuse them by looking like their friends.
They even carried similar weapons, and had stripes of mud running down their bodies. Twilight wouldn’t have known they weren’t the exact same ponies, if she didn’t see Zecora standing among them, leading the charge. That’s Chrysalis, I bet. She’s the only one who would dare impersonate the leader like that. We won’t let her get away with it.
Rainbow had seen it too. Probably sooner than she had, with those bat-eyes. “Wish we had something to drop on them. Changelings squish like bugs. No good weather to make into a storm… where’s the Everfree’s crazy weather when you need it?”
An interesting question—Twilight hadn’t seen any unusual weather in the last two days, just an occasional damp mist. But it wouldn’t matter now.
“See the guards fighting there? They’re going to get overwhelmed! The others aren’t flying, they won’t get there fast enough!”
“Race you!” Rainbow answered, tucking in both wings for a dive. She wasn’t quite as fast as she might’ve been—her body was still weak, and her muscles had shriveled with harsh treatment.
Twilight didn’t push to try and beat her—just now what she needed from the pony was cooperation, not resistance. She followed just behind, running through a few spells in her mind.
She was caught completely off-guard when Rainbow dropped into a dive, released her spear, and sent it through a changeling with such force they were completely impaled, smashing into a dead tree. It looked for a single terrible second like she’d made a mistake—but then the magic puffed away, leaving an insect seeping greenish slime onto the wood, dying in agony.
Rainbow just killed a pony. It hadn’t even slowed her down. She wasn’t stopping, either. No sooner was the spear gone than she chose her next target, crashing into what looked like an earth pony with both forelegs extended. From the awful snapping sound and the limp bug that rolled away from her, Twilight guessed that she’d made another successful kill.
She’s a soldier, Twilight. Fighting for her whole country. What is she supposed to do, let Equestria get eaten?
Twilight wouldn’t be given the luxury of sitting comfortably by the sidelines—arrows shot up through the air towards her, dozens of them. Her shield stopped each of them in a shower of sparks.
Twilight hovered in the air above the battle, spreading her wings and flashing her horn in the most dramatic shower of light and sparks she could conjure. “Get away from this place!” she roared, in her best imitation of the Royal Canterlot Voice. Nothing near as frightening as Luna’s own version, but… scary enough that ponies and changelings alike scattered.
Not enough, though. What she’d hoped to accomplish by scattering the enemy lasted only long enough for her to see the weakest changelings retreating into the forest. The majority turned completely away from the guards, many abandoning their illusions. They lifted into the air, dozens of bugs, none looking away from her.
The village might be interesting to them—but Alicorns were irreplaceable. I should’ve hid my wings or something.
It was too late to hide them now. And from the look of things, she wouldn’t be able manipulate her way out of anyone else getting killed.
This is a war. I knew I might have to fight sooner or later.
“You’re a fool to travel so far from your castle,” said one of the bugs. She wore wood armor like the villagers, though it didn’t look even remotely convincing when a changeling was wearing it instead of a pony. “You aren’t Nightmare Moon. Do you really think we’ll be afraid of tricks and flashing lights? We are the masters of illusion. We can’t be confused by the tools that we wield.”
Where had Rainbow gone? Where were the guards? Twilight was quickly overwhelmed in the battle. She’d fought with changelings like this before, and they were acting the exact same way—closing in around her, making it harder and harder to see a way out. Without sunlight, they looked more gray than black, shiny shells reflecting the sickly blue glow coming from the forest around them, as well as the moon.
“Maybe you would rather come without a fight,” said another bug from close by. “I know that look. You thought you were a warrior, but you aren’t. You belong in a court somewhere. Signing documents, casting impressive academic spells with no practical use.”
“If you try to fight us, you’ll die. Surrender is your only option.”
She almost did. But as Twilight opened her mouth, she remembered being beaten to a pulp in Sombra’s laboratory. She’d been in his sanctum then, dealing with an ancient necromancer who had sold his soul and who knew what else to find power.
There might be dozens of changelings, but they weren’t like that. I’m so close to ending this. I’m not giving up now.
Twilight’s horn surged to life again. She stopped flapping her wings, yet held perfectly still in the air. She might not have fully recovered from losing all her stored magic to Sombra, but she had enough. Enough to make these bugs regret attacking her.
Twilight felt the magic building, though she had only a few seconds to prepare the spell. They were closing in around her, using their superior coordination to overwhelm her. If they cut her off, they’d start draining her magic, just like Sombra had. There was so little left to lose.
Twilight roared, blasting outward all around her with simple, concentrated force. It was the same way that ordinary unicorns lifted objects, magnified hundreds of times. Shell snapped, bugs were swept out of the air, smashed into trees or crushed against icy rocks.
Twilight landed a second later, her horn steaming and the ice all around her hooves boiling away.
“Damn, Twi! Never seen a pony do that before!” Rainbow landed on the ground beside her, a new spear in her hoof. Taken from one of the dead, probably. “You’ve got to show me that sometime!”
She’d killed or injured a dozen of them in a single attack. If Twilight hoped that would scare them off—that too was mistaken. The bugs had forgotten about New Dawn completely. They didn’t seem likely to underestimate her this time, either. It was going to be a fight for survival.
At least she wasn’t alone. She couldn’t have said how long the battle went on—not long enough that Zecora or the troops from New Dawn ever arrived to help. Maybe she should’ve been thankful for that, since it meant ponies wouldn’t be losing their friends today. As it was, she fought until she lost all strength, fought until she couldn’t keep going.
Rainbow collapsed to the ground beside her, surrounded by broken bugs. The trees overhead pulsed to their familiar blue glow, overpowering the stars. But that was the only light.
“You just… fought… an entire army,” Rainbow said, panting. “There must’ve been… fifty, a hundred bugs. You’re really an Alicorn.”
“Yeah.” She settled down onto her haunches, a little more dignified. “Wasn’t always. You helped me get there—you and the others back in New Dawn. Guess you don’t remember that.”
She scanned the forest, but nothing moved around them now. Even the predators were too intimidated by her display to try anything. Anything big enough to challenge her probably wouldn’t be able to get here anyway.
“You’re really going to save the world, aren’t you? Put it all back to normal… fix the sky?”
Twilight nodded. “We are. I can’t do it alone.”
“You keep saying things like that.” Rainbow rose, shaking herself out. She was covered with mud, dirt, and changeling slime, but she was already recovering. She hadn’t been making magical attacks that would sap her strength. “But I’m not sure it’s true. It doesn’t seem like all these ponies you got are equally useful. Why do you need a factory manager to overthrow Nightmare Moon, anyway?”
Far away on the horizon, the moon set. For a single second, the entire world was in darkness, even the glowing plants refused to put out their light. Then the moon rose again, and faint sparkles spread from where its light first touched, expanding until the entire forest was glowing again.
“I’m not going to overthrow her. She beat Princess Celestia, remember? I couldn’t beat her. I couldn’t even beat Sombra.” She sank down, settling her head on her hooves. “That’s why we have friends, Rainbow. And that’s why we’re not going to fight anypony. I told you how it worked—”
“You told me something you thought I would believe,” Rainbow interrupted. “Time travel. Were you really serious about that?”
Twilight gestured all around them, at the broken and dying bugs just a dozen meters away. “I’m not recruiting an army. I’m recruiting the Elements of Harmony so we can reverse this spell. Equestria isn’t supposed to be in this nightmare in the first place, and we’re going to wake them up.”
“Buck me,” Rainbow said. “I hope you’re not as insane as our princess. If you can do this… I almost believe you.” She straightened suddenly, puffing out her chest as only a pegasus could. “But you should know. I’m not convinced. I’m only helping you because you saved my life. I owe you for that. Kinda hoping I could’ve paid you back during this whole… changeling thing. But I’m pretty sure you saved me more than I helped you.”
Twilight rose again, shaking away as much of the mud and slime as she could. She stuck out her hoof, smiling faintly. “It doesn’t have to be about debts. We could just be friends.”
“Friends,” Rainbow repeated. “I guess we should… probably go back for your friends, huh?” She took the offered hoof anyway. “Which is, uh…” She winced. “Horsefeathers. I have… no idea.”
“Guess we follow the blood,” Twilight muttered, grim. “It started at the village, right?”
“Yeah.” Rainbow shivered. Even with all their fighting, even helping Twilight kill all these bugs, she hadn’t been completely desensitized.
Unfortunately for Twilight, that was the moment the adrenaline finally wore off. She dropped to the ground, and heaved Zecora’s stew all over the forest floor.
The return trip to New Dawn was more than a little hike, broken with frequent stops to investigate and try to discover exactly how they’d gotten there in the first place.
Twilight recovered her constitution quickly enough, though the sense of disgust with what she’d done remained. Even if it was a war, even if she’d been fighting defensively and would’ve been killed otherwise—she had still killed. Maybe in another life, those bugs might’ve reformed, and found a better way to live. In this one, they’d rot in the forest.
After several hours of wandering around, eventually the hidden valley came into view, with the ponies outside recovering from the attack.
It seemed that the bugs they’d sent away weren’t the only ones involved. Maybe there’d been another wave.
There was a small fire burning near the edge of the village, now mostly extinguished, along with an open pavilion with cots full of the injured.
Twilight approached slowly, conscious of the angry eyes of the guards on her.
To her relief, Fluttershy was the one who met them, with a leaf filled with mud in front of her. “I have to test you,” she said, almost apologetically. “I know you probably aren’t… that the real you wouldn’t want to hurt New Dawn. But it—”
“It’s fine, Fluttershy,” Rainbow said. “Get it over with. Then you can tell us what happened.”
A few moments later they were muddy as well as tired, with no new changeling spies revealed.
“I guess we didn’t lead them all away,” Rainbow said, scraping the mud away from her face. “I thought Twilight was going to win the whole battle by herself, but…”
“No,” Fluttershy squeaked. “I mean, it was very noble of her to try, but… there’s always more than one wave. But the other ones are weaker. You might’ve helped save New Dawn today.”
“All in a day’s work,” Rainbow said. “ We can put a stop to this. End the war, defeat Chrysalis.”
“With… Nightmare Moon’s help,” Fluttershy repeated. “And… time magic, you said?”
“Yes,” Twilight answered. “More like undoing time magic, not using it offensively. But yes. In order to power the spell, I need you.”
“I’m coming,” she said. “But… maybe not until after Eventide. There are hurt ponies here, and… you look tired too. You should go back into the village. We’ll get you somewhere to stay. We can leave when night comes.”
Twilight relished every second of relief in New Dawn, feeling safer than she had since arriving in Starlight’s Equestria. There were no more attacks, and even if there had been, she was confident the scouts on the wall would be able to find and stop them.
Her sleep was far less restful—there was no Princess Luna to take away her nightmares. The changeling invaders might be evil, but she didn’t relish watching them die. She watched it anyway.
This is your fault, their corpses whispered to her. If you had stopped Starlight, we would’ve been banished in peace. You failed, and we died. They were her fault too, even if they were invaders.
Then she woke. She prepared for the return trip with the others, who had taken no injuries since they’d been sheltered with the other civilians the entire time.
Though as they were making their way back out into the forest, Twilight learned that not all of them appreciated the break.
“I could’a been there,” Applejack said, after they’d given their formal goodbyes to Zecora and were on the trail. Fluttershy seemed to know the route much better than they did, because they cut a different path back. From the look of it, Twilight guessed it would take less than a day to reach the Obsidian Fortress this way.
“You had no idea what was waiting out there. You could’ve been killed!”
“Could’ve,” Twilight agreed. “But so could you. I need all of your help; I’ve said that already. We can only make this spell work with the six of us. But we all have different talents. Rainbow is a trained soldier. If we had gone to manage a factory, I promise I would’ve asked her to stay somewhere safe while we did it.”
“If we did that, I’d drop myself in the canning machine,” Rainbow whispered.
Applejack didn’t react. Maybe she hadn’t heard. “I get that. I know you’re from another world, and you’ve got all kinds of power. But it still pays to have more eyes. Pays to be watching better, because you just don’t know what could be coming. I can’t fight an army, but… I could’ve warned you that you were about to be attacked. I could’ve… swung a stick! Bucked them out of the way!”
“It’s natural to want to be more helpful,” Rarity said. For the first time, she didn’t sound condescending. “I know the feeling, Applejack. Watching train after train leave the Obsidian Fortress to the front, knowing that most of the ponies on it won’t ever come home to their families. I want to get on with them, pick up a crossbow and help. I sometimes feel like a coward for not being there.”
“Well—” Rainbow opened her mouth, but Twilight silenced her with a hoof.
“But the instinct is wrong,” Rarity said. “Putting a pony who doesn’t know how to fight in battle will probably make things worse for your side, even if you badly want to help. Then instead of being focused on the war, your friends will have to also think about keeping you alive. Besides, if you did get hurt, that means you won’t be able to do the thing that makes you useful. Armies can’t march on empty bellies, and they can’t get to the war if the trains don’t arrive on time and they run out of bolts. We all have our part to play. It’s selfish to try and play them all ourselves.”
“She’s right,” Pinkie agreed. “It was the same way at Elkatraz. Most of us did nothing at all. We had to watch the ponies who got unlucky… wishing we could do something. But if we’d all gone down, it only would’ve been worse. Maybe we’d give them enough magic that they could break out and attack Equestria again. Even if it hurt, we were keeping our families safe.”
Applejack raised a hoof in surrender. “Alright, alright. I get it. You win. Doesn’t mean I like it, though.”
“You don’t have to,” Twilight agreed. “And you won’t have to worry about it for much longer. We’re here. Now all we have to do is… talk to Nightmare Moon, get the Elements, and… and we’re done.”
The trees were running out, and not much further ahead, she could make out the burned husks of the forest Nightmare Moon had destroyed. That meant the Obsidian Fortress wasn’t much further.
It was time.
“What do you mean you can’t get a meeting for us?” Fluttershy was surprisingly insistent—enough that even Rarity was given a moment’s pause. “You said you ran the whole castle.”
They stood together in one of the Obsidian Fortress’s great foyers, surrounded by the flow of dignitaries and military ponies. Their group stood under Nightmare Moon’s seal, where a massive window would cast the moon traveling across the sky.
“I did,” Rarity said, voice weak. “Past tense. But that never meant I could command her. She rules Equestria, all I can do is ask politely. That is as it should be—she’s the princess, after all.”
She nodded towards Twilight. “She, uh… she only wants to talk to you. She didn’t give me a reason. And I could tell from her tone that I shouldn’t ask for one. You, uh… probably shouldn’t keep her waiting.”
“It’s fine, Twilight,” Rainbow said. “All you need to do is get the Elements, right? You’re basically asking her to open a drawer. In and out, and we can be done with this whole thing.”
“We should be going with you,” Fluttershy insisted. They had all washed away the mud, and Fluttershy had left any artifacts of New Dawn behind. She clearly had no intention of attracting attention back to her old home. “You might need us! We can’t help from out here.”
“We’ll have to,” Applejack said, moving forward and embracing Twilight. “We know you can do it, Twi. Finish what we started.”
They all hugged her. It wasn’t quite the affection she was used to, but at the same time they were her friends. These were the ponies who could bring back the sun, if they worked together. She could finish the job.
She walked slowly up the stairs, following one of Luna’s personal guard all the way to her quarters. So there wouldn’t be another performance before her night court.
“Duchess Twilight Sparkle,” the guard announced, holding the door open for her. “As you requested, Princess.”
“Leave us,” she said. “If any arrive, kill them.” Twilight couldn’t even see her—the room seemed to be completely empty, though she could feel the magic radiating out from inside. Not the nauseating wrongness of Sombra’s necromancy, but just as unnatural in its own way.
The door shut behind her, plunging Twilight into sudden blackness. The windows were all drawn, not even allowing the faint gasps of moonlight into the room.
“I hear you’ve completed your mission. The time has come for your impossible time-spell. Is that right?”
Twilight’s ears perked, and she turned in the direction of the sound. A flight of crystal stairs, leading around the tower to a study of sorts. There was an empty fireplace, which hurt her eyes just to look at it. The sound came from one of the comfortable chairs beside it.
Twilight lit her horn, and found her usual light spell produced only a faint wisp of what it should. She didn’t fight it, though, just gritted her teeth, walking up the stairs towards Nightmare Moon. “That’s correct, Princess. We’re ready to end the war.”
She stopped beside the fireplace, with her horn illuminating the study. Nightmare Moon was surrounded by books—ancient tomes of magic, from the look of them. The paper on some looked so old that merely opening them would cause them to crumble away.
The fireplace wasn’t just dark. Twilight’s glow didn’t get anywhere close to it. Yet in the profound absence, she could see the shape of flames crackling there. Or… anti-flames. They absorbed light, radiating a chill that reached her hooves at that moment, and made her breath puff out in the air in front of her.
She couldn’t stop herself. “What is that?”
Nightmare Moon’s predatory eyes met hers, and she grinned at her, exposing her sharp canines. “You come from a different place, Twilight. I’ve learned much about your reality… or inferred it. You were trained by my sister, is that true?” She gestured, and Twilight took the seat across from her. She had no intention of tempting her anger by refusing.
“Yes.” She kept her tone as flat as possible, fearful. She had no illusions about what Nightmare Moon would think of that.
But she was wrong. The alicorn raised one of her wings in deference. “It’s alright, I don’t blame you. Celestia was always the more outgoing. She was better at winning ponies to her side. The illusions she created weren’t like our changeling foes—her lies were all smiles and politeness. She knew how to say whatever a pony most wanted to hear. After all, it costs nothing to be kind.”
Nightmare Moon laughed, her voice distant and bitter. The not-flames in her huge stone fireplace grew higher, and ice grew from around it in tiny black shards.
“It’s… some kind of dark magic…” Twilight muttered. Trying to examine it was about as fruitful as examining Sombra’s necromancy. Her spell made it only a little way, then snuffed itself out.
“Dark magic.” Nightmare Moon’s voice was scornful. “You see what my sister’s laws earned for Equestria? A culture of ignorance. ‘It’s too dangerous!’ she must’ve said. ‘Imagine what terrible things ponies could do with what they don’t understand!’”
Sounds like she knew what she was talking about.
“I can see it in your eyes, Twilight. You’re not a pony content to accept the boundaries of her world just because somepony says the map ends here. You want to know what’s on the other side. You need to know. Who was the clockmaker? Who wound the gears, and to what ratio? Most importantly—how can we use this knowledge, to strengthen Equestria and defeat her enemies?”
“I do want to know,” she admitted. There was no sense lying to an Alicorn. She probably had magical ways to know when she was being deceived. I really hope those don’t work when I’m only leaving things out, instead of inventing them. “But I want to save Equestria first. Ponies are dying. I’ve… been on the front. I had to go from one end to the other to get my friends back together. But we need something from you for the spell to work.”
In the gloom of her study, Twilight could just barely make out her eyebrows going up. “You want… something from me? I’ve made it clear to you, Twilight. I’m not going to waste any of my attention on this. I already gave you my favorite steward. What else could you possibly require?”
Then she rose, and Twilight didn’t see her cross the distance between them. Suddenly she was leering over her, settling a few spell books on the cushion beside her. “My court wizard has become a bit of a disappointment in recent weeks. Mounting insane expeditions, nearly getting herself caught. Postulating absurd spells… but you, I think, will be less so. For instance—you know the ten schools of magic. Did you know that each of them has an inverse? It isn’t just ‘dark magic.’ That’s a term my sister invented. Propaganda, to frighten away fools. It’s certainly more dangerous, but the rewards… they make the investment worthwhile.”
In a single sentence, Nightmare Moon had told her more about forbidden magic than Celestia had given her in a lifetime. That was almost enough for her to listen—almost. But then she shook her head.
“Equestria first, Princess. I barely need any of your time. I just need to borrow the Elements of Harmony. I have the ponies, now all I’m missing are the physical artifacts that go with them.”
Nightmare Moon withdrew from her. A second later, and the dark fire burning beside them went out. Light returned, and little slivers of ice melted away, dripping quietly on the stone floor.
All of Nightmare’s interest in her seemed abruptly severed, and she turned away. “You’re asking for something impossible. The Elements of Harmony…”
“I know your sister probably tried to use them against you when you returned,” Twilight interrupted. “We’re not using them as a weapon. I just need a power source. There isn’t enough magic left for me to cast the time spell otherwise.”
The Alicorn’s expression shifted. Not into anger exactly, though it was close. She seemed—embarrassed?
“It’s not that. If I thought you were a traitor to me, I would have already banished you to join my sister. It is something more practical… more realistic. The Elements of Harmony aren’t here. They aren’t in the vault, aren’t anywhere in my control.”
Of course. Right when she was close to victory, it was snatched away. Twilight wanted to swear, to stomp in frustration—but she resisted. She was still in the presence of the most dangerous Alicorn in the world. Besides, a setback didn’t mean her mission was impossible. There was no reason for her to give up yet. “Where are they?” Twilight asked. “Does Sombra have them? Queen Chrysalis? I know my ponies can get in and out, no matter where they are. Nothing will stop us.”
Nightmare laughed again. “We will see. They are nowhere you could imagine… well, I suppose I shouldn’t make such claims without knowing everything about your time. But I doubt you have a hope. Come with me, I’ll show you.”
They descended the steps of the tower, past numerous ponies who were all competing for Nightmare Moon’s time and attention. She ignored them all, waving them off with a wing. They reached the bottom floor of the tower, and still they were traveling downward. Into parts of the castle she had never known existed.
“There are creatures in Equestria older and more powerful than even the Alicorns,” she began. “Creatures as ancient as the mountains, and as endless as the stars.”
They reached a sealed door. The spells written across it were intricate, beyond anything Twilight could read at a glance. But she didn’t need to read the carving that someone had worked into the heavy stone.
It was a tall creature, with an arched back and mismatched limbs. Even as she watched, a faint greenish glow seemed to pulse out from under the doorway. The runes along its side glowed, then the heartbeat of magic from within retreated again.
“Discord,” she whispered. “He… got free in your world too?”
“Not… precisely,” Nightmare Moon said. “I was no fool like my sister, content to wait for disaster to strike. I could see the spells containing him were fragile things—so I acted early. We made a deal.”
She nodded towards the door. “Through there is a domain of chaos that will warp your mind and devour your sanity. Ponies who step through often do not return. The things that do…” She shook her head. “I often have them executed out of pity. But that was part of the bargain. Any who wish to enter his domain must be allowed. I think he has some… power, to reach beyond this spell and entice my subjects. I have tried to stop him… without success. If you want your Elements of Harmony, that is where you’ll find them.”
“Insurance, he called it,” the Alicorn said. “He knows his own weaknesses. I had to promise that he would never be trapped in stone again. The only way to honor that promise is to give him stewardship over the weapon that could do it.”
Suddenly she loomed overhead again, her mane a writhing, twisted octopus of glowing strands. They reached out, wrapping around Twilight’s legs and wings and holding her in place.
“Whatever horrors you have seen out in Equestria, whatever you think about me—for the sake of all that you love, you must not tamper with this spell. You may visit—you may speak to the Draconequus and request anything you wish. But this spell—you must not break it. Or a darkness will come that will never end.”
You do care about Equestria, Twilight realized, her mouth hanging open. Somewhere in there. You’re almost her. Maybe she could help this pony return to herself, somehow. Maybe… could Nightmare Moon be persuaded to surrender?
But then she turned away. “I will indulge you a little time to study this question for yourself. It is of no consequence to me whether you or the ones you recruited live or die. But when you are finished… return to me. I will find a use for you in my kingdom.” She left, leaving Twilight alone at the base of the stairs.
With the alien door looming above her.
Twilight wasn’t left alone for very long. She was still staring up at the runes on the wall when she heard hooves behind her. She turned, and was only a little surprised by the ponies who emerged.
Not Nightmare Moon’s guard, they carried no weapons. It was her friends. Or two of them anyway—Applejack and Rainbow Dash. Both looked worried, like they expected to stumble into arrest at any moment. Then they saw her, and she could see their relief.
“Twilight, bucking finally,” Rainbow said, hurrying over. “We split into teams looking for you. Rarity wasn’t happy about it, but…”
“We knew she took you somewhere,” Applejack went on. “Thought it might be the dungeons. That’s where Fluttershy and Rarity went. What’s…” She stopped, staring up at the carving. “Well I can’t say that looks pleasant.”
“Did you get the Elements?” Rainbow asked, her voice urgent. “Wait, no. You’re not carrying anything. And if you had, you’d be looking for us. So something went wrong. What is it? Banished? Have to… pass a trial to get them free? Or maybe—”
Twilight raised a wing to silence her. “The princess didn’t have them, he does.” She gestured behind her at the door. “We can go in whenever we want, but we might not come out again. Apparently he’s been luring ponies down here since Nightmare Moon trapped him. That’s part of the deal they made.”
“And we’re… sure he isn’t luring us?” Applejack asked, voice tentative. “This doesn’t sound like it’s very related to getting the Elements back. More like… a way to get rid of you.”
“No.” Twilight turned back to the door, resting one hoof on the stone. It jiggled slightly against her touch, though it didn’t move far. Just enough for her to be positive that it could be opened. She could almost hear him calling to her. “She didn’t even seem to care if I went in. I think she… she wants to teach me her magic.”
“Like she teaches Sunset Shimmer, you mean,” Applejack said, eyebrows raised. “Smells fishy to me. I’m not sure what part of it is a lie. Guess we should get everypony together before we—”
“No.” Twilight focused on the door again. “The one through here is called Discord. He’s one of Equestria’s most powerful enemies. He’s beaten all of us before. But it seems like he might be… more reasonable in this world. Guess that makes sense. If the whole world is already in chaos, he doesn’t need to create as much of his own. Point is, I don’t want to put the others in danger. I’m going in.”
“Then I’m coming,” Applejack said. “If he’s really that powerful, a whole army wouldn’t make much difference anyway. So don’t say I’d need to fight to come.”
“Suit yourself.” Rainbow stepped up to her other side. “I’m not scared. He can’t be that bad.”
Twilight pushed on the huge stone door, and it rumbled inward. The other opened at the same time, though she hadn’t touched it.
There were no stone stairs waiting on the other side, or some massive chamber where Discord had made his own mockery of the court. Instead, there was a vortex of energy, powerful enough that it lifted the hair on her mane and yanked her forward towards it.
Looking through the doorway was a little like looking through the surface of a pond. And at the bottom, she could see…
An island assembled from random bits and pieces of land. There was the yellow sand of a desert, pressed together with arctic ice and huge chunks of rock. Objects she couldn’t identify seemed to orbit that island, living trees and strange machines and even weirder things she had no names for.
At the center of the island was a cottage, with light glowing from its windows. Discord, and the Elements.
At least we don’t have to trek across Equestria again to get them. We’ll be right here when we cast the spell.
“I’ll, uh… need you two to carry me,” Applejack said, staring over the edge at the sheer drop on the other side of the door. “You can do that, right?”
“Sure.” Rainbow gestured. “Get between us. You get one of her legs, Twilight. I got the other.”
They lifted, and together passed through the vortex into Discord’s realm beyond. The stone door slammed shut behind them with an air of finality.
Can’t think about that. We just need the Elements. I’m getting my Equestria back.
Nothing, not even Discord, could stop her now.