The door swung open in front of them, without coming off its hinges or spraying sparks or doing anything else it shouldn’t. But it wasn’t Discord on the other side.
Twilight’s mouth hung open, completely stunned by the one waiting for them. She was so overwhelmed that she wasn’t even the first one to speak.
“Fluttershy? How did you get here first?” Rainbow asked, raising an eyebrow. “Weren’t you searching the towers with Rarity?”
“I, um…” Her ears flattened, and she looked away from them. “You probably shouldn’t be here, Rainbow. Or…” She couldn’t even bring herself to look up at the rest of them. As soon as she’d even glanced at Twilight’s horn, she was looking away again. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “I shouldn’t say this, because he loves it when we have guests, but you should go. He isn’t nice to the ones who visit.”
“He.” Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Fluttershy, we left you ten minutes ago. Is time funny in here too?”
“Um…” She stepped to the side, whimpering. “I’m sorry, but I think you must be a little confused. I’ve never seen you before. Or…” She glanced towards Twilight again, but whatever she would’ve said vanished in a whimper of confusion. “Yeah.”
“Come on.” Rainbow strode in towards her, pushing Fluttershy out of the way so the rest of them could come inside. “Fluttershy, you’ve been with us for days. You didn’t forget their names already.”
Though Twilight had never seen where Discord lived, a single glance was all she needed to confirm she’d come to the right place. Holes in the tables, doors on the ceiling and stairs that led nowhere. Every rule of expectation and structure had been ignored, if not openly defied. In the air behind Fluttershy it looked like she’d been having tea, because the various parts were floating around inside.
Fluttershy wilted, retreating another few steps from Rainbow Dash and looking away. “I, uh… I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s good to see you again Rainbow, but we’ve, uh… been here a long time. Ever since I left for the Everfree. It’s been years.”
“Well that doesn’t make sense,” Applejack muttered. “How can there be…” Her eyes narrowed. “Rainbow, I think you ought to back away. I think we’ve got a changeling problem.”
Laughter echoed from upstairs, a voice that was entirely familiar to Twilight.
“Guess it was too much to hope that he wouldn’t be home.”
“She’s not a changeling!” Rainbow insisted, ignoring the voice. “Applejack, she was wearing the counterspell every time we saw her.”
“I know,” Applejack hissed. “So what does it say about this one? All by herself, not where we expect, not wearing any magic.”
“Oh.” Rainbow retreated. “Right.”
Discord appeared from the ceiling above them, walking down the steps as though he’d just come through from an upper floor that didn’t seem to entirely exist. Her friends stared at him with as little recognition as they had for anything else, but Twilight’s eyes narrowed.
“Discord,” she said. “Please tell me you remember what’s going on here. If anyone would…”
There was something in his eyes, though Twilight hadn’t ever been able to be certain about what this creature was feeling. Was that recognition, or just annoyance? “Twilight Sparkle,” he said. “I was wondering when you might pay me a visit. I’ve been keeping a seat warm for just such an occasion.” As he said it, the couch melted into a pile of molten lava, boiling away through the floor and leaving an opening to the void that waited beyond.
Twilight’s eyes started to water. He knew my name. He remembers me. If any creature in all of Equestria would, it would be the god of chaos.
Discord didn’t seem to expect her to stumble forward and embrace him, tears streaming silently down her face. He froze, looking down at her uncomprehending. “Now now,” he said, amusement gone from his voice. Twilight didn’t recognize that voice, though she found she didn’t care. “Don’t do that where Rainbow can see you. You’re ruining my image.”
“Excuse me,” Fluttershy said quietly. “Discord, you know her?”
“I did. Will do. Will have done.” He pushed her away, sticking Twilight to a seat on the ceiling. “Someone’s in timeline time-out. You can come down when you go back where you belong.”
“This is sweet and all,” Applejack said, glancing fearfully between Discord and Fluttershy. “But we can’t forget about our changeling problem. And if it isn’t too much trouble, do you think somepony could explain what’s going on?”
Discord reached down, shoving a large red apple into her mouth. “Just enjoy that, fruit horse. The adults are talking.”
Finally Twilight wiped away the last of her tears. Her voice still cracked uncertainly, but she didn’t care. Discord might not have been her best friend—but he was the closest thing she’d found since returning here. “Discord, you recognize what’s happened here, don’t you?” Her head was already starting to swim from being on the ceiling, but she could ignore it for now. “Somepony did tamper with the timeline, but it wasn’t me.”
Discord snapped his claws, and suddenly they were in his sitting room, surrounding the tea-table they’d seen through the open doorway. Each of them was wearing overwrought dresses, the kind of thing she’d seen in ancient paintings with fluffy white wigs and fabric thicker than a tent.
“Time betrays,” Discord said, his voice low and distant. “He shows a vision of Equestria where I’m welcome—forgiven. Where I’ve made… friends.” He struggled with this last, eyes on Fluttershy as he said it. “How?”
Twilight nodded towards her. “Mostly her. The rest of us helped, but Fluttershy was the first one to realize you needed a friend. It took us a little longer to come around.”
“I mean—who swam so far against the flow of time? Who’s snapped it, who left it screaming in agony? Even I have standards. Causality can’t be violated if nothing has a cause and its effects dissolve. They’re going to hear from my attorney.”
Twilight explained everything. She’d been doing this so often lately that she got better at it each time. It only took a few minutes.
She caught Discord up on what they’d achieved so far, and what they were missing to complete the spell. “So we’re here for the Elements,” she finished. “With all six of us wielding them, we should be able to send me back to fix the timeline.”
Discord sipped at an empty cup, which filled gradually with each sip he took. “There’s an easy and a hard part to your request.” He snapped one claw, and six lumps of rock appeared in the air around them, circling slowly. Twilight recognized them instantly—the Elements, in their original forms. “I don’t really have much use for paperweights. And let’s be honest with each other—there was never a chance of Nightmare Moon using these against me.” They fell one after another onto the ground behind them, somehow landing softly despite the hardwood.
Rainbow Dash looked like she wanted to cut her way out of the dress she was wearing, which was larger and fluffier than Twilight’s and Applejack’s combined. She twitched and squirmed every second, but was so overwhelmed she couldn’t even get up from her seat. “I think we’re… forgetting something,” she said, watching Fluttershy across the table with suspicion on her face. “There’s too many Fluttershys.”
“No,” Discord said. “I remember perfectly. I knew the instant I woke that my friend would be in danger in this hollow shell of an acausal anomaly. I brought her here, kept her safe. If you think I could be fooled by a changeling’s transformation, you don’t know me.”
“They don’t,” Twilight muttered weakly. “None of them remember the way things should be. I showed Applejack using a little magic left in the map, but that was it.”
“But that doesn’t answer the question,” Applejack insisted, finally managing to remove the apple-gag. It had taken her several minutes of constant chewing. “We saw Fluttershy wearing the disruption potion. The mud was still wet most of the times I saw her.”
“Oh yes.” Discord floated out of his chair, drifting upside-down towards her. “However could she possibly have fooled you? Certainly not an overreliance you’ve all developed on a single method for detecting them, that couldn’t be it at all. Certainly no changeling would be clever enough to replace your potion with ordinary mud. Or to wear it themselves to avoid suspicion. There’s no way they’d be capable of such intellectual gigantism.”
Discord didn’t sugarcoat, but that didn’t mean he was wrong. Changeling magic wouldn’t trick him, that was certain. If he said this was the real Fluttershy… “Then we need her,” she finished. “To save Equestria.”
“Me?” Fluttershy rose from her seat, the only one who knew exactly how to move in the oversized dress. “I’m sorry, but you must have a different pony in mind. I don’t know magic. I don’t fight anypony. I just wanted to go to the resistance to be left alone. And now that I’m with Discord, we’re alone.”
“We need you,” Rainbow said. “The spell won’t work without you. Come on, Fluttershy. I know you care about everypony else out there in the rest of Equestria. You’ve got a brother fighting. A family who has to depend on the army to keep Sombra from getting us. You wouldn’t stay locked up in here while the rest of the world fought for you.”
Discord shoved gently on Rainbow’s shoulder, pushing her through the air. She squealed in surprise, trying to catch herself—but with her wings bound inside the dress, all she could do was kick her legs in vain as she swung head-over-heels.
“This is the hard part,” Discord said. “I’m furious with whatever pony ruined a perfectly good timeline. But if undoing the damage would put Fluttershy in danger, I’m just not sure I can allow it.” He folded his arms, glaring down at Twilight. “I know you’re going to have some silly argument to make, that’s the way you are. But I’m not sure there’s anything you can say that will convince me to let you take Fluttershy away.”
“You could come too,” Twilight said. “Maybe with your help, we’d be able to take Equestria back even faster.”
He shook his head, settling back into his seat. A chair that was now made of dozens of overlapping, half-melted swords. “A promise is a promise,” he said. “I can’t leave my realm. But look on the bright side—you don’t have to either. No dummies-guide-to-dark-magic like Sombra is going to get in here. If you want ponies to be safe, just send them here.”
“You don’t have to stay,” Rainbow said, her voice rising and falling as she looked up and down. “Fluttershy, don’t listen to him! If he’s really your friend, I bet he’d let you go if you wanted.”
“Quiet.” Discord gestured, and the corset Rainbow was wearing tightened. Her shouting died into a series of struggled wheezes, coughing and spluttering. “Nopony asked you.”
“Stop,” Fluttershy said, folding her hooves and glaring up at Discord. “Let her go.”
Discord rolled his eyes, then snapped one claw. The tea-party along with their absurd costumes vanished, leaving them sitting on the side of an apparently gigantic sink swimming with fish. At least Rainbow dropped to the ground, breathing freely again.
“I don’t know what’s going on outside,” Fluttershy began. “I’ve enjoyed living with you, Discord. Even if you… should’ve treated your visitors a little nicer.” She reached out, settling a sympathetic wing over Rainbow’s shoulder. “But wouldn’t you rather make lots of friends, instead of just living with me?”
“Well…” He deflated. “If you leave, I can’t protect you. Equestria has become just as dangerous as anywhere I ever built. I have powerful magic, but I couldn’t protect you out there.”
“What about all the other ponies?” she asked.
“Not my problem,” he said. “They made this mess; they can clean it up.”
“It sounds like Starlight Glimmer made this,” Fluttershy said. “I don’t know who that is, but I know I want Equestria to be safe again.” She turned, meeting Twilight’s eyes. “All we have to do is take the Elements and cast a spell? It’s that easy?”
She nodded. “The map is in Ponyville, or… where Ponyville used to be. Once we get everypony together, we could be done in an hour.”
“See,” Fluttershy continued. “Not even that dangerous. We aren’t going into battle. I don’t have to fight Nightmare Moon.”
“You will if she figures out what you’re planning,” Discord said. “Not to mention the changeling impersonating you.”
“Can you tell me she’s wrong?” Fluttershy asked. “Can you say you don’t know who this pony is, and her story is made-up?”
“Of course!” Neon signs appeared all around her, flashing bright red. The word “liar” appeared in each one, so bright that she could feel the warmth on her coat. “I’ll tell you anything you want to hear, Fluttershy! She’s wrong! She’s so wrong!”
Fluttershy looked unimpressed. Her stare was enough to dismiss any last reservations Twilight might’ve had about this being the genuine Fluttershy. No changeling could use the power of the stare. “Are you telling me the truth?”
“No.” It all vanished in another flash. “I know her. I didn’t travel here from her Equestria, but I remember it. Or… I know I should remember it, so even though I don’t I do anyway.” A large stack of paperwork appeared beside him, with several different quills all scratching away. “I’m really going to throw the book at that pony.”
“Or we can fix it.” Fluttershy reached out, embracing Discord just as Twilight had done. But she had a way with creatures, a gentle kindness that Twilight could never imitate. “I’m sorry. I’ll come right back as soon as we’re finished.”
“You won’t,” Discord said, voice distant. “She’ll break causality all over again. This won’t happen. None of this will happen. But I’ll remember.” He held her for a long moment, returning the embrace. When he finally let go, Twilight could see he wasn’t immune to the tears.
“We’ll take good care of her,” Twilight promised. “With all six of us together, there’s no problem we can’t solve. You’ll see.”
“I better.” Discord’s voice dropped low, dangerous. “Because no god or demon in this world or the world to come will quell the nightmare that descends on Equestria if my friend is hurt.”
They landed abruptly, appearing outside the same menacing stone doors they’d entered. Twilight levitated the Elements along beside them, since they had nothing to carry them with.
“So what do we do about the imposter?” Applejack asked, once her hooves were firmly on the stone again. “We can’t just keep pretending.”
“It’s amazing she made it this far,” Rainbow muttered. “Her mud trick even fooled the Lunar Guard. I would’ve expected better security here.”
Fluttershy shrugged. “When I told Discord that I didn’t know how to fight, I… I was being honest about that. I don’t know if I’ll be helpful.”
“You don’t have to be,” Twilight said. “Rainbow fought a whole army of changelings, and we did alright. This is just one, in a whole castle. We just have to be smart about it. I’ve got a plan…”
It took a little while to prepare—partially because it didn’t involve getting the help of the royal guard. Twilight still wasn’t sure she trusted them. With a real Fluttershy present and no confirmation yet, she couldn’t take the risk that they might do something stupid. If any of her friends died, the master plan that Twilight had nearly accomplished would come crashing down around her hooves.
“They should be here any second,” Applejack muttered. They were at the base of the castle steps, leading up to the rebuilt interior. Twilight could still appreciate the excellent work that Nightmare Moon’s engineers had done rebuilding everything, even if she wasn’t sold on the job she’d done as a ruler. This castle was every bit as incredible as its ruins had once suggested.
Ponies passed them moving up and down the stairs, a few glaring at them in annoyance. But none dared to question, not when Twilight was here.
Pinkie arrived first, emerging from the kitchens with a little frosting on her face and flour dusting her mane. “Oh, there you are!” She looked between the three of them. “Any luck?”
Rainbow shook her head. “No luck. But we got Twilight back!” Applejack looked to be in physical pain at the lie, though she didn’t say anything. But things would’ve looked even more suspicious if she hadn’t been there.
“I’ll wait until we get everypony else together,” Twilight said. “Then explain what happened.” She adjusted the saddlebags she was wearing—their contents weren’t exactly light. But considering she’d been wearing travel gear for a week on-and-off, she didn’t really stand out.
Fluttershy made her way down the stairs a few minutes later, her eyes shifting nervously with every step. Now that Twilight watched her, she could see the calculation in those gestures. I wonder how many other infiltrators are hiding in New Dawn. Maybe that’s why they get attacked so often.
“Fluttershy!” Rainbow flew up into the air in a wide arc, landing beside her before she even made it to the bottom. “Where’s Rarity?”
She shook her head. “I, umm… we got turned around up there, and I think she went looking another direction. There are so many hallways up there.”
Buck. Twilight had considered several different contingencies, but she hadn’t thought about the most obvious way for a changeling to complicate them all: a hostage.
“So we’ve gone from searching for one pony to trying to find another,” Applejack said, a little annoyed. “That isn’t great. Is it, Twilight?”
You’re really bad at this.
“Where did you see her last?” Twilight asked, crossing the distance between them in a few quick strides. “This is her castle. She wouldn’t just get lost.”
“I, umm…” Fluttershy avoided her eyes, in a way that probably would’ve prompted Twilight to give her a little space. But now that she knew what she was dealing with, Twilight wouldn’t budge. She just leaned in a little closer, forcing her to meet her eyes. “Take us back there,” she said, keeping her voice calm. “We’ll search together.”
Did Fluttershy glance past her at the dozen or so royal guards in the room with them before nodding? Or was that Twilight’s imagination?
She nodded. “Y-yeah. That’s a good idea. She must still be up there.”
Twilight followed right behind her, giving Applejack a meaningful glance as she went. She would have to hope the pony got the message without needing to be instructed.
They climbed together through the castle, with some members of the group lagging behind and Twilight directly behind Faux-tershy. There was little security so long as they stayed away from Nightmare’s own quarters and the secure areas around it—getting into the castle itself was the security.
Twilight didn’t recognize most of the areas they visited—the tower Fluttershy took them to hadn’t survived to modern day.
“You can see there’s a few different ways up here,” Fluttershy said, gesturing at the stairwells. “I think I should take Applejack, and maybe Pinkie and Rainbow, and—”
Twilight cleared her throat. “Next to Rarity, I know the castle best,” she said. “I’ll go with you, Fluttershy. Everypony else can split up. And check the other direction.”
“Oh.” Fluttershy shifted uncomfortably. “What do you ponies think? Rainbow?”
“Makes sense to me,” she said, glancing to Applejack, then back again. “We’ll probably leave one pony here to catch anypony who leaves the tower. That way we don’t wander back and forth past each other.”
“Okay.” Fluttershy set off up the tower, taking each step reluctantly at first. Twilight followed beside her, keeping her feelings as neutral as she could. Apparently her plan was working, because the imposter hadn’t reacted to her yet.
The tower was tight, so tight that the two of them couldn’t even climb abreast. Fluttershy took the lead, and soon all Twilight could see was an occasional flash of her tail as they climbed. They passed empty doorways on either side, locked passages, and an occasional walkway out onto the castle walls. But otherwise there were few exits.
“You thought Nightmare Moon would take me up here?” Twilight called up the stairs, hopefully not loud enough that everypony in the castle would hear. “I don’t know how much sense that makes.”
“Rarity seemed to know where she was going,” Fluttershy said from up ahead, hurrying so fast that Twilight didn’t quite catch up with her. She’d never seen the pegasus move so quickly. “Something about a special prison at the top she used for dangerous prisoners. This was the last place we searched together.”
Then Twilight reached the top of the tower, and a spacious landing. The stairs emerged onto a sizeable room at what had to be the top of the tower, though the windows were high overhead and only permitted a little moonlight. She nearly smacked into Fluttershy, who seemed to be waiting for her to go inside. “Why don’t you go in first?” Fluttershy asked. “She knows you better.”
“Into a prison for dangerous ponies?” Twilight raised an eyebrow. “You could’ve told me it was a storage room or something. Maybe she got lost in the boxes? That would’ve been more plausible.”
In answer, Twilight smacked Fluttershy with a thin glass container filled with mud, splattering it over her back and wings. The other thing she’d been carrying with them the whole time.
This time, the magic did something. Instead of just getting a little muddy, the pony beside her changed.
It looked like an uncomfortable process, with bits of green light flickering and burning in brief gouts of flame. But instead of getting smaller, the changeling that emerged grew taller than Twilight, rising over her by a full head. Her legs became thin and lengthy, even more stretched than Fluttershy usually looked.
Twilight backed away, eyes wide with horror—and recognition. This wasn’t just an ordinary changeling, which she could easily defeat. This was Queen Chrysalis herself, in Nightmare Moon’s own castle. At the top of the tallest tower, completely alone.
Twilight glanced desperately to the stairs, but so far there was no sign of her friends to come to her rescue. She had the Elements, but without all six of them together…
“What was it you did to your emotions?” the changeling queen asked, pacing slowly around her. Was that respect on her face? “I’ve never been fooled by a pony before. I should’ve realized I was discovered.”
“Something I learned in another life,” Twilight answered, eyes narrowing. “What did you do with Rarity?”
“I didn’t lie about that,” the changeling said, nodding towards the door. “Go in and join her. I’m sure she’s eager for the company.”
“So you can replace her,” Twilight guessed. “But why not do it already?”
She sighed, wings buzzing to dislodge as much of the mud as she could. “That pony never would’ve kept herself dirty. The tribal primitives undermine their security with their fear.” Her horn glowed green, aiming at Twilight. “You can’t stop me, Alicorn. I’ve been watching you. Measuring your power. Perhaps you would’ve been a danger to me once, but that time is over. The swarm is massive, and our lands are vast. The love we harvest gives me a strength you can’t imagine.”
“Maybe if she were alone,” said a voice from the stairs behind her. Rainbow was the first to emerge, followed by all of the others in turn. Even Fluttershy, who Applejack had correctly gone to retrieve. “Too bad she’s not.”
“You shouldn’t have hurt our friend,” Pinkie said. “I mean, we probably still would’ve fought you. You are leading an evil invasion of Equestria and feeding on everypony you capture until they wither away to empty husks. But still!”
Chrysalis laughed, eyes narrowing as her horn began to glow brighter. “Five of you against me,” she said. “Let’s see how well that goes.”