The old stallion stared at the sky. He knew he ought not to. He knew he had better things to do, like reaching his home as soon as possible, or looking around the forest one last time, in hope that there would still be something to eat. Looking at the sky was pointless these days. It was always the same, an ever-swirling mass of clouds and mist, with Moon and Sun stuck at opposite ends of the horizon, their lights equally fain, as if they were there only to taunt the ponyfolk with visions of their quiet, peaceful past. Which they probably were.
Still, every once in a while, the sky cleared, just for a few minutes. Just enough to reveal the bizarre and impossible lights created as Night and Day collided. They were almost beautiful, like a sunset and sunrise together.
The unicorn remembered the days before. Many today were too young to remember the old times, when peace was fresh, and hope existed that ponies could live in this world, free of conflict and danger. He remembered a time where his biggest troubles were his neighbors, his books, his nightly contributions to raising the Moon, and that pesky little pegasus who insisted on helping him out every day. Back in those days the unbreakable vessel spell he’d created around his house with his magic would be used for a much more benign purpose, not as a shield against danger, but to supply water to the cloud city above ; even the city itself was a testament to peace: an ancient, terrible fortress now dedicated to controlling the weather all across Equestria.
He started walking again. It was best not to tempt one’s fate by staying outside too long. Few did, and fewer still wandered away fom the city and into his lonely part of the lowlands. What travelers he had encountered over the months all looked and sounded the same: sad, miserable ponies, driven out of their community by some unexplained disaster, or by the crazy whim of the Chancellor. Houses rising out of the ground or coins falling out of the sky were the least of it these days; one family he’d met spoke of a window in their house that one day started looking out over a nebula in space, instead of the back yard… one of the foals had opened it, and ‘twas but a miracle that they had not been sucked out that day.
"Madness, brought into reality," he thought as he passed the last stretch of the field before the bridge to his house. This particular part of the land had been turned pitch-black, as if an endless abyss was opening up under the hooves of anypony foolish enough to cross it. The unicorn knew better, however. It was but a cheap illusion, meant to keep others away from the relative safety of his homestead. As he reached the bridge (once serving as a crossing over the stream, now merely an outcropping of assembled stones, rising from the murky blackness of the field), an all-too-familiar voice came out from under it.
“Hello, again, Twister? And how are you feeling this fine… whatever it is?” The creature rose from beneath the bridge, its abstruse geometry ignoring the fact that it had no room under it.
“Disappointed, indeed, that thou hast not found a finer residence that the underside of that bridge. One as powerful as this is deserving of greater statute. What business brings thy lordship to these parts?”
“Curiosity, in fact. I find myself, old unicorn, in a belwiderment: how does one as frail as you manage to stay alive out here, all alone, and so far from the life-nurturing qualities of yonder blessed city,” it said, as a grey claw pointed towards the distant buildings of Stalliongrad.
“Pay no mind to the troubles of an old stallion, fine master, for they will soon trouble him no longer. It just so happens that my hut hath prodigious stores of both food and water, saved up in the event of an emergency.”
The dragon landed, extending its wings to their full length. For any other being this would have been a warning and display of power. This one, though, was but stretching.
“We could exchange wit for the remainder of the day, Spiral, and we both know you’re lying, but the truth remains that neither the teafloods nor the grass avalanches reach this far into the lowlands. Any stores you might have had are long gone, so if I didn’t know any better I’d suspect you’re hiding something… or somepony?”
“Oh, I doubt an old foal like me could keep much secret from your grace,” replied the stallion. The creature was visibly losing his patience; he wasn’t used, it seems, to not getting what he wanted very quickly.
“You know full well that I could squeeze the truth right out of you,” he started, before quickly resorting back to his usual amused calm, “but then again, I’m not one to force ponies to do things they don’t want.”
He landed, walking in circles around the pony. “It’s just that there have been these rumors, y’see, of new faces showing up in town. Unicorns, pegasi, physicians, troublemakers. Royalty, even.” He smiled, but the stallion wouldn't let his alarm show just yet. “Now, you know I’m always one for making new friends, and if some ponies did get out of the palace… well, I’d love to meet them.”
“Who tells these rumors, milord? They sound like nothin’ but hot air to my ear.”
The dragon waved his arm, and two ponies flashed into being next to the old stallion. “Little birds. Fan-mail. Your pegasus friends, as it happens, Captain Cheval and Whatshermane. Surely I ought to trust them, right?”
The pony stared in shock, before feeling a tingle in his horn. The wards he’d cast upon himself before leaving safety were alerting him of something. He looked closer at the two pegasi who stood, unmoving and quiet next to him. No sooner did he look into their eyes than he saw it, a faint bluish reflection under the right light.
“You’ve been lied to, lord. These are but changelings. I reckon the swarms have started moving since the ponyfolk left the countryside in the north,” he said, as the ponies snorted. Changelings weren’t all that common around these parts, but when some did appear it was usually in the service of some higher power. And usually, the ponies they replaced were removed-
“Where are they?” the stallion demanded, lifting one of the imposters into the air. “So help me, tell me what’s become of my friends!”
The dragon waved his arms again, and the impostors vanished, only to reappear by his side. “Calm down, Whirlpool! Your friends are safe.” He turned to the changelings, stroking their muzzles. “These two no-goods asked if I might allow them to stay in town for a few weeks, and since you ponies aren’t very fond of their kind, a replacement had to be enacted. You know I can’t ever ignore a pony in need.
“But let’s not get sidetracked. It’s fairly important that you tell me if you see these ‘royal faces’ around your part of the land. I’d be very disappointed if I were to find out you’ve been holding secrets from me. I might even decide I like these two better than your ponyfriends.”
He turned to the stallion, looking genuinely threatening this time. “Don’t rattle my cage, Gandalf. I’m a very sensitive little bird,” he hissed, and vanished, along with his minions.
“Oh, imagine if anypony dared…” said the old unicorn, as he walked to his shielded house.
The TARDIS hum was omnipresent. To Décor it felt almost hypnotic, as if the buzzing and humming of this… machine was getting into her head, subtly talking to her. No wonder these two are unhinged, she thought, if they spent so long in this thing.
The Doctor’s wild tinkering with his console interrupted this train of thought, however. He was more or less dancing around the central column, visibly having trouble with controls that were designed for anything but pony hooves.
“This is going to take a while,” he said to… whoever was listening, she supposed. The pegasus mare Ditzy was nowhere to be seen. Are there more rooms in this thing?
“Whatever that lunatic did to the controls, I’m going to have to use a bypass route to track down the letters.”
“You said he gave them to himself in the past,” Décor said. “Why would he do that, if it’s so dangerous? How would you even know,” she demanded.
“It’s obvious. Think about it, who else would he trust with the linchpin to his whole plan, if not himself?”
“I don’t know,” she retorted, “but surely there’s somepony. Another dragon, perhaps. It would be a lot less complicated.”
“I’ve met other dragons, milady, and even the crazy ones aren’t that crazy. Besides, if the legends are true, ‘complicated and messy’ is what Discord lives for,” replied the stallion from beneath his console. He had begun taking apart some of the paelling, apparently searching for something.
“Oh, come now… He must have friends, everypony has somepony-”
At this, the Doctor stopped his search and came out from under the wires. “Friends? Have you met this guy,” he asked, morbidly amused. “Look, Décor, if you’re going to second-guess me, at least do it with a degree of pertinence... And do it while wearing something decent,” he continued, ignoring her offended look. “Wardrobe’s down that way,” he pointed at a tunnel behind him, “sixth hall of the left, then down the stairs, up the stairs and left past the zoo. Don’t feed the bear, it’s not a bear,” he instructed, returning to his search. “Come back when you’ve picked something nice!”
Gritting her teeth and supressing a tantrum, the royal aide trotted down the indicated path without another word. Not that accusative silence would mean anything to the Doctor, but in his own scandalizing way he was right, she thought; her clothes were in a state.
A few minutes later, the Doctor emerged, grease-covered and cursing from beneath the console. Ditzy Doo was there next to it, at least one eye looking at him. “Whatcha lookin’ for?”
“The spare Sonic. I have one under the console to keep the contacts warm, but now it’s gone. I don’t get it, Discord didn’t even look beneath the panels, how could he have taken it!”
“Will the Tardis be okay without it?”
“What? Yeah, I just like the contacts warm ‘cause they give off the most delightful smell of popcorn…”
Ditzy didn’t bother asking, focusing instead on the practical: “Can’t you make a new one?”
“The fabricator will take at least twelve hours to print it, and we should move a bit faster than that. Every moment we tarry that time horizon’s catching up with us.”
“Ok, so are you going to tell me what’s a -”
“GYAAAAAAAAAAHHH!!!”, came the bone-chilling cry of a distressed mare, freezing Ditzy’s question on her lips.
The Doctor barely reacted, turning to the hallway behind him: “I said LEFT past the zoo, Décor! Dammit, it’s not that hard.” He turned to his companion. “Help her, will you? I sent her to get some new clothes. If the bear’s got her, tickle his right foot.”
Remembering her own experience with the beast, Ditzy zoomed past him and down the hall.
A quiet half an hour later, the two mares returned. The Doctor noted that Décor’s purple-indigo coat was a few shades paler (on account of her recent encounter, no doubt), but her mane was now bound in a somewhat respectable, curly coiffure. Around her neck he noted a very familiar combination of red tie and gray cravat.
“Having fun with my old clothes, Madam Décor?”
“You used to wear these?” she asked. “Are you colorblind?”
“Oh, I certainly used to… eight-and-a-half lifetimes ago, in fact.”
“Doctor,” said Ditzy, “have you figured out where we’re going yet?”
“Yes, actually!” The Time Lord jumped from his platform, and started pacing around the room. “The past. The distant past of Equestria, before the rule of Princess Galandri- Celestia, I mean.
“Discord was probably in charge back then. It’s a wonder you know so little about him, there are tales and whispers about this being in every culture I’ve come across.”
“You mentioned legends… Do you know any of them?” asked Décor.
“Well, the word ‘Discord’ means different things to different species, in fact,” like the word ‘Doctor’, he thought to himself. “For ponies it is a name which brings with it a lack of harmony. For humans it means pretty much the same, but it also applies to music, and discussion. For the Romans it was a goddess, while for the Khalai and the Nerazim, it is a part of their history. For the Valtino it is sinonymous with a letter of their alphabet, and so on.
“Usually there’s mention of a group of beings, a Pantheon of sorts, working to disrupt the lives of lesser creatures for their own amusement or sustenance, and one alone could change the fate of entire worlds…”
“Yes, but how does any of this help us?”
“Help us? It doesn’t, you just asked me if I knew any stories. We’ve landed, by the way,” anmswered the Doctor, a ‘ding’ on the console punctuating his statement. Décor’s teeth were grinding.
“Before we leave, Ditzy, would you please brief our new friend on how we do things in this outfit?”
Ditzy sighed, and turned to the mare: “We do what we’re told and if he lies to us or puts us in mortal danger we’re never cross, since it’s obviously for a good reason.”
“Oh I don’t see how I could be any angrier with him.”
“He’s not so bad, once you realise he’s still a little foal inside,” smiled Ditzy.
"That’s what I like to hear! Awright, then, off we go!" declared the Doctor, opening the door and stepping-
"LOOK OUT!" cried Ditzy, grabbing him by the neck and pulling him back just before he tumbled through the grayish cloudscape beneath.
"Well I certainly wasn't prepared for this..." he said.
"Watch where you're going you dodo! I don't want a repeat of the S'uthlam Tower Job!"
"You are never going to let that go, are you? I fell, it happens!"
"You fell from a space elevator! That doesn't happen to normal ponies. I had to catch your fat rump."
"Well I'm not a 'normal pony', and it's not my fault that the place had higher gravity!"
"I'm sorry," interjected Decor, "S'uthlam? Is this a planet you visited?"
"A bunny planet," began Ditzy. But before she could recount a brave, two-hooved tale of a super-advanced world, immensely overpopulated by very clever rabbits, of the huge bear Harryland Tuft and his enormous ship, and of her saving the Doctor from de-orbiting himself, the Time Lord intervened:
"A tale for another time, certainly," he said as he peeked out the door, more cautiously this time. "We appear to be in a Pegasus cloud-city."
"Cloudsdale?" asked Ditzy, suddenly wondering what fate had befell her home under Discord.
"I don't know. According to the TARDIS, we're over a thousand years into the past. I don't think Cloudsdale was-"
"Cloudstantinople, then," intervened Decor, drawing bewildered stares. She stammered. "Uh... Cloudsdale is a relatively new city, certainly not old enough to exists here." The stares didn't go away. "This is basic history, you two. Somepony has to know this stuff!" She joined the Doctor at the door, looking out over the vast expanse of countless vapor-masonry buildings. They were different from Cloudsdale's; darker, as if built from storm clouds and bad weather. They had fewer open spaces inbetween and were generally taller buildings with pointed domes. The graceful arches and dazzling rainbows of Cloudsdale were missing as well. In their stead huge, opressive towers dominated the city's skyline; the ship had landed in the balcony of one of them.
"The fortress-city of Cloudstantinople was built before the founding of Equestria," Decor began, "... as part of an effort to defend against the massive dragon migrations of the time. When the tribes made peace and began to settle in the new land, the fortress was re-purposed to weather stewardship". She pointed to one of the neighboring towers; around the neck beneath the spherical cupola at the top, four massive rings of black cloud could be seen, ominously rumbling and twisting. "The towers are for observation, but they also act as weapons that channel and direct lightning at targets. It was said that an entire flight could be struck down with the strength of a thousand storms if it threatened the city". An icy shudder touched her spine. "Terrible weapons, from a more... uncivilized age."
"What happened to it?" asked Ditzy.
"Some legends say that a demon destroyed it, or claimed it as its own," Décor answered. "Another story persists that it was shattered and brought down by Nightmare Moon herself, to impress her might upon the ponies below, or to prevent it from being used against her."
She looked out across the vista below, raising an eyebrow. "… but most likely it was abandoned and fell apart over time. That seems to be the case, certainly. I don't see any activity down there. There should be hundreds of Pegasi in the air, at least."
“Why did the TARDIS bring us here? Is this where the letters are,” asked Ditzy.
“Good question. Let’s ask,” said the stallion, trotting over to the console and interrogating the controls. “Turns out this is one place that Discord landed her. And it’s where he tossed the things he stole. But if his past self found them, he wouldn’t have left them here. I reckon he’d try to dispose of the letters at least.”
He twisted a few dials and took a bizzare surfboard from underneath the console, striking it with a mallet a few times. “The extrapolator ought to give us a forcefield wide enough to sit on and look around. I’m certainly excited, aren’t you?” Without waiting for an answer, he once again threw himself out the door.
To nopony’s surprise, however, this time he stood firmly on the cloud layer, suspended in the air as if by an invisible pane of glass. “Come on out, Décor, it’s perfectly safe.” He even jumped up-and-down a bit to prove his point.
Ditzy and Décor walked out of the blue box. The earth-mare half-expected to tumble down into the mists below, but she did not. Perhaps this Doctor wasn’t as scatterbrained as she thought.
“If this is indeed the time before Princess Celestia’s reign, I can see why he’d use a deserted cloud city to hide the letters,” said the Doctor as he locked the ship’s door and trotted away to explore.
“Yeah. Nopony around to interfere…”
Décor trailed off, as her ears caught a noise coming from behind her.
“Did you hear something?”
“What? No. C’mon Décor, stop being a scaredyfilly,” said Ditzy, as she cast herself from the tower, scouting around. The Doctor, excited as always, was looking over the city panorama from close to the edge of the tower.
Were these ponies deaf? The noise was there for all to hear. A clicking, hissing sound that sounded like nothing one would encounter in a cloud city, no matter how ancient. It seemed to come from behind the TARDIS, from somewhere inside the tower axis. Décor turned the corner and looked down the small corridor, curious to see what arcane source might produce such an unearthly noise…
“Do you think Discord is around here?” she asked, as she returned to the balcony.
There was no answer. She turned to the Time Lord, who stood motionless, still looking across the city panorama from the tower edge. Ditzy Doo was in front of him him, frozen mid-flight, as if someone had photographed the entire scene.
“What… happened? Hello?” she demanded, trotting over to the stallion. “Why won’t you-”
“Answer?” echoed Discord’s voice. “He can’t hear you, of course. Nopony can.”
Décor tried hard to keep her calm. Don’t freak out, darn you! If you can stay calm in the midst of Gala disasters, you can stay calm before Chaos itself! She looked around. The demon was nowhere to be seen, and beside her two companions the tower balcony was deserted. She still felt like she was forgetting something though.
“So, you’ve, what? Stopped time? For everypony but me? That’s nice. But why?”
“It is nice of me, isn’t it? I’m such a gracious host.” There was still no draconequus to be seen. “I just wanted to get a good look at you three. I’ve been waiting for you for a while now, and was starting to think you wouldn’t show.”
“No, I meant why me? Why can I still move around?”
There was a pause. It felt almost like hesitation. “No reason. I’d just have hated to simply examine the lot of you in silence.”
“Well, you can look at us all you want. But I think we should get look at you!”
“No, I can’t let you do that. I have a terrible morning face this fine… whatever it is.”
Décor looked out, to the sky in fron of her. It certainly didn’t look like morning. Or midday. The light was dim, and the sky, what parts were visible, changed in color from the red of twilight to the blue of day and the deep violet of night, depending on where one looked . The thick clouds around the city obscured any view of the sun, or moon, or the stars.
“You’ve removed day and night entirely…”
“No! Why would I do that? They just packed up and left.”
Décor sighed. “How did you know we’d be coming?”
“Fan-mail,” answered Discord. “I got a great big bag of it a while ago.” Décor heard the rustilng of paper echo. “’Dear Discord, please be aware that a bunch of ponies from the future may be dropping in on you any time now. Be sure to welcome them warmly.’ I'm pretty excited, I've never received letters from my future before,” he said giddily. There was more rustling. “Then there’s some bits about the timeline, the end of civilization, some unicorns, abox of letters, and a PS saying I should ‘read the enclosed manual. Sincerely, FUTURE!Discord’… What do you suppose that means?”
“I sincerely have no idea. Maybe you should ask the Doctor, there. He seems to understand what’s happening better than I do.”
“Oh! So that’s the Doctor! You know, I’ve heard of him! He’s got a bit of a reputation across the Abstract-”
“Like you, I hear,” she interjected.
“I don’t like to brag… Still it’s surprising. I mean, he’s no Spirit of Disharmony, he’s so tiny. Tiny little man, trying his best to help everyone. Sometimes he even succeeds.”
“I certainly hope so.”
“And other times he doesn’t. You should ask him about it sometimes. The Time War, Elysium, Utopia. Ask him about those. On the way down.”
Décor’s eyes widened. Too late did she realize what he meant, and less than a second later she heard the sound of snapping claws. Then she was falling.
It came without warning. One moment the Doctor was looking across the desolate, yet imposing sights of Cloudstantinople, the next he was plummeting through the sculpted cloudscape like a rock. A few seconds later he started screaming.
Falling through a cloud city was a strange experience. There was no sight of the ground just yet. Things that looked solid and material turned to vapor as you struck them, doing nothing to break the terrible fall towards your doom. The Doctor noted this as he attempted to maneuver himself, to look back in the direction from where he’d fallen.
A small distance away, Décor was in freefall with him. She’d been screaming as well, but not for as long as he’d expected. Some distance above them, the pale dot that was Ditzy Doo was desperately trying to gan speed and reach them. Aside from these facts, the Doctor noted that the TARDIS itself was not falling as well. His telepathinc link confirmed that it was still where it had landed… already a long way above.
By the time Ditzy’s nose was touching his wildly-flapping tie, the ground beneath was faintly visible, a vast, very solid expanse of lowland, much of it textured in either pitch black or pikish plaid.
“Doctor, grab my hoof!” cried the mare as she attempted a rescue. “Now!”
“What! No! Go get Décor!” he told her, as he pulled away.
“Get her now! You can’t carry us both!”
“No! I can’t leave-”
“DO IT NOW!” he shouted, and the mare flinched. A small part of him noted the tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry,” he told her. “Please help her! Please!”. Another part of him noted that even as a pony, he could still scare others without realising it.
Ditzy moved away from him, grabbing Décor’s hooves and speeding with her to the ground, faster than he’d ever seen her fly. Probably thinking she can come catch me before I hit home. It was a nice to see that even after all this time, he still chose his companions well. A good thought to think, as the a pitch-black piece of lowland raced towards him, its only feature a strange lime-green circle. If I do regenerate, it’ll be interesting to see what sort of geography made that formation.
That was a big if.
“Now then,” he said to himself, smiling bitterly. “The Fall of the Eleventh.”
Author's note: this isn't a cliffhanger, right? Nopony's hanging off of anything.
As always, please leave a comment and a rating. Leave ALL the comments, if you can!
Also, I'm thinking of having a trailer for the next chapter, like any self-respecting Dr. Who serial should. What do you think?