96 HOURS REMAIN
Breakfast the next morning was an odd affair in the Doo household. Naturally, both Ditzy and Dinky had numerous questions they wished the stallion would answer. Paired with the fact that the "Doctor," as he called himself, had made a strange and miraculous overnight recovery. Well, sort of a recovery, as when Dinky went to go check on the bandages, the manticore sting on his side had taken on an odd blackish-purple tinge. Whatever it was, it didn't look healthy.
The stallion managed to limp down to the dining room by himself, much to the relief of Dinky. Self-levitation was far from easy; she'd have to start lifting something like train cars if she wanted to bulk up her telekinesis to that sort of level.
Breakfast was a simple meal of oatmeal and poignant stares. The Doctor did an admirable job of paying no notice to the wall-drilling, face-melting looks he was receiving. (Dinky's was slightly better, as she was capable of focusing both eyes on the same spot.)
He blinked innocent blue eyes as he met their collective gaze. "What?"
Dinky initiated the interrogation. "That thing last night... What was it?"
"A morphling," the Doctor replied. "It's a cousin of the changeling. Only instead of just impersonating somepony and taking their emotions, morphlings can drain a pony of their free will, of their will to live. Essentially, if that parasite-" the sepia stallion spat out the word, "-had stayed here any longer, you'd become little more than slaves to it."
Ditzy flinched as she realized she had almost caused her own downfall. "Why didn't I know?" she asked softly. "They are ways to identify shape-changers. Why didn't I try them?" she buried her face in her hooves.
The stallion shrugged simply. "You couldn't have known. While changelings adapted a carapace to protect their innards, the morphlings retained an incredible degree of their shape-shifting powers, which the changelings lost. Simply put, it's nearly impossible to break a morphling's disguise."
"But you did," Ditzy persisted. "You knew what Pawn was, and you'd only seen him for maybe a minute."
The Doctor's gaze softened. "There's no way you could have known. I'm different. I've been fighting things like him and worse for a long, long time. You haven't had the opportunity to learn about such creatures."
Dinky decided it was her turn. "Iodine. Why?"
The stallion beamed, pleased at the question. "Well, you see, a good portion of a morphling's body is water. Iodine is a salt, and well, you know how salt binds well with water. Besides, iodine was the only thing I had on hoof."
Dinky continued her line of questioning. "How'd you know to use that?"
The stallion shrugged. "Like I said, I've dealt with morphlings before."
The filly narrowed her eyes. "You're not from around here, are you?"
The Doctor shook his head emphatically. "No. Definitely not. In fact, you could say that I'm out of this world."
Mother and daughter alike took a moment to facehoof at the terrible joke before Dinky went on. "You're an alien." she said flatly, no question asked.
"Yup," came the reply. "Gallopfreyan, to be exact."
The Doctor either didn't notice the thunderstruck looks he was receiving, or he was an expert at ignoring them. He flipped open to the next page of the newspaper he was reading and scanned it intensely, searching for something the other two ponies had no clue about.
"There." he pointed to a small article near the back of the paper. The title read, STRANGE GLOWCAP BLIGHT AFFLICTS PONYVILLE. "See? Glowcaps, the only mushroom species toxic to him, and it decides to just go and die off, when it had been flourishing for years!"
Ditzy and Dinky gave him a curious look. "Who's him?" Ditzy asked.
"The Shadowed One," the Doctor said dramatically, obviously expecting a reaction. When he didn't get it, his face fell slightly. "You know, evil incarnate? The living creature of darkness? The one who tainted Sombra, causing him to turn to the er, dark side?"
More blank looks.
"Honestly," the Doctor sighed, "Doesn't anypony read ancient legends any more? The Shadowed One is a pony-like creature created by a dark wizard that is every evil thought known to ponykind in one malicious, twisted package."
Both mother and foal were stunned. "W-well," Dinky stammered, "Wouldn't we be able to see him coming?"
The stallion sighed. "That's the thing. The Shadowed One is a clever creature. It plots and connives- it rarely if ever comes out into the open before its plan is complete. It is incredibly subtle, and most are unaware of the patterns it creates until it is far too late."
Dinky wasn't entirely convinced. "How do you know he's coming? It could be nothing more than a coincidence."
The Doctor nodded, expecting this question. "Fair point. But here's another thing- the fireflies are vanishing. Don't you wonder why it's summer and you have yet to see one? I'd also be willing to bet your dreams are troubled- another sure sign that the Shadowed One's presence is here."
Ditzy swallowed, protective instincts towards her daughter rising to the surface. "So what do we do?"
The stallion shrugged, a downcast expression on his face. "Run. Stay. It doesn't matter. If the Shadowed One isn't stopped, it won't matter. He doesn't like it when his prey escapes."
Ditzy's eyes narrowed into a fierce expression. Nopony was going to hurt her precious daughter. "Then we fight."
The Doctor nodded. "That's what I tried to do. He knows who I am and what I can do, and he fears me. Unfortunately, I was rudely interrupted during our confrontation by a manticore, and he escaped. I need to get back to the TARDIS- that's my ship- so I can see exactly what the venom's done to me. Hm, I guess I could always use... no, not a clue as to where I left it.."
"What can I do?" Ditzy asked, desperate to find some way to help.
"Buy glowsticks, torches -you call 'em flashlights- pretty much anything that produces light. Light is good; burns the stupid twit. Illumi dust, Glowstone powder, mix those in water and then you can throw the liquid at him. Not sure how well the light-burn effect will work, but it's better than nothing."
Ditzy Doo nodded shakily. "Okay. I need to get going. If there's anything else that can help, tell me. I want to have a fighting chance at this Shadowed guy."
The Doctor smiled in a reassuring manner. "Don't worry. I'm not going to let anything happen to you and all of Ponyville. I promise."
It was the Doctor's idea to go out and become acquainted with the lovely townsponies of Ponyville. After Ditzy Doo had flown off to her job as a mailmare, Dinky had agreed to show the Doctor around Ponyville. He had been particularly insistent, muttering about finding something called a "sonic screwdriver."
They had barely just trotted out of the house (well, the Doctor kinda limped) when Scootaloo came buzzing up on her scooter, Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle in the passenger cart.
"Is it true?!" the orange pegasus blurted out. "Did you really find a chaneling?!"
Dinky rolled her eyes. "No, he's not a changeling, silly. He just has some sort of heart condition."
"Probably because I have two of 'em," the stallion in question muttered quietly.
Unfortunately, it was not quiet enough to keep Sweetie Belle from hearing him. "So, what are you? An alien?"
The Doctor nodded. "Sort of. I'm actually-"
He was cut off as the three founders of the Cutie Mark Crusaders oohed in three-part harmony.
"So do ya come from Mars?" Apple Bloom gasped, excited at the possibility of meeting a real live martian!
"Uh, no, but-"
"Do you fight space stallions?" Scootaloo mimed throwing a few punches and kicks.
"On occasion, thought not-"
"Are you here to invade Equestria?!" Sweetie Belle whimpered, envisioning an apocalyptic war.
"No! Why would you-"
"Where's your laser gun?" Scootaloo peered around him, as if searching for the high-tech device.
"Actually, I carry-"
"Where's your space ship?" Apple Bloom asked, pondering the merits of the Cutie Mark Crusader UFO Builders.
"It's in the-"
"Have you been to the moon? Did you see Princess Luna there?" Sweetie Bell squawked.
Three bands of citrine magic encircled three small muzzles. "Shush," Dinky commanded. "Let him talk."
"You know what? Forget it," the Doctor said dryly. "It doesn't really matter anyways."
Three small faces fell, disappointment in their eyes. "Awww!"
Two of them turned to disembark, but Sweetie Belle drew one hoof so it rested between her eyes, and then poited it at the Doctor in an unmistakeable I'm watching you gesture. Then they sped off, leaving a trail of dust in their wake.
The sepia stallion scowled. "I'm terrible with foals."
Dinky gave him a curious glance. "You're fine with me, though."
"You're different," the Doctor protested.
The filly snorted. "You'd better believe I am. Now come on, I want to introduce you to Applejack."
And thus, an unusual friendship was formed between two very unlikely unlikely ponies.
"Glad ta see ya up and around!" Applejack exclaimed, moments after they had approached her apples stand on the edge of the market.
"Eh, it was just a scratch," the Doctor replied, gazing at the massive variation of apples the farm pony sold.
"Just a scratch?!" Applejack gave him an astonished look. "Buddy, ya were bleeding all over me!"
"Hey, I heal quickly."
"Well, good for ya!" the mare said, smiling. "Tell ya what, you can have a free Red Delicious, sugar cube!"
The Doctor balked before the proffered treat. "I, er, don't really like apples."
The look Applejack gave him was two parts astonishment, one part dry humor, and one part slight irritation. Beside him, Dinky stiffened, unsure as to how Applejack would take this insult to her livelihood.
Surprisingly, she took it in stride. "Well, Ah didn't really like apples either, 'specially right after Ah returned from the Oranges. D' ya want me ta give it a smiley face? That sure helped me."
"I guess so?" the Doctor seemed unsure of himself.
Applejack withdrew a gleaming blade from underneath the counter and swiftly carved two eyes and and a upwards-curving mouth. "Here ya go, sugar cube!"
Grinning nervously and casting occasional glances at the exceedingly sharp knife resting in Applejack's hoof, the Doctor took a tentative bite out of the Red Delicious. A look of surprise blossomed across his face, and he took a larger bite. "Thish ish really good!" he sputtered.
Applejack beamed, pleased at changing the stallion's mind. "Told ya so. Anyways, you'll be wantin' a dozen apples for you and yer mom, Dinky."
After the purchase was complete, the Doctor and Dinky continued their tour of Ponyville, known as the-town-where-pretty-much-everything-happens to inter-dimensional travelers.
Dinky's errands took her to the flower stands, where Daisy, Rose, and Lily sold their goods, namely daisies, roses, and lilies. Unfortunately, these three were far less welcoming than Applejack had been.
"Who are you?!" Daisy demanded.
"We've never seen you before," Lily added.
"Are you a changeling?!" Rose snapped.
"Uh, no, I'm-" the Doctor responded, wincing slightly as Dinky ground an hoof into his fetlocks. "-a perfectly normal pony from, er, out of town!"
"That sounds awfully like something a changeling would say," Rose questioned, scowling suspiciously. "What's your name?"
"Yeah!" Daisy interjected. "And where exactly are you from?"
"Time Turner!" Dinky cut in. "His name is Time Turner, and he's from... Hoofington!"
"Yes!" The Doctor grasped at this like a lifeline. "I'm a perfectly normal stallion! I'm not a changeling! I'm certainly not here to save you from your impending doom!"
There was a moment of complete and utter silence.
"He seems okay to me," Lily ventured.
"We'll be keeping a close eye on you," Daisy growled. "We don't like changelings here in Ponyville."
"Come on," Dinky pulled the Doctor away from the three paranoid ponies. "Let's not talk to the jerks. I can go buy flowers elsewhere."
"Wait!" Rose called.
"We're sorry we called you a changeling!" Lily actually looked sorry. Sort of.
"We were overreacting," Rose bowed her head sheepishly.
"Fine," Dinky muttered. "If you really are sorry."
As the Doctor and dinky walked away, they heard Daisy say, "I really think he is a changeling."
Their trip did not get any better. For starters, they spent twenty minutes in Sugar Cube Corner as the Doctor and Pinkie Pie argued on whether custard or whipped cream was better. Twilight Sparkle chased them out of the library after the Doctor insulted her precious books one time too many. Many of the townsponies, usually welcoming, friendly stallions and mare, were cold and distant, byproducts of the recent changeling attack on Canterlot.
It was late afternoon, and the Doctor was tired of getting suspicious glances every time he walked up to somepony. The sting from the manticore was throbbing quite painfully, and it had taken on a strange blackish tinge. He needed to get his sonic screwdriver so he could check what was going on. He had a nagging fear the wound was more serious than it looked.
"So," he asked Dinky after their latest attempt at fellowship with their fellow ponies (pom poms and glitter glue may or may not have been involved). "Where did you find me? I left something important there, and I need to get it back."
"Down at the Ghastly Gorge," the filly responded, trotting alongside him easily. "You left a trail from the Everfree forest to the lower ridge. I can show you the spot, if you like."
The sun was beginning to set by the time they reached the area where the Doctor had collapsed. The lengthening shadows, paired with the jutting spires of the gorge, made an eerie sight in the oncoming twilight. A soft, whispering wind only added to the already unsettling atmosphere. The pool of dried blood made it all the more surreal.
"This is it," Dinky whispered, subdued by the menacing tone that swirled around her.
The Doctor didn't reply. Instead, he scrambled through the nearest bushes. With a triumphant "A-ha!", he pulled out a small copper stick with a blue light on the end.
"My sonic screwdriver," he explained, and then jabbed himself in the side with the glowing end, wincing. "Blood test, in case you're wondering. Came up with the idea myself."
With a loud beep, a tiny strip of paper shot out the side of the screwdriver. The Doctor examined it closely, frowning all the while. "No.. no... What?! How could I possibly... oh... oh."
He turned to Dinky. "Well, there's some good news, and there's some bad news. The good news is that I found out what's wrong with me. The bad news is, I'm poisoned. I don't know how bad it is, but I am most certainly poisoned. I think I need to get back to the TARDIS if I want to find out the rest."
Suddenly, Dinky stiffened. "Doctor, the breeze has stopped."
"If the breeze has stopped, then what's making the rustling sound?"
Somewhere within the recesses of a nearby cave, something moved. Specifically, a large, pony-shaped thing moved.
Or rather, several.
Cyan eyes glowed from within the darkness.
"Dinky?" the Doctor whispered. "I have a plan."
"Yes?" the filly responded in a hushed tone. "Let's hear it."
"RUN!" The Doctor scooped up Dinky and hurled her away bodily as half a dozen changelings came pouring out of the mouth of the cave.
Dinky scampered as fast as her itty-bitty legs would carry her. When she failed to hear the Doctor's hoofbeats behind her, she spun around and gasped in horrified surprise. Five changelings were pulling the sepia stallion down into the darkness, while one stalked towards her.
The Doctor made a valiant attempt to avoid being dragged in by wrapping a hoof around a protruding root, but the insectoid ponies were much stronger.
"Fly, you fool!" he managed to choke out before the changelings dragged him away into the darkness.
The shadows swallowed him up greedily, the coolness of the tunnel coiling against his fur. He cried out as sharp fangs dug into him, one set just inches from his poisoned wound. His eyes felt heavy and there was a strange static muffling his ears. His hooves scrabbled helplessly against the well-worn stone and his struggles grew more and more feeble.
The Doctor felt his body seize up, the muscles stiffening involuntarily. His whole body felt like it was made of cloud- soft and light and completely immobile.
Tunnel after tunnel raced by at an odd angle; the darkness grew even thicker at every twist and turn. And then, the darkness covered him, too.
Dinky raced away from the ambush, her hooves pounding against the weathered rock. Behind her, one of the changelings was in hot pursuit, mouth open, baring razor-sharp fangs at her.
She darted away, narrowly dodging a fast strike. The changelings obviously didn't want her escaping. She gave a soft Fluttershy-worthy whimper as the changeling's fangs snapped inches away from her flank.
She increased her pace, terrified beyond all mortal comprehension. Something very similar had happened back at the Royal Wedding. Changelings had separated her from her mommy, and they had run her down. Dinky had huddled in a corner, waiting for it all to end, when Princess Cadence and Shining Armor had produced the massive blast of love energy which swept her attacker away.
Needless to say, there was no love blast to save her here, and she was terrified.
Tears stung the corners of her eyes. This changeling hissed in morbid satisfaction, pleased to see the reaction it was evoking in its prey.
"LEAVE! ME ALONE!" Dinky screamed, her natural pyrokinesis flaring to life. A brilliant bolt of fire flared from her horn, striking the changeling square in the chest.
The lavender filly didn't look back to examine her work; instead, she pressed on to Ponyville.
A tiny filly skidded into the town square. "Th- Time Turner's been kidnapped!" she squealed. "By changelings!"
And then, gravity asserted its control over Dinky, and she flopped to the ground.
The Doctor was roughly dropped to an unforgiving stone floor. Five sets of changeling hooves stomped to attention. The Doctor raised his head wearily, his eyes not wanting to focus on the imposing pony in front of him.
"Well, look what my little scouts dragged in," a low voice purred.
The Doctor shook his head vigorously, his mane quickly becoming more tousled than it was already.
The room was simply massive, the walls lacquered with gooey changeling slime and lit by strange phosphorescent worms. It was cold, and water dripped from stalactites into shallow pools.
A different changeling, this one taller and slimmer than the ones who had attacked him, leered at him. He noticed that she had a turquoise mane and slit-pupiled eyes that shifted through several colors of teal. But it was the delecare black crown perched on her head that gave it all away.
"Queen Chrysalis?" he asked groggily, the effects of the venom not completely worn off.
The monarch of the changelings jumped slightly, unused to her prey regaining consciousness so soon. "It is I," she replied haughtily, trying to make up for her previous slip-up.
"How would a simple earth pony warrant such a great ruler's presence?" From experience, the Doctor knew that getting a leader's attention was rarely a good thing. (He still did it anyways.)
Chrysalis's eyes narrowed dramatically. "You're not a pony, Gallopfreyan."
"Interesting." the Doctor raised an eyebrow, trying to suppress his alarm. "Now how'd you figure out what I was?"
A cruel smile appeared on the monarch's face. "We've been watching you, Doctor."
The stallion smirked. "Have you really? I've got to say, that most certainly falls into the creepy category pretty well."
Queen Chrysalis slammed a corroded hoof down inches from his muzzle. "Don't play games with me! I know you were stung by a manticore! I know exactly what the venom does."
The Doctor, who had begun to look bored during this exchange, perked up. "Do you really? I don't suppose you would be so kind as to-"
"You were stung two days ago. You have three days to live, before the poison overtakes you."
"Well," the sepia stallion muttered, "This complicates things. Don't suppose you just happen to have the antidote lying around here somewhere?"
Chrysalis's smile grew larger, revealing more of her fangs. "There is no antidote."
"Well, maybe we could-"
"ENOUGH!" she snapped suddenly, motioning to the other changelings. "I grow tired of this conversation. Guards, take him to the holding pods."
"Now, really!" The Doctor yelped as he was dragged off yet again. Is this really necessary?"
The only response he got was the hissing of the guards. He managed to get one last glimpse of Chrysalis before he vanished into another tunnel. There was something in her eyes. Something that looked remarkably like- fear?