ETON S’ROHTUA EHT NI
“Discord…!” snarled Applejack, her horn emitting apple-green sparks. “Turn us back ta what we’re s’pposed ta be, right now!”
“Hmmm… nah, can’t be bothered,” Discord smiled, stretching out his forelimbs and cracking his knuckles… and causing nearby rocks to float up into the air and become pies. “I must say, you all cut quite the chaotic figures at the moment, with your mismatched magical pathways~” He covered his mouth with a lion’s forepaw. “I must say, I sometimes impress myself.
“But I digress. I believe that we need some musical accompaniment for my… sorrowful tale.”
A snap of his talons brought forth a bright flash of light, and when it dissipated and the spots vanished from seven pairs of eyes, Discord was dressed in the style of a mariachi performer, and three seemingly Manadan stallions dressed in the same stood behind. Discord carried a trumpet in his lion’s paw, and each of the stallions bore a guitarrón, a violin, and a guitar.
Before anyone could do more than gawk at the odd display, Discord began to blare away at the trumpet, and the stallions began to follow suit on their instruments, and the air was filled with the serenade of a traditional mariachi band.
After a few moments of vigorous trumpeting, Discord flicked the brass instrument away as it still continued to produce music.
“Well then,” Discord said brightly, slapping paw and talon together as the mariachi band continued to play, the trumpet floating about the stallions as they blindly proceeded on with their instrumentation, “let’s begin.”
He cleared his throat.
“A long time ago, in a far, far away place, I was made from clay to be the playmate of the earliest Alicorn gods. Well, less a playmate and more of a plaything. I made them their toys, but never really got played with myself, which you can imagine hurt quite a bit.” An unconvincing hurt look crossed Discord’s quasi-draconic features, but Twilight was not sure if the reason she found his expression so false was anything to do with the ceaseless mariachi serenade.
“Well, time passed, and eventually all the Alicorns grew up, and left our cosmic nursery. I was alone, for thousands upon thousands of years. All my friends had left me, just because they had to grow up. I mean, how would you feel if you wanted nothing better to do than to play with your friends, and then their parents just turned around and said, Oh no, you can’t play with them, Discord, because you’re sixteen-hundred years old, clearly far too old to have fun.” He snorted. “Well, being all alone had its advantages, as I eventually grew enough in power that making a toy was… well, child’s play. I could do anything, even escape from the cosmic nursery in which I was left to rot.
“When I came down to this world, I saw that all the Alicorns had worked quite a bit of magic here, set everything so neat and orderly. Well, that really just wouldn’t do? So, I went all about your happy little world of Gaia, turning things inside-out and upside-down. But where oh where were all the Alicorns, you wonder? Well, let me tell you: they were all dead, nothing more than legend by the time I’d escaped from the nursery. Nopony alive had ever seen an Alicorn, and oh how much joy you can imagine coursed through me at the idea! All those stupid little Alicorn foals who couldn’t even treat me like a proper friend, all gone from the world! It was just so… invigorating.” Discord quivered in nostalgic elation, and Twilight wrinkled her nose in disgust.
“So, I spent the next so-and-so amount of years causing the sort of mayhem and chaos that an evil villain like myself is wont to engage in, and then these two nancy-prancy goody-four-shoes trotted on in and tried to spoil all my fun.” As he said ‘these two’, the draconequus spontaneously produced an artist’s smock and an easel, smearing brown paint all over it that somehow formed a rather coherent picture of Celestia and Selena pulling silly faces at one another. “Remember when I said that all of the Alicorns were dead? Well, turns out that I was lying. At least one pair managed to live long enough to make with the hanky-panky and produce these two little queenies here. They had these little crystal gems they called the Excrements of Harm-My-Knee or something, and they managed to cut off my right hoof with them…!” Discord looked down at his lion’s paw with a grimace. “I’ve done some good magic with that hoof, let me tell you, and I’m still not quite used to these things here!” He wiggled the digits at the ends of that paw, which Twilight believed were called toes.
“Anyway,” Discord continued, the smock, easel, and painting all vanishing in flashes of light, “little old Sunshine and Moonbeams were all like Ooooh Mr. Discord Sir, you can’t make a pony’s head be up his butt, he might be forced to breathe his own flatulence~ or Ohhh no Mr. Discord Sir, you can’t use the Sun to write out the words LUL DSQRD ROOLZ out in the ground~ or Noooo Mr. Discord Sir, you have to stop having fun~ and all sorts of silly coprolite like that. Umm, hello? I don’t believe we’ve been acquainted, sunbeams. My name is Discord, and it’s my duty to spread chaos and disorder! But yeah, before I know it, before I can fully grasp my brand-new paw here, I’ve already gotten stoned.”
“And then you wound up in the Canterlot Sculpture Garden?” Fluttershy said in a low voice.
“Uhp-uhp-uhp-uhp!” Discord said, waving a lion’s finger in Fluttershy’s face. “The mariachi band is still playing; can’t you see that I’m not done with my tragic backstory?”
A moment passed in which Fluttershy sank back down to her haunches.
“Very well. Now then… let’s see, what happened after I got stoned? Ahhh yes… forty-three-hundred years of doing absolutely nothing, which, if you know me, can be a bit of a downer. I am always keen on doing something, usually to somepony else to see them squirm, so being put in time-out for over four-thousand years… Can you possibly imagine?”
“Not really,” answered Applejack, “on account a’ th’ fact that none a’ us have ever heard a’ numbers like ‘hundreds’ or ‘thousands’.”
“Well, excuuu~use me if you little ponies never took up the decimal system,” replied the draconequus sourly. “Really makes it harder for me, you know that.”
“You speak of things being hard for you,” snapped Rarity, her new peacock-like tail-feathers rustling in irritation, “but in the same breath you switch our races around. Now, as fond as I can be of my new wings, I do rather miss my horn. So, if you don’t mind, return my horn to me, or I will be forced to bust out my father’s old hoofball moves on you!”
“Ohh don’t you worry, my pretty little pony; you and your friends will change races again in good time,” Discord replied with a genial tone belied by the cruel sneer on his muzzle, slinking about Rarity and her friends. “I just felt that our little game had gotten a wee bit dull, and needed a little bit of randomosity to shake things up. And I must say, I will be quite tickled pink to see what unfolds~!” Discord approached Pinkie Pie as he finished his statement, and his entire body shifted to varying shades of pink as he stroked her cheek with his lion paw. Twilight did not like the look that he gave her rosy friend at all, possessive and greed-ridden.
For her part, Pinkie flashed her horn at Discord with a distasteful glare, a cloud of confetti, a hoof-ful of party favors, and a rubber chicken flying into the draconequus’s face. Shaking the confetti out from his mane and horns, Discord gave a short and small laugh, clapping his talon and paw together to produce several flatulent noises.
“Well well well, looks like somepony’s already up the learning curve of her race swap here~! I should have expected as much of you, my little Pi―”
“Cut the small talk, Discord,” growled Twilight, flaring out her wings and attempting to flap up to Discord’s eye-level, stumbling awkwardly as she tried to work her two new limbs. In the end, she just settled for flapping herself into a rearing position. “We figured out part of your Verdammte riddle, and we’re on our way to putting an end to this game, so if those Alicorn foals meant anything to you at all, you’ll know that tearing apart the world that they made was wrong and that we deserve a fair chance at collecting the Elements!”
Twilight felt what felt like a great arm leaning over her shoulder, and looking in its direction found herself face-to-face with Discord giving her a sinister leer.
“You know what, Twilight Twinkle? You’re right. You and your little friends hold every right to make an attempt at thwarting my evil plan, so I’ll just leave it to you to see who lies up at the High Eyries…!”
With a rising laugh, Discord began to run in place, his hind-legs each practically spinning like wheels as he kicked up more and more of a dust-cloud in the dry earth…
And blasted straight up into the air like the rocket-ship of any given sci-fi serial, piercing up through a cloud and out of sight.
Seven series of coughs cut into the sound of the persisting mariachi music, the swirling dust choking not just their throats but also their ability to hear the ceaseless serenade. When the dust cleared, the mariachi band was gone, the music fading away into the howl of the winds.
“That Discord, he just − cough − never lets up with his own uncouth brand of cough − sorcery…!” growled Rarity, a slightly raspy edge to her tone.
“Tell me ‘bout it, Rarity,” grumbled Applejack, eyes almost crossed as she looked up at her new alicorn. “Ah ain’ never dreamed a’ th’ day when Ah’d sprout one a’ these doohickeys.”
“Hey, Applesnack,” snapped Rainbow Dash, kicking a hoof against the ground irately, “how do you Earth Ponies do your magic? Something with your hooves, right?”
“Yeah, ya jus’ do this kinda thing with yer… with yer…”
The palomino’s eyes turned sharply down to her own hooves, her face screwing up in effort. Nothing happened.
“Ah… Ah can’ do mah Earth Pony magic.”
“I can’t use my magic, either,” Twilight replied haltingly, her forelock feeling discomfortingly close to her forehead.
It was perfectly clear in a matter of moments, a jolt of realization shooting through the six mares in an instant akin to the ancestral herd-instinct: none of them could access the magic of the race they had been swapped to.
“In changing all of our pony races, Discord has magically gelded us all,” Twilight spat, eyeing her dark-sapphire primaries with unease. “I’ve been reading up on the magic of the other pony races since I became friends with you girls, but I couldn’t call forth Pegasus magic if I tried.”
“But Pinkie Pie was doing Unicorn magic just now, with blowing that confetti all over Discord’s face,” Rainbow Dash said, pointing an azure hoof at the pink Unicorn. After a moment, that same hoof met her face. “…what am I thinking? It’s Pinkie Pie.”
“But Ah’m lightin’ up this here whatchamacallit just fine,” Applejack noted aloud, crossing her eyes to look up at the fresh orange horn glowing apple-green on her forehead.
“A Unicorn lighting up her alicorn is one of the most simple actions she could undertake,” explained Rarity, before hastily adding, “not that I believe your simplicity to not be charming on its own way, Applejack.”
Applejack frowned, “An’ what do ya mean by that, Rarity? Now, Ah might not know as much about fashion as you seem ta, or stuff mah nose inta books quite as much as Twilight, but Ah’m not stupid.”
“‘Stupid’? Are you sure you’re not talking about Rainbow Dash, darling?”
The cerulean Earth Pony snapped, “What? What the hay, Rarity? I’m not stupid; I can read, even if it’s not nearly as much as our own resident book-worm.”
Anger blossomed inside her the likes of which Twilight had never felt before, and she snorted in irritation at Rainbow Dash.
“Oh don’t you even start about books! I’ll have you know that without books, we would have no foundation for language, mathematics, history, thaumaturgy, or anything for that matter! We wouldn’t even know anything about animals, even though Fluttershy―”
“Leave Fluttershy out of this!” snarled Rainbow Dash, almost lunging at the lavender Pegasus. “She’s wimpy and useless, but at least she’s out there with the animals!”
“I am not wimpy or useless, Rainbow Dash!” Fluttershy snapped, the yellow Earth Pony locking eyes furiously with her ex-fiancée. “What about you, dashing about the sky from dawn to dusk, trying to prove to yourself that you’re awesome?”
“I don’t have to prove that to myself; I’m already awesome!”
“Ohh? Then why aren’t you in the Wonderbolts yet?”
Rainbow Dash looked hurt, “I…”
“Guys, come on!” Pinkie Pie squealed with mixed alarm and impatience. “We don’t have time to be succumbing to Discord’s chaotic influence; we’ve got to pony up and find Dashie’s Element of Harmony!”
The pink Unicorn’s words had an astonishing effect on her traveling band. Contracted pupils dilated, wrinkles of rage loosened on furious muzzles, and tensing muscles relaxed.
Twilight blinked, “Good gracious, what was happening? I just felt so… angry, like I wanted to argue with everypony around me…”
“Ah felt th’ same feelin’, Twi,” Applejack said, “an’ Ah ain’ never bin one ta pick a meanin’less fight.”
“And what in the name of the Maker could have possessed us to fight amongst ourselves so casually…?” asked Rarity, with a hoof idly rubbing the alicorn-less spot on her forehead.
“Oh, I don’t know, Rarity,” spat a heated voice from behind Fluttershy’s lips, her pupils constricting once more. “Why don’t you let some synapses not geared towards fashion fire inside that thick skull of yours…?”
“What the…?” Rainbow Dash recoiled. “Why isn’t Fluttershy back to normal?”
Pinkie bounced up to Fluttershy’s level, squishing her cheeks and making the lanky Earth Pony make a kissy-face.
“Begone, snappy other-one~!” Pinkie said, with all the affectations of an antiquated diviner; indeed, a purple turban doubling the size of her head had appeared atop her frizzy mane. “Bring back to us the Fluttershy we know and love~~… !”
The yellow Earth Pony’s face continued to contort in furious contempt, her ears flattening against her skull as if preparing for a scuffle…
But her eyes blinked shut sharply, eyelids creasing sharply for a brief moment, before flickering back open to reveal large round pupils. Her posture relaxed, wings folding back down, and her face became soft once more.
“I… oh no… she came out again, didn’t she? It’s been getting worse…”
“‘She’…?” asked Rainbow Dash, looking at her ex-fiancée with an uncharacteristic level of concern. “Fluttershy, you’re scaring me…”
“I scare me, Dashie…” Fluttershy replied as Pinkie Pie landed back on the ground, the pink Unicorn’s turban gone without a trace. “I scare me all the time.”
“What’re ya gittin’ at, sugarcube?” Applejack asked with arched eyebrow.
“I…” Fluttershy’s cyan eyes scanned about the six. “I… I can’t hide it anymore. But… can it wait till we get back from up there…?” She indicated the High Eyries up above, a fell aura hanging over the precipices above that had nothing to do with the setting sun.
“Of course, Fluttershy,” Twilight answered, offering a gentle forehoof to Fluttershy’s forearm. “You don’t need to rush yourself; let it come out when you feel like it.”
“Thank you, Twilight.”
“So, what exactly was making everypony fight with each other?” Spike interjected. “And why exactly did Pinkie piping in make all the arguing stop?”
“I really can’t say,” said Twilight. “It really doesn’t make sense.”
A jolt of revelation flitted through the lavender Pegasus’s mind.
“…of course. It doesn’t make sense.”
“Ya reckin that it was Discord’s doin’, then, sugarcube?” asked Applejack.
“What else could have caused it, Applejack, darling?” Rarity said. “I mean, goodness knows I find your farmer’s life to be quite too strenuous for my tastes, but it’s how you’ve chosen to live your life. I could have chosen to follow in my father’s footsteps and be a hoofball player, or my mother’s and be a cook, but I instead chose the avenue of fashion, the avenue which most suited my sensibilities.”
“And boy do those tail-feathers suit your sense of style, Rarity!” smirked Rainbow Dash.
The alabaster Pegasus looked back at her peacock-like tail-feathers, giving them a twitch that caught the dying rays of the sun and dazzled the eyes.
“Well… I suppose they are quite agreeable to look at. If only I had my horn still…!”
“But, umm… excuse me, but…” Fluttershy cut in softly, “if we were all arguing with each other because of Discord, then how come we stopped fighting?”
Twilight put a fetlock to her chin in thought, following the chain of events beginning with her uncharacteristic anger at Rainbow Dash…
“The fight was escalating between the five of us, and the only ones who weren’t affected were Spike and Pinkie. Spike I can understand, because of dragons’ resistance to magical influence, but Pinkie? Well, that’s Pinkie for you. But… but then Pinkie mentioned the Elements of Harmony. Of course!”
Twilight beamed, and her band of friends looked at her with curious expressions.
“The word ‘harmony’ itself holds power over Discord, because it is the very antithesis of everything that Discord represents. Chaos, disorder, disharmony amongst ponies.”
“…Is that it?” Rainbow Dash asked with narrowed eyebrows. “That seriously can’t be it. Whatever happened to ‘sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you’?”
“Never underestimate the power of words, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight replied sternly. “For one, consider the power held behind the words I am. Words hold the power to change the world, the hearts of ponies. And for now, while we don’t have our Elements, the word ‘harmony’ may be our only safeguard against Discord.”
“Well spoken, Twilight Sparkle,” smiled Rarity. “Why, nothing quite gets myself motivated early in the day than to reaffirm that I am Rarity Belle.”
“Well, that’s real purdy and all, Rares,” Applejack said dryly, “but jus’ sayin’ Ah’m an Earth Pony ain’t gunna make this pokey little thang go back down.” She poked an amber hoof at her alicorn.
“So, what are we waiting for, everypony?” called Pinkie Pie, her horn giving off a bright baby-blue glow that eased the deep-orange glow settling about them. “Let’s get on up there and get started on our Elements Of Harmony collection again~!”
Less than an hour had passed before they’d reached the foot of the cliff-face beneath the High Eyries, and following it they found the winding path up the side of the sheer mountainside. For the anomalous magic of the High Eyries had once been the subject of amateur study in past grossenturies, and the hoofsteps of so many scores of aspiring thaumaturgists over so much time had ground a track not unlike a winding ramp to and fro along the western wall. It was fortunate for the band of mares and a drake that the way to the High Eyries was not limited to Pegasus means of being reached, as the ponies still needed time to adjust to their new physiques. Twilight and Rarity could not take flight from an idle position, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy could not magically adhere to more treacherous terrain, and Applejack and Pinkie Pie could not levitate themselves or wink out. (Although Pinkie seemed uncannily adept at producing confetti or balloons.)
The general consensus was that Discord’s “tragic backstory” was a load of total malarkey. Historical records surviving from the First Age of Equestria − which, they now surmised, must have been copied from more high-tech sources − did not in any context indicate the presence of Alicorns in any location except in heraldry and storybooks, so the draconequus’s account of there being these godlike ponies not only present but thriving at a certain point in Equestrian history was questionable at best. Even with Discord’s reign, something somewhere would have survived to let them be aware of herds of Alicorns shaping and guiding the world.
“I’d always asked Queen Celestia about her kind, why she had wings and a horn unlike everypony else,” Twilight had explained, once they’d reached a particularly broad plateau upon which to spread out, “and she explained that she was far more than just a Unicorn with wings, or a Pegasus with a horn. She was an Alicorn, bearer of the traits and magical power of all three pony races. She and the Queen of the Night − her sister Selena, as we now know − were the only two Alicorns that the Queen is aware of prior to the creation of the first Alicorn of Love.”
“Yeah, but, Twilight, Discord’s kinda had all of Equestria in the palm of his claw for, like, forever before the Queens took him down,” queried Rainbow. “Wouldn’t he have, like, wiped out any records of any earlier Alicorns to make his story seem more plausible?”
“He would have, if we took Discord to be a logical being,” Twilight answered. “He’s not such a thorough despot that there remains no trace of knowledge of what befell our history either before or during his reign. He’s trying to mess with our heads, deceive us into distrusting the Alicorns who supposedly abandoned him. If he really cared about making friends, wouldn’t he have been sincere in his bid for reformation earlier?”
“Geesh, Purple-Smart,” grumbled the cerulean Pegasus, rubbing one of her ears, “I was just playing drakonakis’s advocate here; didn’t need to talk my ears off…”
The lavender Pegasus grinned nervously, “Sorry, force of habit.”
“Although the question remains,” Rarity said, “as to whether he was deceiving us or not. I think I speak for all of us when I say that he has likely fabricated it from whole-cloth.”
A succession of nods and assenting Mm-hmm’s answered her, and the band settled down to a break. Even with Applejack and Pinkie’s dwimmer shimmers, they did not want to risk journey in the dark, with the new moon meaning that the only light of the night was from the stars and the nebulae surrounding them.
At first light, they continued their escalation of the winding cliff-face. As the mismatched mares ascended, the path they followed became less smooth and the cliffs more uneven in width. For the long-trodden paths of the past were reclaimed by the natural downfall of rain from the wild winds of the eastmost edge of the Everfree, returning the paths highest above Holderton to their previous wildness. Cracks in stone widened to fissures, and fissures led to avalanches which claimed patches of walking space, forcing them to take running leaps.
Twilight’s muzzle wrinkled in consternation. Ahead laid a gap too wide to jump across, even with a running start that she could not make from this hairpin-turn of a ledge. Her new wings bristled in anxious preparation.
“We’re going to have to fly our companions across, Rarity,” she said to her alabaster friend.
Rarity’s tail-feathers twitched, the white Pegasus sighing in resignation.
“I do hope that I have the strength to hold any somepony up as we cross; I have not undergone great physical strenuosity since my days of hoofball with Father.”
“Aren’tcha fergittin’ that trek we had ‘cross th’ Wide Earth Plains? It was only a couple months ago, Rare,” interjected Applejack, apple-green light sparking from the grooves in her alicorn despite the high-noon sun above.
“Ahh… Yes, well, forgive me, I did rather put that out of my mind. A lady does not try to contemplate such laborious activities.”
“But, don’tcha go out and, like, search for gemstones for your dresses out in Gnoll territory?” asked Rainbow Dash sourly. “You gotta have gotten into some scrapes with those diamond-dogs now and then.”
“I’m not denying that I’ve participated in such labors in order to maintain my practice as a couturière,” the alabaster Pegasus answered with an acid tone. “A lady I may be, but dare not ever say that I cannot defend myself in a pinch.”
“I’m not saying that, but there’s a world of difference between fight and flight, cootie-rear,” the cerulean Earth Pony countered.
“Noted. But, I feel like there remains enough muscle from our journey to the Crystal Mountains for me to carry one of you across. I shall not enjoy it, though…”
“Neither will I, Rarity,” Twilight added, “but if we want to reclaim the Element of Honesty, we’ll have to.”
Bringing herself into the air proved more of a challenge to Twilight Sparkle than she’d anticipated; it was nothing like levitating herself in her own dwimmer shimmer. Unlike the constant channelling of willpower towards a single action down her alicorn, she had to keep two limbs which she had not had a day before flapping in concert with one another, up and down, up and down, just slow enough that she caught air under her wings, but not so slow that she did not acquire any upward thrust. Out of the corner of her eyes, Twilight espied Rarity with a strained look on her face as her wings flapped too rapidly, kicking up dust from the untrodden cliff-face but not taking her cloven hooves off of the ground.
“No no no no, you’re doing it all wrong,” Rainbow interceded, taking one of Rarity’s wings in her forehooves. “Don’t flap straight up and down; you gotta angle your wings back as you flap ‘em down so that you move up and forwards. Flap slower on the way up and faster down, so that you get up and stay up. Keep your tail-feathers straight, and only angle them in the direction you want to turn.”
Guiding the alabaster Pegasus’s left wing in the appropriate motions, Rarity slowly began to mimic that movement in her right, and soon enough its actions mirrored the wing guided by her cerulean friend. In less than half a minute Rarity was airborne, crossing the chasm alongside her fellow former Unicorn. Neither of them would be expert flyers, but they at least had the basics down, laden as they were with their saddle-bags.
Spike slid down off of Twilight’s back, “It’s times like this that I almost wish that I could fly.”
“I’m sorry, Spike, but this was my first time actually flying,” Twilight responded despondently. “And hopefully, these won’t be a permanent fixture on my body. I really miss my magic already…”
She faced her fellow flyer.
“You don’t suppose we should take these off, do you?” Twilight indicated the saddle-bags she and Rarity carried. “It’s hard enough flying with these, and we’ll need as easy a time as we can muster if we want to carry our friends across.”
Rarity nodded, “Spike, be a dear and make sure that our bags don’t fall off into the walkways below.”
“Anything for you, Rarity!” the mulberry drake said brightly.
Rolling her eyes, Twilight set about to pry the buckle apart with her teeth. It was an awkward and clumsy task, as she was used to relying on her dwimmer shimmer to unhitch her saddle-bags. Not helping matters was that Spike had decided to help support Rarity’s saddle-bags as she did the same.
“You really are such a dear, Spike,” Rarity said sweetly, giving the dragon cub a small nod.
“Why, of course, milady,” Spike said with a bow, but Rarity had already taken flight across the gap.
Spike’s fins drooped, “Why doesn’t she notice me, Mom…?”
“Because you’re far too young for her, Spike.”
Spike looked up at Twilight, tremendously hurt.
Twilight felt her heart breaking at the sight of Spike’s expression, his slitted pupils dilating nearly to ovals. But, sooner or later, he had to face the facts.
“Spike… She’s just not going to be into you.”
“Why not? I’ve been being such a nice little dragon to her! I’ve been helping her out with everything I can think of. I even played the role of pincushion for her!” Spike scratched ruefully at a spot on his back.
“And I’m positive that she appreciated that, Spike,” Twilight said gently, “but as a friend. I hate to tell you this, especially with our lives on the line as they are, but Spike, Rarity just doesn’t see you the way that you see her.”
Spike looked as though Hearth’s Warming had been cancelled. Tears pricked at the corner of his eyes, his claws balled up in front of his chest.
Twilight reached out a hoof.
The mulberry drake withdrew towards Rarity’s saddle-bag, and Twilight felt as if an icy wall had erected itself between her and her ward.
“Don’t you have to take off your saddle-bag, Twilight?”
Twilight never thought that hearing her own name would hurt so much.
“Ohhh, what a travesty…!”
The lavender Pegasus gave a start at that voice. Her eyes flicking up to her left, she saw Discord, in miniature, poking out from inside her left ear.
“Well, I must say, color me impressed, Twilight Sparkle,” the draconequus hissed with glee, “that that was some excellent verbiage which you dispensed there. I couldn’t have broken that boy’s heart better myself~”
Twilight swiped her hoof at the shrunken draconequus, who withdrew inside Twilight’s head where she felt a buzzing like so many bees. A feeling like a cotton swab being pulled from deep in her other ear, and sure enough, there Discord emerged.
“Get out of here, Discord! You’re only going to make things worse!”
“Discord? What about Discord?” asked Rainbow Dash’s voice.
Twilight blinked, glancing back up at her ear. No Discord. The cerulean Earth Pony gave Twilight a quizzical expression as Rarity set her down.
“I just… I thought I saw…” She sighed. “Nevermind. I’m just being stupid.”
Shuffling her saddle-bags off, Twilight took flight across the gap separating herself from her friends Applejack, Pinkie Pie, and Fluttershy, but already she could feel a far wider gap growing between herself and her Spike.
It was barely five minutes further up, but to Twilight Sparkle, it seemed an eternity with only the weight of her saddle-bags upon her back. Spike trotted along on all fours, keeping a wide berth from both Twilight and Rarity and refusing to take his eyes off of the path. Twilight had known Spike long enough to understand that he needed a bit of space after a great revelation such as this, but even so, would he ever look at her the same again when the dust had settled?
“You think it was a good idea to bring Spike with us, Twilight?” hissed a grating voice in the lavender Pegasus’s ear. A cerulean pony with a rainbow mane raised an eyebrow out of the corner of Twilight’s eye.
“I… I really don’t know,” she said lowly. Spike was probably not listening to her, but why bank on the possibility that he’d put her out of his mind entirely? “I want to keep him safe, but is keeping him with me really the safest place for him? He really should have stayed back at the rock farm, and I can’t wink him out back there now. And even if I could, how would he see it after what I said to him?”
“Yeah… that was a pretty rough lesson to learn.”
Twilight met Rainbow’s eyes.
“I’m glad you understand at least, Rainbow Dash. Spike is…”
The mulberry drake’s fins twitched at either side of his head, but he gave no other sign that he may have heard Twilight say anything. Twilight’s eyes flicked away from her ward, to find something to take her mind off the pain of a mother scorned.
“We’re here~!” cried a voice from on up ahead, followed by a report not unlike Pinkie Pie’s party cannon. Somehow, not only had the pink Unicorn gotten ahead of her whole party without them spotting them, but had somehow brought along her party cannon as well, the settling of copious amounts of confetti betraying the aftermath of the cannon’s firing.
“We made it, guys!” Pinkie called out gaily, pronking about the high cliff as her alicorn lit up and generating more confetti as well as spurts of balloons colored exactly like her cutie mark. “We made it all the way up~!”
Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy, the former Pegasi, did not look particularly enthusiastic about this accomplishment.
“Yay, hurray for us,” the cerulean Earth Pony grumbled. “So much closer to the may-be-haunted crypt of the military leader of a Pegasus police-state… I’m just shaking with joy.”
Reaching the plateau upon which Pinkie had parked her party cannon, Twilight had to admit that reaching the High Eyries was not as uplifting an achievement as she’d have previously reckoned. Scores of terra-cotta figures lined the path leading from the furthest edge of the cliff to the face of the mountain from which it emerged, evidently standing guard over the path Pegasi would take to pay their respects to the fallen Commander… but time was not kind to these molded sentinels. What were surely uncanny likenesses of the finest specimens of the Pegasus race, now stood with features blurred by the decay of time, forelegs or wings snapped off or worn away. In some parts of this earthen phalanx, all that remained were the pair of hind legs of a statue long since either stolen or blown away into the Saddle Valley below.
For the cliffs of the High Eyries covered the east and south faces of the mountain upon which they were perched, the easternmost corner of the North Equinus Mountains. The town of Holderton and the rock farm which Pinkie Pie was bred and born in sat far below, their proximity to the Descort Fields disconcertingly closer than the band had reckoned. The unnaturally checker-boarded patterns of the fields of spaghetti-grass, the floating clumps of chocolate that were once earth, the candy-cane trees… And at the westernmost edge of the Descort Fields, was where the Everfree Forest had been first seeded.
The eastern edge of Everfree was even wilder than the forested area closest to Ponyville and Canterlot. The trees carried with them more of the entropic anergy which birthed the Descort Fields than their occidental seedlings, and the wildlife that called those groves sanctuary. Even from this height of nearly two-dozen-gross hooves, the thrashing of clawed branches reaching for a meal to sate a bottomless hunger could be discerned. Their color was off as well, a spectrum covering nearly every hue of the rainbow. A fell noise reached up to them from the mouth of the Saddle Valley, a din of nameless beasts from beneath the swirling canopy of the eastern Everfree trees.
Applejack shuddered, “And Ah thought that our side a’ th’ Everfree was bad news.”
“This is extremely close to where the Queens had their fateful battle with Discord two-dozen-and-six-gross years ago,” Twilight explained darkly. “The first seeds of Everfree fell here, and so the chaotic magic that they were born from is strongest here. Wildlife and flora and fauna are more than just unruly here; they’re downright horrific. I… What’s down there, I’ve never seen it before, and I’ve only read about it. I… don’t like the look of it at all.”
“Did we come all the way up here to get a lecture,” groaned Spike, “or are we gonna get Rainbow Dash’s Element already?”
Under ordinary circumstances, Twilight Sparkle would have scolded Spike for such sass, but with the strain between the pair of them she settled for a slow and somber nod, her mind consumed with pondering how she would ever make up for this to her mulberry drake as the band crossed through rank and file of broken terra-cotta soldiers to reach the once-well-trodden path into the crypts of the High Eyries.
In spite of the early afternoon sun shining down behind the band, a dark abyss yawned at them from within the arch carven into the mountain itself, empty torch-brackets rusted through for grossenturies flanking the entryway. The distant grumble of Eastern Everfree echoed off of the mountain face ahead, enhancing the perception that some horrific beast lay dreaming ahead…
An orange glint caught Rainbow Dash’s eye from within the dark tunnel. She gasped.
“That’s my Element of Honesty!”
“Rainbow, what’re you talkin’ about? That’s just an empty tunnel…”
But before Applejack had even finished, the cerulean ex-Pegasus had already galloped at full speed down the tunnel and out of sight.
“Dashie…!” cried Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie in unison.
“We have to go after her!” Twilight cried. “Applejack, Pinkie, try to keep your horns aglow; it’s gonna be dark in there, and we can’t afford to be any more split up…!”
“Ah’ll try, sugarcube, but this thang ain’ exactly the most cooperative.”
The band of a half-dozen galloped into the High Eyries, and a darkness closed around them.
It became immediately obvious to the six that there was something very wrong, as the green and blue lights from Applejack and Pinkie’s respective dwimmer shimmers only carried so far as to illuminate their own muzzles. The arch behind them seemed to inhibit not just the sunlight outside, but the alicorn-lights inside.
“Twi…” murmured Applejack, blinking slowly. “Ah’m feelin’ plum tuckered right about now.”
“Applejack?” Twilight was concerned. The palomino mare was not one to tire quickly, and they had not been partaking in particularly strenuous activity for her, she who tended to her family’s orchards every day of the week.
“Twilight?” breathed Fluttershy, sounding quite weary herself. “This is what the legends said. When Commander Hurricane’s body was buried here, it rose up again, and cast a curse on these caverns. Ponies without wings become weakened, and those who do…”
“Fluttershy, you can’t honestly believe that hogwash,” Twilight shook her head. “I mean, come on, look at me and Rarity. Neither of us seem worn down, do we?”
Rarity nodded in assent, “I’ve never felt better, I don’t believe, now that you mention it, Twilight, darling. I feel quite invigorated…!”
“But don’t the two of y’all have wings…?” asked Applejack with a yawn.
Twilight froze, feeling her new limbs twitch at her sides. That was a point to be made. She and Rarity were presently Pegasi, even if they could not utilize the magic of the Pegasus race with their Unicorn magical connections still intact. Taking a more attentive glance at the others in her party, the lavender Pegasus noticed that lethargy seemed to be setting upon all of her companions save Rarity with alarming swiftness.
“What’s going on, Mom…?” Spike moaned blearily, too tired to remember that he was supposed to be mad at Twilight.
“I… really don’t know, Spike…” she answered frightfully, and it was the truth. She had no more idea what was happening now than what happened to a pony’s soul when it shuffled off from their body. All her life, Twilight Sparkle had laughed off any stories of the dead returning from beyond the grave, whether it be to haunt some site significant to them while among the living, or to feed on the flesh or brains of those alive, as being mere breezie-tales. But now, as the dark encroached around the edges of her vision and Applejack and Pinkie struggled to keep their alicorns alight, Twilight began to wonder as to whether the study of ghosts merited serious scrutiny.
“I’m sorry, Twilight…!” gasped Pinkie Pie, her bright and rosy mane falling lank, sweat beading around her blue-glowing horn. “I can’t… keep this up…”
Pinkie bowed her head sharply, her legs giving out as her horn went dark. Applejack’s legs held steady beneath her even as her own alicorn lost its light, leaving the six in pitch darkness.
Twilight cursed under her breath. In her alarm at the prospect of their having walked into a setting that was genuinely haunted, she’d forgotten which way they were headed.
“Girls…?” she gasped in fear. “Spike…?”
In these High Eyries, I remain.
The sound of Rarity screaming.
“Who said that?”
“Said what?” grumbled Applejack’s voice, interrupting itself with a yawn. “Ah didn’t… hear nuthin’.”
“I heard it, too,” Fluttershy’s voice squeaked.
“Discord, come out!” Twilight shouted, flaring out her wings instinctively and feeling the walls on either side with her primaries. “This isn’t funny!”
Who this Discord is, we knoweth not in these caverns, replied the voice, as cold and sepulchral as the corridor they now stood in. And who be ye that into my crypt enter?
“You’re… Commander Hurricane?”
“Commander Hurricane? Where?” asked Pinkie Pie with quite a quiver behind her tone. It was hard to stand tall and be unafraid of a ghost if you could not see it.
A chill whirlwind swept the band, and Twilight jumped at the feel of claws at her back leg, but relaxed ever so slightly at the sound of Spike’s fearful gasps.
Mine inquiry thou dost not answer, snarled the voice of Commander Hurricane, for who else could it be that would first be roused in the High Eyries? Tellest me of the meaning of your encroachment upon mine hallowed catacombs, and in the company of such verminous scum as THESE PONIES?
In the pitch blackness, Twilight could not tell where her friends were, but she felt a strong presence flare up at her right side.
“Now hold your tongue, you ill-mannered poltergeist!” snapped Rarity’s voice. “I’ll have you know that these ponies are friends of Twilight Sparkle and I! We are here to―”
The voice of Commander Hurricane let out a piercing cackle, mirthless and icy. The vortex about them intensified, and there seemed to be shadows moaning at the edges of Twilight’s vision…
‘Friends’? Friendship betwixt the pony tribes existeth not! ‘Twas the fault of that despicable Platinum and that puerile Puddinghead that did lead to mine own demise. But even death cannot tame the master of the skies! Not I, Commander Hurricane! I, who doth provide the very downfall of rain! I, who provideth plenty and prosperity to my beloved Pegasi! I!
Twilight’s heart leapt into her throat; there was light up ahead! Dim and faint, but there it was! Somehow they must have gotten turned around in their panic over this encounter with the living dead, but if they could just make it there wait a second why was the light at the end of the tunnel moving?
Twilight’s blood ran cold. Those were eyes, aglow with the light of a life long since past, a light that was as dead as the body from which it emitted. The non-existent eyes set within the sockets of a skull, pale skin stretched taut across the bones of that lipless face. Below, yellowed teeth snarled, sharpened into fangs for the purpose of intimidating Earth Ponies and Unicorns long since dead themselves. Featherless wings spread, daggers of ebony from ceremonial armor making up for the lost plumage. A forehoof on the end of an emaciated foreleg, raised as if in preparation for a charge.
And all around, the glints of more ghastly eyes, the pained moans of so many more echoing in their ears…
I, hissed Commander Hurricane, whose army shall rise AGAIN!
“Twilight…?” Pinkie breathed. “It’s getting pretty windy in here; what’s Commander Hurricane doing…?”
“She wants living Pegasi, to make a new army to conquer Equestria,” gasped Fluttershy.
Well-versed thou art in mine endeavour, pony of the earth, growled Hurricane, prowling past Twilight who felt a chill in her marrow as the undead Pegasus crossed by. From what Pegasus hath thou learned about mine army of the living dead?
“I… I am a Pegasus.”
Taketh me not for a fool. Commander Hurricane can see that an Earth Pony thou art. But still, perceiveth me thou canst. How cameth this to be?
“Discord,” replied Rarity, “transformed us all into races which we are not. I was once a Unicorn, and a very beautiful one at that.”
The translucent skin above Hurricane’s eye-sockets creased, as though doubting the alabaster Pegasus’s claim.
Thy manner dost recall that of Platinum’s, my most-loathèd enemy of all. Mad was Puddinghead, her head as empty and foul as a freshly emptied chamber-pot, but hardly was she worth my time. But ever did Platinum sneer upon me and my kind. As if I were some tawdry pea-fowl who did prance vacuously about the square…!
“Ohh, I’m sure she meant nothing about you or the Pegasus race, Commander!” Twilight cried hastily.
Matter it does not, intoned Hurricane, the blades on her wing-guards glinting in the dead light from her eyes. For my interest thy friend hath piqued. Commander Hurricane commandeth thee, once-Pegasus! She addressed Fluttershy, who coupled with the aura of the crypt seemed on the verge of passing out. Tell thine eminent Commander, how came ye upon this foul curse of becoming transmogrified as you have?
“It… it was Discord,” breathed Fluttershy, trying not to meet the undead commander’s eye.
‘Discord’… echoed Hurricane, Who or what may be this ‘Discord’? For this doth mark thrice that you hath called upon that name. Art ye on a quest?
“Yes, we are,” Twilight sighed, feeling a path to pacifying this wrathful wraith illuminated ahead. “Discord is causing mayhem and chaos for all ponies across the land, or is planning to. He’s reigned over us before and been thwarted before, but now he’s back, and we need to find something he’s hidden in here.”
Thou hath spoken out of turn towards me, hatchling, Hurricane snapped, but, seeing as a Pegasus thou art presently, Commander Hurricane doth feel obliged to permit thee a chance to have spakest thy peace. A villain who doth threaten ponies with impartiality, sayest ye?
Twilight and Rarity nodded; Fluttershy, Pinkie, Applejack, and Spike had all but passed out.
Well then… Clear the sky doth become. My forces, amassed over my many many years of entombment, shalt subdue this Discord, and persuade him to transform ALL ponies into Pegasi…!
“Wait… No!” Twilight shouted in alarm. “Commander Hurricane, bitte! That isn’t going to work…!”
But the ghastly commander seemed to have come into her own world, the pale light in her sockets turning a sickly green, shadows in the grooves of her rotten teeth darkening.
Yes…! The true and final end to the scum of the earth, the Mud-wallowers and the Head-bones! For blessed are we, the race which inheriteth the wind beneath her wings! The myriad other races of Gaia shalt know the fury of our typhoons, the wrath of our storm-troopers, the fear of the name HURRICANE…!
Twilight opened her mouth to prepare a retort, but a strange numbness swept her whole body, beginning at her wings; she nearly fell over but for the patellas swiveling beneath her to keep her upright. For several seconds, all that she could hear was the howl of the whirlwind around them. Hurricane was oddly silent.
And then, the clickity-clack of distant hooves echoing about her.
And an orange glow…
“Rainbow Dash…?” Twilight murmured, suddenly struggling to keep herself awake.
“What about Rainbow, Twilight?” Applejack asked curiously, sounding much revitalized. Then, she gave a startled yell. “What in tarnation? Who are you?”
“No… that can’ be true. Yer dead!”
Realization pierced Twilight’s mind, but before she could voice any clarification…
“Oooooh, lookit these pretty things~~~” Pinkie beamed brightly, the growing orange light as Rainbow Dash undoubtedly came closer revealing that Pinkie Pie and Applejack had now sprouted wings.
Blinking, Twilight felt the numbness ebbing away, and she felt nothing upon her back. No wings, no feathers, nothing.
“Ohhh, I miss those wings… *yawn*… already,” Rarity breathed, wings and tail-feathers gone from her physique as well. “Ohh, do pardon me, I’m just… suddenly so tired…”
With a start, Twilight noticed that while Rarity was as wingless as the day she was born, there was still something missing…
“Hey guys! Hey guys! I beat my Element of Honesty outta Discord!”
Rainbow Dash, a fresh cerulean alicorn poking out from beneath her wild forelock, galloped straight into the antechamber, her own citrine Element signifying her brand of truth set dazzling on her chest. In the growing light of her approaching Element, Twilight saw that the room they stood in was circular and high-ceilinged. Alcoves shrouded in the dark from the glow of the Element of Honesty were carved with bas-reliefs of the effigees of Pegasi of old, all with fierce and militant expressions. Beneath were marked a name along with dates of birth and death in the antique senary counting system. Looking behind, Twilight could see the tunnel they had entered through, and darkness beyond. Had they lost track of time…?
“What the―? Where’d Hurricane go…?” Applejack asked sharply, glancing about the antechamber to the catacombs.
“Wheeee~~” Pinkie Pie flew with unabashed glee to and fro about the chambers, seemingly beside herself with joy over her new appendages.
Fluttershy staggered to her hooves, “Ohh my… I think that I must have been taken in… I… Where’s Commander Hurricane?”
“Pshhh, who cares about that lame-o?” scoffed Rainbow Dash, a feral light in her eyes. “You shoulda seen me when I took down that scum-bag Discord and bagged this baby again!” She rubbed at the citrine gemstone with an affectionate fetlock.
“Well, that’s wonderful and all, Rainbow Dash, truly wonderful,” Twilight groused, feeling her new Earth Pony weightiness pulling her down slightly. How did Pinkie Pie manage on top of the quarter-ton of sweets she ate every day? “But you still left us behind and charged blindly into the High Eyries. We’re a team; we stick together, thick or thin.”
“Left you guys behind? What planet are you from?” snapped Rainbow, looking absolutely flabbergasted. “I thought you guys were right on my tail, and you left me to take on Discord alone! But, maybe it was better that way; you guys would of just slowed me down.”
Twilight blinked. Even for Rainbow Dash, this was abrasive. And, even with just the golden light of Element of Honesty, the lavender Earth Pony reckoned that Rainbow Dash’s color was off…
“Rainbow Dash… tell us how you got the Element of Honesty…?”
“Ohh it was easy… Well, you see, after you guys ditched me and just sat in her with your heads up your butts, I ran for days and days and days, till I ran into Discord. See, he was wanting to sell my Element of Honesty on the black-market for a quick buck, and you can bet that I just wouldn’t let that stand. And then, you see, the Wonderbolts, they were there too, and Discord was creaming them… literally, he turned them all into whipped cream. And, like, all of Cloudsdale was getting turned out by that guy, so I had to do something! I mean, sure, he did rip my wings out a few times, but I gave him what-for in the end! Hah, he was literally seeing stars when he handed me over the Element of Honesty. And then the Wonderbolts all handed in their resignations and named me the One True Wonderbolt!”
Twilight’s mind froze; the entire room seemed to go deathly silent. Even Pinkie Pie had frozen in the air mid-flap, dumbstruck expressions all around fixed upon the cerulean Unicorn, who had never looked more proud or smug in her entire life.
“Rainbow Dash, that didn’t sound like it really happened,” Spike said confusedly.
“That’s because it didn’t happen, Spike,” Twilight answered, her voice filled with such mingled sorrow and rage that her tone was almost totally flat. “Discord must have taken Rainbow Dash’s shared characteristic with her Element − Honesty − and somehow, someway, turned it around. She’s lying.”
FYCL, FOA'C FFOM AG VY, KHG TEDNY IUN'G NUJY,
CNQ RN UOP'T PJLV IH YBD AVT CNTAS, JAF, OE ZOVAUY.
JQYE ANL GQY KRWTU MIVS KS ZJEV YQUE QYRRV APQY,
JOOEGRGVS C LVN CJ ECSVNL KO VAXN.