After being injured during the events of "The Ponies who Played with Fire" a now-captive Discord is facing trial for murder, while Fluttershy and her small band of allies are in a desperate struggle both to clear his name and avoid their own capture.
Warning: Some comments may contain spoilers
After being injured during the events of The Ponies who Played with Fire, a now-captive Discord is awaiting trial for murder, while Fluttershy and her small band of allies are facing possible enemies on every side in their desperate struggle both to clear Discord's name and avoid their own capture.
AU Fluttercord set eleven years after the first three seasons minus the Discord episodes. Inspired by Discord and Fluttershy's relationship both in the show and several fanfics (*cough* Bride of Discord *cough*) Based loosely on the plot from "The Girl who Kicked the Hornets' Nest" by Stieg Larsson. Rated T for some plot-related Murder Mystery Elements.
"Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear."—Isaiah 65:24
The guards bearing the injured draconequus had only moved the bound-together stretchers about a dozen yards down the mountain path when their passenger's tail suddenly snapped up in the air. It lashed first one way, then the other, catching the ponies near it off-guard and knocking them off their hooves. Several of the unicorns and earth ponies tumbled dangerously close to the cliff's edge and might have fallen to the ground far below if their pegasi squadmates hadn't swooped down to catch them. With no ponies now supporting the last stretcher—the one Discord's legs and tail were strapped to—it crashed to the ground only to rise back up and slam down a second time as the draconequus continued to thrash about. The straps on his wrists, neck, and chest held fast, but he arched his lower body upward, and in the process his legs suddenly slipped free of the restraints holding them! A split-second later his tail drew backward out of its strap as well! The ponies around him all cried out in alarm, and began ducking and dodging to avoid being struck as the draconequus flailed his whole lower body about in every direction.
In the confusion, Fluttershy tried to run forward to Discord's side. She wasn't really sure what she hoped to accomplish by reaching him, but the sight of him struggling like that sparked an instinctive desire to try and soothe him. But as she tried to lunge forward Skywishes held her fast.
"Fluttershy!" the coral-colored pegasus whisper-shouted in her ear. "You can't go down there! We don't know if any of those ponies are disguised changelings or—Ow!"
Mache Max had just jabbed Skywishes right between the eyes with one of his paper wings, startling her into losing her grip on the other pegasus. Fluttershy lunged forward again, but this time Twilight and Spike both caught a hold of her and held her as firmly as Skywishes had.
"She's right, Fluttershy!" said Twilight, using the same whisper-shout Skywishes had. "Back at Canterlot, Spike and I were already attacked by two changelings disguised as guards!"
Though Fluttershy's ears heard Twilight's words, her body continued to struggle against the hooves and claws holding her. She let out a soft plaintive wail as she strained toward her former partner all while he snapped his long body about like a bullwhip, and he lunged against the bonds on his wrists, neck, and chest. Through the blood-stained scarf still bound around his head, Fluttershy saw that his eyes were open, but she couldn't tell if he was aware of his surroundings.
Discord heard indistinct voices all around him, and his eyes registered blurred shadows and shapes, but his aching head couldn't seem to comprehend anything his still scattered senses were telling him.
The only thing he could remember clearly after pleading in his mind for Fluttershy to forgive him, was hearing her sob that he was hurting her. He had reached out then, hoping against hope that his attempt to wake her and free her from that "protective" force field he had trapped her in had somehow worked. All he could remember after that was feeling her coat under his fingers, sliding them up into her mane, thinking he saw the hazy form of her face above him, and trying to draw her closer to him.
I'm sorry! I'm sorry! Fluttershy, I'm sorry! he had sobbed inside his head. He wasn't sure if he was just imagining her there, but even if she was just a piece of his imagination, he didn't want his apology to go unspoken. He had tried to get the words out, but his mouth seemed to have difficulty forming them.
Then somewhere along the way, everything had swiftly faded to black.
That is ... until now.
Now as he struggled both with the physical bonds securing his body, and the strange wall that seemed to have come between him and his magic, all he could think about was his desperation to find Fluttershy. To make sure she was all right. That he hadn't just imagined her in front of him earlier. Let her be all right! Let me see her again! Just let me see her!
As the draconequus continued to thrash about, the Royal Sisters circled above the confusion.
"Get him secured and sedated!" Celestia called down to the ponies. "Then take him to the hospital and await my orders there!"
Hospital?! As several ponies responded to the command with 'yes, your majesty'-s, Fluttershy's gaze jerked off Discord to stare up at the circling sun princess, a tiny flicker of hope sparking in her heart. Does this mean you actually listened when I said Discord was innocent? Does this mean that when you brushed me off earlier it was just because you were in a hurry to get Discord the medical attention he needs?!
But at that moment a bright light flared from Celestia's horn and she and Luna both vanished!
Fluttershy felt Twilight and Spike's grips on her both loosen—maybe they were as stunned by the Royal Sisters' sudden disappearance as she was—but she could only stay rooted to the spot, staring disbelievingly up at the portion of sky where the alicorns had just been circling.
That is until Skywishes's strained voice cut through her stupor.
"Fluttershy this might be our only chance to—will you cut it out?!"
Fluttershy's head snapped around in the direction of Skywishes's voice in time to see the coral-colored pegasus tug a blue cloak free from one of the saddlebags strapped under her armor. She threw said cloak over Mache Max, and gathered up the hem so it formed a makeshift bag. The origami parrot promptly began trying to batter his way out of his new prison, but with none of the expected screaming. Apparently he seemed to realize now was not the time or place to start screeching.
Keeping the bag shut tight, Skywishes looked back up at her fellow pegasus. "Fluttershy, this might be our only chance to sneak back to your cottage unnoticed. While everyone over there," she gestured toward the pony guards with her eyes. "is still focused on Discord."
At the mention of her former partner's name, Fluttershy automatically looked back down the path toward him. He was still struggling, but several ponies had gotten a hold of his legs and tail, and were stretching them out as far as possible while several more ponies used ropes to bind the extended limbs to the stretcher a second time. Somehow in the struggle, Discord's body had gotten twisted around so that while his top half was lying on its back, his lower half was now lying on its stomach. Fluttershy wondered if being twisted about like that was hurting him—
"Fluttershy!" Skywishes's voice jolted her like a slap. "The cottage! Remember Dinky!"
"Dinky?" Spike repeated, squinting at Skywishes. "Does she mean Derpy's kid?"
"Yes," breathed Fluttershy, her voice a trifle unsteady. Her concern for Discord had driven her worry about Dinky clear out of her head, but now her mind pulled up the image of the teenage unicorn—battered and bruised with her singed forelock—huddled under the blanket on the cot, trying to get some rest and regain what little strength she could—
"What happened to her?" Twilight asked, jerking Fluttershy out of the memory. "Do you know where she is?"
"Yes, she's at my cottage," said Fluttershy, trying to get her thoughts organized. Her throat had gone dry and she needed to swallow. "But we have to ... get back there quickly to make sure she's still safe..." She trailed off, feeling suddenly torn between her desire to stay near Discord, and her sense of responsibility regarding Dinky. Celestia had said Discord was to be taken to a hospital, but she hadn't said which hospital, so how was Fluttershy to know which one, if she didn't follow the guards? But how could she trail the guards without her wings if the pegasus ones should choose to fly with Discord? If she had still had her wings, this would not be an issue, but now...
"Good." Skywishes's take-charge tone startled Fluttershy out of her conflicted thoughts before the armored pegasus thrust the makeshift bag containing Mache Max at her. "If we fly, I can carry you, but you'll have to make sure Max doesn't get out of there and start pestering the rest of us." As the struggling bundle was placed in her hooves, a new idea suddenly popped into Fluttershy's head. Maybe she could go back to Dinky without having to completely abandon Discord after all!
Ignoring Skywishes's startled protest, Fluttershy opened the bag, and lifted out the paper parrot, who immediately stopped his flapping and nuzzled his two heads against her face. Fluttershy appreciated the affectionate gesture, but they were currently short of time, so she just gave him a few quick pats before pulling him away from her face so she could look at him.
"Max, I need you to follow Discord. I need you to find out where they take him, then come back and tell me. Can you do that for me, please?"
The parrot briefly cocked his two heads at her, then leaned forward and gently nibbled at her nose with both beaks before shooting up into the air. He seemed to rearrange his five-winged body into the shape of a paper airplane, and loop-de-looped toward where the guards were still wrestling Discord down. Once he got there, he continued to glide in circles high above the ponies, who fortunately seemed too focused on restraining the draconequus in front of them to think about scanning the sky above them.
"Well, I guess that's one way to keep him from pestering us," Skywishes muttered before turning back to Fluttershy. "Here. I'll still be carrying you."
Discord could feel his legs and tail being stretched out to the point where he felt the former would be pulled from their sockets, and the latter would be dragged out by the roots. Normally he would have responded by causing the limbs to magically stretch and stretch and stretch as if they were made of rubber, but that didn't seem to be working this time. All he could do was try to squirm away from whatever had ahold of his limbs.
Then he felt a sharp sting in the side of his neck before his body went numb and all his senses faded to black.
While the guards were still occupied with Discord, Twilight and Skywishes both took to the air, Twilight with Spike on her back, and Skywishes with Fluttershy on hers. Feeling that speed was currently more critical than stealth, they shot off in the direction of Fluttershy's cottage. As they flew, Fluttershy quickly filled Twilight and Spike in on how Skywishes, Dinky, and the two wrestlers Highflyer and Screwjob had all ended up at her place; how they had learned the truth about the murders of Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie, as well as the attack on Derpy and her daughters; and how they split up in an attempt to gather Fluttershy's closest friends before those friends could possibly be replaced with changeling-doubles.
They managed to reach the cottage without incident, and landed behind a nearby tree, where they observed said cottage. The cottage was quiet and there seemed to be no signs of a struggle or forced entry ... but that could just as easily be a trap as it could be a sign that things were all right.
"Looks like one of us will have to go up there, knock, give our code word, and see if Dinky responds with her agreed upon code word," said Skywishes after they had scrutinized the house for several seconds. Turning to Twilight and Spike, she added, "Dinky doesn't have a code word to identify either of you by, so it looks like it's got to be either me or Fluttershy."
Fluttershy felt her heartbeat speed up, and fought to keep her breath steady. "I'll do it."
Her three companions stared at her, Twilight and Spike clearly shocked at their normally timid friend volunteering to take such a risk, and even Skywishes looked taken aback.
"You sure you want to do this?" she asked.
Fluttershy was absolutely sure she did not want to do it. Walking up there into a potential trap screamed out against all her self-preservation instincts. But she had to do it. She had to do it for Dinky's sake if there was the slightest chance that the young unicorn was still alive. She met Skywishes's dark green eyes with her turquoise ones. "It's like you said. We're the only two with code words Dinky knows about. And..." Her voice faltered, but she forced herself to continue. "...and if any changelings are lurking in there, they'd probably be more likely to recognize me in this camouflage than you in that armor."
Skywishes gave her a single acknowledging nod, and Twilight put a hoof on Fluttershy's shoulder. "We'll be right here, ready to jump in and help at the first sign of trouble."
"Thank you, Twilight," Fluttershy whispered, before stepping cautiously out from behind the tree. She flinched as her hoof crunched a patch of gravel on the path. In her current tense state, the noise seemed as loud as a cannon shot. She instinctively tried to flutter her wings, to lift herself off the ground so she could avoid any more patches of gravel ... only to get a reminder that her wings were now gone from her back as if they had never existed. She looked back up at her cottage, the path to it now seeming a hundred treacherous miles long. A soft whimper escaped her lips and a shiver ran down her spine. Her now-stumpy tail tried to tuck itself between her legs. As afraid as she might feel, she had to go up there. For Dinky's sake. Taking in a deep breath to steady herself, she began setting each hoof down carefully, testing the ground with each step before putting her weight on it. With every step she also found herself darting glances all around her, feeling exposed in a way she had never experienced before.
After what felt like a painful, hours-long journey but was probably only minutes, she finally reached the front door. Lifting a trembling hoof, she knocked, and softly called out, "Hello? It's Wasp."
"Whistler," she heard Dinky's voice croak. But to her astonishment, it didn't seem to be coming from behind the door! It sounded as if it had come from behind her! Fluttershy looked in that direction just as she heard the door in front of her open.
"Fluttershy, watch out!" Twilight shouted, just before a body slammed into Fluttershy, knocking her onto her back. Looking up, she found herself face to semitransparent face with a snarling changeling! She felt herself freeze in stunned terror, but the next moment a blast of magenta light struck the changeling, knocking it away from her. She crab-walked in an attempt to put more distance between herself and the downed changeling, but a turquoise aura suddenly encased her back legs and began dragging her toward the open cottage door. She shrieked and grabbed at the edge of the open door. When it slammed shut, she was sandwiched between it and the door frame, the former pressing into her chest and the latter digging into her spine. She cried out in pain as the changeling or changelings behind the door jerked her viciously back and forth, trying to loosen her hold on the door.
Then Twilight's magenta magic surrounded her and began trying to pull her back outside. A moment later Skywishes was there as well, grabbing Fluttershy's hooves in her own and hauling on them. Fluttershy saw the changeling who had first attacked her pushing itself to its feet behind Skywishes. But before it could go after the armored pegasus, Spike barreled forward, ramming the changeling in the chest. Fluttershy had a brief glimpse of him clamping his mouth over the changeling's shoulder, with green and orange sparks flashing from the corners of his mouth. Then the fighting dragon and changeling tumbled out of her line of sight and she was too busy trying to kick free of the magic imprisoning her back legs.
For several terrible moments they struggled and Fluttershy felt as if her body was going to be ripped in half, but then she, Twilight and Skywishes won the tug of war! Skywishes stumbled backward and landed on her back as Fluttershy shot forward. They lost hold of each other's hooves and Fluttershy sailed over her fence to tumble into the mud below. Briefly stunned, she lay there while the sounds of fighting raged above her. Then there was movement to her left and she flinched.
"Whistler," a mound of earth croaked, before one end of it lifted, revealing itself to be Dinky, bundled in the torn camouflage Skywishes had left at the cottage. She looked awful. When Fluttershy had last seen her, most of her forelock had been burned away but now all her blonde mane seemed to have been hacked off save for a few jagged tufts here and there. Its absence made the combination of sickly pallor and nasty bruises showing through her lilac coat all the more prominent.
Fluttershy wondered how on earth Dinky had ended up outside in this state, but there was no time to question her now. Especially not when she had just given the code word confirming her identity.
"Wasp," Fluttershy whispered to the teenager before looking back up to where Twilight, Spike, and Skywishes were still struggling with the changelings.
"Down here!" she called up to them. "Everyone, Dinky's down here! She's outside with us!"
"We're coming! Hang on!" Twilight shouted. This was followed by a lightning-like flash, and a blast of magenta magic that radiated out from the overhang above Fluttershy. Looking up, she thought she saw the faintly shimmering outlines of semitransparent changelings tumbling through the air. While the changelings were still trying to right themselves, Fluttershy saw Skywishes leap down from the overhang. The armored pegasus used her wings to slow her fall and landed just a few feet from Fluttershy. Spike was straddling Skywishes's withers and his arms were wrapped around her helmeted head. A moment later Twilight landed next to them as well. Above them, Fluttershy saw the faintly gleaming outlines of semitransparent changelings. But as these changelings swooped down on them, Spike leaned forward and spat a blast of flames that umbrellaed out over him and the four ponies, forcing the changelings to fly back out of his range in the process.
"Everyone, grab onto me!" Twilight ordered, and as Fluttershy squeezed her eyes shut against the fire's blinding light, she grabbed Dinky's foreleg in one hoof, and one of Twilight's wing joints in the other.
Behind the shield of fire, Twilight's horn flashed with brilliant light as she teleported herself, Spike, and her three fellow ponies away from the scene.
As Discord slowly came to, he tried to open his eyes but his eyelids felt as if they weighed a ton. He didn't seem able to move anything else either for that matter. In theory this should be frightening, but somehow his brain couldn't seem to muster up the energy to worry. Am I ... drugged? He thought he heard voices around him and a faint beeping sound but was unable to do more than dully listen to them.
"What's his condition?" said a male voice he didn't recognize.
"He seems to be stabilizing," said a second, apprehensive, male voice that he felt he might have heard somewhere before but couldn't quite place. "But I've never had the opportunity to examine a draconequus before, let alone operate on one, so I have to rely on a lot of guesswork. I mean, just look at this wound on his head. It not only split his skull nearly in half but it was backed by magic. If he'd been one of us, an injury like this would have been instantly fatal."
"Then how's he still alive if that head is about as close to pony-like as he seems to get biologically?"
"As near as I can tell, when that wound was inflicted, his chaotic magic tried to keep him alive by going into overdrive, and spilling over onto everything around him. But again, I've never had to treat a draconequus before, so I don't know what's usual for them. I'm just used to patching up ponies." There was a pause, then he added, "Maybe we'd be better off calling in a vet. At least they'd know more about working with all these different animal parts."
Discord was scandalized. Granted he knew his mismatched appearance often unsettled ponies, and it always gave him a thrill of pleasure when it did, but that did not regulate him to the position of merely some oddball creature to be gaped at! He was the Spirit of Chaos and Disharmony for crying out loud! A little more respect was in order!
He was just about to try and put on a display to remind these ponies just who they were dealing with when the second one, the one who seemed to be in charge, spoke up again.
"But on second thought, none of the vets I know have ever worked with animals packed with the kind of magic he has. If it weren't for those gold cuffs inhibiting his power, he'd probably be doing to this place what he did to Foal Mountain."
"Why, what happened to Foal Mountain?"
"Didn't you hear? That's where they caught him. Apparently he was doing that routine he's been doing all over Equestria for the past year, turning that mountain chaotic from the inside out, before the Royal Sisters flew in and brought him back out burned, cuffed, unconscious, and with his head busted open." There was another pause before he continued. "And I shudder to think what sort of fight he was putting up if they had to resort to this sort of attack to stop him."
It wasn't them who did this, you idiot! Discord shouted inside his head, but all that came out of his mouth was a slurred "Washn't dem did dis iddit..."
"Shoot, the sedative is wearing off," cried the second pony. "Get me more horse tranquilizer! See what I mean about guess work? His system keeps burning through everything at different rates than we calculated for his size and weight."
Discord thought he might have felt something pierce the side of his neck, but he couldn't be sure, as his brain suddenly seemed to go all sluggish.
"Frankly, I don't see why you're even going to all the trouble to keep this lousy murderer alive," he thought he heard the first pony mutter as he drifted into unconsciousness.
"I'm doing it on Princess Celestia's orders. Maybe she's hoping that if we keep him alive we can force him to tell us how to successfully turn Derpy right-side out again. Or at least tell us what he did with her missing younger daughter."
Fluttershy suddenly found herself surrounded by leaves, and wondered where Twilight had taken them.
But before she could ask, she heard the alicorn whisper-shout, "Everypony stay as still as you can while I cast an invisibility spell!" There was a bright flash of light, and when Fluttershy looked down at her body, she saw only leaves. She raised a hoof in front of her face, and the air in front of her shimmered and wavered oddly.
"Stay still!" Twilight's voice hissed next to her. "The more you move, the faster the spell weakens and wears off!"
Fluttershy obediently froze, but then an angry shout behind her forced her to whirl around.
"Blast! We almost had them!"
Looking in the direction of the voice, she found herself looking down from the leafy top of her cottage, while the faint outlines of semitransparent changelings darted about below. As a couple of the changelings looked up in her direction, she couldn't keep from instinctively huddling down in the leaves, in spite of Twilight's warning to stay still. While she didn't make a sound outwardly, inwardly she was screaming her head off, wondering what on earth had prompted Twilight to teleport them here instead of far, far away.
"Well, it's not a total loss," said another changeling. "At least we now know old Skew-eyes's daughter is with Twilight and Fluttershy, and Twilight's pet dragon."
Fluttershy thought she heard Spike make a soft disgruntled rumble next to her.
"Fat lot of good that does us," snapped the first changeling. "They're probably on the other side of Equestria by now!"
"Even if they are, they can't stay there forever," the second one pointed out. "More likely they went to a place they know and feel safe at. And considering how we've been observing them for the past decade..." The second changeling trailed off, but the first one seemed to brighten at these words.
"Ah, right. We can put all the other changelings on alert. Have them watching every place we know Twilight and her buddies go. Their homes, their friends' houses, their families' houses, the library—"
"So many libraries!"
"—the apple farm, the boutique—"
"And who says we changelings even have to do all the watching ourselves? We can leak word to some of the real ponies that the princess and her friends have vanished and to be on the alert for any sign of their whereabouts. We can even imply that Discord is behind the disappearances, which will make them even more desperate to find those poor, missing ponies, and give us even higher emotions to feed on."
"Heh heh, as if we need any more," the first changeling chuckled. Fluttershy could practically hear it licking its lips. "It's like an all-you-can-eat-buffet already." Then its good mood seemed to fade. "Which is probably why we didn't sense the little unicorn when we first got here. All the emotions pouring out of Ponyville blocked hers."
The second one shrugged. "Small price to pay for all the power we've been absorbing. Come on, let's get back to the Queen, tell her what's going on, and then get a lockdown on all Twilight's potential hiding places."
The second changeling started to fly forward, but the first one stayed where it was. "Hey, don't you think one of us should stay here, just in case those ponies come back?"
"I don't think they'll be coming back, knowing we're here. But we can always put someone here later. We'll flush those ponies out into the open soon enough."
And with that, the changelings flew off. For several moments there was silence, as the four ponies and the dragon watched and waited to make sure the changelings really were gone. Then there was a brief flash of magenta light, and Twilight lifted the invisibility spell so they could all look at each other.
"This is bad." said Spike.
"This is very bad," Twilight concurred. "This is really really bad." Her voice was slowly but surely getting higher and more agitated. "They might have left but they'll be back soon! What do we do?! You heard them! They know every place we've been in the past ten years! We have no place to go! No place to hide! No place they don't know about!"
"Oh, yes, you do." Skywishes's flat voice was such a contrast with Twilight's panicked one, that it drew everyone's attention to her. She wasn't looking at any of them, but was instead looking out into the distance, as if she were completely unaffected by the current situation. "There's one place you haven't been to in the past ten years."
"Beware of your friends; do not trust anyone in your clan. For every one of them is a deceiver, and every friend a slanderer."—Jeremiah 9:4
Almost immediately Fluttershy spotted what she was sure was a flaw in Skywishes's statement. "But what if some changelings followed the two of us when you first took me to the TreeHAB? What if they've been following you all these years the same way they've been following the rest of us?"
Skywishes grimaced. "I admit that's a possibility ... but after what just happened here, I think it's unlikely. If they knew where the TreeHAB is, why didn't they just break into it while I was away and wait to ambush me when I got back, the same way they just tried to do with you here? Why try to capture me while I was still traveling through the forest?"
"I guess you have a point..." Fluttershy started to concede, then trailed off as another issue occurred to her. "But what about Highflyer and Screwjob?" Should they wait for the wrestlers to return, or try to get to the TreeHAB before any changelings returned? And that was not even taking into account the fact that one or both of the wrestlers might already have been caught, captured, or maybe even killed. She turned to the young unicorn next to her. "Dinky, have you seen any sign of either of them?"
Dinky lifted her ragged head. "No, I haven't seen any—"
Spike interrupted her by suddenly clearing his throat. "Looks like that might be about to change. At least where one of them is concerned." He pointed down at a valley near the cottage, and the four ponies looked in this direction to see a lumpy gray-green shape moving furtively across it. As the shape drew nearer, Fluttershy saw that it seemed to be a stained dirty blanket. And peeking cautiously out from under the blanket were at least two ponies: one with a cowpony hat and a blonde mane, and one with a jetty black mane, an equally black circle beard, and bandages over his left eye.
But how can we be sure that's really them? Fluttershy wondered.
When he had first left the cottage, Screwjob had started off strong but after several yards his head began to throb and his vision began to swim. He stumbled and halted, head down, eyes squeezed shut.
Not now, Jobs. Not now, he mentally urged himself, fighting to stay conscious through the pain. If he had still been back at the cottage, he would have yielded without a struggle, trusting in the other ponies to wake him if anything important should happen. But now he was well aware that that wasn't an option.
Come on, Jobs, a small voice in the back of his mind suddenly scoffed. It almost sounded like Highflyer. You've always prided yourself on having the hardest head in Equestria. You've knocked yaks out with it for crying out loud! And now you're going to let a little bump on the noggin stop you?! Ha, if High could see you now, he'd never let you live it down.
And with that thought, Screwjob forced his head up, mentally slipping into the wrestling persona that had served him as effectively as any physical suit of armor on many occasions. Now was not the time to think like the stallion who was suffering a pounding headache and was eaten up with worry about his friends' safety ... but as the stallion the rest of Equestria saw in the ring. The one who would use any dirty trick, and bend or break any rule he could to hang onto his wrestling title and keep his opponents beaten down. Especially his archrival: that uppity little flightless midget.
I'll wipe the smirk off High's mask before he can even get it in place! Screwjob's wrestling persona declared as he pushed himself back up onto all fours. He weaved unsteadily, but lifted his aching head.
Come on, his wrestling persona thought defiantly as he peered around him, trying to catch sight of any of the faint shimmers that would indicate semitransparent changelings. Come on, I'm right here. Come and get me. While at the same time, the real stallion underneath all that bravado was mentally pleading, Please if you're out there, don't notice me. I'm really not shopping around for a fight.
He could make out no shimmers, but kept himself braced for a possible attack as he started moving forward again. His head was still aching and his limbs trembled, but he managed to put a bit of his signature swagger back into his step, soldiering through the pain as if he were working a wrestling match.
But the willing spirit could only overrule the weakened flesh for so long. By the time Screwjob had reached the edge of Sweet Apple Acres' orchard, the pounding in his head had become merciless. He sat down, and rested his forehead against the nearest tree, his exposed eye squeezed shut. Just lying down and trying to go to sleep would feel so good right now...
A loud thump suddenly snapped him back into alertness. Shaking the wooziness out of his head, he squinted his one visible eye in the direction the noise seemed to have come from. Peeking around the tree, he felt a smile tug at the corners of his mouth at the sight of Applejack kicking a nearby tree. She didn't seem to have noticed him, probably thanks to the green cloak Fluttershy had lent him.
Rein it in, Jobs, he warned himself. You don't know for sure that that's her. At least not yet. Ducking back behind the tree, he pulled off the cloak and unfastened the saddlebags from around his middle. There was too much risk of both him getting tangled in the cloak and the jar of apple peelings breaking if he followed his current course of action. He stretched his rolled-up tights back down into place over his long legs, then licked his front hooves and floofed up his forelock, feeling a tad smug that his chosen mane-style didn't require too much maintenance to look good. Well, the show must go on, he thought as he mentally slipped back into his wrestling persona once again. A heel's gotta do what a heel's gotta do.
Though there weren't many apples left in the orchard, Applejack had gone out to collect what remained of them in hopes that the physical labor would help take her mind off the recent death of her grandmother, and the murders of two of her closest friends. But as she kicked a tree trunk and heard the apples landing in the baskets she had set out, her thoughts drifted unbidden back to that day she had told her friends about her grandmother's death, of Pinkie's attempts to briefly cheer them up by claiming she would put the "fun" in funeral. But never had Applejack imagined that—
These thoughts were interrupted as her hat was suddenly snatched from her head.
"Ha ha! I gotcher hat! I gotcher hat! I gotcher hat!" crowed a horribly familiar male voice. She had heard it before on only two occasions, but there was no mistaking that clipped nasal twang that managed to be both so different and so annoyingly similar to her own beloved family's country accents.
She whirled around to see the voice's owner dancing about on his hind legs, gleefully tossing her hat from one front hoof to the other.
This was too much! She charged him, determined to get her hat back. But just before she reached him, the prancing stallion sidestepped her and, tossing the hat away, dropped his forelegs down around her neck. This pulled her up short, forcing her to rear onto her hind legs. The two ponies overbalanced and fell over backward with Applejack on top of Screwjob. The back of her head collided with his face, and she felt a rush of vindictive pleasure when he howled with pain. She rolled away from him, and back onto her hooves, ready to stomp a hole in his gut for good measure ... when she noticed the bandages covering his left eye. A bit of the fight went out of her at the thought of facing an injured opponent ... until she remembered who she was dealing with, and the way he'd used his "hurt" hind legs as an excuse to hang all over her.
"I swear," she snarled, pulling her hoof back in preparation for him pulling any funny business. "If you're fakin' it with those bandages—"
"Oh, don't I wish I was!" he replied, sitting up and rubbing at his face. "And as much as I'd love to continue our sparring, I need to know where Gummy is! Stat!"
Applejack briefly wondered how he knew Gummy had even been at the farm, but was too annoyed to dwell on it. "Like it's any of your business," she muttered as she retrieved her hat.
"Apps! The gator!"
As she jammed the hat back on her head, she whirled around to face him, incensed by that stupid nickname he had saddled her with. "Big Mac took him to the Pie Family Rock Farm!"
Applejack had just opened her mouth, intending to give him a withering response, when she heard her brother's voice behind her.
"AJ, this guy bothering you?"
"Yes!" Applejack spun around to see her brother walking toward them. He didn't seem to have Gummy with him anymore so his trip to take the gator to the rock farm must have been a success—
Suddenly a spandex-clad blur shot past Applejack and toward her brother. Screwjob skidded to a stop right in front of Big Mac, reared up on his hind legs, and seized the yoke around the big stallion's neck in his front hooves, as if trying to yank it off. Startled, Big Mac tried to pull away, but Screwjob dug in his heels and hung on, still pulling furiously at the yoke. Then he suddenly let go and flung his forelegs around Big Mac's neck in a sideways hug. His head came down behind Big Mac's and the red stallion suddenly let out a yell of pain as he scrambled backward in a circle, trying to get away from Screwjob. As the two stallions turned, Applejack's jaw dropped in shocked outrage. The crazy wrestler had his teeth sunk deep into the back of her brother's yoke, and judging by the way Big Mac was yelling and struggling, Screwjob must have been biting down on a fold of skin as well!
Using his teeth and forelegs, Screwjob lifted Big Mac onto his hind legs before sweeping one of his own back legs behind them. As Big Mac's legs were knocked out from under him, Screwjob unlatched his teeth from the back of the yoke and shoved the bigger stallion down onto the ground. Big Mac landed sprawled on his back and before he could recover, Screwjob swiftly stepped around behind him, and trapped his head and front legs in a full nelson.
For several seconds both the Apple siblings seemed too stunned by Screwjob's actions to react. Until Big Mac tried to sit up and Screwjob jerked him about in a jackknifing movement, keeping him down.
Big Mac tried to get free of Screwjob's hold several more times only to be met with the same result each time. Glaring up at the wrestler, he growled under his breath, "When I get out of this—"
"Fat chance, you farm-boy phony," Screwjob panted. "I know every submission hold ever invented, I can do this all day."
Big Mac looked to his sister. "A little help?"
"Gladly!" Applejack gritted through clenched teeth as she raced toward the two stallions. All her reluctance to strike the injured wrestler was now outweighed by the fury she felt at his actions. "You're gonna get it now, buster! You come barging onto my farm, you pester me, you mess with my brother, you—!"
"Apps, this isn't your brother!"
A blow to the face could not have stunned Applejack more effectively than Screwjob's words. "What are you talking about?! Of course he is!"
"No! He isn't! He's a disguised changeling!"
"Don't listen to him, Applejack!" Big Mac shouted. "That head injury has scrambled his brains!"
"You can't scramble what's not there, pal," Screwjob muttered down at Big Mac before looking back up, all joking seemingly gone from his tone. "Apps, I swear on my Aunt Moonshine this isn't your brother!" Then he added almost as a quick afterthought, "And I love that woman with my life, so I don't swear by her lightly."
"Applejack, you can't honestly believe this guy!"
Applejack didn't reply to either of them. She was rooted to the spot, her eyes darting wildly back and forth between the two stallions. Who should she side with? The sweet brother she had known and loved all her life? Or the pesky wrestler she had learned to detest in the few moments she had been in his presence? Big Mac knew and respected her desire for honesty, while Screwjob had already proven he would fib to get what he wanted. It should have been an obvious choice, but...
But what if this time the wrestler ... was telling the truth? She knew nothing of this Aunt Moonshine he had mentioned, so swearing on "that woman" as he had called her meant nothing to Applejack, but still ... what if he ... was right?
Her eyes flicked back down to Big Mac, all pleasure at seeing him now replaced with uncertainty. She knew better than most ponies what changelings were capable of when it came to disguising themselves as loved ones, and this encounter was bringing back unpleasant memories of returning home ten years ago only to be met with a brother who wasn't...
Her gaze flicked up to her not-so-secret (and completely unwanted) admirer. Why, oh why did it have to be a choice between trusting her brother and trusting ... him?!
"Why should I believe you?!" she demanded of Screwjob, if only to use him as a target for her current frustration. "For all I know you're a disguised changeling!"
"Apps, you despise me. If I was a changeling trying to lure you into a trap, and had the option of looking like any pony I wanted to, don't you think I'd disguise myself as somepony you like and would trust without question, as opposed to somepony you can't stand?"
Applejack snorted. "That's the dumbest—!" But then she caught herself midsentence as his words fully sank in. "That's ..." That's ... actually a good point.
"You want more proof you can trust me? Come see this!" Screwjob began backing toward a tree, dragging the still-captive and still-struggling Big Mac with him. "See that saddlebag?" He pointed at the saddlebag with one back hoof and Big Mac suddenly jerked him off the remaining hoof, throwing him forward in a type of overhead throw. For an instant, it seemed like Big Mac would get free, but when Screwjob's lower body slammed against the ground, he kicked both back legs out, lifting himself back into the air, and got both back hooves planted underneath him. Now he was standing in a bent-over-backward position with Big Mac's head under his back, and his front legs still trapping those of the other stallion.
"Apps, Fluttershy told me to give you what's in that saddlebag, and tell you 'It's happening again!' She said you'd know what that meant!" Screwjob shouted all in one breath before being forced to put all his attention on keeping his opponent imprisoned. He felt Big Mac struggling to rise behind him, and locked his forelegs tight together, keeping Big Mac's forelegs pinned behind the angry, growling red stallion in the process. The leaning backward position was far from comfortable or ideal, but Screwjob didn't dare try to shift out of it lest he give the other stallion a chance to escape. That is until he felt sharp teeth in his back right between his shoulders. He squalled and arched his back in an attempt to get away from the biting teeth...
When he suddenly felt them tear free, raking his back in the process. Losing both his footing and his hold on Big Mac's forelegs, Screwjob landed hard on his back, but promptly swiveled his hips to get his feet underneath him. Rolling onto his stomach, he looked up in time to see Applejack walloping Big Mac with a half-full apple basket. As the big stallion went down, Applejack tossed the basket off to the side, snatched up Fluttershy's loaner cloak, and wrapped it around her brother's head, blinding him.
"Apps!" Screwjob cheered. "Just what I was hoping for! Help from a damsel, heh-heh, in distress!"
"Oh, shut up!" she snapped, thrusting her still-struggling brother toward him. "And hang onto this faker while I get my rope!"
"Don't bother, I got this!" said Screwjob, wrapping Big Mac in a one-legged embrace, and tugging the cloak away. There was a quick glimpse of Big Mac's snarling face before Screwjob snapped his head forward like an attacking snake. His forehead slammed into Big Mac's face with a noise like boulders smashing together. The red stallion went limp and dropped to the ground, while the brown one staggered back, clutching his head and yowling in pain. "Oh, my head! Oh, hurt!"
Applejack ignored his noise as she stared down at the now-unconscious creature that she was finally sure was most definitely not her brother. Not with those bloodstained fang-like teeth no pony had ever had.
The next several minutes passed in a blur for Applejack as she retrieved her rope and hogtied the unconscious changeling still disguised as her brother. As she dragged the now-bound changeling toward the barn, her mind was churning with questions. What exactly did Fluttershy mean by it was happening again? What had happened to her brother and Gummy? Why was Screwjob here? Her gaze flicked quickly to the wrestler who had ceased his howling and was now trailing closely after her, albeit with a woozy stagger to his steps at times. The cloak and saddlebags had been thrown over his back, and he was still massaging his forehead with one front hoof. While she could think of many ponies whose company she'd prefer over his, she knew that beggars couldn't be choosers, and like it or not, it looked like he was her only current source of information.
Once the bound changeling was locked up in the barn, the two ponies hurried to the farmhouse. As soon as they were inside, Applejack locked up behind them.
"Alright," she said, turning to face Screwjob. "What's—?"
"You got a mirror?" he asked. In the time it had taken her to lock the doors, he had shed the cloak and saddlebags, and stripped off his sleeveless black shirt. Now he was turning around and around in a circle, apparently trying to see the bite wound on his back.
"Hold still, I'll take care of that bite," Applejack said impatiently, as she retrieved a sponge, antiseptic, and bandages.
"I want to see the wound," Screwjob demanded. At which point Applejack noticed a hoof mirror on a nearby table and, snatching it up, thrust it at him. He held it behind him while looking over his right shoulder at it with his one visible eye. He didn't have much time to look before Applejack slapped the antiseptic-soaked sponge over the wound.
"Well, at least he got me down between the shoulders," said Screwjob, his voice conversational though he winced as the antiseptic stung. "If it had been higher, he might have ruined this scar right here," he gestured to a scar near the base of his neck that was mostly hidden by his mane, "and that would have been a shame because I like this scar. It's a great conversation starter."
Before she could stop them, Applejack's eyes automatically moved to the allegedly great conversation starter. "That one?"
The wrestler actually had quite a collection of scars on his head, neck, and shoulders, but the one he'd singled out didn't look particularly unusual or impressive.
Screwjob grinned at her disbelieving tone. "Would you believe it won me a free manecut?"
"You don't say," Applejack deadpanned, trying and not quite succeeding in hiding her now-peaked curiosity.
"I did just say. It happened when I was in Manehattan. There I was in the chair, all ready to pay for the manecut as per usual, when about halfway through things the stylist—what was her name, Seed-something—accidentally stabbed me in the neck right where that scar is now. She felt so bad about it, she decided not to charge me for the manecut."
Applejack suddenly had a sneaking suspicion she might know who that mane-stylist was. However, she just huffed dismissively while continuing to clean the wound. "Look, as lovely as the idea of you being stabbed in the neck sounds, we've got more important things to talk about. Like why are you here? What's going on with Fluttershy? How'd you know that was a disguised changeling? And what happened to your eye?"
"Hmm, it'd probably be best if I started at the beginning. We want to get the cart before the wagon and all that."
She frowned at his phrasing. "You mean 'get the pony before the wagon.'"
He shrugged, then winced as it pulled at the wound between his shoulders. "Yeah, that too." And while Applejack bandaged the wound on his back, Screwjob proceeded to relate how the day before he and Highflyer had wound up paying Derpy and her daughters a visit, only for Highflyer to end up in a tussle with another masked pony that looked identical to him in every way. He described how Highflyer had attempted to unmask the other pony, and had succeeded ... but not quite in the way he had intended.
"High got the other High pinned down, and tried to tear off his mask. Except he couldn't do it because that mask was part of the changeling's skin, shell, whatever. So now if you ever run into Highflyer and you're not sure it's him, go for his mask. If you can't tear it off, you've got a disguised changeling, and if you can tear it off, you've got a ticked-off Highflyer. Win-win. I was applying the same principle when I swiped your hat."
She cocked an eyebrow. "In other words, you consider ticking me off a win?"
He faltered at that. "Uh, well ... How about we just go with you're cute when you're angry?" That thought seemed to perk him up and he grinned at her over his shoulder, wiggling his exposed eyebrow suggestively. "And if you ever want to make sure it's really me, just try stripping me and see if I object."
She sighed in exasperation. "Do you ever give it a rest?"
"Hey, just trying to mix business with pleasure."
"Well, right now we need more business and less pleasure! So what's the deal with your bandaged eye?"
"The eye is fine. I think. But the eyebrow above it got busted yesterday. Fluttershy stitched it up though—Uh oh." He had just taken that moment to glance into the hoof mirror he had set down, and noticed for the first time that blood was seeping through the bandages over his eye.
Applejack sighed. "Come here. Let me see it."
Screwjob obliged and she peeled the bandages off his eye.
"Ugh," she grimaced. "Looks like your stitches busted when you head-butted that changeling."
"Yeah, once it's stitched up, I'm pretty sure it's not supposed to squirt like that."
"Fortunately for you, I just happen to have some needles nearby," said Applejack, picking up a needle book, and jerking several long blonde hairs out of her tail.
Screwjob arched his intact eyebrow and Oooh-ed suggestively.
Applejack rolled her eyes. "Don't get any ideas, stud. I'm only using my hair so I'll be able to see the stitches. I'd just as soon pull out your tail hairs—"
"Then by all means yank away," said Screwjob, turning enough to swish his long tail—which despite recent events had managed to maintain a surprising amount of its usual luxuriance—invitingly in her direction.
"—but it would just blend in with your eyebrow," Applejack continued, ignoring his interruption as she planted a front hoof against his spandex-clad hindquarters and shoved him away. "Now hold still. This will hurt you more than me." She wound up taking probably more pleasure than she should have in stabbing Screwjob with the needle. That was until she finished and was knotting off the last stitch.
"I am never taking these stitches out," Screwjob declared as Applejack broke off the trailing ends of the blonde hair.
She snorted. "Well, if you want a permanent reminder of how stupid that head-butting move was..."
"It was not!" Screwjob was indignant.
She gave him a disdainful look, and he resignedly raised his hooves.
"O-kay, so I'm blessed with a head like concrete and in the heat of the moment I forgot that concrete was currently a bit cracked. But it still wasn't a dumb idea! Normally I can knock a yak out cold with a well-aimed skull-bash and walk away none the worse for wear."
"Rrrright," Applejack drawled sarcastically.
"It's true! I've done it! Just hunt down any yak you can find, ask them about the Screwy Pony and they'll confirm it. Then again ... given our current situation, any of those yaks might actually be disguised changelings..."
As Applejack covered his left eyebrow, and by extension his eye, with fresh bandages, Screwjob continued relaying the events that had brought him there: the battle at Ghastly Gorge, Derpy's sacrifice (which he admittedly hadn't seen firsthoof), the escape back to Fluttershy's cottage, Skywishes's reappearance, the info Fluttershy had gotten via Discord (not to mention the draconequus's innocence), and the little group's subsequent plan to alert the rest of Fluttershy's friends to the truth.
"So here I am to collect you, your brother, and the gator," Screwjob concluded, pulling on his black shirt now that Applejack had finished bandaging his wounds. As his head popped through the neck-hole, his expression was grim. "But it looks like I only got here in time to find one out of three."
"Argh! I hate this!" Applejack snapped suddenly. "I can't believe I'm in this situation where I can't trust anypony again!"
At this Screwjob suddenly seemed to perk up. "Hey, look on the bright side. This time you've got me."
She whirled on him. How dare he be so flippant?! "That's no bright side!"
"Sure it is. I'm the one guy the changelings can't use against you. What are they gonna do? Pose as me to try and feed off your love? Ha, no!" Then his expression abruptly sobered. "No," he murmured as if to himself, his tone suddenly wistful. "No, you don't love me. Anyone with a brain in their head can see that."
Once again Applejack was caught off-guard by his reasoning. Could her abhorrence of this stallion actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the current situation? Make him much less likely to be used against her? While it was true she didn't feel any kind of affection towards him—certainly not love!—and definitely never would, she did feel her dislike of him lessen a minute fraction, to be replaced with a modicum of respect for his thought process. Plus, there was the fact that he finally seemed to have taken a hint and was backing off... "Well, I'm glad you finally realized and accepted that."
He jerked, apparently startled by her words. "Realized, sure. Accepted? Absolutely not!"
"But you just said—"
Suddenly that familiar grin she loathed split his face. "I said anyone with a brain in their head, which by definition excludes me. Plus, I wouldn't be the heel that I am if I let a little thing like being pony non-grata dissuade me."
Applejack gaped at him, and as his words sunk in, that modicum of respect leaked away. She glared at him. "So you're just gonna keep pushing and hounding me until I go out with you, is that it?!"
He shrugged. "Yeah, pretty much."
"You are unbelievable," she muttered exasperatedly.
She let out a low growl. "Oh, if you weren't injured..."
"You'd sock me? Go ahead. It never stops High from slugging me."
Applejack was sorely tempted to sucker punch him, but the eager glint in his visible eye warned her that if she put a hoof near him, it might not make a return trip. At least not without his permission. Still it was tempting—
Whether she would have given into that temptation would never be known because at that exact moment the room was filled with a harsh blaring alarm that spooked both ponies. They almost collided with each other as they flinched and suddenly found themselves huddled back-to-back as they looked about wildly, trying to trace the noise to its source. At some point in the confusion, they each caught a glimpse of the heart-shaped charms on the undersides of their hooves, and noticed that the charms were flashing wildly. As the alarm continued to scream, both ponies instinctively tried to wrestle the charms from their respective hooves, and hurled them at the far wall. Both charms struck the wall and clattered to the floor where they continued to flash, and the alarm continued to blare. Then just as suddenly as it had started, the alarm went silent and the charms stopped flashing.
The two ponies were silent for several long seconds, bracing themselves for the alarm to start again before Screwjob finally spoke up.
"Apps, I think somepony might have found Discord."
Applejack nodded shakily before suddenly moving forward and pulling out a large dirty-looking blanket from a pile of rags in a corner.
Screwjob squinted his visible eye at it. "What's that for?"
"Camouflage until we can get to Fluttershy's. This blanket could be mistaken for a rock if we hunker down under it."
"Don't start that again, mister! You keep your hooves to yourself!"
"Can I lean on you if I start feeling woozy?"
"Only if you keep your hooves to yourself."
He grinned. "Anything you say, Apps."
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. He had agreed to that condition far too easily. "And keep your lips to yourself too!"
"Rats," he muttered, but his tone was good-natured. "You catch on quick."
"Come on," she said, gesturing for him to join her under the blanket. "And while we're heading there, don't you dare start nodding off, or I'll leave you behind."
"You won't do that, Apps," said Screwjob as he joined her under the blanket. Much to her annoyance, he didn't sound the least bit fazed by her threat. "You're far too much of a noble hero to abandon even a heel like me." He shot her a sly sidelong glance. "It's one of the reasons I like you."
Applejack just rolled her eyes at this. Unfortunately the arrogant airhead's assessment of her character was spot-on.
When the train pulled to a stop at the Crystal Empire's station, and its passengers disembarked, none of them thought to check underneath it. Thus, none of them saw the green fabric bundle that seemed to be snagged on the underside of one car. For several moments the bundle was motionless. Then it began to flex about, uttering low moans as it strained. Suddenly Highflyer's masked head emerged from one end of it with a section of the fabric clenched in his teeth. He spat the fabric out, and the green cloak unfurled both from around his body and the thick bar that all four of his legs were wrapped around. The tiny stallion tried to let go of the bar but his limbs seemed to have locked up after being in that position the entire train ride.
Where's Fluttershy when you need her? he mentally bemoaned. He could really use another one of those massages now.
Well, there was only one other option. He drew in several deep breaths to ready himself. Alright. One. Two. Three! He put all his strength into wrenching his limbs off the bar and it sent the expected spasms of pain racing up all four of his legs. It hurt so bad it tore a scream from his mouth a moment before he fell the short distance to the train tracks. He groaned, fighting to hold back a second scream as he turned slowly onto his side, and the circulation returned painfully to his cramped limbs. It wouldn't do to suddenly get caught after he had managed to make it this far.
That day Rarity and Apple Bloom had decided to take a break from Amberlocks' Orchards business by going to the market to see some of the Empire's crystal sheep. Apple Bloom was in a pen with the sheep themselves while Rarity was in the nearby booth, examining some displays of yarn made from crystal sheep wool.
Suddenly a throat cleared behind her. "Eh-hem, Rarity."
Startled into dropping the skeins of yarn, she turned to see a small pony (who judging by their size, must have been quite young) wrapped in a much-too-big green cloak with the hood pulled so far over their head that she could see nothing of their face.
"Yes?" Rarity asked, frowning at the cloak. Did I design that? The stitching and fabric certainly looked familiar but there was no way she would ever have given a pony such an ill-fitting—
She was jerked out of this train of thought when the pony in front of her suddenly reached out with a front leg wrapped in the cloak, seized one of her forelegs and tugged her forward with surprising strength for such a small pony.
"Come with me," the pony whispered, and though Rarity couldn't be completely sure, she thought the low raspy voice sounded closer to male than female.
"Let go! You don't have to pull so hard!"
At the sound of Rarity's angry voice, Apple Bloom looked up from the crystal lamb she was petting, to see a tiny cloak-wrapped pony striding up to the sheep pen with Rarity in tow. The tiny pony flipped the latch on the pen's gate up, released Rarity, and zipped around behind her. She let out a shocked exclamation as the cloaked pony butted its head against her hindquarters, causing her to stumble into the pen. She whirled around, but the tiny pony had already slammed the gate behind her.
"Go pet one of those sheep," the pony ordered, and judging by its voice, Apple Bloom figured it was a colt under that cloak.
Rarity gave him a half-angry, half-baffled look. "Whatever for?!"
The colt leapt up onto the top of the fence. "If you value any of your friends' lives, pet one of those sheep!" he snapped with surprising ferocity. "I won't explain another thing until you do!"
"Oh, very well!" Still looking annoyed, Rarity marched over to the nearest sheep and gave it several quick gentle pats on its wooly head. The sheep gave her an unimpressed look, which Rarity ignored as she glared back at the colt. "There. Are you satisfied?"
"Yeah," came the quick reply from under the hood.
"Well, then explain yourself!"
"Not here," said the colt. "Both you," he gestured to her and Apple Bloom with a cloak-covered foreleg. "Come with me."
"Hey, hold on a—" Apple Bloom started to say, not caring for his bossy attitude, only to be interrupted by him.
"Come! On!" He crouched as if intending to jump down from the fence, when Rarity's pale blue magic suddenly surrounded him, halting him.
"No!" She was clearly fed up with his pushing her around. "You said you would explain after I petted the sheep. Now explain!"
"Not! Here! And let go of me!"
"Not until you explain yourself, and your completely uncalled-for rude behavior!" said Rarity as she tried to lift him off the fence only to have him tighten his grip on it. While this was going on, Apple Bloom had snuck up to where the colt was perched on the fence, and suddenly lunged upward, snatching off his hood. Just who did this colt think he was, to come here and start ordering them arou—?
Apple Bloom felt a jolt of surprise when she saw that underneath that hood, the colt was wearing a mask; a crimson one that covered his entire head and was decorated with stylized black-and-blue falcons on the cheeks and forehead.
However the mask didn't seem to prevent Rarity from recognizing him. Just the opposite in fact.
"Highflyer?!" she exclaimed incredulously.
The masked pony looked heavenward, and let out a resigned sigh. "Yeah, it's me."
Apple Bloom suddenly remembered Applejack telling her about meeting the tiny wrestler Rainbow Dash and Scootaloo had been seeing, and writing to for the past year. This must be him.
Rarity's grip on him loosened slightly. "Highflyer, what on earth are—?"
In response Highflyer grabbed the edge of his mask where it stretched across his snout, and pulled it away from his face. Looking down, he shook his head vigorously and something suddenly slipped out from under the mask to plop on the ground.
"Eww, what's that?" said Apple Bloom, wrinkling her nose in disgust.
"Apple peelings," said Highflyer, releasing the edge of his mask, and wincing as it snapped back into place. "Fluttershy put them in a jar and told me that once I found the two of you, and made sure you weren't disguised changelings, I was supposed to give you the jar of peelings and tell you it was happening again. I lost the jar in a fight with some changelings at Scootaloo's house—" This drew gasps from both mares. "—but managed to stash the apple peelings in my mask. I didn't understand what Fluttershy was talking about but she said you would."
Both mares had paled at the mention of changelings.
"Um, Highflyer," said Rarity, sounding like she was trying to compose herself. "I think you'd better explain what's been going on since I last saw you."
Behind the mask, his eyes narrowed as if in pain. "I, uh ... don't suppose you've heard about ... about ... Ray, then?"
It took Apple Bloom a second to remember Ray was a nickname and who its owner was. "Rainbow Dash? Is she all right?"
"No," Highflyer sighed, his hindquarters slumping down onto the fence rail. He proceeded to give the two mares a quick account of what had happened since that terrible night when they had stumbled on Pinkie's remains at Sugarcube Corner, and how it had led up to the current situation. "I got to Scootaloo's place, but there were already a couple of changelings there with her, posing as Ray's parents. I held them off while Loo escaped with Tank, then I hitched a ride on the underside of a train here to find you two."
"Oh my," breathed Rarity, still trying to take in all he had told them. "Rainbow and Pinkie murdered, and Discord framed for it to keep us from seeing the real enemies..."
"Then what are we waiting for?!" said Apple Bloom, leaping to her feet, her expression furious. "We have to get back to Ponyville! If those lousy changelings think they can get away with this after what they did to my family last year, they—!"
"Uh, we might have a slight problem there," Highflyer cut in. "I'm not sure how we'll get the two of you on the train unnoticed. I was small enough to fit into the undercarriage, but I'm not sure either of you would."
But a slight smile suddenly crept across Rarity's lips. "I know a way we can get there without using the train."
"When'd you learn to work a hoofcar?" Highflyer asked as the trio sped along the tracks. He was sitting at the front of said car with his cloak blowing out behind him, and his front hooves hooked over the edge, surveying their passing surroundings while Rarity and Apple Bloom worked the car handles. He had initially wanted to help rather than let the girls do all the work, but Rarity had tactfully pointed out that since she and Apple Bloom were pretty close in size, they could pump the handles up and down at the same pace, whereas Highflyer's much smaller size and shorter reach would make things uneven and likely slow them down. So he had been regulated to lookout duty. The section of track they were now on had a steady gentle slope that allowed the girls to take it easy aside from occasional nudges of the breaks.
"I never would have if it weren't for Pinkie Pie," Rarity murmured. At her sober tone, Highflyer turned to see her expression, but her back was to him. Before he could question her further, the air was filled with a harsh blaring alarm, startling all three ponies.
"What's making that noise?!" Apple Bloom shouted over the alarm.
"I don't know!" Highflyer shouted back, trying to pinpoint where the sound was coming from, but that wasn't easy when it seemed to stay all around them even as they zoomed forward. Suddenly he felt a tug on his cloak that nearly yanked him backward. Thinking the cloak had gotten snagged on something, he quickly unclasped it from around his throat and looked back at it. The cloak was now flapping in the air behind the car, but it wasn't snagged on anything. It was encased in horribly familiar turquoise light!
Then Highflyer felt an equally horrible familiar tug on his body and tightened his grip on the cart's edge as the force holding him tried to lift him away. Looking up, he spotted three patches of turquoise magic in the cloudy sky above, illuminating the almost-invisible creatures up there.
"Hang on, girls! We've got changelings above us!" he shouted over the continuing scream of the still-unidentified alarm. Both mares tightened their grips on the car's handles and not a moment too soon because they were suddenly seized by the same magic as he.
"Oh no, you don't!" Rarity snarled as her horn lit, its blue aura only a few shades lighter than the turquoise changeling magic encasing them. The glow swiftly intensified, then burst out in a wave across all of them, dispelling the competing magic that had been trying to pull them away. All three ponies dropped back onto the still-swiftly-moving hoofcar, slipping and stumbling in the process but managing to stay on.
"Thank you, Twilight," Rarity murmured.
Alas, the changelings were not so easily dissuaded. Dropping out of the cloud cover, they spread out behind the speeding hoofcar. And they didn't appear to be having any problems keeping pace with it.
"I hate bugs," Rarity growled, levitating dozens of rocks from the sides of the track and sending them in a spray back at the changelings. Most of these missiles were dodged, though two of the changelings did have to briefly put up shields to protect themselves.
"What'll we do now?" asked Apple Bloom as she worked the car's main lever while Rarity continued to ineffectually pepper their pursuers.
"I think we just need to hang on a little longer, girls," Highflyer said as he turned back towards the front of the car, squinting against the wind. "If we can keep them off us until we reach town, we might be able to find help there." Or we might just end up in the middle of an even bigger pack of them, he added in his thoughts, but they could only cross that bridge when they came to it. Which considering he could now see Ponyville's outline in the distance would likely be sooner rather than later.
Probably realizing the same thing, their pursuers put on a burst of speed, closing the distance and trying their magic again at close quarters. Highflyer could hear Rarity's hysterical shrieking and the crackle of magic as she fought off the changeling that was coming for her, but that prevented her from using her magic to try and protect the rest of them. The turquoise glow wrapped around him and Apple Bloom as the other two changelings tried to pry them off the car once more.
There was really nothing for the two of them to do but hold on and hope they could resist the pull of the changelings' magic long enough. Apple Bloom was both an earth pony and a farm one with a lifetime of hard work behind her, and thus was able to put up a good fight of her own; while Highflyer, despite his small stature, had a surprising amount of strength as well, as evidenced by his ability to hang onto the train's undercarriage all the way to the Crystal Empire.
A sizzling bolt of blue magic shot over him, close enough to his neck that it would have taken off a good section of his mane if he'd still had one, and towards the changeling on his side of the car. A quick glance showed the one that had been going for Apple Bloom also veering off through the air, likely having dodged a similar attack. While Rarity might not be the most skillful unicorn he'd ever seen when it came to spell-slinging in a fight, there was something to be said for random, frenzied casting when it came to keeping opponents off-guard.
Suddenly the magical pull on his body stopped, and he noticed that one of the changelings had dropped down to fly next to the car. Its eyes were fastened on him, and as it drew nearer, he felt a deep and very unpony-like growl come rumbling out of his throat. The changeling hadn't been able to pry him loose from the car with magical force, so now it was probably going to try using some physical force as well. Come on and try it, you lousy, see-through—
The changeling put on a second burst of speed that put it in front of the car and at that moment Highflyer acted. He lifted his little body up in a sort of handstand before suddenly swinging his lower body around to drive both back hooves into the oncoming changeling's face. Unfortunately since the car was still moving forward, Highflyer's attack had the effect of spitting into the wind, and the changeling knocked into him. They tumbled across the car's platform, the changeling trying to hang onto Highflyer while he tried to knock it away. They went tumbling off the end of the car, but then Highflyer felt something snag his vest. Looking back, he saw Apple Bloom clinging to his vest with one hoof, trying to drag him back onto the car while at the same time fighting the changelings' efforts to pull her from the car as well. The changeling Highflyer had been fighting was now hanging onto one of his hind legs and beating its wings to pull him from Apple Bloom's grasp. But the tiny wrestler still had one leg free and began using it with a vengeance, pounding and gouging away wildly at the changeling's head. Fearing his vest might tear, Highflyer grasped Apple Bloom's foreleg with one hoof, while he pulled the braided tail extensions from where he'd wound them around his middle. Swinging the extensions like a whip he laid them across the changeling's back, hoping to disrupt its flying attempts.
Suddenly the changeling's grip on him seemed to go limp and it released him, causing Apple Bloom to yank him toward her. She quickly altered his course to place him on the platform next to her, right beside the column supporting the car's handles. Highflyer instinctively whipped the extensions around the column and grabbed their free end to help hold him in place.
"No prob—" Apple Bloom's reply was suddenly cut off as a changeling plowed into her with enough force that she lost her grip on the car's handle.
"Apple Bloom!" Rarity shrieked as the young mare went flying off the car. Then a second changeling landed on Rarity, ramming her into the side of the column opposite Highflyer and clearly winding her.
The masked wrestler cast a quick glance behind him. He could see no sign of the changeling he had fought with (and hopefully knocked out), but he did see Apple Bloom on the ground beside the tracks, kicking out viciously at the changeling above her. Then the car turned, following a bend in the tracks and Apple Bloom and her opponent were both hidden from view behind the town's buildings. In the back of his mind, Highflyer realized they had reached Ponyville and would likely pass it if they kept going. He was too far away to help Apple Bloom at the moment, but he could help Rarity.
Letting go of the extensions, he stretched his forelegs out around either side of the column, seized the changeling's head and yanked it forward, slamming it against the column.
"Grab onto something and hold tight, Rarity!" he ordered as he vaulted over the car's central column to land on the front of the car next to the dazed changeling. Grabbing the changeling from behind, he gave the car's brake a sharp kick, causing it to engage. The sudden deceleration caused the changeling and the pegasus to catapult off the car as it came to a screeching halt.
They plowed into the ground with Highflyer on top, pummeling his opponent with clenched hooves. Fury had filled the tiny stallion, making him oblivious to anything but driving his hooves again and again and again into the changeling below him. He was just drawing his right hoof back for another blow when he felt someone seize it, holding him back. With a fierce snarl, he swung around, lashing out at this new enemy with his free hoof ... only to find himself aiming at Rarity!
For a brief horrible moment he feared his clenched hoof would slam into her jaw, but she had used her magic to grab him and thus was still several inches out of range.
"That's enough, darling!" he heard her shouting. "You've done enough! That changeling won't be getting up anytime soon."
As if in a haze, he turned to look back down at the unconscious changeling beneath him. It was only then that he realized just how quiet everything now was. At some point when he was throttling this changeling, that blaring alarm had finally stopped.
Rarity had also noticed their newfound silence and was puzzling over it when Highflyer finally raised his eyes to meet hers. There was a glazed look in his eyes, and when she released his hoof, he scrambled away from her, his gaze still pinned on her. Almost as if he were ... afraid of her? "Highflyer...?"
He promptly squeezed his eyes shut and shook himself. When he looked back at her his eyes were suddenly clear again. "Are you alright?"
She nodded. "Yes, but Apple Bloom—"
She didn't even need to finish the sentence before they were both racing back to the hoofcar.
As Rarity and Highflyer worked the hoofcar back in the direction they had come from, her point about their size difference slowing things down proved to be true, but they didn't have any other options. They reached the Ponyville station at roughly the spot Apple Bloom had landed but there was no sign of the earth pony or the changelings. Had she escaped? Had they taken her?
"Rarity!" an out-of-breath voice behind them shouted, and they turned to see Apple Bloom run out from behind a building. She looked quite battered and bruised, and was lugging the tail extensions that had blown off the car when Highflyer had let go of them. "Oh, thank goodness you made it back here," she panted as she ran toward them.
Rarity breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of the young mare, but before she could move forward, Highflyer thrust a hoof against her chest, halting her.
"Wait!" He moved in front of Rarity, facing Apple Bloom. "What were you doing when I told Rarity to prove it was really her?" He felt the unicorn behind him tense, but he kept his gaze pinned on the earth pony.
Apple Bloom halted, blinking at him. "Sorry?"
"In the Crystal Empire. What were you doing when I told Rarity to prove it was really her?"
She hesitated for several seconds, clearly fumbling for an answer, and when one didn't come, he lunged at her.
"What have you done with the real Apple Bloom?!"
Her eyes widened and she leapt backward into the air. Floating there, she burst into blue-green flames, revealing a semitransparent changeling in her place. Skidding around, Highflyer lunged at her again, but his injuries were taking a toll on him and his movements were clumsier than usual. Then the changeling used its magic to throw the extensions around his neck and twisted them tight, choking him.
"Okay, so you saw through my disguise, but I can still finish you off!" the changeling sneered behind him. He thrashed about in midair as the extensions dug into his thick little neck. He scrabbled his hooves against his throat, but the extensions had already been drawn too tight for him to get his hooves under them.
Suddenly a large trunk came flying through the air to crash into the changeling. The blow sent Highflyer flipping up into the air and the extensions fell from his neck.
"Take that, you ruffian!" he heard Rarity shriek below him. Dazed, he caught a brief glimpse of the changeling being flattened against a wall by a trunk surrounded with pale blue light. When the trunk pulled back from the wall, the changeling collapsed twitching to the ground. That same magic quickly enveloped him, and with a loud "Whoomp!" Highflyer landed on top of the trunk. The world continued to spin as he sucked in wheezy breath after wheezy breath.
"Hang onto that trunk, Highflyer!" Rarity ordered. "We've got to get you to the cottage."
Still in a daze, he obeyed and as the trunk moved forward, he blinked down at it, realizing vaguely: This is my trunk of stuff she's floating ... He'd forgotten about leaving it sitting on the platform the day before, thinking he'd be back for it in only a few hours at most.
Now as he clung to it, trying to get his breath back, he could only hope and pray that Apple Bloom was somewhere ahead of them, also on her way to the cottage.
Fluttershy watched as the two ponies under the blanket continued to sneak closer to the cottage, hoping for some clue that would prove whether or not they were what they appeared to be. Suddenly both ponies turned away from the cottage in the direction of town and hunkered down.
Fluttershy looked up in that direction and whispered, "Everypony, look."
Racing toward the cottage was a familiar-looking white unicorn. Her normally well-groomed violet mane was looking frazzled, and she was using her magic to float a large travel trunk in front of her. Clinging to the top of that trunk was a tiny, equally familiar-looking brown pegasus. He was still wearing the blue vest Fluttershy had lent him, but the cloak, saddlebags, and tail extensions she had also lent him were now gone and he was wearing his mask again. Was that really Rarity and Highflyer?
As the two got closer to the cottage, Might-be-Screwjob suddenly shot out from under the blanket and raced toward them, letting out a long drawn-out, "Hiiiiii!"
He tackled Might-be-Highflyer off the trunk and they went tumbling across the ground.
"Senberg," Might-be-Screwjob finished as he came up. He was trying to wrestle the smaller pony into a submission hold, but Might-be-Highflyer seemed to anticipate his movements and quickly countered them.
"Fal! Con!" the masked stallion snapped out, savagely slamming a hoof into the other stallion's chest on the "Con!"
Screwjob released him and fell backwards. "Apps, it's really him!"
Screwjob winced as he rubbed his chest. "Yep. No one but the genuine article hits that hard. Of course the fact that he knew the code word helped too."
The two wrestlers were quickly joined by Applejack, who came out from under the blanket, and Rarity who lowered the trunk she was still floating to the ground.
Applejack frowned at her friend. "Rarity, where's Apple Bloom?"
"She's not here?" Rarity asked, sounding equally troubled as she looked around them.
It was at this point that the five observers above them decided to make their presence known. Skywishes went first, taking off with Fluttershy on her back. The movement caught the attention of the four ponies on the ground and they whirled into defensive positions, Rarity's horn sizzling to life, as Skywishes dropped down to hover a few feet off the ground several yards from them.
"Cardinal," she called out to them, keeping her front hooves raised at chest level as if in surrender. "Cardinal," she repeated, pulling the helmet off to reveal her pink-and-purple streaked mane. "And that's Wasp," she added as Fluttershy jumped down from her back.
Applejack, Rarity, Highflyer, and Screwjob all relaxed only to tense again when Twilight emerged from the cottage's leafy roof with Dinky on her back, and Spike sitting behind her, helping hold the unicorn in place.
"It's okay, they're with us," said Fluttershy and the four newcomers relaxed once again. She had noticed earlier that both wrestlers seemed to have brought back only one of the charges they'd been sent to retrieve, but there wasn't time to question that now. "We can't stay here long. Some changelings were waiting to ambush us when we first got here. We managed to escape and hide from them, but they could get back here at any time. They're going to be watching all the places we usually go, so our only hope is to hide out at Skywishes's TreeHAB."
While Fluttershy was explaining this, Skywishes had been surveying the group with a critical eye. "Looks like most of us are going to have to cover ourselves with mud."
"What?!" Rarity looked at her in alarm. "Why?"
"Camouflage," said Skywishes, nonplussed. "We don't have enough camouflage clothing to go around, so covering ourselves with mud is the only option. Otherwise all these brightly colored coats and clothes will make us impossible to miss in the Everfree. I've also got to muddy up this armor so it doesn't catch any light."
Rarity let out a half-sigh, half-moan. "This is going to ruin my mane."
Applejack glared at her. "How can you worry about that at a time like this?!"
"Oh, hush!" Rarity snapped. "I realize how dire things are! I can live with mud in my mane, but I don't have to like it!"
At that moment Highflyer snatched attention away from the two mares by snapping open the latches on his trunk.
"What are you doing?" several of the other ponies asked as he flipped open the lid, jumped up on the trunk's edge, and stuck the front half of his body down inside it. His only response was a rip of Velcro as he pulled the mask from his head before digging even deeper into the trunk, causing several pants, shirts, and masks to tumble out in the process. There were muffled mutters of "Where is it, where is it," from inside the trunk, before there was a triumphant "Ah!" and he removed the blue vest, dropping it into the trunk as well. He jumped backward off the trunk's edge and landed on his hind legs. He was now wearing a mask in drab shades of black, brown, and green identical to Skywishes's camouflage, and holding what looked like a similarly-colored army vest.
Skywishes raised both eyebrows at this. "You just happened to have a camouflage-patterned mask in there?"
"I have a mask for every occasion," said Highflyer as he donned the army vest, carefully adjusting its wing-slits over his splinted wings. "Though I can't always get a hold of the ones I need at the time."
"He really does," Screwjob acknowledged, his muzzle twisted in a sardonic smirk.
Meanwhile Rarity had used her magic to pick up one of the masks that had fallen to the ground and was experimentally stretching it with a speculative look on her face. "Highflyer...?"
"If you don't object, could the rest of us maybe ... borrow some of your masks?"
Highflyer paused in adjusting his vest. "You mean like wear them?"
"Well, spandex does stretch..." Highflyer mused aloud. "But why would you want to? I mean this," he gestured to his current outfit, "is probably the drabbest thing I currently have, so it's not like you can use my clothes for camouflage."
"Actually I was thinking we could tuck our manes inside the masks so we wouldn't have to get them muddy. Like a swim cap. And that way we probably wouldn't need to get mud all over our faces either."
"I don't know," said Highflyer with visible reluctance as he picked up several of the scattered masks. "These things were custom-made. They weren't cheap—"
Screwjob snorted. "Please, you've got hundreds more back home. You're not gonna miss six measly masks."
"Jobs, counting you, there's seven other ponies here besides me."
"No way! Count me out! I'm not putting on anything you've had your sweaty head stuck in all day!"
"You're aware I wash my masks, aren't you?" Highflyer said dryly.
"See!" Screwjob pointed out. "Not a problem letting them get a little dirty then."
"Actually," said Skywishes, looking up from the armor she was now daubing with mud, "with those brown coats and black hair of yours, the two of you could probably get by without any camouflage if you didn't insist on wearing stuff like those gaudy tights." The look she was giving them was almost envious.
"Thank. Goodness." Screwjob breathed emphatically. Then he scowled at Skywishes. "And my tights are not gaudy. They're eye-catching."
Applejack rolled her eyes, muttering, "Yeah, just what we need right now. To be eye-catching."
The little equine had no idea how long she lay where she had landed. After the chaotic terror she had just escaped from, her new dark surroundings seemed so peaceful. When trapped in that force-field she had often imagined that if she were free she would be racing all over the place, trying to take in as much about her surroundings as possible. But now all she found herself wanting to do was relish her newfound solitude. She breathed in and out through the cavity that served as her nostrils, savoring the musty smell of her new environment. While it might not have been the most pleasant scent on earth, it was a scent and after living so long unable to smell anything, the little equine found anything fascinating. Just these little movements, like being able to close her eyes, or actually sleep...
But then her eyes snapped open as she heard footsteps and an odd swishing noise. Had her captors come to take her back?! No! No, they would never take her back! She scrambled up to find a place to hide. She pressed herself against the base of a tree, her orange eyes wide as she tried to spot any incoming attack.
Then about ten yards from her, she saw several creatures. They looked a bit like the ponies she had seen all those years ago, but they all seemed to be a brownish color that blended in with their surroundings. She watched them move forward, a bulky one seemed to be the leader. This leader suddenly looked her way, and the little equine pressed herself against the tree, willing herself not to be noticed.
Skywishes peered around her, watching for any sign of an attack. She thought she caught a flicker of movement to her left, and snapped her head around in that direction. She squinted at the darkness, her ears flicking about trying to catch any noises, but there was nothing. Finally she turned and continued on her journey. She cast a quick glance back at the mud-caked procession behind her. After Screwjob's very vocal revulsion at wearing any of Highflyer's gear, the masked stallion's reluctance to lend it to the other ponies seemed to vanish. Now with the exception of Screwjob, and herself (her mud-smeared helmet did a more than adequate job of covering her entire mane), all the ponies were using mud-coated masks as a combination of camouflage and mane-protection. They had also divvied up the remaining camouflage clothing amongst themselves and were now covered in varying combinations of both that and mud. Screwjob had even dunked his eye-catching tights thoroughly in the mud.
Having reached their destination, Skywishes gestured for them to stop and flew up into the treetops out of their sight. A few minutes later, a large hot air balloon basket descended with her inside it, working a pulley-system. Everyone loaded into the basket, and Skywishes worked the pulley to get them up to their destination.
"Wow, so this is the TreeHAB," Twilight murmured as they climbed out of the basket and took in their new surroundings: the structure that had been Skywishes's consuming obsession for the past decade. Fluttershy thought she saw a brief smile flash across Skywishes's face before it quickly went back to business.
"Come on," Skywishes said briskly. "We can clean up in the greenhouse. We might as well put all this mud to use while we've got it."
"Oh, thank goodness," said Rarity, stripping off the mask she was using and fanning her face. "Phew, it gets hot under that mask." She gave Highflyer an impressed look. "How do you put up with it?"
"Shaving your head works wonders on the ventilation."
"Alright," said Twilight once everyone had had a chance to get cleaned up. "I think we all need to hear what's been happening and then let Princess Celestia know about it. Spike, take a letter."
Obediently, the little dragon pulled out a scroll and quill.
"Where do we start...?" Twilight mused and Fluttershy raised a hoof. Twilight nodded to her, and Fluttershy turned to the young unicorn now lying on a bundle of clean camouflage Skywishes had offered as a makeshift cushion.
"Dinky, why were you outside when we got to the cottage?"
Dinky rolled as best she could onto her stomach, and lifted her head. Despite being carried on the journey to the TreeHAB, she still looked pale and exhausted. "I tried to sleep when you guys left. I really did, but I couldn't. I just felt like too much of a target in that bed." She turned to Highflyer. "You saw how badly I was handling that knife. A changeling would have taken it away and used it on me before I could even get it out. So I hacked my mane off to make myself a decoy."
"How so?" asked Fluttershy.
Dinky turned back to her. "I arranged some of the couch cushions under the blankets like a body, and used that loaf of bread Mache Max threw at us as the head. I cut off as much of my mane as I could and glued it to the bread using that honey Max tossed at us as well. Then I dragged myself outside to hide down under that overhang. I was hoping that way I could hear if anypony came to the cottage, but they wouldn't see me. Those changelings that attacked you must have flown to the cottage door because I didn't see them arrive, but they asked for you in Spike and Twilight's voices before going inside."
"What about Loo—um, Scootaloo?" Highflyer quickly corrected himself. "Did you see or hear her?"
Dinky shook her head sadly. "No. I tried to watch and listen for any sign of her, but she never showed up."
Highflyer bowed his head, and the other ponies exchanged uneasy glances, realizing this must mean Scootaloo and Tank had been intercepted before they could reach the cottage. Were they even alive anymore?
The rest of the ponies told their stories ("So that's what all that noise was coming from," Highflyer muttered, looking down at the charm attached to his hoof.), and Spike dutifully wrote them down. It was late at night by the time all the past days' events had been pieced together. Once Spike had inked the last word, Twilight looked over the account, and satisfied with it, jotted down a brief introduction and closing before signing her name.
Skywishes eyed the scroll doubtfully as Twilight rolled it up. "But how can you be sure that letter will get to the real princess?"
Spike smirked at this. "No sweat," he told her as Twilight handed him the scroll. "All my messages go straight to Princess Celestia and only Princess Celestia no matter where she is." He flamed on the scroll and it vanished.
"Good," said Twilight. "Now we just have to—"
Suddenly a scroll flashed into existence in front of them.
Twilight frowned. "That was quick." She took the scroll, unrolled it, and looked down at its contents. Her eyes widened. "Wait a minute! Spike, this is the same scroll you just sent!"
"What?!" He snatched it from her, stared at it as well, then rolled it back up and flamed on it a second time. Only for it to reappear in front of them again mere seconds later. He tried a third and fourth time only to be met with the same results.
"What's going on? Why isn't it getting sent?" Twilight stared at him in alarm.
"I don't know. M-maybe I need to be by a window." That had never been an issue before, but willing to try anything, Spike snatched up the scroll, ran to the nearest window, opened it, and flamed on the scroll again, directing the flames out the window. The scroll vanished in the fire ... only to reappear in front of Twilight. The tiny dragon looked back at his boss, realization dawning on both their faces.
"Twilight," Spike's voice sounded strained with shock. "I don't think my messages are going to Princess Celestia anymore ... They're going to you!"
This news was met with stunned silence as its implications sunk in. Fluttershy suddenly remembered Celestia touching Spike on the chest with her horn and performing some sort of spell on him before asking him to deliver a scroll. It had seemed to work the same as it always did. It had gone straight to Celestia ... and landed on the head of the much smaller alicorn standing right next to her.
Then one pony finally spoke up.
"Well, that's it then," said Skywishes. "It's over. We're cooked."
"Cooked," she repeated. "Thoroughly charred and burnt-to-a-crisp cooked. No other way to look at it. We've got changelings out there hunting for us. We have ponies getting snatched left and right. We have no way to contact the Princesses. We are nine bodies in a TreeHAB only equipped to support one for a month. With winter on the way, the animals in the Everfree are a lot more ravenous, so if we go out there we risk getting eaten. If none of them get us, the changelings might. Even if we can be sure we're dealing with a genuine pony, they might unknowingly give the changelings our whereabouts. If by some miracle, none of that stuff happens, we'll just run out of food and starve to death. So yeah. We're cooked."
"You have removed lover, and friend far from me; My acquaintances are in darkness."—Psalms 88:18
Skywishes pushed herself up onto her hooves. "Bleh, I'm going to bed."
"That's it?!" Applejack demanded, leaping to her own hooves to glare at the pegasus. "How can you even think about sleep at a time like this?!"
"Because I haven't slept since Tuesday," Skywishes replied, cricking her neck, "and I need it." She turned away from the group, only for Twilight to call out to her this time.
"Wait a minute! I just remembered another way we can contact Celestia!" She raised a front hoof, exposing the heart-shaped charm on its underside. "Who else still has a charm like this?"
A quick inventory revealed that apart from her only Dinky and Highflyer still had their hoof charms.
"Both of you!" Twilight ordered. "Slam those charms against the floor and will them to break, quick!"
Skywishes's eyes widened. "Wait, Twilight—!"
But the three ponies had already brought their hooves down. Fluttershy braced herself for the shriek of the blaring alarm, but instead there was only a faint crackling sound. And as everypony watched in shock, the charms crumbled into dust.
Everypony that is, except Skywishes.
"What the hey were you trying to do?! Advertise our whereabouts to all of Equestria?!" she berated Twilight through clenched teeth. "You think I took the trouble of getting all of you here, just to bring a bunch of changelings down on us?!"
"And while we're safe in here, that same bunch of changelings is probably going after our families!" Applejack shot back before Twilight could respond.
Skywishes shut her eyes, and wearily massaged the bridge of her muzzle with a hoof. "We can't do your families any good if we get caught as well, and I'm too tired to care about them anymore."
Applejack snorted contemptuously. "Of course you wouldn't care about them. It's not like you've got anything to lose when the only family you've got has been rotting in the ground for the past eleven years!"
Several ponies sucked in their breath at this. Skywishes didn't open her eyes, or take her hoof away from the bridge of her muzzle, but her whole posture seemed to tense up, her wings lifting an inch off her back.
"Applejack!" Rarity exclaimed, shocked at her friend.
"Low blow, Apps," Highflyer muttered disgustedly.
Maybe it was just his use of that loathed nickname, but Applejack turned her glare on the masked stallion. "Sure, take her side. It's not like you have any family to worry about either!"
"Applejack!" Rarity repeated as Screwjob started to say, "Well, there is—"
"Jobs! Shut your mouth!" Highflyer snarled.
For a brief moment Screwjob's expression went defiant, and he opened his mouth to reply, only for Highflyer to cut him off with a sharp, "No!"
Screwjob gave his fellow wrestler a second more considering look before Highflyer growled, "Not a word." Which seemed to convince Screwjob to hold his tongue. Fluttershy wondered what he had been about to say, but given Highflyer's vehemence at keeping him silent, she felt now might not be the best time to pursue the subject.
Applejack on the other hoof, was too busy turning her temper on Rarity to care about the wrestlers' exchange. "And as for you! You cared enough to save a stupid trunk of clothes but you couldn't be bothered to protect my sister!"
Rarity looked too shocked at this accusation to respond, but Spike bristled to her defense with a sharp, "Hey!"
"Applejack, that's enough!" Twilight added.
Applejack stared incredulously at them. "Don't any of you care that our families are in danger out there?!"
"Shut up!" Skywishes bellowed. "Just shut up!" She marched over to the section of floor they'd entered through and kicked the panel open. "If you don't stay quiet, I'll throw you down there for the forest to deal with. Got it?!"
When she was met with silence, she exhaled gustily. "Good." She pulled the panel shut again. "Now for the second time: I'm. Going. To. Bed." She stalked past the other ponies when Fluttershy's small tentative voice reached her.
"Um, Skywishes?" Fluttershy fought the urge to cower and squirm when Skywishes seemed to skewer her with those hard cold eyes. "Um, where should the rest of us sleep?" she asked, trying to keep her tone placating.
The hard look in Skywishes's eyes seemed to soften a tad before she turned away from Fluttershy. "Anywhere. I don't care. Scrounge around. Just give me some peace." And with that she walked away from the group, disappearing around a curved wall, and presumably heading to wherever her bed was located. Fluttershy noted absently that she'd never actually seen where Skywishes slept on her first visit to the TreeHAB.
She turned back to the rest of the group. Skywishes's outburst seemed to have cowed the lot of them, so Fluttershy decided to try smoothing things over.
"It's probably best we all get to sleep as well," she said gently. While she suspected (or at least wanted to believe) that Skywishes's threat to throw them out was all bark and no bite, she wasn't completely sure. Plus, even without taking that into consideration, it was probably best that they keep their voices down as there was no telling just what might hear them outside. She turned to Dinky, Highflyer, and Screwjob. "You three should especially get some rest, since you're still recovering."
Dinky, who had spent the whole argument stretched out exhausted on the floor, lifted her head enough to give Fluttershy a wry weary smile. "No arguments here."
"About those sleeping arrangements..." said Screwjob, darting a calculating glance at Applejack and grinning. "We could probably all sleep in a big pile like—"
"No!" was Applejack's immediate response before glaring at the wrestler. "And you better not try to go stealing kisses or anything like that while I'm sleeping."
He gave her a mock-indignant look. "Why, Apps, I wouldn't think of it."
She arched a skeptical eyebrow, and he rolled his head around in defeat.
"Okay, so I think about it a bunch, but I'm not actually going to do it."
"Yeah, like I believe that," she muttered.
"Would the Screwjob Stipulation convince you?"
"Cross my heart, hope to die, may High hit me right in the eye if I lie."
Applejack grimaced. "I think I'll stick with the Pinkie Promise."
"Yeah, but with that one there's no chance of me getting punched, so where's the fun in that?" Then his expression sobered. "Plus ... I know this probably sounds tacky but isn't the Pinkie Promise a bit obsolete now that...?"
There was a thump of Highflyer's hoof hitting his masked forehead as he groaned, "Come on, Jobs..."
Even so, Screwjob's question caused Fluttershy to look around, realizing it was the first time since she had met Skywishes that all her closest friends were assembled. All of them. Judging by their expressions, Twilight, Spike, Applejack, and Rarity were also coming to the same realization.
"Twilight darling," said Rarity in a voice that clearly feared the answer, but still had to ask. "Isn't there any chance that ... that they're not dead?"
Twilight's head bowed. "I wish there was, Rarity. How I wish there was, but I ran every possible test I could on their remains, and they matched Rainbow and Pinkie in a way that couldn't have been faked."
"So they really are ..." Rarity's voice broke. "Gone." Her wall of control collapsed and she buried her face in her hooves, sobbing. The fact that she wasn't doing her usual theatrical wailing in an over-the-top display of grief made the sight only harder to bear.
Fluttershy didn't remember rushing to Rarity's side, but suddenly she and the rest of her friends were there, all clinging to each other. They wept for their murdered friends, for all the ponies now out there unaware of the threat currently sneaking up on them in the guise of friends and loved ones, and at their own inability to fix the situation.
And Fluttershy also wept for the former partner whose whereabouts and welfare she still didn't know.
Sometime later that night, Fluttershy lay in the dark, squirming about on a bundle of camouflage she had formed into a make-shift mattress. Nearby she could make out the dim forms of the other six ponies and the one dragon all sleeping on similar bundles. The day's events plus that last crying session had left Fluttershy exhausted enough to fall asleep, but ... for some reason she just couldn't seem to do it.
Don't kid yourself Fluttershy, said a small voice in the back of her head. You know why you can't fall asleep. It's because of Discord.
Fluttershy felt herself blushing. It was true. She was afraid that if she fell asleep she would see him in her dreams as she had so many, many times over the past year. Dreams she had shared with nopony, and the thought of why made her blush all the deeper. If the dreams had been nightmares, she would certainly have confided in her friends about them, but they had been far from nightmares. They had been ... wonderful. They often had strange puzzling surroundings that ordinarily would have frightened her, but all her usual anxiety seemed to be swept away as soon as Discord showed up. For those cherished moments of sleep, it was as if Discord had never left her, as if...
Fluttershy's head jerked up as she felt herself nodding off. Ever since her realization earlier that day that she loved Discord, part of her had been longing for a chance to escape into one of those dreams where she could confess her newly-discovered feelings to him and just know from the way he treated her that he felt the same way. But at the same time another part of her dreaded having such a wonderful dream only to wake later and be forced to remember how far it was from reality.
She looked toward a blind-covered window and wondered where her love was now. Was he even still alive?
A low groan from nearby jerked her out of these thoughts and she looked in its direction to see Highflyer with his head, chest, and one front leg resting on Dinky's side. Whether by accident or intention, the young unicorn had ended up sleeping between the two wrestlers, and now lay back-to-back with Screwjob, while facing Highflyer. Or rather she would have been facing Highflyer if the tiny pegasus hadn't partially migrated on top of her in his sleep. He let out another groan as he shifted slightly, and Fluttershy wondered if his joints were paining him again. If so, should she try massaging them?
She got up and padded softly over to him. The room's current darkness, combined with the fact that most of his facial features were, as usual, hidden in his mask made it difficult to read his expression but it seemed to be relaxed. He seemed to be dry-eyed as well. Neither he nor Screwjob had joined her and the rest of her friends in their earlier crying session. Anypony who hadn't known the wrestlers long might have thought they didn't care about the murders, but—
Hadn't known them long?! the small voice in the back of her head piped up. Fluttershy, you've barely known them five days! Not even a week!
While she had already known this on a subconscious level, it still stunned her to think that in less than a week she and her friends had gone from following their ordinary everyday routines ... to this.
Highflyer let out another groan, pulling her from her musing again. It would probably be best to loosen up his muscles. She put her hooves on his shoulder, only to have the still-sleeping wrestler bare his teeth and roll over enough to lash out at her with the leg connected to that shoulder. Fluttershy let out a small yip as she stumbled backward and landed on her rump, just barely avoiding first his swiping foreleg, and the follow up double kick that lifted his whole lower body off the floor.
His back hooves thudded sharply against the floor and he mumbled something unintelligible as he lifted his head. Judging by the way it was weaving about, he was probably only half-awake.
Not wanting him to wake anypony else up, she quickly tried to soothe him, whispering, "Shhh. It's okay, Highflyer. It's all right."
The wrestler yawned widely, and let his head drop back down onto Dinky's neck. On second thought, maybe it was better to just let him sleep for now. Especially since neither his groaning nor his thumping about seemed to have woken up anypony else. Dinky and Screwjob hadn't stirred even though Highflyer was practically on top of them. A likely testament to just how exhausted they really were.
Fluttershy looked to her other friends who were also fast asleep. She noticed Spike's head poking out from under Twilight's wing, and felt her thoughts drifting back to that shocking moment when they learned just what that new spell Princess Celestia had placed on Spike actually did. What had the Sun Princess been thinking to simply cut off their only means of contacting her like that?!
How do you know it was really Celestia who did that?
Fluttershy wasn't sure which was worse. The idea that a changeling had taken Celestia's place to put such things in motion, or the actual princess herself doing it.
Fluttershy padded to the nearest window and peeked out through a chink in the blinds. The sky must have still been overcast because there wasn't even a single star visible in the black night sky. It was as if the TreeHAB were floating all alone in a vast empty space. She thought of Mache Max, and wondered if he would be able to find them. For that matter would any of the changelings out there be able to find them? How could she know the TreeHAB wasn't surrounded by changelings right now, considering those semitransparent bodies were as good as invisible in the current darkness?
As she sunk deeper and deeper into these troubling thoughts, a small shaft of moonlight suddenly came through a tiny break in the cloud cover. At the sight of it, Fluttershy's mind flashed to the memory of Celestia (Maybe-Celestia, she mentally amended.) describing how she and Luna were bound both to each other and to the sun and the moon.
She thought of how Maybe-Celestia had mentioned banishing her sister not to be cruel, but to save both their lives, and by extension the sun and the moon as well. And of how Maybe-Celestia had never really explained why she had kept that summoning spell from Fluttershy, robbing her of the chance to contact Discord ...
The wingless pegasus leaned her head against the wall, gazing up at that small shaft of moonlight, hoping its existence meant both the Princesses were still alive wherever they were. Could this, like Luna's banishment, be another situation where Celestia understood what was going on, but didn't have time to stop and explain it? Was that why she and Luna had vanished so suddenly after ordering Discord be taken to the hospital?
Oh, please let that be the case, Fluttershy prayed, her longing to believe this warring with her feelings of abandonment.
She didn't remember falling asleep, but the next thing she knew she was blinking dazedly out the window at a very pale gray cloudy sky as something soft and warm surrounded her body. Looking down, she saw a pair of coral-colored wings tucking a camouflage-patterned blanket around her.
"Skywishes...?" The name came out sleep-slurred, and when the pegasus in question stepped back, Fluttershy saw that she was dressed in a bulky camouflage coat with a black watch cap hiding most of her mane and pulled down almost to her eyebrows.
"What are—?" Fluttershy started to ask.
"It's a lot colder than it was yesterday, so we've got to get bundled up," said Skywishes, lifting a pile of identical blankets and moving toward the other sleeping ponies. Then she paused and looked back at Fluttershy. "Also I'm going to make hot cocoa. Would you like some?"
Fluttershy felt a little nonplussed at Skywishes's sudden shift from threatening-to-throw-them-out to apparently playing hostess. However, she then noticed just how cold her face (and by extension the air around it) was, and quickly nodded.
Chapter 4 "For He has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; He has not hidden His face from him but has listened to his cry for help."—Psalm 22:24
Skywishes let out a soft "Hmm" of acknowledgment, which was promptly drowned out by a loud groan from Highflyer as he rolled away from Dinky and stretched his forelegs out. Either this groan was far louder than the ones he'd made the previous night or the remaining guests were no longer in as deep a sleep because they began stirring as well.
Fluttershy started to move away from the wall, and winced as pain shot through her body. Clearly she was now paying the price for falling asleep in that awkward leaning-against-the-wall position. While she tried to get the kinks out of her back, she heard Skywishes murmuring her offer of cocoa to the other ponies as she distributed the rest of the blankets among them. By the time Fluttershy had managed to get on her hooves, Skywishes had already disappeared into what was presumably her kitchen area, and the other six ponies and one dragon were up as well.
Despite the warm blankets they were all now wrapped in, an air of apprehension hung over the group as they waited for their host to return. Sure Skywishes had offered them warmth and the promise of a beverage, but after last night was this some sort of last luxury before sending them away? Then there was this very noticeable drop in temperature. Was it only due to winter's arrival, or were the changelings once again strong enough to affect the weather? To possibly cause another blizzard? And had their lashing out at each other the night before been enough to help fuel that?
After what felt like hours but was more likely only minutes, the scent of chocolate drifted toward them and Skywishes flew into view, holding a tray with about a dozen ceramic mugs on it. She set the tray down in the center of the room and motioned for her guests to join her there.
"Pick out the mug you like while I bring in the cocoa."
"Um, Skywishes?" Twilight said after they had all taken a mug. "Why do all these mugs say 'World's Greatest Grandpa'?"
"Three-for-one sale," said Skywishes before flying back into the kitchen and returning with a large soup pot. Taking out the ladle, she began serving the soup pot's contents—a concoction of hot water, powdered milk, cocoa powder, and sugar—into the aforementioned mugs. "No marshmallows I'm afraid. You'll have to make-do with cinnamon or cayenne pepper," she added, sprinkling some of the latter into her own drink.
She took a careful sip of her cocoa and held it in her mouth for several seconds before swallowing and looking around at the group. "Okay. I've had some rest and things don't look as bad as they did last night."
"Really?!" The tension in the room visibly lessened, and Skywishes quickly raised a hoof for silence.
"Don't get me wrong, things still aren't great, but we do have a few options that might give us a better chance of surviving this situation. For starters, Twilight you remember that invisibility spell you used to hide us from the changelings?"
"Yessss," said Twilight, reluctance showing in the way she drew the word out. "But if you're thinking I should put it on all of us so we can sneak around Equestria, that won't work. The more you move around the faster the spell wears off, remember?"
"Yes, I remember. But it occurred to me: Couldn't you do that same spell on an inanimate object?" She paused a beat before adding, "Like the TreeHAB?"
"Oh!" Twilight's eyes lit up in comprehension, then narrowed thoughtfully as she muttered, "Let's see, I'd probably have to test it. Make sure it doesn't just turn the TreeHAB's outside invisible while leaving everyone and everything inside it still visible ... but in theory it should work."
"Well, if it does," said Skywishes. "That will make the HAB, and by extension us, a lot harder to find. Now, our next issue is supplies like food and water. We could be staying here for some time, and callous as it may sound we can't help anypony out there if we don't take care of ourselves first.
"The good news is we don't have to worry about trying to find a water source since my water-reclaimer," she gestured to the network of pipes and tubes covering the ceiling, "daily collects water and stores it for me to use. Now that doesn't mean we should all just go about splurging and using a bunch of water for every little thing. We'll have to be frugal, maybe ration out how much water we use per day, but if we do that we shouldn't have to worry about running out of water."
Screwjob looked up from his cocoa. "So does that mean things like shared showe—?"
"Don't even finish that thought," Applejack growled into her own cocoa, cutting him off.
Skywishes just rolled her eyes and shook her head. "Now as far as food goes, before Fluttershy found me at the post office, I'd just finished stocking this place with enough supplies to last me a month aka thirty days. However, with nine of us now here instead of one, those same thirty-days-worth of supplies will only last us a little over three days. If we all went on half-rations we could probably stretch it out to a week, but considering several of us are injured and need to recover, we'll probably need all the strength we can get."
She looked around the group. "So in other words, we've got three days to figure out how we can increase our food supply and put that plan into action. At this point I'm open to any suggestions." She paused then added, "And you might want to drink your cocoa before it gets cold."
The whole group began drinking their cocoa—some taking it plain and some adding the cinnamon and/or cayenne pepper Skywishes had suggested—partly to get some warmth in their bellies, and partly to give themselves something to do while they mused on the dilemma Skywishes had laid out before them. After several moments, Rarity spoke.
"Suppose I use my talent for finding gems?" When this drew puzzled looks from the rest of the group she quickly added, "I mean, I know we ponies can't really eat them, but it would at least give Spike another food source—"
"Hey, you might have something there," said Applejack.
"How so?" asked Skywishes.
"Well, I'd have to see what sort of supplies you have, but if you have the right ingredients, we could use some gems to make that potion I used to disguise myself as a Crystal pony—"
"—and use it to disguise ourselves as Crystal ponies," Skywishes guessed, narrowing her eyes speculatively. "Do you still know the recipe?"
Applejack snorted ruefully. "Sure 'nuff. I spent far too many years brewin' that stuff up."
Skywishes cast a quick look over the group. "That would make it easier to sneak into the surrounding towns and spy on things..." Her pinions flexed idly. "Of course, some of us might have to hide wings or horns, but staying all bundled up may be enough to take care of that. Especially since wearing a bunch of layers won't look too suspicious if the weather stays as cold as it is now."
"You really should let me tailor these outfits when we get back," said Rarity, plucking at the shapeless camo she and Spike were now wearing. Skywishes had quite a collection of camouflage coats, cloaks, jackets, jerkins, shirts, and pants, so all her guests had found something to wear, but it was clear Skywishes's wardrobe was built on the one-size-fits-all principle. One Rarity heartily disagreed with.
"Yeah, yeah. Sure. Whatever you want," Skywishes muttered, her attention clearly focused on dragging one of her pulley-system suspended baskets to the edge of the floor panel she had opened. Scarcely had she settled it on the edge of the hole, then Twilight flew back into the TreeHAB through the same hole.
"The spell worked," she reported. "Now you can't see any sign of the TreeHAB from the outside, even if you put your face right up against it." Then she turned to Spike. "Now, tell me again: What's the plan?"
"I've got it, Twilight," Spike said, sounding exasperated. "Rarity and I go into the forest. She tracks down a bunch of jewels, and while she's looking, I plot our coordinates and send them back to you so we can find our way back here, I know! We've been over it five times!" The group had discussed tactics for some time but had finally decided it would be best to send out a small gem-hunting party (namely Rarity and Spike) while Dinky, Highflyer, and Screwjob got more rest, and the remaining ponies searched for more solutions to increase their food supply.
"And your code words?" Twilight prompted.
"She's Regal and I'm Seconds, I got it!" Spike snapped.
Twilight looked hurt. "Well, I'm just worried about the two of you going out there alone!"
"I know," Spike sighed, his irritation seeming to lessen. He reached up and wrapped an arm around her withers. "I know there's danger out there, Twilight, and I'll be careful. We both will be."
"I know you will," Twilight murmured, wrapping a wing around his back.
Applejack watched them, then turned to Rarity and blurted out, "Rarity, I'm sorry about what I said last night! I was worried about Apple Bloom and I—"
"Oh, it's all right, darling," Rarity said quickly. "I'm worried about her as well."
Applejack lowered her eyes. "I know," she said softly. "You were there for her all those years when I wasn't."
The unicorn seemed touched by this, and moved to put a hoof on the earth pony's shoulder. Then she and Spike climbed into the basket and Skywishes lowered them through the open panel. After a few minutes there were several tugs on the rope and Skywishes pulled the basket up, now empty.
Twilight sighed at the sight of it. "I know Spike's not a baby anymore, but he's still so little and—"
"So is Highflyer and he's legitimately one of the toughest guys in Equestria," said Screwjob from his makeshift mattress. "But don't tell the runt I said that."
"They don't have to, I heard," Highflyer muttered from his own makeshift mattress.
"Plus, Spike's got the added advantage of thick scales and the ability to breathe fire. Not a bad arsenal," Screwjob went on just as if Highflyer hadn't spoken.
Applejack lifted her head at the sound of the wrestlers' voices. "Uh, Highflyer ... about last night. ... I know I accused you of not having any family to worry about, and I..." She seemed to fumble for words then asked, "You ... don't have any family out there, do you?"
The masked stallion hesitated. "Uh ... no! No, I don't." But there was something about the hesitation that made Fluttershy suspect he wasn't being completely honest. Especially when she noticed Screwjob giving him an odd look.
Highflyer, however, ignored this, sat up and gave himself a shake. "Don't worry about it, Apps. If having no family is your idea of an insult..." He let out a short laugh. "Trust me, I've heard a lot worse than that."
"Boy howdy," Screwjob declared before putting his head down and shutting his visible eye. Fluttershy wondered about the look he'd given Highflyer, and what if anything the tiny stallion might be hiding, but decided now probably wasn't the best time to pry. And considering Applejack hadn't even objected to his use of the nickname, she was probably currently feeling too relieved at his quick forgiveness to be nosey.
"Come on, Applejack," said Skywishes. "Let's see if I have the rest of the ingredients you need to make that Crystal pony potion."
"Hey, Skywishes," said Twilight. "That just reminded me. When you mentioned thirty-days-worth of food supplies, were you including those bags of seeds I saw in the greenhouse area?"
"I thought you might not have, since plants tend to take a while to grow, but I got to wondering: What if we planted those seeds and I used magic to speed up their growth?"
Skywishes considered. "Hmm, that might help solve our food problem ... but it might also be like that whole situation where trying to heal a non-magical injury with magic makes it worse than just letting it heal naturally..." She looked to Applejack. "You're the farmer. Do you know if there are any downsides to using magic to speed up plant growth?"
"Well, it can make plants grow faster, but it also strips out some of their nutrients and exhausts the soil a lot faster than letting them grow normally."
Skywishes nodded thoughtfully. "In other words, not a very sustainable system in the long run. Still, less nutritious food for a short run is probably better than no food at all in the long run. Tell you what—we'll keep that in reserve for now and hopefully won't have to use it."
Meanwhile deep in the Everfree, the little equine awoke shivering. She couldn't remember the last time she had ever felt so terribly cold, and there was nothing pleasant about this new sensation. She huddled into a ball but her skeletal frame was no good at holding in heat.
Suddenly she was distracted from this discomfort when she heard a rustling sound. She looked about wildly for its source, when she heard a shrill screech above her and looked up to see an unknown dirty white shape shooting straight down at her. The little equine let out a frightened trill of her own and rolled away. Coming up on her hooves, she hissed at the shape and spat a ball of fire out at it. The fireball missed and struck the ground in front of her instead. The dirty white shape shrieked and flapped away, disappearing into the trees above. The little equine watched the foliage above warily, braced for the shape's return. As she watched, she felt heat wafting from the patch of ground her flames had struck, and shivered as it caressed her chilled body. Looking down, she noticed that the fire was going out and the heat was leaving with it. Now the cold felt even worse. She wanted the fire back, both for its heat and because its presence seemed to have frightened off whatever that thing was. She hissed and spat a second ball of fire onto another patch of ground.
With Twilight, Applejack, and Skywishes checking the contents of the greenhouse, and with Dinky, Highflyer, and Screwjob all resting, Fluttershy was left feeling a bit superfluous. Not sure what else to do, she began taking inventory of her own injuries. Her right front hoof was tender and blistered from that unknown liquid she had accidentally put it in, her middle was bruised where it had slammed in her cottage door, and there were the puncture wounds Discord's claws had made in her left shoulder. The shoulder still felt sore, but the bandaged wounds already seemed to be scabbing over.
Then she looked down at the stump that was her tail. While none of the other ponies had commented on it, she had been feeling ridiculous with such a long mane and such a short tail. Hmm, maybe that was something she could fix...
"Skywishes?" she asked when she noticed the other ponies were returning from the greenhouse. "Do you have a knife or some scissors I could possibly borrow?"
"How about this?" Skywishes pulled a folded knife from her pocket and flipped it open with three rapid clacks.
Highflyer's ears pricked up at the sound and he lifted his head. "Ah, butterfly knife. It's been a while since I've seen one of those."
Fluttershy took the offered knife, and as Skywishes moved with Twilight and Applejack to check the supplies in the kitchen, Fluttershy began sawing at her mane and forelock. The results were rather rough and choppy, but it left her with enough cut-off hair to make a new set of tail extensions. When she was finished, her new "tail" had the same rough choppy look as her mane and was a good deal shorter than her original extensions but still a decent length. She swished the new tail experimentally, enjoying having the familiar weight back. It might be miniscule in the grand scheme of things, but she felt a good deal less self-conscious now.
She carefully folded up the knife and was about to go return it to Skywishes when Highflyer called out to her. "Hey, can I see that knife?"
Seeing no harm in the request, Fluttershy held the closed-up knife out to him.
Highflyer took it with a murmured, "Let's see if I can remember how to do this..." and flipped the blade out just as quickly as Skywishes had but with a lot more flourishes, causing Fluttershy to flinch back reflexively. Highflyer flipped the knife closed, then flipped it back open again, this time throwing in some showier moves. The blade and its two handles were a trio of clacking, flashing blurs as he switched them from one hoof to the other, and even tossed the knife into the air, deftly catching it as it came down. Fluttershy watched apprehensively, fearful that he would accidentally slice his hooves open, but he handled the blade like one accustomed to using it. Come to think of it, he had shown the same competency when giving Dinky knife-handling pointers back at the cottage...
Fluttershy glanced toward the young unicorn who was currently fast asleep under a bundle of camouflage. After examining Dinky, Twilight had said she would eventually recover her magic and physical strength, but not without a lot of rest. Speaking of rest...
She turned back to Highflyer, who was still entertaining himself with the butterfly knife. "Shouldn't you be trying to sleep? To build up your strength?"
"Not tired," he replied, still flipping the blade about. Then his tone darkened. "And I want to make sure I stay in fighting shape." He punctuated the sentence by flinging the knife down in front of him, burying its blade deep in the wood floor.
Fluttershy gulped as the knife quivered there with one handle sticking up and the other hanging down. She couldn't help imagining how nasty it would be to see that same knife imbedded in flesh rather than wood, so when Highflyer moved to retrieve it, she blurted out, "If you want to stay in fighting shape, how about letting me check how your wings are doing?"
Highflyer paused in wrapping a hoof around the upright knife handle. "Good idea," he said, jerking the knife free and flipping it closed with a quick motion. He didn't seem to be in a hurry to resume his knife play so Fluttershy quickly moved to his side. She was just helping him ease his splinted wings out of his bulky vest when he suddenly reached under the camo jerkin she was wearing and ran a hoof up her spine. Fluttershy froze at the unexpected surprisingly intimate touch, wondering what had prompted it.
"Did it hurt?" he asked. "Losing your wings I mean."
Oh. Fluttershy felt her face flush and looked away while she considered the question. "I guess it didn't really hurt ... but it was scary at the time because I didn't know what Discord's magic was going to do to me."
Highflyer withdrew his hoof. "Have you thought about having Twilight try to magic them back?"
"She tried it," said Fluttershy as she began unwinding his bandages, "but she couldn't undo Discord's magic." That was the short answer, but there was actually more to it than that. When Twilight had failed to restore Fluttershy's wings, she had mentioned there was a chance Discord's death would automatically undo his magic. Of course, it was only a theory, but since then Fluttershy had been secretly dreading the idea of her wings spontaneously reappearing. If it was a choice between them and Discord's life, she'd rather remain flightless forev—
"Shy? You okay?"
She jerked in surprise, unintentionally tugging on the bandages and drawing a pained grunt from Highflyer. He peered over one shoulder at her. "Zoning out back there?"
"N-no, I..." As certain as she was about her feelings for Discord, she still had no idea how, or even if she should reveal those feelings to the other ponies, so she swiftly cast about for another subject. Her gaze lit on the skeletal tattoo that spanned Highflyer's now-unbandaged back from shoulder-to-shoulder and neck-to-tail. The tattoo combined with the scrapes he'd gotten fighting changelings made it look unnervingly like his actual spine was visible through some horrific wound. "This is some impressive tattooing you've got on your back. Really detailed. Did getting it take a long time?"
His mouth twitched in a faint smile. "Yeah, it did actually. Especially since it was designed so that all the ribs and vertebrae in the tattoo match up exactly with the bones in my actual skeleton."
Fluttershy's eyebrows went up at this. "Why go to all that trouble?"
"It makes the chiropractor's job easier."
"No, it makes it easier for me to hit him where it hurts the most," said Screwjob without bothering to lift his head or open his visible eye. Fluttershy chuckled at his comment, but her amusement quickly faded as she went back to tending Highflyer's injuries. Not because of the severity of his wounds—actually the tiny wrestler was in remarkably good condition considering the throttling he'd taken over the past few days—but because looking at his tattoos kept making her think of another set of much more lively tattoos. What would happen to Discord's tattoos if he died? Would they freeze up and become as stationary as Highflyer's? Or would they shrivel up? Or fade away? Or—
"Is that smoke?" Highflyer asked, jerking her out of her musing as he pushed himself up onto all fours.
"Where?" she heard Skywishes ask, and hastily tucked the last of Highflyer's new bandages in place before looking up to see that the coral-colored pegasus had come back from the kitchen along with Applejack and Twilight.
"Out there," said Highflyer, pointing to the window.
Skywishes moved to check. "Hmm. That's odd. The wood shouldn't be dry enough to burn easily this time of the year..."
"What?!" All the ponies—with the exception of Dinky who could still barely even get her hooves under her—rushed to join Skywishes at the window. Sure enough, dark smoke was rising up from a forest of burning trees!
Fluttershy felt fear seize her heart. What would they do?! How could they hope to escape?! How—?!
"It's no big deal," said Skywishes, her dismissive tone snapping Fluttershy's mind out of panic mode. "This tree has survived much worse forest fires than this, and we're high enough up that the flames can't reach us, so if we just keep everything tight shut so the smoke can't get in, we should be fine."
"But what about Spike and Rarity?" Fear filled Fluttershy once again, this time for her friends. "Spike might be fireproof, but Rarity isn't!" And even if Spike was fireproof that didn't make him immune to things like getting squashed by falling branches!
"Oh. Yeah ... them..." Skywishes didn't raise her voice, but her calm demeanor seemed to waver as she frowned down at the smoke and flames.
"We have to get them out of there!" Twilight lunged for the TreeHAB's entrance panel, only for Skywishes to seize her tail and yank her back.
"Don't open that panel!" Skywishes gritted through clenched teeth. "We might be out of reach of the flames, but we're right in the path to get plenty of smoke inhalation up here if we're not care—"
Twilight jerked her tail free, shot Skywishes an angry glare, and vanished in a flash of light.
"—ful." Skywishes groaned. "Oh, great." Then she quickly positioned herself between the floor panel and the remaining ponies. "Don't any of you even think of trying to go after her!"
"But Spike and Rarity—" Applejack started to argue.
"We don't know what direction they went, so we'd just be putting ourselves in danger if we try to go down there looking for them. Especially with all that smoke between us and the grou—"
Suddenly a singed and smoke-blackened Twilight reappeared, coughing violently. Floating next to her was a scroll with charred edges. "Hit's from Spike," she rasped, and her friends clustered around to read it.
"Twilight, we're okay. We found a cave to hide in where the fire and smoke can't reach us. Don't try to come looking for us, at least not until the fire dies down. Trying to put it out with magic doesn't seem to work."
"Yeah, I found that last part out the hard way," Twilight got out between coughs.
What followed were several agonizing hours of watching the Everfree burn and wondering how on earth the fire had started in the first place. Spike had made no mention of causing the fire either by accident or intention, so that ruled him out. Then there was also the fact that Twilight hadn't been able to extinguish it by magic, indicating that it might not be completely natural. Could the changelings have guessed they had taken refuge in the Everfree and set it on fire in an attempt to drive them out?
Finally as it began to get dark outside, the fire died down and the smoke thinned out.
A second scroll flashed into existence in front of Twilight. "It's from Spike again," she reported, holding the unfurled message in her magic. "He says they're still okay; that the fire has gone out in their area, but they don't know where their cave is in relation to the TreeHAB. They were heading east at the time they had to make a run for it, though."
"Well, that settles it," said Skywishes, moving toward the TreeHAB's entrance panel. "I'll go find them."
"I'm coming with you!" said Applejack.
"No," said Skywishes as she lifted a coil of rope off a hook in the wall. She didn't shout but there was a lot of steel in her words. "No, you're not."
"Hey, if you think I'm going to sit back while they're out there, you—"
"You're staying here," Skywishes shot back as she lifted an ax from the wall as well and rested it over one shoulder. "You and Twilight."
Twilight frowned at this. "Wait a minute—"
Skywishes turned to face her. "We'll need both of you to work the greenhouse if we're going to use that speed-up-the-plant-growth plan. Plus, you're the only other flyer we have. We can't afford to lose you if something happens to me."
"Well, if you think something will happen then you definitely need some backup," said Twilight.
"Fine." Skywishes sounded resigned. "I'll take Fluttershy."
"That's not what—" Twilight started to say while at the same time Applejack said, "Look, if this is about last night, I'm—"
"It's not that!" Skywishes snapped. "It's that I need the both of you here more than I do out there. So if I'm taking any other pony along, it's Fluttershy or no one."
"It's all right, girls. I'll go with her."
Twilight and Applejack both gave Fluttershy startled looks.
"It'll be okay," she tried to reassure them, then whispered, "Let me talk with her alone."
Understanding dawned on both her friends' faces. While Skywishes hadn't mentioned Applejack's harsh words from the night before, that didn't automatically mean she'd forgiven the earth pony. In fact, despite her claim to the contrary, she was likely still seething over them. We'll have enough problems to worry about without being at each other's throats, Fluttershy thought. But maybe if I talk with Skywishes privately, I can convince her to forgive Applejack. After all, Skywishes had unbent a bit at Fluttershy's gentler approach the night before.
The other ponies backed off, and Twilight jotted down a quick note to Spike, telling him and Rarity to stay where they were, if it was reasonably safe, so that Fluttershy and Skywishes could find them and guide them back to the TreeHAB.
Now Skywishes was flying stealthily through the charred forest with the rope and ax strapped around her middle under her camouflage, and Fluttershy perched on her back. Fluttershy had added a hooded camouflage cloak over the jerkin she was wearing, but the hood kept blowing back, forcing her to hold it in place with one hoof. Maybe she should have chosen a watch cap like the one Skywishes wore instead. Well, it was too late to go back and change that now. She squinted through the haze of smoke that hung over everything. Any time she or Skywishes spotted a cave, they would swoop down in front of it and call their code words into its mouth, but they had yet to hear either Spike or Rarity reply back with their own words.
They had checked at least a dozen caves before Fluttershy felt now might be the time to speak of something besides their code words.
"Skywishes ... please don't be mad at Applejack. She's just really worried about her family. She didn't mean what she said last night. We all know that losing Sunny Daze was hard on you and—"
"Fluttershy, I'm mad with Applejack but not for the reason you think."
"What do you mean?"
Skywishes landed on a tree branch and allowed Fluttershy to dismount so that they were perched side-by-side. Fluttershy glanced down at the forest floor far below and felt a wave of dizziness wash over her. She'd never been a very strong flyer, but it was only now with her wings gone that she realized just how much of a safety net they had actually been for her. Squeezing her eyes shut, she clutched the branch and felt Skywishes wrap a wing around her to steady her.
"Thanks," she whispered, turning her head partly to look away from the ground, and partly to try reading Skywishes's expression. However, when she opened her eyes, it was to see that the coral-colored pegasus was looking away from her. "Skywishes, what's wrong?"
Skywishes remained silent for several seconds before finally answering. "Fluttershy ... the truth is ... Sunny Daze and I ... We weren't close. That picture of us on the HAB wall ... That was the exception rather than the rule. Maybe it would have been different if we were identical twins instead of fraternal ones, but as it was we were just too different in some ways and too much alike in others to get along much as fillies. And as we grew up we drifted even further apart..." Skywishes trailed off as she looked down at her front hooves which were scraping a shallow groove in the tree bark. "Fluttershy, I saw just how worried Applejack was ... is ... about her family and I..." She finally turned enough to meet Fluttershy's eyes, her expression pained. "Fluttershy, I didn't even know Sunny had died until four months after they'd put her in the ground."
Fluttershy couldn't think of anything to say as she tried to digest this new information.
Skywishes looked away again. "And on top of that, I never really made the effort to see her much before that. I always found other things to do..."
"Are you now wishing you had spent more time with her?"
"I don't know. Maybe. ... But at the same time looking back at those instances where we could have gotten together, I just remember feeling like making the effort to try and get along with her was just asking for a headache."
Fluttershy's own feelings had been whipped up into a confused swirl at this. Are you saying ... your sister wasn't that important to you? But if she meant so little to you, why did you put so much time and effort into building the TreeHAB? ... Into making her dream a reality. Aloud she finally said, "Skywishes ... you might not have been very close to your sister, but I'm sure you still cared about her. I'm sure it still hurt to lose her. To lose that chance to ever build a deeper friendship."
Skywishes inhaled audibly, but took care to avoid the smoky haze around them. "You can't lose what you can't attain, Flutt—"
She suddenly went silent as there was a rustling sound below them. Then she looked down and grimaced, which prompted Fluttershy to chance a quick look down as well. Several timber wolves were creeping through the forest below them, all sniffing at the ground and the charred trees.
"I was afraid of this," Skywishes whispered, her wing tightening around Fluttershy. "I've noticed that after a forest fire, a lot of the animals that escape it come back to eat the carcasses of the ones that didn't. And they're not too choosy about what else they find along the way." She pushed herself into a standing position on the branch. "Come on, we've wasted enough time on my moping. As much as I hated to hear it, Applejack was right. My sister has been rotting in the ground for over a decade, and we can't change that."
As they continued searching the burned forest, Fluttershy's mind kept wandering back to Skywishes's revelation regarding her sister. If Skywishes had been intending to clarify things, she had failed because now Fluttershy was second guessing everything she had observed earlier about her fellow pony's behavior.
Just like a certain non-pony you know and love? Or thought you knew?
At the thought of Discord, Skywishes's interrupted statement flashed through Fluttershy's mind: You can't lose what you can't attain.
Well, she had definitely lost her friendship with Discord. Why else would he have gone from saving her life to avoiding her with no explanation for over a year? But what about his love? Had there ever been any chance of him viewing her not just as a friend, but loving her in the way she now knew she loved him? Or had that never been a possibility? Never been ... attainable?
Then she caught sight of a dark shape dragging itself along the ground below them.
The little equine dragged herself painfully along the ground, wondering just what had gone wrong. She had only wanted some warmth. That was why she had started hawking out flames. How could she have guessed that they would spread to surround her, and that their heat would go from pleasant to painful?
What had followed was a terrifying blur of trying to escape the fire. She could vaguely remember tumbling into a short tunnel that had provided her with some protection from the smoke and flames, but had also gotten hot enough to coat her hairless body in foamy sweat.
Now as she crawled from her hiding place, the foam on her body had dried into a dirt-caked shell. Cold smoky air sent a chill through her far worse than she'd felt before the fire, but she didn't dare try to warm herself the same way again.
Skywishes spiraled down cautiously so she and her passenger could get a better look at the shape Fluttershy had pointed out. The thing was shaped like a pony, probably about the size of a young filly or colt ... but so badly blackened and shriveled.
As they neared the ground and the burnt-looking pony crawling along it, pity welled up in Fluttershy. The poor little thing must have been caught right in the middle of the fire to have ended up so thoroughly burnt from head to hooves like that. What terrible pain it must be in. The fact that it was even still alive was a miracle in itself.
Then just as Skywishes landed, the burnt pony collapsed and lay motionless. Fluttershy jumped off Skywishes's back and was just rushing forward when Skywishes wrapped a wing around her and dropped flat to the ground, taking Fluttershy with her.
At the urgency in Skywishes's voice, Fluttershy immediately froze. Then she heard a rustling sound all around them and a horrible odor reached her nostrils. She fought the urge to cover her nose, then fought the even more overwhelming urge to jump up and run away screaming as the huge wooden paws of a timber wolf appeared in her peripheral vision. The wolf lowered its head and sniffed at the ground. Had it caught their scent?! The wolf lifted its head out of her line of vision and she heard it sniffing at the air right above her. She could also hear what sounded like more timber wolves moving about behind her, and wondered if they were the same ones she and Skywishes had seen earlier. Not that it mattered. Her heart was pounding so hard she wondered if any of the wolves could possibly hear it—
At that moment there was a loud snort above her, and foul timber wolf breath washed over her, forcing her to try breathing only through her mouth. Then the paws in her peripheral vision moved forward as if their owner was walking past her, and Fluttershy felt a tiny flicker of hope. Maybe she and Skywishes would survive this encounter after all. Maybe the timber wolves had caught their scent, but if both ponies stayed absolutely still and let their camo do its job, they might be able to fool the wolves into thinking the scent was from some long-gone ponies who had passed through the area earlier.
Then Fluttershy's flicker of hope was replaced with a jolt of horror when she noticed the burnt pony was stirring and trying to push itself up onto all fours.
No! she screamed inside her head at it. Stay down! Don't move! Don't let them see you!
But it was already too late.
The timber wolf's huge splintery jaws came down and closed on the pony before lifting it high and tipping back as if intending to swallow the pony whole! Fluttershy let out a noise that was half-gasp, half-hiccup, but at that very moment the burnt pony unleashed a far louder sound that was half-hiss, half-shriek ... and spat fire straight down the timber wolf's throat!
The timber wolf jerked back with a startled yelp, and as it did, Fluttershy saw the tiny pony go flying from its mouth. The pony whirled helplessly through the air and came down to slam painfully into the trunk of a tree. Fluttershy didn't get a chance to see what happened to the pony after that because at that moment Skywishes pulled her close and launched the two of them into the air. Below them now was utter pandemonium! The wolf that had tried to eat the burnt pony was now tearing about wildly with portions of its head on fire, and in the process it kept knocking into the other wolves. Those other wolves either caught on fire as well, or dissolved into piles of logs, branches, and twigs. All the while the air was filled with yelps, howls, and snarls until finally there wasn't a single wolf left standing.
The two ponies landed in a bit of a daze, stunned at how swiftly their situation had changed. As Skywishes released her, Fluttershy caught sight of the burnt pony—which she wasn't so sure was actually a pony anymore given what she'd just seen—lying at the base of the tree it had struck. Fluttershy ran toward the pony-thing as it struggled to its feet, intending to give it aid, but skidded to a halt when the creature turned its orange eyes on her and let out a vicious snarl. Its jaws opened and Fluttershy realized with shock that it had no tongue! Then it hawked a fireball at her. She dodged and the fireball struck the already-scorched earth before quickly dying out. Then the creature stumbled and Fluttershy noticed it was favoring its right front leg. The creature made a thrumming sound in the back of its throat that seemed to express irritation, and Fluttershy wondered how it managed to do that without a tongue.
She took a cautious step forward, and the creature snarled at her again. At this point most ponies would likely have left the creature to its own devices but not Fluttershy. The creature was clearly injured and she knew from personal experience that physical injuries would often turn even the most docile of animals vicious when they didn't know if the pony approaching them was a threat or not.
"It's okay, I'm not going to hurt you," she murmured, but got only another snarl in response. This wasn't completely unexpected. Sometimes her voice was all that was needed to calm an animal, but there had also been plenty of cases where the animal had needed more than that to convince it of her good intentions. Unfortunately this was probably going to be a case where the animal wouldn't believe she meant no harm until after she had set and bandaged its broken leg. Which was going to be tricky considering the creature clearly wasn't going to let her anywhere near its vulnerable limb. Of course, she could always use her stare to force the creature to obey her, but she preferred to use that only as a very last resort. Maybe she could use Skywishes's help with the creature...
"Wait here, I'll be right back." Considering the way the creature had been dragging itself along earlier she doubted it would be able to get very far on its three good legs, but one never knew. She turned back to the other pegasus. "Skywishes, could you—? What are you doing?"
What Skywishes appeared to be doing was chopping up several of the largest timber wolf logs into smaller pieces with her ax. "It's not my first choice, but food is food."
It took a few seconds for that to click in Fluttershy's brain and when it did, she was shocked. "Are you saying you ... eat timber wolves?!"
"Like I said they're not my first choice for multiple reasons, but yes. I have eaten them on occasion when food is short. And given our current food situation, I'd rather we have them and not need them, than need them and not have them."
"Well, as a menu item that certainly sounds less than 'Regal,'" said a familiar fancy-accented female voice.
"I 'Seconds' that," said an equally familiar male voice before Spike and Rarity both poked their heads out from behind a tree. "And you are?"
"Oh, Wasp," said Fluttershy unable to come up with a quick way to conceal the code word in a sentence.
"And Cardinal," Skywishes added, pausing in chopping up timber wolf remains. "Were the two of you behind that tree this whole time?"
"No," said Rarity. "We were several yards away, but then we heard the noise and came to investigate."
"Well, at least we found you, or vice versa," said Skywishes. "By the way, I'm going to need those gem bags from you."
"We didn't find any gems yet," Rarity warned.
"Doesn't matter," said Skywishes, taking the bags and loading them with the chopped-up timber wolf remains. "With a bunch of hungry animals prowling about, it's too dangerous to keep hunting for gems right now. We'll have to try some other time. For now, let's get back to the HAB before—" There was a rumbling sound behind them. Skywishes looked in that direction and muttered a resigned, "Oh, darn."
The rest of the group turned as well, and saw several cragadiles lumbering their way.
"I hate those things," Skywishes muttered as her eyes darted around the forest, searching for a tree that was still reasonably intact and with branches both strong enough to support them and high enough to be out of the cragadiles' reach. "This way!" Still holding the bag of chopped-up timber wolf, she took to the air and darted toward a tree that seemed to meet her criteria. As the other two ponies and the dragon raced along the ground after her, the cragadiles broke into a sprint, barreling after them. When they reached the tree, Spike leapt up onto its trunk and began scaling it easily thanks to his claws. However the same could not be said for Fluttershy and Rarity as their hooves scraped uselessly at the bark. All the while the cragadiles were thundering steadily closer.
"Here, I'll give you a boost," said Fluttershy, shoving her head under the slightly smaller unicorn's hindquarters before Rarity could argue.
"Come on! Give me your hooves!" Spike shouted from above them. Fluttershy felt Rarity standing up on her head, and she tried to stretch her own body farther to give the unicorn more height. Then something struck the back of her hind legs, and she cried out, expecting to feel a cragadile's sharp teeth sink into them.
"Gotcha!" she heard Skywishes grunt underneath her, and looked down to see the pegasus boosting her up just as she had been doing with Rarity. Except that Skywishes was also using her wings to try and propel them upward. Then Rarity's weight suddenly vanished as Spike caught hold of her hooves and pulled her up onto the branch next to him. With the extra weight gone, Fluttershy and Skywishes shot up the side of the tree and not a moment too soon, as a cragadile lunged upward and would have caught Skywishes's tail and hind legs if she hadn't tucked them both up at the last possible second. Several more cragadiles lunged upward to snap at their treed prey, but the branches the group was perched on were at least a good foot or so beyond cragadile jumping height.
Skywishes breathed a sigh of relief. "Okay, now we—"
"Skywishes!" Fluttershy cried. "That pony-thing from earlier! They're going after it!"
"What?!" Skywishes looked in the direction Fluttershy was pointing to see that several cragadiles at the back of the group had turned away from their tree and were moving toward the burnt pony-thing that was now huddled against the base of a tree, snarling and spitting flames at them. But the flames weren't hot enough or long-lasting enough to hurt the cragadiles.
"It's hurt, Skywishes! I think it broke its leg when it hit that tree! We can't just leave it there!"
"Not going to," said Skywishes, jumping off her branch, and shooting toward the cornered pony-thing. She dropped down to land on one cragadile's back then shot back into the air when it and several others snapped at her. She darted this way and that in the air, luring the cragadiles away from their prey on the ground before zipping back to where the burnt pony-creature huddled. She snatched up the creature only for it to snarl and struggle in her grasp.
"Stop it! I'm trying to save you!" But the creature just wrenched itself free, and fell back to the ground where it howled in pain as it landed on its broken leg. The cragadiles Skywishes had managed to lure away had already turned back and were now only a few feet from where the injured pony-thing lay. Deciding now wasn't the time to try explaining her intentions to her little rescuee, Skywishes zipped back down toward it, and brought the blunt back of her ax head down on its skull with a sharp bonk! As the creature collapsed, she scooped it up and draped it over one shoulder before flapping her wings wildly to get out of the cragadiles' reach.
"What is that thing?" Rarity asked as Skywishes landed on the branch next to them and handed the unconscious creature off to Fluttershy.
"That I don't know," Skywishes panted, fanning her wings out as she leaned over to catch her breath. "At first we thought it was a pony who got all charred up from the forest fire, but I've never seen a pony spitting fire like a dragon before."
Rarity's gaze flicked to the creature. "You don't suppose ... that was what started this forest fire?"
Skywishes shrugged her fanned-out wings. "I suppose that's possible."
Meanwhile, Fluttershy was examining the little creature in her forelegs. It seemed to be roughly about the same size as Highflyer but felt much lighter because every place that Highflyer sported thick muscle, this creature seemed to sport no more than thin skin stretched over bones. Even its face was so bare of flesh it looked more like a skull than a face, with that dark cavity where its nostrils should be and its sharp teeth permanently exposed in its lipless mouth. Then she noticed something she had missed before. What she had originally thought was burnt flesh was actually a layer of dirt and dried leaves plastered to the creature's body with dried foam. She gently pulled away some of the covering, revealing not flesh or hair, but a smooth hard black surface, almost like a scale or a shell. "Everypony, come look at this," she whispered, wiping away more of the dirt and leaves, to reveal the shell-like substance beneath.
Suddenly something slammed into the tree's trunk, causing it to shudder and forcing the ponies and dragon to cling to the branches. Looking down, they saw the cragadiles slamming themselves against the tree, trying to knock it down.
"We better get out of here," said Skywishes. "I don't know how much more this tree can take. I'll probably have to fly us one or two at a time to another tree and from there to the HAB."
"Hey, why doesn't Fluttershy use her Stare to just send these cragadiles packing?" Spike asked.
"Good idea," said Fluttershy, passing the pony-creature to him to hold, and leaning over to look at the cragadiles below them.
However, as she looked down and suddenly saw just how high up they really were, she was suddenly seized with vertigo. A quick glance down was one thing, but this prolonged staring, coupled with the tree swaying under the cragadiles' blows...
She felt sweat break out on her forehead, and her chest tighten up as she continued looking down. I'm slipping! I'm going to fall! her body screamed as she clutched the branch under her and squeezed her eyes shut.
"Fluttershy, what's wrong?" she heard Rarity ask, and tears of humiliation leaked from her closed eyes.
"I'm sorry! I can't do it! I—I just feel so dizzy, and—"
"It's her fear of heights," she heard Rarity whisper.
There were several painful seconds of silence before Skywishes said, "Well, it'd probably be faster if I just started flying us back to the HAB anyway." But that did little to ease Fluttershy's sense of guilt. She had had the perfect opportunity to help out, to ease some of the burden off Skywishes, and she'd flunked it.
The little equine surged into wakefulness as pain shot through her right front leg. She thrashed out with her remaining limbs in a desperate attempt to fend off those monsters that had been closing in around her. At the same time her eyes snapped open and she found herself not surrounded by smoky darkness, but bright light. For a brief terrible moment she thought her captors had found her and forced her back into that unmoving state she had been forced to exist in for so long. But then she realized she was still able to move.
Rolling onto all fours, she yelped as she accidentally jostled her injured leg. Tucking it protectively against her body, she looked up to see herself surrounded by several different-colored ponies, all staring at her. She scrambled backward away from them, trilling a warning as her head whipped this way and that, trying to keep them all in sight.
"It's okay. You're safe here," said a soft voice she recognized from earlier, as its owner stepped forward. "We're not going to hurt you."
The little equine trusted this pony's words as much now as she had before.
Not. One. Bit.
How many times had her captors appeared to show her compassion by offering her hope of freedom, only to cruelly snatch it away before she could so much as taste it?
Far, far too many times.
No, she wasn't about to be lured in with false kindness just to be imprisoned again.
Fluttershy mentally sighed in defeat. When they had finally made it back to the TreeHAB she had intended to splint the strange creature's leg before it woke up, but that plan had gone out the window when the creature hadn't so much slowly stirred to consciousness as instantly snapped awake in full fighting mode.
Her words still had no effect on the creature and judging by the way it was currently eyeing everyone, enlisting her friends' help in subduing it while she treated it would likely only panic it more.
Which left Fluttershy with only one other option. She may have failed to use her Stare earlier but she wasn't going to fail this time.
As she turned the full power of her Stare on the creature it flinched and cowered as expected, ready to submit to her as so many other animals had. But then its cadaverous face twisted in a look of fury and it lunged at her, teeth bared. Startled, Fluttershy recoiled, instinctively throwing up her forelegs in self-defense. The next moment she felt two rows of sharp jagged teeth fastened on her left one! As pain seared through the limb, Fluttershy let out a scream of mingled shock and agony. She tried to pull free, but the creature only bit down harder as if not intending to stop until it hit blood, bone, or possibly both. Through the haze of pain, Fluttershy was vaguely aware of the others swarming around her, trying to help. She saw flashes of blue and magenta magic circle both her leg and the creature's jaws, trying to separate them, and she saw Spike trying to pry those same jaws open with his claws. But all this seemed to do was drive the creature to bite down even harder until Fluttershy felt sure it would take her leg clean off.
But then Highflyer darted in and went not for the creature's jaws, but its hind legs. He caught ahold of the left one, and gave it a good hard wrench. There was an audible pop! from that leg's hip joint, and the creature let out a muffled cry of pain, causing its grip on Fluttershy to loosen slightly. Highflyer gave the now-dislocated leg another yank, and this time the creature was torn free of Fluttershy. She fell back, clutching at a foreleg now soaked with blood. Through the pain she felt her friends crowding around her, all trying to offer aid or encouragement, when suddenly she heard Skywishes's voice cut through the hubbub.
"Stay back! All of you!"
From her position on the floor, Fluttershy looked through the other ponies' legs to see that somehow during the confusion, Skywishes had gotten ahold of the creature. She had managed to get behind it with her front legs on either side of its head, grasping a piece of pipe that was thrust horizontally between the creature's jaws like a gag. The creature's teeth were gnashing against the pipe, clearly trying to get free, but it didn't seem able to flame with its jaws forced open like that. Skywishes also had her wings wrapped tight around the creature's two uninjured limbs, making it for all intents and purposes helpless, yet still it tried to get free.
"Stay back!" Skywishes repeated, her words coming out in a grunt this time as she hauled the struggling creature toward the floor's entrance panel. "Until I ... get this ... thing ... out of here!"
Suddenly Fluttershy shoved her way through the ponies surrounding her, disregarding the pain it sent through her injured foreleg. Skywishes had just kicked the panel open and gotten the creature positioned over it, when Fluttershy screamed at the top of her lungs, "NO! SKYWISHES, DON'T!"
The room went silent except for the mystery-creature's continued strained groans against the pipe between its teeth. All eyes turned to stare at Fluttershy. She stumbled and clutched at her bleeding leg, but kept her eyes trained on Skywishes and the struggling captive. "Please, Skywishes. Don't throw her out there in the cold."
When Skywishes turned to meet Fluttershy's eyes, her expression was somehow equal parts incredulity, contempt, and admiration, but when she spoke her tone was pragmatic. "What else do you expect me to do? We can't have this thing attacking us and spitting fire all over the HAB. We've got enough dangers to worry about out there; we don't need one in here as well."
"She attacked out of fear, Skywishes. I know she did. I've seen animals do it again and again. I know the difference between one that's normally always aggressive and one that's just doing it because it's injured and afraid. Please, Skywishes."
The coral-colored pony's expression had gone from uncompromising to torn. "Fluttershy, we can't—"
"Wait, Skywishes," Twilight cut in. "I might have a way for us to let that thing stay here without it being able to attack us."
Skywishes cocked an eyebrow at her. "How exactly would you keep it from burning the HAB down if you can't put its flames out with magic?"
"By blocking its flames from reaching any fuel. That way they'll just die off naturally. I know it doesn't sound that different from trying to put a fire out, but trust me there's a subtle difference."
"Please Skywishes..." Fluttershy pleaded.
Skywishes closed her eyes and exhaled before looking back to Twilight. "What do you need me to do?"
"Just let the creature go, put it where it's not near the rest of us, and I'll take it from there."
Skywishes nodded once, then spun around, lifted the pipe out of the creature's mouth, and used her wings to shove said creature forward, causing it to stumble away from both herself and the open floor panel. The creature tried to twist around and spit fire back at her, but at that precise moment Twilight fired off her own spell. A glowing bubble surrounded the creature, and the fire struck the inside of the bubble's wall, dissipating when it found no fuel to feed it.
"There," Twilight breathed. "Now it won't be able to attack—"
Inside the bubble, the little creature went ballistic, throwing itself against the shining barrier, tearing at it, clearly trying to get free, but as it moved the bubble just rolled along with it.
Skywishes glanced at Fluttershy. "Well, now what?"
"Uh, let's ... um, let's give it some space," Fluttershy advised. As much as she hated to just leave an animal alone and in pain, interacting with this particular one only seemed to agitate it. And after how it had reacted to her Stare, it looked like the only chance they might get to mend the creature's injuries were when it was too weakened and exhausted to fight them any longer.
Fluttershy winced as the antiseptic she'd swabbed her leg with began to do its work. When she lifted the cloth to examine the bite, Highflyer took a peek at it as well and let out a low whistle.
"My thoughts exactly," said Screwjob, also taking a look before settling back in a sitting position. "My goodness," he muttered, scraping at the side of his teeth with one front hoof. "Ponies have told me I've got a set of chompers on me, but that is impressive—Hey!" He had just felt someone jerk several long black hairs out of his tail. However, his indignation vanished when he saw the perpetrator was Applejack. "Getting a little familiar back there ain'tcha, Apps?"
She snorted. "In your dreams. I just took your hair because it's the darkest we've got and Fluttershy needs it to stitch up her leg."
His grin took on a challenging air. "You sure it wasn't just because I gave you permission to yank away on my luxurious tail?"
"Without a doubt," she deadpanned.
He chuckled. "Keep telling yourself that, Apps. You know I'm a handsome hunk of horsemeat."
"Good thing I'm a vegetarian then," she muttered under her breath.
His grin only widened. "As am I. And I'm particularly fond of apples if you catch my drift."
"Oh, I'll catch it and hogtie you with it."
"Well, you do owe me a sparring match, so bring it on."
"I don't owe you—!"
While this was going on Fluttershy knotted the pilfered hair and began stitching up her leg wound. As she listened to the verbal sparring, she suddenly felt an unexpected twinge of envy toward her farm pony friend. While Applejack had done nothing but reject Screwjob's advances, at least she knew where she stood with the stallion. Fluttershy thought of what she would have given to be certain of where she stood with Discord. But then again, he probably wouldn't be him if he was that clear-cut.
By the time she had finished stitching and bandaging her wound, she noticed how quiet the HAB had become. The mysterious pony-creature was no longer hissing, snarling, or tearing around the place. Spotting the glowing bubble at the other end of the room she saw that the creature inside was lying on its stomach with its good legs tucked under it and its injured ones stretched out awkwardly. In spite of her own injury, Fluttershy felt a wave of pity for the creature and the pain its broken and dislocated limbs were doubtless giving it. Moving to the bubble, she murmured softly, "It's okay. I never wanted to hurt or scare you. I just wanted to help. I still do."
The creature's only response was to snarl at her, its great orange eyes full of hate.
"Give it a rest Fluttershy," Skywishes sighed, coming over to her. "That thing doesn't want to be friends with you."
"But I've seen so many animals who've behaved like this, who I was finally able to get through to."
"Yeah, and there's plenty of animals that don't care as well. You don't even know what that thing is, Fluttershy. None of us do."
"That doesn't mean I don't have to try." She went back to studying the little creature as best she could through the captive bubble. It looked so painfully thin, but now she suddenly wondered if that thinness might actually be natural like a greyhound's as opposed to being a result of being underfed. In the HAB's light she could also see that where most ponies had manes this creature had only a few scant strands of hair and an equally sparse crop of hair at the end of its thin bony tail. But apart from that, its entire body was covered with a sort of black exoskeleton like an insect ... or now that she thought about it ... like a changeling. But she'd never seen or even heard of a changeling with such ridged bony-looking armor and a skull-like face. The whole effect was ... well ... almost as if the creature were a pony with its skeleton on the outside.
Fluttershy suddenly had a wild thought. Could this strange creature be something Discord had whipped up? That would certainly explain why she had never seen anything like it before. And if Discord had created it ... could its design have been what inspired the changelings to murder Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie in the gruesome way they had?
Before she could voice these thoughts to the other ponies, she was startled by a loud thunk! against a window. In split seconds something flat and dirty white squirmed in under that window, rolled itself into a tube, and sailed through the air to smack Skywishes in the back of the head, causing her to flinch forward with an indignant "Hey!" The tube then bounced across the floor and as it bounced it reconstructed itself into the familiar shape of a two-headed, five-winged parrot. But with a lot more paper than Fluttershy remembered now added onto his body, wings, and crests.
"O Lord my God, I called to You for help and You healed me."—Psalm 30:2
Scarcely had Fluttershy registered Mache Max's altered appearance, then the origami parrot began shaking himself wildly like a dog. Paper airplanes shot out from his body in every direction, forcing the TreeHAB's occupants to run for cover. Fluttershy dove behind a particularly large bundle of camouflage as the paper missiles whizzed over her head to bounce off the TreeHAB wall.
After several seconds, the artillery stopped. Fluttershy was just debating whether it was safe to peek out from her hiding place when the air was filled with squawks, shrieks, hisses, and a rapid-fire clicking. Peeking out from around her shelter, she gasped.
Mache Max—now looking once more as she remembered—was bouncing about, squawking as he gleefully head-butted the membrane imprisoning the skeletal mystery creature. The creature struggled to stay upright as it snapped and snarled at him in helpless fury, unable to bite through its prison. Fluttershy mentally shuddered each time it accidentally jostled its injured legs and let out enraged cries of pain.
"Stop!" Fluttershy shouted, leaping out from behind her hiding place and racing forward. "Stop it!" She snatched up Mache Max, brought him to her face, and shook her free hoof sternly at him. "Bad Max! You don't do that! You do not!"
For a millisecond, she thought he looked a tad ashamed of himself, but the next thing she knew he was cheerfully rubbing one beak up and down the length of her bandaged foreleg, and nibbling at the edge of the bandage with his other beak.
"I'm so sorry about—" she started to say as she turned toward the skeletal creature, but was cut off when it let out a hacking rattling sound. It seemed to be trying to spit up a fresh wave of fire, but produced only a few feeble sparks.
Then Fluttershy heard Spike say behind her, "Hey, I think that thing is running on empty. If its flame works anything like a dragon's anyway."
The little equine was doing her best to stay upright, but it was difficult with only two working legs. Even the slightest movement sent bolts of pain through the other ones. But she couldn't afford to collapse, couldn't afford to let her captors see just how weak and hurt she really was. She had almost started to hope they might leave her alone when that strange off-white thing suddenly showed up to start tormenting her. Oh, yes. She had been through this enough times to know how it worked. She wasn't about to fall for that yellow pony's nice routine. Not with the way her little tormentor was now cozying up to the pony. No, they were hatching a fresh plan to torture her.
Suddenly the yellow pony was joined by the others who all huddled around her and began whispering among themselves. The little equine lifted her ears, trying to catch what they were saying.
"We don't know how long it will take for that flame to recharge, so this might be our only chance."
"If we can keep it still, I can pop that leg I dislocated back in place. But that's going to be painful enough even if it cooperates, which it's clearly not going to do."
"Twilight, if you dissolve that bubble, I can pin our guest down while High and Fluttershy work on its legs."
"But Screwjob, if you do that, it might see you as nothing but an enemy from now on."
This was greeted with a short chuckle. "Fluttershy, I'm a heel. It's in my job description to be the lightning rod of hate. Plus, it's not like our mystery guest has exactly warmed up to any attempts to be nice so I doubt it could hate my guts any more than it probably already does."
"Alright, here's what we'll do."
Their voices dropped even lower, and try as she might, the little equine couldn't make out what they were saying.
Then the group suddenly split up and began drifting away toward different parts of the room. The little equine didn't trust this. They were up to something. Wobbling on her two good legs, she snapped her head back and forth, trying to keep everyone in sight...
When the bubble surrounding her suddenly flashed bright. Momentarily blinded, she recoiled and fell backward, landing painfully. She tried to scramble up, but there were suddenly hooves on her, flattening her out on her stomach. She tried to strike out with her good limbs only to find them both caught in an unbreakable hold. She tried to lift her head from the floor but that was pinned down as well. She even tried to strike out with her injured limbs only to find them also caught.
She knew this would happen. She knew her hope of freedom was too good to be true!
"The patient is locked down and ready to go!" Screwjob reported as he got the mystery creature pinned in a submission hold.
Highflyer went in next.
"Stay here please, Max," said Fluttershy as she carried him as far from the mystery creature as she could. But just as she set him down, he shot past her back toward the struggling creature. At least he tried to shoot past her, but didn't get far before Rarity's magic surrounded him and held him fast. Fluttershy sent the unicorn a grateful look before turning back to the scene in the middle of the room. The mystery creature hissed and snarled as it struggled to get free, but Screwjob held it fast as Highflyer examined its dislocated hind leg. The rest of the group had spread out around them, ready to lend support if anything went wrong, but at the same time not wanting to hinder the wrestlers by getting in their way.
"Here we go!" said Highflyer, and anything else he might have said was immediately drowned out by the creature's pain-filled screams.
"It's all right, little one, it's all right!" Fluttershy called as she hurried forward. "We're just going to help you. It will stop hurting soon, I promise!"
But she wasn't sure the creature could even hear her over its own screams.
The little equine could do nothing but howl in agony as the bones of her back leg ground together. It hurt so bad! Would it never stop?! Would—?!
Suddenly something seemed to pop into place and instantly the pain diminished, dwindling down to almost nothing. Her scream died off in a startled gasp because the relief was so immediate it was almost a shock. Had her captors just ... fixed her leg?
"There, see?" she heard that soft-voiced yellow pony say. "Your back leg doesn't hurt anymore does it?"
Well, no. Not much anymore.
"Now I'm just going to take a look at your front leg. This will hurt but it will be over real soon, and you'll feel a lot better once it's done. I promise."
Could that ... possibly be true? No, no, she mustn't be taken in. No one ever offered her compassion except to make the inevitable betrayal all the more painful.
Fluttershy had hoped that letting Highflyer fix the creature's hip before she attempted to set its front leg would help it finally see that they were only trying to give it aid, but it soon became clear that wasn't the case.
It had been difficult enough for Fluttershy to set Highflyer's wings even with him cooperating, but that was nothing compared to this new patient who seemed determined to fight every step of the way. Nothing she seemed to do or say ever seemed to get through to the creature. What drove it to be so resistant?
She lost track of time but finally at long last—with a good bit of help from the surrounding ponies—she had the creature's leg set and bound up with tape and a splint. By then her own injured leg was aching as well.
"It's done!" she gasped, releasing the creature's leg. Immediately Twilight's horn flashed and a magenta membrane similar to the bubble she had produced before now encased the creature's bandaged leg. Given how resistant the little one had been toward every action, they had decided they couldn't risk it trying to tear off its bandages once it was free. Fluttershy backed up several feet before the two wrestlers both released the creature and rolled away from it. Twilight flashed a new bubble around the creature.
Fluttershy had sat down and was bent over, trying to get her breath back when Skywishes suddenly stepped toward the magenta bubble with a rolled-up blanket tucked under one wing. Fluttershy frowned at this. What was the coral-colored pegasus doing?
"Now listen," said Skywishes. "Before we leave you alone, I'm going to put this blanket in there with you. Now, you can either throw a snit fit and set the blanket on fire, or you can be smart and wrap it around yourself to stay warm. It's your choice, but if you go with the first one, I'm not going to give you a second blanket. You can just freeze for all I care."
"Sky—" Fluttershy started to protest.
"Fluttershy, hush!" Skywishes snapped, not taking her eyes off the creature in the bubble. It tried to spit flames, producing a little more than the feeble sparks it had earlier but not much. Skywishes leaned in closer until her muzzle was almost touching the bubble. "I'm not going to throw you out of the HAB, but I'm also not going to bend over backward to help you. Especially not if it means sacrificing them." She flicked her free wing back toward the rest of the group. "You got that?"
The creature glared at her and let out a low sound that was a sort of half-growl, half-purr.
"I'll take that as a yes," Skywishes murmured before pushing the blanket through the bubble. The creature tensed at this intrusion, but didn't attack. It sniffed warily at the blanket which had unrolled slightly when Skywishes pushed it through.
"How'd you do that?" Fluttershy asked as Skywishes stepped back. Twilight hadn't mentioned anything about them being able to put things into the bubble from their side.
A faint smile flashed on Skywishes's mouth. "I put in a request to Twilight while you were working on that thing's leg."
Ah, yes. Fluttershy had been so focused on trying to set those badly fractured bones that the other ponies around her probably could have had several conversations without her noticing.
"Speaking of which..." Skywishes lifted her head. "Twilight! I think we're going to have to use your food-growing idea now that our number of mouths to feed just went from nine to ten." She glanced back at the mystery creature, who was now attempting to watch everyone around it, and examine the blanket on the floor in front of it at the same time. "Though come to think of it ... How exactly are we supposed to feed something with no tongue or lips but plenty of teeth? Maybe it just swallows everything whole...?"
Or it doesn't need to eat at all... Fluttershy mused. After all Mache Max didn't seem to need to eat. But then again ... what if Discord hadn't made the creature? The hostility it had shown toward Mache Max had made her second guess her idea that Discord had made the creature. But then again, there was no rule saying one's creations had to be all buddy-buddy with each other. Especially if they were created by someone who was supposed to specialize in disharmony—
"Hey, look at this," Screwjob called, waving a now-unfolded paper plane. "We're on the front page." He held up another. "And so is Discord."
Before she even knew what she was doing, Fluttershy had raced to his side and snatched the second paper from him so quickly it almost tore.
"What's it say?" several of the other ponies asked.
Fluttershy's eyes darted over the paper, which she now saw was part of a newspaper. "He's in the hospital..." she murmured, trying to relay the important points as she took them in. "Sedated and fitted with cuffs that are supposed to inhibit his power—" She came to an abrupt halt, staring at the page.
"What is it? What'd you read?" Twilight asked, and when Fluttershy didn't respond, she used her magic to tug at the paper, trying to view it for herself. When she succeeded in freeing it from Fluttershy's unresponsive hooves, Twilight took over reading. "'One would expect such a dangerous prisoner to be placed under maximum security at one of the major hospitals in Canterlot, but instead he is currently being treated at a hospital in Ponyville. At, in fact, the very same hospital currently housing his two almost-victims.'"
"Does that mean he's in the same hospital as my mom and Amethyst?!" Dinky cried, surging to her feet. Her legs gave out almost immediately and she would have collapsed if Twilight's magic didn't suddenly prop her up.
"That's what it says," the alicorn confirmed, her eyes continuing to dart back and forth over the paper. "And not just are they at the same hospital, but Princess Celestia even ordered that they all be kept on the same floor."
"Why would she do that?" Fluttershy asked, having snapped out of her earlier stupor.
"It doesn't say," said Twilight, frowning at the paper. "All it says is that neither Celestia nor Luna were available for comment..." Her frown deepened as she continued reading.
"It says that Celestia left a list of instructions regarding Discord's treatment, but that she and Luna haven't been seen since he was captured."
"They aren't the only ones AWOL," Screwjob added. "There's also a list of missing ponies in this article. See? Apple Bloom, Apps, Dinky, Shy, High, Rarity, Loo, Me, Wishie, Spike—and you," he added as Twilight jerked the paper from his hooves. "All currently being urgently sought, contact authorities if you have any information, and etc."
Twilight only responded to this quick recitation with an absent nod as she read the article for herself.
However, all is not lost, the article concluded. There is hope we may soon locate Twilight Sparkle as our most powerful unicorns are currently working on a spell they will put on every town in Equestria to alert them to any alicorn magic being performed there.
Twilight let out a despairing groan. "Oh, I bet the changelings are behind that last part. Making it sound like a helpful idea when it's really them just trying to trap me and the rest of the princesses."
Applejack slammed a hoof against the floor in frustration. "How can they keep getting away with this?! Anypony who reads this is going to worry about us, and we can't even let our friends and families know we're all right because they might be disguised changelings, while they've got free reign to capture anypony they—"
"What makes you so sure they haven't already captured Celestia and Luna, and are now just trying to catch you?" Skywishes suddenly asked Twilight.
"Because I—" Twilight started to respond, then stopped as she considered the question. Fluttershy considered it too. Why was the spell mentioned as detecting alicorn magic in general rather than just Twilight's? Why—?
"Wait a minute!" Spike exclaimed, his eyes suddenly narrowing in concentration. "Wait a minute..."
"What is it, Spike?" asked Twilight.
"Skywishes's question just made me realize ... we know the changelings are trying to catch us by calling attention to the fact that we're missing. ... So why would they also be doing that with Scootaloo and Apple Bloom unless...?"
Rarity gasped in realization. "They haven't caught them yet."
Is it possible? Fluttershy had feared like the others that the young mares' failure to show up at her cottage meant they had been captured, but now ... Scootaloo did have Tank with her, and Apple Bloom was familiar with the changelings' deceptive tactics given her experiences the year before. Dare she hope they had managed to elude the enemy?
Then Applejack's expression suddenly darkened. "Apple Bloom may be on that list, but Big Mac isn't."
An uncomfortable silence fell over the group as they realized this likely meant that the changelings had captured the stallion. And who knew just how many more unlisted friends and family members had also been taken?
Then just as quickly Applejack's face took on a look of bitter satisfaction. "At least Granny's where they can't hurt her this time."
Screwjob cocked his visible eyebrow. "This time? What happened to her?"
Applejack looked away and tugged her hat down before muttering, "She's dead. Died just five days before all this started."
"Oh..." Screwjob seemed at a loss for words. "I ... didn't realize that. She ... meant a lot to you?"
"Practically raised me when my parents died," she spat out, bracing herself for him to make some tacky remark.
But all he did was murmur a soft, "Ahh ... I'm sorry. That's hard."
She frowned at this, surprised he hadn't tried to turn the situation into an attempt to flirt with her. Then she remembered his words from the day before, and turned enough to partially face him. "You ... swore on some aunt yester—"
"He what?!" Highflyer sounded shocked. "Don't tell me he swore on his Aunt Moonshine!"
Applejack turned to the smaller stallion. "How'd you know—?"
"So he did?!" Highflyer demanded before she could even complete the question.
"Well, yes—But what's the big deal?!"
Highflyer sucked in a breath. "Oh, boy. Applejack, the Screwjob Stipulation is a joke. It doesn't mean squat to that old heel—"
"I'm not that old!" Screwjob protested.
"—but swearing on Moonshine..." Highflyer shook his head in wonder. "He's so devoted to her, that's pretty much the Ultimate Oath to End all Oaths for him."
Applejack's gaze snapped back onto Screwjob, not liking the idea of him having an aunt that he revered as much as Highflyer seemed to imply. It was so at odds with her view of him as a smug, shallow, self-centered jerk that she found herself almost hoping he would grin or make some comment that would disprove Highflyer's claim.
But for once Screwjob wasn't even looking at her. He was looking toward one of the TreeHAB windows with his visible right eyebrow furrowed more than usual.
Highflyer padded over to him. "Moonshine on the mind, Jobs?"
"Yeah," said Screwjob, his voice unusually soft. "I just realized that if those changelings are so determined to kill us they might try to lure me out by going after Moonshine."
"She's got Big Tim with her."
"That's why I'm worried. She's magicked him up so much I don't know if there's enough animal left in him to sense windigo-essence."
"Even if he can't sense that, I don't think it will be a problem, considering Big Tim's never liked anyone apart from your aunt."
"Who's Big Tim?" Applejack asked.
Screwjob shuddered. "The biggest, ugliest, foulest rattlesnake you never want to meet in your whole life."
This was greeted with a skeptical snort.
"I AM Serious! He was bad enough when she first brought him home as a regular snake, but now thanks to her magic he's big enough to scarf down most ponies without unhinging his jaw, has super-strong scales that are impervious to a lot of attacks, and can slither about on walls like a bug can climb them. Oh, and he's got this sort of sixth sense that pretty much means nothing goes in or out of my aunt's house without him knowing it."
"That actually sounds like a pretty good security system." Spike commented dryly.
"Yeah, but what's to stop one of those changelings from posing as me? Moonshine would welcome them right in and order Tim to leave them alone." Screwjob ran a hoof over his face. "Annnnnd while that snake hates me as much as I hate him, he's never disobeyed my aunt."
While this was going on, Fluttershy had moved to examine the rest of the paper planes scattered about the HAB, hoping they might have more information about Discord, but they all seemed to just be different newspapers rehashing the first two articles. At Applejack's mention of Granny Smith, Fluttershy suddenly remembered how Angel had died the same night as the old pony. And with that came the wild thought: Had his passing that night been unplanned, or could Angel have somehow known what was coming and chosen to move on so his well-being was one less thing she would have to worry about?
There was no way to find out now.
And yet ironically they currently seemed to be just as powerless to contact their living loved ones as they were their deceased—
Fluttershy flinched as she felt something tickle the back of her neck. It was Mache Max plucking at her now-shortened mane.
Lifting him from her withers, she brought him around to face her. "Max, you did a wonderful job in letting us know what's happening with Discord, and I'm so proud of you." She stroked his stained and tattered paper crests, and he responded by nuzzling them against her foreleg. "But now I'm wondering ... if it's not too much trouble ... can you actually take me to see him?"
The parrot squealed and grabbed the collar of her camouflage in both beaks, tugging her toward the TreeHAB's entrance panel.
"Did you seriously just ask him to take you to Discord?" Skywishes's flat voice betrayed no emotion, but Fluttershy still felt her face flush as she fumbled for an answer.
"Yes, I—I saw what the articles said, but..." But that wasn't enough. I need to see him for myself, she thought, but wasn't sure how to best explain that in a way the rest of them could understand and sympathize with. Then her gaze happened to land on the skeletal creature in its shimmering bubble. It was now burrowed under the blanket and might have looked as if it were ready to go to sleep, but its eyes were wide-open, watching them warily.
"But I think we need to find out if Discord made that little one in there," she heard herself say. Granted she had been having doubts about that theory but the others didn't need to know that yet.
Skywishes moved to meet her eyes. "You really think that thing might have come from him?"
Fluttershy shrugged her withers. "It would sure explain why we've never seen anything like it before." Then she sighed. "Oh, I really don't like to keep referring to it as an 'it.' That just feels..." It felt demeaning, but what else could they call the creature when they had no clue what sex it might be?
Skywishes's mouth suddenly twitched in a faint smile. "Well, you did refer to it as 'she' a couple of times when you were begging me to let it stay."
Fluttershy blinked. "Did I?" She had been so focused on trying to stop Skywishes that she hadn't even noticed what pronouns she was using to refer to the creature. "I wonder why I did that...?" Why had she instinctively referred to the creature as a 'she?'
Skywishes seemed to sense this question. "For the record, Max is still technically an 'it'—"
Mache Max responded with an indignant shriek and slung a sheet of paper at her.
"Cut it out!" Skywishes snapped at him, catching the paper before it could strike her. Fluttershy quickly pulled the parrot to her chest before he could go for more ammunition. Setting the paper down, Skywishes turned back to her. "He might not really be male or female," she went on in a softer voice. "But it just felt natural for me to think of him as a 'he.' Maybe it just felt natural for you to think of that thing as a 'she.'"
"Well..." said Twilight, moving to join them. "Now that you mention it, that shell or whatever it's covered in does look a bit more like a female pony's bone structure than a male's. So maybe we should consider it a female until we learn anything that proves otherwise."
Skywishes looked to the creature. "You hear that? We're going to call you a 'she' from now on, so if you've got a problem with that, speak up."
The creature eyed them, but made no sound. Not so much as a low growl.
"Well," said Skywishes, turning back to the others. "I guess 'she' doesn't mind being called a 'she.'"
"We should probably also give it—uh, her—" Fluttershy turned apologetically to the creature. "Um, you, a name too."
The creature lifted its head and sneezed a small fireball that dissipated when it struck the bubble's wall.
"Hmm. You seem to do that a lot," Skywishes muttered. "How about we call you ... Fireball?"
The creature responded with a series of clicks that sounded displeased.
At this the group called out a host of other fire-related names.
"Conflagration? Seriously, Jobs?"
"What? We could shorten it to Connie."
More ideas were called out but all were met with disdain.
The creature's ears pricked and she let out a short inquisitive thrum.
Skywishes, who had suggested the last name, raised an eyebrow. "Oh, you like that one? Bonfire?"
The creature trilled softly, sounding almost pleased.
Skywishes looked to the others. "Any objections to naming her 'Bonfire?'"
There were none.
"Alright. Bonfire it is."
Fluttershy moved forward. "Bonfire," she said, testing the new name. "Do you know if Discord made you?" she asked, remembering uneasily how Mache Max hadn't even hesitated to answer a similar question in the affirmative. But to her relief, the creature just gave her a wary uncomprehending stare. Fluttershy turned back to the others. "Okay, so she doesn't know if he made her, but that doesn't mean he didn't."
Skywishes inhaled, and walked over to the entrance panel. "Alright, see if you can get Max to lead us to the hospital without bugging me too much and I'll fly you to Discord."
Fluttershy was startled by this offer. "Um, Skywishes, maybe you should take a break. You've been flying all—"
"Don't be ridiculous." said Skywishes, picking up a flashlight and snapping it on and off to test the beam before securing it to a loop in her camouflage. "It's too dangerous for you to go waltzing through the forest on foot with all the predators currently prowling around." She added a butterfly knife, her ax, and a coil of rope to her supplies. "And it's also too risky for Twilight to fly to town—"
"Wait a minute," Twilight cut in. "I could fly Fluttershy to town as long as I don't use my magic. Plus it will take them time to set up that spell on each town so they might not have it ready yet."
Skywishes picked up a second flashlight and began testing it as well. "Can you be absolutely sure of...?" She paused in her flashlight examination. "Oh, shoot!" She shut her eyes, and let her forehead thump into an upraised wing.
Twilight frowned at her. "What is it?"
"I just realized ... If they put that spell on all the towns, what's to stop them from putting it on the Everfree as well? If they do that we might be invisible here in the HAB but if you use your magic we might as well be screaming: Here we are! Come and get us!"
But Twilight shook her head. "Don't you realize the Everfree is very resistant to pony magic? In fact if there's one place they wouldn't be able to work that spell, this is it." Then another thought occurred to her, making her frown again. "Of course, they might realize I'm here through the process of elimination ... But not if I put a second spell to mask my magic around the TreeHAB first." She seemed to warm to the idea. "Yes, it could act like an air pocket, and help us stay hidden, and—"
"And that's another reason why I'm the more expendable flier of us two," said Skywishes as she extended a wing to point at Twilight. "You are the expert on magic." The wing folded over to point at its owner. "I am not." Turning back to Fluttershy, she deposited the flashlight, and an extra knife and coil of rope in front of the wingless pegasus. "Looks like it's just you and me again."
"Actually do you have room for one more?" Spike asked, moving to join them. "Twilight might be stuck here, but if I go with you, I can let her and the rest of the group know what's happening with us."
Skywishes didn't seem completely onboard with the idea. "Isn't that spell on you alicorn-magic? So wouldn't you sending messages trip the same spell as Twilight using magic?"
Spike shook his head. "No, mine's different. Twilight using her magic is like lighting up a new candle each time while me sending a message is like using a candle that was lit a long time ago and is still burning."
"Hmm. Interesting. I never realized there were so many ins and outs to how spells worked. Well, if you're sure that's the case..." She retrieved a third flashlight and tested it before setting it right in front of the dragon. "It might actually be a good idea to bring you along."
While this was going on, Mache Max had been tugging on Fluttershy's mane. Gently at first, then more and more insistently.
"Don't worry, Max," said Fluttershy. "We're going now."
"Fluttershy," Dinky suddenly croaked from where she was lying. "When you go to see Discord, can you check on my mom and Amethyst too?"
"I'll do my best, Dinky." said Fluttershy, feeling a bit guilty that she had been so focused on Discord that she'd forgotten about the two ponies.
As they got ready to leave, Applejack suddenly moved in front of Skywishes. "Skywishes, about last night, I—"
Fluttershy watched the two ponies uneasily. She hadn't had the chance to tell anyone about Skywishes's revelation, partly because she wasn't sure if it was really her place to share it.
Skywishes seemed to be struggling to find the words to say. "Just ... help me keep as many of us alive as possible. Okay?" Her front hooves came up to grasp Applejack's shoulder, her dark green eyes locking with the farm pony's lighter green ones. "With everything we've got stacked against us, some of us likely won't survive, and I'm trying to minimize that number. That's all I'm trying to do. Okay?"
Applejack nodded and reached up to clasp one of Skywishes's hooves. Fluttershy felt some of her unease drain away, realizing that even though Skywishes hadn't spelled it out, she had forgiven Applejack and was even providing a peace offering in the form of an explanation for her own seemingly callous attitude.
The little equine watched all this while trying to assess her new situation. She couldn't reach anything beyond the bubble she was in, but she was still free to move about inside it. Not that she really had the energy to move at the moment. The material she had wrapped around her body was pleasantly soft and warm, unlike anything she had ever experienced before. She clung to it tightly and watched those around her, ready to fight if they attempted to take this one source of comfort from her.
While she watched the group and they continued not to bother her (yet), she found herself thinking on what else they had done. Given her a ... name.
Bonfire. All her life she had been fed the idea that she wasn't worth wasting a name on so this new situation ... this ... having her own name ... was almost a shock.
Bonfire. She would never be able to actually say the word aloud, but now she repeated it over and over in her mind, testing its sound and feel. Bonfire. Bon-fire. Bonfire.
To his credit, Mache Max guided Skywishes and her two passengers safely first through the forest and on to the hospital with a minimum of fuss. The moon was completely obscured by thick clouds when the little camo-clad group landed on the hospital roof, and the accompanying darkness was both welcome and dreaded; welcome because it gave them extra cover, and dreaded because it would make their semitransparent enemies virtually invisible.
"Alright," Skywishes whispered as her passengers dismounted. "Now if we could just—"
At that moment Mache Max bounced toward an air duct and began banging on its grating with both heads, producing a loud clanging that would have been more at home coming from a huge bell. Fluttershy snatched him up, shushing frantically as she joined Spike and Skywishes where they crouched in the shadows. They waited for several long tense seconds to see if their guide's noise had given them away. But after nothing showed up they finally relaxed.
All this time Mache Max had been straining wildly, but mercifully silently, toward the air duct.
"I think he wants us to go in there," Fluttershy whispered.
Skywishes eyed the air duct doubtfully. "I'm not sure we'd fit."
"One way to find out," Spike whispered, scuttling toward the air duct on his stomach. The two ponies hurried after him, Fluttershy keeping Max tucked in one foreleg. Spike loosened the grating's screws with his claws, and Fluttershy released Max so that she and Skywishes could lift the grating free of the air duct. As they laid the grating gently to the side, Fluttershy saw Max dive into the now-open air duct, confirming her suspicions as to his intentions.
"I'll go next," said Spike. "I'm the smallest, so if I can't fit in there, none of us can."
As he tied down one of the ropes they had brought and began playing it into the air duct, Skywishes nudged at Fluttershy to get her attention.
"I think one of us should stay out here and stand guard just in case some changelings come by."
Fluttershy suddenly wondered if Skywishes might be claustrophobic and just wanted an excuse not to go into the air duct. However, as she watched Spike disappear down the air duct, she found she couldn't really blame Skywishes for possibly having this fear. Spike had managed to get in easily enough, but it was definitely going to be a tight squeeze for the average pony. And considering how many fears Fluttershy herself struggled with regularly, wasn't Skywishes entitled to have at least a few as well? Especially after all she's risked to help me and the others in the past few days?
Plus, Fluttershy had to admit having a lookout was just common sense. Aloud she said, "I think that sounds like a good idea, Skywishes. Um, would you mind being that guard?"
"Not at all."
Fluttershy wondered if there might have been a hint of relief in those words.
"Here, take this," said Skywishes, passing her another one of the ropes they'd brought. "I want you and Spike to tug on it three times when you're ready to come back. If you feel three tugs back in response that means it's safe to come up."
As Spike and Fluttershy followed Mache Max through the hospital duct work, she couldn't help thinking back to how just yesterday—Or was it the day before that, considering that by now late night might have changed to early morning?—she had been in an almost identical situation. Except that now instead of fearing she would be spotted because she was in a wide-open space, she was fearing she might get stuck in this small tight dark space with only the light from Spike's flashlight allowing her to see their little paper guide at all. Though she also had a flashlight of her own, they had decided to use only one at the moment to conserve their batteries.
She wasn't sure how long they crawled through the darkness but finally Mache Max came to a stop and began marching around and around in a small circle. Spike played his flashlight beam over this spot, and they saw that the parrot was parading around within the boundaries of a ceiling tile.
"Do you want us to move that?" Fluttershy asked, pointing to it.
Max stopped circling and bobbed up and down, making little "auh!" sounds. Then he flew up out of the way as they lifted the tile, which turned out to be made of plasterboard.
Below them, Fluttershy saw Amethyst lying unmoving in a hospital bed. Her forelock and most of the front of her mane had been cut off, and her head was bandaged. The rest of her was covered from the neck down with a hospital blanket. She didn't seem to need a ventilator, but she was likely hooked up to some monitoring equipment judging from several tubes trailing out from under the blanket.
Then Fluttershy noticed a burly security guard standing beside the bed with his head down and pillowed on the blanket. Dark sunglasses hid his eyes but Fluttershy was pretty sure he was asleep. At least she was until his head suddenly snapped up and he whipped the glasses off. His eyes seemed to lock directly onto Spike and Fluttershy, who both flinched back, dropping the tile back into place in the process. Surrounded by darkness, they heard hoof beats below them and tried to back away from the tile. Spike fumbled with his flashlight and just managed to switch it on when Mache Max swooped into view, startling them. The flashlight beam whipped about wildly. Fluttershy heard Spike stumbling and might have fallen over herself if Max hadn't pulled her forward by the mane. Then the flashlight beam landed on her face, momentarily blinding her. All this time Max was tugging on her mane as if to say, "Don't go that way, go this way."
The pony and the dragon did their best to comply while simultaneously giving the tile they'd lifted a wide berth. As they moved forward both kept looking back, fearing the tile would lift, and the security guard would be peering out from under it. Fluttershy thought she might have heard more hoof beats below them, but so far no security guard had popped up.
Maybe he didn't get a good look at us, she tried to reassure herself. Maybe he thought we were just leftovers from his dream. But neither of these ideas did much to quell her furiously pounding heart. There was just something so unnerving about the way that guard had sprung alert. She and Spike had been so quiet, and yet somehow he had still sensed them.
And what if Derpy and Discord were being watched by equally alert guards?
She didn't have long to speculate on this because at that moment Mache Max released her mane, flitted forward and began repeating his little circular dance on another tile. Spike and Fluttershy had no choice but to see what was under it, so once again they lifted it, albeit much more cautiously this time. This room was much more dimly lit then the other, but their eyes had adjusted enough that they could still make out details. Fluttershy felt a modicum of relief when she saw no guard below them, but that was immediately eclipsed by a wave of nausea at what was there.
To an uninformed observer, it might not have seemed so horrible. Just a shimmering opaque bubble with a myriad of tubes stuck in it, all connected to machines and bags of fluid. But Fluttershy knew that inside that magical shield was Derpy's horribly contorted, wrong-side-out-but-still-alive body. She shuddered at the thought of being trapped like that. Even if the doctors found a way to reverse the spell, would Derpy's mind ever recover from the experience? What must it be like for her now? Was she deaf and blind to the world around her, or still somehow aware of it? And which would be the worse of the two?
Then on the trail of that thought she suddenly found herself wondering if death might actually be preferable to being trapped in that state; if Pinkie and Rainbow's brief experience of it followed almost immediately by a quick death might—
She forced herself to stifle this train of thought. That was precisely why the changelings had killed her two friends in the first place! To make her and so many others give up and despair! She looked back down at the opaque bubble, this time almost feeling as if she could see the horror within it. We'll get you out of there, Derpy! I don't know how, but we'll find some way to fix your body and get you back to your daughters!
She started and turned enough to see Spike looking up at her.
"You okay? You had an odd look on your face." His eyes flicked down toward the sight below them. "That's not making you queasy is it? I ... I know it is a bit for me."
"N-no, but we should probably move on." The words seemed so feeble when compared to the promise she had just made to Derpy in her thoughts, but at the same time she couldn't deny that she currently had no resources to make that promise a reality.
Fluttershy wasn't sure what to expect when they lifted the third and final tile. She looked down into a room lit with the same pale eerie light as the last one. As her eyes made out the shapes below, her heart seemed to stop.
Discord's long body was stretched over four hospital beds laid end-to-end with multiple straps circling his neck, torso, arms, legs, and tail to keep them lashed in place. There were bandages covering his right shoulder and the sides of his neck. His skull was also swathed in bandages from the eyes up, and the lower half of his face was hidden by an oxygen mask strapped over it. Despite the beeping of a heart monitor, he looked as lifeless as a corpse.
"There doesn't seem to be any security guard down there," Spike whispered. "At least none that I can see."
Forcing herself to turn her gaze away from Discord, Fluttershy also noticed the lack of guards. "Why would they have a guard watching Amethyst but not Derpy or Discord?" she whispered back.
"I don't know. Maybe that guard was there just in case Amethyst woke up."
But would he have helped her or harmed her? Fluttershy suddenly wondered. Had that guard just been a pony doing his job, or a disguised changeling making sure Amethyst never awoke from her coma. For that matter, was Discord really alone or was the room full of unseen semitransparent changelings waiting to spring a—?
At that moment, Mache Max shot past them with a wild flurry of wings, dropping down into the room. Fluttershy and Spike could only watch fearfully as he flew aerial loops around the room, still beating his wings noisily and steadily descending with each loop until he skidded across the floor. Coming to a stop, he cocked both heads up at his two watchers, seeming to radiate smugness. Discord had reacted to none of the noise, hadn't so much as twitched his ears. No one entered the room to investigate and nothing sprang out from the corners of the room. Not even when Mache Max flapped back up through the hole to join them back in the ceiling.
"Well," Spike finally whispered. "If there were any traps down there, that little performance probably would have set them off. Do you want to go first or shall I?"
Spike seemed surprised at this, but didn't argue as he helped Fluttershy tie off one of their ropes to lower herself into the room. Even so, it took Fluttershy several seconds to psych herself up enough to actually climb down on the rope. The whole time she was braced for some sort of alarm to go off, for some sort of attack to come from the shadows. Sure, Max had flown all over the room unscathed, but Fluttershy couldn't shake the feeling that there was something off about the lack of guards in the room. As she descended, she noticed there were no windows in the room, just a single door. If anyone came through that door, she would be trapped unless she could somehow scale this rope and get back into the ceiling without being noticed. When she finally reached the floor, she lowered a hind hoof to it as gingerly as if she were about to step on the decaying planks of an old rope bridge. Oh, if only she still had her wings and could just hover in the middle of the room like Max did. When nothing happened, she cautiously placed the rest of her hooves on the floor as well. She stood there, heart pounding, shivering in spite of her warm camo, feeling exposed in spite of the room's shadows, straining to hear any sound of danger over the soft but insistent beep and hum of nearby machines.
Only the sight of her former partner lying there so lifeless, so unresponsive, gave her the courage to take a cautious step forward. When nothing happened, she dared take another step. And another. And another.
Finally she reached the beds and their motionless occupant. As she looked up at Discord's face, or at least what she could see of it between the bandages and the oxygen mask, she noticed the edges of his ears looked all ragged. The hospital staff must have taken out his earrings while operating on him. She wasn't sure how she felt about that. She realized that stripping him of his jewelry had probably been a necessary part of the surgery, but she still found the idea oddly degrading. As she gently took his limp paw in her hooves, she noticed that his wrists were still encircled with the gold bracelets the Princesses had put there.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, stroking his paw. Turning him in had been the only possible way to save him back on Foal Mountain, but it still pained her to now see him looking so vulnerable. And yet she still couldn't take her eyes away from him, trying to relearn the features her dreams had been desperately conjuring for the past year. At Foal Mountain she had been too panicked to take in any details, but now as she watched the slow rise and fall of his chest, she noticed he had feathers mixed in with the soft wooly undercoat and long coarse guard hairs that formed his fur. They were like the feathers she'd seen once on a bird known as a kiwi. How had she never noticed them before?
His torso suddenly turned as much as the restraining straps would allow, and the blanket covering him slipped down enough for her to see one of the familiar black, red, and green coils of his dragon tattoo. It had never been a mystery why Highflyer's tattoos were so visible through that short close hair all ponies had, but Discord only had that type of hair from the neck up. Why had she never realized just how odd it was that his tattoos managed to show through all his feathers and fur? Could it be that rather than love making her blind, it had only made her all the more aware of just how strange and different he truly was?
Her gaze moved to his neck, noticing a few of his wasp tattoos were peeking out from under the bandages. But as she got a closer look at them, she felt a jolt of shock. His tattoos didn't look like wasps anymore. They looked like ... moths. Just like in her dreams. When had they changed? Why had they changed? Had she heard about the change somewhere in the news and somehow unconsciously incorporated it into her dreams?
Or what if this was all a dream now?! She struck her bandaged foreleg and stifled a gasp at the burst of pain. No, she was definitely awake. She was definitely in a hospital room with Discord. And his neck tattoos definitely still looked like moths.
She reached toward the nearest one, intending to trace its shape just to assure herself that her eyes weren't playing tricks on her. But her hoof had barely touched it when the moth suddenly fanned its wings wildly. An instant later all the other moths had swarmed down to surround her hoof. Or at least they would have if she hadn't yanked it back in surprise. The cloud of moths continued to circle the spot where her hoof had been, seeming to grow more agitated by the second, when the dragon tattoo's coils suddenly shifted. At first Fluttershy thought it was just Discord's body moving, but then the dragon tattoo's head appeared over his left shoulder and stretched down across his chest, its eyes fastened on her. Then the dragon turned its head inward so that it was facing Discord's chest, and huffed as if it were flaming. Discord's body spasmed up against the restraining straps and his eyes snapped open as the nearby heart monitor went from producing a low steady beep to a wild crescendo.
Fluttershy felt frozen in place, her head screaming at her to get to the rope, to get out of there; while her heart begged her not to abandon Discord. Suddenly she heard a loud creak over all the other sounds, and the room's lighting snapped from dim to bright. She cowered to the floor instinctively, and as she squinted against the light she saw that she was now level with the hospital bed's skirt. Without giving it a second thought, she dove under the skirt. Through the veil of fabric she could faintly make out the shapes of pony legs moving around the bed, and curled up as tight as she could, trying to make sure no bits of her were sticking out from under the bed. Above her the bed shook, and her ears were filled with frantic shouting from voices she didn't recognize.
That is until Discord's voice suddenly rang out. "Undo these straps this instant!"
"I'm afraid we can't do that," said an unknown male voice that sounded as if it were trying to be commanding, but couldn't completely hide its unease.
This was followed by a beat of tense silence before Discord made a sound that expressed equal parts amusement and disgust. "Oh, why did I even waste time demanding that? Silly me."
This was followed by a familiar snap.
Then another snap. And another. And another. Then a rapid series of them accompanied by a baffled, "Is this thing on?" from Discord.
There were several audible sighs of relief, followed by a couple of nervous titters.
"No," said the male voice between uneasy giggles, a nervous haughtiness creeping into it. "No, it's not, and it's going to stay off as long as those cuffs stay on." This was followed by more laughs, but they all sounded more like giddy relief rather than amusement or malice.
But if he can't use his power ... then how were his tattoos still able to move? Fluttershy didn't have much time to dwell on this before Discord suddenly raised his voice again.
"Oh, yes. Very droll," he jeered sarcastically. If realizing he was suddenly unable to work his magic had frightened him, he was doing a remarkable job of hiding it. "Once you've finished yucking it up, do you plan on telling me exactly why I'm here?"
"Why do you think?" said a second unknown male voice that sounded like it was coming from the hallway. "You're here to get patched up so you can get a fair trial, and then be executed for what you've done."
Fluttershy felt her hooves curl like clenched fists. Suddenly she didn't care if any of these speakers were deceived ponies or deceiving changelings. All she could think was: You're not taking him! You're not taking him, he's mine! You've already taken two of my best friends, but you're not taking him as well! Do you hear?! You're not taking him!
Suddenly Skywishes's words about how you couldn't lose what you couldn't attain no longer seemed to matter. Not in the face of this.
Then the male voice from earlier cut through her thoughts. "That'll do, Mike. Just get back to your job, and let us get on with ours."
"I'm going," said the voice from the hallway. "Though I still say this is a waste of time considering it's practically an open-and-shut case."
"That's why I'm the doctor, and you're the security guard. Now go."
She heard hooves moving down the hallway, before a female voice spoke up above her.
"You know he's right."
"Maybe," said the male voice that she now knew must belong to a doctor. "But we still have our professional integrity to uphold. Even if it's just fixing him up for the royal court to properly deal with later."
"Since when did professional integrity include talking behind a patient's back in front of them?!" Discord demanded.
"Since that patient was you," said the doctor, now sounding completely unruffled. "Now take these pills."
"I refuse!" Fluttershy could almost imagine him crossing his arms to emphasize the point if they weren't strapped down.
"Refuse all you want, but you're probably about to regret it."
The draconequus made a pained noise.
"I thought so," said the doctor. "Look, I'm not trying to poison you, if that's what you're thinking. I've been ordered by Princess Celestia herself to make sure you're physically fit to stand trial, and that outweighs my own feelings toward you. Those pills are painkillers so I suggest you take them if you want that headache to stop any time soon."
Discord muttered something that sounded like grudging consent, which was followed by several gulps.
"Hmm," the doctor murmured clinically. "You seem to be breathing fine on your own now, so we'll leave the oxygen mask off."
"And what about these?" Discord asked, loudly jiggling his restraints.
"Those stay right where they are. Princesses' orders." Fluttershy could practically hear the smirk in his voice. "We can't risk you slithering out of here, after all." Then almost as an afterthought he added, "Though we might remove some of them later on if you behave yourself."
The female, who Fluttershy guessed was probably a nurse, seemed to find this amusing for some unknown reason. "Sleep tight."
Fluttershy heard the hooves moving away from the bed. Then the lights dimmed and the door closed. She stayed under the bed a while longer, allowing her eyes to adjust and wanting to make absolutely sure the staff had left before she dared to venture out. Turning back to the bed, she saw that they had indeed taken the oxygen mask off Discord's face. Ever since that one time she had seen him without his tattoos and piercings, she had secretly longed to see him without them again. But not like this. Then she noticed how he seemed to be fighting not to nod off, and suddenly wondered if there had been some type of sedative in the painkillers.
He struggled at the sight of her, the beeping of his heart monitor increasing both in speed and volume. Fearing it would bring the staff running back to investigate, she hastened to calm him.
"It's okay, Discord. It's me, Fluttershy. Remember when we were trying to find out who killed Applejack? I asked if you had a photographic memory and you told me you had a cinematic one. Then you took me inside it to show me."
His struggles seemed to lessen slightly at this, but he still strained against the straps on his wrists, fingers outstretched toward her. Fluttershy quickly lowered her face to his paw, and he ran his fingers under her chin and up her cheeks, tracing their shape.
"Fluttershy..." His voice was now much softer and more uncertain than earlier. "What are you doing here?"
"It's a long story," she murmured, nuzzling at his paw, luxuriating in his touch despite the desperate circumstances.
You're wasting time! a small voice in the back of her head shouted. You're supposed to be here to ask him questions!
Fluttershy looked up, intending to do just that, but the sight of her former partner looking so disoriented as he fought to stay awake brought tears to her eyes. She quickly turned to wipe them away.
"Don't leave me..." Discord's voice was heavy and slurred, but still held a clear desperation.
"I'm not. Don't worry. I don't want to," she whispered, quickly putting her face back within his grasp. But her wants didn't change the fact that she might have to leave him soon. She had just barely escaped detection earlier. She might not be so fortunate a second time.
His caresses became more languid then stopped all together. She looked up to see his head lolling to the side with eyes closed.
"Fluttershy!" She jumped with fright at the soft hiss from above. She looked up to see Spike waving down at her from the opening in the ceiling, and briefly wondered if he'd gotten the tile back in place before the hospital employees had shown up, or if it just hadn't occurred to them to look ceilingward. She turned back to Discord. She longed to wake him, if only to spend a bit more time with him, but that might only alert the hospital staff again. Even just staying there, waiting for him to wake up on his own was too risky.
Still she couldn't leave him without at least some form of goodbye.
She leaned down and took his paw in both hooves and nuzzled it one more time. "They're not taking you, Discord," she whispered against his paw, her lips pressing against his fingers almost like a series of kisses. "I swear, they're not taking you this time."
When she finally released his paw and hurried to climb the dangling rope, she glanced down to see his moth tattoos were all crowded together at the top of his neck just short of his skull bandages, and were hovering there, watching her. Further below them the dragon tattoo had also moved higher than usual on its owner's neck and seemed to be watching her with a longing expression as well. She tried to give them what she hoped was an encouraging wave before disappearing up into the ceiling.
"You didn't get the chance to ask him about Bonfire, did you?" Spike asked.
"No." Fluttershy lowered her eyes guiltily. "I—"
"Don't worry about it. I saw what happened. It wasn't really the best time. But I started thinking: Maybe you and Skywishes should go back to the TreeHAB while I stay here."
"Think about it, Fluttershy. If I stay here, I can keep hiding in the duct work. I can probably scrounge food from the hospital cafeteria when nopony is looking, so that's one less mouth to feed at the HAB. I can keep an eye on Discord, Derpy, and Amethyst, and send reports back to the HAB through Twilight." Then his gaze seemed to take on an almost calculating edge. "And if you write a letter to Discord with all those questions you didn't get the chance to ask, Twilight can send it to me, and I can wait for the right opportunity to pass it on to him."
"Well ... if you're sure..."
Skywishes had been surprised when Fluttershy and Mache Max emerged from the air duct without Spike, but when things were explained to her, she had to admire the little dragon's reasoning. However when they tried to fly away, Mache Max protested so vehemently that Fluttershy was forced to stuff him inside her jerkin, where he suddenly went into cuddle mode. Fortunately, though Skywishes had needed him to find the hospital, she had taken note of what directions they had flown and now knew how to get back to the HAB.
Now as they flew, Fluttershy could feel Skywishes breathing hard beneath her and she suddenly wished she could offer to get off and walk, but knew that would only slow them down more. She felt guilty for forcing Skywishes to make this trip just so she could see Discord.
"I really can't thank you enough for this, Skywishes. For letting us stay at your home, for rescuing Bonfire, for flying me around. You've just done so much, and I—"
Her words were cut off with an "oof!" as Skywishes suddenly landed on a tree branch.
"Fluttershy," Skywishes sounded tired. "If you think this is a case where I've just been giving and you've just been taking, I want you to remember you and your friends spent a full year trying to find me just to let me know what happened to Sunny Daze. Nopony's ever done anything like that for me before. I already told you about how I didn't learn about her death until four months after the funeral, and that was before I even started living in the Everfree and making the effort to be harder to find. I wouldn't have blamed any of you if you just gave up in your search for me, and the fact that you didn't ... It's awoken something in me that I can't ever remember feeling before. ... It's like..." Skywishes suddenly shook her head. "Never mind. Let's just focus on doing what we need to get through this." And with that she pushed off the branch—which Fluttershy now noticed belonged to an especially large and increasingly familiar tree—hooked her hooves into an invisible entrance panel and slid it open.
"Come, let us return to the LORD; for He has torn us, that He may heal us; He has struck us down, and He will bind us up."—Hosea 6:1
Skywishes stuck her head through the now-open panel. "It's Wasp and Card—What are you doing?"
Fluttershy peeked around her to see that Applejack, Screwjob, Twilight, and Rarity seemed to be in the middle of sorting through Highflyer's trunk of colorful wrestling costumes. But before she could locate the tiny wrestler, Dinky, or even Bonfire, Rarity looked up, beaming.
"Ah, just the pony we wanted to—" Her pleased expression fell as Skywishes boosted Fluttershy up into the TreeHAB before climbing in after her. "Where's Spike?"
Skywishes turned to slide the panel shut, leaving Fluttershy to answer the question. "He, uh ... he decided to stay behind."
"What?!" Twilight's head snapped up, her expression alarmed.
"Don't worry! He's all right." At least I hope he is, Fluttershy silently added in her thoughts before quickly filling the others in on what had happened during the hospital trip. While she described things, she saw Highflyer step out from behind his open trunk, and noticed Dinky almost completely hidden in a pile of camouflage, getting some much-needed sleep. Only Bonfire remained unaccounted for.
By the time Fluttershy had finished explaining Spike's reasoning for staying at the hospital, Twilight's expression looked a trifle less alarmed though still uneasy.
"I'm going to check on him." She whipped out a quill and a sheet of paper, jotted a quick note on the paper, rolled it up, and sent it to Spike via her magic. The scroll flashed back into existence so fast Fluttershy briefly wondered if the spell had malfunctioned. But when Twilight caught it and unrolled it to read the contents, her expression relaxed. "He's all right," she said with a rueful expression, turning the scroll so they could see Spike's reply written under her original message. "He says he was expecting this." Then her expression turned thoughtful. "Actually having him there might work with what we were planning to try here."
Skywishes glanced about at the colorful wrestling outfits now covering the floor. "What exactly were you planning to try?"
Rarity smiled. "Well, for starters I am about to give your wardrobe a much needed makeover."
Skywishes's eyes widened in alarm as she whirled to face Rarity, but before she could voice a protest, the unicorn went on. "After all, you did agree to let me tailor our outfits when I got back here."
Skywishes opened her mouth. Then promptly shut it. Fluttershy could almost hear her remembering the way she'd answered Rarity with an offhoof: Yeah, yeah. Sure. Whatever you want.
"I mean, all this drab shapeless stuff," Rarity continued, using her magic to lift the camouflage cloak she'd been wearing earlier, and tsk-tsking in disapproval. "Honestly, darling, it's not fit to be seen in."
Skywishes suddenly seemed to recover and narrowed her eyes. "Why do you think I wear it? Not to be seen in! That's the whole idea."
"We know that, Skywishes, but hear us out," Twilight quickly cut in. "While you were gone, we got to brainstorming and decided that since we have everything here we need to make the crystal pony potion except the powdered gemstones, we could try making a modified version of it by using the dye from Highflyer's clothes instead. In theory this modified potion won't make us look like crystal ponies, but it will change our coat colors."
"And that's where the wardrobe makeover comes into play as well," said Rarity. Still keeping the camouflage cloak aloft, she also used her magic to lift a much smaller sleeveless purple shirt trimmed with gold up next to it. "If the modified potion works, we'll use a similar spell to transfer the colors from Highflyer's clothes onto the insides of several camouflage outfits—" She tucked the shirt inside the cloak. "—and with a few of my tasteful alterations, we'll all be equipped with practical-yet-pleasing two-in-one winter garments. Camouflage for traveling through the forest," She wrapped the cloak around herself to demonstrate. "And bright colors for venturing into society." She turned the cloak inside out so that the much smaller shirt was now on the outside. "Of course, the final product will look much more fabulous than this," she added as she separated the cloak and shirt.
"We'd have made the potion and started testing it by now, but we weren't sure how much of our daily water supply we could spare on it, and wanted to check with you first." Twilight added. "So what do you think?"
Skywishes was silent, her expression unreadable. While she hadn't promptly squashed their idea, her lack of response wasn't particularly encouraging.
"Sugarcube," Applejack said, moving forward to gently put a hoof on Skywishes's shoulder. "We know you're trying to keep us alive, but we can't have you running yourself ragged while the rest of us just sit around here."
At the touch, Skywishes started and shook herself. "I know that, I just ... I'm just not used to this. To ... working with other ponies ... To ... having these options..." She shook her head but Fluttershy got the impression it was more to clear her mind rather than to express disagreement. "Still," said Skywishes, turning to more fully face Twilight and Rarity. "If the potion works like you seem to be saying, those are some good ideas you've got. And they're probably our best bet for survival. Even without Spike, our current supplies won't last much longer; we can't sustain ourselves solely on magically grown stuff long-term." A grimace flashed across her face. "And believe me, we don't want to have to eat pulped Timberwolf if we can avoid it."
Fluttershy shuddered at the thought. "Does it taste really awful?"
To her surprise, Skywishes actually smiled in amusement. "No, it actually doesn't have much of a taste at all. It's more the ... side effects of eating it that are the problem."
Skywishes's smile turned back into a partial grimace. "You know that infamous bad breath Timberwolves have? Well, I found out that once you eat some pulped Timberwolf and get it into your bloodstream you smell just as bad as their breath."
This was met with expressions and exclamations of disgust all around as the group tried to imagine it.
Skywishes nodded. "It may have kept a lot of predators away, but pretty soon even I was having a hard time coping with me. The only other plus to it is that you apparently taste as bad as you smell. I found that out when a hydra got me in one of its mouths at the time—I guess the smell alone wasn't enough to deter it—only to promptly spit me back out." Then she seemed to notice an absence in their group. "By the way, I've been meaning to ask, where's Bonfire?"
"Oh, she tried hobbling around a bit on her peg-leg until she'd hobbled herself over there," said Screwjob, pointing toward the photo of Sunny Daze and Skywishes as fillies. There were several books and bundles of camouflage stacked between the group and the picture, but now Fluttershy caught sight of the edge of a magenta membrane behind the stacks of material. No wonder she'd missed it earlier. "She's just been hiding back there since then."
Skywishes frowned at this before going over to the photo. After a moment's hesitation, Fluttershy followed. Rounding the stacks of material, they saw Bonfire lying on her stomach inside the bubble, wrapped in her camo blanket with only her grotesque head visible. Her eyes were trained on the photo, but as Skywishes and Fluttershy drew near, she sprang up and whirled toward them with a fierce snarl.
"Relax." Skywishes ordered in a flat emotionless voice, and surprisingly the little mystery creature actually seemed to quiet, her snarl softening to a low thrum. Bonfire's gaze flicked from Skywishes and Fluttershy to the photo and back again several times before she adjusted her position to more fully face the photo. Still keeping a wary sidelong gaze on the two ponies, she leaned toward the photo. With her fleshless muzzle barely an inch from the image of filly Skywishes, she trilled softly.
Skywishes squinted one eye at this little demonstration before deciding to interpret it as a question. "Yeah, that's me as a filly."
At this, Bonfire turned her head enough to point to the other filly and trilled a second time.
"And that's my twin sister, Sunny Daze."
A third inquisitive trill.
Skywishes considered what question the little creature could possibly be asking before saying, "She's dead. Died a long time ago."
Bonfire's head drooped and she let out a very soft trill that was almost a sigh. Her eyes closed and she seemed to tremble.
Bonfire's whole body shook as she tried to block out the image that refused to leave her mind. The image of those six ponies struggling helplessly as their lives were strangled away. Her memory of the white pegasus with the yellow-and-magenta streaked orange mane had always been the clearest. The white pegasus had been the only one of the six fleeing ponies to turn back and snatch her up. The only one who had attempted to take her along. Now behind her closed eyelids she saw the white pegasus once again staring at her, trying desperately to communicate something with her eyes before light and life left them permanently.
Sunny Daze... Now at long long last she finally had a name to put with the white face and dark green eyes. Those eyes so—
Her own eyes suddenly snapped open and her head swung around. She vaguely registered the yellow pony. Registered ... Fluttershy ... but she had eyes only for ... Skywishes. She stared into a pair of dark green eyes so identical to Sunny Daze's in color, and yet at the same time so different...
"Bonfire?" Fluttershy called softly, trying to get her attention, but the orange eyes were riveted on Skywishes.
"Why are you staring at me like that?" Skywishes barked, squirming under Bonfire's scrutiny. "Knock it off." She shot Fluttershy a 'help!'-look before turning back to meet Bonfire's unblinking gaze. "Wh-what are you hungry? Thirsty? Fluttershy help me here," she muttered out of the corner of her mouth.
"Bonfire!" Fluttershy repeated, not shouting but still louder than her usual soft tone. This time the little one jerked with a start and snarled in her direction.
"It's okay, sweetie," Fluttershy soothed in her usual gentle way. Once again Bonfire's snarl softened to a low thrum, and Fluttershy found herself hoping that maybe, just maybe, someday the little one would stop treating every interaction as a possible attack. Not for the first time, she wondered what had given Bonfire this mindset, but aloud she only said, "We just need to know if you're hungry or thirsty. Please just nod for 'yes' or shake your head for 'no.' I mean nod if you're either hungry or thirsty, and shake your head if you're not either of those things," she added, realizing her directions probably hadn't been very clear.
However, Bonfire did neither of these things. She only responded with a soft trill that could have meant anything.
"Well, so much for that," Skywishes muttered, sounding half-amused, half-annoyed at the cryptic response. She eyed Bonfire ruefully. "Though even if you did answer with a 'yes,' there's still that little issue of how we're supposed to get anything into you." Under her breath she added, "You lipless, tongueless wonder," before turning to Fluttershy. "Any ideas?"
Fluttershy didn't answer immediately as she studied Bonfire, mentally calling up all her knowledge of caring for many different animals. There was still the possibility that Bonfire was one of Discord's creations...
But she seems to be flesh and bones like a normal animal, rather than just paper like Mache Max, Fluttershy mused. That might mean she needs food like a regular animal would...
But how much to give her? Was her skeletal appearance just normal for whatever her species was, or was it due to a lack of nourishment? Fluttershy mentally weighed the two possibilities.
It would probably be best if we treat this like a case of starvation. If that really were the case, we'd have to start her off with only a little food at first to see if she could keep it down anyway.
Of course that brought things back to the issue of how they were even going to feed Bonfire. If Fluttershy had been caring for any normal animal that looked as underfed as Bonfire currently did, she would have started it off on a liquid diet, but would that even be possible for Bonfire? Her lack of a tongue and proper lips meant she wouldn't be able to lap up anything and sipping would likely be difficult at the very least. Still, there must be some way to feed her.
"Maybe..." Fluttershy said, drawing out the word as her brain continued working through possible ideas. "Maybe we should start by giving her some water. If we ... soaked a sponge, she could bite down on it, tilt her head back, and swallow the liquid that way. ... And if that works, we could probably give her some broth the same way before trying to give her anything solid."
Skywishes looked surprised for a brief second before her expression shifted to thoughtful. "It's worth a try. I should have some sponges around here somewhere, and the others needed water to test their potion idea anyway."
Soon after Skywishes had divvied up an allotment of water between Twilight and Fluttershy. Most of the other ponies went to help Twilight assemble the potion ingredients, while Fluttershy focused on tending to Bonfire.
It took her a good bit of coaxing to get Bonfire to come out from behind the stacks of books and camouflage, and even then the little one seemed wary of getting close to the other ponies. Fluttershy decided it was probably best not to try forcing Bonfire too far out of her comfort zone just yet, and thus didn't insist they join the others.
It took even more coaxing, even going so far as biting into the soaked sponge herself to prove it was harmless before she could put it and the water bowl into the bubble without its occupant attempting to retreat.
Now Bonfire approached the offerings cautiously. She sniffed at them, and prodded at them with her splinted, membrane-encased front leg. Finally, she decided to chance slowly sinking her teeth into the sponge. As the water oozed from it, her eyes widened and she was suddenly gnawing on the sponge and sucking the water from it as if the liquid were an especially tasty dessert.
"Aww." Fluttershy wasn't sure if it was more endearing or sad that the little one showed such enthusiasm over taking a simple drink of water.
"High, will you stop wincing every time we make the tiniest tear in your clothes?!" Screwjob suddenly snapped behind them. Fluttershy spun around to see him leaning into the open travel trunk. Highflyer was a short distance away, covering his eyes with one forehoof.
"Honestly," Screwjob went on. "You'd think we were ripping your flesh the way you're flinching. No, I take that back. You'd actually be flinching a lot less if we were ripping your flesh. Suck it up, will you? They're just clothes."
"Really Screwjob must you be so crass?" Rarity objected. "Granted his taste in fashion is a little..." She trailed off, probably realizing that wasn't the best direction to take. Clearing her throat, she turned to Highflyer. "Eh-hem. Regardless, the fact that you've allowed us to use your clothes in this little endeavor, knowing they might get destroyed in the process is a noble sacrifice."
Highflyer didn't respond to this, but Screwjob greeted it with a snort. "Come on, it's not like these are the only clothes he owns in the world." He leaned even further into the trunk. "They barely make a dent in his laundry pile. They're not even a tenth of what he has."
"Not even a te—?" Applejack sounded shocked as she turned to Highflyer. "How many outfits do you have?"
Fluttershy saw Highflyer's ears go red and felt sure his face under the mask was currently the same color. He mumbled something that sounded like: "Mmbowfifunded."
Applejack frowned. "What was that?"
"Mm, about five hundred."
"And every one of them custom-made no less," Screwjob added.
Applejack was stunned and even Rarity looked impressed. Applejack asked, "What do you need that many duds for?"
"They're a business investment!" Highflyer snapped, lifting his hoof away from his eyes.
Screwjob tittered from inside the trunk. "That's us. The Studs with the Duds. Well, let's be honest, only I really make the Stud category." His next words came out as if he had something clamped in his teeth. "Ain't I hight, Happs?"
"Yes, you ain't," she replied with an eye roll.
Screwjob's head came up and Fluttershy was sure he was about to deliver some comeback, but at that moment Highflyer suddenly launched himself at the taller wrestler. He slammed into Screwjob's side, causing him to stumble away from the trunk. As he fell over, Fluttershy saw that he had pieces of a blue costume in his mouth. Crashing onto his back, he spat the costume out next to him and looked up at the tiny attacker now straddling his chest.
The masked wrestler shoved his muzzle right into his coworker's bearded face, gritting out: "You're not. Using. That one."
Screwjob blinked at him, looking genuinely confused. "That one what?"
Taking care to plant his hooves in Screwjob's chest as many times as possible while he turned, Highflyer jumped off and snatched up the discarded costume. "This one what," he snapped, smoothing the costume pieces out only to start folding them up before anyone could get a good look at their design. "You can use—" he thrust one of the folded bundles into a pouch on the left side of his camo vest, "—any of the clothes in my trunk—" he thrust the second bundle into a right side pouch, "—except—" Grabbing the portion of his mask that covered his muzzle, he pulled it outward, and shoved the final bundle underneath, snugging it up against his forehead. "—this set." he finished, punctuating the statement by allowing his mask to snap back in place.
Screwjob sat up, wincing and rubbing at his neck while he rolled his head from side to side. "High, I know you're Captain Picky-pants when it comes to your clothes, but there's no need to get your mask in a twist. You've got other blue get—"
Highflyer whirled around to face the bigger stallion, his body low to the floor, his stance tense. "I only got this one because of Ray!"
Screwjob's annoyance seemed to promptly vanish, but Highflyer's tension didn't. He stayed in that crouched position, glaring at his coworker. For several uncomfortable seconds there was no sound but Bonfire's awkward sponge-slurping. Fluttershy watched the two wrestlers, wondering if she or anypony else should try stepping in, when Screwjob suddenly lowered his gaze.
"You're right, High. Sometimes I just get wrapped up in the whole heel thing, and ... well, I wasn't thinking and I'm sorry about that."
Highflyer continued to glare at the other stallion for several seconds more, before his stance abruptly relaxed. He sighed and shook his head. "It's just as well our boss can't hear you being all sappy. He'd probably decide to have you turn face."
Screwjob looked revolted at the idea. "Oh, wonderful. I offer you an apology and in return you try to traumatize me." Then his expression went thoughtful. "Though I might agree to being a face if it meant I got to double cross you somewhere down the line. Like that storyline where we teamed up to take on Phenom and Brimstone." He chuckled reminiscently. "There we were, the conquering heroes, the fans were loving it ... and then I turned on you. Clobbered you with the title belt, tore your mask off, put you headfirst into the steps, the whole nine yards." His eyes lit up at the memory. "Boy, did they hate me after that and when you returned weeks later to officially kick my tail they just ate it up."
Highflyer laughed fondly as well. "That was one of our best storylines wasn't it?"
Even after the past several days that Fluttershy had watched the wrestlers interact, it still fascinated her that they could offer reconciliation in the form of a perceived gibe, rather than a group hug she and the other girls might have employed.
Then Highflyer seemed to sober. "Of course, after all that happened in that storyline, I don't know if we could come up with a plausible reason for me to ever trust you, let alone team up with you again."
Screwjob looked up at the ceiling and scratched his beard. "I'm sure we could come up with something..."
Highflyer lowered his gaze and sighed ruefully. "Even if we did, we probably won't be around long enough to pitch it."
Screwjob eyed the other stallion's slumping posture, and a calculating grin flashed across his face. "Tell you what. If we get through this, I'll buy you another five hundred wrestling costumes and then some until you have an even thousand."
Highflyer's head immediately snapped up. "You will not." he said in a 'don't-you-dare' tone.
Screwjob's expression went devilishly gleeful. "Okay. Then I'll just commission Rarity to make you several fancy suits."
Highflyer bared his teeth, growling through them: "Jobs. I. Don't. Do. Suits."
Screwjob shrugged his withers. "There's always a first—"
"The potion's ready!" Twilight announced. "Who wants to be the first to test it?"
"I will!" Screwjob staggered to his feet, winced, and rubbed at his head. "Hooves off the test subject!" he warned as he stumbled past Highflyer. "Don't want to contaminate the results."
"That's not how it—" Twilight started to explain, then realized the wrestler was just joking. "Oh, never mind." She floated a mug with a small sample of potion in it to him. "Here. Drink up."
He took the mug but suddenly looked hesitant. "Uh, Twilight, just a little word of warning: If this stuff kills me, my boss will be out for your blood and he makes the changelings look like Fluttershy."
Twilight gave him a weak smile. "Duly noted."
"Well, bottoms up." Screwjob raised the mug in a mock salute before tossing its contents back in one gulp. He grimaced and a shiver ran through his body as he set the mug down. Suddenly his mane turned pale gold at the roots and the color shot out toward the end of each hair. He gave his tail a reflexive swish and Fluttershy saw that it had changed color as well. In split seconds his black mane and tail were as yellow as Applejack's. Even his beard and eyebrows, or at least the one that wasn't hidden under bandages. He blinked and looked around at the other ponies. "Did it work?" He raised one of his still-golden brown forelegs. "It doesn't look like—Aye!"
Twilight had just used her magic to yank his head down to her level and began combing through his mane, peering at the roots. "Hmm. This definitely looks natural. Not like a dye job at all."
Screwjob squirmed about in his pulled-over position. "What does? I can't see it."
"Your hair just went from black to bleached blond," said Highflyer. "Now ponies might actually think you and your aunt are related."
Applejack suddenly looked hopeful. "You mean they're not?"
"No, they are, they just don't look it."
"Lemme see!" Screwjob demanded, and for a moment it looked like Rarity was obliging him by floating over a bowl of water. Only for Twilight to dunk his head in the water.
Applejack produced some soap and hurried to join the other mares as they began washing the stallion's mane. Screwjob made noises of protest, but to his credit made no serious effort to escape. However, when they finally released him, he took his revenge by shaking himself as vigorously as a dog, drawing various indignant exclamations from the three of them.
"Well," said Twilight, wiping her face. "The color looks natural, and we don't have to worry about it washing off. Now we just have to see how long it takes for the potion to wear off on its own."
"Yeah, let's hope it does wear off," said Screwjob, scratching at his beard as he studied his reflection in the water bowl. "I mean don't get me wrong, I adore blondes," he gave Applejack a sidelong smirk that was answered with a glare. "But I've always had that tall, dark, and handsome thing going on, and now I'm just two out of three."
"More like one out of three," Applejack muttered.
"Miss Honest Apps, are you trying to make a liar out of your eyesi—?"
"Who wants to test the next potion that's supposed to change our coat colors?!" Twilight called out with so much enthusiasm Fluttershy wondered if she was trying to cut the two earth ponies off before they could really get in stride. Then the alicorn quickly added, "Apart from Screwjob."
The stallion in question shot her an indignant look. "What's wrong with me?"
"I need to see if the potion will work on our bodies without changing our mane and tail colors. Then we can test it on you to see how they both work together."
"I'll try it," said Highflyer.
"That's no good," said Screwjob. "You haven't got a mane and that sawed-off stump barely qualifies as a tail."
"The sawed-off stump will do," Twilight said dryly before passing the masked stallion a mug of potion. He downed it and shivered just as Screwjob had before his whole body turned bright cerulean. That is except for his tattoos which were still as black as ever.
Rarity raised one of his forelegs to examine it. "Hmm, the potion seems to have worked, but we'll have to find some other way to hide these tattoos." Her voice took on a slightly despairing tone. "Really, darling, why do you have so many?"
"They seemed like a good idea at the time."
"Twilight," Fluttershy suddenly spoke up, startling the group. "When I was at the hospital, Discord had these cuffs on his wrists that prevented him from using his power, and they seemed to work ... but his tattoos were still able to move around. I think his dragon one even woke him up. How could they do that if the cuffs were supposed to block his power?"
Twilight frowned. "Hmm, that's a bit tricky to answer considering how different the very nature of his magic is from pony magic. Let me see ... How could it...?"
"Do you know how he got the tattoos?" Highflyer suddenly asked, freeing himself from Rarity's hold.
"What do you mean: How he got them?" Fluttershy asked, trying to read what little she could see of his face.
"Do you know if he just snapped his fingers to instantly make his tattoos appear on his body, or if he went through the whole usual process like I did with ink and needles?"
"He..." Fluttershy suddenly remembered that time at the cabin when she was bleeding from a head wound, searching for a way to stitch it up...
"Discord, are you very familiar with sewing or needles?"
"I did these, myself."
Then she'd seen two Discord duplicates using needles and a tattoo machine to give him several of his tattoos and piercings.
At the time she had been so focused on patching up her head wound that she hadn't really given much thought to Discord's words or demonstration. Until now.
"Well ... I think he might have created duplicates that did his piercings and tattoos the conventional way ... but why's that important?"
"Well, I was just thinking that if he got his tattoos the same way I did—you know, got a bunch of ink scratched into his skin—maybe that would make them sort of..." Highflyer twirled a hoof in the air, looking for the right word, "...foreign? ... Separate from him in a way that they wouldn't be if he just magically made them appear on his body?"
"Ooh," said Twilight, seeming to warm to the idea. "And maybe all the time they've been in contact with his skin caused them to leech some of his magic. And now even if his magic is blocked, they can still move thanks to the magic they soaked up over the years from him."
Fluttershy's eyes widened at this new idea and what it could possibly mean for their situation.
Now Fluttershy sat a little ways away from the rest of the group, gnawing lightly on a pencil as she stared at a sheet of paper, trying to decide what to write.
How much should she tell Discord? What if some changelings managed to intercept the message? They already know that Spike, Twilight, Skywishes, Dinky, and I are together, and they probably figure the others are with us as well...
Should she ask him about Bonfire? She looked over at the little one who had finished her sponge drink and was now hunkered down in her blanket. Her lashless eyelids kept drooping as if she were nodding off only to jerk awake again. Fluttershy had tried to assure her it would be safe to sleep, that none of them would disturb her, but it was clear Bonfire didn't believe this. Fluttershy had tried to sing her to sleep, but this technique that soothed so many animals and ponies alike only seemed to agitate this one—
"Fluttershy?" Twilight's voice startled her out of her musing. "You ready to send that letter?"
Fluttershy blushed. "Uh, actually I'm still trying to decide what to write."
"Try to keep it as short as you can," Twilight suggested. "He might need to hide it if a doctor walks in on him before he can get it back to Spike."
Fluttershy nodded before looking back down at the paper. Let's see, I'll tell him we're in hiding, but that I can't say where. I should probably wait on mentioning Bonfire since it might take a lot of time to explain how we found her ... But I probably should warn him about his tattoos moving so he can make sure they don't do it when anypony is watching. Who knew what might happen if the hospital staff discovered that? Fluttershy had a horrifying mental image of them trying to cut the tattoos out of Discord's skin. Granted that doctor had said he intended to make sure Discord was fit to stand trial but how could they be sure some changelings wouldn't figure out a way to work something nefarious in the meantime? I'll tell him that I'll try to keep messaging him through Spike ... And I should probably wrap this pencil up in the note so he can write something back if possible.
"Okay," she said a few minutes later as she signed the note, and began rolling it around the pencil. "I'm ready." She slid the new scroll across the floor to Twilight, who lifted it with her magic. The alicorn squeezed her eyes shut in concentration, preparing to send the message, when Mache Max suddenly shot out from the front of Fluttershy's jerkin. Fluttershy let out a small startled cry. He had been so quiet and unmoving for the past hours that she'd forgotten he was still nestled in her clothes. Twilight's eyes popped open at the cry just in time to see Mache Max wrap several of his wings around the scroll before it and he both vanished.
After Fluttershy and Mache Max had left, Spike had rested a bit before exploring the duct work, peeking down into various rooms, and taking note of important locations like restrooms and the cafeteria. He also checked back in on Derpy and Amethyst. The former was still hidden within her opaque bubble, while the latter was deep in her coma. Once again he felt a mixture of relief that they were at least still alive, and frustration that he could do nothing but leave them lying there helpless.
He was just making his way back to check on Discord when he got a familiar feeling in his stomach. Before he could stifle it, he belched out a spurt of flames and a scroll appeared in front of him. With an unexpected hitchhiker.
Discord yanked his left arm back, causing the gold bracelet on his wrist to press up against the restraining strap higher up on his forearm. He stretched the arm back out as far as the straps would permit, then yanked it back in again. Stretch out, pull in, stretch out, pull in, he repeated the gestures with all the rapidity of a frenzied drummer. He'd been at this with first one arm and then the other ever since he'd awakened from that painkiller-induced sleep, trying to force those bracelets off over his hands. Neither of the bracelets were tight; they really looked more like bangles than shackles. They should have slipped off easily but no matter how much he twisted and struggled they remained stubbornly in place.
His head, neck, right shoulder, and left hip all ached, but he wasn't about to start yelling for somepony to bring him more painkillers. Not after what had happened the last time.
Before he could stop them, his thoughts drifted back to that moment: To the memory of seeing Fluttershy there in the room next to him. Of cupping her face in his paw, and hearing her soft voice. It had all seemed so real at the time, but now...
Now he couldn't shake the fear that her presence there had just been an illusion his doped-up mind had produced. True, she had mentioned details about their Applejack investigation that only the two of them knew, but that might just have been his own subconscious inserting words in her mouth the way it had previously in his other dream—
Something smacked lightly but loudly against his bandaged skull, causing him to yip though more from surprise than actual pain. Turning his head as much as the strap around his neck would permit, he saw a two-headed, five-winged, rather ragged-looking paper parrot fluttering above him with a scroll clutched in one of its beaks. Discord felt a rush of déjà vu as the tattered piece of origami swooped down in front of him and used its second beak to pull the scroll open. A pencil tumbled out of the unfurling scroll to plunk on the bedspread, but when Discord looked down at it, the parrot waggled its two heads back and forth, causing the scroll to rustle as if to say: "Don't worry about the pencil, pay attention to this."
The draconequus squinted at the paper's penciled message.
His heart leapt, causing the beeping of his heart monitor to spike. He tried to force his heartbeat to steady and slow down, but it wasn't easy with the words now in front of him. Was it possible that...?
He continued reading, feeling his excitement build as she mentioned visiting him the night before. He hadn't imagined her! At the mention of Spike staying behind to act as their messenger, he looked up at the ceiling to see the tiny dragon dressed in camouflage, and peeking out from under the raised tile. As their eyes met, Spike gave him a tentative wave, and Discord jerked his head upward in acknowledgment. The gesture turned out to be a mistake because it sent waves of pain through his skull.
When the pounding in his head finally subsided, he turned back to the letter. Then he came to the part where she mentioned how his tattoos had moved about, as well as Highflyer and Twilight's joint theory on why that might be possible.
He looked down from the letter to see his dragon tattoo's head and neck currently stretched across his chest, its eyes trained on the letter. As if sensing his gaze on it, the dragon tattoo turned its head enough to meet his eyes, its expression hopeful. Several of his moth tattoos swarmed down onto his chest to gaze hopefully up at him as well.
For the first time in what felt like an era, the draconequus chuckled.
Then he contorted his body about in the restraining straps enough to bring his bird wing within reach of his eagle claw. He plucked out one of his wing feathers and winced briefly but didn't stop chuckling. Biting off the end of the feather's shaft, he switched it from his claw to his paw. He was ambidextrous so this switch wasn't necessary for writing but it was if he was going to reach the barbed tattoo circling his left bicep with his newly created quill pen. As he stroked the nib against the tattoo, he couldn't keep the grin off his face.
Fluttershy paced about the TreeHAB, trying to find something to occupy herself with as she waited to see if there would be a response to her letter.
Screwjob had downed another shot of potion that hadn't altered his now-blond hair in the slightest, but had turned his coat as blue as Highflyer's currently was. Now Twilight had a stopwatch going to see how long it would take for the potions to wear off. Nothing to do there but wait.
Fluttershy paced over to where Bonfire had finally succumbed to sheer physical exhaustion and fallen into a fitful sleep. Considering their success with the sponge earlier, Fluttershy had decided to try feeding the little one some broth the same way when she woke up. Maybe she could get started on preparing the broth now. After all, it would need some time to cool considering Bonfire wouldn't be able to blow on it if it was too hot ... But then again if she started making it too soon it might get too cold and—
"Fluttershy, would you be a dear and let me trim your mane?" Rarity suddenly asked from behind her. She turned to see the unicorn with a pair of scissors encased in her magic.
Fluttershy blinked at the sight of them. "Where'd you get those?"
"From Skywishes. She said she'd have given them to you earlier instead of a knife if she'd known you were planning to cut your mane. Now please please please will you let me style it? I promise I won't cut it much shorter, just trim it a little here and there."
Fluttershy had to smile at her friend's pleading look. "Sure, you can style it."
Rarity looked relieved. "Oh, thank you, dear. I know I didn't say anything earlier, but seeing your lovely mane all hacked up like that was driving me wild."
Fluttershy sat down and Rarity began snipping away.
"Though," said the unicorn after a few minutes. "I must say that was a clever idea: Using your mane to lengthen your tail. If only we could do something like that for poor Dinky."
Without moving her head, Fluttershy's eyes flicked toward the still-sleeping teenager with only a few short jagged tufts where her mane had once been.
"I mean, I realize looks aren't everything," Rarity went on as she used a hoof first to floof out Fluttershy's now-more-stylish mane, then brush any loose bits of hair from her neck. "But being able to look one's best can make so much difference in a situation. There, doesn't that look so much better?" she asked, holding up a hoof mirror Fluttershy hadn't noticed earlier.
Fluttershy actually hadn't had a chance to see what her earlier self-done manecut had looked like, so she couldn't really compare the two. But she had to admit that even though it was odd to see herself with a much shorter mane, it still framed her face well and was almost rather ... cute. So she smiled and nodded, which seemed to please Rarity.
The unicorn leaned in conspiratorially and whispered, "You know, when I first saw what you had done with your mane and tail, I thought that maybe we could do something similar for Dinky. Cut her tail shorter and weave the cutoff section into her mane." Then her smile seemed to fade. "But unfortunately she doesn't have enough mane left to weave anything into."
"You could always do as High do, and just shave it all off," Screwjob suddenly chipped in from where he and Highflyer had been semi-resting, waiting for their dye jobs to wear off. "Of course that baldness is a little hard to notice under the mask," he added, noogieing the top of Highflyer's masked skull for emphasis.
"Big-ears," Highflyer muttered as one of his front hooves shot up and caught a hold of Screwjob's offending one. The two stallions proceeded to do a sort of side-by-side foreleg wrestling match.
While this was going on, Rarity had been giving them a speculative look. "Excuse me," she said to Fluttershy before moving toward the two wrestlers.
Fluttershy wondered what she intended to do, but at that moment Mache Max materialized in front of Twilight, clutching a scroll that looked remarkably like the one she had written earlier. He shot past the alicorn and made a beeline straight for the wingless pegasus. Landing before her, he tucked one head coyly to the side while the other one held the message out to her as if offering her a bouquet.
Heart pounding with emotions she couldn't quite identify, Fluttershy reached out to take the scroll. Giving Mache Max an automatic caress of thanks on both heads, she unrolled the scroll. Out of it fell not only the pencil she'd put in earlier but a blue quill pen. And under her original message was a new one written not in pencil, but in shiny black ink.
Just supply me with the paper, my dear. I've got enough ink to draft a novel.
Unconsciously her hoof moved to trace the new sentences, but as she touched them, they swirled together, reforming into the image of a moth identical to one of Discord's neck tattoos.
"Many a man proclaims his own loyalty, But who can find a trustworthy man?"—Proverbs 20:6
Underneath his bandages, Discord felt one of the moths on his neck vibrate. Keeping his eyes on his room's closed door, he cautiously eased a folded paper out from where he'd hidden it under the bedsheets.
Flipping the paper open, he read the words written inside.
Fluttershy: "Discord, could you please tell me if you ever made anything that looked like a pony with its skeleton on the outside?"
The draconequus blinked and reread the words. No, he hadn't misread them. That really had been Fluttershy's question, but what had prompted it?
A faint smile tugged at his mouth. What are you trying to do with this odd question, my dear? Steal my job? He mentally scrolled through his cinematic memory. Though the shackles on his wrists prevented him from using his power in the real world, they couldn't stop him from privately delving into his own mind.
He'd made plenty of strange creations over the course of his long life, but he couldn't recall making anything specifically like what Fluttershy had just described. Granted, he didn't always put much planning into what he made so he might have unknowingly made such a creature, but still...
He looked back down at the note, intending to give his answer, when the words suddenly twitched. A blob of ink oozed out of the question mark, ran a short distance down the paper, and scribbled itself into a new message.
Skywishes: "Asking him about Bonfire, I see?"
Bonfire? Discord squinted at the words. What's Bonfire?
The fact that the word was capitalized made him suspect it probably referred to something other than the common noun—
At that moment the words twitched again and spat another line out below them.
Skywishes: "Max, leave her alone!"
Leave who alone? What's going on? He peered at the paper, willing more words to appear, to clarify what was happening on Fluttershy's end, but none did. The seconds passed with still no word while he drummed his claws impatiently on the bedsheet. Then his impatience began turning to worry. What if Fluttershy was the 'her' Skywishes was referring to? What if she was hurt and that's why she wasn't saying anything?!
He had to know. Straining against the strap holding his neck in place, he nipped at a small section of the spiraled tattoo on his right shoulder that was still visible under its layer of bandages. He had originally planned on conserving the magic stored in his tattoos as much as possible since there was no telling how long it would last but this was an emergency. Teasing the tattoo up between his fang and forked tongue, he pinched it between his tongue's twin tips and flicked it up into the air. Fortunately the strand of tattoo seemed to understand what he wanted and stretched itself out long enough to thread itself into his ear. He brushed a talon over the exclamation point at the end of Max, leave her alone! in a scrolling gesture and heard faint sounds in his ear. He continued scrolling, causing the volume to increase as his brain began wildly formulating ways to help Fluttershy given his current restrictions.
"Asking him about Bonfire, I see?"
Fluttershy started at the sound of Skywishes's voice behind her. She had been so focused on the paper in front of her, awaiting Discord's reply, she had completely tuned out the rest of her surroundings.
She was just turning to face her fellow pegasus when Skywishes shouted, "Max, leave her alone!"
The next moment, Fluttershy was almost knocked over as Skywishes shot past her into the air.
Mache Max was diving straight toward the bubble that held Bonfire. Just before he struck it, Skywishes intercepted him, wrapping him in one wing and cutting a wide arch through the air as she swung away from the pipe-covered ceiling. Inside the bubble, Bonfire had been sleeping, but at Skywishes's shout, she promptly sprang awake, stumbling on her splinted leg and snarling as she looked about wildly for an attack.
"It's all right, Bonfire!" Fluttershy cried, dropping the letter as she hurried forward. "It's all right! Nopony's going to hurt you."
Bonfire's snarls softened slightly, but her stance remained tense as she continued eyeing her surroundings.
Skywishes landed next to Fluttershy. She was dressed in her usual camo but her black watch cap had fallen off, revealing a shock of cobalt blue hair in place of her usual pink-and-purple streaks. Bonfire looked toward the coral-colored pegasus and her snarling surged back up.
Skywishes sighed. "Sorry about that. Didn't mean to wake you—!" The brusque apology was abruptly cut off when her wing still holding Mache Max was suddenly yanked up and out to the side as the parrot struggled to get out. Just as he squirted free, Fluttershy reached up and caught him in her hooves.
"Mache Max," she said sternly, "you know we've told you not to bother Bonfire."
"He knows, he just doesn't care," Skywishes muttered as Mache Max's only response to the chastisement was to nuzzle against Fluttershy's hooves. Skywishes started to turn away from them when a magenta aura surrounded her. "It's Cardinal, Trinity," she stated, not even bothering to look at the alicorn generating the aura.
"Just making sure," said Twilight as she released the pegasus.
"It's appreciated," said Skywishes, moving toward the TreeHAB's entrance panel, which Fluttershy now noticed was open. Twilight followed her and stationed herself right beside the entrance, horn at the ready. Skywishes maneuvered one of the large baskets on the pulley system down through the opening, then followed it with a rope ladder. Fluttershy looked from them to Bonfire. The little one's eyes were trained on Mache Max, a low continuous warning growl rumbling from her throat.
"I'm not going to let him bother you, sweetie," Fluttershy soothed, tucking Mache Max against her chest, and backing away from Bonfire. The more space she put between them, the calmer Bonfire seemed to become, though Fluttershy noticed that the little one's tension never completely vanished. She wondered yet again what had caused Bonfire to be so distrustful.
For several agonizing seconds, Discord heard nothing but a low steady growl and the sounds of someone moving or something being dragged along a surface. Oh, Fluttershy, what's going on over there?! he mentally whisper-shouted. Just give me some clue that you're all right! Give me—!
"I'm not going to let him bother you, sweetie."
Instant relief rushed through Discord at the sound of that familiar soft voice, at the fact that she sounded neither hurt nor afraid ... Then just as suddenly this relief vanished. What 'him' was Fluttershy referring to? He felt his claws clench on the bedsheets. And just who exactly was that 'sweetie' she had been talking to? The beep of his heart monitor sped up, but at that moment he heard Twilight's voice in his ear.
"State your name."
There were several seconds of rustling before a posh female voice announced, "Regal."
"Plague," said a second female voice with a country accent.
"Wait Plague," said a male voice with a similar accent. "I was enjoying the scenery."
"Are you really that desperate for a kick in the head?!" the voice identified as Plague shot back.
This was greeted with a snort. "Please, O sable-haired beauty of my dreams, you hit like a girl."
This was followed by sounds of both female indignation and male amusement before a second much raspier male voice cut in.
"She might, but I don't. And unlike you I'm not enjoying the scenery, so unless you've changed your mind about wanting kids..."
This was answered with a yip and a flurry of rustling.
"State your name!" Twilight repeated.
"Highsenberg," the first male voice responded, then muttered in an undertone, "Seriously, there is just no pleasing some ponies."
This was followed by a thud and a raspy "Falcon."
If she hadn't heard them speak their code words (and hadn't seen them donning their disguises earlier) Fluttershy doubted she would have recognized the four camo-clad ponies that emerged up the rope ladder. While Skywishes had simply blued-out her mane and tail, the rest of the scouting/supply-gathering party had gone for more complete makeovers.
Rarity's coat was pale turquoise while her mane and tail were a deeper shade of turquoise. Applejack's coat was bubblegum pink, and her mane and tail were as black as Screwjob's normally were. Both mares had also rearranged their mane-styles. Screwjob had not altered his mane-style, but had removed the bandages that had been covering his left eye and busted left eyebrow for the past several days. The stitches seemed almost invisible against the bleached blond hair he'd opted for once again. With that blond hair now coupled with a lavender coat, he could have passed for Dinky's long-lost older brother. Last came Highflyer with his coat dyed a green that matched his current mask so perfectly it almost looked as if he wasn't wearing one, and a black watch cap pulled well-down to disguise his lack of a mane.
"Is this everything?" Fluttershy heard Dinky ask, and turned to see the young teenager leaning into the pulley system basket, carefully picking over its contents with her front hooves. Her magic was still shot, but at least she had finally recovered enough physical strength to walk around without exhausting herself. Her ragged mane hadn't been sheared off to the point of nonexistence as Highflyer's was, but it had been cut down to a very short even layer of fuzz. However, this layer of fuzz was almost entirely hidden by a stylish beret Rarity had fashioned for her from one of Highflyer's masks, a black one with red trim. Coupled with the camo everyone had taken to wearing constantly even inside the TreeHAB to ward off cold, the effect was very militaristic.
"Just about," said Skywishes, grimacing as she massaged a wing with her hooves.
"Are you okay?" Fluttershy asked, moving closer to her. "Max didn't—?"
"No, it wasn't him, for once. This time it was the weather." While Skywishes continued massaging that wing, the other one sprang out on reflex, inadvertently brushing against Fluttershy's cheek in the process. The pinions were as cold as if they were made of icicles rather than feathers.
"You've been flying around in the freezing cold weather out there!" Fluttershy gasped.
"Don't have much choice when it's the only way to get up here without a basket or rope ladder." Skywishes muttered.
Fluttershy had known that, but it was one thing to academically know the few choices they had for survival, and to actually see the evidence of Skywishes risking frostbite in her efforts to guide the other ponies from the TreeHAB through the forest into the surrounding towns and back again.
Looking down at the origami parrot she still held tucked against her chest, Fluttershy said in her sternest voice, "Mache Max, I am ordering you to leave Bonfire and Skywishes alone from here on out." Sure, he might eventually forget her order and resume his usual taunting and teasing, but Fluttershy had also noticed he would always obey her at least for a while.
There's that word again, thought Discord. Must be somepony's name, but whose? Could it be some sort of code or nickname among the group?
Mache Max responded to the order by nuzzling both his heads against Fluttershy's cheeks while uttering a soft drawn-out "Hhhhhhaaaaaa," before jumping out of her hooves and hopping away towards the greenhouse.
Fluttershy turned back to Skywishes. "Please let me see your wings."
Skywishes studied her several seconds with those dead eyes, but then extended her wings. Sitting down in front of Skywishes, Fluttershy pulled the icy wings inside her own jerkin and tucked them against her sides to warm them. Then Skywishes sat down as well, facing Fluttershy but looking everywhere except directly at her. Fluttershy had to admit their position must look rather odd to an outside observer: Skywishes with her wings under Fluttershy's clothes as if trying to give her an awkwardly intimate hug. But she didn't feel right just leaving Skywishes to cope with potentially frozen wings when she herself was unable to assist with the actual flying.
"Thank you," Skywishes suddenly murmured, looking at the narrow section of floor between them.
"Oh, it's the least I can do after all you've—"
"Don't." The word was neither snapped nor shouted, but there was a definite warning edge to it. Fluttershy fell silent and just focused on rubbing warmth into Skywishes's wings while listening to snippets of the remaining group's verbal reports to Twilight.
"We didn't see many ponies out and about. Even with the news that Discord was captured, I think the worsening weather is keeping them inside."
"The papers still have us, Apple Bloom, and Scootaloo all listed as missing."
"There's been no word from Celestia or Luna either. It's as if they just vanished."
"We also stopped at Zecora's place, but she wasn't there. We didn't see any sign of a struggle but the place also didn't look like it had been lived in for a while."
Fluttershy mentally sighed. More of the same. Hoping the young mares' continued absence meant they had managed to avoid capture, but fearing the opposite might be true. Hoping and fearing the same in the Royal Sisters' case. Hoping and fearing the same in everypony's case...
"Fluttershy, she's doing it again," Skywishes suddenly muttered, jerking her out of these thoughts. She looked up to see Bonfire a short distance from them with her eyes trained on Skywishes. Ever since spotting that picture of Skywishes and Sunny Daze as fillies, the little mystery creature seemed to have developed an odd fixation on the coral-colored pegasus that all the ponies had noticed but never been able to explain.
Bonfire studied Skywishes as Fluttershy chafed her wings.
"What is it, little one?" Fluttershy prodded gently. "Are you trying to tell us something?"
Bonfire broke eye contact but didn't let the two ponies completely out of her sight. The constant patience Fluttershy displayed toward her unnerved her. It had to be some sort of trap. It just had to be. It couldn't possibly be anything else. Why wouldn't the pony just let the trap spring and get it over with?
Now the other pony ... Skywishes may have given her an apology after waking her up earlier, but the coral-colored pegasus had also made it quite clear she would abandon Bonfire in favor of saving the other ponies. This knowledge hurt, but at least it was something familiar. Something she could trust and understand.
Fluttershy felt herself mentally slump as Bonfire's only response to her gentle question was to break eye-contact and let out a mixture of purrs and clicks that could have meant anything.
Her experiment of sponge-feeding broth to the little one had been a success and over the next several days they had moved on to giving Bonfire various foods cut into pieces small enough for her to eat without chewing. Fluttershy glanced down at her bandaged left foreleg. There was something cruelly ironic in the fact that Bonfire had teeth capable of inflicting such a vicious bite, yet had so much difficulty eating with those same teeth thanks to her lack of a tongue and proper cheeks.
"You know, I don't think she's actually completely tongueless," said Skywishes, her own eyes on Bonfire as she slipped one thawed wing out of Fluttershy's jerkin and flexed it experimentally.
"What do you mean?" Fluttershy asked, startled that Skywishes's words were so in sync with her own current thoughts.
Skywishes withdrew her other wing as well. "I mean sure, she doesn't have a conventional tongue, but she does seem to have a scrap of meat back there that helps her make all the sounds that she does."
That was true, Fluttershy thought. Over the past weeks Bonfire had growled, clicked, chirped, chittered, hummed and trilled but never once had she spoken an understandable word. And though Fluttershy had employed everything she knew about the non-verbal way many animals communicated with each other, none of it ever seemed to work when she applied it to Bonfire. Maybe that was the source of her current discouragement. Despite her success in giving the little one physical nourishment she seemed no closer to cracking the enigma known as Bonfire.
Why does that seem so famil—? "Excuse me, Skywishes," she breathed before dashing back to the letter that she'd dropped earlier. Picking it up, she saw that Discord had not yet responded to her question, but Skywishes had apparently been close enough to her earlier that her comments had been unintentionally recorded.
The writing on Discord's note twitched then reformed into new words.
Fluttershy: "Sorry, Discord. I got distracted there for a bit."
Though he saw the words appear on the paper, he didn't need to read them as he also heard Fluttershy's voice speak them in his ear.
Scarcely had Fluttershy finished speaking the words, then Discord's response scrawled itself below them.
Discord: "I noticed."
"The other ponies just got back with more supplies."
Discord: "I know, I heard."
Fluttershy blinked. "You ... heard?"
The surprise in Fluttershy's voice pulled Discord up short, and he felt an unexpected jab of guilt. As if he'd just misled her or something...
There was several seconds of uneasy silence while Fluttershy just watched the paper before Discord's words appeared slowly, hesitantly.
Discord: "Yesss ... I heard. When you didn't say anything after Skywishes's shouting, I got worried and ... Well, I eavesdropped through the tattoo ink to make sure you were okay."
Fluttershy felt her face flush. Partly because—while she hadn't done or said anything to be ashamed of—the idea of someone listening in without her knowledge made her uncomfortable. And yet at the same time, she also felt very touched at the fact that he had been worried about her. However she wasn't sure how to mention this aloud. All she said was:
"I didn't realize you could do that."
"I wasn't planning to, since it uses up more magic than dictating our comments, but I felt this was one time worth risking it." Of course Discord neglected to mention that he still had the volume turned up, not because he needed it, but because he wanted to keep listening to her voice.
Fluttershy: "So I guess you understand what's going on now at the TreeHAB?"
"Parts of it, but not all. For example, what's that Bonfire you kept mentioning?"
Fluttershy: "She's the pony-like creature I was asking you about."
"The one with its skeleton on the outside?"
Fluttershy: "Yes. Did you ever make anything like that?"
"Not that I'm aware of. Why?"
Fluttershy: "It's a bit of a long story..."
He chuckled ruefully. "I'm not exactly going anywhere at the moment, darling."
"No..." Fluttershy murmured, though more to herself than to him. "I guess you're not..."
She continued to stare down at the words, suddenly wishing she could have heard him say them instead. It was that 'darling' he'd tacked on the end. She just couldn't tell from the writing if it was meant to be affectionate or sarcastic.
The words suddenly twitched, scrawling themselves into a new message.
Discord: "Well, could I hear this allegedly long story?"
"Oh! Of course." And she quickly proceeded to explain how they had first found Bonfire in the Everfree, brought her back to the TreeHAB, named her, were caring for her as best they could, and had been trying to figure her out ever since then. Discord seemed quite intrigued by the little creature because he kept interrupting with questions about Bonfire, everything from her appearance to her behavior. Fluttershy found this encouraging. Maybe their talk was jogging his memory regarding one of his own creations! Maybe—!
Then fresh words appeared.
Discord: "While she certainly sounds fascinating enough that I'd love to take credit ... I'm about ninety-nine point seven percent sure I would definitely have remembered making such a creature."
Fluttershy felt her rising spirit promptly deflate like a leaky balloon. "So ... you didn't make her?"
Discord: "As far as I know ... No."
Another dead end. Only then did Fluttershy realize how much she had staked on the idea of Bonfire being Discord's creation and that by extension he could provide her with the answers she so desperately needed regarding the little one. And she'd just lost her stake. She couldn't help letting out a sigh and the paper she was holding promptly recorded it.
Discord: "What's wrong, darling?"
"Oh, it's nothing, I just ... I guess I was just really hoping that you made Bonfire and could explain her because I don't seem to be getting anywhere with her." Then as an afterthought she found herself adding, "Plus, she seems to be just as immune to my Stare as you are and I thought—"
Wait a minute! Fluttershy's brows creased in a frown. Discord and Bonfire had both been immune to her Stare ... She'd been thinking—hoping—that might point to some sort of link between them, but now she suddenly noticed an element of their immunity she'd always missed before.
She had told Skywishes that Bonfire had reacted to her Stare by attacking out of fear and she'd honestly believed that.
But Discord had never reacted that way toward her Stare. He had been utterly impervious to it. He'd had all the power in that situation, he'd known it, and he'd made sure she knew it as well. Bonfire's reaction on the other hoof had been that of one who had found the smallest scrap of leverage and was clinging desperately to it. A position of terror and powerlessness Fluttershy had become well-acquainted with those first terrible days when Discord had shown up at the cabin...
He's not like that anymore! He might have been that way at first, but he changed! And he saved my life later on!
Sure, said a small cynical voice in the back of her head. And after saving your life, he later abandoned you for over a year without so much as a goodbye. What makes you think he won't just do the same if we somehow manage to survive this situation?!
She felt her body hunch forward under the mental accusation. I don't know that he won't leave me again! And that was the truth of it. Yes, her former partner said he had been worried about her enough to eavesdrop. Yes, he seemed to care for her ... but he had also seemed to be that way a year ago right before he vanished from her life. There was just no way to know if he—
That doesn't matter now! Fluttershy's hooves dug into the wood floor as she reclaimed her resolve. I don't know that he won't leave me again if he gets the chance, but I do know he's being accused of a crime he didn't commit, and I swear I'm not going to let him be convicted for it!
Meanwhile Discord was facing his own inner battle. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't block out the words he'd just heard Fluttershy murmur.
"She seems to be just as immune to my Stare as you are..."
Oh, why did you have to mention that, Fluttershy?! he mentally groaned, even as his cinematic memory dredged up that moment in all its explicit detail. Sights, sounds, smells, emotions. It sickened him to now recall not only her fear and helplessness with such perfect clarity ... but to have the whole memory tainted with the pleasure he'd felt back then tormenting her.
In that moment he loathed having a cinematic memory. Loathed the fact that it would never let him forget what he'd—
At that moment he heard the room's doorknob turning.
Fluttershy looked back down at the paper, noticing Discord hadn't said anything after her comment regarding her Stare. She suddenly wondered if he was remembering that particularly uncomfortable piece of their history as vividly as she was. If not even more so.
The ink spat out a fresh sentence just below hers.
Discord: "Gotta go!"
Just as the door creaked open, Discord thrust the paper under the blanket, and jerked the strand of tattoo from his ear, mentally urging it to get back into place while he closed his eyes and tried to look fast asleep.
"Alright, open up those big shifty sunken-in eyes of yours," said a brisk voice he recognized as the main doctor who had been working on him.
"Flattery will get you nowhere," he retorted before opening one eye.
"The other eye too," the doctor ordered. Discord complied and the doctor gave him an annoyed look. "Both at once."
Discord humphed and obeyed. As much as he'd have liked to antagonize the pony, he knew he also had to be careful. If he acted up too much, they might decide they needed to keep a much closer eye on him. It was bad enough they had decided to put in a visit right when he and Fluttershy had finally gotten a chance to talk!
The doctor shone a light in first one of his eyes, then the other.
"Hmm, your pupils won't stay the same size, but I can't exactly say if that would be down to sustained injury or just you being you. At least they both contract when the light hits them."
Not only that, but they can shoot out beams of their own that would put that flashlight to shame if I wasn't shackled. Discord mentally muttered as the doctor and several assistants all began checking the rest of his vitals.
"Discord?!" Fluttershy gasped even as part of her brain thought: He's left you again! See! Even now he doesn't want anything to do with—!
At that moment the words on the paper twitched and a new line appeared below them.
Spike: "The doctors are working on him."
Oh. Relief washed over Fluttershy, followed quickly by embarrassment at her initial panic. Of course he wouldn't want the doctors to catch him whispering words onto a paper. Of course that's why he had to leave like that ... Then her embarrassment doubled as she remembered that Spike also carried a letter identical to hers and had probably been following the whole conversation. It might have made communication a lot quicker and more efficient than having to send messages between him and Twilight, but it also made it awkward to bring up more personal things knowing there was an audience...
"You've been having quite the conversation down there."
Fluttershy looked up to see Skywishes perched on one of the ceiling's larger pipes, a belt of plumbing tools strapped diagonally across her body, an adjustable wrench held loosely in one front hoof. Pink streaks were emerging in her blue mane, indicating the potion she'd drunk was wearing off.
"I noticed that too," said Twilight, moving to join them. Or rather to join Fluttershy on the floor. "Did you find out anything?"
"Well..." Fluttershy filled them in on what she'd discussed with Discord, and how he denied knowing anything about Bonfire. However, she didn't mention the disconnection she'd noticed between how the draconequus and the skeletal mystery creature had reacted to her Stare because though she felt it was important, she couldn't really explain why yet. During her recitation, they were joined by Dinky, Applejack, Highflyer, Rarity, and Screwjob. The latter four ponies were all slowly reverting back to their usual colors just as Skywishes's hair was.
When Fluttershy finished, all the group looked toward Bonfire, who had moved to a spot where she could keep them all in her sights without having to turn around. Noticing them watching her, she hunkered down under her camouflage blanket and let out a series of low throaty clicks. Fluttershy couldn't tell if it sounded more like a cat's purr or a rattlesnake's rattle but Screwjob seemed to think the latter because he shivered.
"So back to the old sketchpad with our mystery guest then?" he asked, scratching at the back of his mane which was steadily darkening as if he were aging in reverse.
"Yes," Fluttershy breathed, turning to address the wrestler. "I'm afraid so..." Her words trailed off as she got her first clear look at his face. "What happened to my stitches?!" It was the first time she'd seen them since putting them there. "How'd they get all—?"
"Those aren't your stitches," Screwjob cut in. "I busted yours at Apps's farm, remember? You're looking at her hoofiwork."
Applejack looked insulted and muttered, "They're not that bad."
"Well ... no..." Fluttershy had to admit that while Applejack's stitching was a far cry from her own careful efforts to minimize scarring, it was at least serviceable. "It's..." What was she supposed to say?
Screwjob squinted at her. "What's got you freaked out?"
Fluttershy shot Applejack an apologetic look before turning back to the wrestler. "Well, the wound is closed, but ... well ... it's all scarred up now."
"Really?" Screwjob suddenly looked interested. "Let's see it."
Rarity produced a mirror and a pair of scissors. When the stitches were snipped and pulled out, Screwjob looked down at the mirror to examine the pale vertical scar that now sliced through his left eyebrow. He didn't seem bothered by it. In fact, he grinned.
"You did a beautiful job, Apps. This has already become my new favorite scar."
Applejack just rolled her eyes ceilingward, her expression clearly saying: "What have I done to deserve this?"
Highflyer came over and reared up to get a better look at the much-taller stallion's forehead. "Not bad. I wouldn't mind having one of those."
Screwjob arched his intact right eyebrow. "Why? It wouldn't show with your mask on anyway."
Highflyer shrugged. "Maybe, but it's the principle of the thing."
Screwjob jutted out his lips and tilted his head back in a playfully pondering look. "True. Plus it's not like you don't have scars on your back and splatter burns on your chest under all that ink anyway. So hiding extra scars under your mask wouldn't exactly be out of character for you." He traced the now-very-noticeable split in his left eyebrow. "Of course, I suppose I'll have to hide this somehow next time we sneak into town."
"Um, about that..." said Fluttershy. "I think Skywishes might need a break from guiding us to the surrounding towns because this time she came back with her wings all frozen."
The other ponies all looked up at Skywishes, their expressions varying degrees of shock. "Why didn't you say anything about your wings?" Twilight demanded of her.
Skywishes's mouth twitched in an almost smile. "I was planning to but Fluttershy just beat me to it. Though ... now that we're on the subject..." She shifted her position on the pipe to more fully face the ponies below her. "Since we've finally managed to stock up enough supplies to last a good several months, I think it's time we quit leaving the HAB."
"But we can't just hang out here while changelings are probably snatching ponies willy-nilly!" Applejack protested. "Why not just let the rest of us go out while you rest? We've gotten better at finding this tree. We could go down in the basket or on the rope ladder—"
"And how'll you get back up here afterward? We can't just leave the basket or ladder hanging there for anyone to find."
"Maybe we could come up with some way to signal when we get back. Or we could use one of those letters Discord gave us."
Skywishes shook her head. "That might work if it was just a matter of me freezing my pinions off, but there's also the fact that it's started snowing a lot harder than before. If it keeps up, all but our two fliers won't be able to go to or from the HAB without leaving tracks. And as invisible as we might be now, it probably won't take the changelings long to figure out what's going on if they find a bunch of trails leading to and away from this tree."
"We could maybe disguise our tracks..." Rarity suggested.
"When the snow's up to your chest?" Skywishes challenged, and Fluttershy felt herself pale at the memory of going out in such deep snow.
She turned quickly to the other ponies. "We don't want to try that. Believe me, I know." She turned back to Skywishes. "Has it really gotten that bad already?"
"Not yet, but it looks like it's headed that way." Skywishes waggled her wrench toward a nearby pipe. "That's why I'm working on the water-reclaimer. Have to close off the major pipes so I can put salt in the main collection tank and hook up the desalination container."
This seemed to pique Twilight's interest. "Is the salt to keep the water in the main collection tank from freezing?"
"Mm-hmm." Skywishes nodded as she resumed working on the pipe.
"And that other thing you mentioned? The—?"
"Desalination container. That's to get the salt back out of the water so it's actually drinkable."
Twilight flew up to join her. "How's it do that?"
"Heats the salty water until it evaporates, leaving the salt behind. Then it collects the steam separately so it can condense back into useable freshwater."
"I suppose all those extra steps are why you don't use it all the time."
"You suppose correct. It only comes into play when I'm worried about the water freezing and causing a pipe to burst or something. Like now." Skywishes pushed off and flew to another pipe, silently signaling the conversation was over.
Normally Discord would have appreciated a visit from the doctors as it usually included a chance to get out of bed and stretch his limbs. Granted his legs were always hobbled, his hands were always chained behind him, and he was always surrounded by at least half a dozen security guards ready to pounce at the first hint of trouble, but those heavily monitored trips to and from physical therapy were better than nothing.
This time however all he wanted to do was get back to talking with Fluttershy. He went through the therapy session as quickly as possible, almost ran back to his room despite being hobbled, and even held his limbs out accommodatingly when it was time to exchange the chains for the restraining straps.
"Hmm, apart from when I was first checking your eyes, you've been surprisingly cooperative this time around." the lead doctor observed, eyeing him suspiciously.
Discord quickly hitched a smirk on his face. "Why else do you think I did it? I have to behave once in a while to keep you ponies guessing." Meanwhile inside his head he was screaming at the top of his lungs: Get out! Get out! Get out! Get out! Get out!
Finally at long last they left him alone and after what felt like an equally long time of waiting to make sure they wouldn't suddenly pop back in, he retrieved his paper.
Twilight was just dropping back down to rejoin the other ponies when Fluttershy felt the paper in her hooves squirm. She held it up so the other ponies could also see it as new words formed on it.
Discord: "I'm sorry, darling. The good doctor decided to put in a visit. What'd I miss?"
Fluttershy glanced around her before filling him in on Skywishes's reasons for feeling they should stay at the TreeHAB from now on.
"And the frustrating thing is that I'd be glad to just wait out the storm here, but I'm afraid the changelings are using their windigo essence to cause this weather like they did last time."
"Don't think I'm unaware of that, Fluttershy," Skywishes called from her spot above them. "I realize this is likely more than just an ordinary storm, but as things stand trying to spy on the surrounding towns is netting us too much risk and not enough reward."
Twilight sighed. "Unfortunately she's right. If it were just a matter of facing a blizzard to rescue our friends and families, I'd be all for striking out to find them. But now any friend or loved one we find might just as easily be a disguised changeling intending to trap us."
Discord stared at Twilight's words: If it were just a matter of facing a blizzard to rescue our friends and families, I'd be all for striking out to find them.
A small voice in the back of his head murmured: And yet Fluttershy braved one for you when you were neither...
With that thought and his memories of tormenting her still so clear in his mind at the moment, he suddenly wanted her there with him. Words on a paper weren't enough. He wanted to hold her close, wanted to beg her face-to-face to take him back, wanted to just make things right between them. If he could he would have reached through the ink on both letters and yanked her through them right into his room. But of course he couldn't. Not with those blasted shackles—
Do I do something to be loved, or in order to love? Derpy's words suddenly sprang up in his mind, jolting him like a slap. Do you want Fluttershy here for her sake? Or for your own? her voice continued.
He squeezed his eyes shut and would have rubbed at the skin between them if he weren't being restrained. As much as he wanted it, having Fluttershy here with him would not fix anything.
Then what will fix things? the voice continued and he mentally frowned. Why did that voice sound so much like Derpy? As he thought of the skew-eyed pegasus, his mind suddenly drifted back to the guilt he'd felt toward her and her daughters while lying on that cave floor with his head busted open. Of how he'd wished he'd made more effort to—
His eyes snapped open and he looked down at the paper in time to see new words suddenly appear below Twilight's.
Highflyer: "If they're wearing anything, we could try stripping it off them to see if they're a real pony or not. That's worked before."
Fluttershy: "The problem with that is you have to get right up close to them to do it. If only we had some way of knowing for sure what they were without tipping them off..."
Discord inhaled resolutely then exhaled. Maybe he couldn't make things right between himself and Fluttershy, but so help him he would make things right between himself and another pegasus. "You all seem to have forgotten the fact that there are no fewer than two ponies in need that you can be sure aren't disguised changelings. The two I allegedly attacked, and who are currently residing at this very hospital."
The group stared at his words, realizing that in the midst of all their worrying about the ponies they weren't in a position to help, they'd also lost sight of the two they might actually be in a position to help.
Spike: "That's some straight thinking you got there, Discord."
Discord: "Don't get too used to it, I try not to let it happen often."
Screwjob snorted in amusement at that. "I know just how you feel, buddy."
"Yes..." Fluttershy murmured thoughtfully mostly to herself. "Focus on them and let the others worry about themselves for now." Then her eyes widened as she suddenly realized how that must have sounded and quickly added, "Not that I mean we don't care about anypony else out there, I just—"
"We know what you meant, Shy," said Screwjob, his tone still amused. Then his amusement faded. "If any changelings try posing as me to go after my aunt, we'll just have to hope that for once Big Tim's hatred of me is stronger than his devotion to her." He shook his head. "Can't believe I'm actually wishing for that."
Applejack snorted. "For once we agr—" She suddenly caught herself and shifted uncomfortably. "Uh, for what it's worth ... They probably won't pose as you as long as they don't know where the real you is."
Screwjob's expression seemed to turn cautiously hopeful. "You sure about that?"
"No, but they never appeared to any of my family members disguised as me during the ten years I was in hiding. I think that might have been because they knew I was out there somewhere and didn't want to risk me showing up and blowing their cover—" Catching sight of his expression, she quickly rearranged hers into a glare. "Look, don't think this has anything to do with you! I just said that for your aunt's benefit!" And with that, she marched stiffly away from him.
Screwjob watched her go, now fighting to hold back a grin. "She likes me."
He chuckled. "I'll let you win this round, Apps." Then he turned back to the other ponies, his expression serious again. "So how exactly are we supposed to help Derpy and Amethyst if they're at the hospital and we're here?"
Spike: "That'll be tricky considering I can't keep an eye on both of them twenty-four-seven. Especially if that one security guard we first saw watching Amethyst is on duty. I thought him snapping awake that first time we peeked in the room was a fluke, but he's done it several times since then, no matter how quiet I am, and I'm worried he's going to catch me at some point."
Discord: "Hmm. I wonder how he'd fare against some fly-on-the-wall surveillance. Or rather moth-on-the-wall surveillance."
"You know it's odd, given the fact that they want me, Jobs and the kid dead that none of the changelings seem to have gone after Derpy or Amethyst," Highflyer mused several days later while the group was discussing the hospitalized ponies' situation. Discord had sent a couple of his moth tattoos to hang out in Derpy and Amethyst's rooms and report back to him should anything happen, but so far nothing had apart from the routine patient care. "I mean, those two aren't exactly in a position to defend themselves."
"Maybe the changelings think it will turn suspicion away from Discord if Derpy and Amethyst suddenly died while he was under lock and key," said Twilight.
"True, but they could probably make it look like an accident," said Highflyer, pulling out one of the butterfly knives he seemed to have commandeered from Skywishes and idly flipping it about. "Just pull out some of Derpy's life-support systems or block Amethyst's windpipe."
"Oh, that's ghastly," Rarity shivered.
"But odd that it hasn't been tried," Highflyer pressed.
Spike: "Given how closely they're both currently being monitored, trying to kill them like that might set off some alarm. And trying to disconnect that alarm might just trigger another."
Screwjob scratched at his beard thoughtfully. "Judging by the fact that they don't seem to want to attract any attention, maybe they don't think Derpy's much of a threat at the moment considering she can't really do anything as long as she's stuck all inside-out. And the only threat Amethyst would pose is if she suddenly woke up and started yapping her head off about what she saw."
Spike: "That might be it. Incoming mail."
Seconds later a newspaper and a paper-wrapped medical textbook flashed into existence in front of Twilight who snatched the latter with her magic. After her disappearance, it seemed that the doctors had scrambled to get every medical book they could delivered from the Canterlot Library to the hospital in hopes of finding a cure for Derpy. Spike and Twilight had agreed that while there was the chance of a genuine doctor finding a cure and using it to save the pegasus, there was an equal if not greater chance of a disguised changeling finding and destroying the text. Since then Spike had been kept quite busy sending book after book to Twilight, then—when she'd made sure they didn't contain the spell she was seeking—smuggling them back into the doctors' collection so they wouldn't be missed. It was a chancy setup but the best they could do under the circumstances.
While Twilight began pouring over this latest book, Rarity retrieved the newspaper Spike had also sent and unfurled it to read.
Applejack glanced over the unicorn's shoulder at the headlines and grimaced. "How can you stand to keep reading that trash?"
"Know thy enemy, darling."
Applejack snorted dismissively. "All we've learned from those papers is our enemy is either feeding all the reporters lies, or taken over all the papers and printing their own lies."
"I'm with her," said Highflyer, still twirling his knife. "All those recent articles about Loo's disappearance never had a single word about Ray's parents—or rather the fakers I left tied up there—but they sure had plenty to say about finding my blood all over the place. And the way they phrased it, you'd think my carcass was used to repaint the walls rather than me just spitting out a few mouthfuls."
Screwjob wrinkled up his muzzle before stating matter-of-factly, "High. You're gross."
Highflyer's response was equally matter-of-fact. "How about I sock you in the mouth and see how you handle it?"
"Wait your turn, son. Apps hasn't gotten in her two shots yet."
Applejack spluttered at this. "Don't tell me you're keeping score!"
Screwjob smirked. "Okay, I won't tell you that I am."
At that moment there was a sharp gasp behind them. The group looked up to see Mache Max shooting toward Dinky, who was standing on her hind legs with a tray of hot cocoa in her front hooves, unable to dodge out of the way without spilling its contents. Then Highflyer was suddenly in front of her, one foreleg blurring as it whipped toward Mache Max. The knife blade flashed, there was the harsh sound of paper ripping, and the parrot fell to the floor with one of his remaining five wings now severed.
"You okay, kid?" Highflyer asked Dinky over his shoulder as he flipped the knife closed in a quick rollover movement.
"Watch out!" she cried, looking past him. He snapped his head back around just in time to feel an unknown object bounce off his masked forehead. He looked up to see Mache Max's severed wing whirling through the air before boomeranging back to the parrot who bounced up to catch it on one of his heads like a hat and promptly strutted away as though proud of himself.
"Weirdo," Highflyer muttered disgustedly after him.
"Ha!" Mache Max retorted.
"Shut up," Skywishes tossed after the parrot while Fluttershy watched him uncertainly. When Highflyer had accidentally or intentionally (she couldn't really be sure which) chopped one of his wings off, her first instinct had been to rush forward and comfort the parrot, never mind that he had been in the wrong going after Dinky like that. But now since he didn't seem the least bit upset about losing the wing, she began to feel her concern might have been misplaced and turned it on the young unicorn. "You okay, Dinky?"
"Yeah, I..." Dinky shook her head as if to clear it. "Well, actually this doesn't have anything to do with what just happened but ... I've had something on my mind."
"Do you want to tell us about it?"
Dinky nodded, and carefully put the tray down in the middle of the group before looking around at them, her gaze stopping on Screwjob. "You mentioned something about Amethyst waking up and ... that just got me thinking. If ... if she ever did wake up ... she'd probably be really confused after all this time." She turned to Highflyer. "You remember what happened when I first woke up and saw you after we escaped the changelings?"
"Yeah, you got pretty spooked."
She nodded. "I recognized your mask because I'd seen pictures of it before, but I didn't have any memory of actually meeting you. At least not right away." She looked around at the rest of the group. "And I wasn't even in a coma at the time, so Amethyst's memory loss would probably be a lot worse..." She dropped her gaze. "I keep worrying what if she doesn't remember Mom, or me, or even who she is?!" She raised her head, the frustration in her voice growing stronger. "But then I start wondering if maybe she'd be a lot safer not remembering anything!"
"We know, Dinky," Twilight sounded tired as she wrapped a wing around the teenager's withers. "We've all been thinking about both those scenarios and trying to—"
At that moment Mache Max came capering over with his detached wing now wrapped around him like a cape, and began rolling himself up in the discarded paper that had covered the medical book.
Twilight cast him an annoyed look. "No, I'm not sending you over to Spike."
"But what if you ... sent one of us?" Fluttershy murmured, running a hoof across her mouth, her eyes fixed on the parrot.
"What?!" Twilight—along with the rest of the ponies—whipped around to stare at her.
Fluttershy started at the eyes all now fixed on her. "Oh, sorry! I just started thinking about how Spike's been sending all those big medical books to you by wrapping them in the paper he usually uses for scrolls and watching Max roll around in that paper just made me think of when he traveled with that first note I sent Discord and I just suddenly wondered..." She felt herself blushing. "What if we could wrap ourselves up and travel the same way?" Hearing herself say the idea aloud made it seem even more ridiculous. Oh, it was so embarrassing. She wished she still had wings to wrap around herself or her long mane to hide behind. "It was just a random thought that popped into my..."
But her words trailed off as she caught sight of the speculative looks on the other ponies' faces.
Discord had been snoozing when his dragon tattoo suddenly stretched its head down onto his chest and vibrated, jolting him awake. Blinking blearily, he pulled his folded paper from its hiding place to see Fluttershy's message.
Fluttershy: "Discord, I just wanted you to know we have a new idea. We're going to see if Spike and Twilight can use their messaging system to teleport a pony the way they've been doing with letters, scrolls, and books."
Instantly Discord was wide awake, his mind jumping through the myriad of possibilities this new experiment could open up if successful.
Twilight looked down at the little figure curled up in front of her, wrapped in a scroll like a mummy. "You ready?"
There was a soft rustle of paper as the figure nodded and let out a muffled, "Mm-hmm."
"You sure?" This time Twilight wasn't able to hide her apprehension. "Maybe we should think about this a bit more. Make sure it—"
The paper rustled again only this time the figure was shaking its head. "Hen me!" said the muffled voice, which Fluttershy was pretty sure translated to send me.
"I don't think the test subject is currently open to discussion." Screwjob's tone was dry but Fluttershy felt sure that behind it he was every bit as uneasy about this experiment as the rest of them were.
Twilight shot the wrestler an aggravated look. "Well, I've never done this before! There's so many ways this could go wrong! What if he ends up injured?!"
"Then it's a good thing you're sending him to a hospital."
But Twilight didn't seem to have heard him, continuing on, "Or what if he dies?! I can't stand the thought of it, that I might be responsible for—!"
At that moment Screwjob caught her by the withers and jerked her toward him so they were face-to-face, halting her mid-rant. "Twilight, he knows the risks. Sure, this is something he's never done before, but his chosen profession involves facing possible injuries—and sometimes even the possibility of death—on a surprisingly routine basis. So he's not exactly as new to this sort of situation as you might think."
"Hi-hight! Hurry hup!" the wrapped figure demanded.
Screwjob looked deep into Twilight's eyes. "He knows the risks, Twilight. He knows and he's willing to take the chance. For all of us."
The surety in his voice seemed to calm something in her. Giving him a firm nod, she turned from him, and fired up her magic.
From his usual hiding place in the hospital ceiling, Spike braced himself as a large burst of flames belched from his mouth. He was momentarily blinded by the brilliant light, but as his eyes readjusted he saw what looked like the world's most sloppily rolled scroll drop down from the flames. As the shape tumbled a short distance over the uneven surface, a pair of small tattooed forelimbs shot out from between the layers of paper, scrabbling for purchase. Then the rest of the masked stallion's familiar tiny form emerged from the wrapping like a snake shedding its skin.
Discord stared at the paper, waiting with bated breath, when new words appeared.
Spike: "It worked! Highflyer came through just fine! He's not even singed!"
Wonderful! Excellent! Discord mentally cheered. Now, maybe they could—
But at that moment one of the moths on his neck buzzed loudly. And this time it wasn't to signal an incoming message.
Meanwhile the ponies at the TreeHAB were all breathing sighs of relief when another message suddenly scrawled itself right under Spike's in much bigger letters.
Discord: "Hate to halt the celebrating, but Amethyst is waking up!"
"Without consultation, plans are frustrated, but with many counselors they succeed."—Proverbs 15:22
Dinky seized the front of Twilight's camo. "Send me through!"
"Send me through! It worked with Highflyer and I'm the one Amethyst is most likely to recognize if she recognizes anypony at all! Send me through!"
And with that, the young teenager released Twilight, dropped to the floor and grabbed one of the nearby scrolls to wrap herself in.
Discord watched as Dinky's words scratched themselves across the paper in a frantic scrawl. Would they really send her through?
Spike was wondering the same thing when he suddenly felt the familiar fire building up in his gut. "Oh no," he groaned before he belched out a burst of flames and a sloppily-wrapped bundle dropped out of it, unrolling almost as soon as it landed.
The scroll came through unscathed but its occupant didn't.
Dinky came thrashing out of her paper confines trying to extinguish flames licking at her camouflage jacket and pants.
"Kid!" Highflyer shouted, darting to her side. Spike quickly stuffed the letter he was holding into a pocket of his jacket and raced forward as well. For several terrifying moments all was frantic confusion in the cramped space as the three fought to both pull the burning clothes from the unicorn's body and beat out the flames, but finally the fire was out.
In the darkness, Spike mentally sighed a little prayer of thanks that he'd had the foresight to move into an area relatively free of flammable material before he and Twilight had first attempted their travel experiment. He shuddered to think what would have happened if those flames had spread to the rest of the hospital. He could hear Dinky and Highflyer breathing heavily nearby him, and his relief that the fire hadn't spread was suddenly replaced with worry that their earlier noise might have attracted the attention of someone below. Picking up the flashlight he'd dropped earlier, he turned the beam on himself and motioned for the two ponies to be silent as he listened to their surroundings.
There was a sudden banging in the nearby ductwork. It was a sound Spike had gotten used to during his time hiding in the ventilation system, but this time it made him flinch. He heard the ponies next to him flinch as well, but heard no sounds of alarm from any occupants in the rooms below. Was it possible that even if some ponies had heard the earlier struggle, they had just written it off as pressure in the air system?
After several tense moments that felt like hours had passed, Spike finally relaxed, grateful that they seemed to have escaped detection yet again. Then he turned the flashlight beam on Dinky and Highflyer to examine them. His fireproof scales had prevented him from getting any burns, but he doubted the two ponies had been so fortunate.
Discord was still staring at Dinky's frantic scrawl, when the words suddenly swirled together and reformed into a new much shorter message.
A second later another message appeared below this one.
Twilight: "Spike, what's going on?!"
Several seconds passed with no reply.
Twilight: "Spike! Dinky?! Highflyer?!"
Still there was no response.
Fluttershy: "Discord, I think something's gone wrong. None of them are answering. Could you please try listening in on them like you did to us?"
"I can try." He was just straining to pry up a strand of tattoo when new words suddenly appeared on the paper.
Spike: "You hurt bad, Dinky? Maybe we should—"
Dinky: "Don't worry about me now. We have to get to Amethyst."
Spike: "Right. This way. But we have to stay quiet."
Twilight: "Spike, what happened? ... Or can you not talk just yet?"
The fact that Spike continued to not respond seemed to be an answer in and of itself.
Discord debated whether he should still try listening in on the little group even if they were trying to keep quiet. Would it still allow him to provide the others with new information?
At the very least it would probably help him know when they reached Amethyst.
As he guided the two ponies through the darkness, Spike urged them to be careful. Dinky couldn't tell how well Highflyer was faring behind her, but she was fighting hard not to cry out as every brush and bump seemed to send needles of pain shooting through the burnt patches on her sides, shoulders, and legs. Not for the first time she wondered what had gone wrong with her travel via messaging. Why had she gotten burned when Highflyer hadn't? Why had—?
"We're here," Spike whispered, startling her back to their current situation. There would be time to worry about what had gone wrong with the teleportation later. Right now her sister was the important thing. Spike lifted the tile, and they looked into the room.
At the sight of Amethyst lying unmoving in the hospital bed with her eyes closed, Dinky thought there must be some sort of mistake. That her sister hadn't wakened from—
But at that moment Amethyst's mouth opened in a great yawn, and her front legs, which until that moment had been lying limply on the bedcovers, went stiff and trembling as she stretched them out. Groaning, she turned her head to the side and yawned again. She brought one hoof up to rub at her eyes, and smacked her lips several times before yawning yet again.
Dinky suddenly remembered that her sister had never been a morning pony. In all their years of sisterhood, Amethyst usually dragged herself sluggishly out of bed and stumbled about like a zombie until she got her first cup of coffee or a similar dose of caffeine. But Amethyst had also never been in a coma before, so how could Dinky know if this familiar sluggishness was a good sign or a bad one?
At that moment she felt a sharp jolt of pain in her burned side as Highflyer nudged it. "Come on, kid."
Turning to the masked stallion, she saw him grab a rope in his teeth and jump down through the hole in the ceiling. He swung himself out over Amethyst's bed and released the rope, landing cat-footed on the floor nearby. His sudden appearance seemed to snap Amethyst out of her grogginess because she flinched and let out a startled yip at the sight of him. Dinky could just imagine how frightening the current situation must be for her sister: suddenly realizing she was in an unfamiliar location and her only companion a masked, tattooed, camo-clad stranger. But they couldn't afford to let her panic.
Dinky grasped the rope and slid down it herself. She didn't have Highflyer's acrobatic skill and ended up landing half on the mattress, half on top of her older sister.
Amethyst let out a short "Ahh!" though whether it was from pain, surprise or both, Dinky couldn't tell. But she did know she couldn't allow her sister to let out a full-blown scream and quickly clamped her hooves over Amethyst's mouth. Her sister's purple eyes bulged and her breath whistled in and out through her nostrils but she made no effort to talk or scream past the hooves covering her mouth. Was this because she recognized Dinky or was she just too scared to make a sound?
"Amethyst—" she started to whisper, but at that moment she heard the room's door creak open. Her head snapped up in that direction in time to see Highflyer launch himself at the door.
Discord's lion paw fingers alternately scrolled up and down over the ink on his paper as he adjusted the volume for both Spike's letter, and the tattoo on the wall of Amethyst's room.
From the latter he heard a startled "Ahh!" which was abruptly cut off.
He heard Dinky whisper "Amethyst—" just before there was a sharp whump! followed by a startled exclamation and a door slamming shut.
There was a rattling sound, like someone trying to work a doorknob. Then a male voice Discord recognized as one of the more antagonistic security guards demanded, "Why'd you lock me out?"
"Uh, we're busy," said a raspy voice Discord recognized as Highflyer's. "Can't be disturbed."
"Who are you?"
"Um, orderly. Go away!" Clearly improv acting was not the tiny wrestler's strongpoint. At least not outside the ring.
"What are your names?!" the security guard demanded.
"Mind your own business!"
Oh, even I could have told you that was a mistake, Discord mentally groaned before the guard responded with: "Hospital security is my business, so the three of you better tell me your names right now!"
"Oh no," Discord heard Spike groan under his breath on the other tattoo strand. "It's him again."
"We're Scram, Beat It, and Get Lost!" Clearly Highflyer had given up any pretense of trying to pass as a legitimate member of the hospital staff.
"Open this door up or I'll break it down!" This was followed by such a loud bang that Discord flinched, his paw crushing the paper out of sheer reflex. The bang was followed by another. And another. Even if the little trio had locked the door, he doubted it would hold very long under those blows.
Then what are you doing just sitting here, listening to it happen?! shouted a small voice in the back of his head that sounded oddly like Derpy's. Do something!
His eyes darted to one of the moth tattoos visible between the bandages on his neck. If he manages to break in there and tries to attack them, spit ink in his eyes! Try to stop him! he mentally urged the tattoo, knowing it would pass his desire on to the one currently playing fly-on-the-wall in Amethyst's room.
That won't stop him for long! shouted the small voice. There must be more you can do! Something to distract him! Something to give him another target!
What can I do?! he mentally shot back, raising his braceleted wrists as far as the restraints would permit. As long as these are on I'm powerless to—!
But at that moment a new idea suddenly popped into his head.
He jerked the twin strands of tattoo out of his ear, allowing them to settle into their usual place across his shoulder. Then he prodded at the sentences on the paper. They reformed into one of his moth tattoos, slithered up his finger, onto the back of his hand, and disappeared under the bracelet on his wrist. That took care of the writing, now to get rid of the paper itself. Even though it was now blank, if the hospital staff found it on him, they might wonder how he had gotten a hold of it. Might watch his actions much more closely.
He raised the paper but suddenly hesitated, realizing that if he got rid of it he would no longer be able to communicate with Fluttershy.
Are you saying that chatting with Fluttershy is more important to you than saving Amethyst's life?! the small voice (that still sounded oddly like Derpy) demanded.
For an instant, he felt exactly that way. But this was followed almost immediately by shame as he suddenly imagined how Fluttershy might react if she ever learned he had risked Amethyst's life just to continue contact with her. As much as he wanted to believe that she'd be flattered, honored even that he valued her more than any other pony ... deep down he knew the absurdly selfless pegasus wouldn't. He grimaced, his forked tongue sticking out from between his teeth. No, he'd already given her enough reasons to despise him. He wouldn't add this one to the list.
So with that, he tossed the paper into his mouth and swallowed it down. It actually didn't taste half bad. Lying back against his pillow, he squeezed his eyes shut and arched his body against the restraining straps, the pressure forcing a loud grunt from him. He lunged in every direction he could until he felt the four beds beneath him shake and rattle. He dug his claws into the mattress and lifted his tail and lower body until he was sure the bed beneath them had left the floor as well. He slammed it back down with a loud bang! He continued to thrash about, groaning loudly all the time. He felt several tubes rip free of his limbs, and heard several machines around him begin beeping wildly.
Dinky felt frozen in place as she watched Highflyer brace his tiny body against the shuddering door. Should she try to help him? Dare she leave Amethyst?
Suddenly there was a new voice from the other side of the door. "Mike, stop abusing that door and get over here! That draconequus has gone crazy and we need your strength to hold him down!"
"But there's ponies we don't know in there with Amethyst!"
"Worry about that later! The sooner we take care of Discord, the sooner you can get back here!"
The security guard—apparently called Mike—let out a low grumbling noise followed by the sound of retreating hooves. Now that there was no more pounding on the door, Dinky noticed shouts and banging coming from another room. Was that Discord making the noise? If so why?
"We better hurry, kid," said Highflyer, who was now slumped against the door rather than braced against it. "They could be back soon and I don't think this door will hold much longer."
Dinky nodded shakily and looked back down at her sister, who surprisingly hadn't moved this whole time. "Amethyst, it's Dinky. Rinky-dink. Remember?"
The purple eyes just stared up at her, so wide she could see her own reflection in them. She had difficulty recognizing herself in the camo jacket and black beret with her newly buzz-cut mane so what chance did Amethyst have? But there was no time to dwell on that now.
"Please listen to me. If a bunch of doctors or anypony else comes in here and asks you questions, tell them you can't remember anything. Act like you don't remember anything no matter what pops into your head. Please, your life and Mom's both depend on it! Don't even trust me unless I give you the code word: Whistler. Understand?"
Yes, yes, come on! Discord mentally urged as he heard ponies burst into his room. Don't go checking on Amethyst! Focus on me! She's just a helpless pony. I'm the one who can actually do any damage. I'm the one you need to worry about!
"What's going on? What's wrong?" he heard several ponies ask, but kept his eyes shut and continued lunging against his restraints.
"He must be having some sort of nightmare," one of the ponies muttered. Then Discord felt multiple hooves shaking him, and heard multiple voices shouted for him to wake up. But he kept his eyes tight shut and continued his wild thrashing about.
"Snap out of it!" a male voice shouted, and a hoof struck him across the face. Still keeping his eyes shut, he swung his head back around and snapped his teeth in the direction the blow had come from. There was a startled shriek and Discord fought to hold back a grin, hoping the sound had come from the offending pony. Though at the same time he was privately relieved that his teeth had only closed on empty air and he hadn't been forced to actually bite down on a piece of pony anatomy.
He felt something grab his horn and antler, forcing his head back but he still continued to struggle as best he could.
"This isn't working. I think we're going to have to sedate him."
"Will that even work if he's in the middle of a bad dream?"
"In his particular case, I'd say it's worth a shot. Hold him still!"
Multiple hooves weighed him down and he felt the familiar sting of a needle as it plunged into the side of his neck.
Ha, worth a shot. Well, I suppose that's one way to look at it. Discord mentally chortled, the unintended pun not lost on him despite the dire situation.
As the drug flooded his system and his fake sleep began to be replaced with the real thing, he could only hope that his attempted distraction had bought Amethyst, Dinky, Highflyer, and Spike the precious time they needed.
Dinky watched desperately for a sign that Amethyst understood, but Amethyst just stared up at her, neither nodding nor shaking her head. Then Dinky felt a hoof on her shoulder and flinched as it put pressure on her burnt flesh. She turned to see Highflyer now at the bedside.
"They're coming back, kid. We gotta go."
It was at that point she noticed the shouting and crashing from earlier had stopped. Turning back to her sister, she leaned in and whispered, "Please! You've got to act like you don't remember anything! Please," she begged, daring to take one hoof away from her sister's muzzle and cup the side of Amethyst's head in a sort of hug. "Please, you've got to." Then she released her sister completely, and reached up to grab the rope still hanging nearby. As she hauled herself up it with Highflyer right behind her, she kept glancing back down at Amethyst, who still lay immobile, watching them go with an unreadable expression. Had it worked? Had any of her words gotten through to Amethyst? The older unicorn hadn't fought, but neither had she given any indication that she understood Dinky's words, or even knew who the younger unicorn was.
Scarcely had Dinky and Highflyer gotten into the ceiling and pulled up the rope behind them, then there was a fierce blow against the door. Amethyst's head snapped toward it, eyes wide and fearful.
"Come on! Open up!" There was another blow against the door and this time a burly earth-pony stallion dressed as a security guard burst into the room. At the sight of him, Spike quickly yanked the ceiling tile back in place, plunging the little trio into darkness.
"What are you doing?!" Highflyer whisper-shouted.
"Back up! Back up!" Spike urged in the same whisper-shout and even though Dinky's instincts urged her not to abandon her sister, she tried to comply when she felt Spike's claw pushing against her chest.
Below them the security guard shouted "All right! Who's in here?!"
"I don't know!" Amethyst shrieked, sounding absolutely terrified. "I don't know! I can't—" Her voice dissolved into frantic sobs. "I can't remember anything!"
The stallion's voice promptly went from angry to placating. "Okay. Okay. It's okay. It's—"
"Mike, don't frighten the girl," said a new female voice.
"I'm not! I—There was someone else in here! They—"
"Well, they must have left while we were busy with Discord because they're not here now."
"But the door—!"
"It was probably accidentally still in the locked position when they went out and got stuck that way when they closed it. It happens."
"Shush!" Then in a much softer, more soothing tone she said, "There now, it's all right, dear. Calm down. Calm down."
She continued to murmur this as Amethyst's sobs slowly subsided to ragged hitching breaths.
"That's it," said the female voice. "You're safe here. Just calm down. We're not going to hurt you. You've been in a coma—No, don't panic. We just want to help you. First we need to check your vitals. Is that okay?"
Amethyst let out a long shuddering breath. "Okay."
There were several minutes of shuffling, rustling and murmuring before Amethyst asked in a soft scared voice, "H-how am I?"
"You still have several healing bruises and your magic hasn't recharged yet, but physically there's no damage that won't heal in time," said a new male voice who Dinky guessed must be one of the doctors.
"Physically?" Amethyst repeated. "Why do you say 'physically'?"
"Because I haven't evaluated you mentally yet."
"Is something wrong with—?!"
"Don't panic. Just let me explain things. There. That's better. Now, from what we've been able to gather, you tried to do a spell that required more magic than you could handle and the backlash from it put you in a coma. You've probably noticed we haven't addressed you by name yet."
"I, uh ... no. I didn't really—"
"Well, the reason we're not using your name is because we need to see if you can remember it and other things on your own. One of the tricky things about magically-induced comas is that they can often result in different types of amnesia. Sometimes everything is wiped out, sometimes just certain chunks of memory, it varies from pony to pony. We need to find out which category your possible amnesia falls into so we can give it the proper treatment. You understand? Good. Now, is there anything you remember? Your name, relatives' names, your occupation, anything."
There was a long silence, then a tremulous "N-no. My mind's a complete blank."
"Hmm. Well, that's actually not too surprising considering you just woke up a little while ago. It's not uncommon for ponies to wake from magically-induced comas initially remembering nothing only to have their memories start coming back later. For some it happens in a few minutes, for others it might be a couple of hours. There's not really any cause for concern unless a full day passes with none of your memories returning. If that turns out to be the case, we can use various methods to jog your memory, but for now I recommend you just take it easy. We'll bring you something to eat, then I want you to rest. Don't try to force your brain to remember things, okay dear? Let it work at its own pace. We're going to give you some privacy now, but don't worry. You're safe here. Somepony will be in to check on you from time to time, and the call button is right here if you need anything."
"Okay," Amethyst murmured.
There was a shuffling of hoofsteps, then the male voice that had just been talking said, "Mike, that includes you. Come on."
"Oh. Yeah," said the security guard, sounding startled. "Uh, hey," he continued, suddenly sounding oddly bashful. "Am—uh, I mean ... Uh, listen. I'm sorry if I scared you earlier. I know you don't really know any of us right now, but we're ... fine. We're ... okay. I'm okay. We're just trying to help you get better. Sooo ... Uhhh ... I guess just before I go ... um ... Are we good?"
"We're..." Amethyst hesitated for several seconds, "good. Thank you."
The security guard made a noise that sounded like a mix between a laugh and a relieved sigh. "I'm Mike by the way. In case you didn't catch that earlier."
"Oh, yeah. Sorry about that. I actually do know your name. And though I'm not allowed to tell you it, I can at least tell you it's a real pretty name."
"What was that about?" Highflyer muttered after they heard the security guard shut the door.
"I don't know," said Spike. "That guy's been hovering around Amethyst every chance he gets, but I don't know if he's a pony or a changeling. He's never tried to hurt her, but that might change now that she's awake."
The little trio lifted the tile just a crack to peek down at Amethyst. Now alone, she was glancing about her while fidgeting with the edge of her hospital blanket.
"Should we try talking to her again?" Dinky whispered.
"We should probably let Twilight know what's happened first," Spike whispered back. "See what she thinks." He slid the tile back into place, then pulled the crumpled letter from his pocket and aimed the flashlight beam at it. As he smoothed out the wrinkles, his eyes darted over the snippets of the conversation the paper had managed to pick up here and there. They didn't paint a very clear picture of recent events if at all.
"Hey," he whispered cautiously to the paper. "Twilight, you there?"
The words already on the paper swarmed together to reform into his whispered question. A beat later a response appeared just below it.
Twilight: "Spike! Are you alright? What happened?!"
"Quite a bit actually. For starters, Dinky came through with her clothes on fire."
This was greeted with such a chorus of alarm that the tattoo ink had trouble keeping up with them.
Spike quickly cut in with: "Don't worry! We managed to beat out the flames before it got too bad." And he proceeded to fill them in on what had happened since Discord's first announcement regarding Amethyst.
He had just finished the part about Highflyer's confrontation with the security guard, when Screwjob jumped in.
Screwjob: "High, you always did stink at defusing a tense situation."
"Oh, like you're such a shining example of how to do it." Highflyer muttered.
Screwjob: "Hmm. Touché, son. My a cup ah."
Twilight: "I think you mean mea culpa."
Screwjob: "Yeah, that too. So, Spike, what was the payoff to this, uh, standoff?"
"Actually the guard got called away just as he was trying to break down the door. They mentioned something about Discord going crazy."
Crazy? Fluttershy stared at Spike's words. Come to think of it, the draconequus had been oddly silent this whole time.
The words on the paper suddenly swirled together into a moth. Its wings stretched out until they almost filled the paper, and the designs on them transformed into words. Thank you for calling. Discord is not here right now. If you would like to leave a message—
Before the words on the moth's right wing could be completed, this wing was suddenly knocked aside like a curtain and an inky dragon head identical to Discord's tattoo emerged from behind it. The dragon shot a shower of ink onto the paper just below it and this shower formed the following words:
Discord is currently unavailable for comment, having been forcibly sedated while causing commotion to draw the hospital staff's general attention away from Amethyst.
Fluttershy felt her breath hitch. "You mean he was distracting them to help the others?"
The dragon's message reformed into her question. The dragon tattoo moved its head as if preparing to nod when the moth's wing suddenly flopped back into place, hiding the dragon from view. Now the moth's wings bore only two words: Of course!
Fluttershy felt a sudden mixture of concern for her former partner's current condition and a sort of pride that he had attempted to help Amethyst.
But before she could dwell on this very long, the moth unraveled, turning into new words.
Spike: "Well, I guess that explains that." And he continued relaying what had happened, wrapping up with: "Amethyst seems to be alright for now, but I'm not sure where we should go from here."
Dinky: "Yeah, and I don't know if she was just faking amnesia because I told her to, or if it was genuine."
"Hmm, yes," Twilight murmured and though the words appeared on the paper, she seemed to be talking more to herself than anypony else. "That's what we need to find out before we attempt anything else..."
"You have an idea there?" Skywishes asked.
"I might. Dinky, if Amethyst was faking her amnesia, it might be because she didn't know if anypony around her was a disguised changeling or not."
"Don't I know what that's like," Applejack muttered with a shiver.
"Is there something you could tell her—something only the two of you would know—that would prove to her you're really her sister?"
Dinky: "Let me see ... Sparky."
Dinky: "It was a nickname Mom and I gave her. Like how they'll sometimes call me Rinky-dink. But Amethyst never liked it, so we stopped using it pretty quick. I don't think any of us have even mentioned it in years."
"And Spike, did we ever send any paper through without some type of ink on it? Even an unsigned envelope?"
Spike: "I don't ... think so. Newspapers, books, letters..."
"And the scrolls we wrapped Dinky and Highflyer in were all covered with a lot of my old notes and calculations for the HAB," added Skywishes. "You think that might be significant?"
"Possibly. I'm trying to narrow down what went wrong with Dinky's teleportation. When we wrapped up Highflyer we took our time and made sure no part of him was visible. But when we did the same for Dinky, we were in much more of a hurry and I'm afraid we got a bit sloppy."
Spike: "So you think when she came through on my side, my fire caught on whatever bits of her were visible through gaps in her wrappings?"
"Yes, but it also occurred to me: what if Highflyer's tattoos and Dinky's lack of them was the deciding factor? I'm pretty sure the former is the reason ... but we have to be absolutely sure for this idea of mine to work."
"Alright, this should be a good spot," said Spike as he guided Highflyer and Dinky to a more open area of the ductwork similar to where they'd first appeared.
Twilight: "Good. Here comes the blank paper."
Spike felt the familiar burning in his gut and belched out a burst of flames. Out tumbled a rolled up scroll. Completely unscorched. That solved one issue.
Spike picked up the scroll and unrolled it. "Ready, High?"
Highflyer nodded. He showed no fear though whether that was just due to the mask he wore hiding the majority of his features Dinky couldn't be sure.
"On the count of three," said Highflyer, getting down into a starting position. Spike nodded, moved back several paces and held up the open scroll so that it formed a barrier between him and the stallion.
"One. Two. Three!"
Highflyer sprang forward, sprinting the short distance toward Spike and just as he came in contact with the scroll, the small dragon flamed on the other side of it. Dinky recoiled, squeezing her eyes shut as the flames surrounded Highflyer. When the fire disappeared there was no longer any sign of either the scroll or the stallion.
Spike pulled the letter from his pocket. "Did it work?"
Dinky hurried to his side to look over his shoulder at the letter.
Highflyer: "Present and accounted for. I've got some burns on my hooves but they were just from beating out the kid's clothes earlier."
Twilight: "Here comes the scroll back."
"Might want to back up, kid," Spike warned. Dinky obeyed and the dragon belched out a second burst of flames. He caught the scroll and unrolled it. "Ready?"
Dinky eyed the paper uneasily. Sure, Highflyer had made it through fine, but he'd also done so before only for her to try the same thing and end up burned.
She shook herself. "Okay. On the count of three again. One. Two. Three!"
Squeezing her eyes shut, she raced forward. I'm going to get burned again! I'm going to get burned again! I'm going to get burned again!
Suddenly she felt a harsh blast of heat, and the next moment she was tumbling across a hard wooden floor, yelping as it struck her burned sides. She came to a stop with a groan.
"Kid, let me look at you."
She opened her eyes to see Highflyer's masked face above her. She silently let him check her over and vaguely heard him report to the other ponies that she hadn't gotten any new burns.
It ... worked. her brain cheered weakly. The next moments were a hazy blur for the teenager as she and Highflyer both had their burns tended to. It had probably only been an hour at the most since she had demanded Twilight send her through to Amethyst but the constant fear and tension she'd experienced in that time had left her exhausted.
"Dinky, we need you. Spike's in position."
She gathered up her remaining energy and focused on the paper Twilight was holding out to her. "Sparky, it's Whistler. Just whisper your words to this paper and I'll see them on my end."
There was a long pause. Then the ink tentatively scratched out:
Amethyst: "Um ... hello? Rinky-dink?"
"Amethyst, I know I told you to act like you didn't remember anything, but now I—we need to know ... Do you really not remember anything?"
Once again there was a long silence before Amethyst finally responded.
Amethyst: "I remember everything. It all came rushing back while the doctor was examining me. Highflyer showing up. Those disguised changelings capturing us. Ghastly Gorge ... Mom." Suddenly the words seemed to blur as if stained by water. "Dinky, do you know what's happened to Mom? The last thing I remember is seeing her in the cave, with her body all..."
"She's alive, Amethyst! She's at the same hospital you're at now. Her body's still all ... um, well, you know ... like you saw it last. But the doctors have figured out a way to keep her alive while they try to find a spell to fix her."
With the other ponies' help Dinky filled her sister in on what had happened since her desperate attempt to save their mother had put her in a coma.
Finally it was Twilight's turn. "Amethyst, I have a plan to help your mother, but we can't do it without your help—"
Amethyst: "What do I do?"
"Amethyst, it's going to be dangerous—"
Amethyst: "I don't care! I'll give my life if it'll save Mom!"
The conviction in this statement was so clear even in written form that Twilight needed a moment to absorb it. "All right. Here's what you need to do."
Ding! Ding! Ding! Amethyst's call button went insistently until a unicorn doctor hurried into the room. With Mike the mysterious security guard right behind him.
"What's wrong, dear?" asked the doctor.
"Nothing." said Amethyst, then promptly seemed to reconsider. "I mean—Well, I'm not sure. But I needed to tell you that I'm remembering things. At least some things."
"Really?" The doctor used his magic to lift a clipboard. "Tell me what you remember."
"Well, I remember who I am. My name's Amethyst Star. My mother's name is Derpy. Well, actually the name on her birth certificate is Muffins, but nopony ever calls her that. They all call her 'Derpy.' When she was born her mother had a craving for muffins, the doctors thought she was naming the foal, and her mother never bothered to correct it. That's one of the reasons she just let the Derpy nickname stick. She felt it fit better than her actual name.
"Oh, and she and my dad—" Her expression suddenly fell. "He's gone. Died years ago." She cleared her throat as if trying to compose herself before going on. "Um, what I was going to say was that they weren't really my biological parents. They adopted me, but I wouldn't trade them for any others. Oh, and they had a biological daughter who was born a couple years after I was adopted. My little sister. Dinky Doo." She looked back up. "Does she and Mom know I'm here? Can I see them?"
The doctor's expression, which had been looking hopeful as he jotted down notes, suddenly went grave. "Before I answer that I have to ask you: what's your most recent memory?"
"I remember coming home from a pretty uneventful day at work, going to bed ... Then the next thing I know I woke up here when Mike came in yelling."
The guard looked away as if embarrassed.
"Hmm. Interesting," the doctor murmured as he went back to jotting notes. "You don't seem to have any memory of the events that resulted in your coma, but you can recall not only your name, but specific details like the fact that your mother generally goes by a nickname, the origin of that nickname, and the fact that you're adopted while your younger sibling isn't."
"Well, about my mom and sister. Can't I see them?" She frowned at his hesitance. "Is something wrong?"
He lowered his clipboard. "Amethyst, I don't think now is the best time to—"
"Has something happened to them?" she pleaded, the fearful desperation in her voice growing at every word. "Were they hurt by whatever put me in a coma? Tell me, please!"
The doctor let out a resigned breath. "All right. I'll tell you, but it won't be easy to hear. Especially in your current condition.
"We don't know what's happened to your sister. She disappeared around the time you showed up here and no one has seen her since. And your mother ... she's here but she's ... not in the best shape."
"Why? Is she in a coma like I was?"
"No. It'd be easier if she was." He seemed to need a moment to brace himself, then plunged on. "Her whole body's been turned inside out."
Amethyst's hoof flew to her mouth.
"We've set up a system to keep her alive, but we haven't found a way to reverse her condition yet."
Amethyst sat further up as if intending to get out of bed. "I need to see her."
"I don't think that's—"
"Please. I need to ... I need to see how you're keeping her alive. I need to understand."
It was the buzzing sensation from the moth tattoo hiding beneath the shackle on his right wrist that woke Discord. The signal of an incoming message. He tried to move in his restraints but they were now so tight it was almost impossible.
"Don't bother," said a sharp voice, and he managed to turn his head enough to see several members of the hospital staff watching him warily. "We've tightened those straps so that you can't give a repeat performance of last time."
Discord squinted, his mind still foggy. Last time...? Then his memories all came flooding back. Amethyst waking up. His attempt to buy her and the others some time before the hospital staff burst in on them. Had it worked? How could he even know when he now had no way to receive his friends' message—
Suddenly the buzzing on his wrist was replaced with an odd tickling sensation on the underside of his right forearm. As if something were being written there!
"So you want to tell us what you were dreaming about?" asked the pony who had spoken earlier, one of the nurses.
"Dreaming?" Discord asked, feigning confusion, then made a show of remembering. "Oh! Oh, I tell you it was absolutely horrible! I dreamt I was being forced to organize a spice rack. In alphabetical order no less!"
For an instant the pony looked surprised, then disdainful. "Yes, that definitely sounds terrible."
"Oh, finally. A kindred spirit." Discord responded in mock jubilation. "Where have you been all this time?"
She snorted scornfully. "Don't flatter yourself."
"Flatter myself? If anything I'm flattering you, and selling myself short."
She muttered something that sounded suspiciously like "Oh, barf." But Discord's flippancy had the desired effect because the group soon decided if he had the energy to behave that way, he wasn't in a bad enough shape to warrant close watching. However they made no move to loosen any of his now extra-tight straps.
"You've gotten strong enough and dangerous enough they have to stay like that until you're officially moved to prison."
"Yes, yes," Discord muttered, while at the same time mentally screaming: Get! Out!
As soon as the staff were gone, he turned his right wrist in the confines of its restraint enough to see the underside of his forearm, and the writing his tattoo had printed there.
Fluttershy: "Sit tight, Discord. We're going to bust you, Derpy, and Amethyst out of there and bring you back with us to the TreeHAB."