An old threat is back, leading Fluttershy and Discord to confront their plans for the future. They've each been keeping secrets...
The final chapter of the trilogy: Sombra must be released. If they're going to reform him, Fluttershy and Discord need to stand together—but they've each been keeping secrets. And when those secrets come out, the world turns upside down.
And Twilight has an aneurysm.
(Sex tag for occasional implications. Gore tag for the penultimate chapter only.)
“Goodnight room. Goodnight moon. Goodnight cow jumping over the moon.” Fluttershy’s smile widened just a twinkle when the illustrated cow sailed over the illustrated moon and disappeared again behind the illustrated picture frame.
“Moon!” declared a squeaking voice, pointing with a little black hoof.
“That’s right, Fio. That’s the moon.” A dusky plum hoof pointed elsewhere on the page, where the flame inside the illustrated lantern had just begun to flicker. “Yes, Corey. Goodnight light...” Fluttershy kept reading. The kittens swatted at each other when it was their turn to be bid goodnight, and when the little old granny turned to look outside her page, lifted a hoof to her lips, and actually whispered “hush” on cue, the foals tucked under Fluttershy’s arms each grew very still.
“Goodnight stars, goodnight air...” Fluttershy paused to giggle.
“Goodnight noises everywhere,” finished a new voice. The illustrated creature lying in the bed with a comically-oversized nightcap was no longer the fluffy little bunny of the previous pages. After he spoke the last line, he sat up into three dimensions.
The twins’ drooping eyes brightened at once and they exclaimed in unison: “Daddy!”
Chuckling heartily at their enthusiasm, Discord flew out of the book and grew back to his accustomed dimensions to stand before his family. Fio and Corey raced to wriggle away from Fluttershy and launch themselves at their daddy. Discord caught them both mid-flight and squeezed them into a hug. “And how are my favorite little bringers-of-chaos this evening? Daddy missed you!”
The garnet-coated foal, Fio, replied simply and eloquently with a delighted squeal. Meanwhile, his frosty-pale lavender brother Corey did not deign to answer the question, pointing instead at the disheveled pile of papers on the coffeetable and commanding “Daddy! Look!”
“Well then, what do we have here?” All in one swift motion, Discord transferred the foals to the grip of his tails—he suddenly grew an extra so each foal could have its own tail—and bent forward to examine the papers. His tails curled up until the twins were both dangling above his head and giggling with abandon. “Why, this is art indeed!” Discord picked up the top page and held it before his and his sons’ faces. “That angelic lump of yellow must of course be Mommy. And this majestic mop of aubergine holding her hoof must be you, Corey!” Corey’s giggles redoubled in affirmation. “Very good, very good. I see a steaming pile of gray goo, and it’s smiling most hideously. Is that meant to be me, oh son of mine?” Discord’s tail jiggled Corey up and down and the colt nodded. “I approve. But Corey—what is that angry scar of red dancing around off to the side, there?”
Corey could hardly speak through his laughter, but he managed to sputter “Fio!”
The named brother immediately burst “No, no! Daddy, see mine!”
Discord set down Corey’s drawing and tossed both foals in the air, where they levitated. Then he unceremoniously crashed down onto the sofa, swung an arm around Fluttershy’s shoulders, and set the foals down in each of their laps. When all was settled, he picked up the next drawing, and Fio didn’t wait for Discord to figure out what he was looking at.
“A bear! He’s gonna get the chicken! See, see? The moon—the chicken didn’t see him!”
“My, what a clever bear to be hunting at night,” observed Discord.
Fluttershy wasn’t so satisfied with the scene. “Fio, dear, the bear doesn’t have to sneak around at night to hunt chickens. Bears eat lots of other things like berries, and roots, and mushrooms. Why not draw a bear finding a nice berry bush instead?”
“’Cuz the bear is me! I like chicken!” Fluttershy had to catch herself from flinching when her son’s enthused declaration exposed his nascent fangs to glint in the lamplight.
Fortunately for her, Discord cut in, lifting the foal upside down and chuckling dismissively. “Oh ho ho, well, I agree chickens are very nice to look at! They’re even very nice to chase around every once in a while, as long as you’re not too mean about it, but any son of mine knows that little Fiorellos are ponies, and chickens are not pony food!”
“I know, Daddy,” offered Corey.
Discord nodded. “And you, little scallywag?” He dangled Fio right in front of his face and wiggled his eyebrows up and down.
Fio couldn’t contain himself and started laughing.
“Eh, good enough,” conceded Discord. Then he stood up, shifting his grip on Fio to cradle him more securely in the crook of an arm. “Alrighty then, my gremlins! Time for bed!” Discord began marching upstairs despite the squeaky protests bubbling from the charge in his arms.
The more composed Corey made no such protestations but instead looked to his mother and raised his arms in an “up!” gesture. Fluttershy used a wing to shift her son onto her back as she climbed off the sofa. It had taken until just a year ago for her wings to finally feather out again, and she suspected Corey asked to ride on her back all the time now because he was especially fond of the softness of her remiges. Previously, her wings had been bare and webbed like a bat’s as she continued to recover from the ordeal with the biological father of her children. With the exception of an uncomfortable moon when she couldn’t fly at all due to the changes in her wings, the five years since her precious foals had been born had been a time of contentment such as Fluttershy had hardly dared to hope for.
And one of the biggest reasons for that persisting contentment despite the chaos of caring for two young foals was now standing beside her, tucking their sons to bed and giving each of them a kiss. When the light had been turned off and Mommy and Daddy had left the room, Fluttershy turned to Discord and lowered her voice to just above a whisper. “Are you going to kiss me goodnight too?”
Discord smirked and matched her tone. “Well, you’ve got to be in bed for me to do that!”
Fluttershy’s adoring stare turned impish. No sooner had she whispered “Race you!” than she sprang into flight and dove down the hallway toward their bedroom door. The distance seemed to stretch out before her, and as she realized Discord must have altered the spatial plane, he pulled up beside her and with a grin, inched into the lead. The door ahead swung open of its own accord and Fluttershy flapped faster until she managed to sail into the room just ahead of Discord. She immediately arced downward, intending to crash on the bed.
But Discord was already there, lying on his back with his arms stretched wide to receive her. The crash landing was softer than Fluttershy had prepared for, and she opened her eyes to find that she was mere inches from Discord’s face. Not waiting even a moment for her panting to subside, Fluttershy eagerly closed the distance.
After a few minutes, the pair settled down to catch their breath, with Fluttershy still lying stretched across Discord’s stomach and now resting her head in the fluffy fur of his chest. At length, she broke the quiet. “Well, dear, how was the show today?”
“Oh,” muttered Discord, absently drawing his fingers through Fluttershy’s mane. “There were some dignitaries in the audience today, so Spitfire didn’t want any surprises. She specifically instructed Dash and I not to improvise, so we didn’t.”
“Okay, I may have thrown in an extra lightning bolt or two, and there’s a slight chance one of them may have singed just the tip of that Soarin’ creep’s tail...”
Fluttershy lifted her head to meet Discord’s eyes with a look of mock disdain. “Discord! How could you allow yourself to be so reckless?”
“Oh it wasn’t reckless, I assure you. It was entirely premeditated! Have you seen the way he checks out Dashie when he thinks nopony’s looking? Why, I don’t trust him as far as he could throw me! Anyway, enough about my stifled creativity. How were the foals while I was out?”
“No more or less chaotic than usual. Corey wandered off during our nature walk while I was trying to stop Fio from eating a dragonfly. I just don’t understand why that colt chose carnivory of all things to obsess over! Then when I couldn’t find Corey, Fio levitated himself to get an aerial view.”
Discord paused from stroking Fluttershy’s mane. “He levitated himself?”
Fluttershy huffed. “Yes. Oh, I was so worried! I flew right up and caught him out of the air, but of course he thought that was hilarious, and no amount of scolding could convince him to feel sorry.”
“It might be time to take them back to Twilight for another magic lesson. Where did you find Corey?”
“In a mole tunnel! Thank the elements Fio pointed out the trail of dissected flowers he left. Fio levitating, Corey shrinking himself—what’s a poor pegasus to do?” Fluttershy shook her head and dropped her muzzle back into Discord’s comforting fluff.
It was all Discord could do to stifle his laughter so as not to wake the sleeping delinquents down the hall. Once he had gotten control of himself, he resumed his stroking. “You know, I thought I would miss the terrible twos when the twins got older, but they’re still delightfully troublesome, and each year gets better and better! Would you like a break? I can take a turn staying home with the foals tomorrow if you want to get out of the house.”
“What, and miss all the fun? Not a chance.” Fluttershy smiled warmly at her mate, and he smiled back.
Then he froze, and Discord’s warm smile chilled like an expression carved into stone.
His response was to wordlessly summon a mirror and lift up his hand to better display the pink hairs draped over his fingers.
Fluttershy squinted at her reflection, but couldn’t see anything remarkable. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s this one.” Discord levitated a single hair up and let the rest fall.
“Oh.” Now she could see it. “That’s really nothing to be concerned about, Discord.”
He held the hair between his fingers and would not lift his gaze from it. “Yes it is. I’ve lived in pony society long enough to know that one silver hair will become many, and not long after that...” There was suddenly a disembodied sound of a bell clanging out a solemn and desolate peal. It made Discord flinch, dropping the offending hair, and he looked at his hands as if surprised to have conjured the sound.
Now Fluttershy grew worried. She moved off Discord to sit beside him and kept her eyes on his. “While that may be how things go, it’s not nearly as quick of a process as you make it sound.”
“Maybe to you it’s not!” He slithered up to levitate as he fretted. “Even if it takes another hundred years, what is a mere century in the context of the countless millennia I’ve seen? Why, the blink of an eye! The beat of a heart! The belch of a bee!” A carton of dill pickle ice cream appeared in front of Discord, and he fell upon it and began devouring as if his formerly-immortal life depended on it.
Fluttershy flew up beside him and laid a hoof on the arm holding the spoon until it stopped moving and Discord looked at her again. Slowly, gently, she took the spoon. It and the carton of ice cream instantly dissolved into bubbles.
Then Discord grabbed her and held her before him. “I don’t want to lose you! And, almost as much, I don’t want to lose myself. I’m scared, Fluttershy! I don’t want to die. I don’t want you to die.”
Insisting on the distance of that inevitable event obviously wasn’t going to help. Fluttershy regarded the intensity in Discord’s expression for a moment, then slowly called forth a reply. “Discord… It’s been a year or so since your last research excursion. I promise I can handle the foals if you want to spend a few days looking into immortality magic again.”
Discord’s intensity broke. He closed his eyes and lowered himself and Fluttershy back onto the bed. “I do want to. But I don’t want to leave you either, not when I have such precious little time with you! And Fio and Corey! I don’t know, I… I’ll be fine.”
“Jellyfish. And lobsters.”
“Fluttershy, you know I love spontaneity, but—”
“You told me about all your immortality research on magical beings. But have you ever looked into the non-magical ones? There are a few creatures like jellyfish and lobsters that have a kind of natural immortality. You might learn something from them. Are you sure it wouldn’t make you feel better just to go chase one tiny little lead?”
Discord hugged Fluttershy. “This is one of a million ger-billion reasons I love you. Alright, I’ll go look into sea creatures tonight, and I’ll be back tomorrow morning in time for breakfast and a whole day of domestic bliss with you and our little mongrels. Sound good?”
Fluttershy reached up and gave him a quick kiss. “See you in the morning, my love.”
Discord kissed her in return and bid his adieu. After he disappeared, Fluttershy tossed and turned and fell into fitful, lonely slumber.
Fluttershy woke to the pummelling of two sets of little hooves.
“Mommy, Daddy, play!” Fio shouted, as he bounced on the bed.
“Play, play!” Echoed Corey. Then both foals suddenly stopped and changed their tune to “Daddy? Daddy?” as they nosed around in the blankets.
Fluttershy sat up and rubbed her eyes, struggling to force herself awake after a poor night of sleep. Then she corralled her foals to herself. “He’s not here, my loves. Daddy had to go on a little mission. He’ll be back soon.”
Fio shoved himself away from his mother with enough force to fling himself back onto his rump. His pudgy forelegs crossed defiantly. “Daddy’s always not here!”
“Well,” Fluttershy reasoned, climbing off the bed and extending a wing so Corey could clamber onto her back, “he promised me he’d be back for breakfast. Maybe if we go start cooking, he’ll come back faster! What do you say, Fio?”
“Come now, little flower!” Fluttershy fluffed her wings invitingly. “The mommy-train is all ready to leave the station! If you hurry, we might even open a jar of zap apple jam!”
At that, Fio instantly encased his whole body in his golden aura and lobbed himself through the air toward Fluttershy, spurting out an arc of drool in his wake. Panic made Fluttershy flick up a wing just in time to catch her careening child and direct his fall safely into the cushion of her down feathers.
“Fiorello Garnet Dusk!” She scolded. “You must be more careful! You could have gotten hurt!”
But her two offspring had already burst out laughing together and did not hear. Fluttershy just sighed, resettled her wings and the foals between them, and set off for the kitchen.
The first thing she did when they got there was place each colt in his own high chair. The second thing she did was retrieve two frozen strawberries from the freezer and set one before each of her sons. The third thing she did was set the kettle on the stove and dig out her strongest black tea from the back of the cupboard.
“Can I have it too?”
The little voice was right in Fluttershy’s ear, and she squeaked in surprise, dropping her bag of tea as she spun around. “Coreopsis! Just what do you think you’re doing?” She hurriedly snatched her levitating son out of the air and moved to put him back in his high chair.
“Fio did it!”
“Yes, I know he did, but he shouldn’t have, and neither should you. Stay here and munch on your strawberry, okay? Mommy will have some pancakes ready in a few minutes.”
“Pancakes in a few minutes?” Whined a new voice. “Why not waffles right now?” Warm, steaming waffles instantly began blooming everywhere—from the countertop, from the ceiling light, even from Fluttershy’s forehead.
“Daddy! Daddy!” Chanted the twins in unison, laughing at the feast and the menagerie of hungry little animals ithad suddenly it attracted into the kitchen.
Fluttershy found herself in a hug, and a moment later, an extra large cup of perfectly brewed, extra dark black tea was pressed into her hooves. “Discord, you’re back,” she cheered, sounding almost as excited as her foals. “These two are full of mischief this morning.”
“I’m glad to hear it! Although, you do look a little worn down for so early in the day, my dear.”
“That’s because I am,” she replied, taking a deep drink of her tea. “But I’ll be alright. Did you find anything in your research?”
“As a matter of fact, I did! Lobsters seem to be able to repair themselves at a cellular level, which might work great for you once I figure out just how they do it, and whether the substance or process responsible is compatible with your biology. The jellyfish way seems less likely, since their immortality arises from their ability to revert to an immature polyp stage, and you don’t have a polyp stage. And clams… I didn’t have the patience to figure out if they were immortal or just aging really, really slowly. I might be able to get you clam-like longevity by lowering your metabolism—how would you feel about being cold-blooded?”
“I… what?” Fluttershy dismissed the ridiculous question with a vigorous shake of her head. “Discord, you sound like you’ve been hanging out with Twilight!”
Discord lifted his paw and caught the flung waffle out of the air, resulting in an eruption of giggles from the twins who had conspired to launch it. “I may have enlisted her help. She insisted she didn’t mind and could manage without one night of sleep!”
“Oh dear,” Fluttershy murmured, moving to wipe whipped cream from Fio’s chin. “I might like to pay her a visit this afternoon, just to check in on her...”
“Cold-blooded!” Fio announced with a spray of half-chewed food.
“What of it?” Discord challenged, moving to wipe soggy waffle chunks from Fluttershy’s besoiled face.
It was Corey, rather than Fio, who responded. “What’s it mean?”
Fluttershy, once she was clean, leaned down and scooped a tiny lizard into her hoof. She held him up to display it before her foals and used him to illustrate her simple definition. Once she’d finished and set Mr. Scales back down to continue munching on a discarded piece of waffle, the twins both stared at her with deep, glittering eyes.
Then Fio’s lips formed that dreaded word: “Why?”
Fluttershy froze. Answering that question would lead into a labyrinth of explanations that often left her questioning what she really knew about the world. Whether it was possible to really know anything. Whether it could truly be said that there was even a genuine world to talk about, rather than an imagined complex of absurdity that her solitary, irrational mind had invented in order to give meaning to a fundamentally random and meaningless existence. Whether her own existence could even be said to be…
Detecting Fluttershy’s rapid descent toward delirium, Discord whispered “I got this” into her ear and swept the foals up into a sphere of his magic, where he could confront the challenge to parental sanity out of earshot from her. Fluttershy snapped to herself after a moment and watched Discord battle fiercely against the insatiable flames of toddler curiosity. All the while, she kept thinking fondly—What would I ever do without him?
The uneaten waffles had all been gathered into the basket of scraps to later be fed to the chickens and the mug of black tea had been emptied by the time a battered Discord and his triumphant sons emerged back into the kitchen. Corey in particular was a whirlwind of excitement.
“Mommy, mommy,” he panted, twirling in circles on the floor, “did you know? So many animals are cold-blooded! But we’re special! All the animals are groups and we have our group and it’s warm-blooded but all the groups are different specials and so many ways to live! So many ways!”
Fluttershy caught her speeding child and gave him a hug. “Yes, that’s right. Every creature is special in its own way, and that’s a wonderful thing.” She continued stroking Corey’s mauve mane as she looked up to smile at Discord, who was gently tossing a laughing Fio from paw to claw. “I don’t know what went on between you three up there, but good job, and thank you.”
“I also told them we’d all go visit Auntie Twilight later today, and if they’re extra good for her, she might teach them a little more magic.”
Discord stopped tossing Fio and dangled the foal upside-down before his face. “Yes, son-of-mine?”
“What’s immer… immer-talty?”
“Immer… what are you talking about?”
“You said ‘jellyfish’ and then immertalty!”
“Immertalty!” Corey echoed.
Fluttershy stopped stroking her son and let him squirm out of her arms. “They heard you say immortality. Should we tell them?”
Naturally, a squeaky duet of “tell, tell!” proceeded from the twins. Discord shrugged and snapped his fingers. The four of them all appeared on the grassy lawn behind the cottage, but Fio and Corey were completely unperturbed by the change in scenery and kept up their chanting.
Fluttershy sighed and lifted a hoof to quiet her sons. They would need to know eventually. “Alright, my flowers, I’ll tell you about immortality.” The foals were instantly quiet and sat themselves in front of their mother. “Immortality is when you live forever. Most creatures do not have immortality. They grow up and get old, and when they’ve lived for a very long time, they get tired and say goodbye to the world, and then they go away and never come back. But there are some creatures, like jellyfish and lobsters, that might live forever. We call them immortal. Not everycreature can be immortal, because then no one would ever go away and the world would get so full, nocreature would even be able to move! That’s why most of us are mortal. We get old, and eventually, we go away to make room for others.”
Fio jumped up. “Mommy, are you immortal?”
“No, dearest. Even I’ll go away one day, but not for a very, very long time.”
Undisturbed by the thought, Fio spun around and faced Discord. “Daddy, are you immortal?”
Discord locked eyes with Fluttershy for a second. Neither of them moved. Then Discord gave a little smile and picked up his inquisitive foal. “Not anymore. Daddy used to be immortal, but then he met Mommy, and Fio,” here he picked up the other foal too, “and Corey, and he loved them all so much, he decided he didn’t want to live forever. When you all go away, I would be all alone, and then I would be sad. So I made myself mortal too.” Only Fluttershy noticed the glistening at the corner of Discord’s eyes when he finished.
Corey reached over and prodded Fio. “Are we immortal?”
“Yes, yes, I don’t want to go away! Daddy, are Corey and me immortal?”
“I wouldn’t count on it, sport...”
“But you’re Daddy! Mommy always says we’re just like Daddy!”
Corey nodded enthusiastically to his brother’s claim. “Yeah! Just like Daddy! Same group!”
“Same group!” Fio repeated. Then they chanted the phrase together, as they so often did when they felt their parents’ nonsense needed to be defeated.
Fluttershy cleared the look of horror from her face. She didn’t want to pursue this conversation any further. Then she looked around and spotted a friendly distraction. “Hey, kids, want to know who else is in our warm-blooded group?”
Corey dropped the chant first and levitated out of Discord’s arms. “Who?” Fio was quick to follow suit, and both foals dropped themselves onto the ground, bounced to their hooves, and ran after Fluttershy.
Fluttershy gestured underneath the bush in front of her. “Angel Bunny!”
The foals tackled the rabbit, chanting “same group” again over Angel’s squealing protests.
Fluttershy and her family visited Twilight at court in the afternoon. Between subject hearings, their princess promised to close court within an hour and bid them to wait for her in the south drawing room. There, Discord stretched himself out into a long, curling racetrack and summoned a miniature carriage for each of the twins to keep them occupied. The two set about racing their toys down Discord’s flattened spine until one of them won and the other angrily bumped the winner’s carriage off the track.
“Boom!” Corey bellowed. “You fell in the fire! You have to go away ‘cuz you’re mortal!”
Fluttershy moved to intervene when Fio screeched, but then he started laughing. “No fair! We have t’ start over! I’m mortal, you’re immortal. I have t’ cross the finish line!”
“And I try t’ push you in the fire! Ready set go!” With the new rules set, the game continued.
A minute later, Twilight pushed into the room. “Hey, everycreature! Sorry to keep you all waiting.”
Before she could continue, the twins rushed at her, their toy carriages in tow.
“Auntie Twilight! Corey’s immortal!” Fio pointed at his brother’s toy.
“And Fio’s not!” laughed Corey, pointing in turn.
Twilight’s greeting smile immediately dropped, and she looked helplessly at Fluttershy and the newly-reinflated Discord. “Uhhh…”
Discord explained. “They heard about the research and started asking questions. We decided to tell them.”
“They’re talking about the toys,” Fluttershy added. “Corey’s carriage is immortal, and Fio’s carriage is not.”
Twilight looked relieved. “Ah. Phew! Okay. Corey, Fio, carriages aren’t alive, so you can’t really say whether they’re immortal or not. But they’re both very pretty carriages!”
Fio bounced beside Twilight’s hooves as she continued further into the room. “Auntie Twilight, Daddy says he was immortal and then he stopped. He says Corey and I are mortal, and I say we aren’t ‘cuz he’s our Daddy!”
“Same group!” Corey helpfully added.
Twilight frowned at Fluttershy, who winced in reply. “I’m not sure that’s how that works, kiddos...”
Fio scowled. “But Mommy said foals are just like mommies and daddies, and—”
“OKAY FOLKS, that’s enough about that!” Discord darted forward to snatch up the foals, then set them down in front of himself and facing Twilight. “Corey, Fio, why don’t you show Auntie Twilight your new magic trick?”
The twins were eager to oblige and both immediately levitated themselves off the floor. Discord caught Fio when his magic flickered out, while Corey set himself down on Twilight’s back. Their honorary aunt then proceeded to give the twins a magic lesson, jotting down a few simple exercise ideas so Fluttershy and Discord could coach the two through practice at home. It was just about time to lower the sun and raise the moon when Twilight ended the session.
While Discord chased his levitating sons around the room with a butterfly net, trying to corral them out the door and toward home, Twilight turned to Fluttershy for a quick word. “So… lobsters.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry about last night. Discord found a gray hair in my mane and started freaking out, so I encouraged him to do a little research to calm him down. I had no idea he was going to come disturb you in the middle of the night!”
“Ha! He did kind of startle me awake, but it’s alright. I’ve noticed I can get by on less sleep than before with all this alicorn magic, and honestly, I was really into the research anyway. Don’t worry,” Twilight added before Fluttershy could scold her, “I don’t make a habit of pulling all-nighters. Not anymore, anyway. But I wanted to know what you thought about what we found.”
“Discord seems pretty optimistic about the lobster lead, so I guess I’m happy about that. I’m still a bit leery about the idea of being made immortal, but that’s a conversation we’ll have if Discord actually gets some positive results. I’m mostly worried about how that might change our relationship with Fio and Corey down the road...”
“Do you really think they’re going to be immortal?”
“Oh no, not unless their dark magic… Well. Discord and I tried to tell them they’re not, but as you’ve seen, they’re convinced they must have inherited it.”
“Maybe it’s time to introduce them to… you know. They’re a little young, but probably the sooner they learn about their dark magic, the better they’ll be able to resist it.” Twilight flashed a guilty smile, as if in apology for the suggestion.
“I’ve thought about that. I really don’t want to, but more and more, I’ve been thinking a visit is due. I hate keeping secrets from them.”
“Well, the decision is between you and Discord. In any case, you know you have an excellent support network, and we’re all here for you no matter what.”
At the same time Fluttershy smiled at her old friend, Discord roared from the corner of the room. “GOT’CHA!” The two mares turned to see Discord holding up two foals by the scruffs of their necks. He walked toward Fluttershy. “About ready to go?”
“Yes Discord, thank you. And thank you, Twilight, for giving them another lesson and for the advice.”
"Anytime! Have a good evening! Oh, and Discord? I intend to get a good night of sleep tonight. If you wake me up with more research questions, I’ll turn you into wallpaper.”
“Hmm, me-themed wallpaper. Not a bad idea… Alrighty-then! Sleep tight, Twi, and good-bye!” Discord snapped, and the family vanished.
Twilight didn’t have to see her bedroom to know that Discord had already redecorated her space in a garish draconequus theme, but despite her exhaustion, she found herself amused by her ridiculous friend.
Whatever Fluttershy had wanted from her life before, she had never thought it would be this. Now that she was here, though, she couldn’t imagine having it any other way. She was stretched out on her stomach across the top of her bed. An adorable unicorn colt lay in a similar manner on either side of her, and in her hooves was the storybook she had co-authored with Twilight not long after Fio and Corey were born. It was the twins’ favorite.
“The young student and her new friends had no idea that day, when they helped the princess reunite with her long-lost sister, how their lives were starting to change forever.”
Fio put his hoof on the picture of the young student. “Auntie Twilight!”
“No,” returned Fluttershy, donning her “Silly Mommy” voice, “It can’t be! Don’t you know Auntie Twilight has wings?”
While Fio started giggling, Corey cast a pink aura over the book and magically flipped a few pages. He found what he was looking for and pointed at a new picture at the end of Chapter 3. “There! Now she has wings!”
“Of course,” giggled Silly Mommy. “How could I have forgotten?”
Fio jumped to his hooves and peered around Fluttershy to talk to his brother. “Now she has immortality!”
This again. Fluttershy lost her giggles, but tried her best to keep smiling at her enthusiastic sons. “Yes, that’s when Auntie Twilight became a prin—”
“Same group!” Corey exclaimed, bouncing up to his hooves as his brother had done.
“Same group,” nodded Fio, solemnly.
“And what’s so important about that?” asked Fluttershy, looking from one twin to the other and wishing that they had picked anything else to fixate on.
“Never-go-away group,” explained Fio.
“Friends for always!” Corey added.
“Yes, yes, enemies!”
“Auntie Twilight isn’t your enemy,” gasped Fluttershy.
“No, she’s a friend,” corrected Fio, while Corey went back to flipping through the book.
“Same group,” he finally declared. “Enemy.” Corey pointed at a scary picture of a tall, black and red centaur.
“No, little ones...”
Fio tilted his head. “Not immortal?”
“No, I mean,” Fluttershy’s hoof collided with her forehead. “I mean, we think he’s immortal, but that’s not the point. He’s not your enemy, okay? He’s just sick, and we put him somewhere safe while he gets better. How about I keep reading? Would you like to hear the part when Auntie Rainbow Dash makes the sonic rainboom again?”
They weren’t listening. Fio jumped off the bed and shouted up to his brother. “Corey! Same group meeting! We say who’s friend and who’s emeny!”
Corey jumped down too and raced out of the room with his brother. “E-ne-my!”
And they were gone. Nevermind, thought Fluttershy, closing the book and flipping onto her back. I could imagine life being another way. Then she sighed, shook her head with a defeated smile, and set off to find where her sons decided to hold their “same group meeting”.
It was Tuesday, which meant Spike had the foals for the afternoon, and Discord and Fluttershy were out on their weekly tea date.
“Those two are still going on and on about immortality,” complained Fluttershy after a sip of her favorite ginseng.
Discord gave his beard a few strokes. “Yes, they bring that up with me a lot too. It’s kind of amusing, if a little monotonous.”
“Monotony’s not the problem.”
“Then what is?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” mused Fluttershy, pausing for another sip of tea. “I guess I just don’t want them to like the idea of it. They don’t know being immortal means giving themselves over to their dark magic, and even if they did, they wouldn’t know how dangerous that would be.” She sighed. “I love our sons so dearly, but this would all be so much easier to deal with if they had just been born as pegasi. Then they wouldn’t have any dark magic for us to worry about.”
Discord picked up the empty tea kettle and began absent-mindedly sculpting it in his hands as if it were putty. “You’ve still got dark magic circulating in you,” he pointed out, “and you’ve kept its influence under control all this time.”
“But that’s because I have kindness magic to counteract it, and I don’t know if that’s even heritable!”
For a few moments, Discord wordlessly tossed the tea-kettle-putty between his hands, then set it in the empty space above the table and watched it swim away. “Maybe it’s time we told them who they really are.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like I overheard Twilight saying; we should take them to see their actual father. Teach them about the shadow ponies and dark magic. Their powers are only going to keep growing as they do. The sooner they learn about dark magic, the better equipped they will be to protect themselves from it.”
“Or the more eager they’ll be to experiment with it.”
“You know it pains me to be the voice of reason, Fluttershy, but I think we have to take that risk. If they stumble across their dark magic abilities on their own before they’ve had any warning about it, we may never be able to convince them of its dangers. You know better than anycreature how… tempting that magic can make itself.”
Fluttershy furrowed her brow at the thought, then hung her head. “Alright. We’ll take them to see him.”
“Fluttershy, my love.”
She glanced up at him,
“Have I ever told you you look beautiful by deep sea anglerfish-light?”
and she smiled in the deep sea anglerfish-light, as the creature in question swam in lazy figure-eights above their private Mare-iana Trench tea party.
“Okay, little ones,” Fluttershy announced, crouching down to look Fio and Corey in the eyes. “Today is a very important day. Mommy and Daddy have a lot to teach you. Some of it is not going to be very fun to learn about, but we need you to try your best to understand, okay?”
Corey put on his determined face. “Okay, Mommy.”
“Hey Corey!” Fio whispered, ignoring his mother’s admonishment. “Why does Daddy not smile? He always smiles!”
Discord heard the comment and responded by scooping up the foals. “Daddy’s not smiling because he has to tell you a secret now, and he doesn’t like this secret.”
The twins’ eyes grew wide.
“Fiorello, Coreopsis, you have two daddies.”
“Two daddies?” they gasped in unison. Discord set them back down to let Fluttershy explain the next part.
“Yes, my flowers, two daddies. Discord is your real daddy, because he loves you very much and he’s doing everything he can to help you grow up to be the best ponies you can be. But he didn’t make you. You remember how I said foals are always like their mommies and daddies?”
Fio and Corey, standing at full attention, both nodded.
“Well, what I meant was foals are always like the mommies and daddies that made them, and you two have a different daddy who helped Mommy make you.”
The twins couldn’t keep still any longer and started bouncing. “Where is he?” “Why we never see him?” “Can we see our other daddy?”
Discord stepped back into the conversation. “Hush, little mongrels. Prepare yourselves. We’re going to go meet your other daddy now. You should call him “Father” since he’s not your real daddy. But there’s something else you need to know. “Father” got very sick after he helped Mommy make you. We had to put him in a very secret place so he could have absolute quiet while he gets better. You can look at him and talk to him, but he won’t be able to talk back. Understand?”
“Yes, Daddy,” they declared.
“Very well then.” Discord turned to Fluttershy, noticed the grim look in her eye, and took hold of her hoof. “Are you ready?”
“Just say the word, and I’ll take us back.” Then he snapped his claws, and all four of them vanished.
“Woah,” chimed the foals in unison before they ran off to explore the pocket dimension’s crystal formations. They wouldn’t get lost, Fluttershy knew, because this whole dimension was just a single, cave-like room filled with clear crystals, and no exit at all. That was why it made a good prison. In the center of the room was the largest crystal, glowing with an intense light that paralyzed the darkness it contained.
Fluttershy walked toward that dark prisoner, sat herself where she could see his anguished face, and contemplated.
Discord stood beside her and rested a hand on her shoulder. “It’s gotten much dimmer,” he remarked.
Without looking away, Fluttershy nodded. “He must have been doing some soul-searching. But it looks like he still has a long way to go to release himself from the glow of his hatred.”
That imprisoning glow suddenly dimmed significantly, only seconds before a toddler-screech erupted from behind Fluttershy and Discord. Eight little hooves broke into a gallop that echoed across the entire bounds of the pocket dimension.
Fio and Corey skidded to a halt mere inches from ramming their snouts into the crystal, then reared up to place their front hooves on it for a better look.
“That’s him!” declared Corey. “Father!”
“Father!” Fio echoed. “Corey, look! Red eyes! Like you! Same group!”
“Fio, black mane! Like you!” The pair echoed “same group” a few more times, and then Corey broke the chant by talking to the figure in the crystal. “Hi, Father! Get better soon!”
“Come out soon!” agreed Fio.
Discord corralled the twins back from the crystal and sat them beside Fluttershy, where all four of them would be in the paralyzed shadow pony’s field of view. The light radiating from the crystal started oscillating, brighter, dimmer, brighter again. Fluttershy’s frown deepened.
“What’s happening to him?” Fio asked.
Fluttershy wrenched her eyes from the sight to address her foals. “He’s still sick, and now he’s having a battle with his sickness. Remember, Daddy said he needed quiet to get better? I think we should leave him alone again so he can have his quiet back. Discord?”
Discord had been walking in a circle around the imprisoned pony while the crystal shifted to a steady, brighter glow. He returned at Fluttershy’s call, wearing a distant expression. “Alright kids, say goodbye to Father for now. We’ll see him again soon.”
As the foals complied and squeaked their farewells, Fluttershy mouthed “soon?” at Discord. He closed his eyes and nodded slowly. Then he snapped them all back home.
The squeaking redoubled as soon as the foals recognized the familiar surroundings.
“Tell us more about Father!”
“Yes, yes! How did he get sick?”
“When will he be better?”
Discord conjured his thinking tree in the middle of the backyard and slithered up to disappear in its boughs, so Fluttershy was left to tackle the hard questions by herself.
“We don’t know when he’ll get better. It depends on how strong he is. Fiorello, Coreopsis, listen very carefully to Mommy. Your father has a special kind of sickness. He was born with it, and he didn’t take care of himself, so the sickness took over his whole body. It’s called dark magic, and it’s very bad. Because he made you two, you both were born with the sickness too.”
Fio and Corey exchanged horrified looks, but didn’t say anything.
“You don’t feel it right now, but one day your dark magic will get stronger and you’ll have to fight it. You have to be very strong, or the sickness will get worse and you’ll have to go in rooms all alone like your father to get better. You won’t like that, and Mommy and Daddy won’t like that, so you have to fight hard.”
Both of the colts were sniffling now, scared to tears but trying to be strong. Fluttershy enfolded them in a hug.
“Shh, my darlings, I know you can do it. Daddy and I will be right here to help you fight. You’ll be alright. We’ll all be alright.”
Later, after the moon was raised and the foals were finally asleep in their beds, Discord lead Fluttershy into the living room. She sat on the sofa and watched him prepare a pot of tea. He did it slowly, the pony way, using no magic at all. Something wasn’t quite sitting right in the pit of Fluttershy’s stomach.
Finally, he sat down with her and poured them each a cup of the tea. Fluttershy took a sip. It had a velvety mustiness to it, a flavor so unassuming but so powerful it seemed to muffle every distracting sensation. Pu’er. Discord was taking a slow, savoring sip from his own cup and was obviously in no hurry to start talking.
“What’s on your mind, my love?”
He finally set down the cup, but he was silent for a few seconds more, mulling on his words. “He looked the same on the outside, right? But while we were there, I thought I would check up on the inside too. I had a hunch.”
Sombra, of course. Fluttershy knew this was going to be about him, and she dreaded hearing it. But it was clearly important. “And?”
“I was right.” Discord took another unhurried sip of tea. “He’s been in there for five years, and he’s been letting go of his anger and hatred, but not fast enough. He’s dying, Fluttershy. The paralyzing light, the dark magic, the long struggle against the very fabric of his existence—it’s killing him. He can only hold on another year. Maybe two. There’s no way he can conquer his darkness by then.”
Fluttershy set her cup on the table before her trembling hooves spilled tea everywhere. Then she breathed, processing. “I s-see. What can we do?”
Discord didn’t answer.
“Do we let him… d-die?”
He dragged his eyes up to meet hers. Fluttershy already knew the answer, and so did he.
They were all too happy. They didn’t understand. Why couldn’t they all be solemn and stony-faced? It would make saying the words so much easier.
“I’m so excited!” Pinkie Pie was saying. “It’s not every day one of us calls an extra conference. It’s not even every other day!”
“Do you think it’s another ‘special announcement’?” she heard Rainbow Dash respond, casting a meaningful glance between her and Discord. Fluttershy felt her face grow hot, and she didn’t dare look at Discord.
“Well, I think it’s a fine thing, whatever the reason. One can never see one’s friends again too soon,” declared Rarity. For some reason, she looked directly at Applejack when she said that. Applejack smiled faintly back, like she knew the reason.
Twilight finally entered the council room and took her seat. “Alright, everypony, sorry for the wait. Fluttershy, why don’t you take it away?”
And then all the eyes were on her, and they were all smiling. Oh, Celestia, why do they have to be smiling?
“We have to release Sombra.” Too loud. Her voice was too loud. She was worried she would be too quiet and would have to say it again, so she said it too loud. Too late to back off. “He’s dying.”
And then there was a clamor, and she was lying down, and it was so stuffy, and Discord was holding her, and he was talking, and everycreature was talking…
Fluttershy woke up in a plush bed. Applejack saw her stirring, set down her quill, and lifted a spoonful of soup to Fluttershy’s lips.
“Welcome back, Fluttershy. You’ve been out for an hour or so, but Discord an’ them are gettin’ everything handled. Just relax.”
Fluttershy obediently sipped up the soup and didn’t try to understand. She felt afraid about something, and she didn’t want to remember what.
Until she did. “Oh my. Applejack, are they discussing it? What are we going to do with him?”
“Why don’t you finish this soup, and we’ll walk back over to the counsel together an’ see what they’ve got decided?”
They did exactly that, and the chatter they heard bubbling through the walls as they approached instantly ceased when they walked into the room. Discord was cradling Fluttershy in his arms in an instant.
“Hey Fluttershy! How’re you feeling?” Twilight offered a sympathetic smile.
“I don’t really know what happened to me. I don’t want to know. Just, tell me whatever you decide to do with him. Tell me what to do if there’s anything, and I’ll do it. I don’t want to think about any of this.”
The other ponies all shared a concerned look, and then Rarity stepped tentatively forward.
“It’s like you said, darling, we’ve got to release him. We’ll keep him locked up and under close watch at all times, and we’ll give him friendship lessons.”
“We’ve reformed bad guys before!” noted Pinkie Pie.
“Yeah!” Rainbow Dash flew out of her seat. “We’ll all take turns teaching him. You won’t have to see him much!”
“Or at all, if you’re not comfortable,” Twilight amended. “The foals don’t have to see him either. We’ll take care of everything, Fluttershy. We’ll all get through this together. I don’t really know what’s going to happen, but we have to try.”
It wasn’t like she could say no, as much as she may have wanted to. Fluttershy focused on the sensation of Discord stroking her mane, and closed her eyes. “Okay.”
It was just after the meeting about Sombra, and the two mares were walking through the royal gardens at sunset. The last time they’d done that together was years ago.
“Then when is? You’ve been avoiding it all this time! We both know we can’t go on like this!”
Applejack took Rarity’s hoof, then thought better of it and let go again. “I know, but we’ve got to. Look, maybe—maybe we both just need to take some space. Again.”
“After that didn’t work last time or the time before that?”
“I… Yes.” Applejack hung her head. “I don’t know what else to do.”
Rarity sat beside her and huffed. “Well, if now’s not the time for talking, now’s not the time for taking space either. We’re about to release a known danger to society back into the world. We need to have each other’s backs at a time like this!”
“I know. You’re right. You’re always right. I’m scared, ya know? Scared about Sombra, scared about Fluttershy, scared about… Us.” Applejack sighed. “I just don’t want anything to happen. It’s hard enough as it is.”
Rarity tightened her lips. It always went this way, and she was so tired of waiting! All kinds of responses ran through her mind—the same responses as always—and as always, she spoke none of them. It wouldn’t help either of their suffering. At length, Rarity gave up the train of thought. “Those gardenias smell so lovely.”
“They sure do,” agreed Applejack, still not meeting Rarity’s eyes.
More silence passed, broken only by the buzzing of dragonflies. The sun perched on the line of the horizon.
“Applejack, darling, it’s getting late. Come back to my house for the evening, and you can catch the morning train to Ponyville. We’ll bake some cookies and clear our heads, and I won’t make you talk at all if you don’t want to.”
Finally, Applejack looked up and mustered a smile. “Alright, I’d like that. Thanks.”
Another long day of duties had come to an end, and Twilight sighed with relief upon finally shedding the royal regalia and collapsing in her desk chair.
“Ah! Done with the work, and now time for...” She looked down at the half-empty scroll she’d left waiting on her desk for herself. “More work.”
Friendship Lessons for a Former Slave-Holding Tyrant Infected with Dangerous Levels of Dark Magic
So read the title on that daunting document. After thinking for a moment, Twilight scribbled on an addition: ...Who May or May Not Still Have Terrible Intentions for My Friends.
Then she stared at the scroll some more. “I’m the Princess of Friendship—what do I know? Do I know what I know? How do I know? How do I know what I know is what I need to know?” And she let her head fall onto the desk with a thud.
Twilight suddenly appeared in the royal kitchen in a robe and slippers, her mane a royal mess. The cooks knew exactly why she was there and shuffled out of her path without a word. The frightful sight stalked over to the coffeepot, poured two big mugs of the strongest stuff, and teleported away again.
Twilight suddenly appeared on a table covered in scribbled pages of notes, hand-drawn maps, and tiny figurines, not noticing at all that she had just ruined a very intricate setup. “Spike!” she bellowed.
Spike folded up his screen in defeat and flopped backward in his seat. “What is it this time, Twi?”
She shoved an open scroll in his face. It read Friendship Lessons for a Former Slave-Holding Tyrant… “I don’t know what I know about friendship!”
“But you’re the Princess of Friendship,” protested Spike.
“Then what do you need me for?”
“To… Remind me what I know?”
“Please, I can’t get my thoughts straight this evening. I need someone to bounce ideas off of!”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Fine,” hissed Spike, taking the proffered mug of coffee. He peered past Twilight to address the table. “I guess that’s all for tonight, folks. Same time next week?”
There were some nods and various comments ranging from amused to annoyed, but the gaming group packed up the RPG gear, and Twilight and Spike started toward the library.
Pinkie Pie landed out of nowhere on her stump beside the firepit. Cheese Sandwich set down the accordion he was playing as she started to talk.
“Date ideas—think tank?”
“Do you mean we’re having a think tank to come up with date ideas, or the think tank is the date idea?”
“Well, count me in! Pie-eating contest!”
“Drafting party ideas for ponies who think they don’t like parties!”
“Throwing parties for ponies who think they don’t like parties!”
“Helping my marefriend come up with friendship lesson ideas for a villain in need of reforming!”
“Yeah! Heeeey, how did you know about that?”
Cheese Sandwich shrugged. “Boneless 2 told me.”
“Okay for real though, I do need your help.”
“Don’t you always?” He gave Pinkie Pie a wink, she responded with a good-natured punch, and they got to work.
“Okay, okay, what about this? Next time, instead of an Ursa Major, I turn into a dragon? Fire-breathing could open up so many new avenues for entertainment!”
“I’m with you, Discord, but changing up a fan-favorite show is a big deal. You’d have to take that up with Spitfire!” Rainbow Dash gave Discord a friendly bump and turned to open up her locker.
Discord unlocked his own locker, which he’d just conjured for the purpose. “Oh, I suppose. But as a mere honorary Wonderbolt, I’m hardly more than a prop in this enterprise. Spitfire might just brush me off. But you’re an actual member of the team! She’d listen to you!”
“Eh, maybe,” agreed Rainbow Dash, hanging up her uniform. “But ‘The Fall of the Ursa Major’ has become one of our longest-running shows for a reason. The fans can’t get enough of it! I doubt Spitfire’s going to be willing to risk disappointing our audience by shaking things up too much.”
“Well that’s just no fun!” Discord slammed shut his locker and snapped it away. “How was I supposed to know my fabulous idea for a show was going to be so popular? Scratch that—of course I knew. It was my idea, after all! But how was I supposed to know that increasing popularity would mean decreasing creative freedom to that curmudgeon of a boss you have?”
“You’d better believe it, buster,” called Spitfire, smirking as she walked past the locker room.
Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. It was lucky Spitfire had taken a liking to the unruly draconequus, or his remark could have gotten her in trouble. She suspected her boss actually enjoyed the extra thrill and challenge Discord brought to their shows, since performing them could get a little repetitive over time. “Well,” she announced, shutting her own locker, “I’ll see what I can do, Discord. I might be able to convince her to concede on a few small details. Anyway, you still on for milkshakes?”
“Ha! I wouldn’t miss it,” answered Discord. “At this point, grabbing milkshakes with you after our show is just about the only thing I like about performing it anyway!”
“You don’t mean that!”
Discord and Rainbow Dash kept up their usual banter all the way to the ice cream parlor (which was not a long trip for Equestria’s fastest flier and the Lord of Chaos), and kept on bantering as the server brought out their usual order. A root beer milkshake for Rainbow Dash, and a “Chaos Storm” for Discord, which happened to be whatever combination of flavors the manager most wanted to get rid of that day, plus one random topping swirled in.
Discord took a sip and contorted his face in concentration. “Let’s see… Definitely bubble gum, and I think there’s also cherry—no, cherries jubilee! With little mint chocolate pieces!”
“Gross!” laughed Rainbow Dash, sticking out her tongue.
“Says the pony who likes root beer-flavored ice cream!”
“Hey, you liked it when you had it that one time!”
“Yes, but that was when it was with butterscotch and strawberry!”
A new voice interrupted. “’Sup, Dash? Another successful show, I take it?”
Rainbow Dash’s face instantly soured. “Hey, Open Skies. Yes, we just came from a show.”
“So, what I’m hearing is you’re finally not too busy to give that second date some thought, hmm? What do you say?”
“Fine, I’ll think about it!” Rainbow Dash took a long, pointed sip of her milkshake, maintaining eye contact with the stallion the whole time. She smacked her lips when she was done. “Here’s what I think: you’re a self-absorbed jerk who cares more about being seen with me than actually getting to know me. Yeah, I know I’m cool, but just using me as an accessory is a really cheap way to try to boost your own coolness. I don’t feel like I need to put up with that a second time.”
A blush spread all across Open Skies’s face when everypony in the ice cream parlor turned to look at whom the coolest pegasus in town was scolding. He quickly sputtered an excuse and fled the scene.
Discord finally relaxed his tightly-closed lips and burst out laughing. “Way to go, Dashie! You tell him! I was all ready to intervene with a little chaos magic, but you sure had him good! I’ve never seen a turquoise pony turn so pink!”
Rainbow Dash merely grumbled and took another sip of her milkshake.
“So, I take it your forays into the wonderful world of romance have left you rather underwhelmed lately?”
“Ugh. ‘Underwhelmed’ is an understatement. I don’t even want to go into it right now. How are you and Fluttershy doing? She seemed to be taking the news about Sombra pretty hard.”
Now Discord’s expression darkened too. He leaned back against the counter. “Wellll, she hasn’t fainted again, but she’s been awfully distracted. The foals picked up on it, which meant we had to fill them in on what was going on, and that meant they got excited, and that’s only gotten Fluttershy even more worried. Sombra’s going to be imprisoned, and alone, and weak. I don’t understand why she can’t trust The Lord of Chaos to protect her from that.”
“Yeesh, sorry I asked,” muttered Rainbow Dash, taking a thoughtful sip of root beer milkshake.
Then Rainbow Dash set down her drink and touched a hoof to Discord’s arm. “You know, Fluttershy can trust you completely and still be scared. That’s just how emotions go. Not that I would know anything about fear, of course! But she’s Fluttershy; she’s always scared. Everypony can see that you two have a great bond. Like good Wonderbolts, you trust each other, and you communicate. Just keep on doing that, and you’ll get through all this.”
“Heh,” Discord smirked. “Fine advice coming from a mare who’s perpetually single.”
“I’m only single because I’ve seen enough first dates to know what is and what’s not going to work for me in a relationship. I haven’t found anypony yet who’s met all my needs as well as you and Fluttershy meet each others’. I suppose knowing you two has given me high standards,” she laughed.
“You sure don’t seem to be suffering much from being single.”
“All the better for you, then.” It was silent for a moment, and then Discord twitched strongly enough to splash the contents of his cup all over himself.
Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. She didn’t know what the twitching was all about, but she’d seen it often enough to know Discord was about to look really nervous and uncomfortable, then make an excuse to go home.
“Oh, well, I seem to be all out of milkshake! Guess it’s time I head back home! It’s been fun, Dash! Thanks for the advice. Ta-ta!”
Discord’s snap teleported him away and produced a large pile of money on the counter to pay for their milkshakes. Rainbow Dash snorted at his antics and took a closer look at the excessive amount of bits. About half of them seemed to be foil-covered chocolates, so she unwrapped one, popped it in her mouth, and flew off before some annoyed shopkeeper could come demand that she sort the pile for them.
The foals were finally asleep. Their constant chatter and excitement about their father wearied Fluttershy exceedingly, and it was only late in the evenings now that they’d finally be quiet and she could relax. She wanted nothing more that moment than to cuddle up and whisper sweet words with her mate to get her mind off the horrible stallion who’d once tried to usurp that position.
Their bed was a water bed tonight, and Fluttershy crawled under the covers with a giggle of delight. She smiled at Discord. But he wasn’t getting in. He was just standing at the bedside, looking hesitant. It was a tense moment of stillness before Discord finally looked at her.
“Can we go to the sanctuary? I… want to talk to you about something.”
Well, so much for a relaxing, affectionate evening. “Okay,” assented Fluttershy with reluctance.
Discord snapped his fingers.
The sanctuary was one of Discord’s many pocket dimensions. It was a place of surprising calm and beauty—given the nature of its creator—and since time spent here didn’t necessarily equate to time spent in the real world, it was where Discord and Fluttershy often went to escape from responsibilities for a while. Or to have difficult conversations. Fluttershy suspected the latter on this occasion.
She simply sat down and watched as Discord paced back and forth in a forest of tree-sized mushrooms. The atmosphere was a hazy gold, and the dim stars overhead swam slowly around each other like lazy fireflies. As usual, everything here was perfectly calm except for Discord himself. He finally approached Fluttershy, took her hooves in his hands, and searched her eyes deeply.
“Fluttershy, will you marry me?”
She blinked once and closed her mouth when she realized it was hanging open. “Um, sure Discord. I didn’t think you wanted a ceremony, though.”
His only reply was to turn away and resume his pacing, muttering “No, no, that’s not quite what I meant.”
“Then… what is?” Fluttershy was totally at a loss to understand him.
Another painfully silent minute of pacing passed. Discord eventually turned back to Fluttershy and lowered himself to her eye level. He opened his mouth to speak, but closed it again.
Fluttershy sprouted a frown in impatience. She kept silent, though, for he clearly had something important to say and didn’t know how. And then Discord twisted himself into a pretzel shape, and she wondered what was so terrible that he couldn’t even figure out what to do with himself.
Finally, hanging upside-down from the cap of the nearest giant mushroom, he spat it out:
“I’m not the only draconequus!”
That certainly wasn’t what Fluttershy would have expected. “Y-you’re not? But, where are all the others?”
Discord dropped ungracefully off the fungus and went right back to pacing. “Where is irrelevant. They’re in our homeland. It doesn’t have a location.”
“Why hasn’t anycreature ever seen any of them?”
“Because they’re all far away! Not ‘far’ in terms of distance, but ‘far’ in terms of...” He stopped in his tracks. “Um. There isn’t really a measurement for it.”
What in Equestria is he talking about? Why bring this up now? “Okay, then… why are you the only one that’s not so far away, in whatever sense?”
Discord plopped into a seated position, still not even facing Fluttershy. “Because I ran away. Someplace they could never get to me.”
He was distraught about something for sure. Even though Fluttershy still couldn’t fathom what brought this on, she sympathized with his show of what seemed to be some long-buried pain, and she moved to comfort him. She sat in front of him and took his paw in her hooves.
“I’m here for you, Discord. Whatever it is, I love you.”
Her words made his shoulders slump, and he sighed and placed his other hand over her hooves. “All the draconequui have chaos magic, but there’s something else too. There’s a magic that’s part of everything—and every non-thing—that even the finest volumes on magic in all of Equestria only barely touch on. They’re called the founding spells. They underpin all of existence, but they have special effects on draconequui, since… we… were the first creatures to exist.”
This was just getting weirder and weirder. All Fluttershy could do was stare at Discord, and he stared right back, refusing to go on until she made some sort of acknowledgment.
“...T-Twilight’s going to want to know about this...”
Discord also took his time responding. “...Well, I’m certain you’ll make me tell her, and I’m not excited about it. But there’s more.” He shook his head. “So much more...”
“Alright, well, I still don’t know why you’re telling me all this now, so go on, I suppose.”
“Yes...” For another long moment, he thought. Then he abruptly stood, backed away from Fluttershy, and sat down again where he was too far away to be touched.
Fluttershy tilted her head in confusion, but Discord’s eyes were wide and pleading, so she stayed where she was and waited.
“Do you remember a few years ago, when I couldn’t control my magic, and I came to you twitching and seizing, but after a few minutes I went right back to normal? And I haven’t ever been away from you for more than a full day in all the time since then? That was because of a founding spell that specifically affects draconequui. Much of the reason I came to your world in the first place was to try to escape it, and… it’s found me anyway.”
A little gasp escaped Fluttershy’s throat, and she couldn’t help getting up to sit closer to Discord again. “Is that the reason you keep saying you’re mortal now?”
“Please, Fluttershy, don’t touch me until I’m finished.”
She sat back down and waited.
“No, the founding spell didn’t turn me mortal.” He hung his head and looked so, so tired. “You did.”
“What? No, that shouldn’t be possible! Unless—you mustn’t take your life when I die, Discord, you mustn’t!”
“I don’t have any choice!” The mushroom trees suddenly fell away, the dim sky grew entirely black, and even the ground was gone. They were now in an empty void, where all was dark except Discord and Fluttershy themselves.
Fluttershy cowered, too afraid to speak.
Discord was so agitated he started pacing again, apparently not noticing what he’d done to the sanctuary. “I’m still technically immortal. I’ll never die for any outside reason, but you will, and when you do, I’ll lose control again. It’s only happened a few times in draconequus history, and it’s never pretty. I’ll go insane. My chaos magic will go berserk. I’ll cause so much death and suffering, and I won’t have the mental presence even to make myself die at that point! And if I don’t kill myself… there isn’t a single other being in the whole MULTIVERSE who could stop me. I’ve checked! If I don’t kill myself at the time of your death, I could be responsible for the destruction of absolutely everything and everyone!”
It was several long non-moments before Fluttershy could choke down her tears. “B-but, WHY? Why does this all hinge around me? Why do you have to go insane?”
A desperate look glinted in Discord’s eyes as he seized Fluttershy by her shoulders. “It’s the founding spell! You’re not just the love of my life, Fluttershy, you’re my soulmate! The founding spells decreed it! No draconequus can bear to be separated from their soulmate once they’ve found them. It always results in madness and loss of control, and with my power…!”
Fluttershy shook her head vigorously, but the tears kept flowing. “Soulmate? What do you mean? What does this all mean?”
With a defeated sigh, Discord stepped back from Fluttershy and snapped the peaceful background of the sanctuary back into existence again. “It means I’m bound to you by a magic deeper than anything even I can control. It’s normally not a problem for draconequui, since we’re immortal. I ran away from my kind because I didn’t want to find my soulmate. I didn’t want to be tied down to anycreature else. But I didn’t know at the time that it was possible, however rare, for a mortal of a different species to be the soulmate of a draconequus. When I first started to realize the soulmate magic had been sprung on me, I went back to my kind for the first time in millennia and studied their records. It’s happened to only a handful of others, but always, when the mortal dies, the draconequus bound to them either kills themselves or goes insane.”
The tears had stopped, and Fluttershy was shaking now, but she was beginning to get ahold of herself again. “Okay, so… an ancient magic has ordained that I would be the eventual mate of the most powerful being in the multiverse, and if that most powerful being doesn’t kill himself when I die, he’ll spiral out of control and destroy all of existence. Anything else?”
Discord stared into her eyes with not the faintest hint of his usual jocularity. “Yes.”
Fluttershy took a deep breath. “Great. Let’s hear it, I guess.”
“As immortals, the draconequui have a penchant for filling their infinite time with gathering knowledge and especially exploring new dimensions. With such curiosity and habits of roaming, draconequui sometimes find it difficult to be always near enough to their soulmates to prevent their powers from going out of control. To confront this difficulty, the draconequus king developed a special binding ceremony that would establish a kind of quantum link between two individuals. It would allow them to be near each other in enough of a sense to keep the soulmate magic satisfied, no matter how many dimensions apart they traveled.”
He paused, but Fluttershy withheld a reaction.
So he went right on with the lecture. “The binding ceremony also has the side effect of establishing a thought connection between the soulmates. A special dream-quest immediately following the binding ceremony gives the couple the space they need in each others’ heads to learn how to control this thought connection, so they can consciously choose which thoughts to send to each other, and even deny each other permission to enter their heads for privacy’s sake. Thus, after both the binding ceremony and the dream-quest, the linked pair can feel each others’ presence and even talk as if face-to-face, however far apart they may be.”
Now Fluttershy’s blood went cold. “That sounds very invas—interesting. And you’re telling me all this because…?” She was pretty sure she already knew the answer.
Discord stalled by looking around and changing up the scenery. He exchanged the mushroom forest for a grassy meadow and the misty atmosphere for a sunny sky. Their surroundings went from moody and dark to cheerful and bright in an instant with nothing more than an absent thought from Discord.
Those are some powerful thoughts to be poking around in another creature’s mind, worried Fluttershy.
“I’m telling you this because I’m worried about Sombra. We’re releasing him in two more days. He’s not that dangerous, but he neverthelessis a danger. You’ve been awfully anxious about his return, and I want to be there for you as much and as fully as I can until things get better.” A many-petaled daisy sprang up at Discord’s feet. He picked it and began slowly plucking off its petals and casting them into the breeze. “Rainbow Dash reminded me how important trust and communication are in a relationship. Like the Wonderbolts, she said. Well, as far as trust goes, I don’t want to keep secrets from you, and for communication—surely, connecting our thoughts could only make our communication even better? Though it would also help in case anything ever goes wrong and we should be separated again!”
At that point, Discord looked down at the flower he’d picked. There was a single petal left on it. He hesitated, then plucked it off too and sent it away. “Well, the flower tells me you love me, so here goes.” Discord knelt before Fluttershy and held up a bouquet of vibrant, fully-petaled flowers. “Will you come to the draconequus homeland and perform the soulmate rituals with me?”
It wasn’t until Discord conjured some smelling salts that Twilight revived. When he said it a second time, the alicorn once again swiftly hyperventilated herself unconscious.
Discord and Fluttershy exchanged a worried glance. Then, they roused Twilight again.
“What happened? Where am I?” She glanced around the room in a panic, then relaxed when her eyes answered the second question.
“What happened,” Discord enunciated with a facepalm, “is I tried to add to your knowledge, and you got so excited, you fell asleep. Both times. I still don’t understand why ponies do that.”
“Oh right, I remember now.” Twilight stood and dusted herself off. “What were you telling me, again?”
Fluttershy laid a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder. “Steady yourself this time.” The alicorn nodded.
“I am not the only member of my species in existence,” said Discord. “There’s a whole society of draconequui in the place between dimensions.”
“Yep, okay, definitely remember that now,” Twilight breathed, raising a hoof to her forehead and hastily taking a seat. “More draconequui. More dimensions. Who’d have thunk?” She barked a laugh. “Certainly not me! I’m gonna need a scroll and quill for this, aren’t I?”
Fluttershy bit the tip of her hoof in concern, but Discord conjured up the requested materials. Slowly, over the course of the next hour, and with only two more uses of the smelling salts, Discord filled Twilight in on the draconequui, the founding spells, and the status of Fluttershy as his magical, fate-decreed soulmate.
The excitement of these unexpected revelations eventually overcame Twilight’s shock. “Incredible! All this time, there were whole new universes of existence just waiting to be discovered! Not just pocket dimensions, but actual, whole, self-contained dimensions brimming with uncontacted life! Ponies have been theorizing about a multiverse for centuries, but the philosophers always declare it could never be proven—and to think! Wrong, all this time! And the draconequui! We, we should visit! It would be diplomatic! Yes, diplomatic! Just think what kind of library a whole race of knowledge-obsessed immortals living between dimensions might have! How do we get there? When do we go?”
“Breathe, Twilight,” Fluttershy soothed, trying not to giggle. “He’s not finished.”
Twilight clacked her jaw shut, nodded stiffly, and sat facing Discord, eyes and ears totally focused.
Discord considered the possibility of making a joke at that moment, but then noticed the vial of smelling salts Fluttershy was still holding at the ready and thought he’d better not. A set of billowing scholar’s robes spilled over his body instead. He casually adjusted his spectacles. “You see, I’m in danger of catastrophic insanity. Fluttershy is in possible danger from tomorrow’s release of you-know-who. For our mutual protection, I suggested to Fluttershy that we go to the draconequus homelands together and perform the traditional soulmate rituals. It would irreversibly link us across the fabric of extraplanar space and establish a thought connection so we can better look out for each other.”
Fluttershy met Twilight’s eyes. “I wanted to get your opinion before I agree to a commitment like that.”
She stared blankly back in thought. Then she rose up and spun herself in a pirouette of glee. “Of course, of course, you should definitely do it—as long as you take me along!”
While Twilight was occupied with her grinning and spinning, Discord waved away the costume, leaned down to Fluttershy, and spoke in a whisper. “The draconequus king forbade our kind from sharing too much about ourselves with mortals for exactly this reason.”
“But Twilight’s not mortal,” Fluttershy whispered back.
“Well, she was. Non-draconequui, anyway. Whatever. You know what I meant.”
They both turned back to Twilight to see her seated facing them and looking perfectly sane and collected. “Fluttershy, I agree that you’re facing a tough decision, especially given how unprecedented it all is. I’m tempted to tell you to say yes for selfish reasons, but that would be unkind of me. This sort of decision is something that nopony but you yourself can make. I want you to know, though, that I’ll be behind you and beside you no matter what.”
Fluttershy knit her brows over glistening, uncertain eyes. “Yes, I suppose you’re right. Thank you. It’s just all so much, and I wish I had more time to think about it. Wouldn’t it be best to have an answer before we release… him?”
“I don’t see why you would necessarily have to make a decision that quickly,” Twilight mused.
The wide teal eyes widened even further. “You mean I have to decide when to decide?”
“Uhh… I suppose we could just postpone the release to give you more time if you wanted...”
Now there were tears in those eyes. “You mean I have to decide whether to endanger him for a few more days for my sake?”
Twilight and Discord facepalmed simultaneously. The latter scooped Fluttershy into his arms before she needed the smelling salts and swept her off for a stroll in the garden to calm her down. Once they were gone, Twilight summoned every scroll in the vicinity that had a scrap of empty space on it and started writing furiously.
She stood in the gloom until she felt that peculiar tugging sensation behind her eyes as her bat vision kicked in. A few more seconds passed, and shapes and contours materialized out of the darkness to give her a hazy, desaturated view of the room. The slow rise and fall of her foals’ breathing was now visible to Fluttershy, and she crept to the side of the nearest bed for a better look.
Coreopsis Stellurian Lux had a dark plum mane with thin streaks of pale pink that strongly resembled the typical Shy family colors. It was even growing long and straight, much like Fluttershy’s own mane. His frosty lavender-gray coat could have been a product of either parent’s lineage. The dark plum sock markings on all four of Corey’s legs must have come from his father’s side, though. Fluttershy thought it was cute that her younger son perpetually looked as if he had just been splashing in a puddle of dark, rich juice. More unnerving than cute were the red eyes in Corey’s face that Fluttershy swore were exactly like his father’s. The unicorn horn was another undeniably paternal trait.
Then she moved to the other bed and checked on her other foal. If there had been any light in the room, she would have been admiring Fio’s jet-black mane and its one lock that sparkled like it was perpetually dusted with gold glitter. She wondered where that glittering effect came from—nopony in her family had anything like that—until she remembered that his father had once been part crystal pony. Deep red fur, black hooves, unicorn horn…Did her little flower take after her at all? Yes, of course he did: set in his golden eyes were slit pupils, much like the slit pupils Fluttershy developed whenever she was in the dark. Dear Fiorello Garnet Dusk didn’t inherit just any traits from his mother—he inherited her bat traits.
Without thinking about it, Fluttershy ran her tongue over her teeth. The pointed fangs were still there. She had hoped they would return to normal when her membranous bat wings feathered out again, but no such luck. It seemed that some of the bat traits she had acquired during her captivity under the shadow king were here to stay. The ragged piercing at the top of her left ear also wasn’t healing, and neither was the brown line that snaked down her neck and into her heart from it. That vein was no longer black and swollen with poisonous dark magic, but the scar of it served as a visual reminder of the lesser concentration of dark magic that still circulated in her body, and likely would continue to do so as long as she possessed her transformative kindness magic.
There were so many ways that evil stallion had permanently altered Fluttershy. What would he do when he saw her again? If he had the chance, would he renew the old infection and once again try to turn her into an undead shadow pony? She shivered at the thought. He must not be given that chance.
Then Fluttershy heard the sleeping foal in front of her mutter “same group” in his sleep, and her attention turned to her darling twins. What would that stallion do when he saw Fio and Corey? Would he try to take them? Would he change them too? She couldn’t let that happen!
But everycreature already knew how cunning the shadow king could be. After all, he was the one who had stolen Fluttershy from her friends and threatened her life to keep Discord out of his way all those years ago. It was hard to believe he wouldn’t be up to his old tricks again after he was released. As long as Discord was with her, Fluttershy knew, she and the foals would be untouchable. The trick was not to let the shadow king separate her from Discord again.
Fluttershy sighed, moved toward the door, and looked back at the sleeping Fio and Corey one more time. There was one guaranteed way to keep her from being separated from Discord, at least. It would involve giving him access to her thoughts and linking herself with him at a level of physical, emotional, and magical intimacy that she could scarcely conceive of. Quietly, she exited her foals’ bedroom and started toward her own.
She loved Discord, certainly. But his “soulmate rituals” would give him the kind of power over her that that stallion had once had and abused. Fluttershy didn’t think Discord would abuse that power, but she couldn’t forget what had happened to her either. Then again, if it would keep the twins safe from whatever threat their father might pose...
Which was stronger, Fluttershy wondered—her trust in the goodness of Discord not to take advantage of her, or her trust in the goodness of Sombra not to resist being reformed? It seemed the answer was pretty clear, however much it terrified her.
They all gathered on the castle lawn where there would be space for whatever happened. Twilight was in the process of raising the sun, while Discord, Fluttershy, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, and Applejack arranged themselves in a wide circle. As soon as Twilight joined them, they would begin. Fluttershy turned to Discord and motioned for him to lean down so she could whisper.
“About the rituals?”
“Yes, you’ll do them?” Discord smiled hopefully.
“Yes. But,” she added before Discord started celebrating, “not right now. I’d like to wait a few weeks for things to settle down.”
“A few weeks?! But what if S… you-know-who tries anything? I want to make sure I can protect you. And the foals!”
“You said he’s weak and dying. I don’t think he’ll be in a position to try anything major for a little while, at least. Discord, please, I just want to make sure we’re ready for this. It’s all been so sudden...”
“Fair enough,” Discord sighed. “Looks like it’s time.”
Twilight took her place in the circle and confirmed that they were all ready. Then she looked to Discord and nodded.
He snapped his fingers, and in the center of the ring, a large crystal appeared. Sombra was frozen inside. Several long moments passed in stillness. Discord wanted to make the stallion feel exposed and vulnerable in the light of the morning sun. He snapped again.
There was a burst of intense flame that consumed the crystal prison in an instant, searing Sombra’s eyes with its brilliance. Discord took that second to affix an enchanted sleeve over Sombra’s horn and magically lock it in place. The enormous gray stallion reared up and roared, and the girls all tensed for a fight.
Sparks fizzled from Sombra’s horn until he realized his magic had been blocked. With a grunt, he switched gears and charged at Discord. He only made it two steps before collapsing. “What have you done to me?”
“Your prison was killing you,” the draconequus explained. “Out of concern for your life, you are being released.”
“Oh good,” sneered Sombra, rising shakily back to his hooves. He spotted Fluttershy and held eye contact with her. “It’s such a pleasure to be back.”
Discord walked up to Sombra and wrenched the stallion’s face up to look him in the eye. “Just because you’re released from prison doesn’t mean you’re free. We expect a full reformation out of you before you’ll get your freedom back, Bub. And if you try anything...” Flames danced in Discord’s eyes and his clutching talons dug deep enough into Sombra’s skin to draw blood.
The former king proudly matched Discord’s gaze. “And if I refuse?”
“Then you’ll never properly meet those sweet little foals I’ve adopted as my own.”
That made Sombra’s eyes dilate, and he found he couldn’t reply. Discord shoved his face away, knocking him back to the ground, and returned to his place beside Fluttershy with a “Humph”.
Twilight walked around the circle until she was standing before the glowering stallion. “These are the terms. You will be kept in the castle dungeon under close guard, and your magic will be blocked until you have proven you can be trusted. You will be given parchment and quills, as well as approved books to entertain yourself. I and the others will visit you frequently to teach you friendship lessons. If you are respectful and attentive, and if you demonstrate enough progress, you will earn more freedom over time. Will you accept this opportunity to improve yourself?”
“What about my foals?” he hissed.
“Whether and when you see your foals will be at Fluttershy’s sole discretion.”
Sombra growled at Twilight and glanced around for any hope of escape. His eyes landed on Fluttershy again, and he suddenly straightened up and composed himself. Placing a hoof over his chest, Sombra took a deep breath. Then he met Twilight’s eyes and smiled. “Twilight Sparkle. Thank you for your concern for my physical and moral wellbeing. Thank you all,” he added, with a grand gesture to the whole circle of creatures around him. “In the sincere hope of steadily improving my station and character for the good of my dear family, I accept these terms.”
Sombra held his confident smile as the ponies around him all exchanged wide-eyed glances.
“So be it, then,” Discord concluded. He teleported them all into the dungeon, where Sombra materialized in a cell that was already locked and under guard. The stallion offered no reaction at all to the change in scenery.
Twilight then teleported a package into the cell. “Here are parchments and quills, as promised, as well as your first book. It was written by Fluttershy and myself, and might be instructive to you.”
“Thank you,” nodded Sombra.
Rarity stood and turned her hooves toward the dungeon exit. “Well, I’m not spending any more time down here than I have to. Goodbye for now, Sombra. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you again soon enough.” She trotted off.
Rainbow Dash flew up to the bars of Sombra’s cell and stared him down. “Listen here, punk. Discord’s not the only one of us who’s ready to crush your skull if you so much as breathe in the wrong direction, so you’d better be on your best behavior.”
Applejack was next to depart. She had nothing to say to him, but affixed him with such an intense glare as she walked by that he could have no doubt she saw right through his little act of sincerity.
“Ohmygosh, we are gonna have so. Much. FUN!!!” Pinkie Pie bounced up to the bars and reached her front arms through, grabbing Sombra’s face and pulling it toward herself for a definitely-unwanted hug. She released him and called over her shoulder as she bounced away. “See you soon, newest friend!!!”
Sombra huffed at the indignity and brushed himself off. When he looked up again, he saw the earnest face of Twilight. “I really hope you’re being sincere. For your sake. Take today to get used to your new circumstances, and I’ll be back tomorrow for your first lesson.”
When Discord and Fluttershy were the last ones standing before the cell, the former whistled a signal toward the dungeon exit. Spike appeared, hustling two quivering colts down the stairs. He transferred Fio and Corey to their parents, shot the stallion in the cell a warning glare, and flew off again.
The twins were too excited to move or speak, so they sat side-by-side and stared in awe.
“Are those my sons?” Sombra crouched down to meet them at eye level. “Tell me, what are your names?”
Feisty Fio shook himself of his shock first. “I’m Fiorello Garnet Dusk!”
Corey could not be long outdone. “And I’m Corp-sis Stell-ian Lux!”
“Coreopsis Stellurian, dear,” Fluttershy corrected. Then she frowned at Sombra. “Corey. Fio and Corey.”
Having made initial contact, the twins could contain themselves no longer.
“Father, why are you in jail?”
“What’s on your horn, Father?”
“How old are you?”
“Do you like us?”
“Can we play with you, Father?”
Sombra chuckled heartily and there might have been a glint of genuine pleasure in his eyes. “All in good time, my sons! All in good time!”
“Okay, you two,” announced Discord. “You’ve met your father; now let’s give him some space. Come with Daddy!” He grit his teeth as he scooped up his foals and marched toward the exit without so much as a backward glance.
A spark of fear animated Fluttershy’s legs, and she jumped up to follow her mate out. But a low voice made her freeze.
“Fluttershy, my dear.”
She didn’t want to look back and forced her head to face forward. Her eyes, though, did not obey.
Sombra smiled when he caught her glance. “How soon will I see you again?”
No. Not that voice. He always used that voice with me. It was never real. He never really loved me. I can’t give in. It can’t happen again—
“Mommy, come play too!”
She heard Fio’s voice echo off the stone walls somewhere ahead and she ran for it.
Listening to the retreating beat of her hoofsteps, Sombra smirked to himself and licked his lips.
The two guards standing on either side of the cell door would be on high alert for the first hour or two, Sombra figured. It would be too risky to test his magic before then, so he laid himself neatly in the center of the stone floor, crossed his forelegs, and settled in for a good think.
“Your prison was killing you. Out of concern for your life, you are being released.”
He could have laughed. Concern for his life? He was already dead. Whatever life he’d had, brief as it was, had ended many centuries ago. Nopony ever cared for Sombra’s life until he had terminated it and become a shadow pony. Then, suddenly, he had become a figure of importance. A figure of respect and fear. It had made him feel significant and proud, but even so, there was only one who had ever actually liked him.
Even now, he could see her blue eyes. No, teal. Those eyes, so often bright with hope, yet always somehow hiding sadness. He remembered how it felt to stroke her silky mane, the soft, pastel color made all the softer against his dark gray fur. She was the dearest, sweetest creature he could imagine.
And now, she was not his.
It made Sombra’s eyes burn with fury to think how his mare had left him. While carrying his own sons, too!
His own sons; that was another matter. A shame it was that she should allow that beastly abomination to raise their sons. No, not merely a shame—an outrage! Sombra stood up and started pacing against the back wall of his cell.
His sons were a miracle. A gift from fate. Through them, no longer was the shadow pony race doomed. He could feel it, he could smell it, he could taste it: those colts had dark magic growing and maturing in their bodies. How this had occurred when no shadow foals in the history of their race had ever been born (save for himself), Sombra could not fathom. All he knew was that he had to get them back. They were his sons to raise, not that draconequus’s! He needed to help them reach their full potential! He needed them to help him recover the species and retake his kingdom!
But how could he possibly rescue them from Discord’s unfairly superlative power in this weakened state, with no allies or artifacts to aid him?
Sombra sat down in the corner of his cell, out of breath from walking.
How could it be done when he was so powerless?
Fluttershy, of course. His sons weren’t the only ponies exuding dark magic. He had tasted it on her too.
Sombra took a deep breath, savoring how the dark magic in his own body swelled and relaxed with the action. Maybe he couldn’t cast magic through his horn for the time being, but there were certainly other ways dark magic could be manipulated. Perhaps he still had an influence.
He recalled the sensation of enfolding her small, soft body against himself, and he grinned. If he could just remind her of her need for him, she would bring him their sons. She would be his queen again.
Well, he was oddly receptive, thought Twilight, easing herself into her desk chair and levitating over a scroll and quill. Maybe he really does want to change. Maybe those years imprisoned by his own hatred did him some good.
Twilight took a few minutes to take notes on her visit with Sombra and the results of the evening’s instruction. While she worked, though, she couldn’t stop thinking about Cozy Glow. She was having some serious trouble with that filly. Cozy Glow was understandably bored, left alone in a tiny pocket dimension, but she still adamantly refused to accept Twilight’s friendship instruction.
She felt bad for the filly. She wanted to give in to her requests for leniency and entertainment, but how could she when Cozy Glow was still so unresponsive? The one time Twilight had brought her a pet for companionship ended in disaster. That poor hamster lived with Fluttershy now while it recovered from its physical and emotional trauma, and Cozy Glow had lived in isolation since then.
Giving up on the filly was not an option, but Twilight had been feeling awfully helpless about the situation. Maybe it was time for another visit. News of Sombra’s progress might encourage Cozy Glow to rethink her obstinacy. Twilight mentally prepared herself and flashed away to her pocket dimension.
“Wowie, a visit from Princess Chatterbox! To what do I owe the honor?” Cozy Glow made an exaggerated salute, even though she was balancing on her head at the moment.
“Hi, Cozy. I just wanted to see you, that’s all. How are you doing today?”
“Today? Is it day? I thought it was the middle of the night. You can never tell in this boring little room.” She flipped herself right-side-up and rolled her eyes.
Twilight powered her magic and concentrated, but produced nothing more than sparks. She had the power to raise the sun and moon in the real world, but apparently not to create a sun and moon here. This pocket dimension was Discord’s creation, in the end; inventing some scenery for it probably required his chaos magic. Not that she hadn’t thought as much sooner—it was just that the interaction with Cozy Glow always went the same way. “Would you like me to get Discord to conjure up a landscape for you?”
“Only if that landscape is Ponyville. On fire.”
Still no progress, then. Twilight repressed a deep sigh and tried a different approach. “We let Sombra out yesterday.”
“What? Really? What for? Did you get him groveling at your hooves for mercy? Ha ha ha! Did he cry? I bet he cried!”
“No, Cozy. We had to let him out because his prison was killing him. We’re keeping him in the castle dungeon for now until he shows evidence of reform.”
The filly’s eyes grew wider. Then she coughed and toppled over to the side. “Oh, princess, my prison is killing me too! You’ll have to let me out or I’ll die in here and it’ll be all your fault!”
“Uh-huh.” Twilight walked in a circle around Cozy Glow to perform a quick health diagnostic. “Sombra’s prison was killing him because it was having a bad reaction with his dark magic. You don’t have any dark magic to cause problems, and you seem to be okay.”
“Fine, then! I’m dying of boredom!”
“I’m trying to help you, Cozy! If you gave me some indication that you’re willing to study friendship for real, I’d be more than happy to let you out of here and instruct you back in the real world! I just can’t do that if you keep insisting on being a danger!”
“I do insist on being a danger, and I also insist I’m dying of boredom. Can’t I at least have some parchment and a quill?”
“Last time I gave you parchment, you drew yourself killing me and my friends and drafted a scheme to take over Equestria.”
Cozy Glow lowered herself into a crouch and bared her teeth. “Well, what do you want me to do, then? Nothing? I’ve been doing nothing forever!”
Now Twilight sighed deeply. “I know. I hoped you’d agree to be reformed in the real world like Sombra. It would at least have more entertainment, and you wouldn’t be so alone all the time. But now I wonder if I should have treated you like Sombra in the beginning; that is, encase you in a crystal until the light of your hatred dies down enough to release you. It shouldn’t be dangerous since you don’t have dark magic, and you might not feel the loneliness and passage of time quite so acutely.”
“Golly, I don’t really get to choose, do I?” Cozy Glow walked up to Twilight to stare defiantly in her face. “Well, if you want to stick me in some awful crystal and get rid of me until Grogar-knows-when, then go right ahead! See you in a millenium or two, I guess!”
What could she do? Twilight powered her horn. The amount of time that defiant look would be frozen on that filly’s face was incalculable, and Twilight wanted to cry. She hadn’t intended it to come to this!
There was a flash of light, and then stillness.
Cozy Glow looked around. There was no crystal encasing her for eternity, and Twilight had vanished. “Coward,” she sneered.
My dear friends,
It’s been a while since I’ve heard from you two! I assume that means you’re having too much fun on your trip to Saddle Arabia to think about us back in Equestria, and I certainly wouldn’t blame you if that were the case! As for me, I’m managing, and the kingdom is still running smoothly, so I suppose I have no complaints.
There is a matter I wanted to bring to your attention, though. Not that I’m asking for your assistance! Please don’t come out of retirement for this—I just wanted to see if you had any sage advice to offer for a sticky situation.
You see, we had to release Sombra from his pocket dimension prison. It was reacting badly with his dark magic and slowly killing him. He’s now in a cell in the real world under close guard, and I and the others are giving him friendship lessons. So far, he has been receptive to the idea of reforming himself. That’s not where I need some advice.
The problem is Cozy Glow. She’s still being stubborn and disinterested in friendship. I told her what we did with Sombra, hoping she would accept a similar treatment in exchange for a promise of good intentions, but she refused. I’m so tempted to freeze her inside a crystal and just let time rub the sharp edges off her anger, like Fluttershy had attempted to do with Sombra! I don’t think it would be right, though.
So you see, I could use some advice. How are you getting on with Tirek and Chrysalis? Are they improving themselves yet? I could use a success story right about now.
Always your student and friend,
Applejack was rolling out the pie dough while Rarity prepared the cherry filling. They had managed to get through the entire baking process without saying anything of importance to each other. Applejack had made sure of that, dusting Rarity’s face with flour the moment it sounded like she was about to ask a sensitive question. That had forced the unicorn to make a trip to the powder room to de-powder her nose. It wasn’t until the pie was ready to come out of the oven that Rarity was willing to try again.
“Will you at least tell me how your visit with Sombra went yesterday?”
Applejack slipped a mitt over her hoof and turned to pull the pie out of the oven. “Well, I think—”
“APPLEJACK! How did your visit with Sombra go yesterday?” Discord burst out of the oven and accidentally knocked the pony in question backward into Rarity.
“Discord!” exclaimed Rarity, untangling herself from her friend. “What in Equestria are you doing in my house?”
The draconequus made a show of looking around. “Am I in your house? It wasn’t my intention. I just wanted to speak to Applejack, so I teleported myself right to her.”
“You’ve gone and ruined our pie!” Applejack pushed past Discord to gaze in horror at the boiling mess inside the oven.
“Hmm? Oh, never mind that.” With a snap of his fingers, the mess vanished and a fresh pie appeared on the counter. “You must tell me about your visit with Sombra!”
Applejack cocked an eyebrow. “Why do you wanna know?”
“Because Fluttershy’s going to pay him a visit alone later today, and I’m worried about her! You’re the honest one, and since you’ve visited Sombra now, I want your opinion! Is he safe? Should I go chaperone?”
Rarity cut in. “If Fluttershy wants to go alone, I hope you leave her to it, Discord! Respecting your partner’s emotional needs is an important part of a healthy relationship.” The look of warmth and patience she sent toward Applejack went unnoticed. Not by its intended recipient, anyway.
“I reckon Fluttershy’ll be fine, Discord. Sombra seemed awful weak when I visited him, and his magic ain’t workin’ at all thanks to that device you stuck on his horn. I’m sure you’ve got nothin’ to worry about.”
Discord flew right up to Applejack’s face. “Is that your whole assessment, then? Come now, Applejack: you’re the embodiment of honesty, so you know as well as I do that withholding information is as bad as lying!”
“Well...” Applejack rubbed a hoof along the back of her neck. “I’m fairly certain he’s physically harmless, and he sure talks like he’s willin’ to be reformed, but… I gotta say, I have my doubts. I’m pretty sure he’s plottin’ somethin’; he’s just bidin’ his time right now. The trick is gonna be to convince him to want to be reformed before he gets enough strength back to try anythin’.”
“So, you’re saying I should go keep an eye on things?” Discord started wringing his hands.
“No, I’m sayin’ Sombra’s dishonest but harmless. Give Fluttershy space to do her work. It’s not like she hasn’t reformed anycreature before, ya know.”
“Heh, right.” Discord coughed up a laugh. “I suppose that’s true.”
“Well, now that we’ve gotten that all settled, will you please get out of my house?” Rarity daintily stomped a hoof for emphasis.
Discord feigned offense. “What, you don’t appreciate my company?”
After moving to stand beside Rarity, Applejack offered the intrusion a pointed stare. “It’s not that. I was just tryin’ to enjoy some quality time with my friend before I head back to Ponyville for another two weeks.”
“Quality time, eh? Certainly a little fun-filled chaos would—” At that moment, Discord noticed the way the two mares were brushing shoulders, like they wanted to lean into each other but were also trying not to. He remembered Rarity’s warm look to Applejack too. A devilish grin broke out across his face. “Oh, you mean that kind of quality time! How scandalous!” He wiggled his eyebrows for good measure.
Discord giggled when Applejack and Rarity rapidly sidestepped apart. Then they both started talking at once.
“There’s no need to be so vulgar!”
“So what if that’s what it is?”
Rarity whipped her head around to meet Applejack’s gaze, the unwelcome visitor suddenly forgotten. “What was that?”
“I said, ‘so what if that’s what it is’.”
“I mean you’re right, Rarity. I have been avoiding this, but it’s already here, ain’t it? I was just scared ‘cause I didn’t know what it would mean for my family, or the farm, or myself. You know how stubborn and independent I am, and I didn’t wanna let myself be dependent on anypony else.”
At this point, Discord had conjured a recliner and a bag of popcorn. Applejack went on, oblivious.
“Well, I realized somthin’. I’ve been scared a lot lately about the future, and whenever I’m scared, what do I do? I write to ya, or if I can, I come visit. In your company, my problems don’t seem quite so bad. So I figure I’m already a little dependent on you, Rarity, and what’s the use of denyin’ it any longer? It only makes things harder for me, and I know it’s hard on you too. Maybe it’s time I just accept it so we can see where this goes.”
“Oh, Applejack!” Rarity wiped a tear from her eye and threw herself on the earth pony for a hug. “I’ve waited so long to hear you say that, and now that you have, I hardly know what to do with myself!”
“Ha!” Discord’s exclamation made both mares jump in surprise. “If romance is your game after all, I might have a few suggestions!” He tossed away his greasy popcorn bag and snapped, causing the lights to dim and rose petals to appear scattered across the floor.
Standing beside each other again, Applejack and Rarity exchanged a wide-eyed look.
“Why the hay not?” asked Applejack, turning back to Discord. “What would you suggest for us?”
The draconequus silently squee’d at being accepted as a source of advice. “You two are going to need to have your first official date! Now, I know a good place out by—”
“Hold on a moment,” interrupted Rarity. “I think I speak for both of us when I say we’d rather keep this ‘relationship’ of ours a secret for the time being. I don’t want to be seen in public in that light just yet.”
“And don’t you go tellin’ the rest of our friends, either,” Applejack added. “If things work out, I think we’d rather have the chance to tell everypony ourselves.”
“Very well, very well. Oh, this is so exciting!” Discord levitated up and spun around in the air. “I won’t even tell Fluttershy! Two ponies so different in character! Love can be so unpredictable, can’t it? What a gloriously chaotic thing! The farm pony took a fancy to the fancy pony, and the fancy pony fawns over the farm pony. It’s perfectly harmonious, and yet utterly chaotic! You know, I never imagined it would be through love that chaos and harmony might reach a gyrating sort of balance, yet here we are! I can’t tell you how happy I am for you two!” Discord landed back on the floor and enthusiastically shook the mares’ hooves.
Quite understandably, neither Rarity nor Applejack could figure out what to do or say to that, so they kept their stunned silence.
Discord was unfazed. “Oh, but you must have a date! Why not right here?”
He snapped, and they were all suddenly in the transformed dining room. Soft sunlight poured through gossamer curtains to illuminate a lavishly-set table. The tablecloth was a surprisingly elegant combination of paisley and lace, and there were two opalescent china plates and two crystal glasses positioned across from each other. In the center were a darkened bottle of tempting liquid and the pie, made fresh again and garnished with vibrant mint leaves and a trio of passion fruits. There were tall, green taper candles on either side of the pie, and, most strikingly of all, flowers everywhere. Big, smiling blooms lining the perimeter of the table. Garlands draping over the chairs and the crystal chandelier, sporting flowers in aquamarine, pearl, and heliotrope. Decadent bouquets hung from the walls in burnished gold sconces. Tall pots and trim topiaries stood in the corners and along the walls. The fragrance of it all was balmy and intoxicating.
Rarity was also quick to notice that she and Applejack had been dressed for the occasion. Both mares now wore elegant dresses fit for royalty. Hers was a voluminous ballroom gown with a fluted collar reminiscent of a seashell, a fitted velvet bodice with swirls of tiny, sparkling gemstones, and a dramatically ruffled skirt with a different blue in each layer of tulle that gave the impression of ocean waves as she moved. Applejack’s dress had a loose and flowing sheath style. It was emerald green and artfully sequined, such that the play of light on its surface looked rather like sunlight dappling on the grass beneath an apple tree on a bright summer afternoon. The ocean and orchard effects of each respective dress were so alive, Rarity thought, it had to be a touch of magic.
After a few seconds of awed silence, there was another snap. Quiet, dreamy music bloomed from the silence, though there was no visible source.
“Well, I suppose I’ll leave you to it after all,” Discord announced. “I promise I won’t breathe a word! Ta-ta!” And he winked, and was gone.
This was it. She could do it. The memories would haunt her for the rest of her life if she didn’t conquer them right here and now. Fluttershy took a deep breath and descended into the dungeon.
When she reached the cell, Sombra was merely a pile of gray and black in the far corner, apparently asleep. Quietly, Fluttershy shed her saddle bags and pulled out a clipboard, a pencil, and her notes for the lesson. Something else fell out too. A peculiar, spiny-looking flower. Protea. Discord must have put it there. It made Fluttershy smile, and she took courage as she carefully tucked it away in her saddlebag again. Then she lifted a hoof and knocked on one of the bars of the cell door.
The shadowy figure stirred and lifted its head. “Fluttershy,” Sombra smiled, slowly rising to a stand. “It’s good to see you again.”
As he walked toward her, Fluttershy felt her heart lurch, and a tang of adrenaline seeped into her mouth. She tried to swallow it back. And then he was there. Right in front of her, looking down at her again, and the only thing separating them was a few metal bars. Her throat was dry.
Sombra flattened his ears and looked at the floor. “I have made many mistakes, and I have done such terrible things.”
He sighed and sat down. “You must know I mean you no harm, Fluttershy. Not this time. I’m trying to improve myself now, so I don’t ever hurt you again.”
Fluttershy was stunned. She didn’t know how she imagined this meeting would go, but it was certainly not like this. Involuntarily, she took a step backward.
Sombra noticed. “What is it that you fear? I am weak and imprisoned, as you know, and I have professed my good intent besides.” He paused for an answer, but Fluttershy was too busy trying to remember how to breathe. “Unless,” he tapped a hoof to his chin, “it is not me that you fear, but yourself…?” The faintest smile curled the corners of his lips as he tilted his head down and raised his eyes to meet hers.
She didn’t mean to, but she was so surprised and confused and alarmed. Her wings unfolded of their own accord. Did she intend to flee, or perhaps to hide her face? There was a peculiar pulsing in her blood and she did not like it. But she remembered the flower Discord had left for her, and she got ahold of herself, tucked her wings back against her sides, and stepped forward again. Sombra had changed the subject, anyway.
“I miss having you, as you might guess, but of course I understand how that is an impossibility, so I’ll speak no more of that. But our foals are such a miracle! So handsome and bold. I do hope you will allow me the opportunity to get to know them someday. Tell me—what are their personalities like?”
“Well,” Fluttershy started, daring to sit down. “They’re both troublemakers. Fio is the elder by a few minutes, and he likes to be the leader of their escapades. Corey’s a lot more mellow, but his curiosity usually gets the better of him.”
The next few minutes were almost pleasant. Sombra continued asking questions about Fio and Corey, and in answering them, Fluttershy felt herself relax. She loved her two little rascals, and thinking about them helped her remember why she was here.
“...and they absolutely adore their Auntie Twilight. She gives them magic lessons, you know. Um, are you all right?”
Sombra’s mouth was set in a stretched frown and his eyes were firmly shut. He opened them upon Fluttershy’s question. They appeared reddened with strain. “I, erm, yes,” he coughed. “I’m just… sad to be missing out on my sons’ lives, I suppose.”
Fluttershy idly ran a hoof up and down the scarred side of her neck. “Well, if you show some genuine improvement, I might be willing to bring them to visit you sometimes. I’m just not sure I want you to really take part in their lives. Not for a long while yet, anyway.”
“Hmm. In the interest of achieving that genuine improvement and speeding your trust along, why don’t we go ahead and get started on my lesson for today? I assume you prepared one, yes?”
“Oh! Yes, of course!” Fluttershy turned and quickly scooped up her clipboard. “So, as you might have figured, practicing kindness is an important part of being a good pony and a good friend. The first kindness lesson I wanted you to understand is to never do anything to anycreature without first getting their permission, especially if it involves your magic. I had to teach Discord this lesson too...”
“You mean he’s been abusing you with his magic?”
“Well, not anymore, and I wouldn’t really call it abuse...”
“Maybe… pranks? Just silly things like making me bigger or smaller, or changing my species, or making me hiccup bubbles every time I tried to scold him. But he always put me back to normal as soon as I asked him to! And like I said, he doesn’t really do that anymore. He’s learned better.”
“I see.” Sombra laid down and crossed his front legs.
“Anyway, to get on with the lesson...” It took about half an hour for Fluttershy to talk Sombra through her materials. She noticed from time to time he got that tight, concentrated look on his face again, but it didn’t seem like anything to worry about. He always answered her questions correctly when she tested his attention, after all. The whole encounter went much smoother than Fluttershy had anticipated, and once she’d gotten over her initial fright, Sombra’s company really wasn’t that bad.
That wasn’t to say she wasn’t happy to leave when the lesson ended. “Um, that’s all I had for today. Here’s a little worksheet for you to test yourself when you want.” She slid a paper through the bars and stood up to leave, donning her saddlebags again. “I’ll be back with another lesson next week.”
Sombra stood too. “Thank you for today, Fluttershy. Your kindness and charm are extraordinary.”
There was a rushing sound in Fluttershy’s ears. Surely, he was just trying to win her favor by easy flattery? But if that was so, why was it working? Why did she feel her face flush? “Um, t-thank you.”
“No, thank you. I am sure you are an excellent mother for our foals. Truly, I can think of no creature more capable than you of raising them to standards I can be proud of. I am most grateful, dear Fluttershy. Until next week.” He nodded his goodbye with a smile, then turned away from the cell door, examining the worksheet she had given him.
Fluttershy’s hooves were frozen in place for a moment. Then she re-tucked her errant wings and spun around to trot away before she could collapse.
What did it mean?
Why was teaching him and talking to him so easy?
Why was turning away so hard?
She was galloping and panting by the time she reached the top of the staircase and emerged back into the daylight.
We are sorry to hear about Sombra’s premature release, and we hope seeing to him is not putting too much strain on you and your friends. Do let us know if he causes trouble. We’ll be there to help the moment you ask.
As for Cozy Glow, that does seem to be a bit of a challenge. Perhaps we should all get together to confer in person. Cozy might be more receptive to a couple of new faces, and it may be good for you to visit Tirek and Chrysalis, too. Tirek has made some promising development, but only a little, and Chrysalis is still something of a delinquent filly. So there’s room for improvement in all of our charges, and a little variety in tutors could do them some good.
We’ll be back from Saddle Arabia in another week. After that point, we can arrange a meeting around your schedule, since you’re the busy one nowadays! Try to hold back your frustration with Cozy Glow just a little longer.
Celestia and Luna
Pinkie Pie was sitting in her party cave with a helium balloon in her hooves. Cheese Sandwich also had a balloon.
“So, Cheese,” squeaked Pinkie Pie, her voice even higher than normal after inhaling some of the helium, “has your Cheesy Sense warned you about any upcoming party needs lately?”
The stallion sipped from his balloon before replying. “Yeah! I’m heading to Cloudsdale this Thursday to help a colt with a learning disability celebrate passing a big flight school exam! I’m gonna make sure the whole school is there to show him how proud they are of him!”
Pinkie Pie took another sip of helium and squeaked even higher. “Ooh! That sounds amazing! But how are you going to throw a party in Cloudsdale if you’re an earth pony?”
“Oh, a good party pony has his ways.”
“Well, duh! I mean I know how I would get to Cloudsdale to throw a party—I just wanted to know if your way was different!”
Cheese Sandwich lowered his voice to a conspiratorial tone, but not before getting another gulp from his balloon. “The secret is Poison Joke.”
“Yes, really! I discovered it the hard way along my travels. Poison Joke makes me float! I just have to keep some rocks in my saddlebags to ensure I don’t get above a certain altitude, and the effect wears off slowly in about 48 hours! I’ll roll in some Poison Joke on Wednesday, float up to Cloudsdale to get everything ready for the party on Thursday, and float back to the ground sometime Friday night!”
“Wow, that’s so cool! Poison Joke just makes my tongue swell up so I can’t talk. Hey! If you’ll be back Friday night, maybe we can catch the movie in town together?”
“Gee, that sounds great, Pinkie, but I actually had an errand to run once I get back. It’ll probably take me another day or two. Maybe I can treat you to dinner on Sunday instead?”
“I think you’d better if you’re planning to be gone for four whole days. Whatever will I do with myself?” Pinkie Pie laid a hoof across her forehead and dramatically flopped backward. What remained of her balloon jetted around the room and then crashed pathetically to the floor.
“Well, you could always visit that Sombra guy again. With all the lessons he’s supposed to be getting lately, I bet he could use a good laugh.”
Pinkie Pie bounced back up to her hooves. “Yeah! Good idea!” Then she gasped. “I should bring him some balloons. I’ll bet his voice sounds hilarious on helium!”
“Speaking of helium, we’ve been slacking!” Cheese Sandwich lifted his balloon to his lips.
“Uh-oh, mine’s all gone!”
The stallion held his balloon out to his marefriend as he started squeaking a howl. Pinkie Pie sipped from his balloon and howled along with him.
“I love yoooouuuuuuuuu!” howled he.
“I love you tooooooooooooooooo!” howled she, after a giggle.
All that night, Fluttershy had nightmares. They weren’t all scary—in fact, some of them were almost pleasurable—but they were all bad. She gave Discord a big squeeze when she finally woke up to remind herself of where she was and whom she was actually with.
She got through the breakfast shuffle in a fog. By the time she, Discord, and the twins were all out in the gardens, the caffeine from her big mug of black tea had finally kicked in, and it was time to head to the castle nursery. Fluttershy had planned that they would all pick out a plant and a pot to put it in today. She would teach her foals a little about gardening, and together, they would create a cute living symbol of their family unity. It was exciting, Fluttershy reminded herself.
“I’m gonna grow the prettiest plant,” Fio taunted, running ahead of the group.
“Well, I’m gonna grow the biggest plant,” Corey responded, chasing after his brother.
Discord flew ahead to chase both of his sons. “Well, I’m going to grow the ugliest, nastiest plant I can find! It’ll be so horrible, it’ll scare everycreature else’s plants away!”
“No, Daddy!” Corey laughed. “Plants don’t get scared!”
“We’ll see about that!”
He’d better not sprout legs on our plants and send them away, Fluttershy thought. What would it teach the twins?
By and by, they reached the nursery. Fio and Corey immediately began screaming down the rows of infant plants with delight. Discord hovered over everything, trying to spot all of the uglier, nastier selections. He dove toward the succulents.
“Fio, Corey, come look at this one!”
The twins raced over with enthusiasm. Corey arrived first to scrutinize the plant in question.
“It looks like a hoof!”
Fio arrived next and could barely speak for giggles. “Or a butt!” All three of the boys burst out laughing at that.
Fluttershy scowled and made her way toward the wagons. Why did he have to show them Lithops? One of them will choose it for sure and call it a butt-plant the whole way home!
To her relief, the three of them soon scattered across the nursery again, and none of them were carrying a Lithops. She pulled her wagon toward the asters and picked up her first selection. Fio ran toward her with a plant in his magic aura.
“Mommy, Mommy, I want this one!” The plant he proffered featured a green, paddle-like growth with red hairs radiating out from it. On the end of each hair was a drop of some clear substance.
Recognizing the plant, Fluttershy tried not to frown. “I thought you wanted the prettiest one, darling.”
“But it is pretty! And Daddy says it’s a carnivore!”
“Well, yes, it is, but the climate—”
“Oh, nevermind that,” interrupted Discord. “I can arrange for each pot to produce its own microclimate so we don’t have any limitations!”
“I suppose I can’t say no, then,” Fluttershy grumbled. “Are you sure this is the one you want, Fio?”
“All right.” She put the sundew in the wagon.
Now Discord held up a plant. “This is the one I want!”
Fluttershy raised an eyebrow. “Welwitschia? They’re growing those here?”
“I may or may not have conjured it just now...”
“Why that one?”
“Because it’s weird and ugly and old, just like me! And it also defies all odds and lasts for a very, very long time, just like my love for you!” He kissed Fluttershy on the top of her head, and she thought she might be able to forgive him for his shenanigans after all. But then he went on: “Plus, it’s not quite as ugly as the butt-plant.”
Fio burst out laughing and Fluttershy’s scowl returned.
“Fine, put it in the wagon, then.” Fluttershy knew she was being extra grouchy today—especially toward Discord—and she figured the reason was just her poor night of sleep. Still, did he have to be so mischievous all the time? Sometimes Fluttershy could have wished for a little more peace and normalcy in her household. She sighed to push the negativity out of her system and called out across the nursery. “Corey, dear, have you picked a plant?”
“This one!” Corey ran toward the rest of his family and shoved his plant in Fluttershy’s face.
She got a noseful of a refreshingly sweet scent. Finally, something normal! “A peony. What a lovely choice, Corey!” Into the wagon went the big, pink blossom.
“That flower’s the biggest,” boasted the colt.
“Mine’s the coolest!” Fio countered.
“But it’s not pretty!”
“Yes it is!”
In a few more minutes, they had each picked out their pots (along with a larger fifth pot, too), paid for their goods, and were on their way back to the cottage. Discord ferried the pots and plants along in a boat he pulled through the air.
Behind the house, Fluttershy arranged the four smaller pots in a large circle, with the fifth pot in the middle. She had anticipated a few weird plant selections, knowing her family, and so decided to make a family pot alongside their individual pots. Only normal garden plants would go in the family pot. A pile of potting soil and four trowels appeared upon Discord’s snap, and Fluttershy showed her family how to fill their pots to the correct depth, extract their plants roots-and-all from their compostable cups, and fill in soil around them to help them stand. Then, they watered their plants (except for Discord, whose desert plant didn’t need it) and admired their handiwork. Around the circle was a sundew, a peony, a Welwitschia, and Fluttershy’s strawberry.
Discord touched his pot, causing a glimmer of light to briefly sweep down its height, and then did the same for Fio’s pot. It was the promised climate control.
“Alright, now let’s do the last pot together!” Fluttershy directed them all to the big pot in the center and started handing out plants. “A coreopsis for Corey.” The flower had deep red petals with black bases. “A winter rose for Fio.” There were no flowers on the plant yet, but Fluttershy had chosen a variety with dark, inky petals that contrasted beautifully with its gold anthers and stamens. “A staghorn fern for Discord.” Its fronds resembled Discord’s deer antler, a fact he gleefully emphasized by plucking his horn off his head and placing it in the center of the fern. “And a bleeding heart for me.”
Discord guessed why Fluttershy chose that flower for herself and gave a single chuckle at the memory, unsure whether he should be amused or concerned. Fluttershy did seem a little off today, and he suspected it had something to do with her recent visit to the stallion who had once tried to take over her heart.
She still wasn’t smiling by the time they finished the last pot and the gardening lesson. Discord grew worried. “Hey, Fluttershy, why don’t I take care of the foals for the afternoon? You look like you could use some R&R. A trip to the spa, perhaps?” He snapped, and a plush robe appeared on Fluttershy’s body.
Fio and Corey ran off across the lawn, snickering. Fluttershy was pretty sure she heard them whispering “butt-plant” back and forth as they went.
“No, thank you.” She shrugged off the garment. “I was actually thinking I would take the foals on a nature walk and teach them some more about plants and animals, and frankly, I think we could do without your distractions. Why don’t you go to the spa instead?”
Discord’s ears flattened, and he made himself small. “Oh, o-of course. I know I can be a little much sometimes. I’ll just get out of your mane, then, and maybe… you could tell me how it went later tonight?”
“Okay then. I’m sorry if I did something wrong.”
Fluttershy stared at him until he took the hint and teleported himself away. Then she gave the side of her neck a rub and started after her foals, who were wrestling in the grass. It hurt to see Discord look so hurt, but something wasn’t right with her, and she needed some space to figure herself out. Spending time with Fio and Corey would be a lot better than sulking alone at a time like this.
Fluttershy felt much more confident than last time as she descended back into the dungeon. Now that she knew she could stand him, he didn’t seem like so much of a threat. He could have no power over her any longer.
Sombra noticed her almost as soon as she arrived and practically bounced over as she got herself situated. “I’m so glad to see you again, Fluttershy! Your friends have taught me much in the last week. Oh, and here’s that worksheet you gave me last time if you want to check my answers.”
He slid the page out between the bars and Fluttershy took it automatically. The unexpected enthusiasm had left her stunned. In a few more seconds, she managed to wrap her head around the situation and glance over Sombra’s work.
“I gave you this mostly to see if you would do it at all, and also to encourage you to put some deliberate thought into being kind. Your exact answers don’t really matter to me as long as I can see you put in the effort, but actually, everything you wrote looks pretty good. Nice work!”
“Thank you.” He grinned and bowed. “The day after your last visit, Rainbow Dash came to teach me about loyalty—except her lesson was mostly just her reiterating how much I deserve this prison after all the terrible things I’ve done to her friends. Rarity was next. Can you believe she made this exquisite garment for me as a demonstration of generosity?” He turned sideways and gestured to the elegantly-ruffled black shirt he wore.
“Oh my.” Fluttershy could tell even in the dim lighting that Rarity didn’t cut any corners in quality or artistry for the gift. Not that she expected anything less of her friend’s remarkable generosity. The shirt complemented the rugged stallion so well that Fluttershy caught herself staring a little longer than she’d meant to.
“And you should have seen Pinkie Pie!” Sombra actually laughed. “She brought a pile of empty balloons and two cylinders. One contained helium, and the other, sulfur hexafluoride. She wanted me to breathe it to see how it would change my voice!”
Fluttershy imagined him speaking with first a comically-high voice, and then a comically-low one, and she couldn’t suppress a giggle. “Did you do it?”
“Not at first, but that mare’s laughter is infectious! After she demonstrated the possibilities, I just had to try it too! I’ve never laughed so hard in my life!”
Now she was laughing along with him, absolutely delighted by his response to her and her friends’ instruction. “It sounds like you’ve been learning a lot! How about your visit with Applejack?”
Sombra promptly stopped laughing and sat himself down. “She doesn’t trust me.”
“Can you really blame her for that? I mean, no offense, but I don’t think any of us trust you very much just yet. All of us are still very new to this whole situation.”
“Granted, but she won’t even give me the benefit of the doubt. She made it clear she refuses to accept that I want to change. It’s just...” he sighed. “It’s hard, you know? It’s hard to believe in yourself when somepony else so vocally does not.”
Seeing him look so uncertain stirred Fluttershy, and she dared to slip a hoof through the bars to touch his hoof. “I understand.”
The unexpected contact made Sombra look up from the floor to meet her eyes. “...Thank you. It’s good to know at least one pony believes in me.”
“I do.” She offered him a smile and was warmed to see him smile back. “I’ve been wondering… What made you want to be reformed now?”
“Seeing you, and our foals. Hearing their voices. It made me realize there are much more rewarding goals than power, and much more fulfilling loves to earn than mere fealty. Somehow, I… I’d never considered any other life a possibility.”
“Not even all those times when my friends and I demonstrated how wonderful and powerful friendship can be?”
“You have to understand where I’m coming from, Fluttershy. In my youth, I was raised to become something very different. It takes a lot to overcome such long-ingrained beliefs.”
“Would you mind… telling me about your past? I mean, of course I understand if you’d rather not, but I might be able to teach you better if I know why you think the way you do...”
“All right.” Sombra lowered himself to the floor and crossed his forelegs. “You’d better lie down too. It’s not a happy tale.
“I began as a colt with no memories, found alone in the frozen wilderness and taken to an orphanage in the Crystal Empire. There, I learned the ways of the crystal ponies, and how little they tolerated ponies they didn’t understand. I struggled to fit in, and they ridiculed me for it. In class, they taught that friendship was good. It made ponies happy. But in practice, my classmates taught me again and again that friendship was only a way to prey upon the weak.”
Fluttershy’s throat burned as she remembered her own experience with bullying, and how terribly it had affected her in her youth.
“And every year, during the Crystal Faire, all of the other foals would get to go out and have fun, but I was always stuck in bed, writhing in pain for reasons I didn’t understand. It grew worse and worse over time. Eventually, I’d had enough of my miserable life with the crystal ponies and ran off. Out in the wilderness, I found my mother—what was left of her, anyway.
“She was just a voice within a crystal. While I was there, at my most vulnerable and afraid, she told me I was actually only half crystal pony! I really belonged to the shadow ponies—her people. Can you imagine what I felt? Finally, I had found a family, and a home where I would fit in! Only for my mother to tell me that she and our people were dying. They would cease to exist very soon if I did not help. In fact, that was the whole reason I was born! My mother told me I was my people’s last hope of salvation, and she had left me alone and exposed in the frozen wilds as a foal so I could infiltrate the crystal ponies and carry out my destiny. I was so desperate to be accepted and wanted, I couldn’t help but agree to do whatever I could!
“It was time for me to assume my true form and become a full shadow pony, she said. I could feel the dark magic taking over my body, destroying it, making it its own; and I could feel I was all the more powerful for it. Finally, those nasty friends could terrorize me no more! All I had to do was destroy the Crystal Heart, and I would have a family! I would be a hero!
“But there was one pony, one friend, who tried to stop me. I don’t remember her much now—I don't even remember her name—but I know I had… affection for her. She wanted me to choose between her and my mother. Friendship and family. Well, I had seen what friendship could do, and with the exception of that one filly, it only ever brought me pain. And besides, I was born to save my family! It was destiny!
“So I did it. I took the Heart. I thought I had no other option. Alas, it was too late. By the time I freed them, my people were only echoes of themselves, too far gone to be recovered. If it hadn’t been for my one friendgetting in the way, perhaps I could have saved them in time! I had suddenly lost everything. My mother and my people were dead. The filly I thought I liked left me. I was alone again, and it was all because of friendship. I was the last of my kind; the crystal ponies had been trying to eradicate us—eradicate me—all along. I couldn’t help what I was! I couldn’t help trying to save my family! Why did they hate me so much for what I could not control?” Sombra’s eyes were distant, and he was sniffling.
How horrible! By the end of such a terrible tale, Fluttershy’s breathing was labored, and she could feel her blood pulsing painfully with sympathy. Something in the back of her mind warned her it didn’t match up, that she’d heard a different version of that story, but she was in too much empathetic pain to pursue the thought. To be that alone! That unwanted! That despised! She could scarcely imagine how deep such a despair must have been. Before she knew it, Fluttershy was weeping.
And then she was standing.
And asking one of the guard ponies to unlock the cell.
And she was inside with Sombra, and wrapping her hooves around him, and crying into his fur while he cried into hers. “I’m so sorry,” she mumbled.
Sombra wrapped his arms around her, too, and held her tightly. “No, I’m sorry. Everything I did since then, I did because I believed it was the only way around my loneliness. I had no more family and I couldn’t make friends, and all this time I thought, if I wanted respect and a place in this world, I had to take it. I’ve done terrible, terrible things, but you’ve shown me at long last what friendship really is. And our sons… They’ve shown me what I might become, if I learn to make friends at last.”
How long did they hold each other there? He was so warm, yet so cold. He was so distant, yet so desperate to be found. Fluttershy’s heartbeat felt so fast and so slow, and her sense of where she was, or who she was, started slipping. All that mattered was that she be right in this moment until his tears were dried.
At length, Sombra heaved a meaningful sigh and pushed himself out of the embrace. “Thank you for that.”
Fluttershy didn’t know what to say as her surroundings crowded back into her awareness. His eyes were deep and sad and she couldn’t look away. “I’m glad you finally have a chance to redeem yourself, and I’m glad… that I get to be here, to help you through it.”
“Me too.” He held her gaze. Neither of them were quite ready to look away. Then he coughed. “So, I suppose there was some friendship lesson you came here to teach me?”
“Yes! Oh my, I had forgotten all about it! But I don’t know, I think we sort of covered a lot of ground already...”
“Maybe so, but let’s have the lesson anyway, since you’re here. I do have a lot to learn, don’t I?”
After another moment’s thought, Fluttershy assented. She once again talked Sombra through a kindness lesson, but after the conversation they’d just had, it felt a little trite and redundant. Sombra paid attention anyway and didn’t seem to mind her rushing through it. Once she got to the end, she stood.
“I’d better be going. The twins get into trouble when I’m away too long, and Discord likes to encourage them.” Fluttershy nodded to a guard, and he opened the cell door for her to exit, locking it behind her. She looked back at the stallion inside. “Goodbye for now.”
“You’ll come back to visit soon?”
“This time next week.”
Sombra’s ears drooped and his lips twisted into something of a pout. “Very well. Goodbye.”
He waited until the sound of her hooves on the dungeon floor faded away before he turned around and stalked to the back corner of his cell. There were his notes and the astronomy book he had just gotten Twilight to approve that morning. Sombra rubbed his hooves together in anticipation and got to reading.
The day was bright and beautiful once you got above the overcast cloud layer. There, high up in the atmosphere, two figures sped and twirled and dove and flipped out of sight of the world beneath. Rainbow Dash claimed the thin air was good for practice, if just a little dangerous. Any moves she could accomplish up here, where breathing was hard and the atmosphere barely supported her weight, she could easily accomplish at lower altitudes.
“Alright, now come at me from about 26.2 degrees northwest of zenith. I need you to steady at 98m/s and don’t divert for anything. I’ll come up from below and skim just over your airstream. The opposing friction should launch us both into clean, mirrored loops. Give it a little bit more thrust just as I’m passing since your loop’s got more gravity to overcome. Roger?”
“Roger!” Discord saluted and darted up to position. At Rainbow Dash’s signal, he dove and maintained his trajectory even when the pegasus launched herself on a collision course. There was a tremor as she tilted up at the last instant and missed him by centimeters. Just a bit more speed now, and he found himself sailing upward in a wide loop-de-loop. He could see Rainbow Dash arcing downward from above him and wearing an exhilarated grin.
Discord was about half-pi from the end of the move when he felt an impact on his stomach. It flattened his arc and sent him on a nose-dive straight down. Rainbow Dash was perched on his middle and flapping furiously to keep herself upright relative to Discord’s vertically-inverted body.
“BE YE VANQUISHED!” She made a thrusting motion as if driving a sword into Discord’s chest, then launched herself back upward just before the draconequus collided with the cloud layer and disappeared. After a mock-victory dance in the sky, Rainbow Dash alighted on the cloud and peered into the space where Discord had gone through.
His head popped up again a few feet away. “Was this meant to be the ground?” he accused, patting the cloud surface to clarify. “Was that little stunt of yours meant to drive me into the ground?”
“You gotta admit that would be a pretty epic way to vanquish the dragon!”
Discord pulled himself all the way up. “I’ll say! Ooh, that’s graphic! Not a show for the kiddos, eh? Say, do you want me to splatter into a puddle upon impact, or perhaps dissolve into ashes and drift away on the breeze? Or should I lie there in a crater, looking all broken and bloody and horrific?”
“Heh! I’d personally vote for broken and bloody and horrific, but best leave that up to Spitfire. Do you think the sword thrust was too much?”
“Not at all! One must absolutely go all out when vanquishing a dragon! It’s just to make sure I can’t pull up and save myself at the last second, after all.”
“Great! Then I say we do that again, only you change into your dragon form, just to be sure it’ll work.”
Discord suddenly supersized himself into a dragon. “Ready when you are!”
“I’d better finish catching my breath first. You may not have noticed, but there isn’t a ton of oxygen up here.”
“You mortals and your silly physiological requirements,” scoffed dragon-Discord.
“What’re you gonna do?” shrugged Rainbow Dash. She flung herself backwards to lay supine on the fluffy clouds. “Say, have you visited Sombra at all?”
Discord picked at a talon with his long, pointed teeth. “No. Why?”
“I just saw him yesterday, and he’s been really weirding me out. Like, not in the normal Sombra-weirdness way. I can’t stop thinking about it.”
“What’s he done this time?”
“I dunno, he’s just… too enthusiastic, I guess. I’m glad if he really wants to be reformed and all, but his 180 in attitude was as fast as any of my aerial 180s. He’s gotta be up to something.”
“I wouldn’t put it past him. You know, Fluttershy’s been a little more flighty than usual lately. I figured it was the old anxiety kicking up, but I wonder if he’s been saying things to her. Maybe I’ll ask her about it.”
Rainbow Dash sat back up and regarded Discord with a serious expression. “Why don’t you just go visit Sombra and grill him yourself?”
To offset his friend’s seriousness, Discord rolled himself onto his back and kicked his legs into the air. “Seemed to me like that might go a little counter to the reform effort, if you know what I mean.”
“Yeah, I guess. On the other hoof, why don’t you visit him regularly and give him friendship lessons like the rest of us? You’re a successful graduate of the villain-reform course, after all—you might be better able to reach him than any of us!”
“If he were a neutral party, maybe, but Sombra and I aren’t exactly on the best of terms, you know! Requiring him to tolerate me as a teacher might do him more harm than good. I’ve resolved to just stay out of the way if I can. Not that he deserves such consideration!” His last remark came with a deep, menacing snarl.
Suddenly, Discord flipped rightside-up. “Anyway, have you spoken to Rarity or Applejack lately?”
“Uh, yeah, why?”
“If you don’t know why, then they must not have told you—well, I must be true to my word. Dash, behind you!”
Rainbow Dash whipped around just in time to receive a custard cake in her face. “What was that for?” she demanded, wiping the confection out of her eyes.
“Well, I understand you don’t like pie, so it had to be a cake!” Dragon-Discord’s hearty guffaws set the whole cloud bank shaking.
Once the quake stopped and she recovered her balance, Rainbow Dash licked cake off her hoof and gave an “mmm” of delight. Then she threw a clump of it at Discord and nailed him in the eye. They both erupted in laughter and nearly broke their clouds apart with the tremor of it.
“Alright, big guy,” Rainbow Dash announced at last, “let’s get on with round two!”
“With pleasure!” The duo kicked off and resumed their aerial positions for another round of stunts.
“Well, mister, since you’ve been payin’ so much attention, remind me: what are the six elements of harmony?”
Sombra’s expression was smug as he faced down his interrogator. “Kindness, loyalty, generosity, magic, laughter, and honesty.”
“Uh-huh. Now tell me somethin’ about each. Is it honest to protect a pony’s feelings for the moment, or for the future?”
“The future. You have to be honest even if you know it will hurt a pony’s feelings so you can protect them from some future problem.”
“How ‘bout laughter? What’s it do for a friendship?”
“Laughter is good for bonding. It defuses tension and reminds friends that their differences don’t need to divide them.”
“Magic. What they hay’s that got to do with friendship?”
“It’s the source and product. The fact that different ponies can come together in unity is a work of magic, and that “hard-won unity”, in the Princess’s words, generates a unifying magic of its own.”
“Good, good. Does a generous friend always give whatever’s asked of them?”
“They may, but it would not betray generosity to deny a request. The true spirit of generosity often chooses to give even before a request is made.”
“Now, loyalty. Loyalty means an errant friend doesn’t deserve to be accepted back into the group, right?”
“Hmm. Well, it doesn’t necessarily detract from the group’s loyalty to accept a disloyal friend back if they all agree to do so. After all, friends are allowed to make mistakes, as long as they’re sorry and work to improve themselves. Like myself!”
“Ah-HA! That’s a lie an’ you know it! Ya may sound like you’re workin’ to improve yourself, but I know ya ain't sorry!”
“Oh, but I am, Applejack!” Sombra touched a hoof to his chest. “I am truly sorry for the actions that resulted in my being imprisoned here.”
Applejack raised an eyebrow. That admission scanned as true, but something about it just tasted dishonest, and she couldn’t put her hoof on it. “Fine. Now we get to kindness. Bein’ kind means givin’ other ponies how many second chances?”
“As many as they need, of course.”
Applejack’s face was in her hooves before she even realized it. “No, an’ I hope Fluttershy hasn’t accidentally been teachin’ that. Bein’ kind means givin’ other ponies as many second chances as they deserve. Now, naturally, that’s subjective, and Fluttershy has a pretty low standard for what ‘deserving’ is, but there is a limit. Lettin’ somepony back into your life over an’ over when they never make any effort to change isn’t kind to yourself, so that’s when the second chances have to stop. Fluttershy’s deemed you deservin’ of another chance because you got her believin’ that you’re genuinely interested in bein’ reformed. Now, since she’s the expert on kindness, I’ve got to defer to her decision on that. I only hope she’s right.”
“Applejack, you give me no credit. I know Fluttershy wants to see me reformed, and I’ll do anything to win her friendship.”
“Well, take those friendship lessons ya recited to heart, then, and just maybe you’ll succeed. For all our sakes, I hope ya do.”
“Is that really the truth, oh element of honesty?”
The mare furrowed her brows with a scowl. “Yerr darn tootin’ it is. Maybe I don’t think ya deserve this second chance as much as Fluttershy thinks so, but as long as the chance has been offered to ya, I really do hope ya prove me wrong and make good on it. Honesty also means tellin’ the truth even when ya don’t like your own opinion. There’s your honestly lesson; be ready to recite that back to me in two weeks. For now, I’m done here.” Something in the air down here made it feel rank and sticky, and Applejack couldn’t tolerate it any longer. All that Sombra had said was true indeed. She just wasn’t so sure it was the honest truth.
“Goodbye, Applejack!” Sombra called as she retreated. “I’m looking forward to our next meeting!”
Applejack didn’t see fit to reply. She had to talk to Twilight.
Sure, she could teleport a fair distance, but lately, Twilight preferred taking the train when she could. She was rarely in that much of a hurry to get back to her throne. She had left Rarity and Rainbow Dash in charge of the minutiae for the weekend, and Spike was there to make sure they didn’t do anything she wouldn’t. The kingdom was in capable hooves and claws.
Plus, the peaceful train ride in her private car gave her the time and space she needed to process some thoughts. On this particular ride back to Canterlot, she had a lot on her mind.
It wasn’t that the visit with Celestia and Luna hadn’t gone well—or that it had deviated at all from what she’d expected—it was that the subject matter was heavy and uncomfortable on all points. First, there was Celestia herself. The alicorn had gotten better over the last few years by gardening as a form of gentle exercise, but her stunted magic still wasn’t strong enough to open up her pocket dimension. Twilight wondered at this point whether Celestia would ever be able to channel even a fraction of her former magical power through that broken horn of hers. At least she and Luna were living as neighbors in their retirement, and the latter had mastered the skill of casting booster spells to assist when Celestia needed it. Without Luna’s help, Twilight wouldn’t have been able to check up on Chrysalis that morning.
And what an experience that had been. Twilight sighed at the memory of their interaction.
... “I still want to be queen!” shouted the adolescent changeling.
Celestia picked up the end table that had been knocked over while Luna retrieved a broom for the shattered glass.
“Whether or not you become a queen again someday depends on how much reformation and responsibility you can show us. For now, you still have a lot of growing up to do.”
“GROWING UP TO DO? I still have all my memories from being an adult! It is humiliating to continue to be treated as a child!” Her emphatic stomp knocked over the end table again.
“THEN STOP ACTING LIKE A CHILD” Twilight put her hooves over her mouth. She was exasperated, but she hadn’t meant to let herself get riled up. It wasn’t helping that Chrysalis responded to the outburst with a smirk. ...
That had not been one of Twilight’s finer moments. Even so, she got the impression that all was not lost for the former changeling queen. Sure, she was belligerent and antagonistic, but that seemed to have more to do with her going through adolescence again than any particularly strong objection to being reformed. Twilight agreed with Celestia and Luna that the best reformation plan for Chrysalis was to continue to give her the space she needed to grow up comfortably (as much as would be possible in the solitary confinement of a pocket dimension) while demonstrating the ideals they hoped she would grow to espouse. So far, they were on track with that, even if the teenage changeling wasn’t aware of her own progress.
The alicorn trio had visited Twilight’s charge next. Cozy Glow was her usual apathetic self until she noticed Luna was there. A flurry of questions about Nightmare Moon, eternal darkness, and taking over Equestria followed. To Twilight’s utter surprise, Luna had been charmed by the filly’s enthusiasm. She made some promises about coming back later to answer the questions in private, then motioned for Twilight to teleport them all back out. Once they had left Cozy Glow behind, Luna explained that in sharing her story, she might be able to show the filly how much her grab for power had actually enslaved her. Perhaps indulging Cozy Glow in her interests might get her engaged enough to recognize the flaws in her own behavior. Twilight readily agreed to this plan, having failed in her own attempts to get Cozy Glow engaged, and she and Luna organized a few reform sessions over the coming moons.
A timid knocking sounded at the door, but it wasn’t until the third set that Twilight finally broke from her thoughts.
“Yes, what is it?”
“Would the Princess like to be served her dinner?”
“No thank you,” she replied, walking toward the door, “I can go down to the dining car just like everypony else.” Twilight opened the door to see an earth stallion in uniform carrying a covered tray.
And behind him was a clamoring swarm of faces smiling and screaming, taking pictures and pushing against each other in a frantic rush toward her door.
“On second thought, yes, I think I will take my dinner in here.” Twilight hastily pulled the attendant inside. After her dinner had been laid out for her, she had to teleport the stallion back to the other car, so heavy was the press of the mob on the door.
Her reverie continued as she savored her pasta. Last of all, she and Celestia had entered Luna’s pocket dimension with her to visit Tirek. The centaur had made Twilight uneasy with how thoroughly he had put her at ease. It was rather hard to parse. Twilight hadn’t expected to find him so willing to change his ways. As much as she wanted to be suspicious of his intentions, there was nothing in what he did or said to suggest outright that he was lying. He even expressed a desire to seek out and reconcile with his brother once he had been deemed worthy of release. It wasn’t at all like her interactions with Sombra, who professed sincerity but acted just a little too confidently. Applejack had even mentioned how convinced she was that while he wouldn’t lie to her, he wouldn’t tell the truth either.
In discussing the matter with Celestia and Luna, they all agreed that it was too early to trust Sombra. It would also be important not to let him know that. There was a chance he did mean it, and insisting on vilifying him could create a self-fulfilling prophecy. The best course of action might even be to award him a little more freedom—without actually dropping guard—to give him a chance to prove himself.
So it was settled. Sombra would be moved from the dungeon to a more comfortable guarded palace room. Granting him luxuries she was sure he didn’t deserve felt reprehensible to Twilight, yet that was exactly what Fluttershy had done for Discord long ago, and it had worked wonders. Perhaps the same solution might work for Cozy Glow one day, too, but in her case, it seemed too early for even that kind of trust.
Twilight regarded the ornately-garnished pudding that had been given as dessert, but she couldn’t convince herself to want it. Not with that poor, problematic filly weighing on her mind.
There was still a guard, but two armored ponies now stood before a door, not a cell. They nodded and stepped aside as Fluttershy approached. She lifted a hoof to knock, but one of the guards spoke up.
“You don’t have to do that, Lady Fluttershy. He’s a prisoner. He’s not in a position to give you permission to enter.”
Fluttershy pouted. “All the same, I’d like to extend to him the kindness of common decency. It could do wonders for his reform, wouldn’t you think?” She knocked.
There was a hasty rustle, and then, “Enter.”
So she did, and daintily shut the door behind her. Only when she had slid off her saddlebags and steeled herself with a deep breath did she look up. And then she had to stifle a snort.
The former king was on the bed, frozen halfway between lying down and sitting up, as if he hadn’t had time to figure out how to arrange himself in a dignified manner. On top of the pose, his normally sleek mane hung in disarray about his face, a mop of tangles and static.
Noticing the mirth bubbling behind his visitor’s eyes, Sombra flung his hooves up to smooth his mane and stammered. “I-I was just… enjoying the new comforts...” He indicated the thoroughly unmade bed. “You know, I had never taken the time to appreciate just what a luxury a bed was before. Not before you introduced me to the delights of sleep, anyway.”
The allusion to past trauma made Fluttershy wince, but the stallion’s simultaneous wince brought her back to the present. A particularly gnarled lock of mane was caught in the cleft of Sombra’s hoof.
An embarrassed chuckle escaped his throat. “Uh, could you possibly...” Sombra inclined his head toward the dresser, upon which a comb sat.
“Oh, um, sure.” Fluttershy retrieved the instrument and turned around to see Sombra frowning at the bed as he contemplated how to get down from it without the use of his front right hoof. When he tried to pull the hoof free, the tangle only lodged itself more tightly and snapped his hoof back, resulting in a punch to his temple.
“How about I just come up there...” offered Fluttershy.
“Thank you,” the once-king whimpered.
Fluttershy hopped onto the bed and settled herself uncomfortably at the stallion’s right flank. Then she realized she wasn’t tall enough to reach the comb all the way up to his head. Cautiously, she rose to her haunches and had to balance herself with a hoof on Sombra’s shoulder.
Her skin prickled. She hadn’t meant to touch him again. Not so soon. Sure, she had given him a hug last time she visited, and it was fine, but the memory of that contact had haunted her dreams every night since. Those dreams, where the hyper-awareness of the absence of his touch overwhelmed her with emptiness. Emptiness that was almost like a hunger…
Fluttershy swallowed her discomfort and set to work combing. Her usual gentleness made no headway against the offending tangle, so she forced herself to try the opposite extreme. The harsh tug on Sombra’s scalp actually pulled the stallion backward, knocking Fluttershy and him off balance. For a heartbeat, she feared she was going to fall over, pulling him on top of her, but they recovered.
“Sorry,” whispered Fluttershy.
The stallion produced a deep rumble in response, an ambiguous noise. A slight smile pulling at the corners of his lips gave Fluttershy the distinct impression the sound was less one of annoyance and more of pleasure. She bit her lip and kept combing.
In a few more strokes of moderate power, the lock of mane was tamed and Sombra’s hoof was freed. The rest of his mane was still a wreck, but he did not reach up to take the comb and finish the job himself. Rather, he slowly lowered himself until he was lying on the bed with his front hooves dangling off its side, making his head easier for Fluttershy to reach. She hesitated, then proceeded to work on the rest of his mane.
“So,” the stallion tilted his head slightly to regard Fluttershy with one eye, “What is my friendship lesson for today?”
“Yes, um...” Fluttershy closed her eyes as she gathered her thoughts, letting the feel of his mane under her hooves guide her work with the comb. “Right. So I thought it would help you learn to practice kindness if you could recognize and contemplate instances when others offer kindness to you. Do you recognize any kindness you may have received lately?”
“Certainly. You are being kind to me in combing out my errant mane.”
“Yes, that’s true. But is there anything else you can think of?”
Sombra’s face twisted up in thought. After a few heavy seconds of failure to acknowledge the obvious, Fluttershy briefly extended a wing to thump it on the soft mattress beneath them.
“Oh, of course!” Sombra blurted in understanding. “You mean the kindness of the Princess in transferring me to more comfortable quarters.”
“That’s right, and—”
“And what a kindness it was! I feel my eventual freedom opening up before me already! Why, to have a bed again, a window, and especially some privacy—or the illusion of it, anyway. Such comforts I have not enjoyed for years! Not since before I entered the cold, lonely surveillance of that draconequus have I felt so free and at ease. Oh, but you did not come all the way here just to listen to me rhapsodize about the relief I’ve found in my meager freedoms, I’m sure. What was the next point in your lesson?”
But Fluttershy had frozen in place and forgot to answer. Only her foreleg still moved, combing, combing. A squeezing sort of haze had descended upon her mind, and that troublesome old scar on her neck ached again. Surely she was ill! She should seek aid and finish the lesson later. But she couldn’t bring herself to move, for she was stuck in that phrase, that image—“the cold, lonely surveillance of that draconequus”. Watched always. Her very being consumed within the indomitable mind of that powerful spirit…
But no, that had been Sombra’s plight, not hers. She was free. Still free. Wasn’t she? If only her neck would stop hurting so much, she would be able to think…
“Fluttershy, are you unwell?”
His voice again, more urgently. His hoof cupping her cheek.
No, I’m not well. “Yes, I’m—I’m fine.”
“No, but you feel so cold! Here, I know—this is a kindness lesson, yes? Lie here and rest, and allow me to practice my kindness on you.”
Sombra gently pushed Fluttershy down until she was lying on her side with her head propped upon a stack of pillows. Then he slid off the bed, pulled the quilt over her, and took to pacing.
“Let’s see… Chills, right? What do mortals need for chills…? Hm.” He hurried into the water chamber and soaked a soft rag. “Nourishment, too, maybe,” he muttered after placing the warm cloth on Fluttershy’s forehead and turning away again. The next time he returned, he carried a mug of steaming liquid, and he pulled a chair up to the head of the bed.
“Here. The Princess in her kindness supplied me with a few provisions, though she knows I do not need them.” Sombra gently lifted Fluttershy’s head off the pillow and held the glass to her lips. “It is the milk of the apple.”
Fluttershy managed a giggle after her sip. “Apple cider, you mean.”
“Yes, yes, apple cider. Does it help you?”
“A little. But I need...” She squinted.
“Need what? If I have it, I will give it to you!”
“The light burns.”
“Oh!” Sombra laid Fluttershy’s head back down and leaped over to the window to close the curtains. They were of a thick cloth and dimmed the room considerably. “How’s that?”
A little rise in her cheeks hinted at Fluttershy’s weary smile. In the new darkness of the room, a red glow was just visible in her normally-teal eyes, and that glow was ever-so-slightly pulsing in time with his languid heartbeat. Fluttershy reached out a limp foreleg, inviting, pleading.
Sombra’s smile deepened as he returned to the bedside to help Fluttershy take another sip of warm cider.
“Thank you,” she murmured.
The dim lighting only made the glistening of her moistened lips stand out all the more to Sombra. His gaze caught on that sight, the stallion inadvertently licked his lips.
Fluttershy inadvertently licked her lips. “I’m feeling much better already. But why did making it darker help me feel better, I wonder?”
“Perhaps you are of my persuasion. The light of the day can be garish. Cold. Unfeeling.”
Pulling the tepid rag off her forehead, Fluttershy propped herself up a little higher. “Sometimes I think the world feels softer at night. You know? It’s harder to see the reality that’s there, and easier to see the dream that’s only imagined. Depending on what’s in your head, sometimes that can be nice.”
“Yes, of course!” Sombra leaned forward. “It’s like nighttime heightens each sensation, and when you can’t tell what’s really there, your defenses are abandoned and you’re freed to see and think and feel whatever you have within. It’s so very liberating!”
Fluttershy laid a hoof upon Sombra’s foreleg. “Is that why you’ve spent so much of your life seeking out the shadow?”
“Perhaps. Have you never tried it?”
“Surrender. Close your eyes, and surrender to your darkest dreams.”
Obediently, the mare closed her eyes. The faint red gleam still peeked out from the corners of her eyelids.
“Now, purge your thoughts of the life you used to know. In the darkness, you are free from all expectations. Do you feel it, the way your spirit soars?”
The only response Fluttershy could give in such a state was a deep breath of unburdening. Of relief.
“That’s it, that’s it!” Sombra stood up, and one hoof caressed Fluttershy’s cheek while the other swept up and out in a grand gesture, though the mare’s eyes remained closed. “Open your mind! Let your fantasies unwind! What’s the point of fearing the darkness in your thoughts when you know you cannot fight it?”
Fluttershy’s glowing eyes winked open in the gloom. “But this world I see in the darkness, it’s so strange!”
Sombra’s other hoof moved down to cup Fluttershy’s other cheek. “Take this journey,” he admonished. “Is it not where your very soul longs to be?”
She raised her own hoof to place it over Sombra’s upon her cheek, and she sank into the depths of his eager eyes. “I’m afraid.”
So slowly, yet in an instant, the stallion had his hooves at her shoulders, and he was pulling her into the warm, downy fur of his chest. Fluttershy felt as if she were floating, falling into him. Something in the pit of her stomach was not right, but her mind was too drunk on the sweet darkness to give heed. And the slow heartbeat now thumping against her ear, it was like it set the rhythm in her whole body.
Holding her there, Sombra dropped his voice to a murmur. “Trust me. I know the way through the shadows to the world of dreams. Savor each sensation as it comes.”
Fluttershy’s hooves snaked around his middle. She pulled herself deeper into his fur.
“Yes, give in to the darkness! Is it not like music? Does it not bear with it power?”
“I hear it,” Fluttershy trembled. “I feel it.”
Suddenly, Sombra pried himself away and backed up, leaving Fluttershy sitting cold and alone on the bed. “Well then, now you know where to find freedom when you feel trapped. You look much recovered from your illness.”
Fluttershy’s arms remained extended in a reaching position until she realized her comforter wasn’t coming back to her. “I guess.”
“Good! And now I have taught you a lesson, so I believe it’s time for you to teach me mine, if you’re well enough. What was it about contemplating instances of kindness?”
“Oh yes,” Fluttershy recalled as reality crowded back in to muddy the brief clarity her mind had found. “I wanted you to write Twilight a thank-you letter, as a little exercise. I brought some stationery.”
“Very well, but I suppose it will require light.” Sombra moved toward the curtains. “Shall I?”
Fluttershy grimaced, but nodded.
And her wings whipped up to shield her eyes from the blinding daylight.
“Yes, my love?” Fluttershy finished pouring out food for the skittish little hamster in front of her and turned to regard her son. Corey reached up his hooves. “Pretty soon you’ll be too big for this, you know,” she warned as she kneeled and lowered a wing.
Once Corey was aboard and Fluttershy had straightened back up, the colt leaned forward so he could whisper in her ear. “Does Daddy not like Father?”
The question would have made Fluttershy slump, but she held herself still so Corey wouldn’t tumble off her back. “No,” she sighed. “Daddy doesn’t like Father. When they met… it was a very hard time, and they got in a fight. Now, there won’t be any fights any more, but Daddy and Father haven’t had enough time together yet to see the good in each other and apologize. But they still both love you and Fio very much.”
“And you too, Mommy?”
A heavy blink was all Fluttershy permitted herself as a reaction. “...Yes, Corey, they both love Mommy too. Now, where is your brother? It’s just about bed time!”
“Oh, not again,” Fluttershy muttered to herself. With Corey still riding between her wings, Fluttershy walked out to the back patio where the five flowerpots sat. It was almost completely dark out, but sure enough, there was a bright point of light shining over by Fio’s sundew. The young unicorn had illuminated the tip of his horn and was holding it just above the sticky surface of the plant. A large, pale moth materialized out of the darkness and was swirling toward the light source.
“Come, Fio! It’s time for bed!”
The colt remained stock still until the moth was caught in the trap and his plant was fed. “Coming, Mommy,” he called as he briefly inspected the doomed insect. Then he turned around and pranced toward Fluttershy.
“Fio, haven’t I told you before that you don’t need to help your sundew catch prey? It would be best for the plant and all the little bugs that live around here if you let nature do its own work.”
“Oh, but what’s the fun in that?” The trio of ponies had entered the cottage just in time for Discord to catch the end of Fluttershy’s sentence. At that moment, he was pulling logs of live wood out of the fireplace and assembling them into a little tree in the living room. “Don’t get me wrong, nature can be wonderful and chaotic all on its own, but what’s the point of sentience if not to mess up the natural order every once in a while?”
Fluttershy just scowled. She could think of many uses for sentience that didn’t involve creating unnecessary chaos. Contesting the point in front of the foals, however, would do no creature any good, so she settled for letting Corey down from her back and watching him and Fio leap toward their Daddy. Discord caught them up in a big, dramatic hug that somehow ended up with them hanging upside-down from one of the branches in the newly-constructed tree.
While suspended from his tail, Discord hugged the foals tightly against himself. “Goodnight, kiddos!” And he closed his eyes as if going to sleep right then and there.
“Daddy!” Fio piped. “We’re not bats!”
“Not bats!” echoed Corey.
“What?” Discord feigned shock. “You mean you’d rather sleep in your boring old beds than hang upside-down here with me?”
As a response, Fio donned a mischievous look and encased himself in his own magical aura. He pried himself out of Discord’s grasp and set himself on the floor, and Corey followed suit. In a flash, the twins were galloping toward their bedroom, and Discord gave chase after indulging in a peal of laughter.
Fluttershy followed at a stiff walk, her expression blank. When she arrived in the room, Discord was just finishing up tucking the two foals in. All that was left to do were goodnight kisses from Mommy, and then she and her mate left the room together.
“You think they’ll ever take to hanging like bats?” Discord asked, nonchalantly.
“I certainly hope they don’t,” mumbled Fluttershy.
“Oh. I get the feeling that you aren’t really into doing that anymore either, then...”
A warning glare was the response he got. Discord quickly snapped his fingers behind his back, vanishing away the tree he had assembled in the living room. They turned instead into the master bedroom.
“Okay, so what’ll it be?” Discord tried again. “Comfy pine bough nest? Hanging cloud mattress? Fragrant rosewater bed?”
Fluttershy huffed a sigh. “Just a normal bed for once, please.”
“...Very well. I’ll do nothing, then.” They climbed into their respective sides of the bed in painful silence. Once they were both settled a bodywidth apart under the covers, they continued in silence, both staring in the dark up at the ceiling.
“What did you mean about the point of sentience being to mess with the natural order?” Fluttershy’s voice was scrubbed of any emotion.
“Only that the end of all natural order is entropy. Self-destruction. Chaos. Sentience usually comes with the urge to delay the inevitable as long as possible. Putting off chaos is just another kind of chaos, in that way.” Another heavy silence descended, and still, neither individual dropped off to sleep.
Finally, Fluttershy sighed again. “I suppose you do need your chaos, don’t you? And for whatever reason, you’ve decided you want to sleep tonight, even though you often don’t. Fine. You can change the color of the night light.”
Discord’s hands curled into frustrated fists, but he relaxed and coughed a chuckle instead. “Only a night light tonight, eh? I must have done something terrible.” A moment passed, and the night light suffered no change at all. “To answer the question you didn’t quite ask, I wanted to sleep tonight so I could spend the time with you. I know you probably had a rough day, visiting that friendship student of yours and all. I thought you might appreciate the company.”
Fluttershy spoke not, moved not. He was only here because he wanted the inside scoop on her student’s condition without actually going to the trouble of visiting and doing any of the work himself.
“...How did today’s friendship lesson go, anyway?”
And there it was. “It went quite well, I think. Twilight moved him to a proper room now—still guarded, of course.”
Discord shot upward, now hovering over the bed and wringing his hands. “You mean he’s no longer in that cell? What if he escapes? He could put the foals in danger! He could put you in danger!”
“He’s not that dangerous!” Fluttershy interjected. “I don’t even think he’s interested in escape anymore. He’s really taking his lessons to heart. You should have seen how kind he was to me when I caught a passing chill.”
Now Discord was back on the bed. In fact, he was standing on all fours over Fluttershy, peering anxiously into her face. “You were unwell? What happened?”
“Nothing of consequence,” Fluttershy growled. “I assure you, he did a wonderful job taking care of me. He learns quickly.”
For another moment, Discord held Fluttershy’s gaze. Then he slid back to his own side of the bed. “I’m glad to hear it. Good night, Fluttershy.”
No sleep came to the mare while her mate fell into a doze beside her. She resented Discord’s continuing distrust for her student. She resented his constant pathological need to throw her off-balance or disrupt the lessons she taught her foals. She resented how overprotective he was being, when what she really wanted was a little space from his hectic nonsense.
What she really wanted? Yes, it was dark in the room. The nighttime was like music. Fluttershy closed her eyes and listened.
“Open your mind! Let your fantasies unwind!” She listened, and she opened, and she unwound herself. At the very bottom, she found her heartbeat, heavy and languid. Out of its pulsing, a red glow pulsed in her mind. And that glow became a pair of red eyes, and then the full stallion.
Somehow, even in his captivity, he had managed to show her freedom, and at a time when she was feeling stifled by Discord’s diligent surveillance.
Surveillance? She might once have called that behavior attentiveness, or even love. Why did it no longer feel like love to her? Why did the darkness instead sing to her of warm, concealing shadows, where gentle hooves were found?
At that moment, Fluttershy’s thoughts were interrupted by an arm landing across her chest. At its end was a hand, not a hoof. Even half asleep, he was still guarding her. But that wouldn’t do right now, not when Fluttershy needed answers.
“I think I’d like to check up on the nocturnal life in the garden. There’s a family of skunks I haven’t spoken to in a while. You just stay here in case the foals need anything. I’ll be back in a bit.”
Her communication had awoken Discord enough that he had propped himself up in the bed, but she left the room and closed the door behind her before he had a chance to protest. Fluttershy pulled a warm, dark cloak from the coat closet and hurried outside into the night.
It wasn’t difficult to find her skunk friends; Fluttershy visited them only once in a while because they made their home at the very outer edge of the garden, and she didn’t always have the time between dusk and dawn to go all that way. That didn’t matter to her tonight, though, and in half an hour, Fluttershy crossed paths with Mrs. Skunk and her three kits out for a stroll.
They had a pleasant enough conversation, each mother assuring the other of the health and vivacity of their offspring, but Mrs. Skunk soon noticed her friend was more than a little preoccupied. When she brought it up, Fluttershy thanked the skunk for the kind suggestion to return to the solace and security of her mate, then hastily bid the family good night.
Once she was out of sight of the skunks, though, Fluttershy did not return to the solace and security of her mate. She felt secure there, certainly, but only from external troubles, and tonight, the troubles that chased her were internal. Her hooves carried her along an out-of-the-way path through the garden that she knew would end up at the back of Twilight’s castle. What she would do once she got there, Fluttershy wasn’t sure.
The particular window of interest was immediately obvious. A guard pegasus had just made a pass and vanished around the corner. Having located him, Fluttershy sat down under the cover of a wide shrub to contemplate the window and what she knew must lay behind it. She was glad for her dark cloak and bat vision, allowing her to see without being seen as various guardponies made their surveys of the castle exterior. In staring, Fluttershy came to know the rhythm of those regular checks. There went the guard again, for the twelfth time. Another pony would not come by for a few minutes, so, without quite knowing why, Fluttershy emerged from the bush and unfurled her wings. She would just peep into the window, to see if there was anything besides the back of a curtain to see. Then she would go right back home.
Yes, it was only the back of the curtain. Fluttershy looked down to prepare for her return to the ground, but something caught her eye. At the base of the window, there appeared to be a lever. In fact, it looked very much like a window lock, except that it was on the exterior side of the window. As if somepony had magically flipped the window around to prevent an easy escape…
Fluttershy watched her hoof touch the lock. Then the hoof pushed it open. Then the hoof raised it up, and she was standing on the sill. She heard a low inhalation, and a book quietly creak shut.
He would find her! What in Equestria was she doing? She needed to go, right away! But Fluttershy’s sudden awareness of herself shocked her to stillness, and the only thing moving was her fast, faltering heartbeat. Her head felt light, her night vision began to fail, she felt herself swooning, and she was going to fall limp from the third-story window and there was nothing she could do to stop herself…
Fluttershy snapped to. It was his voice. He was here for her.
“It’s me,” she whimpered.
There were quiet hoofsteps, and the curtain cracked open, and then he was pulling her into the room. As Fluttershy sat dazed on the rug, she watched the stallion place a scrap of paper on the center of the windowsill to thwart the lock, then quickly pull the window shut. He turned around then, and Fluttershy found herself face to face with the dancing red eyes of Sombra.
“What brings you here in the middle of the night?”
Fluttershy shrank into herself. “T-the darkness is so freeing, and, well, this is where my hooves brought me. But I’m not quite sure what it is I wanted...”
“Something has clearly troubled you, dear Fluttershy. Come, sit with me, and I will help you find your answer.”
She nodded and let Sombra lead her toward the bed, since the quarters lacked a sofa, and there they sat, side by side against the headboard.
“I was just following the darkness,” Fluttershy mumbled when they had settled. “I don’t understand why it would bring me here, when my family and my animal friends are at the cottage.”
“Hmm.” Sombra raised a hoof to his chin. “The freedom of the darkness is in releasing your desires, as you know. Have you considered that your desires might not have brought you here so much as away from there?”
“Away from home? But why would I desire to be away from home?”
“I’m afraid that’s a question that you must answer yourself. It wasn’t exasperation with our precious foals, I hope?”
“No! No, they’re little angels. Well, troublesome, mischievous angels, anyway, but they’re so very sweet, and I can never stay upset with either of them for more than a moment. No, I’m sure it wasn’t them.”
“Who, then? Not—well, I suppose I’d do better not to insinuate such things.”
“It’s okay. You’re… you’re right.” Fluttershy fiddled with a lock of her mane, glad for the darkness but wishing now her bat eyes weren’t so acute, to spare her the distress of acknowledging who she was with. “I think it is Discord. My disturbance, I mean.”
There was a pause, and a slow exhalation. “...I am sorry to hear it. He does not treat you poorly, surely?”
“No, you see… He treats me well. So well. Too well!” Her chest felt heavy, and Fluttershy sagged. It hurt to think critically of her mate, but her heart felt sickly and clogged, somehow, and if talking through this was the only way to flush it clean, she had to do it. A gentle hoof laid itself upon Fluttershy’s shoulder.
If she’d have been looking, she would have noticed the glint of Sombra’s fangs in his grin. “What do you mean, ‘too well’? Does he not make you feel safe and protected?”
“He does, and that’s the problem!” Fluttershy lamented, finally collapsing all the way down to the bed under the weight of her aching heart. “He’s so diligent about watching over me that it’s starting to feel possessive! It’s not a bad thing, maybe, and I’m sure he means well, but… But sometimes—he’s so powerful, you see, and overbearing—sometimes I wonder if I’ll wake up one day and realize I’ve become wholly consumed by that indomitable mind of his! If I’m not consumed already! And, and the closer he watches, the less room I have to know who I am anymore. It’s so...” Fluttershy buried her face in her hooves and uttered a protracted grunt of frustration. “But he’s fun, and he’s exciting, and he’s so loving, of me and the foals, and I just don’t know what I think anymore!”
In the darkness, Sombra watched tears fall from her eyes even as a pale, glowing haze drifted up and out from them. He sat there and let her cry beside him, taking the moment to feel around. The flow of dark magic within his own body was a constant background awareness, but the usual paths of motion were now disturbed. The movement of dark magic was, in a sense, like a magnetic field. The presence of another field could cause varying degrees of disruption, and Sombra was gladly disrupted. Having found what he was seeking, he finally moved to carefully lift Fluttershy’s chin, and she let him.
“I think I understand what is distressing you, dear Fluttershy.”
She wiped a tear away and sat halfway up. “...You do?”
“Yes, and forgive me for saying, but perhaps… Perhaps you are confused because you were my mate before you were ever his.”
Fluttershy sat herself all the way up, but bowed her head again and was very quiet.
“Oh, don’t do yourself such discredit, dear Fluttershy—you are much stronger than you think you are. Perhaps I didn’t treat you as you deserved before, and for that I apologize, but even in your weakness, I think you knew what you were doing. You are strong enough, and smart enough, and kind enough to have known what you were doing when you chose me over him. You only turned to Discord for love when you thought I was too far gone into darkness, and thus unavailable to you.”
She was still looking away, still quiet.
“Fluttershy, I do not blame you for that decision. It was a sensible one, given the circumstances.”
“But now… The darkness… M-my desires… Brought me here again.” And Fluttershy looked up to meet Sombra’s gaze.
“Because now, I am here again, and I am trying to reform myself. In fact, I renounce the evil I partook in before! For you, dearest Fluttershy; I would start my life over again even a thousand years after its beginning all for love of you.”
His eyes were pleading. Why must he look at her so? Fluttershy’s gaze fell quickly back to her hooves, but it wasn’t enough to stop her heavy, insistent pulse from throbbing painfully in her neck. That squeezing haze was back again, blotting out everything she knew beyond the edges of the bed and the stallion whose hoof once again caressed her chin.
And he tilted up her face, and she let him, and she looked back into those pleading, pulsing eyes. And his voice was a low rumble, concerned, urgent, impassioned: “You still love me too, I think.”
And still he held her chin aloft while his own tilted down, and it was dark and still and warm and secret, and his lips landed on hers. And she let him.
The darkness that enshrouded them erupted into a great symphony of sensation. Tremulous and tender, it swept her up and away. Softly, deftly, the knowing and unknowing danced upon her skin and in the deep folds of her mind until reality was whatever she wanted it to be and that was nothing more than here and now and in his arms, listening to his splendid night music.
And then they were apart again, all too soon, and it was cold, but she was breathless, and senseless, and didn’t know how to protest.
The stallion still held her face so delicately, as if unwilling to let her go but duty-bound nonetheless. “Even so,”—what hateful words!—“we must think about our foals. They have a comfortable life right now, even if they call Discord their ‘daddy’. I would not wish to see them hurt in any way. We cannot do this.”
“You must leave me now. Go and be with your family.”
“But there’s still so much I need to know!”
“You need know only this: I love you, Fluttershy. Now go.” Sombra gently pushed her back across the room, peering through the curtains and lifting the window open once the passing guard had left. He removed the scrap of paper that had prevented the lock from catching.
Fluttershy dragged herself onto the sill. Then she looked back.
“Don’t forget to lock it again when you get out. We can’t have the guards growing suspicious.”
She gave him a tiny nod, then thrust herself outside.
Sombra stayed to hear the window shut and the lock click back into place. When he was sure she was gone, he finally allowed himself a low chuckle before moving back toward his bed and retrieving the book from his nightstand. He lounged on the bed and flipped idly through the pages, but astronomy just wasn’t holding his attention. Not when she was on his mind again.
He tossed the book aside and flopped over to properly revel in his imagination. That soft, flowing mane. Those expressive blue eyes. Her unparalleled sweetness and innocence, and a passion for healing ponies—no, animals; that’s what it was. All these traits together made an angel of radiant beauty, a harbinger of hope. It was only that dazzling hope she inspired in him that gave him the strength to bear his imprisonment, the patience to tolerate those juvenile “friendship lessons”. When she was there, Sombra was more than himself. Suddenly, he saw a future, one without struggle or conflict, where the kingdom was happy and the smothered race repopulated. With her, it would all be possible. If only he could pry his Fluttershy from that draconequus’s needy talons!
But it wouldn’t be long. Her dark magic was more than willing to submit, and her mind was already turning to follow. Then, what bliss Sombra would win in stealing back his mate and exacting his revenge on her captor!
She was sitting in her old spot—the armchair. Why? Discord and Fluttershy had kept up their longstanding “Tuesday tea” date, but it had been years since Fluttershy sat all the way over there. Until today, she’d preferred to share the loveseat with him. Discord couldn’t understand it. Was it for chaos purposes? He was all for breaking up routine and, in fact, often made some ontological alteration to keep their tea dates interesting. But chaos was not Fluttershy’s motivation, for she had asked him to forgo the ontological alterations this time. He was only allowed cosmetic changes, and so it was that their green patterned china was orange today. It was hardly enough to satisfy the Lord of Chaos, but he could cope with that if it meant satisfying Fluttershy. The question remained, though: Why?
Judging by the tautness of Fluttershy’s cheeks, Discord guessed she was in no humor to be questioned or trifled with. She never was anymore, it seemed.
Wait, could it be…? Discord took a quick magical reading.
No, of course not. After several years of nothing, one would think he would learn to just accept that ponies and draconequui can’t interbreed. Nevermind.
In any case, something was definitely wrong. Last time Discord had tried to ask what the matter was, Fluttershy had snapped at him. Apparently, he was supposed to know without asking. Discord wasn’t sure if this expected mind-reading was just some relationship lesson he had somehow missed, or if his sweet, beloved mate was intentionally being unfair to him.
The silence between them was tortuous, and if Discord couldn’t bring up what he wanted to talk about, he would just have to talk about nothing. “So, when do you think Twilight’s going to show our foals how to do the cool stuff? Teleportation, lasers, transmutation, that kind of thing?” He noticed Fluttershy’s eyes narrow the tiniest bit at “our foals”, then grow wider and wider through the rest of his question.
“Discord! They’re only five! Not until they’re twice that age, at least! And don’t you go putting such ideas in their heads yet, either. Could you imagine what kind of danger they could get themselves in if they could teleport and shoot lasers at this age?”
The mental image made Discord chuckle. “That’s some delightful nonsense, but it’s nonsense all the same. However powerful those two turn out to be, there’s nothing they could ever do that I couldn’t undo the moment I knew of it.”
“And what if you didn’t immediately know of it? What then?”
“You said it yourself: ‘They’re only five’. I figure they’ll either be with you or me or one of our capable friends at all times until they decide it’s time to be delinquent adolescents. And by then, if nocreature’s already taught them how to properly do the cool stuff, they’ll contrive to figure it out on their own.”
Fluttershy set down her tea and crossed her arms. Her sour pout was adorable, but Discord recognized that a laugh of appreciation at that moment would spell his doom.
“Ah, fear not, my dearest. I was only playing Balrog’s advocate. I’ll resist teaching them any new magical tricks without getting the Element of Magic herself’s approval first.” The pout eased, Discord sipped his tea, and silence fell once more. If only he could figure out what she was thinking, maybe he could fix what was wrong and have his loving mate back.
Figuring out Fluttershy’s thoughts was going to get a lot easier sometime soon, though. Well, Discord hoped it would be soon; the promised “few weeks” had already passed. “Say, Fluttershy, did you ever decide when you want to go… you know… pay the draconequui a visit? Get that little ceremony thing out of the way?”
The teacup slipped out of her hooves and shattered across the floor. Before the splashed droplets of tea had time to reach the ground, Discord had snapped the repaired cup and its contents back onto the table.
And then he gasped, so intense and unexpected was the acid in Fluttershy’s glare. What had he done? What should he do? Discord panicked.
“Oh, would you look at the time? Wonderbolt practice should be starting up any time now, and I’d better go see if I’m needed. Bye!” And he was gone.
And he was finally gone. Fluttershy remained in her seat, staring at the mess that was reversed almost as soon as it existed. The intact teacup before her was ample substantiation for Discord’s assertion that he could undo any deed the moment he knew about it. Such power was useful—this time. It also meant that wherever he was, he was in complete control, and what needed doing or undoing was entirely a matter of his sole discretion. He was the Lord of Chaos; how trustworthy could that discretion really be? Now, add to that the ability to enter her thoughts, to sense her and contact her always and across any distance, and that unpredictable discretion could become a personal danger.
It wasn’t until he had reminded her of the “soulmate” ceremony that Fluttershy finally understood what Discord was up to. He was going to have her to himself, binding her to him in a way that was utterly inescapable and irreversible. She would be his plaything forever. A puppet of chaos. Incapable of using the Element of Kindness against him, too, if he should ever decide pony morals were beneath him.
And worse, the foals! If Fluttershy could not maintain enough independence to resist Discord’s influence, he could take them and fashion them into his own minions of chaos!
So that was his game.
Well, Fluttershy decided, downing the rest of her tea, as long as I have any autonomy, I won’t play along.
“I’m so glad you could help me celebrate Boneless 2’s birthday today!”
“Me too! Wow, those look super pretty!” Pinkie Pie inspected the tray of multicolored chocolate flowers Cheese Sandwich had just pulled out of the freezer. “Anyway, I’m glad Boneless 2 considers me a close enough friend to invite me to his private party this year! It’s good to see him opening up, you know? Do you think he’d rather have red frosting on his cake, or heliotrope?”
“Heliotrope, definitely. It’ll make the chocolate flowers really pop!”
The couple’s swift teamwork had the cake decorated in mere minutes. Its seven tiers towered magnificently over the room, and with a rainbow of chocolate flowers delicately cascading down its side, it was a truly magnificent sight. The two ponies couldn’t help but marvel at their creation.
“We sure make a great team, don’t we, Pinks?”
“I’ll say!” And their eyes met, and in that moment, they forgot all about Boneless 2 waiting in the other room.
Cheese Sandwich took hold of his marefriend’s hooves while adoration radiated from his face. “It’s like everything I do is a whole order of magnitude better when you’re by my side.”
Pinkie Pie blushed and giggled. “Alright, so, I’ve been thinking about this for a little while. Remember that time a few years ago when you first came back to Ponyville and I threw you that big party, right after Fluttershy had just had her cute little foals?”
“Uh-huh,” nodded Cheese.
“Well, I was very glad you came when you did.” Pinkie Pie’s voice began to speed up as her excitement over what she was finally saying grew and grew. “You see, I couldn’t stop thinking how super-duper-spectacular it was for Fluttershy and Discord to be so in love and in tune with each other as they are and I was sososo sad because I thought that must be the most wonderful feeling in the world, and I had just been rejected so I didn’t know if I was ever gonna get to feel it too! But then you arrived and cheered me right up, and you’ve stuck around and made me happier and happier and happier every day!” She gasped in a huge gulp of air. “And you know what?”
Guessing where this was going, Cheese was grinning from ear to ear. “What?”
“Now I’m not sad at all anymore because I think I finally do know what it feels like to be so in love and in tune with somepony!”
Cheese Sandwich threw himself on her in an embrace, exclaiming “I know just what you mean—I feel it too! Throwing parties and living life with you is more natural to me now and a lot more fun than it ever was alone, and now I guess this is the moment.”
“Yeah! Wait, huh?”
“Pinkamena Diane Pie,” enunciated Cheese, pushing himself out of the hug and tilting off his top hat to reveal the huge bouquet of flowers that had been hidden inside. “Will you marry me?”
So many words rushed into Pinkie’s mouth at once that none of them could actually come out, and all she could do to express her exuberance was leap up and dance. After a solid ten seconds of Pinkie dancing and Cheese laughing along with her joy, she finally spluttered a “YES” and tackled her new fiancé. The impact flung the bouquet into the air, causing a shower of petals to rain upon the happy couple as they kissed.
Eventually, Cheese and Pinkie sat up and smiled at each other in a daze of joy. Until Pinkie jolted. “Boneless 2’s party! He’s waiting for us!”
A sheepish look settled on Cheese’s face as Boneless 2 himself rose up between them. “Actually,” admitted the pony, “Boneless 2 here has a bit of a confession to make.” The rubber chicken hung its head. “He and I were in cahoots. It’s not really his birthday.”
“It isn’t? Then who’s this cake for?”
“Us!” laughed the stallion. “Come on in, everypony, SHE SAID YES!”
At his word, seemingly the whole town flooded into the room. Pinkie was so dazzled by the surprise and ecstasy of it all that she would later tell ponies she couldn’t remember a thing about the whole engagement party—right before launching into an extended account of every fantastic detail.
It was stupid, and she knew it, but Discord was threatening to steal her autonomy out from under her very own snout, and what options did she have? So Fluttershy kept on walking toward the castle, toward that guarded door, toward him. Not long ago, she had been happy with Discord, and they had loved and respected each other as much as any couple could—or so she had thought. Why was she only now understanding that same adoring mate to be so irksome? So threatening?
There was the lily pond. She was halfway to the castle now. It would be so easy to just skirt the circumference of the pond until her steadily-shuffling hooves were pointed home again. But she did not do that.
If Fluttershy found Discord threatening, what did that make the shadow king? Rationally, she knew the latter was the same stallion who had abused and tortured her nearly to death just five years ago. It wasn’t all that outlandish to suppose she might still be in danger when alone with him.
His magic had been restrained, though, and he was reforming himself. Fluttershy was certain of that much. Perhaps it was stubbornly clinging to a past that nocreature wanted to remember that was irrational. If she could just let atoned-for transgressions lie, perhaps she could overcome her fear and think more clearly.
Fluttershy was in the castle courtyard now. She exhaled, letting the breeze carry her fears away into oblivion.
Yes, that must be it. She only feared Sombra because she desired him, and the thought had been taboo to her before. His mistakes were burned out of him in his years of solitary imprisonment, and he was now growing into the stallion she always knew he could be. He offered her freedom and the power to discover who she really was outside the subtle influence of a magical deity meddling in her mind. Who she really was and what she, Fluttershy, wielder of the magic of kindness, could reallydo.
It occurred to her as she passed the study hall that she could duck in, watch the rest of her foals’ magic lesson with Twilight, and then head straight home with them. Fluttershy was no longer looking for an excuse to turn around, though. Her heart was already slowing into the heavy, thumping beat that she’d learned to associate with the fulfillment of her deepest desires. Visiting that deepest desire would give her the chance to assess the situation now that she actually knew what she wanted, though circumstances would prevent her from acting on that knowledge until the imprisonment ended. Yes, she would visit him, to test her new mental framework, to escape from her garish daylight reality, to seek his aid. He would know how to help her escape from Discord’s possessive, scheming clutches.
The guardpony stepped aside. Fluttershy knocked.
She opened the door, closed it behind her, smiled at the stallion across the room and basked in the warmth of his return smile. “Sombra,” and her spine shivered with delight to hear herself pronounce that name again, “I couldn’t keep away.”
He was pleased, but a protest played at his lips.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Fluttershy interjected as she advanced into the room. “Twilight’s got the foals, and Discord will be occupied until evening. So, how are you?”
Sombra’s warmth deepened his smile into a grin. “I am well, dearest Fluttershy. But what of you? Is there something that you need?”
“Just your company,” she purred, bumping affectionately against the stallion’s side. Just to see.
He stood still, but he felt soft and receptive to the touch.
“And maybe some advice,” Fluttershy continued. “To tell you the truth, I’m a little worried about Discord.”
“Oh?” Sombra hopped onto his bed and lounged against the headboard, patting the spot beside him.
Fluttershy settled herself into the indicated place. “I don’t know. Like I mentioned before, he seems to be a little bit… possessive. Oh, forgive me for disturbing you with all my personal troubles lately...”
“Not at all. I would consider it practice for my kindness skill, if it weren’t already such a pleasure to be of assistance to you. Please, proceed.”
“Well, in that case, um… Okay.” Fluttershy released a sigh. “So, about Discord. Sometimes I worry how free I really am with him—or will be, you know, in the future.”
“I see… Fluttershy, do you think he loves our foals?”
“Yes, I’m certain of it!”
“Excellent,” Sombra muttered, his voice low and dark.
“W-what do you mean, ‘excellent’?”
“Oh, only that if he loves them so much, then I’m sure, for their sake, he could bear to do no wrong to you.”
“I suppose...” Despite her new knowledge about herself, Fluttershy found it hard to think about all this. The old ache of the scar on her neck was kicking up again, only now it was snaking deeper into her chest than it had lately gone.
“Fluttershy, my love, look at me.”
Her eyes met his and she forgot her discomforts in the intensity of that gaze.
“I am improving, yes? I am becoming reformed?”
“Then in good time, I will earn more and more freedom. I can check in on you, make sure you’re safe, and remind Discord that you have more loyalties in your life than just to him. Maybe you can vouch for my improvement to Twilight and the others, and they might be persuaded to accelerate my release?”
“Yes, that’s a good idea! You will stick around once you’re freed, won’t you, and take your proper place in the care of our foals?”
“You can depend upon it, my love.” He smiled then, and the muscles in Fluttershy’s face felt compelled to mirror him.
And smiling, Fluttershy felt better already about her sticky situation. “Okay then, I’ll see what I can do.” She leaned over and rested her head on Sombra’s shoulder. “So what were you up to before I interrupted?”
Sombra gave a brief chuckle as he matched Fluttershy’s lean. “Just reading one of the certified-innocuous books your cautious princess lent to me.” He inclined his head toward the nightstand, where a thick, faded tome labeled “Astronomy” lay.
Fluttershy regarded the book. “That looks like… a lot. Is it very interesting?”
“Not particularly,” sighed the stallion. “But it fills the time decently enough when I’m not studying my friendship lessons. You said Twilight is with Fio and Corey?”
“Yes, she’s giving them magic lessons. Oh!” Fluttershy glanced at the clock that hung on the wall. “I suppose they’ll be finishing up soon! Twilight said she’d walk them back to the house, but it would look strange if I weren’t home by then! Maybe I’d better get going. Sorry for leaving you so soon with only your book for company!”
“Nonsense! Seeing you even briefly is enough to get me through many an excruciating hour. And I wouldn’t have you neglecting our foals!” Sombra gave Fluttershy a gentle nudge toward the edge of the bed.
Fluttershy climbed down and looked back before starting for the door. “Goodbye for now, Sombra.”
Grinning mischievously, Sombra slid downward until he was reclined on his side and half-propped on an elbow, accentuating the toned muscularity of his impressive frame. Thus displayed, he blew Fluttershy a kiss.
So hastily then did Fluttershy retreat from the room, making her mane fall about her face in an attempt to hide her blush from the guardpony, that she did not notice how instantly Sombra returned to his book and the notes he had been taking on it.
There was a loud pop, then four voices spoke simultaneously. One said “Eep!”, two said “Daddy!”, and the last said “What they hay just happened?”
To the latter, Discord explained: “I burst the previous reality like a bubble to drop us down into the next. Thought it would be more fun than a standard teleport.” And he reached out to catch his leaping foals, only he caught them not in his arms as usual, but in a butterfly net he had swiftly conjured. “What an interesting pair of specimens I’ve caught flitting about the garden,” he exclaimed as he held his dangling, giggling foals up before his eyes.
Applejack was slowly turning in a circle in an attempt to get her bearings, while Fluttershy’s lips pressed into a firm line as she regarded the two watering cans discarded by Fio and Corey that were now spilling their contents onto the ground.
“We were tending our family garden,” muttered the pegasus.
“Apologies, my dear.” Discord set the foals down and hung the watering cans on each of their horns. “My Welwitschia doesn’t need tending and I’ve scheduled a regular localized mist for the fern, so neither of my plants will require attention. Would you like me to arrange similar automated care for all the other plants, to spare you the extra work?”
Fluttershy’s voice remained in a low mutter. “The point of the extra work was cooperative family bonding time. Just like you to manufacture a shortcut.”
There was a silence then, except for the foals enthusiastically trying to show the newcomer their plants. But her attention was elsewhere.
“Oh, sorry Applejack! With all that commotion, I forgot to say hello!” Fluttershy put on a bright face and gave her friend a quick hug. “What brings you to our little garden?”
Discord piped up. “The Wonderbolts performed over Ponyville today and Applejack came to see it. Then I thought I could spare her from her train ride to visit you-know-who tomorrow and brought us straight back here.”
Fluttershy’s eyes shifted to the horizon as her mask of cheer dropped. “I was asking Applejack.”
Applejack gave an awkward cough. “Right, well, it’s pretty much just like he said. I hadn’t seen Discord’s show yet, and it was really something. You really outta go see it for yourself, sometime, Fluttershy! I’ll even watch the foals one evening for ya! But anyhow, it’s gettin’ to be sunset, and I guess I’ll head over to Rarity’s for the night.”
“Good evening then, Applejack.” Fluttershy turned to Fio and Corey. “Come now, little ones, it’s time to head inside!”
Applejack leaned closer to the draconequus who still stood beside her. “Say, Discord, how’s about you come have dinner with me an’ Rarity, if Fluttershy can spare ya? I know she ain’t expectin’ the extra company, but she won’t mind. She’s been dyin’ to ask you about those fancy frocks you conjured up the other day.”
Discord glanced over at his mate, who was herding two reluctant foals toward the door into the house. “I dunno, I...”
“Hey, Fluttershy!” Applejack decided to spare him the trouble. “Mind if I borrow Discord for the evenin’?”
She didn’t even turn around to face either of them. “Uh-huh, sure, take him for as long as you want.” And she stepped into the house and closed the door behind her.
“Sorry about that, Discord. I was gettin’ a feelin’ that Fluttershy might want some space. You don’t mind headin’ to Rarity’s with me, do ya?”
Discord sighed, deflating until he was no more than a pathetic, shrunken scrap lying on the ground. “No, I think you’re right,” admitted the scrap. “I’m not wanted at home this evening.”
By the time Rarity opened her front door, Discord had gotten himself together enough to enjoy startling the unsuspecting unicorn backward onto her haunches. “So, what’s for dinner?” he asked as he levitated into Rarity’s home to investigate without waiting for an answer.
“Sorry to impose,” whispered Applejack to her marefriend. “I thought Discord might be in need of some extra company, and he wasn’t gonna be gettin’ it at home, I’m afraid.”
Rarity took a moment to consider the implications of that statement as she and Applejack turned into the house. “...Perhaps we should encourage him to talk it out, if it’s really that sort of problem.”
“My thoughts exactly,” agreed Applejack, with a nuzzle to Rarity’s cheek.
“Aww, how sweet,” Discord broke into their moment. “It appears that date I arranged last week did you two some good!”
“It certainly did,” agreed Rarity. “As a matter of fact, I’ve been wanting to tell you what a marvelous job you did on that, but such is a conversation best had over dinner, and I’m afraid I wasn’t expecting company this evening.”
A rolled-up newspaper materialized to rap Discord on the head. “Why, how rude of me to barge into your home without bringing even the slightest offering of goodwill! Dinner’s on me!” At that, he stretched himself into the shape of a table, fashioned a clean, white tablecloth around his neck like a cape, and bent down to stand on four legs. Three silvery plants sprouted down the length of the tablecloth and bloomed into covered dishes, and then Applejack and Rarity were each scooped up by a scampering chair and carried over to the tableside. “Bon apetit,” invited Discord.
Under the plate coverings lay steaming dishes of elegantly-garnished ravioli, stuffed with whipped sweet potato and spiced with a mystery concoction that reminded the ponies of Zebrican fares. Discord held a triple-spouted pitcher in his bat wing and poured three streams of resplendent juice onto the table—only the liquid didn’t spill into a puddle, but stood itself erect in the shapes of three empty chalices. One chalice levitated to the side of each plate, and drinking from them required some concentration, for with every sip, the rim of the chalice would descend as the “vessel” was shortened. The drink itself was deliciously inscrutable, with a flavor that had all the balm and none of the bite of mint.
“I do believe I was about to receive a few compliments…?” suggested Discord when they were all situated.
Rarity watched aghast as Discord’s mismatched horns bent down to grasp the silverware and lift bites of food up to his mouth. Then she shook her head to better compose herself to answer him. “Yes, right. What I wanted to tell you was, that evening, what you did to my dining room—why, it was divine, darling! Simply divine.”
A wan smile lifted half of Discord’s face. The compliment was somewhat tarnished by the ironic term of endearment. Such words would be more welcome from his mate than his friend. He brushed it off. “Divine? Perhaps you didn’t realize that I’m a deity. Everything that I do is divine by definition!”
Rarity’s eyes darted briefly down the length of their odd—divine—dining table. “Yes, ah, of course. What I mean is, I’m in the fashion industry, and I’m perfectly steeped in matters of design and aesthetic. I know what’s good and what’s not, and that décor you summoned! I’ve never encountered a design for anything so impeccably suited to serve its intention! I’m sure just about nopony could resist falling in love in that kind of ambiance, and for Applejack and I...”
Discord noticed the other mare slide her hat down her face to cover a blush.
“Well,” continued Rarity, “I needn’t go into all that. But those dresses! Those utterly incandescent dresses! I was, I mean, I was just—I was just speechless! Those dresses were pure poetry, such as only a mind of the most delicate sensibilities, the most subtle genius could compose. For as long as I’ve known you, Discord, I had no idea you were capable of such sublime expression!”
Discord laughed. By that point, his face was glowing—literally—with delight. “You had no idea only because I choose not to express that side of myself very often. Not quite ‘on-brand’ for a chaos lord, you see. But my capacity for beauty is still as much a part of me as chaos, believe it or not!”
“Well, I would not have believed it if you’d have said that at any time before, but after that enchanted afternoon you put together for us, I have no doubt of it. Though I’m not sure I understand what beauty might have to do with chaos. In any case, thank you for what you did for Applejack and me. It was beautiful, undeniably, and I think I’m finally starting to understand what it is that Fluttershy’s seen in you and your chaos all this time.”
Discord’s glow immediately went out, and while his eyes were averted downward, Rarity cast her silently-shocked marefriend a wink.
“Discord, darling, is something the matter?”
What remained of dinner, as well as the dishes and tablecloth, all evaporated, and Discord coiled himself into a defensive heap facing the two mares. He muttered under his breath.
Rarity took a step toward him. “Come again?”
“I wish that were still true, what you said about Fluttershy,” he grumbled, just loud enough to be understood.
Rarity looked over her shoulder at Applejack, who finally figured out what her marefriend was doing. Walking closer herself, Applejack laid a comforting hoof on Discord’s arm. “There’s something goin’ on between you and Fluttershy, ain’t there?”
“I don’t know what happened,” he wailed. “One day, she tells me how committed she is to me, and the next, she’s all irritable and wants nothing to do with me! I’ve tried giving her space, I’ve tried offering extra support and affection, but all I ever get anymore is the cold shoulder!”
Applejack exchanged a worried glance with Rarity, then lowered her voice. “She’s not, uh, havin’ another foal, ya think?”
“No,” croaked Discord. “I checked. Aside from that, I don’t know what it could possibly be! Have I done something wrong?”
“Well, have ya tried askin’ her?”
“No, not directly. She kept deflecting when I tried.”
“Maybe you should try again,” added Rarity. “I know firsthoof communication can be painful at times,” and here she turned a sad smile toward Applejack, “but the only way to get around the pain is to insist on meeting it directly. You’ll both be better off if you get a better understanding of what’s going on inside each others’ heads.”
With that, Discord started bawling. Rarity and Applejack were utterly at a loss, so the former trotted off to retrieve tissues while the latter was left to awkwardly pat the weeping beast’s shoulder. Discord accepted a tissue when he’d calmed down enough to notice it was being offered. The airhorn honk that was the draconequus blowing his nose startled both ponies into the air. Their reaction gave him just the barest giggle, and it was enough to bring him back into the present.
“Terribly sorry about all that.” Discord blew his nose again, watched the mares jump again, and half-giggled again. “I suppose you are right, though. If talking to Fluttershy is now the only way I’m going to know what’s on her mind, then that’s what I’ll settle on doing.”
Applejack spent a moment trying to parse the odd wording of his conclusion, but could make nothing of it. She was already on another train of thought. “Discord, if ya don’t mind my asking, how long has this been goin’ on?”
“A month or two, I guess.”
“So about when Sombra’s ‘reformation’ was startin’, ya think? Might that have something to do with it? Fluttershy’s anxiety flarin’ up again, maybe?”
Sombra. Discord shot up, all trace of tears erased, standing stiff. Before either of the mares could ask what the matter was, he blurted “I’m rather tired of all this chatter. Who’s up for dessert?”
After the custard appeared, every attempt Applejack or Rarity made to bring up the subject of Discord’s relationship distress again was swiftly shut down or flat-out ignored. “I’ll talk to her,” was all he would say.
Sombra looked down his nose at the pile of pink on the floor. It giggled.
“No, really,” continued Pinkie Pie, standing and launching herself into another dizzy twirl. “I’ve never known a truer laugh in my whole entire life! I mean, friendship and laughter already go hoof-in-hoof, so imagine that but at the next level!”
He watched the mare, who was too blinded in her ecstasy to care much about gravity, fall over again. “And what is the takeaway you expect me to gain from this lesson today, may I ask?”
“Oh, I don’t even know! I was sorta hoping you’d just laugh along with me!” When the stallion failed yet again to laugh, Pinkie calmed herself down and stood up once again. “Huh. I guess you just don’t have the experience yet to know what I’m talking about. Well, I hope you fall in love too someday, Sombra—real love, I mean! Requited love! It’s just the best.” The pink geyser erupted in another fit of giggling.
Sombra managed to roll his eyes while the mare wasn’t looking. Then he forced a chuckle. “You’ve convinced me, Pinkie. Real love is something worth working for, if it means I get to laugh as hard as you do.”
“That’s the spirit! Don’t worry; it’ll happen to you before you know it, and then you’ll look back to this moment when I made myself look all kinds of ridiculous in front of you, and you’ll understand what it was about, and then you’ll laugh so hard you won’t know what to do with yourself!” Pinkie Pie bounced toward the door. “Okie-dokie, I think that’s lesson enough for now! I’ve got somepony to go see, you know!”
With a final wink and bounce, the candy-colored commotion was gone. Sombra finally relaxed the muscles in his face. The book was sitting on the desk, six entire steps across the room. When he reached it, he painstakingly flipped through the pages until he found his folded leaf of notes. Then he had the troublesome task of opening the leaf in his hooves and pressing it flat for reading. The total effort of getting back to what he had been doing took far longer than Sombra would have preferred.
The astronomy book lay open to the chapter on the origin of the universe. “Matter and anti-matter,” read Sombra from his notes. “Out of their unresolved conflict spiraled all the universe. Perfected balance can only result in self-annihilation.” Harmless contemplation. Notes on which Twilight, upon inspection, had not commented.
“Perfected balance...” Sombra’s eyes screwed shut. He held the object in his mind. Took the feel of it again, physically and magically, summing up its essence.
“Is...” Sweat dampened his furrowed brow.
Clank. The enchanted shackle lay open on the floor.
“Aahhhh,” sighed the stallion as purple wisps of flames leaked from his eyes. On the desk, an open book. In the air before him, encased in purple glow, an open book. A closed book. A book fanning its pages before his eyes. “Much better!”
After a few more experimental spell casts, the defeated magic dampener levitated back onto Sombra’s horn. Then he launched himself onto his bed, and he laughed.
“To your laugh of love, Pinkie, I raise my laugh of victory! How does it compare?” Then he pictured her sweet teal eyes, doting, pleading. “No matter, for I shall have my laughs of both sorts.”
Real love, indeed. Yes, the pink one hadn’t guessed it, but he was familiar. He could recall the taste of her lips, so recently refreshed, a taste of sweet fruits deeply ripened and of victory. The softness of her fragile body beneath his hot muscle—the way his plan was going, perhaps that, too, was a sensation soon to be refreshed. If his hunger for, mastery over her was not real love, he didn’t know what was. They’d already had two beautiful foals together, after all.
Only two? Once they finally started their proper life together, he was certain she’d be more than willing to have some more. And all of them infused from the womb with dark magic. Perhaps the shadow pony race wasn’t so doomed after all!
Many of the rooms in Twilight’s castle were of such a size and architecture that sound rang clearly throughout the space, yet seemed all the more insignificant for it. So it was that Fluttershy could listen in on her foals’ story time with Spike at one end of the west drawing room while simultaneously conversing privately with Twilight at their chess game at the room’s opposite end.
She pushed forward a pawn. “How has Cozy been coming along lately? I know she was giving you some trouble.”
“I wish I could say for sure,” sighed Twilight. “Luna visits her fairly regularly now, and I think Cozy has more respect for her than for me. I feel so bad about it. Luna already has enough on her plate reforming Tirek and helping Celestia out with Chrysalis. I’m the princess of friendship, and I can’t even handle my own reformation student!” Twilight, too, pushed forth a pawn, fixing it at a near diagonal to Fluttershy’s.
“But that’s not entirely true! Cozy may be locked in your pocket dimension, but she’s not your only reformation student right now, and your other one has already come a long way. And you’ve been managing all your royal duties on top of that! Princess of friendship or not, you’re still just one pony. I’d say the reformation progress you’ve overseen already is a great accomplishment.” Her hoof went to a bishop, swinging it out far through the hole her earlier pawn had left.
It was quiet as Twilight pondered her next move. Spike’s voice drifted across the room.
“...So when the moon rose they got up, but they could find no crumbs of bread, for the birds of the woods and of the fields had come and picked them up. Hansel thought they might find the way all the same, but they could not...”
“I suppose I know who you’re talking about,” replied Twilight to Fluttershy. “I haven’t done any kind of formal assessment on his progress yet. Oh, I see what you’re doing here. My queen’s in danger, but if I take out your bishop, you’ve got your knight ready to go. You’re forcing me to block you with this pawn.” She placed her own pawn in the bishop’s path to the queen. “Anyway, do you really think he’s much improved?”
Fluttershy nodded. “It’s hard to believe I’m saying this, but yes. He’s given every indication of trustworthiness.”
From across the room: “...About noon they saw a pretty snow-white bird sitting on a bough, and singing so sweetly that they stopped to listen. And when he had finished the bird spread his wings and flew before them, and they followed after him until they came to a little house...”
The black bishop held its position while a black pawn took one step forward, and Fluttershy folded her hooves back in her lap. “How long were you thinking to keep him confined as he is?”
Twilight stared at the new diagonal chain of opposing pawns, trying to calculate some advantage from the mutual slaughter it promised. “Longer than it’s been, but I guess I could arrange an assessment and maybe even shorten the span if you recommend it. I’d like to wait for Applejack to finish and bring me the report before I think any more on that, though. She’s been expressing some doubts about his honesty.” A white pawn took the first black pawn in the sequence.
Having taken the first casualty of the game did nothing to assuage the sudden welling of bitterness in Fluttershy’s throat. Doubts about his honesty? He had bared his past and his heart to her, advised her without taking advantage of her! How could anypony accuse such a helpless, abused stallion of dishonesty? With nothing to say to Twilight’s offense, Fluttershy thrust her queen diagonally out to the edge of the board. “Check.”
Twilight glared at the assault on her royal pieces.
“...So she took them each by the hand, and led them into her little house. And there they found a good meal laid out, of milk and pancakes, with sugar, apples, and nuts. After that she showed them two little white beds, and Hansel and Gretel laid themselves down on them, and thought they were in heaven...”
Then Twilight moved a pawn between the black queen and the white king. “Anyway, what about you and Discord?”
“Me and Discord?” Fluttershy’s queen retreated back a space, out of harm’s way.
“Yeah, you know, the ceremony thing. I’d have thought you’d want that ‘safety measure’ in place before I let our current reformation student out.” A white pawn swallowed a black bishop.
Fluttershy felt like she was choking as her heart suddenly reverted to a heavy, labored beat. “Oh. Right.”
“...Then she grasped Hansel with her withered hand, and led him into a little stable, and shut him up behind a grating; and call and scream as he might, it was no good.”
It took all her concentration to keep her voice level and clear. “Well, it’s such a big change, you see, and we haven’t really had a lot of time to talk it through.” The black queen stepped left to take its revenge on the white pawn.
“...Gretel began to weep bitterly, but it was of no use, she had to do what the wicked witch bade her...”
The white queen pounced on the black.
Then the perished piece slipped from Twilight’s grasp, elongated, slithered off the table, and grew into a draconequus. Framing Discord’s mouth were two mismatched fangs. He plucked off the one that was black and sculpted and handed this replacement queen back to the alicorn. “Twilight, most excellent friend that you are, would you excuse me if I borrow Fluttershy from you for a moment? There’s something I’d like to discuss with her alone.”
"…‘Spare me your lamentations,’ said the old woman; ‘they are of no avail’…"
Fluttershy had her hoof on her knight, but her poor, tired heart was beating so hard that it hurt, and she forgot to move the piece to its target.
“Certainly,” piped Twilight. “Our game can pause for a few minutes. We were just talking about you, you know!”
Discord turned then to his mate. “Fluttershy, may I?”
“...And Gretel once in, she meant to shut the door upon her and let her be baked, and then she would have eaten her...”
There was no way out. Fluttershy stood up, her knight abandoned. “Fine.”
Discord teleported the two of them just outside, where they could see through the window into the room they’d just left, but could not be heard. Kneeling in the grass, he picked up both of Fluttershy’s front hooves and held them gently. “My darling, something is wrong. I’ve hurt you somehow. Please tell me so I can make it right.”
Fluttershy tightened her lips as she looked away, resenting his hold on her.
Perceiving her discomfort, Discord let go. His gaze, though, did not. “Please, even our friends have begun to notice. They’ve urged me to talk to you, you know, communicate. We can’t go on like this. It’s the only way to make things better.”
You have power over him now. You don’t want to make things better. How her heart squeezed and throbbed!
“Please talk to me,” pleaded Discord. “If not for my sake, then for the foals’?”
“Why, is that a threat?” Her eyes snapped to his to relish in the power of her bite.
“No! I—what? No! I… I would never...”
She’d intended to inflict pain, but she didn’t anticipate she’d make the all-powerful Lord of Chaos cry. Fluttershy stared back astonished at his tears and realized there was more than hurt pride there. In Discord’s face was pleading, desperation—she really did have power over him—and there was also love. So much of it, in fact, that even in her conviction of his greed, she could not deny its presence.
Fluttershy breathed because her cinching heart loosened. “I’m just… feeling trapped. That’s all.”
Discord breathed too, wiping his eyes. “Am I making you feel trapped?”
The weight of admission dragged Fluttershy’s gaze down to her hooves. “I know you don’t mean Fio and Corey any harm. You just want them to be yours, but they have two fathers all of a sudden, and now you both want them to be your own.” (And now you both want me to be your own.) Her heart squeezed again, preventing her from voicing that thought. “So how can I balance that? What’s your role, what’s his role, what’s mine? Something’s got to give, and I’m realizing that it’s—” (you). Fluttershy broke off to cough. “I’m realizing that it’s not a problem with an easy answer. You can’t just snap it right. I’ve been thinking to start taking the foals to see Sombra sometimes. Maybe even to shift some of the parenting load onto him. None of us would be quite so trapped that way.”
Discord’s tears dried as Fluttershy explained herself, and he began to notice certain things about his mate. Certain things about his mate that were not his mate. First, her eyes stayed on her hooves, even after she finished speaking. Painful honesty often involved looking away, he knew, but it at least usually ended with eye contact as a seal of earnestness. This painful honesty, while honest, was not earnest; Discord could tell she was making this admission as a disguise for another one. A harder one. That’s why she ended by rubbing her hoof over her neck.
That was the second wrong thing. Her neck, with its shriveled brown bruise snaking down toward her heart, a relic of a near-fatal dark magic infection. That bruise was no longer shriveled. In fact, he could see her pulse in it.
Her slow, sickly pulse—thing number three. It only quickened to liveliness once so far in this entire interview. Only when she spoke that name.
His Fluttershy never spoke that name.
“...I see,” said Discord, finally drawing her eyes back to his. “You are indeed in a difficult situation. My involvement probably isn’t giving you any clarity.”
“Well, much as I do want to claim Fio and Corey as my own sons, I concede that the matter of how to parent them is more your right than mine.”
“Still, I have a vested interest in those two, and if you really wish to entrust them to their other father, then I would like to see how this other father is coming along in his reformation. How about this? Instead of taking the foals to his next friendship lesson, you take me?”
“What?” Fluttershy’s glare shifted to surprise. “I mean, what would that accomplish? I really don’t think that step is necessary.”
“No, no, I insist. If the wellbeing of our foals is at stake, I don’t think any extra precaution is unnecessary.”
“But why must you come with me? Couldn’t you visit him alone, whenever you wanted?”
“Oh, but a joint effort should involve joint communication, should it not?”
There was fear in her eyes. “You don’t trust me to make my own decisions?”
Fear and hurt. Discord hated to see it, hated to be the direct cause of it. He could visit Sombra alone, couldn’t he? But Fluttershy’s blood was infected again, and he could see it plain as day. After what almost happened last time, he couldn’t let himself fail her again.
If he was wrong, he was putting the last nail in his own coffin. But for her sake, he had to do it. “No, not particularly. I’m coming with you.”
Tears sprang into Fluttershy’s eyes, hot blood to her cheeks. Her breath came faster, and her swollen vein pulsed slower.
“I’m sorry,” Discord quickly added before she could unleash her rage. “I don’t know what your feelings are right now, but I still love you with everything that I am, and the foals, and I just want to make sure I’m doing what’s best for our family too.” Then he braced himself.
There was a blast inside the castle, followed by muffled shouting. Both Discord and Fluttershy turned in vacant astonishment toward the window behind which the commotion was happening. Streamers and confetti were still raining down after the explosion of the party cannon, and a pink blur was dashing about the room.
“Better go see what that’s all about,” said Discord, teleporting them inside.
“...Oh, good, Fio and Corey are here too,” continued the pink blur. “Applejack’s just finishing with Sombra. And Fluttershy and Discord, hello! And I’ve brought Rarity and Rainbow is on her way.” Party decorations were rapidly appearing on every wall and available surface.
Applejack then joined the growing collection of confused creatures. “Pinkie, what’s all this about? I’m not too keen on having to wrap up my lesson early like that!”
“You’ll see in just a teensy-weensy second, we just need Rain—Rainbow Dash, there you are! Okay, everypony’s here!” Pinkie Pie bounded toward a closed door and gave a mighty honk on her party pipe.
““SURPRISE!”” The door burst open and mare and stallion shouted in unison as Cheese Sandwich sailed into the room, landing perfectly in Pinkie Pie’s waiting arms. ““WE’RE GETTING MARRIED!””
The entire assembly—Twilight, Rarity, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Spike, Fio, Corey, Fluttershy, and Discord—erupted in excitement and congratulations. Fluttershy forced herself to shelve her frustration with Discord for the moment. Discord, for his part, was already setting up a dance under the disco ball he’d conjured, laughing with unbridled and unapologetic mirth as Fio and Corey tried to chase the shards of disco light across the floor. He was clearly not sorry at all.
Discord had carefully avoided seeing that unicorn’s face again after the initial release. Some part of him really had hoped the stallion would improve himself, and he kept out of the way out of respect for that process. Now, though, as Fluttershy slunk along at his side, he realized that had been a mistake. There was clearly some foul trick at play designed to drive his mate away from him.
He had fought to free Fluttershy from Sombra once before, and he was ready to do it again. It was just trickier this time. Whatever Fluttershy had been persuaded about Discord, she had been persuaded without the aid of near-death delirium. In fact, there was a chance she had changed her mind willingly, and really did want to trade her draconequus mate for a unicorn one. That’s why Discord was so emphatic about making this visit. He had to see.
Every excuse Fluttershy made as they walked toward the castle was casually dismissed. The anger and mistrust visibly billowing behind her eyes terrified Discord more than anything else he’d ever seen, but for her sake he had to be calm.
The tension between mare and draconequus by the time they arrived that the guarded door was so palpable, it would have snapped Discord away like a broken rubber band if he had not been consciously and deliberately preventing himself.
Fluttershy gingerly knocked, then tiptoed into the room.
From inside: “Dearest Fluttershy!” Here, Discord too entered the room, closing the door behind him. “Oh,” continued Sombra, “I see you have brought Discord as well. Welcome.” The stallion’s head dipped in polite greeting but the smile on that face was more of a sneer.
“Thank you, but I brought myself,” returned Discord. “I’m told you want a greater presence in your foals’ lives, and since I’ve until now been trusted with their guardianship, I just wanted to come and make sure you are suited to be a worthy parent to them.”
Sombra blinked slowly. Then his smile deepened, exposing his fangs. He stepped forth to where Fluttershy was seated and sat himself down, taking her two front hooves in his. “Lovely Fluttershy here has skill enough as a parent to make up for any deficiencies either of us might have, and with her by my side, I’m sure I can’t fail to learn quickly and become as good a father as our foals could dream of having.” He kissed each of Fluttershy’s hooves.
This made Fluttershy turn red, white, and red again. “Oh my, um, I...” Her whisper trailed off.
Discord had simply watched, glaring, his arms crossed. So this was how it was going to be? He picked up his cowering mate and gave her soft stomach a nuzzle without breaking eye contact with Sombra. “She is the most excellent mother as could be, I agree. But my mate is also an extraordinary individual and you must understand that I couldn’t bear to see her stifled by the painful responsibility of picking up for anypony else’s slack.”
All four hooves back on the ground, Fluttershy scrambled backward, her face now more green than anything.
“I am right to be just a little worried about that,” asked Discord, leaning down to meet Fluttershy’s stunned gaze, “aren’t I, my darling?”
Her response trailed off yet again when Sombra advanced to her side, brushing his body affectionately along hers. “Don’t forget that I had her first, Discord.”
“What do you mean, you had her first? She was friends with me long before you ever stole her away!”
“No, I mean I had her,” Sombra rumbled with self-satisfaction. Then he ran his tongue up Fluttershy’s left hear and gave it the softest, gentlest nip, right over the hole he had put in that ear years ago that had started Fluttershy’s dark magic infection in the first place. Not until he removed his lips from her did Fluttershy finally startle and scramble backward.
Discord trembled, hardly noticing the twin plumes of smoke rising from his ears. He was losing control. He could see now all that had been going on behind his back, and he wanted nothing more than to smear the entrails of that vile beast across the deepest trench of the darkest methane sea on the blackest planet in the most violent astronomical system of the most impossibly inaccessible dimension, where the sarcophagus eels could gnaw eternally on his eternal rot. But if he attacked now, he knew Fluttershy would never trust him again. Discord’s body contracted in a great, sparking spasm.
“I think, um, we’d better go,” squeaked Fluttershy, finally finding her voice. She scurried toward a twitching Discord and the door.
As she retreated past him, Sombra made a quarter-turn and lashed his tail against her flank. “Goodbye for now, my sweet,” he drawled.
It took no small effort for Discord to wrench his flaming eyes off the beast and follow his mate out. Gradually, he convinced his muscles to relax, and the twitching stopped. He looked to the mare at his side. Fluttershy dragged herself along, tail between her legs and ears pinned back. Her breathing was heavy and fast, and that vein snaking down her neck looked as black as it had ever been.
Discord sucked in a breath. Fluttershy was worse off than he had feared—how had he failed to notice earlier? His mate was once again being choked out of her own body by an infection of dark magic. If he tried to make her see it, it could just drive her from him forever. But if he tried to draw out the infection himself, it would still drive her away, or worse—kill her. The dark magic had such a hold on her body by now that its sudden absence could be too much.
He needed to plan his next move carefully. Nothing was going to work if Sombra kept a direct hold on Fluttershy through his connection to her dark magic. Before Discord could do anything for her, he needed to stun Sombra first.
“Fluttershy, why don’t you go on ahead and take care of the twins? I’m sure they’ve all but driven Rarity mad by now! I’ve got something I need to see to.”
Fluttershy flinched. “Please don’t—”
“No no, I insist!” Discord ignored the pain in her eyes and snapped his fingers, teleporting Fluttershy to the cottage and himself back into Sombra’s room.
Pages went flying from the startled stallion’s desk. “Need something else, draconequus?” growled Sombra as he kicked the papers out of sight.
“Why, yes, in fact!” Discord swirled into the air where he could smirk down at Sombra. “You’re an awfully handsome specimen, you know, and I have something of a soft spot for the evil and formerly-so. If you want Fluttershy so much, I think I might be willing to let you have her—if I can have you! The three of us could make a very cozy bed, don’t you think?” Discord punctuated his proposal with a savory stroke along the stallion’s angular jaw.
Sombra stood rigid as stone except for a dry swallow and cold sweat beading on his forehead.
Discord chuckled. “Speechless, I see! Typical. Well, you can answer me later if you must. In the meantime, I’ll be thinking of you, big boy.” He winked as the stallion’s face contorted in protest.
And he was gone just as Sombra began to bellow “GET OUT!” and the guardponies stormed into the room for an explanation.
Why did he have to do that? Why couldn’t he see the danger he’s put himself in? Fluttershy’s hooves carried her back and forth across the bedroom. Now that Discord knows he has competition, he’ll flay him! He’ll flay Sombra and banish his poor, broken body to the other end of the universe!Then I’ll be trapped under his greedy talons for the rest of my life. For all eternity, probably!
There was a footstep, and Fluttershy crouched into an offensive posture.
“Hey, Fluttershy—yo, calm down, it’s just me!”
“Angel? You have a voice? Oh,” Fluttershy scowled, “it was Discord, wasn’t it?”
Angel crossed his arms. “Yeah, he gave me five minutes to tell you anything I want. So first off, quit your pacing. All that stomping around is driving me and the others nuts.”
“Oh, of course! I’m sorry.”
“Good. And now that you’re all done with that, you should go see Discord in the back house. He wants to talk.”
Fluttershy huffed. “So he only gave you a voice to make you deliver his message. Well, I don’t want to talk to him. I’d much rather talk to you, Angel. What else have you got to say?”
“Look, Fluttershy,” said Angel, rolling his eyes. “Go talk to Discord. That’s really all I have to say to you. It’s obvious something’s off between you guys, and I and all the other animals have been worried sick about it. Not that you’d know, since you’ve been so busy wallowing in self-pity to really think much about anycreature else!”
The jab drew a gasp from Fluttershy. “Angel, you know I care about you!”
“Yeah, yeah. You used to care about Discord too, and now look at you! Much as I hate stoking that dummy’s ego, I have to admit that I can’t see that he’s done anything wrong. He’s been an excellent mate to you, and you take him for granted. None of us can understand why.” Angel turned toward the door, but looked back over his shoulder. “I don’t want anything more to do with you until you go make things right.” And he hopped out.
It left Fluttershy blinking. How could Angel possibly defend that greedy, stifling creature, especially when she knew how much he disliked him? How could Angel be mad at her for trying to protect herself? And yet, he had given her an ultimatum. Either bare herself to further manipulation, or lose one of her oldest, dearest friends. Was Angel also under Discord’s spell? Or could he see something that she couldn’t?
She looked up, and her restless hooves had taken her to the door of the back house. Inhale, exhale. “For you, Angel.” And she opened the door and slipped inside.
Supposedly, that door led into a reflected version of the living room, but the Lord of Chaos often redecorated this space, and so it was that Fluttershy found it. Rich, red walls stretched up from wainscoting so dark a brown it was almost black. On those walls hung portraits in heavy ornate frames, portraits of her for which she couldn’t remember sitting, and portraits of Discord and Fio and Corey too. A plush rug of an intricate damask pattern covered the dark wood floor, and heavy velvet curtains hung from the windows. The furniture, too, was velvet, and every piece angled toward an expertly-graven fireplace whose roaring flames were the room’s only source of light. The flickering fire gave every still contour in the room an illusion of life through shadows that leaped and danced. The very air felt dense and heavy, scented strongly of a musky incense, which Fluttershy felt tugging at her consciousness, lulling her toward a trance. Sinister yet lovely, dangerous yet comfortable. Such a chaos of confliction woven inseparably into the beauty of the room.
So faintly Fluttershy thought she was imagining it at first, a strange music blossomed. As it grew subtly more real, so too materialized an image into the space. A giant brass bird cage was coming to existence in the center of the floor, and inside it sat Discord. He was facing away from the door where Fluttershy stood, but she could see a viola singing under his skillfully gliding bow. The music he played was unlike any Fluttershy had ever heard; it was slow and pensive, yet rasping and gasping, its melody based on an exotic scale whose microtonal inflections somehow both unsettled her and resonated along something primal from the depths of her understanding. Finally, after a powerful cry, the music rose, higher and higher, quieter and quieter, until she couldn’t be sure whether the last whispered tones were real or imagined.
In the quiet of the crackling fire, Fluttershy blinked as her enchanted mind slowly drifted back down into her body. The last she had known, she had been standing just inside the door of the room, but sometime while the music had carried her off, the birdcage had opened and she must have wandered inside. Fluttershy now stood beside Discord. He lowered his instrument and let his whole body droop. The viola faded smoothly out of existence again, and Discord watched it go, watched his too-tense hands, watched the indifferent fire.
“That was beautiful.”
Discord sighed. Without looking up: “Have you ever considered what makes something beautiful?”
The fire crackled. Fluttershy sat down, arranging her hooves as neatly as she could beneath her. “It has to do with pleasing the senses, but… It’s more than that. Beauty involves the mind too, somehow.”
Still, he would not face her, but Discord’s eye twisted up to meet hers before flicking away again. “What do you find beautiful, Fluttershy?”
Wings shuffled. Shadows flickered. Time was still. “A field of wildflowers in spring, especially after a rainstorm, when everything sparkles. Or sunset, when one color blends into the next until all is black, and a million stars blink in the sky and the bats call overhead. Or waterfalls. Shady forest groves. Fio and Corey playing together, full of innocence and opportunity.”
“Do you know what all these beautiful things have in common?” Discord didn’t turn to see Fluttershy shake her head. “Unforeseen possibility coming to life. The unexpected. The uncontrollable. That which has a power and depth that you can witness, but not fathom or direct.”
Discord shifted, met her eyes, finally. “Yes, but not only that. It’s chaos and harmony in balance. That which is beautiful is something that has enough order to intersect with your ability to contemplate it, but not so much order that you can contain the whole of it within your mind. It must still surprise and delight you, tickle your imagination.” A heavy sigh. “So what, then, could possibly be beautiful to the Lord of Chaos?”
Fluttershy had no answer.
Discord looked away again. “For a long time, only two things were beautiful to me, for only two things were unpredictable to me: perfect chaos, and the reactions of mortals to the same. Nothing else could hold my interest. Then one day, there came a pony I couldn’t control. I wouldn’t admit it, but I was intoxicated by her ability to defy me.”
Understanding had welled up as tears in wide, teal eyes when the draconequus turned back to face them.
“I still am. You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever known, Fluttershy. You don’t have to do the soulmate rituals if you don’t want to. I could never force you to, anyway. And if you’ve decided that your happiness lies with another, I’d rather see you happy than mine.”
He had scarcely finished talking before an impact jolted him. Discord looked down and wept to see Fluttershy latched around his middle.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” she croaked into his fur. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I don’t know how I could have forgotten! It’s just—you have so much power, and—hic—and I was scared to give you more, to commit. And...”
Her words were smothered as Discord pulled her in closer. “I never meant to frighten you,” he murmured, through tears of his own.
The fire crackled and purred as they held each other, and the minutes stretched long.
“You always—sniff—you always put my needs and my safety above your own. And you confront all the challenges of raising twins with a smile on your face, infecting me with that smile too. You have a joy for life and a fearlessness toward it that I’ve always admired. And you make even the smallest things beautiful every moment I’m with you. I love you—there’s so many reasons I love you—I don’t know how I could possibly have forgotten!”
Discord pulled back, holding Fluttershy’s shoulders. His tear-stained face was grave. “I know how.” A mirror appeared, and Discord traced a thumb down her neck.
Fluttershy gasped. “Oh no!” Her hooves went to her neck, exploring the pulsing black vein with horror. “How could I have let this happen? It was him all along, wasn’t it? He did this to me—to us—and I fell for it! Oh, Discord, I—”
“I know. You did fall for it. It wasn’t entirely your fault, but… Well, it’s a very attractive lie, isn’t it?”
“Darkness. Badness. I know. You weren’t tempted by that stallion, right? You were tempted by the freedom he seemed to be offering.”
“Freedom...” Fluttershy’s eyes widened. “You’re right! I’ve always been so afraid of other creatures’ expectations of me, and when I let myself stop caring, breaking those expectations felt really good! It felt like I could do whatever I wanted. Like I had power over what I feared. He made me think I feared you, and it gave me a feeling of power tochoose to get close to him instead.” Then she blanched and fell silent.
“‘Get close to him? Close...how?” Discord tried to ignore the spike in his heart rate.
“Soap,” Fluttershy croaked.
“Please. I need soap.”
A bar of soap appeared as requested. Fluttershy took it and shoved it in her mouth.
“No!” Discord exclaimed, lunging forward to take back the soap. “Ponies can’t eat soap! You’ll be ill!”
Fluttershy’s eyes were glistening and Discord immediately regretted his shouting. “I’m sorry, my dear. You really can’t eat the soap, but won’t you tell me what’s wrong?” He stretched forth his arms to offer another hug.
The hug was not accepted. Fluttershy pushed his arms aside and hung her head. “I, um, I...kissed him,” she mumbled.
Discord blinked, fighting back his adrenaline. “Surely you mean—you must mean… he kissed you… Right?”
“Yes. Yes, he kissed me, but...” She sighed. “He couldn’t have if I hadn’t chosen to go to him in the middle of the night.”
Hands fretting, subconsciously levitating, Discord looked like he was about to burst. “B-but that couldn’t have been your fault! He was controlling you. Surely you could never have gone if he hadn’t—you know, p-planted the thought?”
Fluttershy was now struggling to speak through her tears, but she fought on anyway. Now was not the time to hide. “You’re right: he planted the thought and he kissed me, but Discord, you can’t take all the blame off of me.” She finally looked up to meet his eyes, afraid of what would surely come but anxious to make the truth clear and to pay for it accordingly. “I enjoyed it.”
Glass shattered, except there were no shards of glass on the ground, and the sound had come from Discord’s chest. He twitched, twitched again. The spasms left him on the floor and warped the formerly-elegant room into a cubist nightmare.
Fear crowded in behind Fluttershy’s eyes. It pinned her ears back, arched her spine, bristled her fur, but she would not let it take over her legs. She would not run. She would stay right here and take it. She deserved it.
Discord writhed and wheezed. He tried several times to snap, but he couldn’t control his fingers. Eventually, shaking with the effort, he pushed himself up into an awkward sit so he could look Fluttershy in the face. “Go to him then.” His voice was a dangerous whisper. “You don’t have to insult the both of us with any more flattery. My feelings don’t matter. You’re free to go.”
Fluttershy fell. Her knees gave out, her eyes were blind for tears, her throat closed. She couldn’t go. She couldn’t, she couldn’t, she couldn’t.
“Well?” hissed Discord.
“Please don’t make me!” she wailed. “I don’t want to go! I don’t want him! I’m scared! I’m sorry! I—” Her sobbing overcame her again.
He looked down at the mess of a pony before him and he felt his tremors stop. Her choking breaths seemed to rattle her all the way out to her wingtips, and her face—what he could see of it from behind her arms—was sickly pale and blotchy. All at once he thought: I can’t stop fighting for her. Not when she needs me like this. So he snapped the room back to the way it had been and lifted up his sagging pony to cradle her in his arms.
Fluttershy turned inward and clung to him, clung like her life depended on it. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry...”
“Shhh.” Discord held her tightly and let her tears soak into his fur.
Eventually, the weeping relented, and speaking was possible again. Fluttershy’s eyes were swollen when she looked up into Discord’s face. “I’m so sorry. I hate myself for enjoying that kiss! I love you, Discord—I don’t ever want to leave you, not again. But I don’t deserve you, and I’ll understand if you want to leave me...”
Discord set her down and looked away. “I can’t leave you. The moment I do, I have to die.”
Fluttershy choked. Somehow her tears were not yet used up, for they were already burning her eyes again.
Then he looked back down at her, his eyes as damp and puffy as hers. His paw was extended toward her too, and Fluttershy tore her gaze from his hurt-reddened eyes to look at his palm. On it was the bar of soap. “It will still be bad,” he explained, “but I made it safe to ingest.”
Once again, Fluttershy shoved the soap in her mouth. She relished its bitterness as if it were the best flavor she’d ever tasted. The soap was all but finished and their tears had finally dried before either of them attempted to speak again.
“Congratulations, Fluttershy,” said Discord, looking anything but congratulatory. “You’ve learned the appeal of being a villain.”
The weight of a stone sunk in Fluttershy’s stomach. “That’s what it’s like? That’s how you felt before you were reformed?”
Discord nodded. “Darkness is a powerful temptation, as you’ve learned.”
“But I don’t want to be a villain,” she cried. “I don’t want to be bad, and I don’t want to want to be bad!”
“I know you don’t,” sighed Discord. “I think it’s the dark magic that gave you a taste for badness. You’d never have developed it otherwise. That’s the only reason you could’ve allowed yourself to do what you did.”
Fluttershy shook her head, feeling her throat close again even though her tear ducts were empty. “Can’t you take the dark magic away? I don’t want a taste for badness!”
Taking her by the shoulders, Discord held Fluttershy still and swept a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “I’m sorry, Fluttershy. I can’t take it from you. Removing that much dark magic from your body all at once would be very dangerous.”
Fluttershy closed her eyes. She couldn’t cry anymore, but she still lost her voice. Eventually, she managed to swallow, and then she coughed a dry chuckle. “I guess that’s one more thing we’ll have in common, then. Now I also know what it’s like to fight the desire to be bad.”
“Don’t worry,” Discord assured, stroking her mane, “You reformed me and I can help reform you. I’ve learned that love is a very powerful weapon against darkness.”
“Right!” Fluttershy leaped to her hooves. “We can fight it together! I love you, Discord. Despite everything he tried to make me believe, I really do love you. Let’s do the soulmate rituals!”
She flew up and took his face in her hooves. “As soon as possible. No more excuses. I don’t want to be alone in a room with him ever again! I need you, and I want to be yours, exclusively, forever.”
Both of them realized their eyes had flicked to each others’ lips. Then Fluttershy let go of his face and wrapped her arms around his neck for a hug instead. Discord hugged her back and managed a small, private smile.
Sombra gazed down at the thick packet of papers that had just thudded onto his desk. “What’s this?”
“Your first friendship assessment will be soon, and if you impress us, you might have a little more freedom coming your way. This is a packet of study materials I’ve prepared for your benefit.”
“‘Packet’? Princess Twilight, this is a book! How will I get through all this material in time?”
“Oh, don’t worry; you’ll have a full few days to concentrate on it. All of your friendship tutors and I are going on a little trip, so you won’t be bothered with any new lessons until we get back. And don’t get any unfriendly ideas, Sombra,” Twilight added when she saw the gleam in his eye. “You’ll be kept under even closer guard while we’re away. Celestia and Luna will also be here, watching the kingdom and making sure absolutely everything is in perfect order at all times.”
“Do you doubt me, then?”
“Yes—not that I want to. I just hear such conflicting estimations of your trustworthiness that it’s hard to be sure. But I have every confidence you’ll set the record straight for us upon your assessment. In the meantime, study up. See you again at the end of this week.”
With that, the princess departed. Sombra remained staring at his review “packet” a while longer, before finally shoving it unceremoniously to the floor and seating himself at the desk. He snickered. “Left to my own devices for a few days, hmm?” The disabled magic dampener levitated off Sombra’s horn. “With that kind of time, I won’t need to worry about passing your little test to get my freedom back, silly pony!” He shut his eyes, concentrating, and a purple aura encased his unburdened horn.
The foals were bawling, and Spike’s efforts to cheer them were ignored.
“Can’t we go too?” wailed Corey.
“Daddy! Mommy! Don’t leave us!”
Upon Fio’s desperate plea, Fluttershy broke from her group of friends and trotted over to comfort her sons one last time.
“I’m sorry, my flowers. We have important grown-up business to do. I promise Daddy and I will tell you all about it when you’re old enough to understand.”
Their tears only redoubled.
"You’ll be alright. Mommy and Daddy will be back before you know it. Uncle Spike will make sure you have lots of fun while we’re gone.”
“Yeah,” piped the dragon. “I’ve got some awesome, secret stuff planned for us!”
That got the twins’ attention. “What, what?”
Spike chuckled. “I can’t tell you until after they all leave, or it’ll spoil the secret!” He lowered his voice to a mock-whisper. “If your parents found out what it is, they might not let us do it!”
Fio’s eyes grew very wide, and then his horn glowed gold. Fluttershy felt a tug trying to separate her from the ground. “Go away, Mommy,” Fio urged.
Then Fluttershy was surrounded by gold and pink. “Yeah,” added Corey, “go away!”
Her talented foals had just about managed to get Fluttershy in the air when she opened her wings and made to fly back toward her friends. “Alright, alright! See you soon, my flowers!” To Spike, she added a quick “thanks again” and flew off.
“...No way, I could totally handle it,” Rainbow Dash was boasting. “I’m the fastest pony alive, you know!”
“While that might be true,” returned Discord, “speed has no meaning in the vastness where we’re going. And even if it did, keeping up with me isn’t even your main concern. You’ve got to have the right sanity—”
“Whaddaya mean, I’m perfectly sane!”
"And that’s your problem! If you went out there perfectly sane, you certainly wouldn’t be when you came back!”
Fluttershy stepped in before her friend could come up with another excuse. “It’s okay, Rainbow, the pocket dimension’s really quite nice. You won’t feel confined at all!”
Now Rainbow Dash turned on her. “But he said if I fly too far in there, I’ll just loop back around! Can’t you see how boring it would be to fly over the same patch of ground over and over and over again?”
“I think you mean fun!” Pinkie Pie bounced over. “I bet if you can go around fast enough, it’ll look like the rest of us are moving in slow motion! Wouldn’t that be hilarious?”
As Rainbow Dash considered this idea, Applejack and Rarity approached Discord. “So how long do ya reckon this journey’ll take?”
“I can’t really answer that. You see, time doesn’t exist at all in the inter-dimensional plane, but it will exist inside the pocket dimension you’re riding in. But then again, the passage of time within the pocket dimension doesn’t necessarily match the passage of time outside it anyway, and… Well, suffice it to say, as mortals with brains not equipped to deal with paradoxes of space-time, you’d do best just not to think about it.”
In the absence of a fainting couch, Rarity leaned dramatically back onto the solid form of Applejack. “Trust me, after as incomprehensible an explanation as that, I’m not convinced I’ll be doing any thinking at all in there!”
Discord guffawed in delight, then pulled Fluttershy in close to his side as Twilight, Celestia, and Luna finally concluded their conference.
“I think we’re all set,” grinned Twilight, “Let’s go meet the draconequui!”
“Alright, ladies and, well, ladies! Your ride is departing soon! Please remember to keep all limbs inside the pocket dimension at all times, and be sure to secure all loose shreds of sanity before departure. In the event of an emergency, there are no exits, so just give me your biggest shout! All aboard!” Six ponies vanished upon Discord’s snap, and he launched himself straight up with a tremendous WHOOSH that left ripples in the sky.
Fluttershy, Twilight, Rarity, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, and Rainbow Dash all found themselves sitting on a raft upon a perfectly calm sea that stretched infinitely in every direction. It was quite dark, though the ponies could see each other just fine, and stars as colorful as gemstones twinkled above and, in the reflection on the still waters, below them.
It took about four seconds for Rainbow Dash to throw her head back in frustration. “Ugh, this is so boring! How long did he say this was going to take, again?”
“He didn’t, remember? He said not to even think about it.” Rarity then turned around to dip the tip of a hoof into the water. “Why, it’s not even cold!”
Applejack had turned too and watched the reflected stars dance in the disturbance of the water. “Welp,” she declared, “I know what I’m doin’ while we’re stuck in here!” She set aside her hat and launched herself up and out, landing in the sea with a tremendous splash that sprayed everypony onboard the raft.
“Applejack, you’ve drenched my poor mane!”
“Aww, that’s too bad. I guess if you’re already wet, ya might as well come join me for a swim!”
Rarity crossed her hooves with a “hmph,” but Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie were quick to join their friend in the water. By the time their splashes had finished coming down, the remaining three on the raft were so soaked that there really was no point in staying onboard, so they slipped in too.
“Hey, guys, look!” To the shock of everypony else treading water, Pinkie Pie was standing on the surface as if it were solid ground.
Rainbow Dash swam over and tried, unsuccessfully, to pull her back down. “How’re you doing that?”
“I don’t know! I just thought: ‘Hmm, I wonder how buoyant the water is,’ and I floated allllll the way up!”
Immediately, Rainbow Dash and Twilight also floated up until they were standing upon the water.
“What? How is this possible?” Twilight shouted.
“Wow, if that worked, I wonder if the opposite is true too!” Rainbow Dash leaped up, then dove straight down into the water. Pinkie Pie followed suit, and the others watched the pair sink down, down, down into the clear water.
Then Pinkie Pie floated back up to the surface. “Ohmygosh, guys! It’s like it’s not even water! You can breathe in it!” And she dove back down to chase Rainbow Dash, who had all but disappeared in the depths.
“I ain’t doin’ that.”
Rarity shook her head in agreement with Applejack, and Twilight looked conflicted. Fluttershy, however, trusting in Discord’s creative powers, dove down to try it out. After some time had passed and Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, and Rainbow Dash could still be seen swirling around below without having come up for a breath, the remaining mares gave in. The six swam around together like a shoal of fish, and even Rainbow Dash found herself having fun. Eventually, exhaustion overcame Fluttershy, and she led the way back up to the raft to rest.
“Well, this has been unexpectedly lovely,” mused Rarity as she wrung out her mane.
“Yeah,” agreed Twilight, “though I still don’t understand how any of that was possible.”
Fluttershy smiled. “Remember, this pocket dimension isn’t bound to the laws of the world you and I are used to. It’s made entirely of chaos magic.”
“Oh, of course!” Rarity exclaimed. “That’s why it’s impossibly beautiful. Applejack, you remember what he was saying about chaos and beauty, don’t you?”
“Yeah. ‘My capacity for beauty is as much a part of me as chaos,’ he said. I still don’t get what he meant by that.”
“Discord talked about beauty and chaos with you guys too?” asked Fluttershy, looking up from her preening.
“Yes, he did. I had asked him about it after he...” Rarity looked at Applejack, who shrugged. “After he set up our first date.”
There was a great chorus of “WHAT?” followed by incoherent stammering from Pinkie Pie.
“You—I—y—I mean… You mean—You mean you’ve been a couple all this time, AND YOU DIDN’T LET ME THROW YOU A PARTY?”
“Terribly sorry, Pinkie dear! We didn’t want to say anything until we were quite sure of ourselves, and, well, it took us a while to get there.”
“A long while,” Applejack added, scratching the back of her neck.
“Does anypony ELSE have secrets I should know about?” wailed Pinkie Pie. “Rainbow?”
“Ah, heh, not me, Pinkie. I haven’t exactly found anypony worth taking on a second date yet.”
“Whyever not, darling? Sometimes the spark doesn’t come right away. Aren’t you curious to know what it’s like?”
“Not really,” Rainbow Dash shrugged. “I mean, I’ve got an awesome job and even more awesome friends. I don’t really see what a special somepony could add to the situation.”
Fluttershy nodded. “That makes sense. As long as you’re happy, we’re happy for you! What about you, Twilight? Ancreature catching your eye these days?”
Twilight flinched. “Uh—”
Just then, a voice boomed from the sky. “Alright, ponies, we’re here! Are you all ready to meet my people?”
“Greetings, ambassadors of Equestria, and welcome to The Center!” The tall, serpentine form bent into a bow, then straightened again. “I am Ilmatar, Queen of the draconequui.” She, like all the draconequui standing in a great crowd behind her, possessed a myriad of mismatched parts (some of which from no creatures the ponies could recognize) all attached to a long, serpentine body. Aside from this general outline of form, the draconequui were so varied that it was hard to take in.
The ponies all bowed, then Twilight introduced them. “I am Twilight, Princess of Equestria and of Friendship, and Element of Magic. This is Rainbow Dash, Element of Loyalty, Pinkie Pie, Element of Laughter, Rarity, Element of Generosity, Applejack, Element of Honesty, and Fluttershy, Element of Kindness.”
The birdlike face of Queen Ilmatar brightened with rapt interest. “My, what fascinating titles! What could be the significance of these ‘elements’ you represent?”
“Together, we are the Elements of Harmony, and each of us embodies a key aspect of the magic of friendship.”
“How sublime! I do hope you will tell us more so we can add this knowledge to our Library.” Twilight gasped in excitement, but the Queen continued. “First, however, I believe we have a momentous occasion to celebrate. Which of you has come to be joined with Discord?”
“Um, I-I have, your Majesty,” said Fluttershy, hoping nocreature noticed her trembling as she bowed.
A soft, luminous glow encased Fluttershy and pulled her upright. “Lady Fluttershy, you need not bow to me, for I am not your equal,” admonished the Queen. The light continued to lift until Fluttershy was floating and she found herself suspended in the air next to Discord. Queen Ilmatar turned to face the draconequui. “Fellow seekers! This mortal pony is revealed to us this morrow to be that which no other being in the vast expanse of Existence has ever been or could ever be. Behold Fluttershy, Element of Kindness, the equal and soulmate to the great Discord!”
A cacophony of cheers erupted. When the jubilant draconequui began to bow, Discord snatched his quivering soulmate out of the light and held her against himself. “Yes, thank you. That’s enough now. We don’t want any more deference.” The entire congregation quieted and straightened in obedience, though Discord hadn’t even raised his voice above normal speaking volume. “Let’s give these ponies the grand tour, shall we, Ily? No more of this pompous babble.”
“As you wish, Discord,” answered the Queen. “But first...” She swiftly waved a fountain of light down over the three of them, Discord, Fluttershy, and herself, to create a private space to talk. “Lady Fluttershy, forgive my asking, but this mark upon your neck…?”
Discord twisted his torso so that the pony in his arms and her black-scarred neck were no longer under the Queen’s scrutiny. “It’s just an infection she’s been getting over. Nothing to worry about.”
“Are you sure? It registers to me as dark magic.”
“What do you know of dark magic?”
“Very little. We’ve encountered trace amounts of it in our explorations—just enough to know it as something distinct from other kinds of magic and that it is very dangerous.”
“Yes it is,” Discord hastily assented, once again speaking before Fluttershy could give any reply. “But I assure you she’s on the mend. The binding will only help her get over it quicker.”
Queen Ilmatar’s mouth moved, but Fluttershy could no longer hear the words. They were for Discord’s ears alone. “You realize that once you are bound, her infection will spill over into you too?”
Discord, too, had become inaudible to Fluttershy. “Of course I know that! I’ve withstood a dark magic infection myself once before and came out of it just fine!”
“That is well, but if you should fail to do so again… We know this magic is capable of terrible things...”
“It. Will. Be. Fine! Don’t you know who I am? Well, you don’t know who Fluttershy is, but she has a special magic of her own that resists the dark magic. I assure you it is nothing to worry about.”
“Who am I to argue?” The shield of light dropped and both draconequui became audible to all again. Queen Ilmatar turned to the other ponies. “Pardon the interruption. Let us begin the tour. We are currently standing in the center of The Center, where we typically hold our gatherings and festivities. Come, we will make our way through the city toward the crown of our society.”
The crowd parted smoothly to allow the party of two draconequui and six ponies to pass. Discord continued to carry Fluttershy to comfort her (and himself) as Queen Ilmatar explained interesting monuments and cultural and artistic features of The Center. Twilight hung on every word, but the others gawked continually at all the marvels surrounding them. The city appeared to be built on nothing at all; it and all its residents were floating in a vast expanse of space. Except “floating” wasn’t the proper term, for gravity—or something like it—anchored all to the ground, which was perfectly invisible and yet somehow solid. Thus, if not for the eclectic buildings that lined the street, the ponies could see what looked like stars glowing brilliantly on all sides, above and below, as if they were walking through the arm of a galaxy.
“Oh, those aren’t stars at all,” Queen Ilmatar laughed when Twilight asked. “They’re gateways into the surrounding dimensions. The Center exists in limbo, the fabric between dimensions. We have no true stars here! If you like, we can visit some of the nearer dimensions during your stay here.”
The tour continued through the Interdimensional Preserve, a botanic park teeming with exotic flora, then crossed over the glittering Torrent of Becoming. “Just a visual metaphor we created to represent the cyclic eddies of existence,” said the Queen. “It runs in a perpetual circle around The Center, and those who dip themselves in the flow find themselves refreshed and reset into what they understand themselves to fundamentally be—which is important for those who may have lost parts of themselves in their travels. And here we are at last: the pride and glory of the draconequui, our Library!”
Before them gleamed a colossal palace that looked to be as large as the entire city through which they had just passed. Twilight spun in a circle of glee. Then she spun halfway around again for a double take. “What happened to the city?”
The other ponies turned around to see that The Center was no longer behind them, nor could it be seen in any direction above or below.
“We have left it, that we may visit the Library,” explained Queen Ilmatar.
“But it should still be behind us!” argued Rainbow Dash.
“Recall that we are in limbo, between dimensions. There is no space here, at least not of the kind that can be measured. When we wish to return to The Center, it will be there for us.”
The concept inspired wide-eyed looks in every pony except for Twilight, who merely shrugged and pranced onward toward the Library. They were shown through seemingly endless aisles of books and scrolls. Twilight couldn’t get enough, but the others showed signs of varying degrees of waning interest.
Fluttershy looked up to Discord’s face as he continued to carry her. “Hey,” she whispered.
“Yes, my love?” he whispered back.
“When, exactly, are the soulmate rituals happening? Not knowing is making me more nervous.”
“There is no ‘when.’ Time doesn’t exist here.”
“I mean, um...” Fluttershy clutched at her spinning head. “When are they happening, um, in reference to everything else that’s happening? After the tour, or is there some kind of signal we’re waiting on…?”
“Ah, well, we’re just waiting on you, my dear. The rituals have to be done on an empty stomach, so really, once you feel hungry enough, we can start.”
“Oh! But I don’t remember how long it’s been since I last ate.”
“That’s irrelevant. We’re not in time here.”
“But then when will I ever be hungry?”
“As soon as you decide you are.”
Fluttershy furrowed her brow. Then, her stomach gurgled.
“Sounds like we’re good to go,” Discord chuckled. “Are you ready, or do you need more space to process first?”
“I think I’m r—”
An open book hit the floor and echoed mightily. Twilight stood above it, but she was staring at Discord, mouth agape.
“Twilight,” he smirked, “I know I’m awe-inspiring, but I thought we were past—” He caught a glimpse of the contents of the dropped book. “Oh.” Of course Twilight had picked up the first cosmology volume she encountered. Discord vanished it away before she could flip any further into its pages.
“You were there?” Twilight’s mouth still hung open.
“Where?” asked Fluttershy.
Discord’s only answer was to crush a palm against his face.
“He was at—” A disembodied shushing finger forced Twilight into silence.
Then a haggard sigh escaped Discord’s throat. “Alright, follow me, everypony. It’s storytime.” He lead the ponies up a flight of stairs to a vast lecture hall. Queen Ilmatar followed, smiling serenely, as did a growing stream of other wide-eyed draconequui. The ponies and the Queen sat in the front row of seats while Discord conjured an easy-chair for himself in place of the lectern. He sat, donning spectacles and opening upon his lap the book that Twilight had discovered. “So… Ahem, who invited all of you?”
A dizzying number of mismatched eyes filling every seat and available airspace were all trained on Discord.
Queen Ilmatar spoke on behalf of her seekers. “Come now, Discord. It’s not every morrow this story is told by its primary source!”
Discord rolled his eyes. “Very well. So anyway, in the beginning, there was… me.”
Now everypony’s mouths fell agape.
“When existence first came into existence, there was an explosion of matter, time, and space, but no form or organization. It was chaos, and that chaos was me. I had no form either for the first few turns of thought, but as space expanded and matter congealed, I began to take shape. Then I chased myself. The spatial plane was still so small that I could see my own body retreating before me as I flew forward. Eventually, I outpaced myself, which is to say that the spatial sphere had grown enough that I could no longer see all the way around it. That’s when things finally started getting interesting.
“There were collisions and sparks and new explosions! Space was expanding so rapidly that matter and antimatter were ripped apart, and I saw more and more space-time bubbles bursting all around me like fireworks! Each explosion was lit slightly differently, and these slight differences spiraled out into all kinds of universes. I flew from bubble to bubble, fascinated by all the different processes that were shaping all the different worlds.
“But the first universe, limbo, was still expanding, and more universes were still being born within it. Suddenly, I felt a great tearing inside me. A matter-antimatter pair had been severed inside me, and as the resulting new universe expanded, it ripped my body into shreds! Of course, I had rather liked the form I had before, so I willed it right back to the way it was, but the body parts I’d lost took on lives of their own. Now there were nine of us, and each of the new draconequui shared exactly one body part in common with me.
“I realized I now had many more eyes with which to witness the myriad new worlds unfolding all around us. I devised a writing system on the spot and sent each of us into different universes to observe and record their progress. Thus was the multiverse born, and the race of the draconequui, and the draconequui’s culture of exploration.” Discord slammed shut the book from which he hadn’t been reading. “The end.”
Awed silence across the room. The six ponies were all glued to their seats and reeling with revelation.
“Thank you, Discord,” said Queen Ilmatar. “Is there no more you wish to tell of this tale?”
A draconequus off to the side stood up. “Now that you’ve found your soulmate, won’t you stay with your people and be king again?”
Six ponies jolted, speaking in unison. ““KING? AGAIN?””
“SILENCE, PTAH!” roared Discord. “I made you, and I can un-make you!”
But nocreature heard, for the entire hall was already booming with “King Discord! King Discord! King Discord!”
The draconequus in question scowled. Then he snapped his fingers, vanishing himself and Fluttershy out of the room.
Everything was dim and black, yet every surface glittered as if made from stardust. The only light source was the floor itself, or rather, something faintly luminescent flowing with perfect tranquility beneath the transparent floor. Having the light hit from below cast an eerie pattern of highlights and shadows on Discord as he stood before Fluttershy. It made him look taller. Ghastly. Unfamiliar.
“Discord? W-where are we?”
A black blob appeared on the floor. A beanbag chair. Discord plopped backward into it. “My suite in the palace. Untouched since the morrow I left, by the looks of it.”
Fluttershy looked around again as her eyes adjusted to the odd lighting. There was furniture lying at bizarre angles on every wall, and the ceiling, too. All over the floor were bits of things, unidentifiable in the gloom, that could have been balls of paper, dust bunnies, or other trash. After some intense staring, Fluttershy realized that a particularly dense jumble of glinting points of light off in the corner was a shattered mirror.
Discord sat still, silent, unseeing.
“...You were their king?”
“Mm.” He picked up the nearest scrap on the floor and fiddled with it.
Without a seat of her own (unless she wanted to pry one off a wall), Fluttershy sat gingerly on the glowing floor. “They adore you, and… you left them.”
The scrap in Discord’s hands turned out to be a charred piece of parchment. He stared at it, reading what words were left, then crumpled it up again and tossed it over his shoulder.
After waiting for an explanation and receiving none, Fluttershy cocked her head. “What was that?”
“Official correspondence. The last one I ever tolerated. Well no, obviously, I hadn’t tolerated it.” Discord raised his eagle hand and used it to mime the words. “‘We don’t understand your wisdom on this matter, but of course we are ready to obey as soon as you put your seal upon it.’” His hand fell back to his lap. “I just couldn’t stand it.”
“What had you asked them to do?”
Discord, head still drooping, looked up at her. “Destroy the Library.”
Fluttershy considered this. Considered all that she had just learned in that lecture hall, and all that she already knew. “...When you asked them to help observe all the new universes, it wasn’t for knowledge. It was because you were thrilled by the beauty. All the new possibilities, and how they spiraled out into more possibilities. Your ‘culture of exploration’ was just an accident. Is that right?”
She scooted closer to him and laid a hoof on his knee. “Will you tell me what happened?”
“I was King,” he shrugged. “For a while, it was exciting. Comparing notes and learning how this newfangled Existence worked, how it could be manipulated. I was chaos incarnate, and the others, they each had only a fraction of my magic. And besides, I was the first. So as Existence matured and our race grew, just like that I was their king. It was fun and then it became… stifling. And predictable.”
“So… You asked them to destroy the Library so you could all start over again? You were trying to recreate the newness you had before?”
“Not exactly. I knew even then, in my youth, that the novelty of Existence was a sensation I would never feel again, at least not in the same way. No, I asked them to destroy the Library because I wanted them to defy me. Overthrow me. I was tired of being saddled with the abominable responsibility of making sure our society progressed as predictably and productively as possible. Now this,” he retrieved the crumpled parchment again and waved it in the air, “was around the time they were really pushing the soulmate thing. The draconequus population had been growing because everyone was finding their soulmates and having children—”
“So you can have children, then—draconequui, I mean?”
“Yes, two draconequui can reproduce. Seems that’s gone out of fashion now, though. Everyone here is an adult. Mind you, we can also choose to die if we want—not that overpopulation is an issue in limbo. Looks like Ilmatar, Ptah, and I are the only ones left of our original nine.”
“But anyway, at that time,” he waved the parchment again, “they’d started to notice I was unhappy, and they thought it was because I hadn’t found my soulmate yet like they had. Ol’ Bemba tried to set me up with literally every unpaired draconequus they could find to try and trigger the soulmate magic. Honestly, it terrified me.”
“It seemed like they were trying to trap me there, in that role, their benevolent and wise leader forever! Like they were trying to chain me to another being to tame me, or something!”
Fluttershy’s ears fell back.
Discord scooped her into his lap. “I’m sorry, my dear. It’s not like that now. I understand it now. Back then, I would see Kore or whoever one morrow, and the next thing I knew, she would be arm-in-arm with Pluto and would act nothing like the draconequus she was before! You know, I wasn’t ready for that! All that time, I’d been so busy being King of my ever-so-faithful ‘knowledge seekers’ that I hadn’t had the chance to really explore who I was, me, on my own. They wanted me to find my soulmate to mollify me, and to me that looked like hitching up with another soul was supposed to turn me into a completely different being!”
“So you ran away.”
“You bet your flank I did! I ran to a world so remote, no draconequus but me would ever have the magical stamina to get there! They’d never see me again, and I’d never have to worry about accidentally springing the soulmate magic and getting dragged back into a life I didn’t want. That’s how I came to Equestria, only,” he chuckled, “It wasn’t Equestria back then. Your dimension was still in its primordial stage.” Unaccountably, Discord broke down laughing, and Fluttershy had to flick out a wing to keep her balance on his lap.
“What’s so funny?” she asked, once her perch had returned to some semblance of stillness.
Discord wiped away a tear. “Just imaging the look on Twilight’s face if I told her—” He stifled another laugh. “Well, that’s a story for another time. Maybe I will tell her sometime, and you, but enough of that for now. What I wanted to say is this: I’ve had plenty of opportunity by now to be my perfect chaotic self, and—”
Fluttershy raised an eyebrow.
“My perfect chaotic self,” he reiterated, “and I still don’t want to come back and rule over the draconequui. There’s too much else in the multiverse to see, to do. But I’ve learned better about the soulmate thing. Finding their soulmates didn’t transform my fellow draconequui into new people. Actually, it helped them become more the person they already were. Now that I’ve finally found my soulmate—heh, imagine running away only to run headlong into what you were trying to escape—but anyway, now that I’ve finally found you, I understand what a wonderful thing it is.” Discord stroked Fluttershy’s mane with one hand, cupped her cheek with the other. “You’ve always let me be my chaotic self. You’ve always helped me be my best chaotic self.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that...”
“No, really! Before I met you, my chaos was untethered, above and beyond reality and somehow empty because of that. I constantly needed more and more chaos because it just wasn’t satisfying anymore, and that’s how I turned into the villain that so terrorized Equestria. But then you came along, and you set boundaries and convinced me to respect them, and suddenly my chaos had meaning. Suddenly, I had a place, a real place in the multiverse that I had watched spawn all those eons ago. That’s why you’re my soulmate, Fluttershy. I’m sorry I’ve been keeping all these things from you, but I suppose it’s best you know everything now, so you can still back out in case you don’t… Feel the same way...” He trailed off.
For a while, it was quiet. Fluttershy sat on Discord’s lap, gazing into his down-turned eyes, regarding him. The blue-white light from beneath the floor was shifting subtly into more of a sickly greenish hue before she attempted to reply. “For the longest time, I only had my animal friends. I was too afraid of other ponies to really engage with them. Nevermind extending kindness to them. Then I met Twilight and the others, and I started learning how to practice my kindness on other people, but I was still timid and closed-off. And then,” she reached out, took Discord’s face in her hooves, “I met you. You were my biggest kindness challenge yet.”
Discord put his hands over her hooves, wanting to hold her there in case she was thinking of running from this challenge.
“Next thing I knew, you were my friend, and I was starting to actually feel confident in myself. My exciting, chaotic friend helped me find a new wonder in the world. He showed me that it wasn’t such a threatening place after all. I wasn’t as scared anymore to own who I was, thanks to you. Like you were saying, I feel more like the person I always was when I’m with you.”
To hide the tears that were welling in his eyes, Discord folded Fluttershy in a close embrace.
Hugging him back, she went on. “It’s not like I haven’t kept big secrets from you, either. That whole thing with—” She shuddered, clinging tighter to Discord. “That whole thing with the dark magic. I’m so sorry! I was terrible to you, and you loved me through it. Loved me back into myself. I need you, Discord. Maybe I’m a little nervous and a lot intimidated, but I want you, and I want to do this.”
She stretched up to nuzzle under this chin, and there they rested in each others’ softness. The light from the floor turned a rich, placid ruby, falling on every glittering surface until the whole room seemed ablaze with sweet warmth.
Her stomach growled, and Fluttershy opened her eyes. It was dark. The light in the floor had gone out, or maybe Discord had taken them somewhere else while their eyes had been closed, but in any case, he was here. She could still feel his arms around her.
“You’re sure you’re ready?”
She had to giggle. “Yes. Are you?”
“Of course I am! Why even ask?”
“Because your heart is beating very fast.”
“Well that’s only because—alright, you got me. I’m nervous. Silly, right? I’m the Lord of Chaos, the most powerful being in the multiverse, and here I am shaking in my skin over some little ritual.”
“It’s not silly,” Fluttershy assured him. “This is something you feared for I don’t know how long, and even though you actually want it now, it’s still… You know, big.”
A sigh. “You’re right. Thank you.”
"So… You never told me what actually happens in these soulmate rituals.”
"It’s pretty straightforward. Queen Ilmatar will guide us through the steps. But you should be prepared for a lot of attention. I’m sure there’s not a draconequus in existence who would miss our binding ceremony.”
Fluttershy shuddered. All those eyes… “I hadn’t though of that.”
“I’m sorry. Just try to focus on me the whole time, alright?”
“Alright.” Then she felt Discord’s body tense. “What?”
"You should also know the last part of the ceremony isn’t very comfortable. Quite—erm—painful, in fact.”
“That’s the part where magic binds our souls together. It’s rather invasive, I’m afraid. But it will only last a few seconds, and then the pain will knock us both out cold. That’s when the dream quest starts.”
Fluttershy buried her face in her hooves. “Okay, don’t tell me any more. I don’t want to know. Let’s just do it.”
Discord gave her a squeeze. “We’ll get through it together.”
He snapped, and they were in the center of The Center. Little sparkling, fairy-like lights hung indolently in the air all around, and there was now, in the very center, a ring of carved stones. A few dozen draconequui were milling about the edges of the gathering place, but they swiftly stood to attention once they noticed Discord and Fluttershy’s arrival.
A mischievous grin broke across Discord’s face. “Let’s summon the throngs, shall we?” With a snap, every wall, floor, and ceiling in The Center vanished and beams of bright, colorful spotlights roved the emptied landscape. Invisible trumpets blared a fanfare. Startled draconequui, who had been in their homes and shops one moment and abruptly exposed and illuminated the next, flew and ran and galloped toward the center.
Now Discord held a fishing rod. With exaggerated, dramatic flair, he leaned back, whipping the line in an arc over his and the growing crowd’s heads, and cast. The hook must have hit its mark, for the line went instantly taught. Whistling out of tune with the trumpets, Discord reeled it in. Then he paused and held the rod out to Fluttershy. “Finish pulling them up, would you please? I need to see that our guests are dressed for the occasion!”
Fluttershy was astonished to find the reeling easy, though the weight on the line seemed great, and even more astonished when she saw that she was dragging all her friends and Queen Ilmatar up from below. Meanwhile, Discord swirled over the gathering, shooting streams of magic everywhere that decked every draconequus in extravagant costumes upon impact. The crowd responded variously with cheers and wide-eyed, awestruck silence.
Fluttershy smiled to herself. Apparently the current generation of draconequui weren’t as accustomed as she had become to Discord’s wild and ebullient displays of raw, reality-altering power. Then Queen Ilmatar and the other ponies came up from the ground and landed, and the fishing rod and line disintegrated. The Queen, one of the few draconequui left who’d ever seen Discord at work, caught Fluttershy’s eye and mirrored her knowing smile.
Then Discord blasted the newly-arrived group with costumes and plunked himself down next to Fluttershy again. “We’re ready when you are, Ily!”
Queen Ilmatar erased the surprise from her face almost before Fluttershy could notice it. “You want me to officiate?”
“Who else?” Discord scoffed. “I’m sure you’ve done it a thousand times by now.”
“Several thousands,” the Queen corrected. “But I can’t. You officiated for Ptah and me. It wouldn’t be right.”
Discord’s hands landed on his hips. “In case you don’t remember, I created these rituals. I know them better than anyone! The magic will still work. You’re officiating.”
“Very well,” Queen Ilmatar bowed, “but in that case, I’m afraid you’ve attired me improperly.” A soft but concealing white glow passed over her, and when it abated, her rainbow poncho and sombrero had been replaced with a silvery toga. “Now then,” she announced, briefly eyeing the hushed crowd, “Discord and Fluttershy, pilgrims of Existence, you have reached the final leg of your separate journeys. From this morrow onward, you shall walk as one. Let us begin at the Torrent.”
As they filed down toward the Torrent of Becoming, the crowd falling into ranks behind them, Discord not-so-inconspicuously leaned down to Fluttershy. “She’s added a lot of obsequious mumbo-jumbo to the script since I left,” he whispered.
Fluttershy snickered. Ahead of them, the Queen’s ears flicked once, but she was apparently pretending not to hear.
They arrived. Queen Ilmatar placed Discord and Fluttershy side-by-side on the Torrent’s bank, facing away from the flow. Facing toward the crowd of spectators. So many faces, so many eyes, all waiting and watching. Fluttershy felt sweat prickling on her back. She didn’t know what she was supposed to do. The Queen’s voice was swallowed up in the sound of her heartbeat—what if she missed an instruction? What if she messed up?
A hand casually stroked Fluttershy’s ear. Discord. He was right beside her, and he had said he was scared too. Somehow it made Fluttershy feel better. She wrenched her wandering eyes from the crowd of draconequui and focused instead on the faces of her friends, who stood just behind the Queen. They each smiled back, and Fluttershy found she could breathe again.
“...will purge you of all forgery,” Queen Ilmatar was saying. “The binding magic will abide no falsehoods. Discord and Fluttershy, if it is your true and honest will to be bound to one another, prove your sincerity now by stepping back into the Torrent of Becoming.”
Fluttershy gasped as her first hoof was submerged. The ethereal liquid prickled with an acid burning. Hot or cold she could not tell, but her ankle went numb almost immediately. But she continued. When she and Discord stood in the center of the rushing stream, Queen Ilmatar walked out to them. She placed herself close beside Discord and whispered in his ear. He nodded, and with one quick motion, she dunked him fully into the current.
Discord was upright again and speaking in the blink of an eye. “Her fangs are hot and I keep waiting for her to bite me.”
An uproar of hoots and cheers from the crowd. Discord’s face turned a miraculous shade of crimson. Queen Ilmatar was unperturbed, merely smiling indulgently and giving him a pat on the shoulder. Then she waded toward a cowering Fluttershy.
“Can you stand on two legs if you lean on my arm?” asked the Queen.
Fluttershy reared up shakily and caught her front legs over the densely-furred draconequus arm. Then the Queen leaned down to Fluttershy’s ear.
“Think of Discord as I dunk you, and allow yourself to give voice to the first thought that crosses your mind when you come up again,” whispered she. Suddenly Fluttershy understood why Discord had said what he did, but the stinging Torrent closed over her before her blush could bloom.
In that brief moment of submersion, the flow scoured her. Her fur was torn away, her skin, her muscle. No more was she a pony—she was a swarm of butterflies, she was a watchful forest, she was a jealous rabbit, she was five ponies and a dragon, she was a friendly town, she was a wily draconequus.
Air pounded into lungs she didn’t know she had, light dazzled eyes she’d forgotten. “His voice gives me chills. Even before we were friends, it did.” Then she felt chills ripple down her spine as Discord laughed with delight.
Standing between Discord and Fluttershy, Queen Ilmatar addressed the crowd on the banks. “Fellow seekers, you have heard their statements! Are there any who believe this bond is genuine?”
A jubilant chorus of affirmatives.
“And are there any who object?”
The Queen lead them back onto the bank. “Discord and Fluttershy, we bear witness that the Founding Spells have wrought kindred souls in you.” She swirled a ball of light into her hands, and out of it precipitated a tall vase (which Twilight silently identified as a loutrophoros) made of a glittering, translucent stone unlike anything found in Equestria. “Take this vessel and fill it together with the substance of the Torrent of Becoming.”
They did so, then were instructed to carry it between them back into the center. It was an awkward process, as the loutrophoros was tall enough that Fluttershy had to fly in order to lift it at all. It was also heavy, and she broke into a sweat under the weight of so many gazes watching her struggle. Halfway there. Every wingbeat was a searing effort. She was sure she was going to fall, spill the fluid everywhere, and ruin everything!
“Fluttershy,” Discord murmured in her direction. “Remember there’s no time here. We’ve been carrying this thing for no time at all.”
Of course. How could she be so fatigued when she’d only just picked up this burden? She probably had enough strength to carry it for a whole minute, and that one minute would never pass as long as she didn’t want it to.
Before long—before any time at all—they had returned to the center of the center of The Center of the center of the multiverse. Queen Ilmatar gestured placidly to the ring of stones, and Discord and Fluttershy poured the gleaming liquid into it. The Torrent stilled instantly into a mirror. Next, obediently, the pair of them stepped into this reflective ring (the fluid now felt cool and sweet on their ankles) and Fluttershy stood on her hind legs so Discord could take her front hooves in his hands.
Queen Ilmatar spun a gleaming cord into existence. “This represents fate,” she explained, loud enough for the crowd to hear, “which has drawn the two of you together across the great wilderness of Existence.” She began wrapping the cord over hand and hoof, tying Discord and Fluttershy together. “With it shall we now hallow and seal your bond as soulmates.”
Beneath the tug of the cord, Fluttershy could feel Discord clinging tightly to her hooves. He was trembling almost imperceptibly. As the Queen finished off a knot and stepped backward, Fluttershy lifted her hooves and his hands up an inch and back down. It was enough to get his attention, and she caught his eyes and projected to him every ounce of love she had. The trembling stilled.
They didn’t break their gaze from each other as Queen Ilmatar again raised her voice to speak. “Discord, do you accept Fluttershy wholly into yourself, that she may partake as an equal partner in your being?”
Chills again at the conviction in that tantalizing voice. Chills of fear, of exhilaration.
“Fluttershy, do you accept Discord wholly into yourself, that he may partake as an equal partner in your being?”
“Then by the magic that formed the multiverse, be ye joined!”
A breeze kicked up, spiraling through the center and dragging the little fairy-like lights in toward them. The lights clustered over their hearts, glowing brighter and brighter as the breeze grew to a howling wind. Brighter too glowed the cord of fate around their wrists, the mirror of the still torrent beneath their feet. Then, a flash, a chest-piercing pain and two gasps in unison. Senses fell away, there was only agony and light, and Fluttershy clung to Discord’s gaze like her life depended on it.
Twilight had been taking diligent mental notes, determined to pen an essay or perhaps a whole book on the strange and wonderful draconequus ceremony. But the moment Discord and Fluttershy gasped, she lost hold of her thoughts. She could only watch, riveted, mind blank of all but wonder and terror.
Little leaves and flowers and tendrils of pure light sprouted from their chests. Then the tendrils became thorny vines, reaching out to twine around the two bodies. Tighter pulled the cord of fate, digging into their skin and glowing and glowing, until they themselves began glowing. White brilliance obscured first their hands and crept up their arms, even as the wind strengthened to a gale, billowing Fluttershy’s tail and mane out and around them, and the vines constricted and pulled the two close against each other, and their bodies were consumed in the overwhelming glow until only their faces were left, foreheads touching, dazzled eyes strained from anguish. And just as they were completely lost in that blinding storm, those eyes slid shut at last.
The light winked out, the wind stopped dead, and Twilight’s screaming lungs filled with air all in the same moment. Blinking, heart pounding, she looked around. A sea of draconequui was swaying as their minds, too, were returning to themselves. Queen Ilmatar still held her hands at her chest, head bowed, smiling. Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Applejack, and Pinkie Pie all were staggering from varying degrees of shock. But Discord and Fluttershy were nowhere to be found.
“Where’d they go?” Just like that, Pinkie Pie had recovered and was dashing over to inspect the now empty ring of stones.
A hand of light lifted her by the scruff and set her back a few paces as Queen Ilmatar waved away the ring with a gust of luminescence. “The magic has whisked them away to a private pocket dimension where they will be undisturbed during their dream-quest.”
Twilight stepped forward. “Your highness, if I may ask, what is the dream-quest, exactly?”
“I’m afraid it’s not something that can be explained to the satisfaction of any mind who hasn’t experienced it. And besides, it’s different for every couple.”
“So how long does this dream-quest thingy take? When do you reckon’ they’ll be back?” Applejack walked up next.
Rarity followed her. “Yes, I daresay we’re rather stranded here until Discord returns.”
“And what about Fluttershy? That looked awful! Is she going to be okay?” Rainbow Dash was the last to join the little crowd in front of Queen Ilmatar.
"Be at ease, my friends,” said the Queen. “No physical wound accompanies the pain of the ceremony, and it will hardly be remembered in the joy that is to follow. As for ‘when’ Discord and Fluttershy return to The Center—well, I cannot blame you for being unused to the absence of time. We will see them again when we are certain among ourselves that their activity is completed.”
“So you’re saying we decide how long their dream-quest takes?” asked Rainbow Dash.
“No.” The Queen lifted her otter-like arm to her chin. “Hmm. Let’s say, for sake of explanation, that when they return, you believe they were away for what felt like a day. Fluttershy and Discord may report perceiving their absence as having lasted for what felt like a month. Both perceptions would be true, for they were merely perceptions. Does that help you understand?”
Rainbow Dash, who had been flying, hastily brought her hooves back to the non-ground and groaned.
“Supposin’ I think their dream-quest should only take about a minute,” Applejack postulated, “and I believe they ought to be back any second now—er, moment, uh… You know what I mean.” She looked over her shoulder and all around. “So where are they? If I think they should be back already, why aren’t they back like you said?”
“Because I am standing here with you, and I am of a different opinion. Perhaps if you were to retreat to a solitary place, the moment you truly believe they ought to be back, you will find yourself summoned to greet them. You may do just that if you choose, however, I and my fellow seekers would be quite happy to show you around more, even to get to know you better. You may spend the interim however you like.”
“Cool!” piped Pinkie Pie. “In that case, I’m gonna see if I can run to one of those dimension gate star thingies!”
“Race ya!” Rainbow Dash challenged.
The two speeding ponies found themselves accompanied by a draconequus. “Greetings, friends! I am Ptah! Ilmatar sent me to accompany you, as you may find yourselves arriving at the gate sooner than you bargained for. If you like, we can go on to observe the world that lies on the other side!”
Back in the center, Applejack turned to her marefriend. “I don’t reckon’ I want a solitary place after witnessin’ all that. Wanna take a stroll through that fancy botanic garden with me?”
“I’d love to!”
That left just Twilight with the Queen. “I’d like to spend my time—my…morrow?—in the Library, if I have your permission. Will I be able to find parchment and a quill? I want to learn everything!”
The smile with which Queen Ilmatar answered was oddly sympathetic. “Yes, you are welcome to peruse as much of our Library as you wish this morrow. However, I’m afraid I cannot grant your request for parchment. We typically limit the knowledge we share with our interdimensional neighbors for fear of making an improper impact on their worlds.”
“You have already seen more of us and our ways than most; for we have made exceptions for you on account of one of your kind being the soulmate of one of ours. You may read as much in our library as you like, but you may only take from it that which you can contain within your memory.”
Twilight brightened a little. “Well, I do have an excellent memory. I suppose a test of its capacity is due. Thank you, Queen Ilmatar.”
“Before you bury yourself in study, Princess, might I ask a favor?”
“Would you tell us more of your Elements of Harmony? Our kind is unlikely to reach your universe for many a long generation, if ever, and this may be our only opportunity to add knowledge of your fine race to our Library.”
“Huh? Oh, hi Pinkie. Great.” Twilight was sitting in an impromptu nest of books.
“Did you read all those books?”
Twilight nodded, not even looking up from a volume with the title Magical Physics.
“Huh. You look like you could use a little pick-me-up! What me to find you some coffee?”
“Uh-huh, yeah, coffee would be great.”
“Okay! Be back in a flash! Here you go!”
Twilight looked up. Pinkie Pie was holding a steaming mug. The alicorn rubbed her weary eyes, then looked around. “That really was fast. Where’d that come from, the ceiling? Is there a coffee machine on one of the tables I didn’t notice?”
“No, silly!” Pinkie Pie giggled. “I ran all the way back to The Center and wandered the streets until I found a coffeeshop! I told them all about the igloo you’re building out of books, and they said they had just the thing. Something even better than coffee! I think they called it ‘raktajino’? I took a little sip of it on the way back—I hope you don’t mind—and it’s super-duper good!”
Twilight took the mug and eyed its contents suspiciously. “‘Raktajino’? What’s in it?”
Pinkie Pie hummed an “I-dunno”. “They said they got the recipe from one of the dimensions they’ve explored.”
Whatever it was, it was worth trying if it could help Twilight keep her brain functioning at its peak. She took a sip. “Huh, not bad! So, what have you and the others been up to?”
“Rainbow Dash and I got to look at a black hole in a foreign dimension. Ptah showed us around the galaxy, but he wouldn’t take us to any inhabited planets because he didn’t want anything to get ‘polluted’, whatever that means. Then he started talking about the ‘experience rooms’ they have here in the Library, ‘cause the principal sentients of that dimension have really nice beaches I guess, and if we wanted to see them, we could come here to the Library to check it out without bothering anycreature. So Rainbow went up to the experience rooms, but I didn’t want to go do simulated things when there are real things right here! I’ve been strolling all over town making a bunch of new draconequus friends! I haven’t seen anything of Applejack and Rarity, though.”
“Sounds like everypony’s making pretty good use of their morrow,” Twilight remarked, peering into the bottom of her empty mug. “I wonder if one of the books here has a recipe for this stuff. I’ll be back in a few, but here: you’ll like this one.” A slim but brightly-colored book floated into Pinkie Pie’s hooves as Twilight turned to search the stacks.
“Celebratory Practices of the Linipsids,” read Pinkie Pie.
When Twilight came back, she found her friend well on her way to having a book-nest of her own. “Pinkie! Did you read all those books while I was away?”
“Yeppers! I finished the one you gave me and it was taking you a while, so then I wondered what other party books they might have! Turns out, it’s a lot!”
“It didn’t take me a while,” Twilight defended, her brows furrowing. “At least not that long. I just walked down to the reference desk, and the librarian conjured the book for me on the spot! You know what...” She watched as Pinkie Pie took another book off the top of a tall stack beside her and began to read it. “I think I might go up to see those ‘experience rooms’ you were talking about. Will you still be here, say, an hour from now?”
“Yep,” confirmed Pinkie Pie, patting her “to-be-read” pile. “But you remember hours don’t exist here, right?”
“Of course. I mean, you know, what feels like an hour.” When Pinkie Pie nodded again, Twilight slipped around a bookshelf, out of sight, to watch her friend read. She watched one page flip, and then… another. But while the cup of raktajino had stimulated her mind awake, it had done nothing to soothe her strained eyes. Twilight blinked. Suddenly, the book in Pinkie Pie’s hooves changed color. No, the book she had been reading was now beside her, beneath two other just-finished books. Unable to comprehend what she was seeing, Twilight gave her eyes a good rub. Then she looked again, and the “to-be-read” pile was all but gone.
Twilight leaped out from behind the shelf. “Pinkie!”
“Hi, Twilight! How were the experience rooms?”
“I didn’t go. I walked around this bookshelf for a moment and came right back!”
“Whaddaya mean? You were gone for about an hour, like you said!”
She couldn’t help it. Twilight collapsed to the floor with great heaves of laughter. When she finally regained enough composure to explain the experiment she’d run, Pinkie Pie joined in the half-delirious mirth.
Eventually, the pair made it back onto their hooves, with Twilight wiping tears from her eyes. “You know what? I feel like I’ve been here for weeks. I’m about ready to head home.”
“I agree,” Pinkie Pie nodded. “I mean, not about the ‘I-feel-like-I’ve-been-here-for-weeks’ part ‘cuz I only think it’s been a day or two, but about the going home part!”
Just then, the librarian appeared. “Come and see! They’re back!”
With instinctive alarm, Twilight glanced down at the horrendous mess of books she and Pinkie Pie had made.
“Oh, nevermind that,” dismissed the draconequus, sending the books fluttering back to their shelves with a wave of his lizard hand. “Come along quickly!”
Radiant. That was the word for it. She had thought at first that they were glowing with actual light as they stood there together, there in the center of the center of The Center of the center of the multiverse, smiling with a serenity too complete to be comprehensible. Their very presence seemed to inspire a kind of brilliant clarity on the vicinity.
And yet, the transfiguration had involved nothing so obvious and physical as light. Discord and Fluttershy had returned looking exactly as they did before. But their smiles were new, as was the way their movements echoed each other, like a dance choreographed and rehearsed to perfection. Fluttershy had faced the jubilant masses unafraid. Discord had carried himself with a calm dignity, self-assured as ever but now with a confidence that did not need to prove itself. The two had become new creatures. And yet they were not. They were who they always were, but Twilight now saw them with new eyes. Discord and Fluttershy had become themselves, fulfilled, certain of their places in the context of the multiverse and content with those places.
If only Twilight could say the same for herself.
A warmth settled in beside her, rustling the soft ferns that covered the ground. “I’m guessing by the look on your face that you and I are having similar thoughts right now,” said Rarity as she tucked in her hooves and cast her gaze in the same direction as Twilight’s. “It’s really quite marvelous, but also...”
“A little unsettling,” Twilight finished.
They watched as Fluttershy, lying by herself a few lengths away, suddenly burst out laughing. Then she wiped away a tear and resumed smiling vacantly into space, as if she wasn’t fully present in the pocket dimension with her friends.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to seeing their thought connection in action like that.”
“Me neither,” agreed Rarity, “but that’s not the only part of it that’s ‘unsettling,’ as you put it. I mean, you saw how they were back in The Center—if there was ever any doubt that those two were meant for each other, it’s long forgotten now. It just makes one wonder if one’s own romantic connections could ever be half so fulfilling.” She laughed quietly, a gesture of self-awareness rather than mirth. “I’m almost a little jealous of them. Do you think ponies like you and I might have multiverse-appointed soulmates too?”
Twilight regarded her friend. “Hard to say. If so, we aren’t affected by any special soulmate magic to make it obvious.” Her hoof rose to tap her chin. This was a matter she had given a lot of thought lately, though she hadn’t come to any conclusions. “I suppose it’s possible that we could meet our own soulmates and build very happy lives together without ever knowing for certain that the soulmate connection was there. Or that we could never find out who our soulmates might be, if we have them at all, and build our relationships with the wrong individuals. But I don’t think that means a relationship with somepony who isn’t your soulmate couldn’t work out.”
Twilight finally looked to Rarity again, but Rarity was looking at somepony in the distance.
“Are things alright with you and Applejack?”
“Yes, quite.” Rarity brought her eyes back to Twilight’s. “In fact, I’d say things are going rather well between us. We really had a lovely time exploring The Center together. It’s just that I can see where we might run into problems down the road. Applejack pointed them out, actually. Despite all the ways we complement each other, we have such different lifestyles and very different dreams about the future. It’s why Applejack hesitated for such a long time after we recognized our feelings for each other. But we’ve been so happy together lately, and I just don’t want to believe that those matters will drive us apart. It sure would be nice to have the assurance of something like soulmate magic, you know?”
“Yeah.” Twilight laid her head on her forelegs. “Yeah, I know.”
“What’s troubling you, darling?”
“Just exactly what you’re, saying,” she sighed. “It would be nice to have the assurance of something like soulmate magic. I’ve never had a romantic partner and sometimes I wonder if I ever will. I know I’m immortal and have all the time in the world, but that’s a big part of my problem. Nopony’s ever going to trot up to the immortal Princess of Equestria and just ask for a date. And even if they did, how difficult might it be to find somepony who could truly support me in my position, both as a princess and an immortal? It just seems impossible.”
“Hey.” Rarity nudged Twilight with an understanding smile. “Celestia and Luna never found anypony for themselves, and their lives have been none the worse for it. They have each other, and students and friends like you. You can still have a perfectly fulfilling and meaningful life without a romantic partner.”
Just then, there was a burst of wing activity overhead. Rainbow Dash, who had been flying at high speed across the pocket dimension to watch her friends moving in slow motion, came to a complete halt mid-air and practically crashed to the ground in front of Twilight and Rarity.
“Heavens! Are you alright?” Rarity stood up, and so did Twilight.
Rainbow Dash managed to get all her limbs properly arranged beneath her and sat up, unscathed. “Yeah. I just caught the tail end of your conversation and, uh, thought it sounded interesting.”
Twilight cocked an eyebrow. “My nonexistent romantic life?”
“I can relate,” Rainbow Dash shrugged. “But anyway, who knows? Maybe you’re the soulmate of one of those immortal draconequui we met, and they’re chasing us down right now to try to get to you!”
“That would be rather unfortunate, seeing as we’re on our way back to a corner of the multiverse that no draconequus but Discord himself has the power to reach.”
Three ponies startled. Fluttershy had just slipped into their growing circle.
“Hello, darling! Finally done chatting with the chauffeur, are we?”
“Never,” Fluttershy grinned. “But I wanted to come see how you're all doing. I’ve hardly spoken to anypony since the last time we were in Discord’s pocket dimension!”
Noticing Fluttershy had become responsive, Pinkie Pie suddenly appeared. She had been galloping around the little, spatially-looped dimension in her own attempt to see her friends moving in slow motion. Applejack, too, wandered in from her exploration. Everypony was eager to hear about Fluttershy’s experience.
“Quite a lot has happened to you since then,” Twilight pointed out. “How do you feel?”
“I feel wonderful! I’ve never been so happy in my entire life!” Fluttershy paused, then giggled, paused again, and went on. “I’m only sorry I didn’t agree to perform the rituals sooner. Our thought connection could have saved Discord and me a lot of trouble.”
“So what’s that like,” Rainbow Dash interjected, “this ‘thought connection’ you have?”
“Oh, it’s just like talking to you right now, only we don’t need words and we can hear each other from anywhere. I say things to Discord and he says things back, and so on. But he only hears the thoughts I want to send him, and vice versa. It’s really quite nice.”
“But can Discord listen through your mind?” asked Twilight. “Like, can he hear us talking right now?”
Everypony but Fluttershy flinched when a voice from the sky thundered “Yes.”
Fluttershy was silent a moment as if listening to something, then relayed Discord’s explanation to her friends. “He can hear all of us because we’re inside his pocket dimension right now. But he can’t tap into my senses. He’ll only know what I see and hear if I choose to tell him.”
Pinkie Pie was still staring at the sky. “HI, DISCORD!” she shouted. A sudden and very localized hail of sweets descended to drop candies at her hooves.
Twilight had more questions for Fluttershy. “What was the binding ceremony like for you? It looked kind of painful!”
She sat down and squinted like she was trying to find a memory, and then her face brightened. “I hardly remember it now, but it was painful. The most painful thing you could imagine, like my heart was pierced and my whole body was burning, but right when it was at the very worst, that’s when I heard Discord’s voice in my head for the first time. Then we entered the dream-quest and the pain was all gone.”
“That’s another thing! What was the dream-quest? I did a lot of research in the draconequus Library, and all I could find was that it’s supposed to help you learn to control your new thought connection. But what was it like? What happened?”
Fluttershy frowned. “It’s, um… Well, it’s—it’s kind of hard to explain. It really was like a dream, except we were conscious, but not really, but it felt like it, and, um… Sometimes I was Discord, and he was me, or we’d both be him, or we’d both be me. But not really because it was all a dream. But everything in the dream was from our own memories, but then we could still kind of control what happened… And, um, we were also watching ourselves do all this at the same time, and…” She stopped, staring, then nodded enthusiastically. “I’m sorry I can’t explain it better, Twilight. Discord says the reason it’s not in any books is that the dream-quest is different for every couple, and nocreature who hasn’t experienced one is really capable of understanding what it’s like.”
Twilight sighed in frustration. “That’s exactly what Queen Ilmatar said.”
Before Twilight could pose any more questions, Applejack cut in. “That’s alright Fluttershy. I think we all understood well enough that it was a real unique and personal experience for the two of ya, and there’s no point confusin’ ourselves any further tryin’ to figure it out. We’re just mighty glad it all worked okay and you and Discord are happy.”
The others, including Twilight after a reluctant pause, nodded their agreement.
“Thank you,” smiled Fluttershy. “So what did you all do while Discord and I were on our quest?”
The friends all took turns relating their adventures in The Center. After the last story was told, Fluttershy’s attention flickered in that way the others had come to recognize meant she and Discord were communicating. “Discord has a question for all of you,” she said after a moment.
Rainbow Dash eyed the sky. “Why doesn’t he just ask us himself?”
“Because asking through Fluttershy is new, and therefore better,” Discord answered, his voice echoing across the little pocket dimension.
Fluttershy listened for another moment to a voice that now only she could hear. “He wants to know when you’d all like to return to Equestria. Like, at what point in Equestrian time would you like to be placed? Because of how long the trip was, the closest he can get us is maybe two days after we left, but he can put us back in any time at all after that.”
They settled for Friday of the same week they left. That way they’d have a full day to recover themselves from their astounding journey before visiting Sombra for his first assessment. The specific timing didn’t much matter to Discord and Fluttershy, though, for they were set to leave again immediately. As they said their goodbyes, Fluttershy gave a hug to each of her friends. Then, to Discord’s surprise and pleasure, each of their friends gave a hug to him, too.
A strange vehicle rolled up. It looked something like a shiny silver chariot, but sleek and aerodynamic and requiring nopony to pull it, and the cab was enclosed by windows. Discord opened the door on one side for his mate, then floated to the other side and dropped himself onto the plush seat beside her. He pulled the door back down to shut it and the pane of glass in its window slid down.
“Ta-ta!” he called. “Tell Fio and Corey we love them and will see them in two more days!”
“And to stay out of trouble!” added Fluttershy.
“Or not!” Then, with a look of exhilaration, Discord placed his hands on the steering wheel and the vehicle belched out a monstrous roar. Suddenly-activated wheels shrieked as they spun for traction. Finally, they blasted off at high speed, and the vehicle sparked like lightning and disappeared, leaving only twin flaming tracks behind.
Five ponies filed into the room. Twilight conjured five chairs while Sombra turned around his desk chair and sat to face his examiners.
“Hello,” Twilight greeted. “I trust you’re all prepared for your first friendship test?”
“I believe I am.” Sombra scanned the line of faces before him. “But where is my kindness instructor?”
Rarity, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, and Rainbow Dash, unsure how to safely answer, looked to Twilight.
“She and Discord are on their honeymoon,” she deadpanned.
Sombra was prepared to maintain a face of neutrality for just about any answer but that. His eyes bulged. “B-but… So they have gotten married? And nopony even bothered to tell me? Aren’t friends supposed to tell friends about such important concerns as that?”
Applejack crossed her hooves. “Yes. But you ain’t our friend. Not yet, anyhow.”
“That’s why we’re here right now!” Pinkie Pie stood on her chair, enthused by her own thought. “If you pass our exam, then maybe you could be our newest friend!”
Sombra did not seem to find the idea as exciting as Pinkie Pie did.
“Well, shall we begin?” Twilight asked. “We’ll each pose one question related to our respective elements, and I’ll also ask a kindness question on Fluttershy’s behalf. That’s just six questions. If you answer them correctly, I will allow you to spend a little chaperoned time every day in other parts of the castle. But you must get all the questions correct.”
The stallion sat hunched in his chair, arms folded across his chest, but he looked up to glower at Twilight and managed a nod. “I understand.”
“Excellent! We’ll start with the Element of Magic. What role does magic play in friendships?”
“Magic allows friends to see past their differences and bring out the very best in each other.” Sombra nearly spat out the final words, and he kept his gaze on the floor.
Twilight’s eyebrows rose. “And?”
A visible sigh. “And when they bring out the best in each other, magic helps them achieve anything they set their jolly little minds to.”
The mares exchanged looks that varied from skeptical to worried. Rarity’s question was next. “What is the simplest and most meaningful way one can offer generosity toward one’s friends?”
“Time. You can give of your time. Since you mortals only have so little time available to you, every minute matters.” Sombra scowled.
Applejack, too, was scowling. “If you and a friend are havin’ a disagreement, the best way to solve it is to be honest about what?”
Sombra now looked up, still avoiding meeting anypony’s eyes, and gesticulated stiffly with a hoof. “I might have said it’s to be honest about who’s in the wrong, but I recall being taught that the answer is to be honest about your true intentions.”
Her scowl deepening further, Applejack noted that the conflict in which she and Sombra had long been engaged didn’t feel any closer to being solved by his answer. It was correct, at least, but it carried all the foul flavor of dishonesty.
“Alright now, riddle me this,” challenged Rainbow Dash. “If you were our friend and I offered you total freedom right now in exchange for helping me pull the greatest prank ponykind’s ever seen on Twilight, what would you do?”
Sombra rolled his eyes. “I would tell you no out of loyalty to our other friends and the agreement I made with them.”
Rainbow Dash nodded. “Good enough for me! Your turn, Pinkie!”
The mare broke into a grin. “Alrighty! So tell me: what do you get when you cross a rhetorical question with a joke?”
Sombra’s eyebrows furrowed and he stared at Pinkie Pie in uncertain silence.
“Exactly!” she exulted, and burst out laughing.
Sombra continued to stare.
Abruptly, Pinkie Pie’s laughter ceased. She frowned and squinted at the stallion. “You’re supposed to be laughing too,” she hissed.
“I didn’t think it was funny.”
Pinkie Pie pointed her hoof at her eyes, then at Sombra’s. Then she looked over to Twilight with open concern.
“One last question. Please impress me. Let’s say your friend has been having a difficult time lately. You believe you know exactly what to do to get them through it, but when you offer, they reject your help. What’s the kindest thing you can do for your friend at that point?”
Sombra stood up, knocking his chair backward with a clatter. “You carry out your plan anyway. She can’t see what’s best for her in the midst of her trouble, but she’ll be thankful once she’s rescued!”
At once the expressions of five mares darkened from skepticism to disbelief and anger. Twilight shook her head. “I’ve heard enough. Your answers to all of our questions were correct but bad, and your answer to Fluttershy’s was completely wrong. Ask her to walk you through the correct answer next time she visits you. In the meantime, you’ll be locked up in this room for a while yet, so I suggest you use all your time alone to improve your attitude!” The mares all trudged out, Twilight last of all. “Goodbye, Sombra. I’ll see you tomorrow for some remedial friendship work.”
And the door was shut. He was alone, and he was fuming. What did it matter that incompetent imbecile of a princess didn’t allow him to pass? The assessment was rigged from the start, and anyway, he had more pressing concerns. His Fluttershy was wed to that beast, and they had kept it from him so he couldn’t whisk her away to safety! She was his! She had sought him out, she wanted him! Not that hideous stain on Equestria, but him, her lover, her cherisher, her master!
Surely that monster had stolen her against her will, and he was having his sick way with her even now on that disgraceful sham of a honeymoon! And how could she resist when he could overpower her with just a single filthy talon? Discord saw how Fluttershy recognized the danger he posed and tried to distance herself, and he was enraged with jealousy, so he forced her into twisted servitude! Sombra was certain of it. And he was certain that as soon as Discord brought Fluttershy back, she would want him to waste not a moment in freeing her.
Sombra flung the dampener off his horn (catching it in his magic before it could crash against the wall and alert the guards) and began to practice his new spells. They had to be flawless. For her.
The sun sank low in the hazy, tangerine sky, just kissing the surface of the vast turquoise sea. Deliciously hypnotic was the rhythmic lapping of the waves caressing the beach. Fluttershy arranged herself more snugly on top of her mate in their gently-swaying hammock. In the distance, a Parasaurolophus bugled.
This is unbelievable, she thought.
“Unbelievable” is just one of the many perks of having the Lord of Chaos for a mate, Discord replied.
“One?” And what are some of the others?
Oh, little things, he stroked her mane, like this. With a snap, a tray of petit-fours appeared, adorned with ferns and exotic early flowers.
Fluttershy daintily popped one of the treats into her mouth, then fed one to her mate.
“There might also be a little of this,” Discord went on, purring the words aloud to feel Fluttershy shiver against him. He leaned down to kiss her snout and ran his hands slow and savory down her sides. And sometimes, there could even be things like this. He sat himself more upright in the hammock, bringing Fluttershy up with him, and a little velvet box appeared in his hands.
What’s this? Fluttershy took the box in her hooves, but let Discord open it for her.
A gift. A symbol of our relationship for you to wear, if you like.
Inside the box was a necklace with a spherical glass pendant about the size of a robin’s egg. Fluttershy looked closer and saw that something inside the glass was swirling as if alive. Gently, she lifted up the necklace and peered at the pendant as closely as the focus of her eyes would allow.
“It almost looks like a little shoal of fish!”
“That’s because it is.”
“This is an ‘eternal ecosystem’ necklace. It was fashioned by skilled craftsfolk of a species that went extinct in a far-away dimension. The nobility among those people would give these necklaces as gifts and heirlooms to their loved ones as a symbol of their everlasting and ever-evolving love. We draconequui found a few hundred of these necklaces among the rubble of their lost civilization. It was a shame to leave them there, so we took them and adopted them into our own culture. They’re rather hard to come by since there are so few of them. We could make more with our magic, of course, but that would be against the spirit of the thing.”
“So how did you get one?”
Though Fluttershy was still looking at the necklace and not at Discord, she could tell he rolled his eyes. “Unbeknownst to me, Lady Ilmatar had reserved one for me when I was still King for the day I eventually found my soulmate. She presented it to me to give to you the first time I went back to The Center, back when you were still carrying the foals.” Noticing that Fluttershy was going cross-eyed scrutinizing the pendant, Discord conjured a magnifying glass.
Fluttershy peered through it, then gasped. “There are little plants, too! And shrimps! And… an eel? You mean to tell me they’ve been alive for—how long, again?”
Discord chuckled. “Longer than the pony race has existed. But no, those specific individuals in there probably haven’t been alive that long. It’s a whole, miniature, self-contained ecosystem. Creatures are born and die and are continually shifting and adapting. The magic of it is that they all seem to have some kind of genetic immunity to inbreeding, so they can evolve forever without degenerating into extinction. I’m told that the community inside the pendant develops to reflect the state of its wearer over time, though I’ve never paid close enough attention to observe that phenomenon myself.”
It’s so beautiful, Fluttershy thought to him. Could you help me put it on?
He did so, and Fluttershy felt a strange sensation of warmth radiating from where the pendant sat over her chest. It was as if she could feel all the passion and adoration of all the mysterious beings who had worn this very pendant before her, and all the pleasure and excitement of the creatures inside who were delighted to have a new owner at last. The ugly scar of dark magic which was already fading from her neck seemed to quail beneath the intensity of all that love.
I’ll love you for as long as that little ecosystem is alive, murmured Discord through their connection.
And I’ll love you for as long as this little ecosystem is alive,echoed Fluttershy, touching the pendant.
Or as long as you’re alive, thought Discord, but he didn’t send that thought to Fluttershy. Instead, he stuffed a petit-four in his mouth and offered another to his mate, which she happily took.
“Ouch!” Fluttershy’s hooves rose to her lips as the water brimming in her eyes threatened to spill over.
“What’s wrong?” Swiftly, Discord flipped her around so she was facing him and he could better examine her.
“Oh, it’s nothing.” She smiled behind her hooves, and the pain still sparkled in her eyes.
“It’s not nothing. Let me see.” Discord gently moved Fluttershy’s hooves down and was startled to see a bead of blood forming on her lower lip.
Fluttershy, somehow, looked apologetic. “It’s silly. I’ve been biting myself an awful lot recently, like I keep forgetting the size of my own fangs.” She licked away her blood with a grimace.
Discord squinted and, after getting her permission, examined Fluttershy’s teeth. “Are you certain they haven’t just grown a little longer? They look longer to me.”
She waved his hands away and closed her mouth. “But that wouldn’t make sense! The last time my fangs grew was years ago, when I was… in captivity. And then they shrank back down. Why would they grow again now?”
Discord shrugged. “It was just a thought.”
Fluttershy ran her tongue over her teeth, considering. Then her lips curled up in a timid smile. “All the better to… bite you with?” She giggled. How funny it was to see him flush like that!
“Uh, well, I mean...” He stammered.
She leaned in close to his neck. “It’s not going to hurt you, is it?” She whispered against his fur. “You’re not going to bleed or anything?”
“N-no, of course not!”
The stars were peeking out of the darkness above them, strange, ancient constellations no pony had ever witnessed before, and somewhere off in the woods, two giant lizards bugled a duet.
They lingered in bed as the bright, young sun arose. It was finally their last morning here, and thus the last morning they could cuddle the hours away without the interruption of eight little hooves scrambling for attention.
Fluttershy blinked into the ray of sunlight slanting in through the window. As her eyes adjusted to the light, she saw a few long Titanosaur necks poking above the tree canopy in the distance. She could also make out, from somewhere underneath their treehouse, the squeaking calls of the rodent-like animals that Discord had informed her would survive the coming extinction event and go on to evolve into the first equines, among other things. She had wondered what it would be like to communicate with them, but eventually thought better of it. What could she even say to them? “Your world is coming to an end, but don’t worry, your kind will survive and come out of it looking like me”? If Fluttershy herself ever heard anything like that from the mouth of a strange, gaudy creature she’d never seen before, she’d be more than a little distraght.
So she stayed in bed, soaking in the sounds of an ancient, vibrant world and leaning a little closer into the warmth of her mate. In response, Discord rolled in toward her to drape an arm across her middle. This gave Fluttershy something new to look at.
It still hasn’t healed, she told him.
What hasn’t healed, dearest?
Fluttershy softly touched his neck. The, um, bite marks.
Oh, it’s healed, he assured her, contentedly burying his face in her mane. It’s just a little scar now.
Can’t you heal the scar, though?
Sure. I just don’t want to. Discord squeezed her, hoping to get her eyes—and her mind, too—off the twin marks.
No such luck. Why not? I think you should.
Discord released her and sat up to conjure a hand-mirror and inspect himself. Because I like it. It’s something of yours I can carry with me anywhere.
I thought that’s what our thought connection was for.
Yes, but this scar is something others can see too!
Fluttershy pouted. I don’t think I want others to see that! You know Fio and Corey will ask about it.
So what? Discord whirled around, knocking Fluttershy onto her back and standing over her on all fours. There was a jubilant, predatory gleam in his eye. I’ll just tell them Daddy got in a fight with a ferocious beast… and won!
Giggling despite herself, Fluttershy kicked him off. Then a look of fear crossed her face. What about our friends? They’ll surely notice!
Discord nuzzled under her chin. I’ll just say it was from you.
“No!” She pushed him away again as her face reddened. The thought was so embarrassing that she unconsciously pulled her mane forward to veil her face.
“And why not? They heard my accidental declaration at the Torrent of Becoming! They’re all big girls, and we’re married—well, sort of.” He hugged his preemptively-mortified sort-of wife into his side. “I say there’s no shame in it!”
Fluttershy gave him a stern look as she selected her words.
But Discord anticipated her plea and interrupted it. You get a necklace to wear, and I wanna wear this scar. It’s only fair.
Those aren’t quite the same things. Fluttershy crossed her arms. But Discord wiggled his eyebrows in an exaggerated wave pattern, and Fluttershy just couldn’t stay serious. She laughed and gave him a shove so that he fell back into the mattress. Fine! But I don’t have to be enthused about it!
Don’t worry, he smiled from beneath her, I just want this one bite scar. I’ll heal all the others over completely.
Others. Then his eyes grew pleading and he pouted. Unless you mean that night was a one-time-only thing?
Fluttershy crinkled her nose in mock annoyance and hopped out of the bed. “It wasn’t. But it’s not happening again now.”
They went to the kitchen, where Fluttershy prepared their tea and Discord worked on breakfast. Some mornings he simply conjured the food or had it come to them in some elaborate, entertaining way, but this was the last day of their honeymoon, and it was a time for doing everything as slowly as possible. It meant there was more time for him to blow her kisses or for her to casually bump her hips against him as she walked by.
They ate on their treehouse deck that overlooked the sea. The water was cool and subdued, not yet glittering with the ecstatic brilliance of the intense midday sunlight. One last time, they felt the ground-shaking steps of the Titanosaurs moving through the forest, listened to the bleats and blasts of the Parasaurolophuses, watched the dynamic wheeling of the Pteranodons in the sea breezes.
I almost don’t want to leave, Fluttershy mused.
I don’t know about you, but I’m getting anxious to see our little mongrels again.
Yes! I’ve felt that way every day. It’s hard to believe we’ve managed to keep away a whole month.
A month to us, maybe, but just a couple days to them. We left them Monday morning, and I’ll have us back in present-day Canterlot on the following Sunday evening.
I wonder if they’ve driven Spike and the others crazy yet, Fluttershy giggled. Then she frowned. I wonder how things went with… the assessment.
I’m sure Twilight’s got everything handled. How about one last dip in the sea, there? It’s no good worrying about all that in the final hours of our honeymoon!
As a response, Fluttershy set down her empty teacup, climbed up onto the deck railing, and spread her wings. Discord was beside her right away, and together, they soared down through the humid, ancient sky.
At the appointed time and in the appointed place, several things happened all at once. Discord and Fluttershy appeared in the castle courtyard, a party cannon sprayed confetti in their faces, five mares plus a dragon shouted “SURPRISE!”, and two five-year-olds shouted “MOMMY, DADDY!”
Needless to say, the reunion was sweet. And noisy. There were probably a few desserts involved, but Fluttershy could hardly remember in the chaos of it all. What she did remember was Fio’s pointing hoof and those fateful words: “Daddy got hurt!” Twelve grown-up eyes instantly trained on Discord’s neck and widened in understanding.
To Fluttershy’s horror, all Discord could manage by way of justification was a whimpering “Daddy was attacked… by a… a ferocious… beast…”
The gathering had erupted in a fit of hysteric laughter. Discord looked stunned, no less red than Fluttershy herself. I didn’t think it would happen like this, he complained, smiling sheepishly at his mate.
Fluttershy leveled her gaze on him. You’re sleeping on the couch tonight.
Life was on its way back to normal. There was still a certain shadow stallion to be dealt with, but the Princess was back in Canterlot, Discord and Fluttershy were the affectionate couple everypony knew them to be again (if not even more affectionate), and Rainbow Dash resumed her post in the Wonderbolts. In fact, Rainbow Dash and Discord had just finished performing “The Fall of the Ursa Major” in the capital city, and for the first time in the whole five-years-and-counting run of the show, Fluttershy and Twilight were able to attend.
“Just wait ‘til you see it when Spitfire approves our modifications,” Discord boasted afterward in response to Twilight’s compliments, “‘Dragon’s Demise’ will be so spectacular, it’ll blow your pony minds!”
Rainbow Dash finished signing autographs and flew over to where her friends were waiting. “Alright Discord, what gives? First you go ham on the special effects so we can barely maintain formation, and then you change the ending so the bear just runs away instead of dying like you’re supposed to! Do you have any idea what kind of scolding Spitfire’ll have in store for us at the next practice? I bet she’ll threaten to pull the show!”
“Fear not, my little pony.” Discord gave Rainbow Dash a pat to the head. “I’m too valuable for that! Spitfire knows she can’t get rid of me.”
Rainbow Dash looked skeptical.
“And besides,” he went on, “killing Ursa Majors willy-nilly is cruel! I thought the poor creature ought to have a happier ending just this once, so Flutters here would be able to enjoy the show.”
“Oh, I get it! You were talking to her the whole time, weren’t you?”
“No, he wasn’t!” Fluttershy interjected.
“I absolutely was,” contradicted Discord. “And no, dearest, I assure you again it was no distraction. I’ve done this show ninety-seven times now and I could do my part with my eyes closed. The break from the monotony was a relief.”
Rainbow Dash was shaking her head. “I’m through worrying on your behalf, Discord. How Spitfire chooses to deal with you is hardly my problem.” She lifted her wings. “Ready to hit the spa, Fluttershy?”
The specified pony raised her wings in answer. “Bye, Twilight.” She fluttered up to kiss Discord’s cheek. “See you this evening, my love.” Then Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash were off.
“So,” Twilight turned to the draconequus beside her, “got anything going on this evening?”
“I was planning to go relieve Applejack and Pinkie Pie of foal duty. Why?”
“Well, I had hoped you might want to tell me more about the draconequui, and about your experience as the first conscious entity in existence. But that’s alright. I’ve got plenty of paperwork I need to get done anyway.”
“Paperwork? Blech! Talking about me would be much more fun! Maybe I can persuade Team ApplePie to fight the good fight with the twins a little longer. Or I could bring Fio and Corey along!”
It turned out that the twins were in the middle of their very first baking lesson, and Pinkie Pie shoved Discord out of the kitchen as soon as he arrived so he wouldn’t see the frightful mess (not that he'd have minded it). After being assured that he was not needed for now, and, by his thoroughly-entertained foals, not wanted, Discord relented and found Twilight in the castle library.
As Twilight’s quill scribbled furiously to keep up, Discord recounted again the blooming of nascent worlds, divulged some of his escapades as King of the draconequui, and fielded questions about primordial Equestria.
“So if you came from Limbo in the center of the multiverse, how come your physical form is comprised solely of creatures found in Equestria?
“Fluttershy asked the same question. The reason is that a young planet devoid of life is awfully lonely. I fashioned the first proto-organism out of the soup, and I may have had a paw in its evolutionary trajectory.”
Twilight’s eyes nearly popped out of her skull. “You mean you’re the reason we have dragons, lions, eagles..?”
Discord smirked. “And ponies.”
The ensuing meltdown had him cackling with delight.
“Good evening, Sombra. Let’s have a chat, shall we? I hope you’re in a more receptive humor today.”
“Yes, do let’s have a chat. Before you start teaching me about generosity, though, I have a few things I want to make clear to you about it.”
Three shoulder twitches in rapid succession, two-and-a-half flicks of the tail, and uncontrollable winking of the left eye. Pinkie Pie dropped the bag of chicken feed and galloped back into Fluttershy’s cottage. “APPLEJACK?”
The named mare emerged from the kitchen. “What’s ‘a matter, Pinkie? Are those chickens up to somethin’?”
“No, but I am! My Pinkie Sense is telling me I have to go bring a book to Twilight RIGHT NOW. I’ll be back in two shakes of a spider’s tail! You’ll be alright with Fio and Corey?”
“Sure thing, Pinkie.” A pan clattered loudly in the kitchen. “Just don’t dally, ya hear?”
Pinkie Pie saluted and sprinted out of the house.
Twilight finally recovered from her shock after nearly half an hour, whereupon Discord made a show of retrieving and returning to the shelves all the evolutionary history books she had dumped in the trash. Then Twilight went quiet.
“Um, hello, creator to creation, anypony in there?” Discord tapped her head, producing hollow echoes to accompany the action.
“Eternity’s a long time, isn’t it?” Twilight asked in a low monotone, eyes fixed on nothing.
“You’ve seen the entire history of our kind, and untold years before even that. Will I have to bear witness to the rise of species, the fall of ponies, the tides of life and death in our world?”
Discord summoned a plush sofa, two porcelain cups, and a humming (because whistling would be too loud for the library) tea kettle. He poured out a portion of lavender lemon balm tea and handed it to Twilight with a honey spoon. Then he prepared another cup for himself. “Immortality’s not so bad, you know. I’ve done so much already in my many eons, and there’s still more I know I’m not going to have time left to do. I’m going to miss it—life, I mean—when the time comes for me to give it up.”
“You don’t think you’ll ever be able to make Fluttershy immortal, then.”
He took a long draft of his tea. “For now, no. I’ll always keep one eye open for miracles, but if I’ve learned anything recently, it’s that I want to be with my family as much as I can while I still have them. Besides, I don’t want to teach Fio and Corey to chase after immortality. They might seek it in their dark magic, and we all know no good can come of that. So for all intents and purposes, I am mortal.”
Twilight was thoughtful for a long time. She finished her tea, poured herself a second cup, and finished that one too. “I used to console myself that if I was fated to outlive all my other friends, at least I’d always have you to turn to. With your eternal friendship, maybe I would feel a little less lonely. But I guess I don’t even have that comfort to look forward to.”
The tea things went up in smoke and an avalanche of books spilled onto the cleared table. Upon investigation, Twilight realized that they were all completely blank.
“You’re the Princess of Friendship,” Discord reminded her. “You will always make new friends, and when you do, you will write about them in these books. And when you write about them, you will bring them to life. They’re enchanted—let me show you.” He picked up one of the empty books and began to write.
“The most handsome being in the multiverse is was Discord, a draconequus made of chaos magic with body parts of a pony, deer, goat, snake, bat, lion, eagle, and dragon.”
As Discord wrote, a sketch of himself appeared on the page. It was animated, slithering about and using its simulated chaos magic to turn the words “pony, deer, goat,” and so on into animated images of the animals they indicated.
“The pictures can only do what you write them to do,” Discord explained, “but maybe it will help keep your memories alive.”
Twilight was welling up. “Thank you.”
Discord crossed his arms and stuck his nose in the air to disguise his own crumbling emotional state. “I would have enjoyed getting on your nerves throughout all eternity, you know. Make sure to write that in one of those books so I can still tease you when I’m gone.”
The library door slammed open with maximum dramatic flair. “TWILIGHT? A word, if you please.” Rarity had intended to bluster in and get straight to her point with as much fury and consternation as she could muster, but instead she froze. Twilight and Discord were sitting side-by-side on a hideous sofa, both misty-eyed, with a mountain of books in front of them. Each of these elements separately would have made little impression on Rarity, but altogether it was a rather baffling scene.
Twilight, fortunately, recovered herself in seconds and trotted toward her friend. “What’s wrong, Rarity?”
She had already forgotten her whole script, and now all she had was all the rage and none of the elegance. She sputtered. “W-w-what’s wrong? HIM! That nasty, pretentious, foul-smelling ruffian!”
Dark apprehension settled on Twilight’s face. “I take it you mean Sombra. Did something happen in your lesson?”
“‘Did something happen,’” Rarity mocked. “Why, he finally showed me his true colors, that’s all. I never in all my life—”
Discord helpfully floated a cup of tea into the distressed pony’s face.
The room was empty. The room was empty.
“Sombra?” Pinkie Pie called.
The room was empty.
“Oh no,” she whispered, running to the vacant desk and picking up the first book she saw. Her hooves tingled, so she knew it was the right one.
Twilight would most likely be in the library, so Pinkie Pie set her hooves in that direction and galloped with all her might.
Rarity took the tea in her magic, but didn’t drink it. “You really ought to keep him locked up, Twilight. Put him back in that filthy cell, I say. Oh, if only you’d heard what he said, I bet you’d have sent him straight to Tartarus right then and there! I know I would!” Her exasperated gesticulation knocked the teacup out of her own magical hold and sprayed tea all over the carpet.
Nocreature paid any attention. “What did he say?” asked Twilight.
“He said he ‘decided,’” she made air-quotes for emphasis, “that generosity can’t work in all directions at once, because then it would cancel itself out! So if everypony can’t all be generous all over the place, they should all be generous in one direction, and that way it would accomplish something. He said it’s right for the weak rabble like me to be generous toward the ‘strong elite’ like him! Like HIM! Can you believe it? Then he said he won’t be needing generosity lessons anymore, and he pushed me out of the room. Oh, the horror, the indignity!” She ended by covering her face and collapsing onto the ugly sofa.
Twilight and Discord exchanged fearful looks.
And then, suddenly, déjà vu. The library doors slammed open. “TWILIGHT!”
This time the dramatic entrance was pink. And it carried a book.
“Ah, nothing like a good spa treatment with my oldest friend to loosen up after a show! Let’s do this again sometime!”
“I’d love to.”
Rainbow Dash hovered over the ground as she watched Fluttershy land in front of her cottage. “Welp, guess I’ll call it a night. See ya next time, Flutters!”
“Wait, Rainbow! Something’s wrong.”
Fluttershy was right. Rainbow Dash could feel it in her wings, like something about the atmosphere itself was off. “No kidding. I’m getting a really weird vibe. I’m gonna go grab Twilight to have a look. Be right back!”
She watched her friend fly off, and then Fluttershy cautiously poked her head into the front door. “Corey? Fio?”
There were four entities in the vicinity. No; three—one just ran off toward the castle. Two of those remaining were small. Good. But the third was large, and it was not her.
The shadow loomed closer. Ah, it thought. This will be satisfying, so long as I am swift. And it drew closer still.
“What the hay? Why’s it so dark all of a sudden?”
Sombra materialized with a malevolent grin. “I’m afraid that would be me, Applejack.”
The earth pony pounced toward Fio and Corey, but they had caught Sombra’s attention too, and before she could get there, a tendril of shadow encircled them. The foals flickered and vanished, and Applejack landed upon empty space.
Wheeling around, she demanded “What’d you do with them, ya scoundrel?”
“I removed them to somewhere safe,” answered Sombra as his horn glowed purple. A door materialized in the kitchen entryway, and its lock clicked emphatically.
Applejack hunched and circled, readying herself for a fight. “I knew you were lyin’ all along,” she growled. “You had so many chances to prove me wrong, an’ here you are, provin’ me right.”
Sombra let her circle, following only with his eyes. “And how could you expect me to do otherwise when you never gave me the benefit of the doubt? All the others believed me! I could hardly have chosen to do right when you were so eager for me to do wrong!”
“You lie!” Applejack twisted lightning fast and bucked at his ribs.
But he was no longer there. A puff of black smoke slithered into the ever-deepening shadows in the corner of the room. Applejack stalked in that direction, unsure what she could do against formless shadow but determined to try anything.
Out of the darkness sprang disembodied jaws and gleaming white fangs sank into Applejack’s shoulder. She didn’t waste a second turning her head and biting the shadowy fiend right back. There was a hiss, and the jaws dissolved back into darkness that once again retreated to the corners.
A purple-glowing knife whipped out of a drawer and hurtled through the air. Applejack deflected it with a mighty kick, but four more swiftly followed. One nicked her right haunch, and another grazed her back.
It hurt, but did not sting. “After all we’ve told you about friendship, is this what ya really want? Hatred and fightin’ all the time?” Applejack kept her eyes roving the steadily darkening room, watchful for the next assault. “We coulda been your allies! We were willin’! Even I was willin’, only it was you who wasn’t!”
Many sharp, gleaming spines materialized all around, angling in toward the pony in the center. Then they shot inward at unpredictable intervals, while the shadows grew and grew so all Applejack could do was buck and flail blindly as the onslaught battered her without mercy.
And while she fought, panting and sweating and aching, the darkness rumbled with searing malignance. “Why. Won’t. You. BLEED?!”
Applejack had no answer as she flinched and dodged and kicked.
The spines suddenly vanished. She opened her eyes just in time to see a glowing cast-iron skillet swing into her face.
“OOF!” The impact sent Applejack sailing across the room until she hit the wall and crumpled to the floor. But she was up again. Her right eye was dark, throwing off her depth perception, but nevertheless she reared up to buck as the pan came in for another swing.
It flicked to the side, dodging the trajectory of her hooves, and came down hard on her spine instead. Again she was on the floor heaving in agony. She groaned as the panhandle jabbed into her ribs. Finally it crashed again into her right temple, and it all went black.
Sombra listened, satisfied, to the distant thud of the unconscious pony’s body onto the floor of the cellar. Then he slammed shut the doors, locked them, and disintegrated the key into dust.
He froze. There were voices descending at the other side of the cottage. Sombra swept himself into shadow and crept around along the walls.
“...a really weird vibe. I’m gonna go grab Twilight to have a look. Be right back!”
Silence again. Then, her voice. “Corey? Fio?”
The shadow closed in behind her.
Pinkie Pie produced a set of saddlebags and began stuffing them with provisions. “Sombra’s gone, Twilight! Gone! I don’t know what’s about to happen but my Pinkie Sense tells me you’re gonna need this book!” She held up the book she’d gotten from Sombra’s room, then stuffed it into the saddlebags.
A window shattered. “TWILIGHT!” Rainbow Dash flew down, but didn’t bother to land. “There’s something weird at Fluttershy’s cottage. I think it’s dangerous, and I left her alone. We have to go now!”
But before they could move, Discord spoke. “Sombra has just stolen Fluttershy.” His voice was even and unreadable. “He has the foals, too.”
“Are they alright?” asked Rarity.
Discord listened a moment longer, then nodded. “She says she thinks they’re safe for the moment, but he’s holding them in some kind of strange energy and she can’t tell where they are. I can’t tell either, for that matter!”
“Strange energy!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed. “That’s gotta be what I felt at the cottage! Let’s go!”
With a snap, Discord teleported the five of them there.
Twilight closed her eyes and took a magical reading. “I can feel it. It’s got to be them.”
Rainbow Dash flew upward and pointed west. “It’s moving! It’s headed that way, and fast! I’ve gotta chase it down before it gets out of sensory range!”
“Take this.” Discord shoved a little rectangle on a strap into her chest. It had small perforations arranged in a circle at one end, a couple buttons at the other, and an antenna on top. “Not as elegant as sharing thoughts,” he explained, holding up another identical device for himself, “but it’ll allow us to communicate. Now go!”
Slinging the communicator over her neck without a word, Rainbow Dash sped away into the dusk.
“What was that?” Twilight was wondering. “Whatever force that was, it’s already fading here. I sure hope Rainbow can keep up, or we might never find them.”
In the distance, they heard the characteristic thundercrack of a sonic rainboom.
Discord levitated. “Fluttershy doesn’t have any details and we don’t know where they’re going to stop, so we’d better follow until Dash tells us where to teleport.”
“Right!” Twilight opened her wings.
“Wait!” Pinkie Pie threw the saddlebags across Twilight’s back. The alicorn threaded her wings through the straps. “Don’t forget that book. I don’t know what for, but you’re gonna need it!”
“Thanks.” And Twilight and Discord were off, leaving the two earth-bound ponies behind.
“Oh my gosh!” Pinkie Pie suddenly squeaked, turning to Rarity. “I left Applejack here with the foals! Do you think Sombra took her too?”
Fear stretched Rarity’s eyes wide. “Or did he… Come, Pinkie, we’d better go inside and look for clues.”
The pair entered the eerily-quiet cottage and called for their friend. There was no answer.
“Hey… This door wasn’t here when I left!” Pinkie Pie jiggled the doorknob, then pulled hard at it. “And it’s locked! I bet Sombra put this here!”
“That leads into the kitchen, doesn’t it?” Rarity tried the lock with her magic, to no avail. “Perhaps he made the door so he could corner Applejack for a fight. She might still be in there!”
When several more futile pulls and pushes at the door were attempted, Pinkie Pie got an idea and lead the way back outside so they could peer into the kitchen through the window. Rarity cast in a beam of light, but all it revealed was a room in disarray and no pony. She also tried the door with her magic from the inside for good measure, but it wouldn’t budge.
“It’s no use!” Rarity exclaimed, choking back tears. “It doesn’t look like she’s in there, anyway. “Knowing Sombra, he’s probably whisked her off to some unreachable place, or worse, and I’ll never see her again!”
“We haven’t looked everywhere yet,” Pinkie Pie noted. “She could still be around the house somewhere. Let’s keep looking.”
“APPLEJACK, WHERE ARE YOU?”
Even the crickets had to pause to appreciate Rarity’s mighty bellow. The whole night seemed to fall still, silent, dead.
“Did you hear that? It almost sounded like a pony!” Pinkie Pie darted off along the outside wall of the house. “Applejack? Jackie! Olly-olly-oxen-free!”
Rarity pursued. As they approached the rear side of the house, the faint voice answered louder and louder.
“We’re coming, Applejack!” Rarity reached the cellar doors first. “Applejack, darling, can you hear me? Are you down there?”
Rarity pulled at the cellar doors. She shook her head, and Pinkie Pie tried. Locked tight.
“You seem to be locked in Fluttershy’s cellar! Pinkie and I can’t get the doors open. Is there any chance you could try to buck them from the inside?”
Somewhere below, Rarity and Pinkie Pie heard grunting, then a sharp cry.
“It’s no good,” Applejack called back, her distant voice now sounding strained. “I can hardly move, and I can’t see nothin’!”
Rarity didn’t notice she was biting the tip of her hoof.
Pinkie Pie turned to her. “Could you teleport in?”
“If only! I know the more gifted magic users among our friends make teleportation look easy, but it’s not! I can barely do it at all, and even then, it's only to places I've been before, and places that aren’t pitch-black, for that matter!”
“Alright. I’ll go see if I can find a key instead, or some other way in,” offered Pinkie Pie. “You stay here and keep her company.”
After she left, Rarity tried again and again at the cellar doors. She even tried bucking them, but the angle was awkward, and her power wasn’t anywhere near as good as Applejack’s. Eventually, panting, crying, Rarity gave up and laid her torso against the angled doors. “Are you okay down there, Applejack?”
“Not really. I’m in...a lotta pain, and I… can’t even see down here to assess… the damage.” It sounded like Applejack, whom Rarity knew had not been moving, was panting too. Her marefriend had such a high pain tolerance, and if she were in this much distress…
“What happened? We know Sombra took the twins and Fluttershy, and the others are going after them now, but… What did he do to you?”
“We fought, but… he had his magic, and I can’t… I can’t buck a shadow. It was all… teeth, and smoke, and knives.”
“They didn’t do much damage. What got me was… the skillet. I remember it hit me four… four times ‘fore I went out… But it feels like… he maybe kept beatin’ me after that...” Then there was some rustling and a faint groan, like Applejack was trying to move.
Rarity couldn’t take it. She could feel the agony in Applejack’s voice, and she just couldn’t take it. Twilight, Discord, Fluttershy, or anypony else who could possibly help wouldn’t be back for hours, if not days! How could she sit around here helpless, listening to her marefriend suffering, maybe even dying? How could she take it? She couldn’t. She couldn’t! She had to get to Applejack, to be at her side, comforting her, treating her wounds, taking all that pain and smothering into oblivion with her love! She couldn’t wait another instant, nothing else in her whole life ever mattered except right now, and she had to get in—
“Eep! OOF!” A falling sensation accompanied by a rapid series of tumbling impacts had knocked the air out of Rarity’s lungs, and she sprawled limp and empty on what felt like stone. It had been dark before, but suddenly, it was very black.
She lit her horn to chase away the blackness. Rarity was in the cellar. She closed the distance between herself and the battered orange heap in a heartbeat.
“It’s going to be alright, I’m here now, you’re safe!” Rarity gently lifted Applejack’s bruised head, winced at the swollen-shut eye, and laid it upon her lap.
Applejack’s voice reduced to a hoarse whisper, but her one open eye gleamed with relief. “How the hay’d you get through that locked door?”
Rarity looked back the way she had come. She could see the angled cellar doors, still shut tight above the stone stairs down which she’d fallen. She cast a small field of magic to push on the handles. Still locked. “I have no idea, darling. I really have no idea… But nevermind. We’ve got to find a way to get you out of here!”
Somewhere over their heads, there was a great crash and the clinking of shattered glass on a floor. A moment later, “Applejack! Can you hear me?”
“Pinkie!” Rarity shouted. “We’re right below you, darling. There’s a wooden staircase up to what looks like a trapdoor near where your voice is coming through! Do you think you can open it?”
A grunt. “Nope! I don’t think it’s locked, but I can’t get it to budge. How’d you get down there, Rarity? Why don’t you just go out the way you went in?”
"I, er, well… I don’t quite know how I got in, Pinkie. Don’t ask me to explain, because I can’t. The exterior cellar doors are still locked.” Though she hated leaving Applejack’s side, Rarity made her way up the rickety wooden steps. She pushed as hard as she could on the trapdoor above her head without risking her balance. Then, coordinating their efforts, she and Pinkie tried together. It was enough to make the heavy wood panel creak, as if the seal of disuse and many years of grime that had glued the door down had finally been broken. Rarity heard Pinkie Pie mutter something.
Then Pinkie Pie shouted “One more effort!” and they tried again.
At last, the door was shoved aside. Rarity was so relieved she didn’t even shriek when a dozen rats, rabbits, and raccoons scattered from the opening. They’d needed all the help they could get, however small the paws. All together, the ponies and other creatures were able to haul Applejack up the stairs and into a corner of the kitchen that had been swept clear of debris and broken glass. Applejack managed to hang onto her consciousness for the duration of the effort, though Rarity could hear in her heavy breathing and suppressed groans how much of a struggle it was.
They lit some lanterns in the kitchen, and once Applejack took stock of her injuries, she instructed the others on how to treat her. The rodents scampered through their holes in the walls to retrieve small supplies from Fluttershy’s stashes while the raccoons climbed in and out through the broken kitchen window to get bigger items. Soon enough, Applejack was wrapped almost head to hoof and sleeping deeply. There somehow wasn’t a scratch on her, but there were enough bruises that she was about as much purple as orange, and Applejack had expressed a belief that at least one leg and one rib was broken. Rarity and Pinkie Pie sat side by side in the torn-up room, watching Applejack breathe and worrying to themselves whether the others had been able to save Fluttershy, Fio, and Corey.
No matter how fast Discord flew, the far end of his steadily-shortening shadow behind him was always faster. Dusk returned to sunset. Time was moving backward. Somewhere ahead, supposedly, was Rainbow Dash, and ahead of her, his own stolen family. Discord resented the distance he had to cross in chasing them. He resented that Sombra had managed to devise a thieving spell that his magic couldn’t quickly crack, preventing him from teleporting in to save the day. So mile after mile flowed beneath him, each one more hateful than the last. Unable to do anything for his family but fly and fly, Discord decided his helplessness was the fault of the vast distance he had to cross.
He punished the cruel land. Drops of hungry acid fell from his hands as he flew, and a trail of poisoned earth and ravished vegetation smoldered in his wake. Later, once his mate and children were safe within his grasp, he would come back and fold into oblivion the callous landscape that had kept him from his loved ones.
“Discord! What are you doing?” Twilight was panting hard from the effort of catching up to him.
“I’m rescuing my family,” he growled.
“No, I mean—do you realize you’re burning up the ground?”
Twilight winced. “I don’t think you should be doing that. It’s not going to help matters.”
"LIKE I CARE?”
“Discord, stop it! What would Fluttershy say if she knew you were hurting innocent plants and animals?”
He blinked, and his hands snapped shut. “You’re right. Fluttershy wouldn’t want this. I’m just so afraid...”
“I know. You can still hear her, can’t you? Are they still alright?”
Discord’s attention turned inward. He managed a vacant nod as a reply to Twilight, but his mind remained in conversation with Fluttershy.
Dash said she’d keep up with you, but it’s been hours, projected Discord to Fluttershy. What if she can’t maintain that speed? We haven’t heard from her. She could have passed out somewhere and we’d have no idea where she is or where you end up!
It’ll be alright, Discord. If anyone can do it, it’s Rainbow Dash. And even if she does lose the trail, you could still sense his magic when you were near it, right? So you’ll find us eventually either way.
Eventually isn’t soon enough! He’s proven twice now what his dark magic can do to your mind, and I don’t want you to have to suffer that again!
“But this time you’re here in my mind and you can protect me from it”—that’s what Discord needed to hear. It was not what Fluttershy thought to him.
I’m trying to resist, I’m trying! He’s doing it again right now. I can feel his magic burrowing down under my skin, and oh, how I want to believe him! But it’s just a lie, I know it’s just a lie…
Discord didn’t notice the tightening of his fists. He didn’t notice the tree that exploded beneath him as he passed, and he didn’t notice Twilight’s shouts. And what is he saying this time?
He says he’s done being evil! He says now that he has me and our sons, all he wants is to settle down with us and lead a life of peace with his family. You should just see the way he’s smiling at Fio and Corey! The affection looks so genuine and he’s got them completely charmed. But it’s a lie—I know it’s a lie because you’re my mate, Discord. Our family belongs with you, not him, and he knows it. He wants us to forget so he’s drowning us in his dark magic. I won’t forget, but the foals, Discord—the foals!
More trees exploded beneath Discord. He was blind to them, blind to the hot orange light erupting from the ground behind him, and deaf to Twilight shouting again as she peeled off to contain the forest fire. He kept on flying.
As soon as I get there, I’ll wring his neck!
Please do, Fluttershy’s thought-voice lowered to a snarl, and make it painful. Make him feel remorse at last! Then I can finally be yours and yours alone for all eternity.
But… we don’t have all eternity!
Sure we do! He’s put so much dark magic in me—what fun it will be to become what he always wanted me to become, just to destroy him in the process! Can you even picture a crueler punishment for his atrocities?
Discord shivered as he flew. It’s perfect. And what shall we do with our eternity together once he’s out of the way?
Fluttershy failed to answer. He could still feel her, and he could tell she was agitated, but he couldn’t hear what was going on. Surely Sombra was tormenting her! Magic began to gather in Discord’s hands, boiling black and purple gobs of it, ready to attack anything and everything if it would get him to his Fluttershy.
A flashing violet laser pounded into Discord’s side and sent him tumbling wildly through the air. The attacker screeched “DISCORD, STOP THIS!”
How dare she? Discord steadied his course and snapped around like the crack of a whip. “So you would keep me from her too, eh?”
The temperature plummeted as hideous magic spilled from Discord’s hands and gathered like a stormcloud around him. Hate-filled eyes haloed in purple flames seared straight through the puny alicorn and her pathetic magic shield. And she had the audacity to look surprised that her crime was about to be punished.
Her gaze held captive by burning malice, Twilight understood nothing about what was happening except that she was about to die.
WAIT, DISCORD! Fluttershy screamed into his mind. IT’S THE DARK MAGIC! DON’T GIVE IN! THE DARK MAGIC, DISCORD!
He froze. ...What?
The dark magic in me traveled across our thought connection. I can feel it wreaking havoc on your mind! Whatever you were about to do, don’t do it!
B-but you were just… I thought you were saying you wanted the dark magic…
NO, Discord, that was the magic talking! It’s not what I want for us. Not what we want for us. He tried to take the eternal ecosystem necklace, but I didn’t let him. It reminded me of what we are, you and I. It’s our love that binds us together, not hatred for everycreature else like the dark magic would have us believe. We can’t let hate win, Discord!
Hate? Love? Yes, I remember… Then, as if waking up, Discord looked around. In front of him flew Twilight, horn powered, with disbelief, terror, and betrayal all mingling in her eyes.
“What am I doing?” All the magic he had been about to unleash dissolved harmlessly into the wind.
“Discord?” Twilight croaked.
“I was—I… Sweet chaos, not my friend!” Discord dove forward and snatched Twilight into a tight hug. “Not my friend...”
Stunned, Twilight went limp. Now she really couldn’t understand what was going on.
Discord let her go. “I’m sorry. It’s the dark magic, it’s—”
The communicator around Discord’s neck crackled. Then Rainbow Dash’s distorted voice spewed out of it. “Alright guys, I think they’ve stopped. I still don’t see them, but there’s an awful lot of that weird energy here and it’s not moving any more.”
Discord grabbed Twilight again, closed his eyes to lock onto Rainbow Dash’s position, and snapped.
They stood in a meadow surrounded by dense forest. Except for Discord, Twilight, and Rainbow Dash, it was empty.
We’re not traveling anymore, Fluttershy confirmed. He’s leading us into a mansion in the middle of the woods. If you’re here, I don’t see or hear you, and neither does he.
“It feels like lightning and water and ice all at the same time!” Rainbow Dash shivered. “I was freezing my tail off the whole way here, and now it’s even worse.”
“She says they’re in a mansion, and she didn’t see us outside,” Discord informed his companions.
Twilight walked slowly out into the grass. The others followed. “If there’s a mansion here, it’s more than just invisible. Wait a second. Look!” She shuffled a hoof in the grass, drawing attention to a weird blurriness there that could not have been a mere trick of the fading sunlight. “There’s something going on here. And does the air feel oddly… thick to anypony else?”
Rainbow Dash nodded. “Like wading through water.”
While the ponies were occupied with their little nature walk, Discord was trying out spells. He started working through every magical trick he could imagine to either get himself to Fluttershy, get her to him, or destroy whatever force was keeping them apart. More and more sparks flew sizzling from his snaps, but nothing changed.
Fluttershy narrated Sombra’s actions to Discord through the thought connection. She described her refusal to eat or drink at the dinner Sombra summoned. I tried to tell the foals not to eat either, but I felt the dark magic squeeze and force my mouth shut. He won’t let me keep Fio and Corey from eating.
The contours of Discord’s form grew increasingly jagged and angry as he struggled vainly against the strange force.
Twilight’s horn was glowing with the softness of a diagnostic spell while Rainbow Dash watched and fidgeted. “I can’t make heads or tails of the magical signature. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Maybe whatever this is isn’t magic at all,” Rainbow Dash suggested. “I mean, I’m a pegasus, I can’t normally interact with magic like you can, but even I can feel something here!”
The idea got Twilight pacing. “Pegasi have a special capacity to detect physical forces, though. It helps you control the weather. But I’ve never heard of a physical force that could do something like this.” She inspected the blurry grass again. “And what kind of physical force is accessible to Sombra’s dark magic, but not pony magic or chaos magic?” Drooping from exhaustion and defeat, Twilight slumped into a sit and shrugged off her saddlebags.
“Hey,” said Rainbow Dash, pointing at one side of the saddlebags that had fallen open. “Isn’t that the book Pinkie insisted you’d need?”
Twilight brightened and snatched up the book. “This is the astronomy book I lent to Sombra! I thought he just wanted to learn something new in his boredom, but maybe he found some kind of spell in here?” She began flipping through it, and a paper fell out.
Notes. “Matter and anti-matter,” it read. Twilight remembered this page. She had thought nothing of it before. “Out of their unresolved conflict spiraled all the universe.”
That’s still true, mused Twilight, even if theorists failed to predict that there was a certain chaos spirit watching it all happen.
“Perfected balance can only result in self-annihilation.” It was a strange conclusion to draw from the chapter on the origin of the universe. Could Sombra have used this idea to conceal himself, Fluttershy, and the twins, somehow? Perhaps, but the link between concealment and annihilation seemed a little risky to Twilight. She flipped forward deeper into the book. More notes occasionally fell out, none of them any more informative than the first.
Meanwhile, Discord had dropped to all fours and prowled around the darkening meadow. His face was set in a snarling grimace, and every few steps, he paused to flick out a claw and tear threads from the fabric of reality, searching for any kind of seam or weakness by which Sombra might be exposed.
He tucked them into bed and kissed their foreheads, Fluttershy related, her thought-voice trembling. Their little manes are starting to billow like smoke. Do you know what Corey said? He said ‘I feel icky. I’m sick like Father, aren’t I Mommy?’ The dark magic is swallowing them up too, Discord! He’ll make Corey and Fio into shadow minions!
Discord slashed a deep scar into the earth.
Twilight got to the end of the book and slammed it down. But she picked it back up again immediately and flipped through a second time, faster, scanning chapter headings. “The First Explosion,” “Universal Constants,” “The Speed of Light,” “Expanding Space,” “Dark Magic”…
Dark Magic? Twilight read that again. Dark Matter, not Dark Magic. She was losing focus.
Then she froze. “Wait.”
“What, what?” Rainbow Dash tried to peer at the book over Twilight’s shoulder, but the alicorn started flipping rapidly back and forth, reading and rereading two chapters entitled “Dark Matter” and “Dark Energy.”
The exclamation got even Discord’s attention. Twilight beckoned him and Rainbow Dash to follow her back to the forest edge where the grass wasn’t blurry. “Dark matter and dark energy,” she explained, “are physical forces that have been completely inscrutable to ponykind. We’ve known for a long time that they exist, but not how to see them, touch them, or study them. I think Somba’s dark magic must have given him some ability to use dark energy and dark matter. That’s why we can’t get to him or Fluttershy and the foals! Maybe only those who have enough dark magic in them can exist in the dark plane!”
“So I’ll have to go dark to get to them,” Discord concluded, looking resolute.
Twilight flew up to seize Discord’s arm. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. When we were flying and you turned on me, you said something about dark magic.” Rainbow Dash began to exclaim in surprise but Twilight went on. “If you pump yourself with dark magic now, there’s no telling what you’ll do. Let me try something first.”
Daggers flew from Discord’s glare—fortunately just metaphorical ones. “I won’t let you stand in my way. I have to get to her!”
“I’m your friend!” Twilight took his shoulders and shook him. “I’m helping you get to her. I think I might be able to turn Sombra’s dark matter mansion into regular matter.”
Discord managed a stiff nod, and Twilight returned to the ground. “Stand back. This might take a minute and I don’t know how smoothly the conversion will go.” Magic gathered on her horn, glowing brighter and brighter. Twilight broke out in a sweat and viscous bubbles of darkness occasionally burst through her violet aura. Except for her face tensing into a grimace and her front hooves digging into the topsoil, nothing was happening. Not to the supposed mansion, anyway. Discord’s vision was fading to a dim red, and he couldn’t keep his fists from clenching and unclenching. Twilight was wielding dark magic and it burned against his mind.
Discord, Discord tell me you’re still there! Fluttershy’s thought-voice pleaded.
He lead me away from Fio and Corey, and now he wants to put me to bed! I told him this is all wrong, I’m supposed to be with you and not him, but he says you brainwashed me. He says I’ll remember what I’m supposed to be once we’re in bed together. I can’t stop my hooves from following him! I’m so scared!
On the meadow, a large shadow began to stand out in the murky dusk light. It had the outline of a mansion that wasn’t quite there yet. Blood trickled down Twilight’s chin from where her teeth had sliced into her lip. Particle by particle, a form was building itself upon the shadow, dissolving itself in reverse.
Discord was still locked onto Fluttershy’s voice. He tracked her mind as it moved through what was beginning to be a solid structure.
Scared, she was saying, and… excited. I’m losing myself again! Tell me you’ll be here soon! I can’t stop myself!
Twilight’s head thrashed, flinging her last drops of magic and strength into the mansion as she collapsed into the grass. Her ears barely registered the snap as Discord vanished from her side.
Sombra shut the door behind them. Finally, Fluttershy’s hooves obeyed her command to stop, but it was too late. She stood in front of a large, plush bed, and he was dimming the lamps. Her heart was pounding, chanting—not again, not again, not again….
The floor retreated from her hooves and the room spun 180 degrees. Obsidian hooves caught her shoulders and gently pushed until she was lying on her back, and his arms were pinning hers against her sides as his massive torso settled upon her stomach and he peered into her face with hungry eyes.
“Now our family is together and we can have peace at last,” he whispered, leaning down to her neck.
She couldn’t breathe, she was melting beneath him. He would smother her into himself, and it would be so easy to let him. Her body was already begging her to relax and let it succumb and submit. But Discord’s rage boiled at the back of her mind and wouldn’t be silenced. Honeyed words were making Fluttershy sick and she was desperate for her firecracker chaos king. The confused desire roiling in her veins spilled into a new direction. Her limbs tensed with a great, concerted thrust that shot her out from under Sombra into the center of the bed.
Sombra chuckled. “Down for a game, are we?” He pulled himself up onto the bed as Fluttershy flipped into a defensive crouch. “King Sombra has never lost his prey,” he taunted, grinning wickedly. He lunged. Fluttershy’s wings snapped out to launch her out of his reach but he was too quick, he had her around the waist and they were falling backward onto the bed and he would be on top of her once again.
She felt her back slam into the mattress but there was a rush of sweet air and the body above her swept her aside as it fell so she would not be crushed.
“Ha! Didn’t I tell you we would make a most excellent threesome?”
Sombra screamed and flung himself so hard out of the draconequus’s arms that he tumbled off the bed entirely. Discord’s cackling filled the room as Sombra pushed himself back onto his hooves. “You,” he stammered, “how did—how dare…?”
“No.” Discord levitated out of the bed as it slid to the far wall with Fluttershy still upon it. The room swelled larger and Discord loomed huge and menacing down to Sombra’s face. “How dare you?”
Then Sombra felt himself sailing through space before his head slammed into a stone wall. His dark magic was already knitting his cracked skull back into solid bone as purple fire erupted from his eyes. Dark power surged into his horn. “This ends here, draconequus! She’s mine!” The laser launched.
Discord dodged, but the twisted magic coiled around and crashed into its target anyway, knocking him backward. Slowly he righted himself, trembling with barely-restrained power and hatred, his face stretching into an unnaturally wide, sharp-toothed grin. A gale howled through the room, whipping in a spiral that left Discord and Fluttershy untouched but swirled every other loose object upward toward a growing void above the center of the room. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with,” Discord whispered, his sinister tone audible in spite of the wind.
Sombra had to scramble backward to resist the pull of the black hole. He sprouted crystals from the wall and floor to anchor himself. “I’ve beaten you once before, and I’ll do it again!” Tendrils of shadow wound up Discord’s legs as razor-edged crystals sprouted from from opposite walls and grew lightning-fast toward his face.
Discord’s nonchalant snap dislodged the attacking spikes from the walls and they were sucked harmlessly away into the void. “I’m not weak from your dark magic this time.” Laughing maniacally, Discord duplicated himself into a sea that nearly filled the expanded room, and all copies sneered in unison. “This time, I’m strong from it!” The copy Discord clutched at Sombra, tearing out fistfuls of his mane and tail, digging and peeling at skin, twisting joints out of socket, dragging his mangled body toward the black hole. Sombra shouted and thrashed, but for every copy draconequus he incinerated, another descended upon him with redoubled ferocity.
A pang shot through Discord’s head, along with a voice. Discord, stop! Don’t let the dark magic claim you! What will you become if you kill him?
He froze. Fluttershy was watching him rip apart a living being. Even if Sombra deserved the worst punishment imaginable, reverting to evil to deal it would be to throw away all the progress he’d made toward good! The hungry void and vicious Discord copies vanished, dropping Sombra back to the hard floor.
The body was a bleeding heap. But the body of a shadow pony is already dead, and the shadow spirit cannot be killed so easily. Sombra rose again, chest heaving, as flaps of torn skin stretched back into place over his frame and bones clicked back into joints. “I won’t let you take her from me,” he rasped. “She’s all I have.” The cloud of smoking magic pouring from his wounds precipitated into tiny, stinging flies that swarmed toward Discord’s eyes.
They landed a couple of blinding stings before the swarm dropped dead to the floor, poisoned by a brief gust of noxious fumes. His vision blurred, Discord conjured a baseball bat the size of a column and swung it toward the demonic stallion.
Sombra dissolved himself into his shadow form and the bat passed harmlessly through him. He tried again to stab Discord with dark crystals while the draconequus was still half-blind.
One of the crystals pierced through Discord’s stomach and he gasped. He clenched his teeth and reached around to pull the weapon all the way through, ignoring the huge, weeping hole in his middle, and launched it with an enchantment back at the shadow-cloud of Sombra. Rather than passing through, the crystal lodged itself in the cloud as if it were solid, forcing Sombra back into his pony form. Snapping away his own injuries, Discord stalked up and swatted Sombra onto his back. The flat end of the stabbing crystal jutted out of Sombra’s chest, and Discord placed his foot upon it to drive it in further.
Sombra kicked and thrashed helplessly. “Please!” he cried. “Why must you take every good thing from me? All I want is peace! Peace!”
“Peace?” Discord scoffed, leaning a little more weight onto the crystal that pierced Sombra’s body. “You steal my mate and children, try to turn them into shadow creatures, and call it peace? You don’t deserve your pitiful life!” But he hesitated, warring with the evil magic screeching in his mind to kill, kill!
Sombra jerked to the side and rolled out from under Discord, plucking the sharp crystal from his chest as he stood again. Then he made the mistake of meeting Discord’s burning gaze, and he saw all the different ways he was about to meet death flickering across the reflection there. Sombra cast down the weapon, turned, and galloped toward the door at the far end of the room.
But the room only stretched wider and wider beneath his scrambling hooves. The door grew further away, and Discord’s laughter echoed deafeningly loud. Sharp, hoof-cracking spikes grew from the floor and Sombra couldn't avoid them no matter how hard he ran.
Fluttershy’s screaming voice was drowned in the roar of Discord’s laughter. Her cries in Discord’s mind were lost beneath the siren-song of revenge that filled his ears.
Splashing pools of lava yawned between the spikes that mutilated Sombra’s legs. Molten drops set fire to his fur and he could feel the seared skin beneath begin to liquefy. He ran and ran, blind terror flashing in the whites of his eyes, but there was no escape. “I never wanted to hurt anypony!” gasped Sombra. “It’s not my fault, I never had any choice! All I ever wanted was to belong somewhere!”
“Oh, you belong somewhere,” Discord taunted, flying along beside the stallion, “in hell!”
Stones flew through the air to pelt the few remaining parts of Sombra that still had any ability left to feel pain. He shut his eyes, tears streaming, unable to do anything anymore but pump his numb legs and scream. “They always wanted me—oof—dead! Nopony ever accepted me! I could have no happiness except—what I took! Don’t—don’t you see? It’s not—my fault I need—her! I have nothing else!” A stone knocked Sombra’s knee out from underneath him and he finally stumbled, careening into a bed of spikes that tore into his flesh.
Across the room, trapped on the bed by Discord’s desire to protect her, Fluttershy heard every word. And she understood—everything. She saw Sombra with new eyes and her kindness went out to him. A surge of dark magic flooded into her body and knocked her gasping backwards.
Manic delight gleamed from Discord’s face as he stood over the battered scrap of stallion. “That’s the most pitiful thing I’ve ever heard,” he smiled pleasantly. A dagger of dark crystal grew in Discord’s hand and he brandished it, taking aim for one of those hilariously-desperate red eyes. “Allow me to put you out of your misery,” Discord crooned.
Then, as if from outside himself, Discord watched purple flames spring from his eyes as he flung the dagger into the helpless body at his feet. Lightning flashed, and suddenly he reclined on a crystal throne as a monsoon of chocolate milk swept all harmony and joy from his land, and the little yellow pegasus he held in his lap had dull, lifeless eyes.
He blinked, and he was still standing over Sombra with a dagger in his hand.
LISTEN TO ME! Fluttershy’s voice bellowed loud and clear in his mind and Discord didn’t dare move a muscle.
But while Discord had lingered, Sombra powered his horn and now launched a blast of dark magic. The impact flung Discord several body-lengths away. Shaking, Sombra drew himself up again on his numb legs and prepared another attack. “I will never let you take what I deserve!”
Discord stood too and gathered dark magic into his hands for an attack of his own.
Discord, this can’t go on! Stand down! I’m about to do something dangerous, and if I survive, I’m going to need you. Don’t. Fall.
Forgetting the stallion in front of him who was about to unleash a maelstrom of dark magic upon him, Discord turned around. He could see from across the room that Fluttershy’s mane and tail had turned completely to billowing smoke. Not only that, but her eyes had gone red and acid green, purple flames dancing at their outer corners.
Then the green and flames from her eyes projected onto Sombra’s. His horn was extinguished and his body went limp as dark magic he was not controlling lifted his body and bared him to all of his own worst fears. Discord looked back and forth between the entranced stallion and his own magically flaming mate. His jaw dropped as he realized that Fluttershy was wielding her dark magic, turning Sombra’s own trick against him.
Would such an effort not destroy her? Discord could hardly hold onto his sanity for sheer proximity to such a flood of dark magic, and Fluttershy was commanding that magic! Surely the effort would strain her body to its breaking point, her organs would fail, and she’d transform into an eternally-tormented shadow pony before his eyes! Discord couldn’t allow it! He would spare her by getting Sombra out of the way once and for all. After all, the stallion was floating helplessly within arms’ reach, and Discord’s claws were feeling particularly sharp and bloodthirsty. All it would take was a good, deep strike, and he could whisk Fluttershy off to his lair where she would be safe, and he would rip this cold, cruel world from the roots of its existence so it could never hurt his mate again! Nocreature would ever steal her from him, because he would leave not a single creature alive aside from them and their foals! Discord flexed his claws and held them over Sombra’s stomach, calculating the angle that would deal the most damage with the greatest pain.
No. Discord’s own voice echoed in his mind, and then he remembered Fluttershy’s. “If I survive, I’m going to need you.Don’t. Fall.” She needed him! He couldn’t let the dark magic win. But he couldn’t resist it any longer either, and his claws dug into what remained of Sombra’s mangled skin. He felt steaming hot blood well up under his fingertips and could have howled for lust of it. Discord sucked in a breath, screwed his eyes shut, and gave his hand one final command.
Fluttershy slipping out from under him, scooping up their foals and running, always running back to the draconequus. He’s rescuing her from that chaotic beast again but she’s biting and kicking and saying she hates him. She hates him! She would never love him again, and in fact, never did in the first place! His foals take one look at him and run, run back to the draconequus.
He’s standing on the balcony and gazing out over his gleaming kingdom. His subjects are rioting in the streets and storming the castle doors. They’re crying over and over again for the Heart, that cursed Crystal Heart. Don’t they know the Heart wants him dead? Of course they do. They want him dead because he’s not like them, never has been, never will be. They’re unwilling to offer him love, so he conquers their minds and they can never run from him again.
The mob of foals jeer and spit, and he covers his face. All he had wanted was to join their game. They run off, and a filly smiles and offers him her hoof. Sunlight is sparkling on her sky-blue mane and lavender crystal coat, and he is in love with her. Then the pain is back and she is saving his life, and he comes down repaired but she comes down glowing with opportunity and purpose. She will leave him to chase her purpose and he will be all alone. Why does she not love him enough to stay with him? He wants to go with her and watch her blossom, but instead he is punishing her for putting her own needs above his, and she is running, running, running.
Fluttershy’s lungs screamed. She gasped and gasped but could not get air into her body. Her legs tingled and an icy chill was freezing its way up her veins toward her heart. She could feel dark magic caress her cheek, stroke her billowing mane, kiss her frozen lips, eager to claim her body at last. Darkness rose in her sight and Fluttershy struggled for one last glimpse of life with living eyes. The floor was strewn with clumps of black hair, shards of weaponized crystals, smears of fresh blood. Sombra lay on the floor in the center of the room, convulsing and sobbing. And next to him stood a tall stone carving, a perfect likeness of…
Discord? Fluttershy’s dim eyes found strength. She rubbed them to be sure, and yes, it was him. How had he gotten into stone? Was he okay, was he alive? The whispers of darkness and chill of blood were forgotten as Fluttershy dropped off the bed and stumbled toward the statue.
I’m here, Fluttershy. I’ll explain later. You and your friends can get me out of this, right?
At the moment Fluttershy reached him and the pile of weeping Sombra, the distant bedroom door burst open. Twilight and Rainbow Dash rushed in, carrying a screaming foal each.
Rainbow Dash was practically screaming herself. “What happened? Discord locked us out! Are you guys alri...” She trailed off as her eyes registered the scene before her. Discord stood in stone with remorse etched across his calcified features. Sombra was a heaving pile of bleeding mush on the floor. And Fluttershy drooped over him, ghostly pale with mane and tail made entirely of smoke and haunted eyes gleaming red instead of teal.
Twilight inhaled to ask what happened, but Fluttershy held up a shaky hoof. Color was already spilling back into her face as she regarded her friends and her foals with relief.
“Discord did that to himself. He’s okay,” Fluttershy explained, then pointed at what remained of Sombra. “And I need to speak to him.” She leaned down to search for Sombra’s face.
Rainbow Dash was still gawking while Twilight took stock of the apparent situation and made a plan. She placed a wailing Corey into Rainbow Dash’s free arm, removed a book from her saddlebags, and pulled a scrap of notepaper from the book.
Finding what she sought, Fluttershy sat down and gently took the bloody, tear-stained face in her hooves. “Sombra.” She swallowed. “You will never be reformed.”
His tears spilled all the faster.
“I see now exactly what you did to me, because it’s exactly what you did to yourself, only you can never escape it. Dark magic preys on fear. The more fearful you become, the more power it has. It leverages your fears against you, using them to convince you to want and do what you otherwise wouldn’t allow yourself to want and do. But love conquers fear. Where love has a hoofhold, fear and dark magic lose their power.”
Fluttershy took a moment to wipe the tears off each side of Sombra’s face, the better to look into his eyes. “This is what you did to me: You reminded me of my fear of being trapped and powerless again, only this time, you persuaded me that it was Discord I had to fear, rather than you. The more I feared him, the more I wanted to hurt him, and the more I did so, the more the dark magic became entrenched in me. Worst of all, the more I feared and hurt Discord, the less I felt love for him, and the less I felt his love for me. Your clever, evil magic drove a wedge between myself and my best defense against its power—Discord’s love. I would have continued spiraling down that path until the dark magic overtook me completely and transformed me into a shadow pony like you, had Discord not outsmarted me. Despite everything your magic had convinced me to believe and fear, Discord managed to remind me how much I love him, and once I remembered, the darkness inside me had no power anymore.”
Sombra’s voice was hoarse. “I’m sorry. Really. I didn’t realize you truly loved him like that. I... refused to realize it. I was too afraid it would be true, and I would be back to having nothing.”
She let him stare into her eyes for a long time before going on. “And this is what you did to yourself: You were so afraid that you would never be loved and accepted for what you were. The dark magic you were born with already had an advantage over your will, so any love you ever did receive, it convinced you to believe that it wasn’t genuine enough. It so warped your ideas of what love and acceptance really look like that you could no longer see a way to happiness in anything except itself, and you gave in. You let the dark magic consume your body and transform you into a shadow pony, and now you have no defense against its evil because you’re made of evil.”
“But I still want good! All I really want is a peaceful life of love with you and our foals!”
“I can’t give you that love, Sombra, and even if that were all you want, it wouldn’t be enough. Thanks to you, I know how dark magic works on the mind. It will always twist innocent desires into something bigger and worse. A little family won’t be enough for you. Soon it will be a race, then a nation, then an empire. Dark magic is greedy, and it never stops. And you are made of dark magic. It has been the sole sustenance of your mind for centuries! Even if I did truly love you, it would never be enough to conquer the darkness that’s overtaken your soul. You will never escape the evil you brought upon yourself, and it will never allow you to be happy. But you were happy, once, weren’t you? Do you remember her name?”
Sombra sighed. “Radiant Hope. I shut her from my mind for so long. The memory of what I did to her hurt too much.” Sombra looked up into Fluttershy’s eyes again and tried to smile. “But you remind me so much of her. I guess part of me wanted to believe it could be like it was before, when I loved her. Before my darkness convinced me to betray her. I’m so tired, Fluttershy. Is there no way I can escape?”
Fluttershy struggled against her tears, but she held Sombra’s gaze. “Yes. It’s time for you to die.”
Sombra’s face clouded like he was about to resist, but he sobbed instead. “Maybe I can see Hope again, if I go. It’s been so long. But I’m afraid! What if my dark magic won’t let me do it?”
“We can help. Keep thinking of Hope.” Then Fluttershy set Sombra’s head back onto the floor and stood up. Discord was still in stone, so she looked to Twilight. “Can we get him out?”
There was a flash, and three more ponies suddenly populated the room.
Pinkie Pie didn’t waste any time orienting herself. “Luna says she got your letter, Twilight, and she hopes everything is okay! She sent us right to you, just like you asked! So is everything okay?”
“It will be,” Fluttershy began, addressing Pinkie Pie, Rarity, and Applejack. She gave them a brief summary of what happened, and then Twilight gathered them all into a circle around Discord. Sombra looked on and Fio and Corey huddled against each other at a safe distance as the rainbow poured over Discord and freed him from his self-inflicted imprisonment.
First things first, Discord thanked his friends. He eyed a cowering Sombra, but went to Fio and Corey instead to make sure they were alright and assure them that he was okay, too. Finally, carrying his sniffling sons in his arms, Discord came to Fluttershy’s side and faced Sombra. “You see?” he asked his foals. “Your manes have turned smoky like his. You have the same sickness, but Mommy and Daddy are here to take care of you. Your Father didn’t let anycreature help take care of him. He was all alone. Mommy and Daddy and all your aunts tried to help him get over his sickness, but it was too late.”
“Too late?” Fio’s voice was a tiny plea as his tears welled up again.
Discord set Fio and Corey down next to Fluttershy. “I’m afraid so. There isn’t anything more we can do for him. Father has to go away now. Say goodbye.”
The twins wore matching expressions of grief and fear as they each took hold of one of Fluttershy’s forelegs. Sombra did his best to smile and beckon his sons to him for a parting hug, but they only clung tighter to their mother, afraid of his shaky, broken body and the sickness it contained.
Sombra’s limp smile faded as a look of devastation settled on his face. His whisper was almost inaudible. “Not even my own sons...”
But fiery Fio couldn’t stand to be afraid for long. He let go of Fluttershy and took a bold step forward. “Goodbye Father.”
Corey followed. “Goodbye.”
“Goodbye, Fio and Corey. Do better than I did, okay?”
Both foals nodded hastily, more to end the conversation than to indicate any comprehension, and fled back behind Fluttershy’s legs. Then Discord snapped, creating a cloud of glittering dust around the twins. They fell into a peaceful enchanted sleep, and Discord levitated them over to Twilight and laid them side-by-side between her wings.
“I know you brought them to me more for their sake than mine,” Sombra said when Discord turned back to him, “but thank you.”
Discord set his jaw, but kept a neutral tone. “I won’t pretend it doesn’t give me great pleasure to end your life, but I’m glad you took the opportunity to choose this death.”
“If you would, I wish to die free of this dark magic that has so long imprisoned me. Can you do this for me?”
Discord nodded, and his snap produced a giant, perfectly-structured crystal in the corner of the room. It would collect the dark magic so it wouldn’t disperse freely into the atmosphere and risk infecting anycreature else.
Finally, Fluttershy stepped forward and placed one of her hooves on what remained of one of Sombra’s. “Goodbye, Sombra. I hope you find peace.”
“Goodbye, Fluttershy. I’m sorry for everything.” Then Fluttershy backed away again, and all eyes were on Discord. “I’m ready to see Hope again now,” whispered Sombra.
His billowy black mane and tail began to reach toward the crystal in the corner of the room as if pulled by a breeze. Then a cloud of smoke seeped out of Sombra’s whole body, blowing away into the crystal as the stallion dissolved into ash. His rear legs went first, then his ribcage, his front legs, his neck, his face, until for a moment, all that was left of Sombra were his eyes. His red irises turned green, glinting with relief, and then they, too, were gone.
Discord, Fluttershy, Twilight with Fio and Corey, Rarity, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, and Rainbow Dash all stood frozen around a pile of ash, and the silence that descended upon them was cold and suffocating.
“It’s over,” Fluttershy mumbled, reeling from the weight that lifted from her heart. She buried her dry face in Discord’s fur and couldn’t bring herself to feel sorry that she had no tears to cry for Sombra. Discord scooped her up into his arms, then retrieved the foals from Twilight and laid them both on Fluttershy’s stomach. Neither foal awoke yet, but they acknowledged the change by snuggling into the softness of their mother.
“Mommy,” moaned Corey in his sleep. Fluttershy nearly gasped as her foals’ smoky manes returned instantly to almost normal. The dark magic that had been afflicting them retreated substantially.
“Fio and Corey will do better than he did,” Fluttershy mused. “They have in their hearts what he did not: love. As long as we love them and they love us, their dark magic will have no power over them.”
“They’ve got each other to love, too,” Discord pointed out. “That was a good idea of yours to have two foals instead of one!”
Fluttershy tried to protest the word “idea,” but she simply giggled instead. Dumb as the joke was, she (and everypony else in the room) had needed that laugh.
“So now that’s all over with,” said Applejack after the giggling was done, “does anypony want to explain what the hay happened? I was kinda left in the dark.”
Explanations were exchanged all around. Those who had chased down dark-energy Sombra demanded to know why Applejack was practically mummified in bandages, and those who had been left behind in Canterlot wanted to know all about the final battle.
“And why were you in stone again?” Twilight asked Discord, when everycreature else had accounted for their own parts of the story.
“It was all I could think to do,” he shrugged. “Sombra was pouring dark magic into Fluttershy, and that in turn spilled through our thought connection into me. And then when Fluttershy took control of the magic in order to subdue Sombra, it almost took over me too! The last time I had felt that vicious and greedy and, well, evil was right before you ponies locked me into stone that second time, so I did it to myself a third time before I accidentally did anything terrible.”
With all points of curiosity thus satisfied, Rarity declared that she would like to take her battered marefriend to a hospital, and would Discord be so kind as to teleport them back to Canterlot? So he sent them and all the others back to the capital, save for himself, Fluttershy, and the foals. They still had one thing left to do.
Discord stretched a deep hole into the ground behind the mansion, then floated the ashes of Sombra’s body into it, and closed the hole. The crystal that contained all of Sombra’s dark magic would remain where it sat inside, but he cast a spell over the mansion to keep everycreature out. In time, with no malleable will to prey upon, the dark magic would dissipate harmlessly, but until then, it would be best if that crystal were left alone completely. Fluttershy found a suitable stone and rolled it to the spot where the ashes were buried.
“No,” she replied to Discord’s offer. “I think we should leave the headstone unmarked. But maybe we can plant flowers on it. Could you get us some milkweed?”
Fluttershy nodded. “It’s a nice symbol. And so the butterflies will visit him, since I never will.”
So Discord roused the foals and conjured four trowels, four watering cans, and four pots of milkweed plants. Solemnly, the four of them planted their second family garden. This one would need no further tending, for the ashes would nourish the roots, and the wildflowers would bloom even if no pony ever looked their way again. When the work was all finished, Discord and Fluttershy stepped away to give the twins space for their final goodbyes.
Fluttershy admired her brave, strong sons, and was glad to see how much they were already recovering from their exposure to Sombra’s dark magic. Their unicorn horns meant they would always be stuck with the dark magic they’d been born with, but as long as they were filled with love, it would not overcome them. The same would be true for Fluttershy on account of her kindness magic, and she took comfort that the love she shared with Discord would never fail.
It was as she was reflecting on how much of Discord’s loving she could use at that moment that a memory came to Fluttershy, and she frowned.
Discord? She turned an accusatory tone-of-thought on her mate. What was that I heard you say about a “most excellent threesome”?
Discord fell to laughing so hard that he couldn’t muster a single coherent thought of explanation to Fluttershy. Soon Fio and Corey came running, and they, too, demanded answers.
“It was a joke!” Discord finally wheezed. “The worst joke I ever told!”
It had been long enough since Twilight had gone to her. Too long, maybe, but there had been a lot going on, and besides, Luna was making visits all this time. But Twilight knew these excuses were wearing too thin, so she powered her horn and slipped into the pocket dimension.
“Hi, Cozy Glow.”
The filly laid deflated on the floor, chin resting on her forelegs and ears drooping. Only her eyes moved to glance up. “Hi, Princess.”
Twilight walked closer and sat down before her former student. “How have things been going with Luna?”
“I don’t want to see her anymore.”
“No? What happened?”
“I didn’t like what she had to say. She scared me.”
“...Okay. I’ll tell her not to come back for now.”
“Good.” Cozy Glow shifted to curl inward, facing herself away from Twilight. The small filly’s attempt to make herself smaller might once have been cute and endearing, but now, all the awkwardness in the motion only highlighted how her legs had been growing longer. Soon she would reach the unwieldy stage most foals go through as they approach adolescence.
At the time they were each put in their respective pocket dimension cells, Cozy Glow had been physiologically older than Chrysalis, but by now, the reverse was true. It seemed time in Chrysalis’s dimension flowed more quickly than normal time, as if the changeling were eager to regain her lost adulthood and all the authority and self-sufficiency she expected would come with it. Cozy Glow, on the other hoof, was aging slower than she would be in normal time. As if she were desperate to hang onto her foalhood, the freedom of experiencing a world whose limits had not yet been discovered, whose callous disregard of any kind of idealism was not yet felt.
For all that Cozy Glow had done before her imprisonment, she was still, in her own way, innocent. She was also aware of the slipping away and dissolving of her own innocence, like sand falling through an hourglass, and she would choose to remain small and alone forever if it would only help her hang onto those last few, precious grains.
Perhaps Luna had shaken a few grains of Cozy Glow’s innocence loose, and that was why the filly sulked. Twilight was about to shake loose a few more.
“I just thought you ought to know,” began Twilight, finally breaking the heavy silence, “about Sombra.”
“I take it you’ve succeeded in taming him into a model friend and citizen? And you want to remind me you intend to do the same to me, huh?”
Twilight sighed. “Sombra is dead.”
Cozy Glow rolled over and finally met Twilight’s eyes. “What’d you do to him?”
“Exactly what he asked us to do. Sombra recognized in the end that there was no hope left for him in living. He had been serving evil for so long that he had become a slave to it, and when he finally realized that all he really desired deep down was peace and love, he had no power left to achieve that desire. So he asked Discord to take away his dark magic—which he knew would kill him—so he would be freed to think for himself in his final moments. There was relief in his eyes, right before they turned into ash.”
“...Oh.” The filly laid her head back down on her forelegs and stared at nothing. The heavy silence fell again.
Twilight eventually stood up, despite the weight in her chest. She felt so dry and hollow, gazing down at that forlorn filly whose past was condemned, whose present was an empty hole, and whose future was either the bleak wasteland of Forgotten, or a caldera that would scorch away her old self so that some self new and unknown could rise from the ashes. There was no easy road ahead for Cozy Glow, whatever route she took. “That’s all I wanted to say, Cozy. I’ll give you some time to let your thoughts settle before I come back, and I’ll tell Luna—”
“No!” Cozy Glow was suddenly alert. Then she looked away again, shuffling her awkward legs. “I changed my mind. Luna can keep coming. There’s still a lot I want to learn from her.”
A flicker of hope brought something of a smile to Twilight’s lips. “I’ll let her know. Goodbye for now, Cozy.”
Once Applejack was in a stable condition, she left the Canterlot hospital and went back to Ponyville to finish her recovery among her family. Rarity had promised to come visit her, but so far, she hadn’t. It had only been a week since she left, and Applejack knew that the opportunities to see her marefriend would be fewer now that there wasn’t a weekly royal summons to tutor a dangerous villain. Still, one week of quiet and rest was enough to start feeling lonesome.
So when there was a knock at her door, Applejack felt a thrill of admittedly ridiculous hope. “C’mon in!”
“Applejack!” It was just Applebloom. “You’ve been in bed all day an’ I know you can’t move around too much with those broken bones, but you oughtta do somethin’! Won’t you come out to the orchard with me? I wanna practice my apple-buckin’ and you could coach me!”
“Why, you haven’t asked my help for anythin’ since you were right small! And you can buck just fine! What’s the deal?”
Applejack relented and hobbled out after Applebloom on three legs, since the fourth was in a cast and sling while it healed. Fortunately, the walk to the first row of trees in front of the barn wasn’t very far. These were the trees on which Applejack herself had practiced her apple-bucking as a filly. “Alrighty then, show me what y—”
A large, festive banner and numerous streamers suddenly unfurled from the trees, and ten creatures erupted from the barn. At the front of the crowd was Rarity, but everycreature else was here too—Pinkie Pie and Cheese Sandwich, Twilight, Spike, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy and Discord, and even Fio and Corey.
“Congrats on your relationship!” Cheese Sandwich exclaimed as he and Pinkie Pie bounded over to stand beneath the banner. It read “Applejack & Rarity”, with two little interlocking hearts for the ampersand. “I understand you two have been together for a little while now, but it’s new to us, so we wanted to celebrate!”
“Well, all that’s not really necessary, but it’s mighty thoughtful of you,” replied Applejack.
Pinkie Pie spoke up, loud enough for the entire gathering to hear. “We also wanted to celebrate everycreature while we could get you all together! Our little group of friends has been through a whole lot recently, and Cheesy and I wanted to give everycreature a chance to relax and find our smiles again!”
With that, a barrage of water balloons rained down upon them from the barn loft, soaking everypony except for Applejack and the mare at her side. The attackers turned out to be none other than the Cutie Mark Crusaders plus Granny Smith. Their assault must have been planned, for Cheese Sandwich had already rolled out a cart full of water balloons so the ponies on the ground could launch a counterattack. By the time the ensuing battle ended for lack of ammunition, there was hardly a face present that wasn’t smiling.
The only two frowns were mirror images, worn by the twins. Pinkie Pie scooped Fio and Corey up to personally attend to those frowns while Cheese Sandwich ushered everycreature else into the barn for towels and snacks.
Fluttershy looked over her shoulder at Pinkie Pie with her foals, but decided to leave the expert to her work. Fio and Corey had been generally moody and downcast in the last week. Of course they were sad to have lost their Father so soon after meeting him, but then they didn’t understand the depth of Sombra’s darkness. Fluttershy hoped they never would. However, they had seen how Sombra’s dark magic “sickness” cost their Father his life, and had been especially terrified of their own sickness ever since. Neither Fluttershy with her kindness nor Discord with his goofiness could ease Fio and Corey’s minds. If Pinkie Pie couldn’t bring them cheer, nothing but time itself would.
In the meantime, Fluttershy knew that she could use some extra cheer after all that had happened, so she turned her attention back to the party. Particularly, to its second host.
“How’s the wedding planning going?”
“Great!” responded Cheese Sandwich. “Pinks and I have yet to find a venue big enough to hold all Ponyville, half of Canterlot, and a few dozen other friends from my travels, but other than that, it’s coming together pretty nicely!”
“Oh my, that’s a lot of ponies! But I guess I couldn’t really expect anything less from Equestria’s favorite party pony power couple,” she giggled.
“Well, we’ve got to make our wedding stand out somehow! Word on the street is you and Discord flew to the center of the universe for some kind of extravagant, mystical, cosmic wedding, and how are Pinks and I ever going to top that?”
Fluttershy hadn’t been aware there were rumors. “But it wasn’t a wedding, not really! And even if it was, it isn’t a competition!”
Cheese Sandwich lowered his voice and leaned in conspiratorially. “I know that. Pinkie told me what actually happened. But I’m not exactly one to pass up such a great excuse to put together the biggest blowout wedding this continent’s ever seen!” Then Cheese Sandwich gave her a wink and bounded off to join the little group forming around Applejack and Rarity, calling over his shoulder “Try the cupcakes—I made them myself!”
Discord was hovering over the dessert table, just finishing his conversation with Rainbow Dash. “Fluttershy, have you tried these cupcakes?”
“Not yet, but I was about to!”
Discord popped one whole into his mouth and used their thought connection to speak while he chewed. Hurry up and get what you want, then, ‘cause I can’t stop eating them! They’re good!
Fluttershy selected one with white frosting and took a bite. Then her face puckered in confusion, and she stared at her cupcake in mild shock. “What is it?”
“A cupcake, of course!”
“No, I mean—what flavor? It’s bizarre!”
“You took one of the havarti ones. These ones over here,” Discord pointed to a different plate of cupcakes, “are brie, and those there are roquefort, and then feta, and these ones are my favorite—squeezy cheese!”
“So they’re all cheese… cupcakes.”
Fluttershy took another bite of her havarti cupcake. Now that she knew what was coming, it actually tasted pretty good, for what it was. “I don’t know why I bothered to expect anything normal,” Fluttershy laughed.
“This Cheese fellow and I are going to be very good friends, I just know it!”
Discord and Fluttershy made their way over to the hay bales stacked into seats and sofas, where everycreature else had already gathered. Everycreature except for Pinkie Pie, Fio, and Corey, who were still outside but visible through the open barn door.
Rainbow Dash was in the middle of telling one of her spectacular tales of triumph and valor. Except this time, the subject wasn’t herself. “I’m telling you, she pulled an entire mansion out of thin air! But it wasn’t thin air at all—it was some weird, invisible stuff nopony’s ever been able to see before. And she converted a whole mansion and everypony in it from weird stuff to regular stuff so we could get inside! All without giving away our position! Twilight’s magical prowess truly knows no bounds! You really should have seen her!”
“Seen me?” challenged the flattered alicorn. “You should have seen you, Rainbow Dash! You chased that dark energy down for hours and never lost it, even though you had to stay above the sonic rainboom barrier the whole way! I don’t know how you didn’t collapse or just fall apart from the physical strain of maintaining that speed for so long!”
Applejack glanced at Rarity at the same time Rarity glanced at her, and she realized they’d had the same thought. “Wonder if all that’s got to do with harmony magic,” she mused.
But Twilight cocked her head to the side. “What do you mean?”
“Rarity and I used to try to figure out what special powers all our Elements gave us. You know, like how Fluttershy’s Kindness magic makes her take on physical traits of those she shows kindness to. Haven’t you ever got to wonderin’ if the rest of the Elements of Harmony did stuff like that?”
“I have,” said Twilight, “but I never did come up with anything I could really test.”
“We’ve certainly gone through some tests recently,” Rarity pointed out. “So what do you think now? Applejack and I always figured the magic of your element was extra-powerful magic. Do you suppose the Element of Loyalty grants Rainbow Dash something like superpony endurance?”
“But I still get worn out—uh, not often, but sometimes,” Rainbow Dash objected.
Twilight had lifted a hoof to her chin in thought. “Ah, but you’ve never run out of strength when we needed you! Maybe your Loyalty magic is that your physical endurance is enhanced whenever you need it to help your friends!”
“Sweet!” Rainbow Dash casually flexed her biceps. “I know my loyalty for you guys will never fail, but it’s pretty awesome to know my body will never fail you either!”
“Applejack, your Honesty magic!” Rarity lifted up one of Applejack’s arms and inspected it closely.
“You think you figured out what the magic of Honesty does?”
“Just think about it, darling! You said Sombra threw teeth and knives and spines at you, but look at you! You received broken bones and some internal trauma, yes, but not one single scratch on your skin!”
Applejack laughed. “You’ve gotta have pretty thick skin if you’re going to be honest with everycreature. Somehow I never realized ‘til now that might be literally true in my case!”
Twilight nodded her approval, but had gone suddenly pale. “Good thing, too. Do you realize what would have happened if he’d have gotten to your blood?”
Applejack shook her head at the same time Fluttershy startled and also went pale. She pointed to her left ear, which still bore the piercing from Sombra’s fang years ago. “He was trying to infect you with dark magic,” Fluttershy shuddered.
“You think he was tryin’ to make me a shadow pony?”
“No.” It was Twilight who answered. “You don’t have a horn, or even special Kindness magic like Fluttershy, to be able to interface with dark magic. If he’d succeeded at infecting you with it… It would have killed you.”
Applejack quailed as Rarity wrapped her arms protectively around her. “I should never have let him rile me up like that in our final lesson,” said the unicorn. “If I hadn’t left his room, maybe you wouldn’t have been in so much danger.”
“It ain’t your fault, sugarcube.” Applejack nuzzled her marefriend’s cheek. “You couldn’t have known. And you did come and rescue me afterward. Say! How did you get into Fluttershy’s cellar when it was locked up like that? The lock ain’t broken or nothin’, is it Fluttershy?”
Fluttershy shook her head. “It works very well. Discord had to make a new key for it so we could use those doors again.”
“Did you teleport?” Twilight asked Rarity.
“I can’t! Not like that, and especially not in the dark!”
“Alright, so you didn’t teleport,” Applejack assented. “But what do you remember from that moment you fell in? What were you doin’, or maybe, what were you feelin’?”
“I believe I was leaning on the cellar doors and crying because I was afraid. All I could think about was that you were down there, suffering all alone and maybe dying. I’m not really sure what I was doing the moment before I fell into the cellar because truly I had forgotten all about myself in my worry for you, Applejack.”
“Isn’t that what generosity is all about?” Rainbow Dash asked, through a mouthful of carrot cake. “Putting the other pony’s needs before your own?”
“Well, yes, but—”
“Rarity,” Twilight interrupted. “Do you think you could conjure up those feelings again right now?”
“Possibly, but why?”
“I have a hypothesis, and I think we need an experiment.”
Rarity (and Applejack) expressed some concern, but Twilight was excited and insistent. At her instruction, Rarity backed up to the barn wall and filled her mind with all the most generous thoughts she’d ever had. As she thought, she pressed herself harder into the wall. Then she was falling backward, and there was muffled shouting, and Rarity suddenly found herself sitting in grass and staring at the bright red exterior paint of the barn.
So Rarity thought again of Applejack and all she wanted to do and give for her strong, brave, beautiful marefriend. And she stepped forward, and she was back inside the barn, admiring the shocked faces of all her friends. “So that’s Generosity magic,” Rarity concluded. “But why?”
“I think I get it,” Twilight answered. “You were so concerned for Applejack that you forgot all about your own self, as if you vanished from the situation, in a way. It seems when you’re feeling so generous that you lose track of yourself, your body reflects that by temporarily translating to an immaterial state.”
“Well, whaddaya know, my marefriend’s a ghost!” Applejack draped an arm around Rarity’s shoulders and held her close against her side. “No wonder you have such otherworldly beauty.”
While Rarity blushed and the pair were locked in an affectionate gaze, Discord rolled his eyes. Ugh, couples, he thought to Fluttershy.
She stifled a giggle. You know we act the same way, right?
I would never! Discord scoffed, even as his tail wrapped itself over Fluttershy and he stroked her mane. “Well,” he announced aloud, “that just leaves one magical anti-chaos horse to figure out.”
All eyes turned to the open barn door, through which said magical anti-chaos horse could be observed. Pinkie Pie was dancing atop a wooden barrel, tipped on its side so it could roll, while juggling what had to have been a dozen apples. Her audience of two foals was quiet and unresponsive. They didn’t even laugh when the juggler fumbled, dropping the apples on her head and tumbling as comically as possible from the barrel.
Then the pink pony lying splayed out on the ground suddenly deflated like a balloon until it was a formless puddle. Fio and Corey stared in confusion until the real Pinkie Pie jumped out of the barrel waving her magician’s cape with a flourish. “TA-DA!”
Finally, the foals found their smiles again, and Pinkie Pie lead them laughing into the barn. Everycreature who had also been watching the ridiculous, impossible performance was laughing too.
Except for Discord. He was staring at Pinkie Pie with intense interest. When she arrived and presented his foals to him, he addressed her. “Pinkie, I think Fio and Corey would find it absolutely delightful if you turned the floor into polished peppermint candy.”
“Ooh! That sounds delicious! But I’m afraid that would take me a few minutes to do, and the peppermint might be molten for a while after I pour it out… That sounds like something you’d be able to do in a snap, though!”
“Hmm, yes, I suppose you’re right. But I can’t do a snap now that you’ve told me to. How about a little storm of chaos magic instead?” Discord blew some of his magic out into a swirling cloud above their heads and caused it to rain itself down. As it splashed all over the floor, the promised polished peppermint candy appeared, and Fio and Corey took off skating, their tongues gliding on the surface of the sugary floor.
Meanwhile, Pinkie Pie’s grin grew wider than her own face, and she vibrated faster and faster until she seemingly glitched out of reality altogether. She popped up from behind a hay bale. “Hiya!” Then she fell from the ceiling. “Whee!” Before she hit the floor, there was a splash and Pinkie Pie rose out of the punch bowl. The barn had become a giant, one-pony game of whack-a-mole, and the twins screeched with delight as they attempted to chase their unpredictable quarry. Evercreature else watched the scene unfold with a mixture of amusement, confusion, and awe.
After about a minute of pure visual insanity, Discord finally snapped, restoring the barn to its prior state, and teleporting his breathless, giggling foals into his arms. “Pinkamena Diane Pie! I don’t know why I never noticed! You channel ambient chaos magic!”
“You do! It’s clear you don’t generate it yourself, but when I cast a lot of chaos magic into the local atmosphere, you went utterly berserk! That was one of the most majestic things I have ever seen!”
“That must be Laughter magic, then,” Twilight laughed. “Why am I not surprised?”
The frantic chase of an impossible pony over a skating rink paved in peppermint, along with all the sugar consumption involved in that pursuit, utterly exhausted Fio and Corey. Almost as soon as the high of the hunt faded and their laughter grew quiet, they fell asleep. Discord smiled at the precious cargo in his arms. “Fluttershy, I think we’d better get the two terrors to bed.”
“Yes,” but I have a better idea. “Applejack, would you mind if we camped in the bat sanctuary tonight? Fio and Corey have had such trouble sleeping lately, and I don’t want to accidentally wake them with a teleport.”
“Ya’ll are welcome to use the guest room in the house if you want. Ain’t no reason for ya’ll to be sleeping outside.”
“Sure there is,” countered Fluttershy. “It looks like it’s going to be a lovely night, and who wants to waste such good weather cooped up indoors?”
Applejack shrugged. “Suit yourself. Sleep tight, ya’ll, and don’t let the vampire fruit bats bite.”
Everycreature bid them good night, and Discord and Fluttershy turned to leave.
I’m all for the change of scenery, Discord thought to his mate. But what was that about?
I just felt like sleeping like a bat tonight. She winked. It’s been a while.
“So Twilight,” Pinkie Pie started, addressing her remaining friends. “I know laughter is the best thing ever, but what did you mean by ‘Laughter magic’?”
“We were just figuring out that, as element bearers, we all have a special kind of magic unique to our particular element. Laughter apparently channels chaos magic, and as we’ve all learned, Kindness,” she gestured to the retreating pegasus beside her retreating draconequus mate, “shifts its appearance to assume traits of those with whom it’s shared.”
The friends all followed Twilight’s gaze and stared. Once Discord and Fluttershy were out of sight, Applejack quietly spoke. “Is it just me, or does Fluttershy seem… longer, somehow—just the teensiest bit—ever since that soulmate ceremony?”
Rarity’s voice was low too. “It’s not just you, darling. And do you know, Fluttershy told me she found a gray hair in her mane, but I’ve been watching, and I’ve never caught a glimpse of it.”
“You don’t think...” pondered Rainbow Dash.
Twilight smiled and shook her head. “Only time will tell.”
They found one of the taller trees toward the center of the orchard. Many of the vampire fruit bats were already awake and going about their business for the evening, so there was plenty of room in the tree for four somewhat larger creatures to sleep. Discord reshaped one of the branches to create a large, cradle-like bowl where the branch joined the trunk. He furnished this bowl with soft pillows and blankets, then set Fio and Corey inside. They hardly stirred, not troubled by the motion, and not troubled by any nightmares, either. Discord kissed the nose of each foal, then moved further down the branch so Fluttershy could perch and deliver her goodnight kisses too.
As the last rays of sunlight faded from orange to pink to mauve on the clouds, Discord swung upside-down, and his mate beside him. He hung by his feet like any good bat. Fluttershy, however, lacked the necessary grasping apparatus, so she hung by her long tail instead, which just so happened to put her face about level with Discord’s.
But something fell into her face when she swung upside-down. It was the necklace Discord had given her.
Discord chuckled as Fluttershy fumbled with it. “Would you like some help getting that off?”
“No!” Fluttershy held the pendant away from her face, looking surprised. “I don’t ever want to take it off!”
“Ah. How about this instead?” Discord touched the pendant, and it drifted upward against gravity to rest once more against Fluttershy’s chest.
“Thank you. Are they alright in there, do you think?”
“Oh, the gravity reversal won’t bother them. The inner sphere is gyroscopically stabilized, and I only enchanted the outer sphere.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Fluttershy held the pendant close to her face, squinting at it until her bat vision kicked in. “It went pitch black in here after I wielded dark magic. I think it’s starting to clear up again, but their voices have been quiet lately.”
“You can hear them?”
“Sometimes. But they’re so small, and they live on a faster time scale than we do, so I can’t really understand them. You told me the ecosystem changes to reflect the wearer. I hope the dark magic didn’t hurt them!”
Discord wrapped his arms around Fluttershy’s stomach and held her against him. “You’re recovering fairly quickly from that ordeal, aren’t you?”
“So are they.” The tip of one of Discord’s fingers glowed like a candle, and he held it up to the pendant. The murky water was illuminated enough that, with Discord’s magnifying glass, Fluttershy could begin to make out some of the tiny creatures swimming around inside. Despite the lingering dark shade of their water, the fish were colorful! She saw pink, orange, white, lavender, cyan. A pair of burgundy and dusky lilac minnows chased each other around, until a gray snake-like creature emerged from a rock and chased them both.
One for everycreature I love most, thought Fluttershy.
My favorite’s the little worm-looking guy, responded Discord.
Fluttershy let the pendant fall back up against her chest so she could use her arms to give Discord a playful shove. I think my favorite might be the big worm-looking guy!
On second though, no. He’s too tame. I like my two unicorn flowers better. They’re much more exciting!
The very nerve, calling the Lord of Chaos “tame.” I’ll show you tame! Discord growled (softly, so as not to wake the foals) and swiftly coiled his body around Fluttershy’s until he’d wrapped her up as a boa constrictor wraps its prey. There, what do you say to that?
Fluttershy bared her fangs and poised to bite. Is that really all you’ve got?
Discord donned a feral grin and fell to battle. The game only ended when they attacked each others’ faces and got lost in the kiss.
Drowsiness took them in the end. Fluttershy nuzzled under Discord’s chin and let her eyes slide shut. Good night, my love, she thought to him.
Good night. Discord squeezed her gently against himself, savoring the way her heartbeat rhymed with his, admiring the way her mane spilled gloriously toward the ground and glinted like a ghostly waterfall in the pale starlight. He looked up to the crook of the branch, where he knew the twins were sleeping soundly, and he imagined how Fiorello and Coreopsis, their little family flower garden, would grow and bloom and flourish in the years to come.
Then Discord closed his eyes and buried his face into Fluttershy’s strawberry-scented mane, and as his consciousness began to drift away into the night, he sent one last thought into her dreaming mind.
This is exactly how I want to spend the rest of my life.