Opposition, 1 PM – Discord

The door to Twilight's workroom opened. Discord had been half-dozing, too tired from sleep deprivation and the aches in his body to manage to stay fully awake, but he'd always been a light sleeper and his experiences in this world had only accentuated that. He jerked awake, lifted his head, and shrank back against the floor. It was Fluttercruel.

She didn't speak to him; no cheerful caroling to rise and shine or exclamations of what a good morning it was or anything like that. Completely quiet, she walked over to him.

"Mistress Fluttershy?" Discord tried, fearfully. She had never given him the silent treatment. Was this about the existence of the real Fluttershy? Was she going to take it out on him that her lies had been exposed, and Fluttershy had proven that she was truly his friend after all?

"Hold still," Fluttercruel said. "Close your eyes."

Discord whimpered. This was looking as if it was going to be exceptionally bad. He knew Fluttercruel. This kind of lack of interaction – nothing but silence and blunt orders – was completely out of character for her, and suggested that she must be enraged beyond any previous expression of anger he'd ever seen. He obeyed, but then, since closing his eyes was a discrete action and he'd already satisfied his orders by doing it, he cracked one of them open again. "What have I done? Mistress, please, if you're going to punish me at least tell me why, please..."

"Don't question me," Fluttercruel snapped. "Now lift your head a little bit."

With the eye that was open just a tiny sliver, he saw her pull out a knife from a saddlebag. "Wait! What are you doing?"

"I said don't question me," she said, and now, at over five seconds since she'd delivered the first order, he couldn't. She went to his side and tried to grab his head by the mane, but of course all that happened was that she pulled his feathers out, which was painful and surprising. It seemed to come as a surprise to her as well, which didn't make any sense; Fluttercruel knew every part of his anatomy intimately. She knew the black feathers that were all that age had left of his mane would come right out if yanked.

When her hoof touched his antler and clamped on it, pulling his head back, his terror overwhelmed him, and he screamed. Only a short while ago he'd been fully prepared to offer his throat to Spike's claws; if it was the only way to make sure the things he'd set in motion didn't result in the destruction of an entire world, and his friends, he'd accepted that. But Fluttercruel behaving strangely, and refusing to talk to him, and the knife in her hoof – if she was here to kill him to save the world from Twilight's plans, or because she was angry that he knew she lied, why wouldn't she talk to him? Why wouldn't she tell him the reason why?

"Shut up!" she barked at him, but he had five seconds.

"Spike! Twilight! Someone, help, please, she's trying—"

The order cut him off then, silencing him, but it was enough. Spike shoved the door to the room open. "What the – Fluttershy? What are you doing with that knife?"

Fluttercruel shrieked, and lunged at Spike, blue-green flame consuming her as she did... leaving behind a creature covered in black chitin. A changeling! The changeling slammed Spike to the ground and bared its fangs at him. Spike screamed, and Discord moved. He was tired, and weak, but he was still much larger than a pony – or a changeling – and if it was a changeling, there was nothing preventing him from hurting it, let alone forcing him to take its orders. With his neck, one wing, and one hindpaw shackled, he couldn't move his body very far, but he could swing his tail – and did, slamming it into the changeling and knocking the creature off Spike.

Spike shouted, with a volume that would have impressed Luna. "TWILIGHT! THERE'S A CHANGELING TRYING TO KILL—"

The changeling lunged at Spike again, knocking the wind out of him. "Shut up!"

They were out of reach of Discord's tail, this time. Discord laughed raucously, trying to distract the changeling and provoke it. "And here I thought Chryssie was supposed to be Celestia's ally nowadays. I suppose her true colors had to come out sometime!"

"You shut up!" the changeling snarled, getting off Spike and flying at Discord, with the knife. "You don't even have the right to say her name, monster!"

"Twilight! HELP!" Spike yelled.

The changeling buzzed in toward Discord's throat again, but now that he knew it wasn't Fluttercruel, he could defend himself. He shrank back toward the posts his shackles were tied to, to give himself more slack, and then tilted his head down and lunged as the changeling came at him, hitting the changeling with his horn and antler. The changeling yelled, and swung the knife, which struck the goat horn hard enough that it might have chipped, but unlike a unicorn Discord's head appendages were not magically active and had no sensation in themselves, only the pressure they could put on his skull.

And then the changeling was pulled back with a yelp, in a purple magical aura. Twilight strode deeper into the room, holding the changeling in mid-air. "Changeling. What are you doing in my workroom?"

"It was trying to kill Discord!" Spike volunteered. "When I came in it was impersonating Fluttershy and it had a knife and it looked like it was going to cut his throat with it!"

"Is that true?" The changeling said nothing. "I suppose I need to cast a truth spell, is that it?"

The changeling wailed, and flashed with blue-green fire – that quickly turned yellow and orange. The changeling screamed, burning. Discord could feel the intense heat even from several heads away. Moments later there was nothing there but ash, which blew out of Twilight's magical field and dispersed as a fine cloud in the air.

"Interesting," Twilight said. She glanced at Discord. "Chrysalis must fear that he might be about to escape. Spike, take a letter. We need to find out what the status of the alternates is."

"A-all right."

Twilight dictated the letter to Spike, asking Celestia what was going on with the alternates. Despite himself Discord felt a surge of hope. If Chrysalis thought he was about to escape, and sent an assassin to kill him to prevent that, did that mean Chrysalis knew something about his friends – like, perhaps, that they'd escaped and were on their way back here? "Why does Chrysalis want me dead so badly?" he asked.

When Twilight was experimenting on him, she'd never answer any of his questions – she treated him entirely as if he was an object. But when she wasn't, he'd found that her natural desire to answer questions, impart information, and lecture led her to answering his questions when he asked them, if she wasn't paying enough attention to remember that she didn't want to do that. "What your dead counterpart did to the changelings was beyond monstrous," Twilight said. "I am... not entirely comfortable with some of what Chrysalis does, but her loyalty to Princess Celestia and Equestria in the years since your counterpart first started attacking her cannot be disputed. For her to defy Princess Celestia's will by attempting to kill you without my permission is... unusual." She frowned. "Take another letter, Spike. Address it to Shining Armor to begin."

"To begin?" Spike asked.

"Yes. 'Dear Shining Armor, I'm sending this letter to Chrysalis care of you. Can you make sure she gets it? Sincerely, your sister, Twilight Sparkle.' Now leave a space – perhaps even draw a line. Yes, that would be best. Draw a line, and then write, 'Dear Queen Chrysalis, One of your changelings just tried to kill my prisoner, and then suicided before I could question it, but I am fairly sure that it was under your orders. I don't appreciate you trying to kill my prisoner out from under me. If you are concerned that Discord will be freed or will escape, don't be; I intend to sacrifice him in a ritual tonight. He won't live past sundown. However, if he dies earlier than that, everything I have been working toward in the past two months will be ruined, and I will be certain that you pay for that. Don't think I can't harm you; the very fact that I took Discord prisoner should tell you that I am not someone you want to make angry. I hope that we understand each other now, and that you have been reassured, knowing what Discord's fate will be. Sincerely, Twilight Sparkle, Element of Magic and Order.' That should do it."

"Does she know this isn't the same Discord?" Spike asked, as he sent the letter.

"Irrelevant. This Discord has equal potential to cause harm, if he should get free."

"Except for the part where if I did get free and my collar was removed, your crystals would tear me to bits," Discord said.

"That's exactly why I gave you those crystals, but Chrysalis doesn't know that. It's important to reassure her that you're not going to escape, but it's also important to keep her in her place. If I have to, I will cast a memory spell on my brother to make him forget who she is. She'd have little luck drawing love from him then. I don't appreciate her interference."

"The other me did awful things to most of you. Why is Chrysalis the only one who thought I should die for it?"

"Demonstrably untrue." Twilight raised an eyebrow. "Spike was the one that killed you."

"I didn't do it because I thought he should die," Spike said. "I did it because I was afraid of what would happen if he got loose again someday."

"And that's likely Chrysalis's motive as well, at least in part, though I wouldn't rule out a desire for revenge either." She looked down at Spike. "If Chrysalis had been aware of the existence or location of the Hammer of Celestia, she might have been the one responsible for the excess of ambient chaos and entropy after Discord was destroyed, rather than you."

Oh. Right. The other him had been a statue when he was killed, of course. Discord had known that, but the implications hadn't occurred to him before, because there wouldn't have been any way he could make use of them before. But he had a plan now. He just needed to talk to Spike alone, without Twilight. And hope that Spike was just the right amount of dragon – not draconic enough and he wouldn't have what Discord needed; too draconic and he wouldn't be willing to give it up, even to save the world.

Spike looked as if he was going to say something to Twilight, probably something defensive again, but instead he burped out light green flame, which assembled itself into a letter. Twilight snatched it up with her magic. "Oh, good. Excellent."

"What does it say?" Spike asked.

"Princess Celestia has responded to the question we sent. She says that all of the alternates have been captured, now."

Discord's heart sank. They had Fluttershy. He should have assumed that that would happen; she wasn't much of a fighter. At least if she was reunited with all of her friends... maybe Twilight would come up with something, and get them all out of there. But he couldn't bet on it.

He could save the world by committing suicide, if he could nerve himself up to rip out his own throat with his claws, but part of the reason he'd never done it, no matter how far into despair he'd sunk, was that he wasn't sure he had the nerve to inflict that much pain on himself. Biting off his own flesh and eating it was one thing; he'd been so hungry, and the smell of his own blood had triggered his carnivorous instincts the way the dead pony had yesterday, making his hunger too maddening to bear... and his tail had already been mangled and mutilated, so what more damage could a few bites do? But none of that applied to slicing his own throat open. To be completely honest, Discord hadn't done that to any creature in more than two thousand years, when he'd been a starving child and he'd chased predators off dying prey and then hadn't been able to do anything for the prey but give them a quick release from their pain, and he'd convinced himself that it was okay to eat them after that because otherwise the predator who'd done the damage would get the reward. He knew his claws were sharp enough to do it, but he didn't think he could go through with it. And if Spike wouldn't do it...

...Well. Then the plan he'd just thought of might very well be the world's only hope. And it was certainly his best hope for surviving.

"Spike. I'll need your assistance. Come with me."

Discord watched forlornly as Twilight led his best hope away. He could only pray – to no one in particular, since Discord didn't believe in any gods that bothered to answer the prayers of anyone on the mortal plane – that Spike would have a chance to come back without Twilight, sometime before the ritual started. And that he'd have what Discord needed. And that he'd be willing to hand it over. Because otherwise Discord saw very little chance of stopping Twilight from performing the ritual, one way or the other.

Opposition, 2 PM – Rainbow Dash (Harmony)

For the fourteenth time, Rainbow tried to contort herself backward to bite through the ropes binding her wings. For the fourteenth time, she failed. Ponies simply didn't bend that way. But I should be able to do it! she argued with herself. You can't be as great a stunt flyer as I am without being really flexible! The sad truth was, though, she wasn't flexible enough. Maybe Pinkie would be, in this situation, or an acrobat pony, but Rainbow couldn't get her teeth around the ropes no matter how hard she tried.

The next step was to try to flex her wings in such a way as to loosen her bonds. This had to be done really carefully, because of course the knot was the kind that got tighter the more you pulled. The goal wasn't to pull the ropes to loosen them, since that was exactly the opposite of what would happen if she pulled; it was to move them from the middle of her wings toward the tips, where her wings were smaller and the likelihood that she could just pull the wings out of the ropes was greater. This strategy might be working – it was hard to tell. Wings didn't sweat, but pony bodies did, so the exertion was making her flanks slippery, and that was good. The rope was more likely to move, that way. But if she was making any progress, it was infinitesimal enough that it was very, very hard for her to tell for certain that it was happening. The incredibly slow and possibly nonexistent progress frustrated her terribly, which was why every so often she'd try biting the ropes instead.

Her attempts were interrupted by two guards – a unicorn and a Clydesdale-sized earth pony – entering the room. "You're to come with us," the unicorn said.

"About time. You gonna let me see my friends now?"

"Princess Celestia wants to see you."

That wasn't much of an answer but it was the best she was going to get, Rainbow figured. She trotted after the guards. Nopony had tried to keep her from freeing her legs, after she'd woken up in a cell; maybe the Royal Guards thought she was nothing but wingpower and underestimated what she could do with her hooves. The evil versions of her friends had known better, but they hadn't been the ones keeping her in the dungeons. Or wherever. It seemed like maybe she'd been being held prisoner high rather than low, because they trotted down to the audience room.

Her first reaction on seeing the mares in the audience room, and the tiny dragon, was joy. Yes! They're all right! Twilight wasn't there, but all of the others were. Unfortunately, so were the alternates of Applejack, Pinkie and Rarity. The alternates of Rainbow herself and of Fluttershy were missing, and Rainbow wondered idly what they were doing, but Applejack and Pinkie were more than dangerous enough all by themselves. Her own Applejack and Pinkie, as well as Rarity and Fluttershy, had their forelegs hobbled, and Rarity had a horn ring on. Well, that was going to make a fight difficult, if they had to bust loose, but Spike was free. That wouldn't have meant much to Rainbow once, but the kid had proven himself in combat when they'd fought the Changelings, and those sharp claws and teeth would be great for ripping through ropes.

"Hay, guys, long time no see," she said.

Rarity smiled wanly at her. "Well, the circumstances could certainly be better, but I'm glad to see you again, Rainbow."

"Yeah, me too. What happened to the other me and psycho Flutters?"

"Best be shutting up now if you know what's good for your friends," Opposition Applejack warned.

That was ominous. Not "what's good for you" but "what's good for your friends." Of course, this was the same Applejack who'd forced her to surrender by threatening to cut off Fluttershy's wings.

Princess Celestia entered the audience chamber. The Royal Guards bowed; the Opposition Bearers did not, but they all nodded their heads, the way you did to show respect if for some reason you couldn't bow, like that you were escorting dangerous prisoners. At least they weren't being underestimated, but Rainbow could seriously have used a little underestimation right now.

"Greetings, my little ponies," Celestia said. The weird thing was how much she looked and sounded exactly like their Celestia. Rainbow didn't know what she'd expected, maybe some kind of Nightmare Moon like creature. Daymare Sun? Did that even make any sense? What would Celestia look like if she turned evil, anyway? Exactly like their own Celestia, apparently. "Applejack, Rarity, Pinkie, your team have done well in bringing these alternates to me. Though... where are Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash? I expected them to be here as well."

"Begging your pardon, your highness, but when we caught these guys, their Fluttershy had some stuff to say about Twilight plannin' to sacrifice Discord in some kind of dangerous ritual, so our Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash headed back to Ponyville to check on that and see if it's true," Opposition Applejack said.

Celestia raised an eyebrow. "Well. That would be very surprising, if it did turn out to be true. I suppose I should write to Twilight and get the details, in a bit."

"It is true, Princess," Fluttershy said softly. "Twilight thinks she's going to bring eternal life to ponykind, but she's actually going to destroy the world. She can't be allowed to kill Discord, please, you have to tell her to stop."

"I will certainly take that under consideration," Celestia said. "I can't imagine that Twilight wouldn't be willing to share the details of the ritual with me, if it's intended to have such a positive benefit."

"It might be true," Opposition Pinkie said. "I've been getting a bad feeling all day, but not like a twitchy bad feeling, more like just a general badness and I can't tell what it means but maybe it means something really bad so you should definitely check, Princess!"

"Don't worry, I will. Now, I'd like to take these ponies to meet with their Twilight; she's been very anxious about them."

"Well, you know best, Princess. Is it okay if the three of us head back to Ponyville now? We can check up on Twilight for you and see what she's up to, and I figure you don't need our help anymore, with all these guards."

"Of course. Go on. I'm sure my guards can manage to watch over five ponies and a baby dragon, particularly since those ponies know that anything one of them does could be held against the others."

Which was absolutely true and had to be taken into account in any action plan, and in particular, the first thing to do would have to be to protect Fluttershy, Rainbow thought. But these guards didn't know them nearly as well as their counterparts did. They'd already proven they were underestimating Rainbow and Spike, and she'd bet bits to bagels that they'd underestimate the others too. Still, if they were going to be reunited with Twilight it'd be best to wait for that. Spike's little claws could get a horn ring off, Rainbow was pretty sure, and in a fight between Twilight and two dozen Royal Guards, Twi would win as long as one of them wasn't her brother. Which meant if Shining Armor showed up, it was on Rainbow herself, or Applejack, to buck him in the head first thing if a fight started.

The Opposition mares left, and Celestia led their group up a long, spiraling staircase. Obviously they were going up a tower. A really tall tower. A really, really tall tower. Rainbow tried flexing her wings out of their bonds again, but no go. They had to go single file on the stairs, and there was a guard in front of and a guard behind each of them – not the same guard, so she was separated from Rarity, ahead of her, and Fluttershy, behind her, by two guards each. There wasn't room to fly in these cramped conditions and no room to dodge around anypony, so it wasn't a good place to have a fight anyway.

When they left the dim stairwell, Rainbow blinked at the brightness of the sun. Only mid-afternoon? It felt like she'd been here in this other world for weeks now. They walked out onto the roof of the palace, a flat space sheltered slightly by a short wall, about the height of a pre-cutie-mark foal, and parapets resting on that wall. Rainbow wandered close to the wall to assess the situation, and drew in a sharp breath.

The view was breathtaking. Even for a pegasus, used to flying amongst the clouds, looking down over the side of the palace that hung over the edge of the mountain was amazing. They were above the main cloud layers here; Canterlot weather teams were chosen from among the physically strongest pegasi, since they needed to be able to pull waterspouts up the mountainside to fill the reservoirs at the very top of the Canterhorn, as there was no other way to get rain in Canterlot. The air here was distinctly thinner than on the ground – something she always noticed in Canterlot, of course, but looking down the side of the mountain, the thin, cool air reinforced how very far up they were. Rainbow felt her usual impulse when confronted with a great height, the hard-to-control urge to jump down, wings spread, and do some serious stunt flying. Maybe a speed plummet, and then catch a thermal as she went through the lower clouds and pull up, then Rainboom back up the mountain. That would be awesome.

Unfortunately, right now, completely impossible. Her wings were bound. And even if she managed to get them free in time... Applejack was heavy and Pinkie was plump and there was no way Rainbow could carry them both, and equally, no way Fluttershy could carry anyone but Spike – even Rarity, a svelte unicorn without an earth pony's mass, would be too heavy for Fluttershy. Rainbow was actually not certain Fluttershy could make it to the ground at all from this height without terror freezing her wings and causing her to fall. There would be no surviving a jump from this height for any of her friends, or her if she couldn't get her wings unbound in time. So unless they could get Twilight's horn ring off – Rainbow had to assume there was a horn ring involved – and, maybe, her wings would be bound too. Hay, it would be stupid to leave your prisoner with working wings, right? So yeah, probably they'd have to get her wings untied too, although with her magic Twilight could do it herself. The point was, unless they could free Twilight's magic, there was no way off this roof but back down through that cramped, narrow stairwell.

"Please wait here," Celestia said. "I'll be going to get Twilight and bring her to see you. In the meantime, enjoy the view. It really is beautiful, isn't it, Rainbow?"

Rainbow started, not having expected Celestia to address her directly. She scowled. "Yeah, it's pretty and all, but I'd rather see my friend."

"Patience," Celestia said. "It'll only be a few minutes."

She headed back down the stairs without any of the guards, leaving them all to guard Rainbow and her friends. Rainbow looked at the others. "I guess we're just gonna wait, huh?"

"Not much else we can do," Applejack said.

"We could talk to the guards!" Pinkie suggested. "Hey! Hey, Mr. Royal Guard! Why do you have to have such a frowny face when you're doing your job? You should lighten up! Don't you like protecting Equestria?"

"Being in the Royal Guard is serious business," the pegasus guard she was harassing growled at her.

"Cloudstriker, don't engage with them," one of the guards snapped. "You know better."

"Oh, come on! I'm just trying to get you guys to relax a little and have fun! Can't you turn that frown upside down?"

Rainbow grinned. Let Pinkie frustrate and discombobulate them and throw them off balance. The moment one of them slipped up, Rainbow would be prepared to take advantage.

Opposition, 2 PM – Twilight (Harmony)

Twilight's frantic search for something, anything, to even her odds and help her get out of here had proven fruitless. She sat, slumped over, her mind racing around and around in circles. Her efforts to pull her horn ring off had only resulted in pain, and while she was willing to push through pain to save herself, she was very much afraid that if she did manage to get the ring off, it would tear up her horn so badly that she wouldn't be able to use magic anyway.

There was nothing she could do.

And then Celestia entered. Twilight perked up, not because she was happy to see the twisted alternate of her teacher, but because it meant something was going to happen, and if the circumstances she was in changed, maybe there'd be an opportunity she could take advantage of.

"I'm sorry for the wait," Celestia said. "I hope you weren't too inconvenienced."

Twilight laughed, and could tell that her laugh sounded fake even as she did it. "No, not at all, Princess! Take as much time as you need!"

"Thankfully, I shouldn't be called away again anytime soon. Your friends have all been recaptured, including Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy. I have them in custody now." Twilight tried to keep the shock and despair she felt off her face, but obviously failed, because Celestia continued. "Don't worry; as long as they cooperate and as long as you do, they won't be harmed, and they'll be released after all of this is over."

Twilight took a deep breath. "I'd like to see them."

"That's exactly what I came here to do. I'm going to have to have them kept in separate cells until after the ritual, obviously; their greatest strength is their friendship and their ability to work together, and if I let them stay together I'm sure they'll come up with some way to be disruptive. Right now, I have them all together, though, so this would be the ideal time for you to see them, and say goodbye."

Celestia was going to let her see her friends before the end? Maybe this Celestia wasn't as completely corrupted as the alternate Bearers. Maybe she actually felt guilt over what she was doing. This could possibly be a weakness that could be exploited, but regardless, of course Twilight wanted to see her friends. "Yes! I'd love that!" Abruptly it occurred to her that it might sound like she was overdoing it on the enthusiasm, given the circumstances. "I mean, not love it like I like the situation, of course, but given that the situation is what it is... oh, you know what I mean, Princess."

"Yes. I do." Celestia smiled gently at Twilight. "Come on then. We don't want to keep them waiting."

She led Twilight toward one of the towers, followed by two guards behind them. "What I really need to impress upon you, Twilight, is that it's critical that they don't interfere, and I need you to make that clear to them. If any of them try to disrupt the ritual, or prevent you from participating in it, I will have to make an example of them."

"An... example?" Twilight stopped short. "Exactly what kind of 'example' do you mean, Princess?"

Celestia looked back at Twilight with Standard Slightly Saddened Face Number 15. "I mean that if any of your friends try to disrupt this ritual, I will have to have them executed."

"What? You can't do that! The whole reason I agreed to do this is that you promised my friends would be safe!"

Slightly Saddened Face Number 15 hardened just a little bit. "And they will be, as long as they cooperate."

Twilight's eyes narrowed. "Even Spike?"

Celestia didn't reply. Twilight pressed her advantage. "When I had just become your student, and I was too little to take care of a baby dragon full time, you took him. You'd keep him next to you in your audience chamber, popping gems into his mouth if he started to cry. When I had lessons with you, Spike slept in a basket in the room with us, and when he fussed, I remember how you'd go over and soothe him and then show me how to do it. For the first couple of years of his life, you were practically his mom. Even though you always told me he would be my responsibility, because I brought him into this world, you were the one who was there for him when he was a baby. Was that different in this world? Were you not the one who raised Spike when he was an infant? Do you not even care about him, at all?"

Celestia didn't look at Twilight, but her head hung down. Twilight had hit a nerve. "I won't kill Spike unless you resist," she said finally, softly. "If he resists... I'd expect no less from a dragon child. You are his hatching-mother, the pony he gives all his love and loyalty to, and dragons will gladly die to save the one who hatched them, if it comes to that. I doubt he's old enough to be fully rational about it. So no... I won't harm him if he resists." Her voice turned cold again. "The others, though, are grown mares, and perfectly capable of assessing the risks of an action. They will forfeit their lives if they try to prevent this from happening."

"Can you really kill Spike just to make me cooperate to bring Princess Luna back, or are you bluffing?" Twilight countered. "The Princess Celestia I know couldn't kill Spike for anything. I believe that you're willing to kill my friends, but I don't think you're really willing to kill Spike. And if you aren't willing to kill Spike, then aren't you worried that if you kill my friends, I won't cooperate?"

This time, Celestia looked back at Twilight, and her expression was icy. "Are you willing to test me on that, Twilight?"

Twilight shrank back automatically, long conditioning making her terrified of Celestia's displeasure in any way, because it would mean she was doing something wrong – until she remembered that this wasn't her Celestia. She glared at the princess.

"To be honest, Princess, you've allowed someone to be brutally tortured by your student and you don't seem to care, even though you know he didn't personally do any of the horrible things his counterpart did to you. You let Chrysalis use mind control on the most loyal and honorable member of your Royal Guard you have. And you're willing to kill a pony to bring your sister back to life. I don't put anything past you. So no, I'm not willing to test you on that."

Celestia stared back. "Good." She turned and began walking again. "You don't have to like me, Twilight. I'd be surprised if you did. After what my world and every pony in it have been through, I'm sure I'm very different from the pony you know. But everything I've done, I've done for the good of Equestria. I wouldn't sacrifice an innocent pony's life to bring back Luna if I thought we could survive much longer without her."

"I hope for your sake she sees it your way," Twilight said. "Because the Princess Luna I know wouldn't be happy that an innocent pony was killed for her sake."

"I know," Celestia said softly. "But even if she hates me forever for what I did to bring her back to life... at least she'll be alive."

Opposition, 2 PM – Spike (Opposition)

Spike's paw was shaking slightly as he wrote down the steps of the ritual, as dictated by Twilight. She'd taken notes when Discord had first told her, of course, but they were rapid, shorthand, and she didn't want the tiniest risk of forgetting a crucial bit that she'd forgotten to notate. So now she had Spike writing down the whole thing.

It was horrible. The sigils in the circle she'd painted on the floor of the workroom, where she kept Discord during the experiments, were bad enough; he'd looked up just one, and found that it was an endurance rune. Seemed harmless enough. Then he'd looked up the one next to it, one that indicated pain, and couldn't figure out what they meant together until he translated the tiny symbols between the runes, that determined their magical relationship, and figured out that combined, it was a rune that kept ponies, or anyone, from falling unconscious during pain. There were a lot of possible beneficial uses for that combination, but none of them involved being woven into the spell circle that was used to hold someone you were torturing. He wasn't sure those sigils even worked, because Discord usually had ended up unconscious anyway, but on another hoof, if they had worked and Discord had fallen unconscious anyway...

He'd never really wanted to think about that. Now he couldn't stop. Some of the same runes repeated themselves here, and since Twilight was overexplaining everything in detail, Spike knew they hadn't been in the information Discord had provided. They were intended to keep him alive and conscious until the end of the ritual, because according to Twilight, everything she'd read about necromantic sacrifice said that the level of power you'd get from the sacrifice would be higher if the victim was conscious until their life ended. "That's why we don't generally sacrifice animals in these kinds of rituals," she explained to him, eagerly, sounding more like the old Twilight than she had for months, if you listened only to her tone of voice and not to the things she was actually saying. "Sapience interacts with magic, amplifying it and making it more precise. The higher the sapience, the more energy you get out of sacrificing them, and of course when a sapient being is asleep or unconscious, their sapience isn't active. So if the sacrificial subject is actually awake at the moment of death, there's a lot more power generated there than if they were unconscious by the time they finally died."

"But why does the ritual have to take so long?" Spike had asked.

"I know, it'd be much better if we could just do it quickly and get the power we need, but that's not how it works, apparently. See, we have to make sure that these particular runes are filled with his blood, because his blood carries a great deal of chaos magic and that's how we activate these, through the constriction of chaos into controlled symbols." Twilight even giggled. "Apparently I'm alliterative at the moment!"

It hurt. For so many reasons, it hurt. She was happy and bright and cheerful right now, almost like her old self, because of a lie that would kill her, and Spike was sure that it would show her how she had been betrayed and how foolish she'd been and the magnitude of her failure before it killed her. She was happy and bright and cheerful over a plan to torture someone to death. Everything about her happiness was wrong, and yet, it was the first time since she'd taken on that damned Diadem that Spike had seen her happy.

And he was going to have to be the one to ruin it.

If he saw a chance to free Discord, he'd take it, and deal with the consequences later. If he didn't... he was going to have to kill Discord. The thought horrified him, and he wasn't sure he could do it. Battering a statue that didn't move and didn't bleed until it broke into a hundred pieces was one thing. Tearing his claws through living flesh was something else completely. Even though Discord had accepted the necessity and even begged him to do it, it was still horrifying. But the only other option he would have to save the world was even worse. If he had to hurt or disable Twilight... it felt like his very soul screamed in agony at the thought. She'd been everything to him for so long – his mother, his sister, his best friend, his only real family. To have to strike her down would hurt more than anything imaginable... except that knowing his failure to do something had doomed the entire world. That would be the worst.

He had to play along for now, to buy time... but the sun wasn't getting any higher in the sky. Nightfall was hours away, still, but time wasn't on his side, and after they'd gotten the letter that said the alternates had been captured... he was the only hope, now. He had to wait for a moment when Twilight was distracted, but right now, she was completely focused on her ritual, and getting him to help with it, and what if a moment never came up until night fell?

Abruptly the door smashed open, and Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash landed. Well, Fluttershy landed. Rainbow Dash, whose body slamming into the door had smashed it down, was crashed out on the floor, on top of the door.

"Twilight," Fluttershy hissed. "I'm told you're planning on killing Discord with this ritual of yours. Without asking my permission or even informing me. Is this true?"

Twilight looked at Fluttershy as if she were a small annoying insect. "I wasn't aware that I needed your permission," she said coldly. "Princess Celestia placed me in charge of this project."

"Yes, and you put me in charge of Discord. He's my prisoner, my charge, and you have no right to do anything to him without telling me first, let alone killing him. I won't stand for this!"

"I fail to see how you plan to stop me."

"Do you?" Fluttershy advanced on Twilight. "The spells that hold Discord are based on our connection to the Elements of Harmony, and to each other. Our friendship. If Rainbow and I reject your friendship – if we reject you – what happens to those spells, I wonder?"

For the first time since Discord's capture, Spike saw fear flicker across Twilight's face. "If that should happen, he'll die anyway," she said. "There are chaos-devouring crystals in his abdominal cavity, and they are suppressed solely by his collar, which is itself enchanted via the Elements of Harmony. If those spells should fail, the crystals will quickly grow and tear his body apart."

"But he'd have no motive not to tear off your horn and turn you into a half-orange half-frog first, would he?"

Rainbow, who'd gotten to her feet and back up into the air, said uneasily, "Look, Flutters, I don't—"

"Shut. Up." Fluttershy turned and glared at Rainbow Dash, hard, and somehow it worked. Rainbow shut up.

Spike felt conflicted, watching the argument. On the one hoof, Fluttershy calling Twilight out for her underhanded behavior and her willingness to kill the prisoner was a good thing. On another hoof... Fluttershy was a rapist. Spike felt sick looking at her, remembering the gentle sweet Fluttershy that used to be. He knew she'd turned cruel, of course, but he'd had no idea how far she'd gone until Discord had tried to tell him, the night before last, and even then he hadn't wanted to believe it. And on a third hoof, Twilight was personally important to him, and seeing Fluttershy frighten her was unpleasant.

"And do you think he will be any more merciful to you?" Twilight snapped. "As much as he hates me, he groveled to me with gratitude because I ordered him not to have sex with you anymore, and told him that my orders override yours. Should those spells fail, there'd be nothing to prevent him from attacking you for raping him."

"He knows I only do it because I love him. He hates you because you don't even care about him! As for those crystals... if you're going to kill him either way then what difference should it make to me? One way at least denies you what you wanted and makes sure you're punished for trying to murder my prisoner!"

Spike started to step backward, retreating from the argument because it was upsetting him. And then he realized it was the perfect distraction. As Fluttershy screamed at Twilight and Twilight snapped back at her coldly, Spike slunk away until he was far enough that he didn't think they could see him, and then ran. Quickly he ducked into Twilight's workroom.

Discord grinned broadly at him, a bizarre contrast given how broken and exhausted he'd been the last time Spike had seen him. He had a positively manic look on his face. "Spike! Just the dragon I wanted to see. Ready to save the world?"

Opposition, 2 PM – Pinkie Pie (Harmony)

Pinkie could barely restrain her excitement as Celestia reappeared, with Twilight behind her. "Twilight!" she screamed, and bounced over to her friend, ignoring the ropes binding her forelegs. They didn't really get in the way of pronking, anyway; Pinkie's gait rarely required her to separate her forelegs from each other. "We missed you so much!"

Twilight smiled wanly. "Hi, Pinkie," she said softly. "I missed you too."

"Are you okay?" Spike asked, the second one to run to greet Twilight despite his small size – which probably had something to do with the fact that he was the only one who wasn't tied up. "Twilight, what did they do to you? Are you all right?"

"I'm... all right enough."

"If anypony's hurt you, just say the word and I'll kick their flank," Rainbow said, leaning back on her hind legs and punching her forehooves against each other.

"I think Rainbow speaks for all of us, sugarcube," Applejack said grimly.

"I confess I was quite surprised when Princess Celestia told us that she was bringing you to see us," Rarity said. "I'm so pleased to see she was telling the truth. Perhaps she's more amenable to reason than our counterparts were?"

Twilight winced slightly. Rarity picked up on it immediately. "Oh, dear... Twilight, what's wrong?"

"Don't crowd her," Fluttershy whispered. "Something's wrong."

Something was definitely very wrong. Tears were welling in Twilight's eyes. "Oh, no, Twilight, don't cry!" Pinkie shouted, throwing her forelegs around Twilight's neck and withers, trying to will happiness back into her friend. "We're all together now, so it's going to be okay! It's got to be!"

"Pinkie, give the mare her space," Applejack said. Reluctantly, Pinkie backed away.

Twilight took a deep breath. "I made a deal with Princess Celestia," she said. "All of you will be set free this evening."

"That sounds marvelous, darling, but what about you?"

It didn't sound marvelous to Pinkie. There was something very, very off about this. "Yeah, you said 'all of you', not 'all of us', which means she's not letting you go and that isn't fair and we're not going to let that happen!" Pinkie said fiercely.

"Yes, you are. Because that's the deal, and I don't want to see any of you get hurt. I need you to promise me to go along with this."

"No promises until we hear this deal for ourselves," Applejack said.

"I, um." Twilight lowered her head, pawing her hoof against the ground slightly. "Well, all of you will be released tonight, like I said. Princess Celestia needs... my... uh, help, with a ritual."

"Seems to be the day for it," Applejack snorted. "What kind of a ritual?"

"I hope it's not a ritual to destroy the world like the other Twilight is planning!" Pinkie said. Probably she shouldn't have mentioned that one to Twilight, but she was very nervous, and getting nervouser by the minute. This new ritual didn't sound like it was a good idea even though Pinkie didn't know one single thing about it yet.

"No, it's not. It... You guys know that Princess Luna is dead in this world, right?"

Rarity nodded. "Yes, your brother's counterpart filled us in."

"I didn't!" Rainbow said. "Princess Luna's dead? How'd she die?"

"Discord turned her into Nightmare Moon, and Princess Celestia had to kill her in battle," Twilight said softly. "So... so she's really... not in good shape. She wants my help for a ritual to bring Princess Luna back from the dead."

"What?" Spike asked, staring. "Twilight, that's necromancy!"

"Yes, it is." Twilight swallowed. "But if Princess Luna was back... she could restore this world. A lot of the reason things are so messed up is that Celestia... can't deal with losing her. She wanted Discord to be able to control the sun and moon so she could take time off and maybe recover, but if she had Princess Luna back, she wouldn't need that." Twilight glanced back at Celestia. Pinkie's hackles went up. That wasn't the way Twilight usually looked at Celestia even when she was nervous. That was fear, even if she was trying to hide it.

"Stop beating around the bush, Twilight, what's your part of this deal?" Applejack asked impatiently.

"I'm getting to that... She wants Princess Luna back more than anything. She said she'd let all of you guys go, and Discord, if I help her with this." Twilight closed her eyes and swallowed. "And... and she said that if you fight her, she'll kill you. Any of you. So – so I don't want you to fight her, okay? Not if you can't win, and she's Princess Celestia, so I don't see how you can. But you guys have to stay safe. You're... you're the only reason..."

"Twilight," Rarity said warningly. "Tell us."

"It needs an alicorn's body, okay? We can't bring Princess Luna back unless there's an alicorn's body to put her in," Twilight blurted.

Pinkie charged ahead verbally, talking fast so she could outrun the truth she was afraid she knew already. "So you and Princess Luna would be sharing the same body! Well, that's kind of weird, and that wouldn't be great because you'd be stuck here until you could find some way to get Princess Luna into a different body from you, but it's not so bad..." She trailed off. Everypony was looking at her, but how could they blame her? Sometimes saying what you wanted reality to be really did make reality turn into that!

Although, most of the time, it didn't.

"I... won't still be in the body. I... you can't perform an act of resurrection without sacrificing a life. My – my life, in this case. So – so I die, and Princess Luna—"

"Oh hay no," Rainbow said. "That is not happening."

"Yes it is!" Twilight choked on a sob. "She'll kill you if you fight her! And then I'll have to do it anyway, or this world is doomed, and there'd be no point to me being alive if I knew I got my friends killed!"

"But Twilight... letting us go in the evening isn't good enough," Fluttershy said firmly. "Your counterpart wants to sacrifice Discord at sunset. She's planning a ritual that's supposed to, uh, give ponies eternal life or something like that?"

Twilight stared at Fluttershy. "What?"

"We have to be able to get him free before then, because the ritual won't do what it's supposed to do. Discord said it'll actually let creatures in from another dimension that will devour the entire world. So Princess Celestia's deal isn't any kind of deal at all. By the time night falls, there'll be no time to bring back Princess Luna; if she doesn't release us all now to rescue Discord, including you, the world will be destroyed!"

"I am quite sure I could stop Twilight with a letter," Celestia said, interjecting into the conversation for the first time. "And if she won't listen, I can go in person to stop her. So you see, I can hold you all here until your Twilight and I have completed the ritual, and it won't result in the destruction of the world."

Pinkie whimpered slightly as the sense of impending doom that had been lurking over her for some time solidified. Her body didn't twitch; Pinkie Sense reacting with her body meant that something was inevitable. A doozy couldn't be stopped. There was still a chance, here, but the weight of it was crushing her, the feeling of so many different pathways to destruction looming over her and so little way to know how to dodge through them.

She closed her eyes and delved, something she rarely did. Pinkie Sense was safest for her mind when she stayed on the surface. The Other Pinkies in her mind chattered at her anxiously, but none of them had any more insight than she did. Even Pinkamena, who was rising toward the surface fearfully fast, who was all of Pinkie's pessimism and sadness personified, didn't know anything, and she wasn't helpful; she felt the doom and whispered to Pinkie that there was no defeating it, that everypony here was going to die. Pinkie chose not to listen to her, as she'd been choosing almost every time Pinkamena got loud enough for her to hear.

Deep inside her mind, where the world was an electric void of pink and purple shot through with yellow lightning and strands of darkness, Pinkie floated, and let the images of will-be and might-be crash all around her.

The world colder and colder and ponies shriveling, crying in pain as the darkness ate them / a giant dragon looming over Canterlot / Discord on a table, bleeding, but the drop of blood would not fall, and unicorn Twilight standing unmoving, and they would never move again, the droplet never strike the ground / Spike the size of an adolescent, with a fan of six wings behind his back and a mad grin on his face, his eyes two different colors and neither of them were right / Rainbow Dash gutted, falling through the air trailing blood / a blaze of sunlight and the pain of unendurable heat was the last thing Pinkie perceived and then / Discord lying on the ground, outdoors, in a pool of blood / a Tree of Harmony glorious and huge / unicorn Twilight screaming as she melted into liquid from the hooves upward, her body sinking toward the ground / alicorn Twilight but her cutie mark was Luna's, her hoof slamming into Celestia's face / Discord a stone statue, lying prone in rhe grass, but the statue was smiling / Shining Armor blasting Chrysalis / Pinkie screaming, but maybe it was Opposition Pinkie because Pinkie couldn't usually see her own self in the visions / Fluttershy holding a foal swaddled in blankets, rocking it / Discord's body being lowered into the earth, his face peaceful and that was all wrong because peace and chaos never mixed / alicorn Twilight suddenly falling from the sky / shattered pieces of the Elements lying in the dirt

Too much. There were too many pieces, so many moving threads, so chaotic that Pinkie didn't think Discord could follow them, and without context she had no way to know if some of the visions were good things or bad things. The only one she could be sure was probably good was the vision of the Tree of Harmony; any of the others were either obviously bad, or might be.

Desperately Pinkie summoned up all her strength and shouted into the void at the heart of her mind. "Which path do I take where we save the world and all of my friends live?"

There was nothing. No response.

Cold terror burned in her veins. But precision was important. "Which path do I take where we save this world and maybe all my friends live?"

There was something there, but flickering and dim, barely visible. She'd pay for this later – pushing it like this would probably leave her Pinkie Sense fried out for weeks after the current crisis was over – but she needed to know, or there might not be any weeks after this. She tried one more time. "Which path do I take where we save this world and most of my friends live?!"

And there it was.

Pinkie wanted to scream. Pinkamena wanted to sink into a pile of despair and mutter about how there wasn't even any point and of course somepony was going to die. Pinkie didn't let either one happen. She rose back up to the surface, knowing what she had to do. The path that made it most likely that the world would be saved and most of her friends would live was also the path where it was within the realm of possibility that all of her friends would live. The possibility was low; in all the paths through the future she could take, it barely existed. But she'd seen it. It was there. And it was the same as the way to save the majority, so it was what she needed to do, anyway.

At least one of her friends would probably die. Maybe more than one. But probably wasn't definitely. Pinkie was going to hold onto hope. There were so many variables and so few of them under her control, but she could start the sequence that would save the world, and most likely let most of her friends live, and maybe, just maybe, let all of them get out of here alive.

As she came up, she heard ponies arguing. "...not fair to demand that of her!" Rarity was shouting. "Did it ever occur to you that our world needs Twilight?"

"Let me be blunt," Celestia said. "I don't care. Your world hasn't been ruined. Your Celestia has her sister by her side. Your nation wasn't shattered by a year of chaos. I am concerned with the survival of my world, not yours. And so, to ensure Twilight's cooperation and deter the five of you from trying to fight me on this... your lives will be forfeit if you resist. If you do nothing, I will release all of you once the ritual is done. I don't care what happens to me then, as long as Luna is alive."

"Five of us?" Spike asked. "What about me?"

Celestia looked down. "Spike... it's painful enough for me to contemplate the death of a version of Twilight. No matter what happens, I won't kill you. But I know you won't resist me if you know that your friends' lives could be forfeit if you do."

While Celestia wasn't particularly paying attention, while she was focused on talking to Spike, Pinkie leaned against Rainbow Dash, and bit down on the ropes binding her wings, hard. Pinkie's teeth were no sharper than any pony's, but her jaws were very, very strong. The rope had no chance.

"Shh," she whispered in Rainbow's ear, and ducked down. A good chomp between the forelegs freed Applejack. Another chomp and her own legs were free.

"This is wrong," Spike said pleadingly. "Why can't you see that this is wrong, Princess?"

Showtime.

"It doesn't mat—"

Pinkie leapt into the air and launched a spinning kick against Celestia's horn. The alicorn saw her too late; her horn glowed, but had no chance to release magic before Pinkie's hooves came in hard contact with it. There was a distinct cracking noise, and then Celestia's eyes rolled up into her head, and she dropped.

The guards cried out. Horns lit. Wings flared. Rainbow Dash and Applejack were in there, breaking the focus on Pinkie, kicking and bucking and wing-chopping. Pinkie bucked a unicorn in the face, and then dropped as Pinkie Sense told her there were a pair of earth pony hooves coming for her jaw. They went over her head, skating across her mane, and Pinkie headbutted, flipping the stallion over. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Spike yanking Rarity's horn ring off of her head, then rolling toward Fluttershy.

"No!" Twilight was screaming. "No, you don't understand, this isn't going to work! No!"

Silly Twilight. Of course it wasn't going to work. Celestia was going to wake up any minute now. You couldn't take an alicorn out with a kick to the head for longer than a couple of minutes. That didn't change the fact that this was the action that had had the best odds for all of them.

Pinkie just wished she remembered exactly why. But once she'd come to the surface, she couldn't remember the whole path anymore – only the image that would start it, the bites through the ropes on her friends and then the kick to Celestia's horn. If she'd used her common sense and not her Pinkie Sense, it would seem really obvious that this endeavor was doomed. Celestia would wake up and then she would kill them all, except for Spike.

But her Pinkie Sense had said this was the way to save the world and the maximum possible number of her friends. And Pinkie Sense had never let her down. It told her now when telekinesis was about to grab her, and she flipped backward, out of the way. Then Rainbow kicked that particular guard in the head. Pinkie returned the favor by jumping on top of a pegasus who was diving at Dashie, bearing him down to the stone surface of the roof parapet.

This was going to work. Somehow. It had to.

Opposition, 3 PM – Discord

The sudden appearance of Spike, after what felt like hours of waiting in limbo, not knowing whether he would ever have a chance to enact his plan, buoyed Discord's spirits disproportionately. He still didn't know if his plan had a chance, but at least now he had an opportunity to find out. An uncontrollable grin spread across his face as he lifted his head. "Spike!" he said, his delight and excitement clearly audible in his voice. "Just the dragon I wanted to see. Ready to save the world?"

The small dragon took a deep breath. "I hope you have a plan, because I don't. Aside from maybe breaking your collar and I'd really rather not kill you if we can avoid it."

"Oh, trust me, I'd like to avoid that too." Discord chuckled. "Well, here's the question: how much of a dragon are you?"

"I... what?"

Discord sat up. "When you killed me. Did you, by any chance, take trophies?"

"Trophies?" Spike's face twisted in disgust. "Of course not. I wasn't proud of what I'd done—"

"Come off it, Spike. You're a dragon. Dragons take trophies of their kills. Skulls, bones, something personal from the other one's hoard if it's another dragon, articles of clothing... pieces of rock, maybe, if what they killed was a statue...?"

Spike looked completely confused. It was a good look on him, as it was on most sapient creatures. Discord approved. "I – uh, honestly, I—"

"Come now, I'm part dragon myself, you can admit it. Did you take pieces of the statue or didn't you?"

Another deep breath. "I – I did, yeah. But not as a trophy! I wanted something to remind myself of what I'd done – so I would never be fooled into thinking, oh, I didn't do anything all that bad, so I'd never forget – I killed someone—"

"You know, I've never taken trophies of a kill, and I have no trouble remembering every single creature whose life I've ever ended," Discord said. "I think you're rationalizing." As Spike opened his mouth – "But it doesn't matter! It's not important why." Discord leaned forward as much as the chains on his wing and hoof allowed him to. "The important thing is that if you have petrified pieces of the other me... I gained enough magic just from swallowing a rock over and over until it had absorbed enough magic out of me, that I could cast one spell on you and send the letter I had you mail to your counterpart in the other universe. Pieces of me will be far, far more saturated with chaos magic than an ordinary rock could ever get. It might give me enough juice to rescue my friends, and even if not, the most important thing is it might give me the strength to teleport."

"But you can't..." Spike trailed off. "Wait a minute. She said, don't go through the door."

"Right. You get it. And don't unlatch my chains, but teleportation doesn't actually unlatch anything. If I teleport, the chain's latch will be intact, it just won't be attached to my collar anymore. I can't break or open the chains, or let anyone else break them or open them, and I can't go through the door... but she never ordered me not to teleport."

"So... so, how does this work? I give you the pieces and you just, like, hold onto them? Like magic wands?"

Discord shook his head, an expression of mock sorrow on his face. "No, no. All good things require sacrifice, Spike. I have to eat them. I'm forbidden from drawing on my own internal magic and I'm forbidden from drawing on chaos magic in the environment, but if there's an object imbued with chaos magic and it's inside me, it's not technically speaking my own magic because it comes from an object that isn't me, and it's not technically speaking in the environment because it's inside me."

"But wouldn't pieces of your other self count as you?"

"No. He's not me, Spike. I'm not him. We may be two branches of the same tree, but we are not the same. I'm not blocked from drawing on the magic of a different Chaos Avatar because Twilight doesn't actually know that there are others, and the magic of one of my cognates counts as the magic of a different Chaos Avatar."

"There's more than one of you?"

Abruptly Discord realized this was not a matter of academic curiosity for Spike, whether the dragon realized it or not. The murderer of a chaos avatar usually ended up becoming the next one, unless they died first or there was a child of the previous avatar in the line of succession. Or they refused, like Anubis had, but judging from the fact that Anubis had fallen to the Nightmare Forces some time after his refusal, maybe refusing wasn't best for someone's mental health. "Only one at a time. We'll discuss it later if we all live. Are you willing to make a sacrifice? You won't get your trophies back. Are you too much of a dragon to let what you own be destroyed, even if it means saving the world?"

"If it means the world won't end, I won't have to hurt Twilight, and I won't have to kill anyone... yeah, I can live with that. Wait here, I'll get them."

As Spike left, Discord smiled wryly. "Where was I going to go?" he asked rhetorically, flexing his chained wing slightly to make the chain rattle. "Detrot?"

Opposition, 3 PM – Spike (Harmony)

As soon as Spike got Rarity's horn ring off, she untied the ropes around Fluttershy's and her own forelegs and Fluttershy's wings, and then began using the ropes as weapons with her telekinesis. They snaked through the air, tripping guardsponies, choking them, slashing at them and making them dodge away. Two unicorn guards tried getting hold of the ropes by overriding Rarity's telekinesis. "Spikey, those two fellows there are trying to take my weapons from me, if you could?"

"With pleasure!" Unicorns concentrating on a telekinetic tug of war might not notice a small purple dragon below eye level, and Rarity dragged the ropes up high as she struggled to maintain control of them, making it all the easier for Spike to get under the first soldier and drive sharp claws into his leg just above the knee. Spike knew pony anatomy for the same reason he knew most of the eclectic variety of subjects he knew – helping Twilight study – and he'd decided that driving in a claw behind the kneecap would cause the least blood and trauma for a disabling injury, of all the moves he was capable of. The stallion cried out, his leg buckling, his telekinesis reorienting to Spike – a mistake, because it let Rarity get him in a chokehold with her rope, while Applejack bucked the other unicorn. Within moments they were both unconscious.

There were more guards between Spike and Twilight. Twilight was screaming that this wasn't going to work, but at this point, it sort of had to, since it had already gotten started. Spike started toward her, and was blocked by an earth pony who kicked him some distance, making him skid across the roof. "Spike!" Twilight screamed.

Hooves caught him from behind. "Be careful," Fluttershy said in his ear. "If they kick you off the roof, I'll try to catch you, but I'm a little bit useless in a fight. They might take me out."

"Can you get a horn ring off a horn?"

"It doesn't sound much harder than freeing a mouse from a trap... I think maybe I could do that. I could at least try."

"We've gotta get Twilight's horn ring off before Princess Celestia wakes up, and there aren't that many pegasi here, and they're mostly concentrating on Rainbow—"

"Yes, I'll try to get to her."

Applejack yelled. "Spike! Over here!"

Fluttershy set him down and he ran. In the air, Rainbow was fighting three pegasi; Pinkie was trying to help by leaping at them, but they were staying high enough to be just out of her reach. "You're little and light, but you're tough. If I throw you up there at one of those pegasus guards, can you grab him and bring him down? Even up the odds for Rainbow some?"

"I'm ready to try!" Spike said gamely, though in fact the idea was making his stomach twist with fear. He really didn't like heights. Sure be nice if I had wings like the other dragons, he thought with a moment of bitterness, but shoved it down. No time for that; he had to work with what he had.

Applejack reared up on her hind legs with him held in her forehooves, and tossed. Spike yelled, windmilling his arms. "Whoa whoa whoa whoa!" Then Rainbow booted a pegasus into just the right spot that Spike landed directly on the fellow's back.

"Shit! Get offa me!" The pegasus bucked wildly in air, trying to throw Spike, but Spike had locked his claws together in a death grasp around the stallion's neck.

"Dude! I'm fourteen! Watch your language!" Spike said into the stallion's ear.

"Incoming!" Rainbow yelled. "Crap crap crap!"

There were changelings pouring out of the door on the roof. And Shining Armor. Crap was right.

The pegasus Spike was on top of landed, unable to do anything else with Spike kicking his wings. As soon as he was on the ground, Pinkie bucked him. Spike was off and running toward Twilight, but Fluttershy had finally gotten to her. Twilight was crouched down, and Fluttershy was deftly pressing on the horn ring, sliding it up. It was very, very hard to get them off with hooves, almost impossible for a unicorn since they were usually very blunt-hoofed, given that they had their magic to fall back on and never needed to practice hoof dexterity. Earth ponies and pegasi couldn't usually do it either, but earth ponies and pegasi with experience doing delicate work, such as clockwork or needlepoint, or helping tiny mother animals through childbirth, like Fluttershy, often had the necessary skill.

It was just in time, too. The changelings swarmed over them, taking the forms of the six Bearers – plus Spike, this time – but they still used the hair colors and styles of this world's Bearers. Twilight, now free of her horn ring, started zapping them with sleep spells, left, right and center, occasionally nailing a guardspony as well. Shining Armor was shielded, and was plainly trying to expand his shield to cover the Bearers and cut them off from Twilight's support, but the only one he'd gotten in the shield so far was Rainbow Dash and she was harrying him to the point where most of his focus was obviously on fighting her. He was a trained battle mage, and a lot more experienced than their world's Shining, but Rainbow was just unbelievably fast. She wasn't actually getting in any hits on him, but he wasn't getting any in on her, either.

Spike finally made it over to Twilight. "Spike! Any way you can pick the locks on those leg cuffs, or get the wing binder off me?"

"I've got a faster way to do it than lockpicking," Spike said, and breathed teleport flame at one of the cuffs, focusing intently on one spot. His magic tended to consume discrete objects; if he set part of something on fire, with the teleport flame, the whole thing would burn, but nothing touching it would catch. Things only burned if he directly flamed them. So the cuff burnt up in teleport flame, but the hoof underneath was untouched.

"Nice trick," Twilight said, panting as she fired off more spells.

"I've been practicing!" The second cuff exhausted him; he had no more flame to give. And he still wasn't particularly good at picking locks, and there was no good way to use his teeth or claws on the remaining two cuffs without risking harm to Twilight's hooves. But the wing binder didn't have the same problem. It was a metal cable. When Twilight sucked in her gut with a heroic effort, pulling in her stomach muscles as tight as they could go and breathing out to minimize the size of her ribcage, Spike had just enough slack in the cable to pull it out a bit where he could get his teeth around it. It took several hard chomps – it was metal, not a gem, and therefore chewy rather than crunchy, bending and warping under his teeth rather than fracturing – but he got it, and pulled the cable free.

Twilight gasped for breath even as she flung her wings wide, flapping them hard. "Oh, wow. That feels so much better. I had no idea how much they were hurting from being bound up like that."

"It's gonna be a while before I can get the last two cuffs off..."

"No problem, Spike. They're there to block earth pony strength and cut me off from the earth, I think, but with two hooves free I feel like maybe I'm back in business."

Fluttershy said, "You, um, might want to do something about Prin—"

Before she could finish the sentence, Celestia, lying on the ground where Pinkie had kicked her in the head, vanished.

And then reappeared, high in the sky above everyone's head, glaring down in rage.

A spell slammed into the Bearers, throwing Rainbow Dash down to the ground and freezing Fluttershy and the others in place. Twilight's horn blazed, as she braced herself against the ground, head bowed but eyes focused up, plainly throwing everything she had into resisting the spell. It looked like it had at the wedding when Chrysalis and Celestia had fought... except that this time, it was the color of Celestia's magic that crept forward.

Spike, unaffected by the spell – it seemed like Celestia hadn't even targeted him – tried to help Fluttershy to her hooves, but she couldn't seem to move at all. She wasn't turned to stone, and her eyes and mouth could move, but that appeared to be the extent of her freedom. "Spike, run," she whispered. "The Princess needs you as a hostage against Twilight."

Frantically Spike looked around. He understood the logic – if Celestia won this fight, she had threatened to kill all of Twilight's friends except for him. But if he wasn't there, she'd have to keep them alive to use as hostages for Twilight's cooperation. He couldn't see anywhere to go, though; there were still more changelings coming out of the door, and it was the only way off the roof if you had no wings. He tried the only other tactic he could think of, desperate. "Shining Armor! Princess Celestia's going to kill Twilight and all her friends! Please, help us!"

Shining Armor looked torn for a moment, before his expression firmed. "I'm sorry. My loyalties are to my Princess and to my Twilight, not this one."

And then Twilight cried out, and the light on her horn went dim. She fell to her knees. Celestia landed, looking coldly furious.

"I almost underestimated your friends again, Twilight," she said. Her voice carried, firm and clear, but it seemed superficially calm. Spike knew Celestia well enough to know that calm was not in the building, though, not right now. "Under other circumstances, I would be proud of them. I am, in fact, very sorry that I'm going to have to do this... but I made my rules very, very clear when I brought you here to say goodbye. They knew what they were risking, and they made their choice."

"No!" Twilight screamed. Her horn tried to light again, but produced only a bare flicker. Celestia had plainly cast something on her to suppress her magic. Given how much magic Twilight had, it had to be an active, ongoing cast; if an alicorn could just shut down another alicorn's magic so easily, it seemed like the fight between Nightmare Moon and Celestia shouldn't have happened. So if someone could take Celestia out, Twilight would be free, but there was no one left who could take Celestia out. All of Spike's pony friends had been defeated, and he was allowed to move around freely only because he was so little and pathetic that he couldn't possibly hurt his enemies or save his friends. "No, please! They – they just didn't want me to die! You can't kill a pony for wanting to save her friend!"

"I'm afraid I'll have to," Celestia said. "They won't stop. You know that and I know that."

"You better believe it!" Rainbow Dash snarled. "What gives you the right to try to kill our friend just because you want your sister back? Your sister lived like, a bazillion years! Twilight's like barely into her 20's! It's not fair to kill her to bring Princess Luna back and you know Luna would agree!"

"Princess, are you... planning necromancy?" Shining Armor asked, disbelievingly.

"To bring Luna back? Yes. There are rites to bring back alicorns based on the magic they're connected to; it's part of the reason we are hard to kill in the first place. But to use such a rite, I need an alicorn to volunteer her own body... and this Twilight is an alicorn."

"But you know this ain't right!" Applejack said. "Even if it works, the fact that you gotta kill somepony to make it work makes it evil! You think this is what Princess Luna would've wanted?"

"It doesn't matter what she would have wanted!" Celestia shouted. "She's dead! She has no freedom to want anything, she has no freedom to do anything, because Discord forced me to kill her!" Tears welled in her eyes, but her face was still furious. "I have to make the decision for her, to give her the ability to make any decisions at all!"

"And what will happen if you bring her back, and she repudiates you for what you've done?" Rarity asked sharply. "What if she rejects you and calls you monstrous? Will you banish her to the moon again? Sweep her objections aside, because you're the elder sister and you know best? What if she refuses to share your rule with you, because you've proven to be the sort of mare who can murder an innocent pony to bring your sister back, and all of her friends because we wanted to save her?"

"I will abdicate to Luna, if I have to," Celestia said. "I don't care. I don't want anything anymore except to have her back, now that I can see a way to do it. If you killed Sweetie Belle to save the world because Discord had turned her into a monster, wouldn't you do anything in your power to save her?"

"Anything except cold-bloodedly murdering ponies who had never done me any harm and only wanted to help a friend," Rarity snapped back. "Sweetie Belle wouldn't want to live if that were the cost. Nor would I. Nor would Luna!"

"You know they're right," Fluttershy said, looking straight up at Celestia's eyes. "You know that Princess Luna would hate this. You know that if you were in your own right mind, you would hate this. You know that if you do this thing, you become the same sort of monster that she and you spent centuries fighting. Is that what you want? After so many, many years of being everypony's shining hope, our beacon of right and wrong, do you really want to do something this evil?"

For a moment it looked as if Fluttershy might be getting through. It was hard to tell if she was using the Stare or not – Spike had actually never seen her do it – but Celestia actually seemed to be faltering, the tears in her eyes spilling out, her barrel heaving as she breathed heavily. And then she shook her head. "Let Luna judge me, afterward. Banish me to Tartarus if she wants to. I don't care. At least she'll be alive to do it."

She turned to Shining Armor. "I will deal with them myself, but not here. Shining Armor, you take Twilight back to my chambers once we have cleared the stairwell. Get that horn ring back on her. Changelings, bring the other Bearers, now. Guards, once Shining Armor and Twilight are clear, bring Spike to a cell. He is not to be harmed."

No. No. This couldn't be happening. It couldn't end like this. Spike looked around frantically for something, anything he could use as a weapon, something he could use to free Twilight or stop Celestia or stop the Changelings or anything, but he saw nothing. Rarity was screaming as two Changelings dragged her off, trying to thrash in their grasp, but the immobilization spell was holding, keeping her from moving very much. Rainbow and Applejack were trying to kick, but all that happened was that their legs were twitching. Twilight, herself held immobile, was begging. "Shiny, no, please don't let her do this, please, I don't care about me, I already agreed to help bring back Princess Luna but you can't let her kill my friends just because they wanted to save me, please..." But Shining Armor was holding himself stiff, not even looking at her as he kept his magic on her, holding her down. Fluttershy was crying, quietly.

And Pinkie looked back at Spike as they dragged her toward the door. "Spike! Always remember, we're your friends! You belong to us and we belong to you! You're like our family!"

If she meant to make him feel better, she failed. Helpless rage burned inside Spike, and grief. He couldn't do anything to save them. They were his (friends) and he couldn't stop them from being taken away. Because he was weak and small and pathetic and he couldn't do anything even though he wanted them (to be safe), they were his (friends) and he couldn't protect them and he should be able to protect them and he was a failure

-because he was small and weak—

-they were his (friends), and ponies and changelings could just take them from him (and kill them) because he was too weak and small to save them—

-too weak and small to save them—

-BUT THEY WERE HIS—

Once upon a time, Spike had felt a happy delight and joy in getting presents, that had turned into a hunger to own everything, to gather up everything he could see and hoard it and keep it safe and close and no one else could have those things because they had to be his... and it had turned him into a mindless beast, consumed with his greed.

This wasn't greed he felt now. He didn't want what wasn't his. He wanted what was his to be safe, but Princess Celestia was going to kill them, and all he could feel was an overpowering, protective, righteous RAGE.

His heart beat fast and hard. His skin grew tight, and then loosened, like a molt except it was happening again and again, like a rubber band constricting and releasing in time to his heartbeat, and he was burning and the flames in his belly wanted to consume everything that stood in his way and the world was shrinking, shrinking, and down there, there were his friends, and Changelings looking up at him with fear in their faces and good because they should be afraid, and his back itched and ached and erupted in agony. Spike bellowed, hearing his own voice deep and alien, and something was flung off his back but stuck to it in two spots and he flexed them and they were wings, he had wings bursting out from his back.

He heard Rarity's voice from far away. "Spike! Remember who you are!" she screamed. "Remember you are our sweet Spike!"

Yes. Yes, he remembered. The rage that clouded his thinking was turning denser, more focused, like a directed blast of fire rather than an all-consuming inferno, and he still knew who he was. Those were his friends down there, his, and Celestia had tried to take them from him. Had planned to kill them.

His eyes focused on the sun alicorn. There was fear on her face, for once, and right now he reveled in it. Oh yes, she should be afraid. She had tried to kill his. She should be very afraid.

"Let go of my friends!" he shouted down at her, his voice reverberating through the stone.

Despite his height, he could see her face as clearly as ever. "Spike... I'm sorry," she whispered. Her eyes were full of tears as her horn lit.

The blast of superheated plasma that sailed narrowly past his face, when he threw his head sideways to dodge it, was so hot he felt like it might have singed his scales. But she'd missed.

He had to get his head down low enough to target Celestia, and only Celestia. In the second it took him to do so she could have fired another bolt. But she hesitated.

He didn't.

"Spike!" Twilight screamed. "Don't kill her!"

Celestia vanished in a blast of bluish-green flame, so quickly she had no time to cry out.