Opposition, 5 PM
Twilight's blood ran cold. Discord hadn't had time to plug his ears before her alternate self gave the order. If Discord tried to kill them, could she really fight off his magic?
"What kind of a shitty order is that?" the other Rainbow Dash complained. "We don't need Dipcord to kill our opponents for us! We kicked their flanks once, we can do it again!"
Discord snapped his talon. "Done," he said.
Twilight didn't feel particularly dead. As nearly as she could tell he hadn't done anything. The other Twilight was obviously just as confused. "What—?"
"I've just manipulated entropy to make sure none of them live past ten thousand years," Discord said.
The other Twilight was focused on Discord, not on Twilight, so she took the opportunity to cast the zipper-mouth spell on her counterpart. The other Twilight spluttered behind her zipper, and cast a spell to cancel the zipper, but the other Rainbow Dash had already stepped in. "Oh, for Celestia's sake, don't screw around with magic! Just like fly and bite them or use your claws or something!"
"As you command," Discord said sarcastically, and launched himself directly into the air... at Twilight's Rainbow Dash. Rainbow's eyes went wide, and then she charged straight up, and Discord followed.
"You idiot!" Other Twilight yelled at her Rainbow, freeing herself from the zipper. "Now he can't hear us!"
The other Rainbow smirked. "Yeah, I know. 'Cause it's total stinking pigshit that you're gonna use Discord to kill them. What's he gonna do, drown them in pies? Turn them into tomatoes and throw them at a bullseye? They're us. They deserve to die in a fight, not one of Discord's sick jokes!"
"I have a better idea, how about we don't die, and we beat you?" Large Spike rumbled.
Other Rainbow's smirk got bigger. "Oh yeah. I'm gonna kick dragon flank today!"
She shot toward Spike, aiming for his face. Desperately Twilight fired off a fireworks spell directly in front of her, to blind her temporarily and throw her off course. The other Twilight hit her with a spell that caused intense agony in her chest... for a moment. Even through the pain she analyzed the spell. It was horrible, an instant-kill spell that stopped a pony's heart... but alicorns apparently had resistance to it, judging from the fact that she wasn't dead.
Twilight gritted her teeth. The other one was so discomfited by her existence and wanted her, specifically, dead so badly, she'd wasted her shot. Twilight cast a counter-spell protection on all of her friends. Spike might not need it — dragons were highly resistant to magic, and the effect intensified with size, so he should be practically immune right now — but she wasn't taking chances.
Immediately the other one started firing off deadly spells, rapid-fire, trying to force Twilight into using up her magic or resources by blocking them all. Instead, Twilight used her wings, the main advantage she had over the other, to get height, and double-shielded herself like she had the last time she'd fought her counterpart. The open meadow offered neither of them any opportunity to shelter behind cover, and that meant that tactically height was the best advantage she could get.
She wished she'd trained more with Rainbow. She wished she'd let Rainbow teach her more stunts. Twilight knew very little about combat flight, only what she'd deduced from reading pegasus military history. Tactics, but not techniques. She knew she could make a strong play for breaking the other one's shields if she did a dive-and-swoop attack, but she didn't know how and she wasn't sure she'd be able to pull out and avoid crashing if she tried it. So she looped in air, dodging the other one's spells while firing her own.
Wear her down. You're an alicorn. Your pool is much deeper than it was; your body regenerates; you need to sleep like normal ponies, but you recover from exhaustion much faster. She's smart, and she's much faster than you, and she's more ruthless... but she's only got a unicorn-sized magic pool and a unicorn body. She'll feel every hit she takes until the end of the fight, she'll wear out sooner, she'll deplete her magic. Just keep occupying her and don't overuse your own magic. Alicorn flight and strength all drew from the same pool as their magic — there wasn't specifically unicorn or specifically pegasus magic in an alicorn's body, it just expressed itself through different organs — but neither flight nor strength needed nearly as much magic as casting complex powerful spells did, so as long as Twilight didn't overuse her spells, she wouldn't run out. And she had a flight advantage that most pegasi, with the exception of Rainbow Dash, Bulk Biceps, and some Wonderbolts, had; channeling earth pony strength into her wings made the physical wings so much stronger and so much more capable of manipulating her flight field, she barely had to put effort into flight... as long as she stayed fairly high. Close to the ground, technique mattered a lot and she hadn't even had a thorough pegasus education in flight.
From her vantage point in the air she could see Spike and the enemy Rainbow; Rainbow was doing very well, landing hard blows and dodging before Spike could hit her with flame, tail or talon, but Twilight knew that a giant dragon had far greater reserves than a non-alicorn pony. As long as Rainbow didn't hit him in the eye, his new body could take whatever she could do, and if he hit her once it was over. Unfortunately, Spike didn't seem to know that. Having been a large dragon for about two hours, he wasn't used to his own reserves, or the thickness of his scales; he was flinching from her attacks, wasting a lot of energy in trying to dodge blows that realistically there was no way he could evade but that couldn't honestly hurt him much either. Twilight wished she could give him advice, but if she turned away from her own fight with her counterpart long enough to send him a message, she was probably dead.
Applejack, Pinkie and Rarity had each engaged their own counterparts again. It made sense; the enemy Pinkie was fast and unpredictable enough to be able to easily overwhelm and kill Applejack or Rarity, and the enemy Rarity had such skill with the needles and rocks she used in combat, she needed to be countered by another skilled unicorn. The other Applejack kept trying to break free from Twilight's Applejack and attack Rarity — probably, at the least she was trying to work their fight in a Rarity-ward direction — but Applejack kept countering her, engaging her and pushing her back. So other Applejack was probably thinking she and other Rarity could double-team Rarity and dispose of her quickly, and then they could both turn on Twilight's Applejack, but Applejack was smart enough to see the ploy and she wasn't having any.
Far up high, Rainbow Dash and Discord flew circles around each other. Twilight didn't even dare look up at them.
And there was Fluttershy with other Spike, historically completely useless in combat. She couldn't get through the Rarities' cloud of sharp objects or join the Pinkies in their deadly acrobatics, and her strength would do very little against the other Applejack. Twilight didn't expect the other Spike to fight on their side, didn't even know exactly what he was doing here or why he wasn't attacking any of them, but he'd been here with Discord and Fluttershy so at the very least his loyalties seemed divided enough to stay out of it.
She wondered where the other Fluttershy, the evil one, was.
Rainbow Dash (Harmony)
Discord was fast, Rainbow thought. How was he so fast? He was skin and bones and his wings were tiny and atrophied and he wasn't allowed to use his magic, so how did that work?
When she had the opportunity to stop and drop, letting him overshoot her, she could see part of it. His wings had morphed. They were huge now, an appropriate wingspan for a dragon his size, or an alicorn larger than Celestia. "Nice wings! Where'd you get'em?" she yelled, hoping he had the same adaptation pegasi did, that he could hear through the rushing of the wind in his ears.
"I was given an order to fly and catch one of you, and if I'm going to catch you I need my full-size wings. They don't usually give me open-ended orders because I get to use my discretion in carrying them out," he said. His voice seemed to effortlessly carry over the wind. "Rainbow, if you stop like that, I will catch you. I can't disobey an order."
"Yeah, I know," Rainbow said, waiting until he was committed to his lunge in her direction, and then shooting up and out of the way. "But hay, even if you're as good as me at stunt flying normally, which is totally not likely, you're not gonna be as good as me now after you've gotten so skinny. These pig turds didn't feed you, did they?"
She spun to check his position again, and see his face, as she said the last. He smiled wanly. "Not so you'd notice."
"Well, then. You were ordered to fly after me and, uh, 'bite me or use your claws or something', but not to use magic, right? That's what the other me said?"
Again he dove at her, and again she waited until he had momentum and zipped out of the way, letting him overshoot again. "That's... basically it, yes," he panted, hovering for a moment as he turned to face her.
He was doing strafing runs. There were more efficient ways to fight another flyer in the air, particularly with his flexibility, but he'd chosen a method that was pretty much never going to catch the fastest pegasus alive unless she got really, really careless. "So I guess you just have to fly around way up here where we can't hear anything going on down on the ground until you catch me or pass out from exhaustion, right?"
This time he grinned. "It's a terrible burden, a torture really. But I have my orders. I have to try to kill one of you with my body by flying and using my teeth and claws. And I can't hope to get through a unicorn's magical shield without my own magic, and any earth pony could kick the stuffing out of me in my current condition, and if Fluttershy uses the Stare I'll probably have seizures, and Spike is obviously too large a dragon for me to be able to hurt, so I have no choice but to chase after you."
Again he shot forward, arms extended outward from his body to increase his reach. Again Rainbow dodged. "Yeah, wow, this is awful. I sure hope you don't catch me," she said in the kind of casual voice that expressed the exact opposite of what she was saying.
His expression turned very somber. "Do take this seriously, Rainbow. If I do succeed in catching you, I can wrap you in my tail, bite you with my fang, and rip your throat out with my claws. Just because you've never seen me fight with my body rather than my magic doesn't mean I'm not capable."
"Sure, sure, you're a badass. But you're not as fast as me!" She zoomed away again, narrowly evading his grasping paws.
"Don't get too cocky. No matter how powerful or talented you are, underestimating your opponent and assuming you're untouchable can destroy you. Take it from someone who's learned it the hard way." He hovered across from her, more or less parallel in air.
"Yeah, you'd've thought you've have learned that the first time you got turned to stone, or maybe the second," Rainbow said.
Discord scowled — and pivoted faster than she thought possible, twisting his body in a circle so he came up at an angle toward her, from below. Rainbow involuntarily made a "yaii!" yell of surprise and barely shot out of the way in time. "This isn't about me, you stupid pony!" he yelled. "If I catch you, I'll kill you! I won't be able to stop myself! It doesn't matter how much I hate what I'm doing or how badly I wish I could stop, if I disobey my orders and resist, the magic takes hold of me and uses me as a puppet and I don't have any control over it!" Through his speech, he was twisting in air to follow her, changing trajectories rapidly, not letting her stop and chat with him. But he couldn't keep it up. By the time he was done yelling at her, he had to hang in air, panting and trying to catch his breath.
Rainbow, an athlete in excellent shape who flew constantly rather than a starved and beaten mage who never flew much or physically exerted himself much before he'd been taken captive, hovered in air, barely breathing hard. "I know," she said. "I'm not gonna let you catch me, trust me."
"Good," he panted, smiling. "Sooner or later I'll fall out of the sky when my wings give out on me. But when that happens, the evil Twilight is going to be able to give me orders again. I need you to do something for me if that happens."
"Kick you in the head hard enough to knock you out?" Rainbow suggested.
"No, because it might take more than one kick, and if she orders me to use my magic to kill you in a specific way, with clear instructions — like, for instance, 'replace all their hearts with baked potatoes' — I won't be able to stop myself. I can hold off for five seconds and then you're all dead. You need to remove my collar." He gestured at it, the horrible black leather thing studded with metal in the shape of runes, tight around his neck. "You have to do it fast enough that I don't have time to try to kill you, because I will. I'm ordered to kill anyone who tries to remove my collar. But that's what's blocking me from using my magic, and with all of my magic back, I can break the obedience spell. The Harmony is weak between those six, and especially right now; they mostly hate each other. It wouldn't take much of an effort from me, and then I'd be free. You wouldn't have to worry about me being ordered to kill any of you."
"So why don't I do it right now?"
"Because I cannot overstate how badly it's going to hurt. Twilight — the evil Twilight — put a booby trap inside me, crystals that will feed on chaos magic and grow. It'll be like being stabbed multiple times from the inside. I can deal with it if the alternative is harming any of you, but I really don't want to go through that if I don't have to."
Rainbow's eyes were wide. "Wouldn't that... kill you? Or, I guess you're immortal or something, so it'll heal?"
"Twilight's an alicorn. Just now, a few minutes ago, her evil alter ego cast a spell to stop her heart, and she shrugged it off. It hurt, but she'll live, because alicorns heal injuries. So do Spirits of Chaos." He made a face that Rainbow couldn't quite interpret, like something about the idea disgusted him or upset him.
"Yeah, okay. Not gonna go for the collar unless it's all we can do. So when you go down because you're too tired to fly, I'll follow you and rip the collar off while you're falling."
"With what? It won't tear free and it would take a dragon to bite through it, and Spike's a little big to be doing such delicate work right next to my face."
"Good point." She looked down at the ground, with the eagle eyesight pegasi had in flight. "Maybe I can get a knife off the crazy Pinkie." That was questionable; the last time she'd gone down to the ground to hit a group that contained the crazy Pinkie, she'd gotten a frying pan to the head. On the other hoof, she'd have her own Pinkie supporting her... though it looked like Pinkie had her hooves full.
"Newer orders supersede older ones, and Twilight's order to kill anyone who asks was a few hours ago, so if you can trick the other you into ordering me to take it off..."
"That... doesn't seem likely. She knows it's what makes you have to obey orders, right?"
"No, it's what restrains my magic except when I'm following orders, but I could probably break the obedience spell if I had access to my powers."
"Whatever. She knows it's important." Rainbow shook her head. "What if I ordered you to take it off? She's me and I'm her and if the spells came from the Elements of Harmony then we're Elements of Harmony too, so it should work."
He shook his head. "Fluttershy and I tested this. It doesn't. It has to be from them." He looked as if he was lost in thought for a moment. "One time I had to obey a changeling I thought was Fluttercruel because I didn't know it wasn't her, but as soon as I knew, I didn't have to obey anymore. But I know which one you are, so it wouldn't work."
"Eh." She shrugged. "We'll figure it out when it comes up, if it does." And zipped away as Discord launched himself at her again.
"I don't know what I should be doing," Spike complained. "I mean... those are my friends you guys are fighting, but..."
"I think you have a better idea than you think you do," Fluttershy assured him. "You remember what they were like before they were corrupted. If we win here, we're going to try to reharmonize them. You know that, right?"
Spike nodded. "Discord told me so. I had to carry around your branch for a while." He shook his head. "Still can't believe that the Elements of Harmony come from a Tree."
"So don't you think it's best if we win and get them to revert back to the ponies they used to be?"
"I guess, but... I don't feel good just sitting here while they're fighting, but I don't want what they want. They want to torture Discord and they want to stay the way they are, corrupted and totally changed from what they used to be. I want them to be like they used to be."
Fluttershy smiled, nodding. "Of course. And if they were truly themselves, they would want that too. They never asked for this, did they?"
"No. Discord did it to them."
"But not this Discord."
"No, but he says he knows stuff about the one we had here now. He had to eat a piece of the statue to get enough power to get us here. I think... I think he somehow learned stuff about the Discord of this world from eating his statue."
She raised an eyebrow. "That's very interesting. I'll definitely want to ask him about it." Fluttershy leaned forward. "You know he reformed because he wanted to be my friend, right?"
"Yeah, that's what he said, but... that's so weird. How did you get to be friends with him?"
"Well, Princess Celestia asked me to reform him, and I felt that someone who had lived so long without ever having a real friend might respond to being treated kindly, and offered friendship. And it worked. Discord's... well, certainly not perfect, or he'd never have come here, but he's so much better. The whole reason he came here was he didn't want me to see him create chaos, because he thought I'd be angry at him, but... he felt like he needed chaos. And I think that's my fault. If I could have convinced my friends to let him do some harmless chaos with us, someplace where it wouldn't hurt anypony, he might never have come here."
"I don't think you should blame yourself. He's a grownup. He can make his own choices. And he didn't have to choose to start chaos here."
"That's true, but don't you think he's paid enough for it?"
Spike shrugged. "Yeah... I guess."
"So the fact that the Element Bearers here want to torture him... I know you don't agree with that."
"I don't, but..."
"It's perfectly all right to stay out of a fight if you think your friends are in the wrong, and if you think losing will actually help them," Fluttershy said. "Our side isn't fighting to kill them, we want to reharmonize them. Then they'll be their real selves again, the selves who are your friends. It's really just like Nightmare Moon and Princess Luna."
Spike's expression turned dark. "Discord turned Princess Luna back into Nightmare Moon and made Princess Celestia have to kill her."
"That's terrible! Of course, that's an awful thing! But you avenged her, right? You, um, you... destroyed the statue?"
"You can say it," Spike said, still brooding. "I killed the Discord of this world."
"So our Discord, who did not kill our Princess Luna, is completely innocent of that and doesn't deserve to be punished for a crime he didn't commit... a crime that the one who did commit it paid the ultimate price for."
"I guess I don't understand where you're going with any of this." He gestured to the battleground. "Our friends are fighting, and here you are just chatting with me."
"Well... well, my alternate hasn't shown up yet, and I'm very bad at fighting, so I haven't tried," Fluttershy said. "But what I wanted to ask is if you would help us." She made her eyes very big and pleading. "These Element Bearers of corrupted Elements are out to kill us. They're us, and we don't even want to hurt them... we want to restore them to who they were. But if we keep having to defend ourselves, they might get hurt."
"I'm not going to attack my friends!"
"Of course not. No one would ever ask that of you." She looked intently into Spike's eyes. "But if you distracted your Twilight, just enough that our Twilight could make her sleep... then our Twilight would be free to peacefully defeat the rest of them, just by making them sleep. And then we could cast the reharmonization, and everything would be back the way it was."
"I... I don't know," he said wretchedly. "I don't want to hurt Twilight."
"And we would never want you to. Look, our Twilight has to fight with all her strength against yours, because yours is trying to kill her. So she might, actually, hurt her. But if you distracted her so our Twilight could cast a sleep spell on her, then we could disable her without hurting her at all."
"I just don't know..."
Fluttershy did not sigh, the way she really wanted to. Patience was crucial here. She couldn't let Spike see her frustration; she had to be gentle but unyielding, applying soft but steady pressure on him. He was their best chance right now, with everyone occupied in one fight or another. There wasn't much hope of her personally turning the tide of any of those fights, but the other Twilight was the heavy hitter here, and Spike was her only real vulnerability. If Fluttershy could persuade him to cooperate, they could win so easily. If not... she wasn't sure they could win at all.
Where was her other self, anyway?
Pinkie Pie (Harmony)
Pinkie was going to die.
She didn't know how she'd survived this long. She didn't know how long she was going to be able to stay out of Other Pinkie's range. There were score lines all over her legs and flank where she hadn't dodged in time, because Other Pinkie had Pinkie Sense, and Pinkie didn't.
This was the path she'd chosen, the one where most of her friends got out alive. She wondered if she counted as one of the ones who would live, or not. She was strongly considering the possibility that she wasn't. She'd broken Pinkie Sense to find out how to survive Celestia, but she hadn't expected to need it this badly. If only she'd known!
...Well, she still would have done it. Celestia would have killed them all. If she died to make sure her friends all lived, she could live with that. Ok, not really live with it, but she was sure anypony would know what she meant.
Other Pinkie came at her with one of the long knives, swinging it with a huge grin on her face. Pinkie barely managed to dodge, flipping backwards. She had never fully grasped before how dependent she was on her Pinkie Sense in a fight. When she had nothing but her ears, eyes and nose to tell that a pony was coming at her, she could barely keep up. Or maybe it was because her opponent was herself, except with her Pinkie Sense.
"Why are you even fighting us?" she tried. "We just want to take our Discord and leave! We haven't done anything to hurt you!"
"You're on Discord's side! That makes you a meanie, and I get to eat meanies!"
"It doesn't make us meanies! You eat ponies, that makes you a meanie! Our Discord never made anypony eat a pony!"
Other Pinkie actually stopped in her assault for a moment. Then she shrugged. "Twilight's my friend and I stand up for my friends!" And she lunged at Pinkie with the knife again.
Pinkie was too out of breath to say anything else.
She needed cover. She needed somewhere she could grab weapons or hide from the other one. Not that it was really all that possible to hide from her, so it would probably very hard to hide from the other, but she needed something. As the other pressed her attack, Pinkie moved back toward the forest on the north side of the clearing.
Dodge. Flip. Get cut because she hadn't done it quickly enough. Say "Owie!" Jump back. Dodge again.
There was a tree at her back. The other one charged at her, somehow managing to gallop on three legs, which should be impossible but Pinkie herself had pulled it off on rare occasions when there was an emergency and she needed to carry something with her hoof and also move fast. Pinkie sprang sideways, and the knife that would have pinned her to the tree through the heart went through the tree, instead.
The other Pinkie spent half a minute trying to pull her knife out, giving Pinkie the chance to get her breath and find a weapon. She was out of cookies and baked bads, and she'd lost almost everything she was keeping in her mane during the last fight with these guys. But look, there was a tree branch! She grabbed it and swung it at the other Pinkie. "En garde!" she yelled.
The other Pinkie pulled out another knife, not having managed to dislodge the first one from the tree yet, and swiped it through the tree branch, which turned out to be more than half rotten. It crumbled as soon as the other one's knife hit it. Pinkie smiled fearfully. "Oops."
"Yep, that was an oops all right!" The other one charged at her with the new knife, ignoring the loss of the old, and Pinkie had to dodge again.
She glanced quickly at her friends. All of them except for Fluttershy seemed fully engaged in their own battles, and she knew better than to think Fluttershy could help her against her cannibalistic alter. "Wind things up, somepony," she muttered under her breath. "I could really use some help here..."
Rarity didn't know how long she could keep this up.
Her head pounded with exhaustion from using so much telekinesis. She could barely see for the sweat and dust in her eyes. All the small cuts and bruises she'd taken from her alternate's attack early this morning (had this really only been just one day?) ached fiercely, and every new blow she couldn't deflect in time added to the pain.
She could only hope the other one was suffering just as badly.
This was getting nowhere. It was the telekinetic equivalent of a slap fight. They had needles and jewels and dirt and grass from the ground in play, trying to hit the other one — preferably in the face — with the things they were holding, while deflecting the things the other one was holding. Because they were exactly equal in strength and skill, Rarity couldn't get an advantage over her. The other couldn't get much of an advantage over Rarity, either, but it was maybe, just slightly possible, that the other one was in better shape for extended combat than she was. Which was entirely unfair. Yes, it made sense that an evil version of herself from a terrible world where Princess Celestia was so far gone she was willing to kill an innocent alicorn to bring her sister back might end up getting more practice in combat. But surely being on the side of good and decency and not torturing anyone and not wearing every single gem you own in an extravaganza of tackiness should count for something?
And then she remembered what Rainbow had said when they were catching up on all they'd done, on the flight over here. If she could get her alter ego angry enough, maybe she could get the upper hoof.
"I'm so sorry to hear of your recent troubles, darling," she said in her most sickly-sweet fake solicitious voice. "But perhaps your boutique would have proven itself to be less flammable if you weren't the sort of mare who condones torture."
"You unutterable creature!" The other one's face twisted in fury, and the objects she was wielding came faster and harder, forcing Rarity to put all of her focus into parrying. "I cannot even begin to accurately describe you, because I am too much a lady to use the necessary language!"
"Odd, I had never heard that torturing helpless victims is a ladylike activity. Perhaps you need a refresher in etiquette?"
"My sister could have been in the boutique!"
"But she wasn't."
"But she could have been! And my dear, dear Opal has gone missing!'
"Opal is a very intelligent cat. I'm sure she would have fled the building the moment there was the slightest danger. Once she's sure the danger is past, she'll come back, I'm certain. Or she won't, because she recognizes what a horrible pony you really are, rather like Fluttershy's pets."
"You monsters burned Fluttershy's house down!"
"I believe it was Fluttershy herself who did that, after making sure that all of the pets were safe and free. It must be very difficult to deal with the idea of your beloved home being used as a place of abuse and torment of the most disgusting sort."
Now her alter was straight up throwing rocks, with very little finesse but a great deal of rage-fueled power. It was all Rarity could do to keep blocking them. "You — smug — diamond bitch!" The other Rarity panted with exertion. "How dare you! You have no idea what we've all been through! You don't know what our Fluttershy suffered!"
"Perhaps not, but if the end result is that you all became monstrous, I don't know why I would care," Rarity snapped. She was soaked with sweat and her head was pounding and it felt like if she kept using telekinesis her horn would explode, but stopping wasn't an option right now. "You've done far, far worse things than Discord ever did."
"Discord caused the death of Princess Luna! We haven't killed anyone who didn't deserve it!"
"Really? Pinkie Pie eats ponies and you say you've never killed anyone who didn't deserve it? Tell me, what does a pony do to be considered 'deserving' of being eaten?"
A rock struck her in the flank, breaking her concentration for a moment, which meant a great deal of dirt and dust and stinging needles were flung into her face. Rarity cried out and flailed around with her telekinesis, unable to see anything the other one was doing, forced to operate solely by feel. The other one pressed her advantage, forcing Rarity to back away under the sudden onslaught.
Perhaps she'd made a slight tactical error. She'd wanted to use the largest difference between them — namely, that this Rarity had lost everything to Rainbow Dash's adventures in arson — as a way to break the stalemate, but she'd intended it to break in her own favor. This really wasn't working out the way she'd hoped.
And then there was a roaring sound, and the other Rarity broke off her attack for a moment. "Oh my goodness, is that a hydra?"
Rarity, who still couldn't see, took the opportunity of the other one's distraction to pick up the rock that had hit her in the flank and fling it at the other one's horn, while she quickly wiped her face. The other one managed to deflect it, barely, but it bounced away from her horn and fell, hitting her in the snout.
"Owwww! My beautiful face! You'll pay for that!" the other Rarity yelled, but now Rarity had caught her breath, recovered her concentration and opened her eyes, so she was able to follow up her attack, and they were back on even footing again. Out of the corner of her eye, Rarity could see a pink and yellow blur — so the evil Fluttershy, then, since the good Fluttershy had dyed her mane — riding on the neck of something with a very long and bendy neck, and there were other long and bendy necks involved, and she felt the sheer animal terror any pony would feel on being confronted with a hydra... but she had to rely on her friends to be able to deal with it, because her opponent was taking all of her attention.
Rainbow Dash (Harmony)
Discord was visibly tiring. Rainbow was, despite herself, worried about him. She couldn't go near him to support him, not while the order to kill was in effect, and she couldn't let him go anywhere near the other Twilight, but she didn't want to lead him too far from the fight where she wouldn't be able to see her friends, and move in to support them if needed.
And then both of their attentions were drawn toward the freaking hydra that came in, with the evil Fluttershy riding on it.
"Ponyfeathers," Rainbow swore. "Am I gonna hafta—"
She didn't get to finish the sentence. Discord, hovering nearby trying to catch his breath, interrupted her. "Is that — is Fluttershy going in to deal with that?"
Yes. Yes, their Fluttershy was going up to try to deal with a hydra being controlled by her murderous rapist torturer counterpart. "Look, you don't want Fluttershy having to fight that thing and neither do I. How about we call a temporary truce so I can go kick its flank and get it out of here?"
Discord shook his head. "You're not thinking. I'm under orders to kill one of you. Not specifically you. If I can't get anywhere near you... the spell might make me go for one of your friends on the ground. And if I follow you, and I end up within range to hear Fluttercruel..." He visibly swallowed. "You can't let that happen. She'll make me kill Fluttershy, just to torture me."
Oh. Right. "This really sucks," she complained.
"How do you think I feel? I've been living with this for two months."
"Well. If we need to keep you away from Fluttershy and little miss evil, how about this?" She zipped toward the Everfree where it curved to the north, away from evil Fluttershy's hydra to the east. "Zoom zoom! Try to catch up!"
As she shot out, she saw, on the ground, a knife stuck in a tree. Apparently Pinkie had managed to half-disarm her opponent. Well. That might be useful later.
Applejack had managed to get the upper hoof on her alter ego only briefly in their wrestling match when the other Fluttershy showed up with a hydra.
"Oh, shuck a corncob and jam it down my throat, does she seriously think she can control that thing?" the other Applejack muttered.
That was a trifle unnerving. Applejack was fairly certain that her Fluttershy wouldn't bring a hydra to a fight if she wasn't absolutely in control of that hydra, but hearing that the other one's friends weren't confident that she was actually in control of that hydra was worrisome. On the other hoof, the enemy Fluttershy being unable to control her hydra would be as great of a threat to the other side as to Applejack and her friends.
"You think she can't?" Applejack asked.
The other shook her head. "You've gotta have heard about the kind of crap she gets up to lately. Back in the old days, animals mostly listened to her because she was nice, and she only had to use her Stare thing the one time with the dragon. Oh, yeah, and the cockatrice too."
"Yeah, that happened in our world too," Applejack said, disengaging from her opponent. If the other Applejack wanted to talk rather than fight, Applejack was comfortable with that.
"Well, she doesn't get much done for being nice anymore. She uses that Stare a lot, and it doesn't always work anymore. Me, I wouldn't risk having her bring a hydra into this fight; if she loses control of it she could do as much damage to us as to you."
Applejack's own Fluttershy flew up toward the hydra. "And also there's that," the other Applejack said.
"I don't like the idea of the two of them in a tug o' war over some innocent creature's mind, even if that creature's a hydra," Applejack said. "It's dangerous to be sure, but it's just an animal doing what nature made it to do."
"Don't see what we could do about it, though," the other one said. "It ain't like Fluttershy's gonna listen to me, and yours is gonna feel like she's gotta get involved as long as ours is pushing it around."
The hydra had lunged at Twilight, in the air, but as Fluttershy intercepted the attacking head, it reared back in confusion. Applejack's heart pounded. Could Fluttershy really get control of that hydra away from her counterpart? "Can you tell me something?"
"Might as well."
"I understand why you thought it was okay to torture Discord. I understand why you think killing him's a good option. But why is it that letting us get him out of your universe completely's such a bad idea? Is it just because your Twilight doesn't want to let him go?"
"Was, at first," the other Applejack said. "But I ain't so sure anymore." She sighed. "Your Fluttershy said that Discord managed to trick our Twilight into trying to do a thing she thought was gonna give ponies immortality, but would actually destroy the world. I don't rightly know how Discord managed to tell one or the other of them such a whopper when he's under a spell where he can't lie, but I feel like your Fluttershy was saying something she believed... so Discord has to have lied either to her or to Twilight, and she was right. He's got more motive to lie to Twilight."
"I remember, you said you were going to talk to Princess Celestia about that. You ever did?"
"No. We couldn't get in to see her."
"She was too busy trying to get our Twilight to agree to die to bring back your Princess Luna, I reckon."
The other Applejack shook her head. "Everything's screwed up lately. I ain't sure it's the right thing to do for my friends to stand by them, right now."
"Well, you know what I'm gonna tell you."
"I do." The other one looked at her. "But you're me, right? Before Discord screwed everything up. You're not under his control."
"Hay no. We got him to... well, we say 'reform' but it's plain to see he's not reformed in any serious way. He still thinks he ought to be able to do whatever he wants and he ought to be able to unleash any kind of chaos... but he wants to have friends. He wants to have Fluttershy as his friend. And she won't let him get up to that kind of horsefeathers. Whole reason he's here is he wanted to make chaos somewhere she wouldn't see it and be mad at him."
"So if you don't think he's reformed, why are you here to rescue him?"
Applejack shrugged. "I think he's trying to learn to not be evil, and I guess I gotta give a guy some credit for trying to be better than he is." She didn't point out that what the Opposition team had done was appalling; she wanted to reinforce her similarities to the other one, not the differences.
"Ours had a thing for Fluttershy, too. It was a lot more twisted, though. He corrupted her rather than her reforming him."
"That makes sense."
"I feel like maybe we ought to have just killed him. I don't know if we're safe to just let him go. What if he comes back wanting revenge? We're not gonna be able to stop him the same way again, and if you guys could stop him from going off to another universe and wreaking havoc, he'd never have come here in the first place."
This was true, but not a direction Applejack wanted her counterpart going in. "Now that he's done this thing, I think we can be pretty sure that Fluttershy and our Princess Celestia aren't gonna let him go try it again."
"Can they really stop him?"
"I don't know, to be honest, but you know what you've been doing ain't right."
"I don't, though. I don't care anymore what's right or what's wrong. I care about what protects my family and keeps them safe. I care about protecting my country, and my friends, and my hometown. Don't really care about good or evil anymore."
"You know you wouldn't be that way if Discord hadn't messed with you."
"Discord messed with my whole world. Am I like this because he messed with my Element, or because his chaos killed my granny, ruined one of my sister's friends' life, made my Princess a half-competent drunk a good bit of the time, near-on destroyed my country, and made some of my closest friends into evil freaks? If you'd've been through what I have, even without him corrupting your Element, maybe you'd feel the way I do."
"Maybe I would," Applejack admitted. "But do you want to be the way you are?"
"I don't rightly see how I could be anything else, given what's happened to me."
"Sure you ain't just making excuses?"
The other one suddenly lunged at her, pivoting to kick, but Applejack had been expecting it and reared out of the way just in time. "Guess I hit a nerve," she panted.
"Not so you'd notice," the other one retorted. "Just don't figure on wasting my time shooting the breeze with you anymore. We're supposed to be fighting."
"You could do something different. You know that if your Twilight wins, your world's in danger," Applejack said, breathing hard, as she dodged a second attack and aimed a hard buck of her own, which missed.
"Didn't say I was gonna let Twilight do whatever she wanted," the other said. "But I can't let you win. You wanna leave, fine, do it, but Discord's gotta stay here. We can't risk letting him go and having him come back for revenge."
The sad thing was, she was right. Applejack was sure that Fluttershy would be able to keep Discord from returning to get revenge... but that Applejack only knew the corrupted Fluttershy who'd tortured Discord. She didn't trust or didn't remember how strong Fluttershy had been before that corruption, and she had no reason to trust her counterparts. So from her perspective, what she was doing was the best way to protect her family and the rest of her world.
Well. No choice left but to kick her flank, then.
As soon as Fluttershy saw the hydra, her heart sank.
Fluttercruel was here to join the fight. She wasn't free to try to work on the other Spike's loyalties any longer; she had an opponent to counter.
The hydra lumbered forward, shrieking. "Excuse me," Fluttershy said to Spike. "I think I need to take care of this."
He was staring at the hydra, eyes wide. "What's she doing? What if she loses control of that thing?!"
"Well," Fluttershy said, as one of the heads that her counterpart wasn't riding lunged at Twilight, "if you distracted your Twilight enough that ours could put her to sleep, our Twilight could deal with that hydra easily. So if you're afraid that your world's Fluttershy can't control the hydra and you're afraid of it running rampant and attacking your friends... you know what you'll need to do, right?"
She didn't wait for an answer; she flew up to address the head that Twilight had had to fly away from. "MISTER, WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?" she yelled. "IT'S OVER A TROT FROM THE SWAMP HERE! WHY DID YOU COME ALL THIS WAY?"
"HE CAME TO HELP ME!" Fluttercruel yelled. "BECAUSE YOU AND YOUR FRIENDS ARE MONSTERS AND NEED TO BE DESTROYED FOR EQUESTRIA'S SAKE!" As she said it, the head lunged at Fluttershy, forcing her to rapidly drop with an involuntary "eep!"
She came back up, approaching a different head. "She's lying to you!" she called to the hydra. "All we want to do is go home; she wants to kill all of us and torture our friend! We're not monsters!"
The hydra, confused, conveyed the question as to whether Fluttershy and her friends were changelings.
"No, we're not," Fluttershy said. "We're the same as they were before they were turned cruel and mean." There were limits to precisely what you could explain to an animal, and the hydra, despite having five heads, wasn't exactly the brightest star in the sky.
"OF COURSE YOU'D SAY THAT," Fluttercruel shouted. "SHE'S THE ONE WHO'S LYING!"
"Oh, dear," Fluttershy said to the hydra, dodging it as its head snapped at her. "Poor thing, you must be so confused! I'm so sorry she brought you into this conflict; she really shouldn't have. That was very rude, to drag—"
"DON'T LISTEN TO ANYTHING SHE SAYS! ALL SHE CARES ABOUT IS PREVENTING YOU FROM FIGHTING ON OUR SIDE!" The other one leaned forward, urging the head she was riding onward.
Fluttershy rose out of range of the head that was snapping at her, and into hearing range for a third head, flitting around the top of the head where the hydra couldn't easily snap at her. "Well, of course, I don't understand why she wants you to fight at all! It would be different if you were starving, or if we were hydras who were in your territory, but I know you prefer to stay in your own territory and fight only to defend it, or take prey. And your skin's so glossy and well-cared for, I'm sure you're very good at hunting—"
"SHE'S MAKING YOU LOOK WEAK!" Fluttercruel screamed. "SHE WANTS TO MAKE IT SOUND LIKE YOU'LL GET HURT IF YOU FIGHT AGAINST PONIES, LIKE YOU'RE A COWARD, BUT YOU'RE NOT! YOU'RE SO MUCH STRONGER THAN PONIES!"
Another of the heads came up to attack Fluttershy, but she dodged under the third head's chin, making the fourth head come close enough that the third head automatically flinched, an instinctive reaction to prevent tangling or inter-head injury. "Of course you are!" she said to the fourth head as she hovered next to its neck, where it couldn't get at her except by employing another head. By now, all five heads were weaving around in an obvious state of confusion. "I'm only worried about other hydras moving in on your territory while you're not there to defend it—"
The hydra reacted to that, two heads focusing in on Fluttershy, and asked if it was true that other hydras could move into its territory while it wasn't there.
"I can't say for sure that they will, but I'm sure you have a very lovely territory that any hydra would want to have, and of course they wouldn't dare try to take it while you're there, you're much too intimidating, but if you're not there..."
The head Fluttercruel was riding came in toward Fluttershy — close enough that her keen pegasus hearing could pick up on Fluttershy's quiet voice. "THERE AREN'T ANY OTHER HYDRAS IN THIS AREA! SHE'S LYING!" she shouted.
"Really, do you think she knows everything about the location of every hydra in the Everfree Forest and nearby? I'm sure you'd know better than she would—"
"THE PLUNDER VINES KILLED THEM ALL! NO HYDRA IS GOING TO TRY TO INVADE YOUR—"
"Oh, that's awful," Fluttershy interrupted. "So you haven't had a chance to mate with another hydra in over a year?"
Confused, the hydra conveyed that actually, it had had quite a lovely mating season last time.
"Well, that does mean there's at least one other hydra around here, but I'm sure you're fine with sharing territory with your mate—"
The hydra snapped at her, clearly expressing its opinion of sharing its territory with any other hydra.
"Listen!" Fluttercruel wasn't screaming anymore, but she was speaking more loudly than Fluttershy herself. "She's just trying to confuse you and trick you into not attacking! We can help you protect your territory once you've helped us protect ours—"
"Goodness! Did she just say she doesn't think you can defend your own territory?"
The head nearest Fluttershy snapped at Fluttercruel. Since she was on another head, the head she was on flinched away at proximity. "Of course you can defend your own territory, I'd never question that! Even if there are other hydras around here, you're plainly bigger and stronger than any of them! That's why I knew it would be safe for you to come help us!"
"Didn't she just say there weren't any other hydras? That's not a very consistent story," Fluttershy tsked. "I think that answers the question of which one of us is lying, don't you think?"
"There probably aren't any other hydras, but even if there were, you'd be able to fight them off, because you're very strong and powerful! And even if they tried to invade your territory while you're not there, you can kick them out easily!" Fluttercruel glared at Fluttershy as she spoke.
"After they've eaten all the best food, though..." Fluttershy murmured. "Oh, but I'm sure the good food will come back in a month or two."
That seemed to do the trick. The hydra roared and flung its head back and forth, shaking Fluttercruel off of it, as it turned around and lumbered back the way it had come.
"You diamond bitch!" Fluttercruel screamed, and flew upward straight at Fluttershy — who waited until she was close, and then pulled her wings tight against her, dropping like a stone. Once she was clear of Fluttercruel, she flapped her wings just hard enough to land, heavily.
"Oh no you don't!" Fluttercruel was yelling, up in the sky, as she dove at Fluttershy. Fluttershy galloped out of the meadow and into the forest, pursued closely by Fluttercruel... who was now no longer in the sky, where Discord was, where Discord might be able to hear and be forced to obey an order she might give.
Fluttershy was not looking forward to fighting Fluttercruel; she'd lost their last fight because she wasn't cruel or ruthless enough to win against a version of herself who was capable of torture. She didn't think the situation was going to have improved any, either. But in the forest, at least, she had cover to hide behind, and weapons she could use, and more importantly, Fluttercruel couldn't use her control over Discord as a weapon. Any amount of pain Fluttershy suffered was worth preventing that.
Spike desperately wanted to help Pinkie or Twilight, who seemed to have the most vicious opponents — at least, that he could see; now that Fluttershy had gone into the woods with her counterpart in pursuit, maybe she had the worst one — but every time he moved in any direction whatsoever, there was the other Rainbow Dash, slamming into him.
Physically, his skin was a lot thicker and tougher than it had been; most of the kicks and blows didn't hurt, despite the speed she was delivering them at. But she wouldn't stop. Spike kept trying to hit her with the transport flame — his memories of burning the Changelings with actual flame made his stomach turn, and he wasn't willing to use real flame on a living opponent again, but transport flame seemed like a fine idea. No version of Rainbow Dash was a match for Princess Celestia. But he had no experience trying to hit moving things with transport flame, and the other Dash just kept dodging and then coming back to hit him again.
And some of the blows hurt. He was getting bruised, he was sure. Especially when she hit him in the face.
So far she'd been keeping him almost completely boxed in, unable to go anywhere because every time he started in a direction there she was, slamming into him. He couldn't get into the air because his wings were one of the things she could actually hurt when she hit, and he wasn't going to leave them open and exposed to her. Besides, taking to the air against one of Equestria's best stunt flyers when he'd only learned to fly, or even had wings, today... that did not seem like it would go to his advantage.
But he could see the rest of the combat in the meadow. The evil Twilight kept firing spells that were obviously dark magic against his Twilight, who was shielding against them or dodging with her wings and not fighting back particularly hard. The two Rarities were surrounded by a cloud of dust, dirt and other objects; the two Applejacks were wrestling. He couldn't see Discord and his own Rainbow Dash; they were high up over his head somewhere. Likewise, Fluttershy had run into the forest and her evil version had followed her.
Everypony he could see seemed to have their situation evenly matched, except for Pinkie Pie.
He didn't know why, but he could see that his Pinkie Pie, the one with the blonde mane and the blue tail, was losing. She was covered with blood from shallow cuts where she hadn't managed to dodge the other one's blows in time. She'd managed to get one of the crazy Pinkie's knives away from her and embedded in a tree, but the other one had apparently had two, again, and was still swinging the one she had left around and jabbing it forward. Occasionally evil Pinkie would pull a frying pan out of nowhere; she hadn't managed to hit Pinkie in the head with it yet, but she'd gotten her on the back and on the legs.
So he wanted to go to her aid, but firstly, he wasn't sure how — he couldn't hit Rainbow Dash, and evil Pinkie was just as fast, albeit a lot more earthbound — and secondly, he couldn't get through. Whenever he tried to move, evil Rainbow would hit him.
And then it occurred to him that so far, the most evil Rainbow had managed to do to him was bruise him some. Sure, he wasn't used to combat, and he wasn't used to getting bruised — even in his tiny kid body, his skin had been pretty tough — but Pinkie was bleeding. Surely he could endure some bruises.
He lumbered forward toward Pinkie. Evil Rainbow hit him in the side of the neck, which was a bit of an ow, and then divebombed his eye; he ducked his head down quickly so she slammed into the top of his head, where he could barely feel it. It wasn't enough to stop him.
Evil Rainbow didn't like being ignored. "Hay! Hay, loser, what's the matter? Too slow, huh?" Another slamming blow to his back. "Can't hit me, so you're not gonna even try? What's the matter, you running away? Huh?" This one to his folded wings on his back, which did, actually, hurt quite a bit. Dragon wings were apparently more sensitive than the rest of their bodies. Good to know. "You're just a loser, Spike, even if you're a giant dragon now! You've always been a loser, just like our Spike!"
"Wow, nice," Spike rumbled (was he ever going to get used to his new deep voice?). "A guy stands by you and your friends after you all turn into such jerks no one would want to befriend you, because he remembers who you used to be, and you call him a loser. That's great, Rainbow, that's really sweet."
"Ooooh, did I hurt the poor wittle dwagon baby's feewings? Loser. That's you! You're all big and strong now, but you can't even fight!"
He thought about mentioning the Changelings he burned, but the thought of talking about that as if he was proud of it made him sick. He thought about mentioning this world's Celestia, who he was pretty sure he had sent back to his world's Celestia, but even Evil Rainbow might be loyal enough to her Princess for that to drive her into a frenzy. Better that she underestimate him. "I don't care what you call me. It's the fact that you insulted your Spike that bothers me. I thought you were supposed to be loyal."
"Yeah, no, loyalty's a crock. Everypony's out for themselves in the end. Spike's an idiot and a loser and so are you."
Then, as he was heaving his way toward Pinkie Pie with his heavy, oversized body, and the evil Rainbow Dash was continuing to slam into him and loudly insult both him and his alter ego... his Rainbow Dash came diving down out of the clouds at high speed. Her wings were flapping, and she was traveling faster than a thing falling would; she was in control of this, or as much in control as she ever was.
The two Pinkies both jumped out of the way, in different directions, though Spike's Pinkie was slower to do it. Rainbow hit the ground back hooves first, striking with such speed she kicked up a dust cloud and a small shockwave. She skidded a bit on her hind legs, fell over onto all fours, grabbed the knife out of the tree with her teeth, and took off again.
Evil Rainbow had been watching, as had the two Pinkies. "Hardcore," Evil Rainbow said approvingly. "Dunno what she's gonna do with that knife... maybe try to cut his wings off so he can't fly after her."
Spike took that opportunity to look for Pinkie — but she wasn't there. Hiding? "Ooh, hide and seek!" the evil Pinkie yelled. "I love that game! Ready or not, here I come!"
And then Discord plummeted out of the sky — with no evidence that Rainbow had attacked him; it looked more like he'd been trying to follow her, couldn't go as fast, and had lost control. He almost crashed into evil Pinkie, but vanished and reappeared on the ground at the last second, panting and gasping.
"Ooh! Ooh! I have an idea!" The evil Pinkie bounced toward him. "You have to obey any orders from any of us, so if I say—"
She was too intent on her plans with Discord to notice Spike's paw until he had slammed it into her and flattened her to the ground, knocking the wind from her.
"Shit!" Evil Rainbow yelled. "Let her go!" She hit Spike's leg with enough force to dislodge it from the stunned evil Pinkie. Before the fully-pink pony could get her breath back to get up, her pink, blue and yellow counterpart from Spike's world had leapt out of a nearby bush and landed on her, with a colorful winter scarf in her hooves, which she wrapped around Evil Pinkie's neck. Evil Rainbow charged at her, but didn't have enough runway to build up any significant speed, so Spike managed to hit her this time, with a hard swat that sent her flying into a tree.
"Dude," he said to Discord, who was still on the ground gasping. "Get out of here, before one of them comes by to give you an order!"
And then evil Twilight appeared in a pop of teleportation, swaying on her feet. Discord tried to fly, but he was obviously too exhausted; he'd barely gotten a pony height off the ground before evil Twilight snapped, "Discord. Kill the alicorn with the same name as mine."
Rainbow Dash (Harmony)
As they circled back to the area where the others were fighting, now that the hydra was gone and Fluttershy and Fluttercruel had both run into the forest to the east, Rainbow looked back at Discord, who was struggling to keep up behind her. "I don't think you're gonna be able to stay up very much longer," she called to him.
"Prob...bab...ly... not," he gasped.
The other Rainbow was beating up on Spike. "Hey, if I dove down there and mixed it up with the other me, would you be able to tell the difference between us?"
He shook his head. "No."
"So maybe I should do that? You can't kill her, so you can't kill me if you think I'm her."
"No," he panted. "The magic... would... make me... find... another... target."
"Oh. Yeah. That would be bad." She looked down again. "I spy, with my little eye, a knife in a tree that crazy Pinkie lost. Maybe I need to go get that."
Discord visibly shuddered. "Those knives... are very, very... sharp," he said, his breathing finally evening out. "That would probably... work, but you can't... grab it off the ground easily. I'll have to follow you down, and as soon as I'm in range to hear Evil Twilight, she'll yell."
"You have no idea how fast I really am," Rainbow said, and blasted into the air like fireworks shot from a cannon, gaining enormous speed with each wingbeat.
She wasn't going to try for a Sonic Rainboom. She just had to go really really fast. And then grab a knife out of a tree barely a pony-height above the ground, and then not crash into the ground but pull up and get back into the air, and do all that before Discord could get into range to hear the other Twilight's voice. Piece of cake.
Behind her Discord followed, flying much more slowly than she was.
When Fluttershy took off to fight the hydra — or more specifically to fight her counterpart's control over it — Spike was haunted by the last thing she'd said.
He knew, of course, why she was trying so hard to get him to turn on Twilight. He had to face the facts. Twilight had turned into a monster. They all had, to one extent or another, but he'd tried so hard to believe that they had been corrupted by the evil disharmony Discord had introduced into their Elements, but Twilight had taken into her Element Order, the antithesis of Chaos, and so she was still good.
He'd wanted to believe. Even while she was torturing Discord, he'd wanted to believe. The ends justified the means sometimes, right? Discord was evil and deserved it, and Twilight's experiments could, maybe, make ponies immortal. She'd been so cold, so heartless, but he'd wanted to believe she was doing the right thing, that maybe she had a hard time showing it but she still cared. He'd seen her be so compassionate and kind with Princess Celestia, and she'd trusted and relied on him enough that she'd let him assist her with that, sometimes, let him alone of all of the group see Celestia drunk and depressed and lost in her eternal black grief.
And then, when Twilight was going to sacrifice Discord and end the world — she hadn't known. Discord had lied to her and manipulated her. Spike had to help Discord escape because the result of those lies was that Twilight would inadvertently destroy the world thinking she was saving it, but it wasn't her fault.
But then the first thing she'd said when she'd arrived was "Kill them all." Not even "Kill them all except our Spike." For all Spike knew, Discord could have interpreted her order to include him, and Twilight had shown no concern, no fear that that might happen. And now she was fighting her counterpart with dark magic, with spells Spike had seen used to kill. He remembered that monkey-like creature who'd conquered a large part of Amareica south of Equestria, who'd tried to take advantage of Equestria's shattered infrastructure and absence of soldiers to overpower Celestia with a device that had turned her to stone and try to conquer Equestria, and his lieutenant with the broken horn... and he remembered Twilight dropping them both with spells as dark as any Sombra had cast, stopping their hearts before the others had even arrived to bring their Elements to bear.
She had no reason why she should want the others dead so badly. They were just like her and her friends before they were corrupted. Twilight was trying to kill them, not negotiate, not befriend, not capture... just outright kill, because the Diadem of Order had turned her into a monster every bit as bad as Discord.
You were willing to kill Discord to save Equestria from him. But you're not willing to knock Twilight unconscious to save Equestria, and a group of innocent ponies, and your own other self?
But it was Twilight. His sister/mother/best friend/teacher and mentor, the pony who'd been there from the very beginning, whose side he'd been beside his entire life. How could he do anything to harm or betray her?
He saw the alternate Fluttershy drive off the hydra, saw her land and run into the forest, and the Fluttershy of this world follow her, screaming imprecations and threats, and knew if his world's Fluttershy caught up with the other one, she'd hurt her, maybe even kill her. Still, he hesitated. He owed no loyalty to alternate universe versions of his friends. It was his Twilight he'd sworn to serve, his Twilight's friends that he was bound to help.
And then he heard Rainbow Dash repeatedly calling him a loser, and pathetic, and dumb, and incompetent, because she was trying to rile up his other self — who had somehow managed to become a full-size adult dragon. He'd stood behind all of them, working with Twilight for months to try to find a way to fix them, and then, after she'd gotten the Diadem, doing his best to be as good of a helper and friend as he could be... and Rainbow Dash, who was supposed to be loyalty, was calling him a loser.
Twilight hadn't. Twilight hadn't said anything to him... but Twilight had said "Kill them all" and hadn't cared if it included him.
Maybe the other Fluttershy was right. If the alternates had the power to do something to reharmonize Twilight and his friends, maybe he should help them win. If his "side" won, they'd kill the others, but he'd seen how the alternates behaved the way his friends used to, before Discord. That meant alternate Fluttershy was almost certainly telling the truth.
Spike took a deep breath. Another one. And then he headed toward where the two Twilights were fighting.
It wasn't even fully accurate to say that two Twilights were fighting. The alicorn was mostly only dodging and shielding. Occasionally she fired a spell from her horn, but it was gold or white or the light purple of Twilight's normal aura. His Twilight, the unicorn, was the only one actually fighting. She fired spell after spell at the alicorn, most of them churning and dark, spells that promised death and pain. Most of them hit the alicorn's shield; she was plainly better at magic than she was at flight. She'd clearly learned a lot from Shining Armor, maybe even more than his Twilight, to make such perfect shields. Spike saw, over and over, how the shield broke and there was another one inside it. Once his Twilight took down both of the alicorn's shields, and there was a third one inside. His Twilight was mechanical, precise, but her magic revealed her true feelings, black as moonless night — which happened a lot nowadays, when Celestia got too overwhelmed with grief to touch the moon.
She was the bad guy here. He'd read so many comic books, and wondered over and over why the villains' minions ever demonstrated loyalty, when even the best of the villains were mean and abusive to their minions. Now he knew. How many of those minions, he wondered, thought the villain was probably doing the right thing, desperately trying to convince themselves that the pony they loved and trusted was still a good pony? How many of them served evil, believing they were serving good?
He wasn't going to be one of those. Not anymore.
"Twilight!" he yelled. "Twilight, you need to—"
She turned toward him, her eyes dark and leaking energy, and before he even registered what was going on, she fired a bolt of magic at him.
He staggered, an overwhelming pain in his chest bringing him to his knees. "...Twi... light?" he gasped.
And the darkness in her eyes vanished. A look of horror formed on her face. "Spike? Oh no. No! That wasn't for you!" She ran over to him. "Spike, you have to be all right!"
He was pretty sure he wasn't. The pain hadn't stopped, and the world was growing dim around the edges. He heard Twilight shouting, "No, no, no!" and felt her pull him into her hooves, but it all felt very far away. His chest burned, but his limbs were cold and he couldn't feel them.
"Let me try," he heard Twilight say, but it didn't have the raw anguish in the voice that he'd just heard. And then he felt warmth, and an easing of the pain. "You've hit me with that thing so many times, I came up with a healing spell for it."
Spike breathed, and realized that a moment ago, he hadn't been. He coughed, and blinked, because his eyes had been open but he hadn't been seeing anything anymore and now his eyes were dry. "What... just happened?" he managed.
There were two Twilights. The unicorn was on the ground, holding him. The alicorn was standing up, the glow from her horn fading. And then the unicorn's eyes went black again, and she dumped him on the ground and fired a spell at the alicorn — who returned fire.
"How dare you? How dare you? I save his life from your stupid mistake and the first thing you think is to attack me? How dare you even call yourself Twilight Sparkle?" The alicorn's magic slammed Twilight into the ground, and every time her horn lit up, another bolt of magic struck her head, keeping her from being able to get up or use her magic. "You're not me! You've given up everything about you that made you me! You're a monster! You're so jealous and selfish you almost kill Spike and then you attack me again right after I save him?"
"You're right! I'm not you!" Twilight managed to shield herself from the alicorn's onslaught as she paused to catch a breath. "You were weak, and pathetic, and you couldn't even save your friends! You thought you'd fixed everything when you got the Elements of Harmony and freed your friends from Discord's first spell, but it just made everything terrible! And then in your world you got lucky enough that it didn't matter! You won, even though you didn't deserve to win!"
"You weren't weak and pathetic!" the alicorn yelled back as they traded blows, both of them shielded, each one's magic splashing uselessly against the other's shield. "You were unlucky! That was all it was! And then you sold yourself to save your friends and defeat Discord, and that was noble but it was stupid because you aren't even you anymore! I don't know what you are but I could never try to kill someone who just saved Spike's life! What good did it do you to defeat Discord when you didn't break his spell on your friends and you didn't free yourself from that thing you merged with and you turned into a monster?"
"Shut up! Shut up shut up shut UP!" Twilight's barrage intensified in speed and viciousness, but the alicorn just stood there, determination on her face, letting the magic bounce away from her shields. As soon as Twilight stopped to catch her breath, the alicorn started crushing her shield with a wall of raw force. Spike could see just enough of it to follow what was happening.
"I feel sorry for you, but I can't let you keep trying to kill me. Others are getting hurt — like you just would have killed Spike if I hadn't healed him!"
"Stop it! Stop it! Just die!" Twilight was firing spells from behind her shield, but the alicorn was relentless.
"No. You and your friends need to be saved from yourselves, and I know how to do it." She walked forward. "You forgot, I'm an alicorn. You're faster than I am with that thing added to your power, and before you got obsessed with killing me and overwhelmed with your own dark emotions, you were smarter... but you hate me so much for not being corrupted like you, it's ruined your judgement. My pool is larger than yours. You're close to exhausted now, aren't you?" She spoke, even as Twilight continued to yell at her to shut up and die, and continued to walk forward, and continued to crush Twilight's shield in her magic. "I was counting. See, I know how powerful I was when I was a unicorn, but you have no idea of my reserves. I let you use yourself up, but I'm not even tired yet."
At that point there was a crashing noise behind Spike. Despite how riveted he was by the battle between the two Twilights, Spike couldn't help but turn to see what had happened.
There were two Rainbow Dashes near the other Spike, one higher in the air than the other... and Discord, down on the ground, looking like he'd been stunned. The other Pinkie bounced toward him, the other Spike stepped on her, one of the Rainbow Dashes charged at him and he swatted her into a tree. Discord was still on the ground, not even on his feet.
He looked back at the Twilights — but his Twilight had followed his gaze and was obviously looking at Discord. And then, with her shield under intolerable strain and about to crack, she vanished in a flash of teleportation.
"Discord. Kill the alicorn with the same name as mine."
Three minutes. Fluttercruel's orders. Wait three minutes before obeying Twilight's orders.
What could he do? How could he get out of this within three minutes? His normal five seconds was up; his body had started to tremble, because the three-minute rule made it possible for him to not comply, for three minutes, but it was still a struggle to hold himself still.
Where was Rainbow Dash? He looked around desperately, and saw her up in the air, near Spike, but he was too close to Twilight and if she tried to fly in with the knife she was holding, Twilight would block her. Evil Twilight. Where was the other Twilight?
There she was. "You've lost!" Order Twilight shouted at Alicorn Twilight. "Discord has to obey my orders, and I've just ordered him to kill you!" She turned back to Discord. "Immediately. Not as part of some sort of long-range thing. I want her dead right now."
Three minutes, and how much of it had he used? Looks of horror on everyone's face. Determination on Alicorn Twilight's face. She'd try to fight him off, but because he'd avoided killing, she had no idea how deadly he was. She couldn't stop him from putting a chicken egg in her brain or making her teeth into high explosives (no don't think about it think about another way to do it one she can fight no too late you've thought it)
Rainbow flew at him, only to be knocked back by unicorn Twilight. "Kill that one, too, while you're at it. In fact kill all of the ones that came from your universe."
Large Spike was drawing a deep breath. It wasn't going to work. His power wouldn't let him burn and it wouldn't let someone else's power teleport him without him actively allowing it to, which he couldn't do because he had no control over his power.
That was Rainbow. The evil Rainbow. Probably. He looked around. A Rainbow was hovering in mid-air, over by Spike, but he couldn't tell whether it was the one Twilight had knocked away or the one Spike had hit.
"This stuff with you killing ponies is stupid! Me and my friends don't need your help, we don't need anyone's help! Just take off your stupid collar and stop listening to Twilight's dumb orders!"
Which Rainbow was it his Rainbow or the other was it the one he was compelled to obey or the one he couldn't obey which Rainbow which Rainbow
Only his Rainbow would say to take off his collar but only the other Rainbow would say "me and my friends don't need your help" because they were the ones he was compelled to help so which one was it which one which one
"What the—" Order Twilight turned on the Rainbow. "What are you doing?"
Evil Pinkie, from the ground, yelled, "It's not—" and then Spike stepped on her again, mushing her face into the dirt and keeping her from talking.
The second Rainbow came up. "That's not me! I didn't say that!"
Of course she didn't, that wasn't the question. He knew which of the two Rainbows had said the words but not which Rainbow that one was.
"'Course you didn't, lamebrain," the first Rainbow sneered. "I did. What, did you get confused?" She looked directly at Discord. "Yo, Dipcord! You heard what I said! Do it!"
"No!" Order Twilight yelled, but three minutes. He didn't have to obey her for three minutes, but he was supposed to obey Rainbow Dash without delay.
And then he smiled. He was Discord, the master of chaos. Reality was what he said it was. Harmony and Order had combined to place this spell on him, to make him obey the Rainbow Dash of this world, but it was up to him to define which Rainbow Dash was the one he had to obey. And the one who'd told him to take off his collar was rude, abrasive and insulting. Which described all Rainbow Dashes, but this one was doing it to excess. Also, her statement that they didn't need help sounded a lot like her reason for telling him to kill the others by "biting them or something." Obviously, that was this world's Rainbow Dash and he was required to remove his collar.
As soon as he thought of it, he felt his power flexing without his conscious control. Then the collar fell away, and a world of chaos magic returned in a roar.
"No!" Order Twilight shrieked. "You have to—"
And then he didn't hear anything else. He smirked at Twilight, and showed her the pair of ears in his paw. "Sorry!" he caroled, and he could hear that through the bones in his ears, but the sound of anything outside his head had been warped to mush. "I couldn't quite make that out!"
Her horn flashed, and letters appeared in front of him. Except he had dyslexia, according to his Twilight; he could read easily with magical assistance, or with great effort and concentration without such assistance. He would put neither the effort nor the concentration into reading Order Twilight's words; they were a blur of meaningless letters. "Oh, no, the horror!" Discord called out. "If only I could read, I might be able to tell what you're ordering me to do!"
For two months he'd been thinking about this. Carefully mapping out how this would work, how he could perform what was probably the largest and most complex working he'd ever done, if he ever got the chance. He hadn't factored in the piece of Harmony, still lying on the ground where this world's Spike had set it down, nor had he considered the role of the crystals inside him, which he could only survive if he poured out all of his magic. And maybe not even then, but he was free. His power, now fully his own, ripped through and broke the bindings of Honesty and Loyalty and obedience that had bound him for two months, meaning he was safe to restore his hearing again.
He could improvise. His original plan, what he'd intended for this working, had been less ambitious. With Harmony in the mix and the need to dump as much of his magic as possible, he had a lot more power to work with than he'd thought he would, but limits on what Harmony would let him get away with. Well, Harmony ought to be positively over the moon with joy if his plans worked out. If it had the intelligence of the tree it had been taken from, it would cooperate.
Next, he reached out to find Fluttershy and Fluttercruel. They hadn't gone far, but Fluttercruel had caught up to his Fluttershy, and they were fighting. He summoned them both, dropping them in separate corners of the meadow, and thought momentarily about getting revenge on Fluttercruel... but he'd made a promise, and his memories of his own other self told him that he had made her the way she was, and the thing he was planning to do would probably be more than enough revenge, anyway.
Ponies all around him were yelling — the Opposition were trying to get past the Harmony ponies to attack him. He assumed, attack him. They weren't trying to run away, anyway. Order Twilight was firing various deadly spells at him, and Harmony Twilight was shielding him, but that wasn't necessary; he could protect himself. With a thought, he turned Order Twilight's horn into a Longest Night noisemaker, the kind you blow and a loud noise and strands of tinsel fly out. She tried to perform magic, and the noise rang out, tinsel flying from her horn. Somewhere, both Pinkie Pies were laughing hysterically.
He didn't dare use his magic to sense the crystals — touching them directly with chaos magic would make them grow all the faster. He'd like to survive this, if it was possible... and survive it without abandoning his body. If he had to come back from the dead without his body, he'd lose a few years' worth of memory... which was long enough to hold all his memories of Fluttershy, all of his knowledge of friendship. He'd keep the most recent memories, the past two weeks or so, but those were largely memories of being tortured, and if he didn't remember friendship he could become a danger to his friends. If that was going to be the case, he'd rather stay dead. Which meant he had to expel as much of his magic as possible. Good thing the working he was planning was likely to take nearly everything he had.
With telekinesis, he grabbed the piece of Harmony. It didn't want to respond — it didn't like being touched by his telekinesis, even though straight-up TK wasn't particularly either harmonic or chaotic — but he was able to force the issue. All around him ponies were yelling. "Discord, be careful with that!" "Stop! Don't let him—" "You fools! He's going to destroy the entire world!" "Discord, please! Don't!" That last was from Fluttercruel. He grinned at her.
The Branch of Harmony floated into his paw, which immediately turned numb. Discord wanted an audience for this, so he cast a spell of silence on everyone. The screaming and yelling stopped abruptly, as did the Pinkies' laughter.
Don't waste power on a dramatic costume. Resist the temptation to make a speech. Yes, he had wanted for so long to tell Order Twilight and Fluttercruel and all the others what he really thought of them, but there would be time for that afterward if he lived, and if not, oh well.
Even chaos magic needed words to anchor it sometimes, a spell that constrained it into doing a specific thing. Or an uncountable number of specific things, in this case.
He cleared his throat. Everyone was listening, watching him.
"Untie, disperse, unbind
Restore, untwist, rewind
Let disorder disorder disorder, thus order
Unravel the end till begun
Let all that chaos has wrought
By chaos' touch be undone!"
As he spoke, the pressure of the magic he was constraining built up, everything he had. With his last phrase, he slammed the Branch of Harmony into the ground with his numb paw, and drove a spike of magic down into the chaos turbines below the Everfree, smashing them. Ending the Everfree's protection from Harmony, but at this point the world was too broken and there'd been too much chaos, and chaos alone couldn't fix it, and he'd made a promise. Chaos must smash chaos for the sister to reach. With the turbines gone, the Branch would be able to communicate with the Tree, and re-harmonize it. And that would free his alter ego to finally stop existing.
It would be far too small, at first, to do much of anything. But there was about to be a boatload of free, ambient magical energy the Branch could suck in and use. Funny. He'd killed this Tree of Harmony once, but unlike the others he'd killed, it hadn't stayed dead. Foolish of him. You couldn't kill Harmony any more than you could kill Chaos, or Order.
What was this going to do to Matrisse? Oh, he so hoped he'd get to see.
And then the rest of the magic he'd been holding back poured forth, turning the sky dark purple and gold, blotting the sun and the clouds and making the world turn dim, and he realized that his body had been teetering on the edge of losing consciousness for some time, kept going by his order-driven attempts to kill Rainbow Dash — thank you, Rainbow Dash, thank you for knowing that if you were a huge jerk I could pretend you were the one I needed to obey, thank you for saving me and if I die it's okay because I'll be free — and then by his magic. Which was now rushing out of him, while at the same time, there were stabbing pains in his gut, making him want to double over in agony. The magic couldn't pass out of him without touching those crystals. Survival was looking less likely. Consciousness was something he was about to have to give up.
Oh, wait, he'd been using chaos magic to heal himself from multiple horrible injuries over the course of the last two months, hadn't he. Well, yeah. Survival was very unlikely. This was going to hurt unimaginably, except for the part where he was about to lose consciousness and wouldn't feel any of it. Didn't matter. He'd fulfill his promise, free the broken shade of his other, and protect his friends, and if he died, he'd die free.
He swayed on his feet from the exertion, from the pain, and smiled at Order Twilight and Fluttercruel. "I win."
The ground began to shake. Discord's legs gave out, and he felt himself falling, but darkness claimed him before he hit the ground.