The ground rumbled violently. Before she had time to even think about it, Twilight found herself half-running, half-flying, barely escaping the grasp of the plant-worm thing that had suddenly erupted out of the ground. Her attempt to get any kind of height was stymied by a draconequus suddenly landing on her, arms wrapped around her neck and tail wrapped around her middle. Twilight turned to face the thing, horn at the ready, backing away as its maw opened and tentacles flung themselves outward.
"What in the world!?" Discord's exclamation sounded almost like a shriek.
It hadn't surprised Twilight when Discord had wrapped himself around her in an apparent pretense of terror, after he'd been pretending all day to be sick and needing her attention. It hadn't surprised her that he was improbably light, either; her ability to fly was impeded more by his bulk and how extremely non-aerodynamic having him clinging to her was making her than by his weight. But hearing what sounded like a genuine exclamation of fear and shock from him – that shook her. She'd been certain Discord had invented that creature just to annoy her. If he really was startled by it – if he really was afraid and not being a gigantic attention-hogging drama llama again – that didn't say a lot of good things about her and Cadance's ability to fight the thing off indefinitely.
The creature reared up, Twilight readied a blast, Discord raised his talon to snap, and Twilight could feel Cadence next to her gathering magical energies for a shield.
And then it spat some sort of goo at them.
Twilight was startled enough not to fire the blast she had prepared. Cadance's shield converted to a magic health bubble spell instead, purging the ponies of the goo, and any disease organisms it might be carrying, instantly. The creature slumped backward, sliding back into its hole in a trail of goo.
Discord was still covered in the stuff. He hadn't managed to summon any kind of spell in time. For a moment Twilight wondered if Cadance had left him out of the health bubble on purpose, and then realized that that was impossible; Discord was still hanging on Twilight. Leaving him out of the bubble would have risked leaving her out as well. It just hadn't worked on him. Which made a certain amount of sense. Discord was mostly impervious to harmonic magic, the kind that almost all unicorn magic used.
Or he could be trying to repeat his fake illness. Within seconds, he had turned as green all over as he'd been blue before, and dark spots appeared all over his fur. Diseases didn't work that fast and Twilight had actually never seen a disease turn a pony's fur or feathers a different color. Discord wasn't a pony, but if anything that ought to make him less likely to get sick from pretty much anything.
Before she could say anything about it, he suddenly became extremely heavy. Twilight staggered, and Discord's arms and tail slipped free of her body. He crashed to the ground with a startled cry, falling on his back.
Twilight backed away from him. "Discord, what are you trying to pull now?"
"Pull? I'm not trying to pull anything!" He sat up, brushing the dirt off himself with every appearance of being genuinely irritated. "Just look at me! What did that thing do?"
"It's given you the green pox, apparently," Cadence said. "A terrible illness. First the victims turn green, then they start itching uncontrollably, then they foam at the mouth, and finally they're overwhelmed with a desperate need to confess their love to inanimate objects." She shook her head sadly.
Discord glared at Cadance. "Oh, you're very funny, princess," he spat. "You'll be taking Pinkie Pie's title as Equestria's resident comedian any day now."
"Are you seriously trying to tell me you didn't make those things?" Twilight asked skeptically.
"They weren't supposed to come out like that!" Abruptly Discord seemed to realize what he had just admitted to. "I – I mean, I've never – I didn't—" He wilted slightly under Twilight's glare. "The tatzlwurms were supposed to be much smaller than that," he confessed. "They were just supposed to be a, a challenge. You know. A bit of an obstacle to make things interesting. Not that giant... thing. And where did that repulsive goo come from and what has it done to me?" He made a show of struggling to his feet and sinking back down again. "I haven't been this weak since... never! Wait, am I turning to stone again? Don't tell me—"
"You're not turning to stone," Twilight said, exasperated. "You're just green."
"But I feel so heavy," Discord said plaintively. "I can barely move my muscles. I suppose you're right, they can't be turning to stone because I can still feel them, but they ache."
"Right. You just spent the whole day pretending to be sick to mess up my day with my sister in law, and now you're really sick. Discord, how stupid do you think I am?"
"Why, I don't think you're stupid at all," Discord said, in what was probably supposed to be an overdramatic, how-could-you-think-such-a-thing tone, except for the coughing fit at the end, which left him doubled over on the ground, clutching at the grass as if he was afraid of sliding off the mountain.
"Uh-huh. So why do you think I'm going to believe that you're really sick now?"
Discord looked up at her, lifting his head slightly off the ground. "Because I really am!" He lowered his head again. "Or something. Maybe I'm under some sort of spell. Why do I feel so weak?"
"Don't know, don't care," Twilight said. "You ever hear the expression, 'Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me?'"
"Twilight, be reasonable. You already passed my friendship test! Why would I need to do the same—" He started coughing again.
"I don't know. It doesn't make any sense that you'd think I'd fall for it now. But that's your specialty, isn't it? Things that don't make any sense." She looked over at Cadance. "Come on, Cadance. Let's go home."
"Wait!" Discord pulled himself to his feet, moving slowly and as if his body was dragging on him. "Twilight, I really don't feel well at all. I'm entirely serious about this. I need help."
"So teleport home," Twilight said. "Or fly. You can fly with us if you insist you need someone to spot you."
"I can't fly." He flapped his wings a couple of times, pitifully. They were plainly much too small to give him any lift on their own, without his magic negating gravity, which it was apparently not doing. "I'm much too weak. I can barely stand up!" To illustrate his point, he wobbled and almost fell over, catching himself by bracing his tail against the ground at the last moment.
"Discord, we're done here. I don't know why you're trying so hard to make me believe this particular story, but it's way too coincidental for you to get really sick just after you've been faking being sick all day. And the same kind of sickness – just a different color."
"I know!" Discord said, a pleading note in his voice. "There's not making sense, and there's being entirely stupid. Do you think I don't know how unlikely this is? I wouldn't try to fake another illness right now, because I know you wouldn't believe me!"
"So I'm supposed to believe you because you wouldn't fake an illness because I wouldn't believe you."
"No." She turned to Cadance, who'd spent the whole interchange looking at Discord with a speculative expression. "Let's go home, Cadance."
"Do you really think that's wise?" Cadance asked, concern in her voice.
"Yes," Twilight said, flapping her wings and lifting off the ground. "It's almost dark, and we don't want to be out here in unfamiliar territory when night falls."
"Twilight, please. I'm not faking this! I—my magic isn't working and I feel awful, please help me." Twilight ignored him, beckoning Cadance to follow her, and after a moment of looking at Discord with uncertainty, the other alicorn finally did so. "No, wait!" Discord shouted, as they took to the air. "Don't leave me here!"
"I'm pretty sure you can find your own way home," Twilight called down to him. "Fluttershy will be back tomorrow around lunchtime, so if you really aren't feeling well, I'm sure you can go drop in on her once you get back."
"But I can't! I—Twilight!" She turned away from the draconequus and began to fly in earnest. "You've disappointed me, Twilight, I'm very disappointed!" he called after her, and then started coughing again.
Cadance sounded worried. "Twilight, are you absolutely sure this is a good idea?"
"Yes," Twilight said, and then threw up a silence bubble around herself and Cadance. "No. Please put up a bubble around this one."
Cadance did as Twilight suggested, so that Twilight could cast a sonic illusion outside the bubble, the sound of flapping wings, to mask the presence of a silence bubble at all. "What are you thinking?"
"I want to land some distance away and cast a scrying spell on him, when he thinks we've gone. If he's faking, he'll probably have teleported home by now. If he's not... well, I want to see what he does when he thinks we're not watching."
"Ah, I see." Cadance nodded. "And maybe teach him a bit of a lesson about crying timberwolf, I'm guessing?"
Twilight grinned. "I really do think it's way too much of a coincidence for the whatever he called it, tatzlwurm? Is that what he said?"
"Yes, I think so."
"Right. It's ridiculous that the tatzlwurm could get him sick, right after he's been pretending to be sick all day, especially since he admitted he had something to do with creating or modifying the things. But... he was taking it pretty far for a scheme of some kind. When he was faking, he kept using his powers all over the place. He's not doing that anymore. So... maybe he's actually telling the truth this time. But I want to know for sure, first."
"Don't you think it would be better to send the message that you can rely on your friends to help you when you need it?"
"Not if it means sending the message that your friends are doormats. Or idiots. Discord has to know that sometimes, he's going to get called on his games. If he isn't faking, we'll help him, but I want him to know that he can't fool me the same way twice."
She chose a likely looking spot and glided down to a landing, Cadance following her. "All right. Let's see what he's up to when no one's looking at him."
An image formed. Discord, still green and spotted, was on all fours, walking very slowly down the mountain, his tail dragging in the dirt. "... stupid tatzlwurm," he was muttering. "Chaos, why do you do this to me? Don't I bring you enough exploding flowers and thermonuclear chocolate? You're a witch, you know that? Think you wouldn't be so high maintenance after all these years..." He sighed. "Note to self: stay better focused on being unfocused. Obviously crossed some streams someplace... oh, gods, why am I so tired? Feel like... I've been outrunning... Elder Gods... for a century or two. I do not like this. Stupid Twilight Sparkle."
Cadance looked over at Twilight. "That doesn't sound like he's faking."
"Maybe not. But if he suspects that I might be watching him, he might be dragging it out."
At this point, the ground erupted under Discord with a roar. He shrieked like a foal and rolled, barely clearing the area by the time the tatzlwurm burst free. "Oh, for the love of-! This is ridiculous!" he shouted.
One of the tatzlwurm's tentacles snagged Discord's leg and started dragging him in. He doubled his body over into nearly a circle, bringing his teeth and claws into the same area as his leg, and swiped at the tentacle with his claws while grabbing it with his talon. It tore, just as another one wrapped around Discord's tail. Snarling, Discord flipped himself in the other direction, backward, grabbed the tentacle around his tail with his mouth and bit down, ripping it in half.
Twilight watched with interest. She'd never seen Discord use his body as a weapon before; for all that he was a large, savage-looking creature with a predator's teeth and claws, he was almost excessively civilized. Immature, selfish, and malicious, but civilized. His weapons of choice were invariably words, followed by his chaos powers. He even went two-legged most of the time, crippling his body's ability to move quickly in favor of being able to employ his opposable thumbs. The fact that he wasn't using his magic to fight the tatzlwurm suggested he might not be faking his illness, but the fact that he was able to react so quickly and with such apparent strength to the attack threw into question his complaints about being weak.
The tatzlwurm shrieked and reared back. It seemed to be a different one than the one that had sneezed goop all over them; possibly the same one that had been under the flower, because it seemed robust and healthy, and also had the ability to fly, or at least jump absurd distances. It lunged at Discord, who twisted sideways again, rolled under the creature and raked it with his claws, then rolled out from under it, came to all fours, and ran frantically as it curled itself around with a scream and pursued him.
Discord ran straight for a cliff face, muttering something to himself as he ran. Twilight increased the sound amplification on the scrying spell so she could hear him. "...know you wanna break loose, come on, do it for old Discord, you never liked being part of that mountain anyway, come on, come on, be your own giant hunk of rock and stop living in daddy mountain's shadow, come on..."
He came up against the cliff face, backed against it, panting hard. The tatzlwurm charged straight for him. For a horrifying moment Twilight thought, what if he isn't faking? What if that thing eats him before we can get back there? She readied a teleport spell – as annoying as Discord was, she didn't want to see him die, or even suffer grievous physical injury. Before she could invoke it, Discord was twisting himself out of the way, moving more like the tatzlwurm himself than like a creature with legs. The tatzlwurm slammed into the cliff face, and a large, jagged piece of the cliff face broke loose and fell on it, squashing its head. Its back end twitched once, and then went still.
"YES!" Discord pumped a fist into the air. "I've still got it! Woohoo!" He then collapsed into a puddle of coils on the ground, coughing. "Ugh. So tired... " Inching along the ground the same way he had when he'd asked Cadence and Twilight to carry him from the Starswirl exhibit and they'd refused, he made his way over to the dead tatzlwurm and the giant rock on top of it, got to his feet, and climbed the rock.
"Well, Bob, that wasn't quite as hilarious as the adventure I had with your cousin Tom a couple of years ago, but I'm glad to see that when push comes to shove—" Another coughing fit. When it subsided, Discord draped himself backward over the top of the rock, lion limb over his eyes as if the fading sunset was hurting his eyes. "...that you're willing to break free of Dad and be your own rock... did I thank you for saving my life back there? No? Well, thanks. You can be my new second best friend, Twilight obviously doesn't want the job." He turned over onto his belly. "Is this what nausea really feels like? I think I'd forgotten. Urgh. Either that or I've pulled every muscle in my abdomen. Why does it hurt so much to move?" If it hurt him to move, it wasn't stopping him, apparently; he curled up on top of the rock, bending into a semicircle lying on the relatively flat top of the jagged boulder. "Feel so heavy... what's wrong with me? The chaos is there, I can feel it... just can't reach. So tired, hurts to breathe. I didn't turn the oxygen into glass shards, why does it feel like... I did? Maybe just... need some sleep. Yeah. I'll take a nap, feel better when I get up, then I'll go turn Twilight into a turnip for leaving me here... nah, Fluttershy won't like that... I'll just make her head look like a turnip and pretend it's her own magic that did it. That'll work."
Twilight scowled. Cadance said, "Well, I'd say that's pretty definite. I can't imagine he'd say that if he knew we were still watching him."
"I'll turn him into a turnip," Twilight said. "I know he'll just turn himself back, but after everything he put us through today-!"
"You did leave him to be nearly eaten by a tatzlwurm because you thought he was faking an illness he really had," Cadance said.
"You're standing up for him?" Twilight looked at her sister-in-law in shock.
"I'm standing up for you, Twilight. You're a better pony than this. You were willing to try to take care of Discord before you knew for certain that he was faking because of the chance that he might be sincere. Does the fact that he was faking illness all day really change anything? You already knew he was a liar, a trickster, and that he might be faking." She waved a hoof at the image, where Discord was shivering, trying to coil himself tighter, and mumbling something about wishing he could conjure himself a blanket. "It's pretty clear he's not faking now."
"Yeah, but the fact that he was faking it, and that he was actually upset that you said this hadn't really disrupted your day with me and you needed a challenge like this, that tells me he set out deliberately to ruin my time with you! For no reason except that he despises friendship! And he uses 'friendship' as an excuse to do it!"
"I actually don't think that despising friendship was the reason he did this. I think—"
Whatever Cadance was going to say she thought was cut off by a rumbling sound in the image. Both ponies turned to watch as yet another tatzlwurm burst out of the ground right near the giant rock crushing the body of their compatriot, hissing and roaring.
"Oh, now, this is totally unfair!" Discord shouted. He tried to get to his feet, but before he could move, the tatzlwurm's tentacles had wrapped around his dragon leg, his tail, and part of his upper body as he tried to lunge up and away. "Chaos, why are you doing this to me?" Discord wailed, scrabbling at the rock with both paw and talon, trying to cling to it as the tatzlwurm pulled at him. He thrashed, twisting and kicking, wings beating frantically, but the tatzlwurm had too much leverage. Slowly, inexorably, it pulled him across the surface of the rock, despite the fact that his talon was dug in hard enough that it was scoring gouges in the rock as the tatzlwurm pulled.
Discord started laughing. It wasn't one of his laughs of triumph or mockery or amusement or condescension. It sounded broken, hysterical, the laughter of a being who'd just discovered that the universe's ultimate practical joke was being played on him. The sound snapped Twilight out of her shocked focus on the images in her scrying spell.
"Cadance, I'm going to get him. Cover me!" Twilight teleported, directly above the tatzlwurm that was trying to pull Discord into its maw.
"Let go of my annoying pain in the rear friend!" she shouted, firing down at the tatzlwurm. She couldn't fire into its vulnerable mouth, Discord was too close to it. The tatzlwurm shrieked and thrashed, but took no serious injury.
Discord twisted his head around to look up at her. "Twilight?"
Cadance appeared, and fired at the back of the tatzlwurm's head. It screamed, its tentacles releasing Discord as it twisted around to face its new attacker. Discord fell off the rock and slumped onto the ground at its base, sitting against the rock, wide yellow eyes still staring at Twilight in shock. "You came back..."
Between the two of them, Cadance and Twilight alternately battered and wrestled the tatzlwurm back into the hole it came from. Then Cadance levitated Discord out of the way so Twilight could roll the large bulk of Bob the rock off the dead tatzlwurm and deposit it on top of the hole.
Cadance set Discord down against the base of the cliff. "How do you feel?" she asked.
"Awful beyond belief." As Twilight landed next to them, Discord turned on her. "What took you so long? I could have been—" Hacking and coughing. "-killed!"
His obvious anger might have been more menacing if he wasn't slumped at the base of the cliff in obvious misery, barely moving, his eyes completely bloodshot and his voice hoarse, with an irritating scratchy note to it as if he needed to clear his throat. He looked as if he could barely sit up. Every part of his body was tinged a dull green, and the dark spots all over the fur on his neck and head had multipled.
"Relax, Discord," Twilight said, smiling sardonically. "You just passed my 'Is Discord Still Being A Big Fat Liar Or Is He Really Sick' test. Sorry about the tatzlwurm grabbing you before I could get here, but, you know, I didn't put them here."
"They... weren't supposed... to be like this," Discord said, wheezing.
Cadance tried to cast a spell on him to strengthen and heal his lungs, but it slid off him like water off a greasy pan. "Don't... bother... my dear," Discord panted. "Healing... spells... don't work... on me."
"Oh, that must make life difficult," Cadance said sympathetically.
"Not unless... they draw from chaos," Discord said. "Don't... suppose either of you can do... chaos magic?"
Twilight and Cadance looked at each other. "It... hasn't really been among my top priorities to learn," Twilight said. "Given that my Element of Magic comes from Harmony, after all."
"I could make you fall in love with somepony," Cadance said. "Depending on how I cast it, that can be a chaotic spell."
Discord grimaced. "No thank you. I have... enough problems." He looked up at Twilight. "Let me... guess. You flew off... and spied on me... to see if I was faking?"
Twilight nodded. "Did you guess at the time, or are you just figuring it out now?"
"Now. At the time... I thought... you left me."
"Well, I'd give you a medal for passing my test, then, but I don't have one... actually, what happened to the one you gave me?" She looked down as she realized for the first time that the medal appeared to be gone.
Discord sighed. "Chaos has a problem with permanence..."
"Whatever you did to the tatzlwurms didn't wear off."
"I keep... telling you. That wasn't... how they were... supposed to come out." He closed his eyes. "I'm so tired. Can we go home?"
Twilight looked around. "I think that's going to be an issue," she said slowly. "If you can't fly, and you can't teleport... Cadance and I can't carry you with magic all the way back to Canterlot, or Ponyville, or wherever we're dropping you off, and your chariot seems to have disappeared just like the medal you gave me did."
Discord curled in on himself, coiling like a snake, with his legs inside the coils, and his wings spread out over them, shivering. His head was draped over the top of his own coils, eyes heavy-lidded though not quite closed anymore. "Can you get me a blanket?" he mumbled. "I'm so cold."
Twilight sighed. "The blankets and pillows you had with your chariot are also gone." She put a hoof on his forehead. "Huh. You're much hotter than you were earlier."
Despite his apparent weakness, Discord smirked. "Oh, really? You prefer green on me that much? How flattering, Twilight, thank you."
Twilight scowled at him. "I am going to give Fluttershy the recipe for the grossest, most awful tasting, disgusting anti-fever potion I can find in the library and I'm going to have her make you take it."
"Oh no the horror." He couldn't even fake faking being worried.
Cadance cast another health bubble on Twilight. "Until we know what he has, we need to keep ourselves protected from getting it," she said. "If you touch him, you should cast a health bubble to sterilize anything you might pick up from him. The tatzlwurm sneeze acted on him so fast, we can't take any chances. If this is an illness, it could be incredibly contagious."
"Or maybe it only affects draconequui. Or avatars of chaos," Discord mumbled.
Twilight levitated one of the giant flower petals over to him. "One of these fell on me earlier. They're not perfect, but they'll block the wind, at least."
"Oh." He shivered when she dropped it over him, and then used his paws to pull it almost closed around the front of his coiled body, like a cape. "Thank you, Twilight. That... really isn't much better though."
"It's what we've got." How were they going to get him home? He was too large to carry on a single pony's back and there was no way they could fly with him draped across the both of them. Besides, now that he wasn't using his magic to lighten himself he was a lot heavier than he'd been. They didn't have his chariot, not that she wanted to pull that godawfully heavy thing again anyway, and they couldn't very well make a travois and pull him if they were going to fly...
...or could they?
Her face lit up with a manic grin as she figured out how they were going to do this.
Half an hour later, a heavily protesting Discord, straightened out, was wrapped tightly in giant flower petals, only his face and snout exposed. Tentacles from the dead tatzlwurm bound him, holding his arms, legs, and wings inside the flower petal cocoon and keeping it wrapped around him. The stem of the giant flower had been cut in half and hollowed out to make a travois long enough to lay him on, with a bit of magic to transform the outside of the stem into wood to make it stronger while leaving the inside as softer, squishier plant matter for a cushion. More strips of the stem had been transformed into ropes, some of which tied Discord's cocooned body onto the travois, tightly enough that he couldn't slip free. The travois wasn't entirely long enough for his full body, including tail, so a small part of his tail hung over the edge, swishing frantically but helplessly. Twilight was using more of the plant matter to create harnesses for herself and Cadance, so they could attach Discord's travois at four points and keep it more or less stabilized in the air.
"I would like to state, for the record, that I have the strongest objections possible to this plan," Discord said, for the fourth time. Twilight thought he must really be upset to have repeated himself this many times. Discord didn't normally like repeating himself at all.
"And I would like to state, for the record, that I still don't see any other safe way for Cadance and I to transport you back home, so your objections are noted and are being ignored."
"Twilight, the tatzlwurm skin is fuzzy! Do you want me to peel enough of the skin off that we can wrap it around him for an extra layer of protection from the wind? We've got a long trip and I think he's got a pretty high fever."
"If you can magically cure it so it's more like leather than dead animal skin, sure."
"Well, it's actually a plant, so it won't be like leather, but I think I can cure it to be a little tougher on the inner surface, so we can put that side facing out and let the fuzzy side face him to keep him a little warmer."
"Please tell me I'm having a nightmare," Discord said. "Luna, I bow to your superiority, very funny, now let me wake up please."
"Do you have nightmares about mares tying you up fairly often?" Cadance said. "I think maybe if you found a way to explore your fantasies in a safe environment with a mare you trust, it might help with that."
Twilight turned bright red. "Cadance, please don't—"
Discord was never one to be defeated in a contest of innuendo. "Why, Cadance, are you volunteering? I'm so very flattered, but what would Shining Armor think?"
"Discord! Of course I didn't mean me, we've only just met! How could we possibly have the mutual trust and respect necessary for a consensual and healthy BDSM relationship? You'd need to ask Pinkie Pie, of course. Fluttershy's a submissive herself, I think, so while she might be willing to domme you for your sake, I don't think she'd get much out of it."
"I'm not listening to this," Twilight said, pressing her hooves against her ears. "I'm not listening, I'm not listening."
"Oh, you'd be surprised what Flutters is capable of when she puts her mind to it," Discord said.
"I admit I don't know her that well; maybe she has hidden depths." Cadance smirked.
"I'M NOT LISTENING TO EITHER OF YOU! LA LA LA LA LA!"
Cadance laughed gently. "Relax, Twilight, I'm just teasing."
Discord sighed. "You really are related to Celestia, aren't you?" he said to Cadance.
"Well, adopted, but she pretty much raised me. Now don't wiggle around when I lift you, I'm trying to wrap this tatzlwurm skin around you to keep you warm."
"Or you could just not, I promise I won't complain about the cold, really—"
"You? Not complain about something? Sorry, I don't want to bring about the Apocalypse today," Twilight said. As Cadance wrapped the tatzlwurm skin around the entire travois, Twilight tied it into place with more of the ropes made from the flower stem. Creating something out of nothing took a lot of magic, more than any of them could spare with Discord sick, but transforming something into something similar wasn't difficult for an experienced unicorn mage. Twilight was easily able to transmogrify the plant stem strips into strong, tough, flexible ropes.
As tempting as the thought of muzzling Discord was, his frequent coughing fits suggested he needed his mouth free to breathe properly. Instead, she shaped the top of the travois into a semi-rigid hood, large enough to accommodate his mismatched horns, that would serve as a windbreak, shade his eyes in case the moon was too bright, help keep him warm, and make it totally impossible for her or Cadance to hear a word he might say once they were in flight.
"I don't suppose you might have a tiny glass of water?" Discord asked as the two of them finished wrapping and tying him into place.
Twilight glared down at him. "NO."
"But my throat hurts."
"Doesn't change the fact that we don't have any glasses and I don't know where to find any water around here." She sighed. "You kept complaining how tired you were. Why don't you just try to get some sleep?"
"How am I supposed to sleep with two inexperienced flyers dragging me through the sky, tied up, helpless, entirely too weak to free myself, and with no magic to protect myself or fly if you accidentally drop me? Especially when you can't even spare me a tiny little bit of water?"
"What am I supposed to do, conjure it out of nothing? Oh, wait, I'm not a chaos spirit with a near infinite supply of magic, so I can't do that."
"No, but you could summon water out of the dead tatzlwurm," Discord snapped. "Living things, and dead things that used to be living, are mostly water. I can understand you being reluctant to vaporize innocent blades of grass to keep me from feeling like I've just eaten a bag of knives, given how little consideration you're giving me right now, but surely you can stomach damaging the dead body of a creature that's already dead, which tried to eat me and possibly you and your dear pal as well, to spare me a little bit to drink so I don't have to feel like my throat is a griffon's lunch?"
Twilight blinked. "I actually didn't think of that. Sorry."
She did as he suggested, modifying a weather control spell that could shape the behavior of water so that she could pull a stream of purified water out of the dead tatzlwurm, then carefully holding tight to it with her magic so she could guide it over to his mouth. She didn't have a cup, so she had to turn the stream into essentially a magic-guided water fountain that he could drink from by lifting his head slightly. He gulped water for what seemed like several minutes while Cadance attached ropes to the travois at several points. Finally he laid his head back. "Thank you."
"Discord, it's not like I'm trying to make you suffer here."
"No? Not even the tiniest little bit of schadenfreude influencing your actions?"
She sighed. "I'm trying to make you as comfortable as I can, but you've put us all in a really bad situation. We're in an unfamiliar place, night's fallen, it's hard to see because the moon's barely up over the horizon yet, and there's dangerous creatures underground that made you sick and have nearly eaten all three of us. You're much too big for either Cadance or I to carry you, and we've got a long way to fly home. We don't have the material to build a carriage or chariot, and yours disappeared when you got sick, or cursed or poisoned or whatever this is, so this is the best we can do."
"Maybe so, but you certainly seem gleeful about it," he grumbled.
"No, believe me, dragging you home across this kind of distance is the last thing I want to be doing," Twilight said. "Don't think I'm glad you actually got sick. Even if I didn't have any consideration at all for your suffering –"
"Which you don't," Discord interrupted.
Twilight ignored him. "—the fact remains that I wasted a whole day catering to you when you didn't need me to, and about the only good thing that could have come out of the fact that you were faking it was that I could stop having to take care of you, except then you actually got sick. I wouldn't have been real happy to spend the day taking care of one of my best friends, the ones who I know would do anything for me. I've have done it, because that's what friends do, but I'd have known they'd do the same for me. You've never done anything for me as far as I can tell."
He glared at her. "When I do things for you, I don't feel the need to brag about them and demand I be declared a Hero of Equestria, so you never find out."
"Oh, like what? What have you done for anypony since you reformed?"
"I don't think I want to tell you. You're being mean." He harrumphed and squared his shoulders, tilting his head to the side. Presumably he'd be folding his arms if they weren't bound at his sides by the giant flower petals wrapped around his body and the vines tying the flower petals in place.
"That's awfully convenient. If you've never done anything, then pretending you don't want to talk about it is a great excuse."
"Don't try reverse psychology on me, my dear, I invented it."
"Twilight, I've got all the ropes in place," Cadance said. "Let's head on back. It's going to be really late by the time we get home."
Twilight sighed. "Yeah."
"Don't worry about the Starswirl exhibit. I'll invite them to bring their tour to the Crystal Empire if they'll do a one-day showing at the palace itself, and you can come to visit me and we'll make a day of it, just Shining, you, and me. Or maybe invite your parents too if they'd be interested. What do you think?"
"That sounds fantastic!"
"No one ever invites me to these things," Discord grumbled.
Twilight looked down at him. "Would you even be interested in an exhibit on Starswirl the Bearded?"
"Well, it's not as if anyone ever asks."
"So I'm asking now."
"Maybe. He was my teacher, you know."
Twilight stared down at Discord, rather more shocked than if he had grown a second head. In fact, Discord growing a second head wouldn't be all that shocking at all, whereas what he'd just said frankly stunned her. "Wait, what?"
Discord smirked. "I'm very tired, Twilight. I think I'm going to take that nap now. How about you and Cadance get a move on? The night won't last forever, not unless Luna goes crazy again."
"You can't just say something like that to me and then leave it there like that! You knew Starswirl the Bearded? Personally?"
Discord closed his eyes and began ostentatiously pretend-snoring.
"Twilight," Cadance said, not sharply, but firmly. "We really do have to get back. You can always talk to Discord about Starswirl tomorrow."
Twilight sighed. "You're right."
The trip home was a lot easier for Twilight than the trip out had been. They knew the distance, they'd covered the route before, and while Discord was much heavier than he'd been without his magic, the combined weight of him and the flower-stem travois was still much, much less than the weight of the chariot had been. Also, the moon was out. Twilight had always loved the night; it was so much more peaceful than the frenetic day. She caught her second wind easily. In the crisp, cool air of the early evening, she felt like she could fly forever.
Cadance wasn't in nearly as good shape, though. Twilight, being a brand new alicorn, had been practicing her flying a lot lately; Cadance's life had been so consumed lately with affairs of state and diplomacy and paperwork and meetings, she barely had time to do much walking, let alone flying, she told Twilight. Also, unlike Twilight, she'd never been much of a night owl. She was struggling gamely, but Twilight could see that between her exhaustion and the weariness of her wings, the trip was much rougher on her than it was on Twilight. Twilight considered the possibility of going up the coast to Las Pegasus to stay for the night, but if Discord's magic wasn't working and standard unicorn magic didn't work on him, there was no guarantee he could actually stay the night in a cloud city, and besides, he might be contagious.
There wasn't much choice but to keep going. Between here and Ponyville was a whole lot of nothing; there was the San Palomino Desert, which was sparsely settled by the type of ponies who didn't take well to strangers, and it was hard to get stranger than Discord. And the desert wasn't a place she wanted to camp for the night without camping supplies, even if everyone in her party were well, which they weren't. Discord needed to be gotten to someplace where he could get medical treatment of some kind and some hope of a diagnosis. The fact that whatever had been in that goo had almost instantly shut down his magic, made him weak and given him muscle aches, and within minutes had led him to start coughing and wheezing, worried Twilight. If it was a disease rather than a magical curse of some kind, it was moving much too rapidly, and if was a magical curse it was having too many different unrelated effects, plus a health bubble shouldn't have protected herself and Cadance from a curse.
She needed her library. As Discord was the only draconequus anypony had ever heard of, it wasn't exactly as if she expected any pony doctor to have any expertise in treating him. Fluttershy and Zecora, between them, probably had the best hope of coming up with a cure for this or something to alleviate the symptoms, if it was actually a disease. But if it was a disease, most likely somepony had heard of it before. Unless Discord had somehow managed to invent it by accident. He had claimed the tatzlwurms hadn't come out the way he'd planned. She'd have to question him later as to whether he'd created them, or modified them from something that had already been there.
By the time they got back to the library, it was past midnight. Cadance was beyond exhausted; Twilight had to half-wrestle her into a bathtub and wake up Spike to give her a rubdown, because a pony who went to sleep after overexerting herself and getting drenched with sweat would be utterly miserable when she woke in the morning. While Spike was helping Cadance, Twilight set up a quarantine bubble in the middle of the library, dragged the mattress and blankets that she'd given Discord earlier when he'd been pretending to be sick over to the bubble and dumped them in, and then carried in Discord, who she'd left outside in his cocoon, dead asleep. He woke up briefly as she was using her magic to shred the cocoon off him, but seemed to be too tired even to talk. As soon as he was free to move, he curled up in a semicircle on the mattress, head balanced on a pile of pillows, pulled the blankets around himself, and closed his eyes again.
After making sure Cadance had gotten to bed all right, Twilight had Spike write a letter to Fluttershy telling her what had happened, and had Owlowliscious drop it off at her house, with instructions to go in her window, drop it on her kitchen table, and put a small purple amethyst star-shaped paperweight on top of it so Angel would know it was from Twilight and that therefore there would be hell to pay if he tried to make the letter disappear before Fluttershy could get it. She took her own bath, using her magic to give herself a rubdown so her muscles wouldn't lock up tomorrow, while she waited for his return. Once Owlowliscious had come back and confirmed the success of his mission, finally Twilight could get some sleep.
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