Twilight Sparkle was a unicorn who loved books.
Her parents and older brother couldn't understand this. While their attitude toward book learning wasn't quite as hostile as the rest of the world's, they did find her interest confusing and somewhat alien. They were willing to support her, to a point, but they were constantly demanding that she go outside and get some fresh air, that she leave her room and her books and go socialize, that she play, that she make friends.
She did her best to obey, but the fact was that the rest of the world was much less understanding. When she spoke and revealed her advanced vocabulary, when she accidentally mentioned that she'd learned something from a book, when she talked about the things she loved and was interested in at the moment – which was invariably whatever book she was reading at the time – other foals turned from her, or turned on her. No one dared physically bully her; she was the most magically powerful unicorn foal in Canterlot, and the special protégé of the princess. But the insults, the cold shoulders, the stares, the laughing, the notes passed behind her back, the parties she was invited to only to discover they weren't actually happening, the parties that every other foal was invited to that she was not... oh, there was no hope of Twilight ever having a close friend. Nopony understood what she loved, and most of them actively despised it, and despised her for loving it.
She'd bring books to school and be sent to the headmaster's office to be chastised, because books weren't appropriate in a school and it meant she wasn't listening to the lecture. Lectures and class discussions were supposed to be how ponies were meant to learn, how they were meant to behave. Harmony demanded that ponies work together, that they learn from each other, play with each other, spend all their time with each other, or else harmony might be destroyed. Why, if everypony went off into a corner and read, ponies would never interact with each other, and the harmony of pony existence would shatter. And since unicorns drew their magic from harmony, she was told, she would not only destroy her own magic but the magic of every other unicorn in existence if she spent too much time reading.
Twilight Sparkle decided that she hated harmony.
this isn't right
She'd wanted to be good. She'd wanted to do the right thing. But everypony insisted that the way she wanted to live her life was bad, wrong and antisocial, and that she was a bad pony for wanting it. She shouldn't want to turn to books to learn from ponies she had never and could never meet and talk to! She should be content with what she could learn from her fellow ponies! Again and again she heard lectures on this topic, and all they did was make her angrier at her fellow ponies and less willing to care about what they thought. If harmony couldn't fit her into it without having to bend her into a completely incomprehensible shape, if she had to be somepony completely different than what she was in order to mesh with the others... then maybe she didn't want to mesh. Maybe she wanted to be alone with her books.
What was wrong with a little reading, anyway?
The only thing that kept her from hating everypony in existence was her relationship with her mentor, Princess Celestia.
Celestia actually had books. Actually understood why anypony would want to read them. She didn't spend very much time reading any more, but Twilight fully understood that. Celestia was very busy being a princess, after all. She had to raise both the sun and the moon, she had to fulfill her court responsibilities. Celestia did occasionally tell her that she needed to get out and make some friends, but whenever Twilight tried, the subject of books would come up and Twilight would be mocked, so why should she try to make friends with ponies like that? Much better to bury herself in a book.
Besides, she had Spike to take care of.
Spike was younger than she was, and craved social contact, but because he was a dragon the company of ponies could be dangerous for him. Some ponies might think he was a threat and attack him, Twilight feared. So she tried her best to keep him in the castle with her, helping her with her studies under Princess Celestia, and when he insisted on going out, she'd go out with him. She wouldn't socialize; she knew better. Nopony was ever going to be her friend. She was just there to make sure they didn't hurt Spike. When some ponies tried to invite him to parties – which she was not invited to, or which she knew she wasn't really invited to even if she had an invitation – she would intervene, making up a prior engagement that Spike had to be at, and she never allowed him to be alone with other ponies.
but that isn't what happened
One day Princess Celestia sent Twilight to a small town called Ponyville to set up a library there. At first Twilight was very excited, thinking that perhaps the ponies in this small, backward town actually did appreciate books, and that was why Celestia wanted a library to be set up there. But no, that proved not to be the case. The ponies of Ponyville were just as derisive of books as every other pony Twilight had ever met... with two exceptions.
She had to send Spike on errands, by himself, because she had to work on building and organizing the library, acquiring more books, and so forth. In his travels across town, Spike met a pegasus named Fluttershy, who lived on the ground caring for animals and hated to fly. Fluttershy had been bullied by her fellow pegasi for her reluctance to fly, and being terminally shy, she didn't want to attend classes to learn how to be a veterinarian, where she would be surrounded by earth ponies and unicorns since pegasi almost never went into animal care. But Fluttershy's love of animals led her to speak to Spike, because she'd never seen a baby dragon. When Spike told her why he was in Ponyville and what Twilight was doing, Fluttershy was utterly thrilled to find out that there were books on animal care in the library Twilight was setting up. Soon she was visiting every day, bringing Twilight dinners in a basket so Twilight could concentrate on her work, and then settling down for a few hours to read about animals in a quiet location.
She was Twilight's first real friend, ever.
The second was a unicorn named Rarity, a dressmaker who subscribed to fashion magazines, so she was familiar with the concept of reading. Rarity was amazed to discover that there were pictures in Twilight's book of old-style fashions from a hundred or two hundred years ago, fashions that ponykind had entirely forgotten. She was also pleased to discover that there were books on techniques of jewelry making that she didn't know – she had never wanted to take a class in jewelry making, because she used gems heavily in her fashions and taking a class would imply to other ponies that she didn't know what she was doing with gems. Rarity, who had a talent for finding gems, would bring them as snacks for Spike, who had befriended her, and come to look over the fashions, or the jewelry making, and show her creations off to Twilight and Fluttershy to get a first impression before she revealed them to the public. Fluttershy also had an interest in fashion, so Twilight's only unicorn friend bonded with her only pegasus friend, and soon they were a tight-knit group.
Three other ponies were drawn in to their group despite having no interest in books. Rainbow Dash, a brash jock who represented everything Twilight hated about ponies in general and pegasi in particular, was nonetheless Fluttershy's best childhood friend, and so she came to visit at Fluttershy's instigation. Twilight started reading to her from a series of adventure stories about a pegasus who was as much larger than life as Rainbow Dash wished she was, and soon Rainbow was mesmerized, coming to the library frequently to hear Twilight read the adventure tales. A baker named Pinkie Pie had made it her mission to befriend everyone in town, and though Twilight had frequently pushed her away for being loud, pushy, overly manic and having no interest in books, Pinkie knew Rarity. She kept trying to "brighten up" the library – which was quite bright; Twilight did not appreciate eyestrain – with balloons and streamers and silly decorations, and she didn't get the point to books, but she seemed to feel that Twilight was some sort of difficult friendship problem that Pinkie needed to solve, and kept trying to get Twilight to be more social. While this didn't work, it did bring Pinkie into their group, and with Pinkie came Applejack, a fellow earth pony Pinkie had close dealings with because her farm supplied Pinkie's employer with apples. Applejack was another example of everything Twilight hated about ponies, a deliberate know-nothing who hated any hint of newer technologies that could possibly supplant her family's traditional, earth-pony ways of doing things... until her brother hurt his back badly, and Applejack was forced to turn to Twilight's magic and knowledge of the new mechanical technologies to find a way to harvest all the apples without her brother's help. After that, she allowed that there was some value to books, after all, though she still didn't think anypony could be healthy and happy if they spent their life around them like Twilight did.
Princess Celestia and Twilight's parents and older brother were all thrilled that she had made some friends. And for a while Twilight was content. She had five friends, plus her close companion Spike, plus her family, plus Princess Celestia. What pony really needed more for companionship? A few friends who appreciated books, or at least didn't spend all their time spitting on what Twilight loved, was good enough. The rest of ponykind could go to Tartarus for all she cared, but these few, at least, she cared for deeply.
Had she never made such friends, she might never have suffered the heartbreak she suffered, later, when they turned on her. Having never suffered that heartbreak, perhaps she would never have committed the crimes that she did. In later years, Twilight would look back at her friendships with bitterness, feeling that the playwright Spear Shaker had been wrong; it was not better to have loved and lost than to have loved at all. Had she never loved at all, perhaps everything might have been different.
i don't want i don't want this i don't want to live this life i don't want to read this anymore
One day, while experimenting with some spells that she'd read about in the works of Starswirl the Bearded, a long-dead unicorn mage who had also loved books and had written a large number of them, Twilight accidentally teleported herself to the Frozen North, and changed her life.
She couldn't figure out how to get back, immediately, so she had to take shelter in a cave. And in that cave, the shadows came to life, and formed themselves into the shape of a gray unicorn with a black mane, red eyes with green irises that leaked magic, and an eerily misshapen, blood red horn.
"A pony trespasses in my domain..." the shadow unicorn whispered. "Why are you here, little pony?"
Twilight stood her ground, putting a magical shield around herself and preparing for the possibility that she might have to fight for her life. She was very frightened, but she tried to keep it out of her voice. "I mean no trespass. I was just experimenting with a spell that accidentally teleported me here. I'll go as soon as I can figure out exactly what it was I did and reverse it."
"A pony who studies the old magic. It's been a very long time since I've seen one of your kind." The unicorn smiled broadly. "I thought that the pursuit of knowledge had died out from ponykind."
"It more or less has," Twilight said bitterly. "My whole life they've been telling me 'don't read books! Learn from other ponies! What you find in books is suspect and could be evil!' As if there's something wrong with trying to learn more, or studying from ponies who you've never met or who have died! I mean, if ponies write the book, and then you read it, aren't you still learning from ponies?"
"One would think," the shadow unicorn said dryly.
"I'm sorry, I don't mean to vent at you," she added quickly, because she still didn't know whether the unicorn made of shadows was friend or foe. "It's just so frustrating."
"I can imagine." He chuckled. "Perhaps we can help each other, little pony."
"Help each other?" Twilight asked.
"I have a palace full of books, and grimoires, and tomes of unusual and forgotten magic. But I can no longer return there." He lowered his head. "My horn is the only part of me that is truly here. Within these caves, I can summon enough shadow to form a body... but I cannot travel in daylight, for it disperses my shadow self. And my palace is too far from here for me to gallop within a single night. If you would carry me to my palace, the source of my power, I can form a true body and walk under the sun once more. In return, I can give you access to my libraries, and allow you to study any magic you desire."
that's sombra got to be don't fall for it don't fall don't
Twilight's eyes were as round as saucers. "Any magic I desire?" she repeated, thrilled by the possibilities. Then a thought occurred to her. "But wait. If you're such a powerful mage yourself – which you'd have to be to have all those books – why can't you just teleport to your palace, or make a carriage and drive it with telekinesis at faster than pony speed? If the carriage was enclosed and had curtains you could even keep enough shadows to maintain yourself!"
The shadow laughed again. Green and purple smoke flowed from the edges of his eyes. "Little filly, do you have any idea how much magic it takes to animate one's own body from shadows? I do not have the strength to do anything with my magic but stay alive and corporeal. Once I am returned to my palace, I will be able to recreate my body, and no longer need to hold shadows together with my magic to have an animate form at all."
"That sounds like amazing magic," Twilight said. "Princess Celestia's never taught me anything like that."
"Celestia? She has trained you?"
Twilight nodded. "I'm her personal student."
This time when the shadow pony laughed, there was a note of genuine delight in it. "A student of Celestia's! Well, filly. I would take great pleasure in teaching you the magic that Celestia never will. Bring me to my castle, and if you so wish, you may have two mentors in the art of magic."
"That sounds wonderful," Twilight said. no it's a trick don't fall for it "What do you need me to do?"
The unicorn – whose name was Sombra, and who revealed he had once been king of a vast empire, vanished into the mists of time – used shadow to draw Twilight a map of the route to his lost palace. Twilight was to put his horn in her saddlebag – she was wearing one because she'd planned on teleporting to Canterlot, though teleporting as far as wherever this place might be hadn't been any part of her plan – and travel for two days to the east. At the palace, she was to remove his horn once she was in shadow, and he could rebuild himself then.
There were no ponies who lived up here – any empire there had once been was at least a thousand years gone. Twilight wished she had the opportunity to research Sombra, or to contact Princess Celestia and ask if the shadow unicorn could be trusted, but she had some reasonable confidence that she could take care of herself. She was the Princess' student. She had saved the town from a baby Ursa Minor once. She was powerful. And while attempting to use the teleport spell again would leave her lost, once again with no bearings at all... she could tell from how cold it was and the angle of the sun that she was in the Frozen North, and it would be easy enough to get to Equestria by just trotting south for as long as it took. So if Sombra tried to betray her, she had an escape route.
no please it's a trap it has to be why can't i make this stop? i don't want to do this i don't i don't
So for two days, Twilight headed toward Sombra's palace. In the night, he accompanied her, talking with her – though she did most of the talking, really. He asked her what she knew of magic, testing her knowledge. Twilight was prepared for any test, even an impromptu pop quiz like this one. There were things Sombra spoke of that she knew nothing of, and yet, as soon as he spoke of them and she realized they were possible things, that existed, she found that she was hungry to know more. Hungers of other sorts were harder to satisfy; she had brought only a small bag of trail mix in her saddlebag, and there was nothing edible in these frozen lands, not even grass.
In the night, Sombra's strange magic protected her from the cold, as she ran within a blanket of shadows. She wouldn't have thought shadows could warm a pony, but somehow they kept her own body heat in. During the day, the sun was high, but the cold was bitter, and the sun barely warmed her. There were ponds of icy cold water, not quite frozen, that she could drink from. At that temperature she knew they would have no microbes that could harm her, but bringing cold into her body was almost unbearable. Twilight used up her own magic on warming spells to protect herself. By the time she reached the abandoned ruin that Sombra's palace had become, she was weak with hunger, cold and overuse of magic.
"I'm sorry," she said, setting the horn down in a shadow cast by a broken wall. "Your palace... it looks like somepony destroyed it centuries ago." In her heart she mourned for the books.
"That shall be no object," Sombra said.
His shadows spread over everything, and where they touched a wall, black crystal grew, rebuilding. Once the walls had reached a great height, the crystal grew into high, arched roofs, and met in the middle. Before long, a palace of glittering dark crystal stood where there had been ruins.
"Now we wait," Sombra said.
Within an hour, a pack of Diamond Dogs came to investigate the crystal structure. Panting and barking in delight, they invaded the palace, digging at the foundations that were still solid stone to cause them to buckle, letting walls of crystal fall to the ground and shatter. Twilight hid in Sombra's audience chamber, behind his new crystalline throne. Sombra, by contrast, stood his ground in the center of the room, smiling.
"King Sombra, why don't you do anything about the Diamond Dogs? They're destroying your palace!"
"I built it today. I can rebuild it as easily. Watch and learn, young Twilight Sparkle."
When the leader of the Diamond Dogs strutted arrogantly into the audience chamber, he demanded that Sombra leave the premises. "This is Diamond Dog territory now. We've laid claim to these crystals, and if you don't want to spend the rest of your life underground digging in our mines, pony, you'd better go now."
"I think not," Sombra said. "Rather, I think you will stay."
And then spines of black crystal shot out of the floor, creating circles that entrapped the Dogs. The crystal grew together, walling them in as they yelped and whined and barked frantically. And then it moved inward, surrounding them completely, freezing them in crystal.
Twilight drew back. "D-did you kill them?" she asked, disbelieving.
"They are of no use to me dead," Sombra said. Bolts of purple energy crackled through the air from the columns where the Diamond Dogs were held prisoner to the shadow cloud that was Sombra himself. "It is their magic, paltry as it is, that will give me life again."
His body solidified. No longer could she see through any part of it. Fallen leaves and dead grass that had blown into the palace when it was a ruin lifted and merged together, becoming a royal red cape. Metal shot from within the earth, forming into greaves and a circlet, that fastened to his body.
"But – what are you doing to the Diamond Dogs?"
Sombra smiled cruelly. "They will not die. Come with me."
Twilight balked. "I'm not sure..."
"I need you to see to my library, Twilight Sparkle. The books have been buried beneath the earth. You are a trained librarian; you can assess their condition and tell me if they can be salvaged. Afterward, we shall eat."
"I'm not sure where you're going to get anything to eat. This is a frozen wasteland, and I don't think anything you had in your palace would have survived all these years..."
"Choose to study with me, and you may well learn how I plan to get something to eat." He grinned. "Transmutation of the nonliving to the nonliving and the living to the living is a parlor trick. True magic will enable you to transmute that which is not alive and never was – dirt, rock, crystals – into that which was once made from life. Food."
Well. Twilight was very hungry, and didn't think she had the strength to teleport anywhere after her journey, and Sombra's magic had warmed the palace considerably. The notion of going back out into the chill because she didn't like how he handled trespassers who'd planned to steal what he'd made and threatened to enslave him in his own domain... it did not appeal. So she followed Sombra.
something awful's about to happen, i know it
Down a very, very, very long staircase they went. Deep within the earth, the palace as it had been was largely intact, though saturated with dirt and dust. She would have expected there to be living things making use of the levels below the earth as a den, but while there were droppings and bones, there was no evidence of anything alive.
Sombra pushed open a door. Inside was darkness. Twilight lit her horn, but it illuminated nothing in the deep black beyond.
"Allow me," said Sombra. His power crackled, and lanterns in the ceiling lit with cold bluish light. Twilight gasped.
The room was the size of Princess Celestia's audience chamber, and entirely lined with books.
Hastily she pulled a tome from the shelf with her horn, and flipped it open, inspecting it. "No water damage... that's good... some insect damage, not so good, but the environment was dry, so I'd expect that to be pretty minimal... the parchment's still holding up after all these years..." She lifted her head and looked at Sombra. "I think they'll be okay. It'll take a lot longer than I can spare to clean them all and inspect them all for damage; my friends will worry about me. But I could do a night's work, maybe get a thousand of them or so done, after we eat."
Sombra nodded. "That would please me. Afterward, perhaps we will make arrangements. If you can come to my palace at regular intervals, you can work to restore my library and my books, and read what is within them. Take some home for study and return them when you've finished. Ask me if there are questions about what you have read."
"That... sounds pretty good, actually," Twilight said. A twinge of conscience bothered her about the Diamond Dogs, still, but Sombra had said they wouldn't be harmed, and thus far he'd honored his word to her.
In another, smaller chamber – though to say it was smaller was not to say it was small, given the enormity of the library – Sombra cleared rubble from the door, and restored the caved-in walls of the room. They lit up from inside with a purplish light, as some of his crystals had in the rooms upstairs to provide light. Then he gestured at what had once been a fine oak table, now an oak slab with two legs still standing, covered in rock and dirt. The table reassembled itself, as the rock and dirt first floated into the air, and then landed on the table... as plates, covered with foodstuff. There were freshly picked flowers aplenty, some of them species Twilight had never seen. There were sweet potatoes, split, buttered and steaming. There were carrots, apples, celery stalks, squash and exotic vegetables Twilight had never seen, all well-seasoned.
Wine was provided in goblets, but Twilight was not accustomed to drink, and requested water instead. The same ice cold water that had seemed to freeze her insides when she'd drunk it on the trail was perfect and refreshing here in the warmth with delicious food. Twilight ate and ate until she could eat no more; she had never missed a meal in her life short of being too buried in a book to notice time passing, certainly never while exerting herself physically. The trip to Sombra's palace had worn her out terribly, starved and exhausted her. When she was done eating, she could barely keep her eyes open; she'd stayed awake these two days, fearing the consequence should she sleep in the cold.
Sombra offered her a room. He reconstructed one for her, rebuilding what had been the suite of most likely a fancy noblemare before dirt had covered everything into a clean and sumptuous place for her to bathe and sleep. He even thawed the bath unguents and beauty products the previous owner had used, as they had for the most part frozen inside little jars. The fact that the room was made of polished granite and black crystal, that the reading lights in the room were cold lights and harsh to read by, and that the warm light of the fireplace and the logs burning within it wasn't sufficient to read by, made Twilight uncomfortable; she was used to brightly lit rooms, and if the walls were dark, they were dark-stained wood, not dark rock. Canterlot Palace was made largely of crystals, but they were in pale colors and let through a great deal of light. On the other hand, her belly was full, she was clean again, and she was so very, very tired. Twilight had little trouble falling into a dreamless sleep.
no oh celestia don't sleep there don't
In the morning when she rose, she found that Sombra had left her a breakfast in her room, a repast of eggs and cheese and hay. Twilight ate quickly, and went up the very long flight of stairs to Sombra's audience chamber, hoping to find him there. She was not disappointed.
"I'm sorry I couldn't get any work done on your books last night, but I was just so tired," she said. "And it's been three days now; I really have to get home and let my friends and Princess Celestia know I'm okay."
"Of course," Sombra said. "When do you wish to return?"
"In four days I'll come back, if you can help me with the spell I used to get here."
"I will open and close the door for you," Sombra said. "I have already traced you back to your origin point; I can return you to where you came." Her eyes went wide. "It's a simple spell, though the results require great concentration and attention to detail. Would you like to learn it?"
"I'd love to!"
"Then in four days, I will open a gate to your home at midnight. Come through and your lessons will begin. I don't know where the book is that will show you that spell, and I would prefer you learn it before completing your work in the library, so this once I will teach it to you."
"That's fine," Twilight said. "I don't mind learning directly from a good teacher, even though I'll always prefer books. It's just that so many of them are... oh dear Celestia!" For she'd seen the Diamond Dogs, still in their crystal prisons. None of them had moved, but their bodies had withered. They looked starved, ribs clearly showing through their hide. "What's happened to them?" She spun on Sombra. "What have you done to them? You said they wouldn't be harmed!"
Sombra chuckled. "I said they wouldn't die. And I keep my word." He gestured with his horn, and their prisons broke open, the Dogs falling out, too weak to stand. They whined. One of them cried for mercy, begging to be allowed to return to their den; the others didn't even seem to be able to speak.
"What did you do!" Twilight screamed.
"I fed. On their magic, on their life force, on their fear. My body is newly restored, and it required so much of my own magic to rebuild it, I would never have had enough to begin restoring my palace." He smirked at her. "And you have directly benefited from my feeding, Twilight. The food I conjured for you last night, and this morning, was made with their life force. The magic that restored my... advisor's... old quarters so you could have the restful sleep you deserved came from their terror, their despair. You have benefited from their suffering as much as I have." Rock swirled through the air and formed into bowls of kibble, suitable for a pet dog, and bowls of water. "Now they may eat their fill and return to their dens. I no longer need them. My own magic is fully restored now."
"You fed on them... you took their magic... their life force..."
"They chose to trespass in my domain," Sombra said. "Another time, I might have killed them for such a transgression. Such was the way, in the Empire. But I was merciful this time, as I had need of what they could provide. So they were punished, and now they have served their sentence, and can go free."
it's still not right stop listening to him stop letting him confuse you letting him make you believe stop this isn't me this isn't me this isn't
Twilight took a deep breath. Who was she to judge the morals of a pony who had last lived in solid flesh centuries ago? Who wasn't even from Equestria? Perhaps by the standards of Sombra's culture he had been merciful.
no no this is not the time for cultural relativism it's evil he's evil don't let him fool you no
"I... guess you're right," she said, feeling guilty about what she'd unknowingly taken from the Dogs. "As long as they get enough food and water and get back to their dens, they should be fine eventually... right?"
"Of course," Sombra said.
"And it's not like you're going to do it again. This was a one-time thing because they were trespassing when you really needed the energy boost. You don't need it anymore."
"I... guess it's okay, then," Twilight said reluctantly. She didn't want to antagonize her new friend or make him feel so uncomfortable that he didn't invite her to come back. All those books! All that forbidden magic! A pony who understood the joy of reading! "I'll be back in four days to clean up the library and start restoring the books, then."
"I look forward to it, Twilight Sparkle."
He opened a magical portal directly to her workroom, and she stepped through it.
When Spike asked her where she had been, and subsequently when all of her friends asked and then Princess Celestia, she told them all the same thing. She was experimenting with a spell that allowed her to teleport great distances, and she'd accidentally teleported to someplace in the middle of nowhere. It had taken her a few days to get back, and she still wasn't exactly sure how she did it. So she was planning on running further experiments, but now that she had more of a handle on what she was doing, she felt sure it wouldn't take her several days to figure out how to get back, next time.
She never mentioned Sombra at all.
Spike paced restlessly as he and the other five sat vigil on Twilight. She was still standing there, eyes glowing, responding to nothing. They'd tried aromatherapy, they'd tried ice cubes, they'd tried smacking her – Spike had even pinched – but nothing. And now Spike was getting more and more worried because there had been no message from Princess Celestia.
"I, uh, I think maybe I should write the Princess again?"
"Good thinkin', Spike," Applejack said. "I wonder what's takin' her so dadgurn long to reply?"
A bright light flashed above all their heads, and there was Discord, coiled in the air. "Let's not go running to share every little thing with Celestia just now, shall we?"
"You!" Spike screamed up at Discord. "You blocked it, didn't you? The letter I sent! You blocked it!"
"I mmmmmmight have?" Discord examined his claws. "Or I mmmmight not have?"
Rainbow Dash charged at him, and bounced off an invisible shield around him. "That's lower than low! You're interfering with us telling Princess Celestia even though Twilight's in danger because you know what trouble you're gonna be in now!"
"Actually," and here Discord righted himself and sat up, on air, "I'm interfering with you telling Princess Celestia because I think that Twilight is going to want us to keep it our little secret that she was playing with reformation spells. Or, at least, if she knows what Celestia thinks of the particular spell she was ready to use on me, she'd want us to keep it on the down low."
"What're you babbling about?" Applejack asked, furiously. "Twilight didn't do anythin' wrong! She was studyin' a spell she got from Princess Celestia!"
"From Celestia's private library. A protected book. Meaning Twilight had to break an encrypted magical lock on the book to get the reforming spell she wanted."
"Um, Discord," Fluttershy said, flying up to join him, "if the spell is one that Princess Celestia would be angry at Twilight for casting, why don't you just let her go from your spell and we'll tell her so? She would never do anything knowingly if she thought it would anger the Princess."
"Can't stop a moving train," Discord said. "Twilight hasn't even gotten to the good part yet."
"The 'good part'?" Rarity asked, trembling with outrage. "What is good about being imprisoned in some sort of awful magical stasis? I heard you say you don't turn ponies to stone, with great self-righteousness I might add, and yet what have you done to Twilight but lock her in place, exactly as if she were a statue?"
"You seriously think that's what's happening?" Discord chortled and rolled onto his back. Rainbow tried to make another flight at him, and failed, despite the fact that Fluttershy was right next to him and well within the area of effect if he was casting a protective shield.
"Well, then, explain it to us," Rarity snapped. "Because there are other means of contacting Princess Celestia, and if you want us to believe your story that Twilight would be better off if we didn't—"
"Twilight's reading a book," Discord said. "It's a very interesting book, and she's just gotten to the part where things start to get dramatic."
"But she dropped her book! How can she be reading the book if she dropped it on the floor?" Pinkie asked, holding up the book in question. "Hay, this is called 'Pinkie Pie's Recipe for Cupcakes!' But you said it was some sort of encrypted—"
The book flew out of Pinkie's hoof and into Discord's paw. "That's more than enough of that, Pinkie," Discord said. "You of all ponies should never, ever, ever read this book."
"All right then, how is it that it had a different title when Twilight was lookin' at it?" Applejack demanded. "She said it was called 'Tale of the Terrible Doctor Twilight.'"
"And so it was. For her." Discord landed. "The book takes the memories of whoever is reading it, and weaves them into its tale. The general story is always the same – not in terms of plot, but in terms of theme, certain events happening, et cetera – but it tells the story with the life experiences of the reader, as the reader lives the story as if she were reliving her own life."
"You said the book was supposed to show Twilight why you don't use reforming spells!" Spike shouted. "How is a book that makes her relive her own life going to do that?"
"She's not reliving her life. Was I unclear about that?" Discord pouted in mock sympathy. "So very sorry. She's living someone else's life, but with her own memories and personality grafted onto it to the greatest extent possible. For example, if this book was about Applejack's life, then Twilight would be living through a world where she and her big brother Shining Armor and little brother Spike all live together and work on a book farm, growing books by hoof to sell to libraries, collectors and average citizens."
"But there isn't any such thing as a book farm," Pinkie said.
"Says the mare who grew up on a rock farm."
"What? There's nothing weird about a rock farm!"
"Whose life is she reading then? If, um, it's okay to tell me..."
Discord looked at Fluttershy for several long seconds. "No," he finally said. "Let Twilight tell you about it when she's done with the book, if she chooses, and maybe you can figure it out. I will tell you this much, though. Regardless of whose life is being told through the book... the book always ends with that person's worst fear coming true. So if it were about Applejack, then Twilight and her family would lose the book farm and be forced off of it, their good name besmirched and them driven into poverty, perhaps even being forced to separate to survive."
Applejack stared at Discord coldly. "I don't recall givin' you permission to go explorin' in my brain."
"You gave me permission when you willingly took up the only weapon that can harm me, and took on Celestia's request to go use it against me," Discord said, equally coldly. "I didn't go spelunking in your brain today, Applejack. I researched you the first time I got free. You should be thankful I didn't use the threat of your absolute worst fear to break you."
"Discord, we have talked about this," Fluttershy said. "You shouldn't talk about when you were a villain and trying to fight us if you want to be friends now!"
"Do I want to be friends now?" he asked. "Do I, Fluttershy?"
"Yes. You do. You could have hurt Twilight, or any of us, a lot worse if you didn't still want to be friends, and you wouldn't care about Princess Celestia finding out – not for yourself and not for Twilight's sake. So you do still want to be friends."
"Yeah, well, I think he blew it," Rainbow Dash said. "Seriously? Fluttershy, you expect us to still try to be friends with him after he's pulled this stunt?"
"Will Twilight be hurt in any way by this book?"
"Reading a compelling tragic novel can always hurt," Discord said. "She will not suffer any physical harm, and any mental or emotional harm she takes from the book will probably be something she can get over. Probably."
"All right, then," Fluttershy said, moving into position in front of Discord's face. "If she does – if whatever Twilight experiences from this book causes her permanent mental or emotional harm – I will never forgive you. Never." She turned the full force of her Stare on Discord. He actually backed up.
"I—well, that's really up to her," he said quickly. "If she's strong she'll get over it."
"And if it turns out she's not strong, and she doesn't get over it? I will never speak to you again, and our friendship will be destroyed." She closed her eyes, no longer Staring at Discord, and flew back down to the floor. "I – I just thought y-you ought to kn-know..." A sob escaped her. Pinkie drew her into a hug.
"Don't worry, Fluttershy! Twilight's tough! She can take it!" She looked up at Discord, and with the same face she used to enforce Pinkie Promises, she said, "She'd better."
"Oh, I see, a mare tries to turn my brain into jello and that's okay, but when I make her read a book with an unhappy ending, that's worth destroying friendships over," Discord said. "Nice to see how much you really care, Fluttershy."
"If she had hurt you with that spell I would never have forgiven her either," Fluttershy said. "Right now... right now I'm... I'm really, really angry at both of you." She lowered her head, letting her mane fall and obscure her face. "My friends shouldn't be hurting my friends."
"Tell her that. I acted in self-defense!"
"I reckon we'll see about that when Twilight wakes up," Applejack said.
"Yeah, how about you call me when that happens," Discord said sharply, and vanished.