“Let down some more rope.”
“That's all there is, Applejack,” Rarity called down to her friend.
Applejack scowled. She balanced halfway down the rain-slick side of the cliff, her lasso tied securely around her waist as a safety line.
“You know, you've climbed down this cliff before without a rope. I'm sure you don't need--”
“Consarnit, Rarity, that was when it wasn't raining, and we've lost three ponies already. I am not taking any more chances.”
Rarity bit her tongue.
“Now, go ask Fluttershy to look for some creepers to tie onto the rope to make it longer.”
“O-okay. Fluttershy, dear, could you—Fluttershy?” Rarity appeared again over the edge of the cliff. “Applejack, we may have a problem.”
“What is it?” Applejack called up.
“Fluttershy is missing. I don't see her anywhere.”
“Now? Hold on, I'll come help look for her. Keep holding the rope until I get up there.”
Applejack carefully retraced her steps, climbing back up the now-familiar hoof-holds that protruded from the cliff. They didn't have time for this, she berated herself. If there was any chance they could still help their friends, they needed to do so quickly. Applejack dreaded what she might find at the bottom of the cliff if they waited too long.
A scraping sound caused her to look up, and she was greeted by the bundle of rope as it fell past her, weighing her down where it was tied to her waist.
“Rarity! What did I just say?”
There was no answer.
“Rarity? Oh, no.”
Completely disregarding her own safety precautions, Applejack bounded up the side of the cliff, biting the rope off of her when its end snagged on a tree branch below.
She reached the top of the plateau and looked around at the empty line of trees. Neither mare was anywhere in sight. Applejack's heart raced. Where had they gone? Had they seen something and run off into the forest, or worse, had that something seen them? Twilight had told her about the time a cockatrice had temporarily turned her into a living statue, and cockatrices weren't even the most dangerous creatures in the forest by far. If something had happened to her friends...
With a pang, Applejack realized she was alone. The sound of the rain, the shadows under the trees, the leaves blowing in the wind filled her with frightened, scattered thoughts. First your parents, now your friends, they seemed to say. And you're next. With an immense amount of willpower, Applejack managed to prevent her knees from shaking. Thunder racked the treetops, causing her to jump.
“Get ahold of yourself, AJ,” she said aloud. “Rarity and Fluttershy can't have gone far, you just have to walk into that forest and find them, then you can continue lookin' for... well, continue lookin'.” Her mind wandered again to what she might find at the bottom of the ravine, but she wrenched her thoughts back to the present.
Glancing at the deep shadows between the tree trunks, she gulped. The Everfree Forest was dark enough in daylight, but this rainstorm had blocked out what little sun there was. It would now be nearly impossible to navigate. There was no helping it, though. She took a breath and stepped forward.
The orange mare froze, the hairs on her back prickling. That voice! But it couldn't be...
“Who's there?” she gasped out, slowly turning to face the cliffside. Nopony was behind her.
Her head snapped back to face front. “It's just your imagination,” she reassured herself.
There was no mistaking it this time: the disembodied voice of Twilight Sparkle was emanating from the empty air right behind her. Applejack let out a terrified moan and bolted into the forest. When she had put a fair amount of distance between her and the cliff, she slowed down to a walk.
“Applejack...” the voice came again, causing her to halt.
“No, stop it,” she said, banging her hoof against a nearby tree. “Leave me alone. It's not my fault what happened.” She slid down to the forest floor and whimpered. “It's not my fault.”
Through tears, she saw a bright light that enveloped her vision. With the light came memories, memories of what the changelings had done to her, to her friends, to Canterlot.
Applejack opened her eyes to the sight of Twilight's face beaming down at her own. “You're alive!” the orange mare exclaimed, the full impact of her new memories hitting her.
“I am,” said Twilight, stepping back to let her friend up from the floor. “And so is everypony else.”
Applejack took in her new surroundings. Her other friends stood nearby, smiling as she got to her hooves. Light shone from above in the form of what looked like a miniature sun, most likely of Twilight's making. It allowed her to see the stone floor and an exquisitely carved statue of an alicorn behind them, but much of the room was still cloaked in shadow.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“Somewhere below Canterlot,” Twilight answered. “I'm not sure where exactly. This is where I woke up the first time as well. It's where the changelings were keeping us locked up.”
The unicorn pointed at a black lump on the floor Applejack hadn't noticed earlier. As the orange mare stared at it, it resolved itself into the form of an unconscious changeling.
“So you really were telling the truth,” Applejack said at last, staring at the changeling. “I'm sorry for not believin' you earlier, Twi.” Her face became serious and she gave her friend an admonishing tap with the flat of her hoof. “But don't ever do something like that again, y'hear?”
Twilight shuffled her hooves awkwardly. “I suppose jumping off a cliff isn't the best way to convince somepony of your sanity, is it?”
“Sanity, nothing. Do you realize how worried we were, when we saw you... when we thought you were...” Applejack couldn't bring herself to finish the sentence.
“Oh, right, that,” Twilight replied somberly.
There was an awkward moment of silence, broken by Rarity clearing her throat loudly.
“So,” she said, stepping forward towards Twilight. “Now that we're all awake, can we get on with the escaping part of our escape? I for one would like to be somewhere less dungeon-like, preferably somewhere where I can take a bath. That green stuff is all over my coat, and I just know it's going to stain.”
Applejack looked at Rarity's matted coat with lumps of green goo in it, then down at her own damp coat. “What is this stuff, anyhow?”
“That's right, you didn't get to see it,” Twilight answered her as she performed a spell that started to slowly melt the goo off of her friends. “The changelings were keeping us in these giant cocoons filled with a green fluid. I think it was supposed to keep us alive. They weren't exactly feeding us, and we didn't have any room to breathe. It must have been designed as an efficient oxygen-transport fluid. It's probably also very nutritious.”
She licked a drop off her hoof, then grimaced. “Not that you would want to eat it if you had the choice.”
“It tastes okay to me,” Pinkie Pie said as she stuffed a glob into her mouth. Then her eyes went wide. “Wait, never mind, delayed reaction,” she mumbled, and spit it out again.
Everypony laughed, including Pinkie.
“Oh, it's good to have you back, sugarcube,” Applejack said, wiping her eyes. “I haven't needed a laugh so much since Celestia knows when.”
“And it's good to have all of you back,” Pinkie answered. “I didn't even get to be in that dream with you girls 'cause the changelings didn't like my Pinkie sense.”
“Well, now we're all together again,” said Rarity, draping a freshly cleaned foreleg around Pinkie's neck.
“Oh, I missed you all so much,” said the pink pony, somehow pulling Twilight, Applejack, and Fluttershy into the hug with her free foreleg.
“Aw, you guys are even making me all emotional,” Rainbow Dash said, struggling to hide a tear. She joined in the group huddle.
The six ponies sat there in each others' embrace for nopony knew how long, just happy to truly be together once again. Nopony looked up, or they might have noticed the lone guard wake up and drag himself silently across the floor to the great double doors. Suddenly a shriek from the creature's mouth broke the stillness.
“The prisoners are escaping! Send the reinforcements! The prisoners are awak--”
Twilight's spell hit the guard squarely on the back of the neck, knocking him out again, but it was too late. Before the door slipped closed again, the ponies heard the cry being taken up by more changelings seemingly just outside. Rustling noises began to echo from beyond the doors, sending shivers down everypony's spine.
“Just how many guards did they leave for us?” Applejack exclaimed.
“I only ever saw the one,” Twilight said, “but I should have guessed there would be more outside.”
“It sounds like the whole army, though,” Rarity said.
“That's what it took to bring us down here in the first place,” Rainbow Dash pointed out. “They're afraid of us. They know what we're capable of.”
“Right,” said Applejack. “If we go down again, we're going down fighting.” She braced herself in preparation, watching as everypony but Fluttershy did the same.
The rustling continued to grow louder, soon resolving into the hoofbeats and wing flaps of what had to be hundreds of approaching changelings. Applejack's resolve faltered. At this rate, they would be overwhelmed for sure, but she resisted showing her fear for the sake of the others. Instead, she focused on the stone doors that stood between them and the changelings, preparing to spring into action at the first sign of movement.
Just then, Twilight's artificial sun went out. Her eyes still adjusting to the sudden darkness, Applejack saw Twilight's horn begin to glow as the unicorn strained as if lifting a heavy weight. Distracted now from the approaching enemy, the other ponies stared entranced as the aura of magic extended to the large alicorn statue behind them, re-lighting the area with a magenta glow.
“Whoa, nelly,” Applejack breathed.
Two things happened at once. First, the stone doors burst open, revealing a flood of changelings as the army poured into the room from the passageway beyond. Second, the alicorn statue detached itself from its base with a resounding crunch, and leapt of its own accord over the awed heads of the ponies, landing between them and the changelings with a boom that sent shockwaves up everypony's hooves. The lifelike statue pawed at the floor aggressively.
The foremost changelings hesitated, unsure of how to react, causing the row behind to crash into them. Then the statue charged, horn first, and the ranks scattered. The alicorn plowed straight through the doorway, sending the slower changelings flying as it cleared a wide path through the swarm.
“Follow. That. Statue!” Rainbow Dash called, and she raced after it.
Out of the corner of her eye, Applejack saw Twilight stagger. She caught her just before she collapsed and scooped her up onto her back, charging out of the room along with the others.
“Thanks, Applejack,” the unicorn said. “That took a lot out of me.”
“Don't worry, I've got ya, Twi. That was some mighty impressive spellcasting back there.”
“I wasn't sure I had it in me,” Twilight answered, “but I felt so full of energy all of the sudden. I don't think I'll be doing that again anytime soon, though.” She smiled weakly.
“Once was enough,” Applejack said.
They galloped past dazed changelings on their way up the passageway, which soon became a wide set of stairs leading upward. Ahead of them, the alicorn statue continued to charge through the retreating black shapes of the swarm.
“That thing's still bookin' it faster than a straw in a windstorm,” Applejack commented.
“I put a come-to-life spell on it, so it should keep going for a while since it was already so lifelike,” Twilight explained.
The statue turned a corner, momentarily plunging the ponies into darkness, before a crash echoed back to them, followed by the unmistakeable sight of daylight.
“We made it!” Pinkie Pie shouted excitedly.
“We're not out yet,” Applejack shouted, and she doubled her pace in a final push for freedom.
The ponies rounded the corner to the sight of a pair of marble doors blasted off their hinges and one oversized alicorn statue rearing triumphantly over the last few unconscious changelings and some trampled bushes.
“Woo-whee!” Applejack cried as Twilight dismounted from her back. “Twilight, you did it!”
“That was awesome!” Rainbow Dash said, flying over and slapping Twilight on the back. “Although you could have just teleported us out.”
“Not without knowing how far underground we were,” Twilight replied. “We could have reappeared fifty feet in the air, or worse. I'm still not exactly sure where we are.”
Fluttershy walked out onto the sunlit grass, giving the statue a wide berth. “Isn't this the Canterlot Sculpture Garden?” she asked.
“So it is,” Twilight said, seeing the rows of hedges and a nearby statue of a regal-looking pony surrounded by diamonds. “Where did we come from to end up here?” She looked behind at the doorway they had just exited. The entrance, a squarish marble building, looked unsettlingly like a mausoleum, and the surrounding hedges were positioned to make it difficult to see from the path. “Weird,” she muttered.
A changeling came hurtling out of the entrance, hissing angrily. Rarity intercepted it in midair with a kick that sent it flying with surprise into the hedge. A buzzing started up from the blackness beyond the doors; the changelings had apparently regrouped after their initial shock.
“Time to get going,” Rarity said as if nothing had happened. The others nodded in agreement.
Before they could step onto the path, though, a wall of green fire flared up in front of them.
“It's her!” Fluttershy shrieked. “It's the changeling queen!”
“Everypony, by me!” Twilight called out. They huddled together, and she focused her magic around them. With a pop, they winked briefly out of existence.
They reappeared in a heap on a bush not a hundred yards away. The queen was still clearly visible in the distance as the fires around her died down.
“Uh oh,” said Twilight quietly. “That should have taken us a lot farther.”
Rarity disentangled herself from the bush. “Quick, behind here,” she hissed, indicating a statue with a large base the perfect height to hide a pony.
They scrambled into cover, then peeked out warily to keep an eye on the changelings. The queen was talking to one of the changelings that had come out of the strange building. Though the ponies couldn't hear what was being said, they could tell from the queen's demeanor that she was not pleased by what she was hearing. The changeling gestured at the still prancing alicorn statue, which took the opportunity to buck the unfortunate creature into a hedge. The queen turned her gaze on the statue and struck it with a bolt of green energy from her horn. The statue went still, and cracked audibly. She blasted it again and again with the same spell, each time causing more damage. The ponies winced as they watched the statue be torn apart. The queen finished her assault, the statue now little more than a pile of gravel, and started to yell unintelligibly at the changelings lying scattered about on the grass.
“We should get a move on,” Applejack said.
“We can't go out there,” Fluttershy protested. “She'll see us.”
“Well, we have to do something,” Rainbow Dash said.
“I'm going to try winking us away again,” Twilight said.
“You sure you have the energy for that?” Applejack asked.
“I'll be fine,” the unicorn said. She concentrated on the spell with no particular destination in mind, just a desire to put as much distance between them and the changelings as possible. This time, the spell took them as far as the gates of the Canterlot Archives before petering out. The ponies breathed a collective sigh of relief.
“I think we're safe now,” Twilight said. She pointed between two nearby buildings. “If we keep heading that way, we'll get to the city limits, and then we can just follow the train tracks back to Ponyville.”
“And then what?” asked Rainbow Dash. “We just abandon Canterlot, and let the changelings take over? We can't keep running forever, Twilight. We've got to stand up and fight eventually.”
“Did you see what the queen did to that poor statue?” Fluttershy said. “There's no way we could fight somepony like that.”
“We once defeated Discord, the physical embodiment of chaos,” Rainbow countered. “I think we can handle a pumped up insect like her.”
“You're both right, in a way,” Twilight said sadly. “If we had the Elements of Harmony, we could defeat her easily. But the changelings have them now. There's not much we can do.” She sighed. “If only none of this had ever happened.”
Suddenly, Twilight's eyes widened in epiphany. “Of course! What if none of this had ever happened? We're at the Canterlot Archives!” She turned to Pinkie Pie. “Pinkie, are you thinking what I'm thinking?”
Pinkie gasped in realization. “The time-travel spell! I know just where it is!”
She and Twilight raced through the doors and into the Archives, not stopping until they were at the Star Swirl the Bearded wing. Pinkie dove headfirst into the nearest aisle of shelves, raising large clouds of dust as she made her way to the back.
“What was that about?” asked Applejack as the others caught up.
“Remember when I received a warning from myself about the future?” Twilight asked as she led them inside. “We can use the same spell I did to go back in time and warn Princess Celestia that Cadance is a fake! The changelings will never have a chance to take over Canterlot then.”
Rarity piped up. “I thought you told us that spell only works once?”
“It does,” Twilight agreed, “and even if it didn't, I'm too tired to perform the spell myself, which is why you, Rarity, will be the one to perform it.”
“Me? Oh, nonononono. I couldn't possibly--”
“You have to,” Twilight pleaded, “for the sake of Equestria.”
“But I've never so much as conjured a pin using magic. All I can do is find gemstones. You can bring statues to life, for Celestia's sake. I'm not sure I'll even be able to use a time-travel spell. My magic is no substitute for yours.”
“We have to try, Rarity. I'm positive you have it in you.”
“You... really think so?”
“I know so. Pinkie, have you found that spell yet?”
The pink pony popped cheerfully out of the aisle of shelves, bearing a yellowed scroll in one hoof. “Here it is! It was right where it was last time.”
She zoomed up to Twilight and handed her the scroll. “Oh, and I found this next to it,” she continued, pulling another scroll out of nowhere. “It had your cutie mark on it, so I thought you might want to look at it.”
Twilight raised her eyebrow and looked at the scroll. “My cutie mark?” Sure enough, she saw that the ancient-looking scroll was sealed with the same six-pointed pink star that was on her flank. She raised her other eyebrow in surprise. “What's my cutie mark doing on a hundreds-of-years-old scroll?” She tried to unroll the parchment, but it held fast. “That's odd,” she muttered, “there's a magical seal on it. It shouldn't be too hard to open, though.”
“Can you read that later?” Rainbow Dash called from the doorway, glancing back toward the front doors of the Archives. “We're kinda in a hurry here. It won't take the changelings that long to figure out where we've gone.”
“Right,” said Twilight, forcing herself to look away from the scroll. She unrolled the time spell and beckoned Rarity to come closer. “Okay, Rarity, this is the basic theory for time manipulation...”
A bright ball of light lit up the evening shadows of a park in central Canterlot, flinging leaves into the air and causing a family of birds to take off in alarm. As the light faded, the figure of a mare became visible in the center, stray electric sparks snaking across her body.
Rarity stumbled, dazed, out into the street, and shook her head to clear it. A tingling sensation on her scalp told her something was not right.
“My mane!” she cried. “What happened to my mane?” She couldn't get a good look, but the electricity seemed to have caused it to stick up at an odd angle. She began to nervously jitter her hooves, wishing desperately that she had a mirror, but she checked herself, taking a deep breath.
“No. I have much more important things to worry about now,” she reminded herself, remembering Twilight's warning that she would have only a few minutes at best to deliver her message.
She glanced up and down the street. The ponies of the past milled about, shopping or enjoying each others' company over a meal at a fresh-air diner, blissfully unaware of the imminent changeling invasion. Would any of them even listen to her, or would she simply come off as a madpony? She certainly looked the part. If only there was time to reach the palace and warn the princess in person...
She spotted a familiar face in the crowd. “Sweetie!” she shouted, running up to the filly and her two friends. “Am I glad to see you.”
“Oh, hey Rarity,” Sweetie Belle said, turning her head. “I thought you were getting stuff ready for the big wedding. Uh, what happened to your mane?”
“Never mind that,” Rarity said, impulsively trying to smooth it down with her hoof. “I have something very important to say.”
Sweetie nodded, her face serious.
“I know how strange this sounds, but you have to go tell me everything I am about to say as soon as you can. Can you promise?”
“Tell you? But you're the one--”
“Sweetie! Just promise.”
“Alright,” said Sweetie Belle uncertainly. “I promise.”
Rarity took a deep breath, then noticed her coat begin to glow again. Oh Celestia, not already.
“Repeat these exact words to me,” she said hastily, beginning to feel her body being dragged back to the present. “You must listen to Twilight Sparkle. Princess Cadance is really a--”
“--Changeling,” Rarity announced to the bookshelves. She looked around in horror at the expectant faces of her friends. “Did I really just do that?”
“What happened?” asked Applejack.
“Only the worst. Possible. Thing,” Rarity answered, pretending to faint into the nearest bookshelf. “I made it all the way to the past, and was talking to Sweetie Belle, but I got dragged back here before I could finish warning her.”
“Oh, Rarity,” Twilight said in sympathy, half reaching out a hoof toward her.
“And the worst part is,” Rarity continued, “I can remember Sweetie coming to tell me something the night before the wedding, but without knowing about the changelings I thought Twilight had put her up to it.”
“So it didn't work,” Twilight said as everypony hung their heads. “Now what do we do?”
“There's always this one,” said Pinkie, nudging the second scroll over to Twilight.
The lavender mare looked up. “I suppose we might as well try everything now. It was in the same section, so with any luck it will be another time-related spell.”
“At least we can find out why your cutie mark's on it,” Applejack said.
“All right, here goes,” Twilight said, projecting a beam of magic onto the star-shaped seal.
The reaction was surprisingly violent. The scroll rose into the air and hovered in front of her, beginning to glow with energy as it sucked magic from her horn. Twilight discovered with horror that she could not stop the spell: it continued to grow, enveloping her body in its magenta glow. Her cutie mark started to shimmer to match the glowing seal on the scroll. As the light became blinding, the seal exploded in a burst of white, throwing Twilight backwards into Pinkie Pie and Rarity. The scroll disappeared from view.
For a few seconds, everything was still.
Then the giant hourglass at the center of the room creaked loudly as the air around it began to warp and shimmer as if heated by a fire. A hairline fracture formed in the middle of the glass and spread outward with a grating crunch, splitting the hourglass in half vertically. The sand inside, freed from its confined shape, started to swirl around in a miniature tornado that blew scrolls off the dusty shelves by the dozen.
Twilight and her friends quickly stepped back as the vortex picked up velocity. The winds whipped their manes and expanded to nearly fill the open center of the room.
Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, all the magically-powered motion ceased. Having lost its momentum, the sand cascaded directly downward in a circle around the central plinth that supported the shattered remains of the hourglass. And standing on the exposed base was a bearded tan stallion, dressed in flowing robes and a pointed hat. He took a step forward, jingling as he moved.
“Hello, there,” the stallion called out jovially to the slack-jawed ponies below. Then, as an afterthought, he added, “what year is it?”