The pony standing in the remains of the broken hourglass cut an imposing sight. Stars bedecked the deep blue of his robes and hat, calling to mind the clear night sky, and light glistened off the bells sewn onto their edges. A stately white beard trailed down his chin almost to his hooves, and the wrinkles around his sparkling eyes spoke of a lifetime of knowledge and experience. He leaped down to the floor below, surprisingly sprightly for his advanced age, and addressed the still-dumbstruck ponies.
“Well, then, if nopony knows what year it is, let me ask something a little more direct. Which one of you summoned me here?”
Twilight stepped forward. “I guess that would be me,” she said nervously. “Is—is it really you?”
“And who else would I be?” the stallion said, grinning.
“Wait, wait, wait.” Rainbow Dash interjected. “You know this old fogey?”
Twilight whipped her head around indignantly. “Old fogey? Do you know who this is?”
“No,” said Applejack. “But I've got a feelin' one of you would be more'n happy to tell us.”
Twilight huffed. “This is only Star Swirl the Bearded, the most important conjuror of the Pre-Classical Era and the very pony this room is named after!”
“Thank you for that wonderfully succinct introduction,” Star Swirl said with a flourish, bowing down so that his hat touched the floor with a tinkle of bells. “Now, before we go on, there is one more thing I'm curious about. How exactly did you manage to summon me out of time?”
“I... don't entirely know,” Twilight admitted. “I didn't know what that scroll would do. I just opened it because it had my cutie mark on it.”
“A scroll with your cutie mark?” Star Swirl asked, bemused. “How very curious.”
“Yes. I would show you, but--”
Pinkie Pie cut in. “But it exploded into a flash of light, and then the hourglass exploded into a tornado! And then you were here, but you probably saw that part.”
“Indeed I did. Now, if you'll excuse me...”
Star Swirl brushed Pinkie aside to get a clear look at Twilight. He stared piercingly at her flank for an uncomfortable second as if seeing it properly for the first time, then broke into a good-natured chuckle.
“Oh, that's rich,” he said to himself, holding back more laughter. “I didn't think she would actually...”
“What's so funny?” asked Twilight, annoyed.
“That's an interesting cutie mark you have there, miss...”
“Sparkle. Twilight Sparkle. What's so interesting about it?”
“Do you know what it means?”
“Of course,” Twilight said, somewhat offended. “It's a bunch of magic sparks because my special talent is magic.”
“Ah, yes, I see it now. A spark of Magic. I was wondering what that was behind Clover's mark.”
“Huh? What are you talking about?”
“That pink star shape in front of your cutie mark, the part that should have been on that scroll you used, it originally belonged to a mare I used to know named Clover. You look so much alike, I wouldn't be surprised if you were her descendent.”
“Me, a descendent of Clover the Clever?” Twilight stared into the distance for a second or two in wide-eyed shock. “Do you really think so?”
She turned back to Star Swirl, but he was no longer there. She spotted him back at the side of the hourglass, inspecting the scattered glass and sand.
“Poor girl,” he said to the wreckage. “Let's fix you up, shall we?” He began levitating pieces back together. Wherever they popped back into place, a sizzling white light formed around the edges, leaving the glass whole and uncracked when it disappeared.
Twilight walked up behind him and cleared her throat. “Is there any way you could do this later?”
“Yeah, we're a mite pressed for time,” said Applejack, joining the conversation.
“Hmm?” Star Swirl looked up briefly from the hourglass, which continued to mend itself in the background. “Oh, yes, we were in the middle of something, weren't we?”
“Actually, we need to tell you about the chang--” Twilight began, but Star Swirl cut her off.
“Now, as to you being a descendent of Clover, I don't see how you couldn't be, with that mark. And if you could open that scroll to summon me out of time, you've inherited a lot of her power as well. She always did threaten she would make a spell to keep tabs on me. I didn't think she would actually succeed, though, even if I did teach her all she knew.”
This bit of news sent Twilight back into silent contemplation, leaving Applejack to voice her objections.
“Now, hold on. I'm a part of the Apple clan, so I've seen a lot of look-alike cutie marks in my day, but that's because we all care so much about the same family business. I've never heard of a cutie mark that was passed on from your ancestors when you don't even know you're related.”
Rarity nodded in agreement. “Why, even the noble houses in Canterlot only bear their coat of arms when they accept their destiny as heirs to the family name.”
Twilight let out a nervous laugh. “Funny you should mention that...”
Rarity stared at her friend. “Are you saying you're actually nobility, and you never even told any of us? All the times I've tried to get an 'in' with the Canterlot elite and one of my best friends was part of it all along?”
“You didn't think to ask that when I said I studied directly under Princess Celestia? Or when you found out my brother was Captain of the Guard?” Twilight quipped. “But no,” she continued more seriously, “the Sparkle family may have been involved in Canterlot for generations, but we've never been nobles in quite that sense. Now that I think about it, the star acts kind of like our family crest, though. My brother has one on his shield, remember? My parents don't have it, but one of my great uncles also had a star and shield like that. Come to think of it, he was in the Royal Guard too...”
“It's interesting how some things skip generations like that, isn't it?”
Star Swirl had apparently finished fixing the hourglass, and had now returned his attention to the main hub of the conversation. “While it is true that most cutie marks are not passed on in whole, Clover's has a singular history, one which I should recount when I have the time. But if I'm not mistaken, we have more important matters to discuss at the moment, namely the reason I was called here in the first place. If I know Clover, that spell would not have worked even for you unless some trouble was brewing.”
“Yes!” said Twilight, snapping out of her musings. “We can't keep getting distracted like this. Star Swirl the Bearded, you have to help us. Changelings have taken over Canterlot!”
Star Swirl stared impassively. “Go on.”
Applejack spoke up. “The Changeling Queen snuck into Canterlot and stole enough magic from Twilight's brother to weaken the forcefield he set up around the city.”
“Then the whole swarm attacked at once,” Rainbow Dash continued. “We tried to fight them off, but there were too many of them.”
“But the Queen was the worst,” said Rarity. “She single-hoofedly defeated Princess Celestia in combat using the magic she stole.” Star Swirl's eyes went wide.
“Oh, it was horrible, Mr. Star Swirl!” Fluttershy said, throwing herself at the stallion's hooves. “They've sealed everypony up in these giant cocoons to drain their energy. We only just escaped.”
Twilight picked up the narrative again. “That's why I came up with the idea to use your time spell to go back to the past and warn the Princess about the invasion, but, well, it didn't go as planned.” Rarity looked sheepishly at the ground.
“But now that you're here,” Twilight continued, her face brightening, “we might have a chance again. A master conjuror like you surely knows more than one spell for altering time, and –AAAH!”
Star Swirl had chosen that moment to blast her with a burst of blue magic from his horn.
“What was that for?” Twilight sputtered, shaking involuntarily from the tingling sensation in her limbs.
“Your coat is now waterproof,” Star Swirl responded simply. “You will thank me later, I'm sure. Oh, and by the way, it won't work.”
“Time travel. It doesn't work that way. You can't actually change the past, especially not when it affects why you're going back in the first place. First law of chronodynamics.”
Twilight looked crestfallen. “I guess that explains why it didn't work last time either. I tried to warn myself not to worry about the future, but I ended up causing the disaster I was trying to prevent in the first place.”
“See?” said Star Swirl cheerfully. “Every change ends up as a stable time loop. Though it does make one wonder where the original message came from. I never have figured that one out.”
“So what you're saying is,” Rarity said, biting her lip, “No matter what we did, the outcome could never have been different from what already happened?”
“I suppose you could see it that way,” Star Swirl answered.
“Oh, that's a relief,” Rarity sighed. Everypony stared at her. “What? Here I was, worried that I had ruined the one chance we had at fixing this mess, and it turns out it wasn't my fault after all.”
“That doesn't change the fact that we still have to find some way of dealing with an army of changelings,” Applejack said.
“Yes,” agreed Star Swirl. “And a very remarkable army at that. Did I hear you say that their Queen defeated Princess Celestia?”
“Yes, she did,” said Twilight. “And she's only gotten stronger since then; it's like she's been feeding off of most of the trapped ponies personally.”
“This Changeling Queen,” said Star Swirl thoughtfully, “she wouldn't happen to be named Chrysalis, would she?”
“I don't know,” Twilight said. “She never told us her name. Why, do you know her?”
“I know... of her,” the stallion said after a pause. “This isn't my first encounter with what you would term my future. Am I correct in assuming that it is the second year since the return of Nightmare Moon?”
“That's about right,” said Applejack. “Have you really been here before?”
“That, my dear lady, is immaterial to the question at hoof, namely how I can aid you in defeating this group of changelings.”
Rainbow Dash sprang up into the air. “Now we're talking! I bet you're gonna send that Queen Chrysalis packing with some awesome battle magic, right?”
“Alas,” said Star Swirl, “I do have some magic effective against changelings, but if it is true that she defeated Celestia I am not sure I would be much help if Chrysalis confronts us herself. Best to avoid an open fight until we can overcome her power. However...” The bearded pony looked intently at Twilight. “I may be able to help you help yourselves. It cannot be coincidence that you were chosen to bear the Element of Magic.”
Twilight nearly fell backward in surprise. “How did you know I was the Element of Magic?”
“Didn't I say earlier? It's right there on your flank. Six stars, one bigger than the rest, and all of them shaped like the spark of Magic itself? It is obviously a representation of the Elements of Harmony awakening. You saying your talent was magic simply confirmed it.”
“Let me get this straight,” Rainbow Dash said, landing next to them. “You're saying Twilight's special talent, her whole purpose in life, is to be the Element of Magic?”
“It would certainly seem that way,” Star Swirl replied.
“That's actually pretty cool,” said the rainbow pony, gazing at Twilight with newfound admiration. “Not that I would trade in my lightning bolt or anything, but now I kinda wonder what a cutie mark for loyalty would have looked like.”
“Loyalty?” Star Swirl looked back and forth between the two ponies. “Do you mean to say that you are the bearer of the Element of Loyalty?”
“The one and only,” Rainbow replied smugly.
“Incredible! That's two of the six already here. That will raise our chances immensely.”
“Actually,” Applejack said, “we've all got Elements. Mine's honesty.”
“Generosity for me.”
“Hee hee, laughter!”
“Um, mine's kindness.”
“Well, well,” said Star Swirl, a huge grin creeping up his bearded face. “That certainly makes things easy. Not even an alicorn could stand against the combined might of the Elements of Harmony.”
“We already tried that, though,” said Twilight. “The changelings are guarding Canterlot Tower, where the Elements are kept. They captured us the moment we walked in the door.”
“Ah, but we've got something now that you didn't have then,” the stallion said. “Something they would never expect.”
Applejack raised an eyebrow in curiosity. “And what is that?”
The stallion winked mischievously. “Me.”
“Why did you save me?”
Star Swirl set down his quill and approached the figure that had just awoken on his bed.
“The same reason I helped you in the first place, dear friend,” the stallion said. “Because I still believe in you, Pendrax.”
The figure winced. “Please, don't call me by my real name.”
“And why not? It is a perfectly good name. And besides, you do not currently look the part of Gallant Night.”
The figure kicked the blankets off of himself, revealing a black shell that covered his body out to his hole-ridden hooves. He began to wail and struggled to sit up, while tongues of green flame erupted from random sections of carapace, completely failing to alter his appearance.
“No, no, do not move,” Star Swirl cautioned, gently pushing Pendrax back onto the bedsheets. “You are not yet well enough to get up, nor to transform. Your injury needs at least a few days to recover.” He glanced at the changeling's chest, where a jagged gash cut a star-shaped hole in the shell. “What were you trying to do, anyway?”
“It's my wife, Iris Blossom,” Pendrax said, reluctantly settling back down. “She is unwell, and I know I am the cause. I thought I could change, you believed that I could, but I can't fight my nature. Usually the host doesn't last his long, but her love is still draining into me, and it is killing her. So, I... well, I tried to let some of it back out. Love is stored in the heart, right?”
Star Swirl clapped his hoof to his forehead. “Pendrax, you foalish, foalish colt. I would have hoped that you knew that whole 'love is in the heart' thing is a metaphor, even for you changelings. The actual locus of emotion is in the... but perhaps it is a few centuries too soon. Suffice it to say, not only does love not work like that, you started worrying over nothing.”
“Nothing?” said the changeling in disbelief. “My wife is ill, and you call it nothing?”
Star Swirl looked him intently in the eye. “Do you expect me to believe that you do not return at least as much love to her as she gives to you? You still claim changelings cannot love, but the fact that you were willing to give up your life for hers says otherwise. No, Iris is not suffering from a loss of love. Could you perhaps describe her symptoms to me?”
“Well,” Pendrax began, “she has been getting weak and tired, as if she has no energy. More recently, she has been nauseous most of the day and has to lie down--”
“Erm,” Star Swirl interrupted, his face reddening slightly, “before we go on, I must ask you: have you two been, um, close, since this--”
“We're married,” Pendrax responded irritably.
“Yes, right. Then have you ever considered the possibility...”
If the changeling's eyes could have opened wider, they would have.
“Oh no. Oh no no no no. That isn't possible. Is it?” The changeling looked up at Star Swirl pleadingly.
“Stranger things could happen. You admit yourself that your relationship has gone on longer than most interactions between changelings and unicorns. There is no real data to say it is impossible for you to have a foal.”
“But then, the child... would it be half-changeling?”
“But, Iris doesn't even know what I am!”
“Then that is a talk you will need to have. I have helped with your deception so far, but it is high time you asked yourself whether it is necessary. You love her, do you not?”
“Then you should tell her the truth.”
The changeling stared up at the ceiling in silent contemplation. Star Swirl sighed and rose to his hooves. He walked over to his desk and resumed writing in his notebook.
“Well,” he said, “you will have a few days to think about it. You aren't getting up anytime soon.”
“Star Swirl!” hissed a voice in the stallion's ear, shaking him out of his reminiscing. “They're on the move.”
Star Swirl glanced down from their hiding place on a parapet near Canterlot Tower. They had been waiting for the changing of the guards in the changelings guarding the gates, and that time was now.
“Right you are, Rainbow Dash,” he told the pegasus. “Now, watch and learn.”
He waited until the changelings who had been guarding the Tower were out of sight and the new guards were just settling in, then he took a running leap off the parapet. His cloak glowed with magic as he held it out like wings, and he glided right at the Tower, colliding forcefully with the front gates, kicking them open. Before the changelings had a chance to react, there was a flash of blue light, and then silence.
Rainbow Dash cautiously flew down next to one of the changeling guards, who had stopped moving, and tentatively waved a hoof in front of its unblinking face. When the changeling didn't respond, she beckoned for the others to follow.
The ponies walked into Canterlot Tower, gazing at the changeling guards, who had frozen in place where they stood, some of them with looks of surprise still on their faces.
“Aww, we didn't even have to sneak in,” said Pinkie Pie, dramatically removing a black catsuit. “I even brought my night-vision goggles.”
“What did you do to them?” asked Rainbow Dash, ignoring Pinkie and focusing her attention on a changeling which floated improbably in mid-flight, perfectly motionless.
“It's a spell to stop time, isn't it?” said Twilight, her voice tinged with excitement. “I knew it existed!”
“Indeed,” said Star Swirl, tapping another of the now-frozen changelings on the head. “But it is very limited. It can only work on a small number of beings at once, and even I cannot prolong the effects past their allotted time.”
“How long do we have, exactly?” Applejack asked.
“We have until this hourglass runs out.” Star Swirl gestured to the floating egg timer he had apparently conjured as part of the spell.
“Ooh,” said Twilight, examining it. “That was the amniomorphic spell you used to make that, right?”
“One application of it.” answered the bearded pony. “I always have had an affinity for timepieces.” He lifted one corner of his cloak, revealing the hourglass-shaped cutie mark beneath.
“Well, let's not waste any time, then,” said Twilight. She walked over to the large double doors at the end of the hall. She bent her head down so her horn faced the golden sun in the center of the doorway and shot a blast of magic into it. For a tense moment, nothing happened, but then lines of blue light traced out the sun and the other patterns on the door, bathing them all in brightness. Then the door opened, revealing the jeweled chest Princess Celestia had placed the Elements in.
“We did it,” Twilight said in awe as she picked up the chest with her magic and opened it. “We can finally put an end to all of--” She dropped the chest to the floor in horror.
The ponies all gasped. The Elements of Harmony were gone.
“Tell us again, what exactly is a Pinkie Sense?”
Five changelings sat in a circle on the top floor of Sugarcube Corner. Not that anypony who entered would see them for what they really were; to the outside world, they looked like a certain five ponies that lived in the town below. The one currently sporting a puffy pink mane took a deep breath.
“Pinkie Sense is what Pinkie Pie calls this sixth sense she has. It's kind of freaky, really, but she gets these spasms that supposedly predict the immediate future. I found out about it while researching her in the Hivemind, though it kept tripping the failsafe measures.” She looked up at Princess Papilia. “These aren't ordinary ponies we're impersonating, your highness.”
“It's a good thing we're not ordinary changelings, then,” the princess responded. “Anyling else uncover something unusual like that?”
“Nothing as weird as Number 4,” Number 5 spoke up, “but mine can apparently fly fast enough to create a sonic rainboom.”
“That's just a legend,” said Number 2, imitating Applejack's southern twang with moderate success. “Ah mean, an old mare's tale. Silly pony phrases.”
“Well, hopefully you won't be called upon to perform anytime soon. What about you, Number 6?”
The changeling impersonating Fluttershy smirked back at the princess and blew a strand of hair from its eyes. “Nothing too special about this pony, highness. She can barely even fly. Have to tone down my whole act just to walk across the street convincingly.”
There was a chorus of laughter from the other changelings.
“Ah still can't believe we chose you to be that pushover of a pegasus,” Number 2 said.
“Yeah, hilarious,” Number 5 said halfheartedly, eyeing the swiftly reddening Number 6 with trepidation.
“We all know that my role has nothing to do with how she acts,” the changeling said, surprisingly coolly given the purple flush visible on Fluttershy's face.
“Of course, 'Fluttershy',” Number 2 snickered.
“We'll have to wait a bit to get to the others,” Number 4 piped up quickly. “Number 3 is running late, and Number 1 is--”
“--Understandably quite busy, yes, I got your message earlier,” Papilia said. “Which brings us to the main point of this meeting.”
Mrs. Cup Cake trotted up the stairs, a tray of frosted cupcakes clamped carefully between her teeth. It had been a while since she had heard so much laughter coming from Pinkie's room, and she hoped her friends would all enjoy the surprise cupcakes she had set aside for them.
“I have been informed that the foals are hatching ahead of schedule,” came a voice from behind the door.
The odd comment stopped her in her tracks, her hoof halfway to the doorknob. She pressed her ear as close to the door as she could without dropping the tray.
“It's about time, too,” came Applejack's voice. “Love or no love, I'm not sure if I can deal with the antics of those three fillies for one more day.”
“I'll make sure to take care of them first thing tomorrow,” said somepony else. The voice was Fluttershy's, but Fluttershy would have never spoken in that malicious tone.
“Those aren't Pinkie's friends,” Mrs. Cake whispered angrily around the cupcake tray.
“No, they certainly aren't,” a voice behind her answered in a low buzz.
Mrs. Cake gasped, the tray falling from her open mouth. Before it could hit the floor, it was caught up in a sickly green aura. The voice spoke again as its owner resorted the jostled cupcakes on the hovering tray.
“Oops. Better be more careful. You wouldn't want to wake up the babies.”
Mrs. Cake didn't know what gave the newcomer the audacity to threaten her foals, but she prepared to give whoever it was a piece of her mind, her fear evaporating as her cheeks flushed in anger. She spun around on the spot, but when she saw who was speaking her words stuck in her throat.
The pony in front of her certainly looked like Rarity, down to the meticulously styled mane and diamond-shaped cutie marks, but there was something off about her, in addition to the appearance not matching at all with the voice she had just heard. It may have been the unsettling shade of green that marked the pony's magical field, but Mrs. Cake quickly rejected this idea. No, it was the eyes: Rarity's eyes were warm and expressive; these were cold and calculating, and behind them Mrs. Cake sensed a cruel enjoyment at her confusion.
“Who are you?” she managed to blurt out.
“Do you really want to know the answer to that?” not-Rarity said with an ironic smirk. Then, in a perfect imitation of Rarity's voice, “Do you, Mrs. Cake?”
Not thirty seconds later the door swung open and a beaming Mrs. Cake entered the room. “Do you girls want some cupcakes?” she said, balancing the tray on her outstretched hoof. “I baked them special for you.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Cake, I'd love some!” cried Number 4. She jumped up and grabbed the tray, stuffing a cupcake into her mouth.
“Now Pinkie,” Mrs. Cake said reprovingly as the changeling disguised as Rarity slipped through the doorway behind her. “I baked enough for all of you, so be sure to share them with everpony, dear.”
“Well, duh,” said Number 4 through a mouthful of cupcake. “I can't just keep all this sugary goodness to myself.”
Mrs. Cake smiled. You could never be too sure with Pinkie. “Just bring down the tray when you're done, then.” She watched as Number 4 began handing out cupcakes to the other changelings, then turned to excuse herself from the room, humming a little tune.
“Will do, Mrs. Cake, thank you,” Papilia called out after the retreating matron.
The changeling disguised as Rarity waited until the door was closed and the sounds of Mrs. Cake's footsteps faded into the rest of the house before speaking. “I apologize if this may sound harsh, your highness, but you all need to be more careful. If I hadn't intercepted her on the way upstairs and wiped her memory, she might have blown our cover to the whole town.”
All the changelings paused to watch as their princess locked eyes with the purple-maned mare. The ordinary changeling stared unwaveringly back, her expression serious. After a few tense seconds, Papilia closed her eyes, smiling.
“You are quite right, Number 3. We have all grown complacent in our mother's victory over the pony princess. We cannot forget that here we are among the enemy still.”
“But,” she continued, her eyes flaring open, “we must also remember that we are changelings. As long as we play our part, the element of surprise will always be on our side. I suggest that we all stay in character as much as possible from here on out, regardless of if we are alone. Agreed?”
The other changelings nodded. “Yes, your highness.”
“Good. Tomorrow I will meet with Number 1 and see about setting up a safe house for the hatchlings. The rest of you, keep gathering information. I want to know the whereabouts of every filly and colt of appropriate age so we can begin the changeover.”
The princess stood up and cleared her throat, putting on her best Twilight impersonation. “Now, if you'll excuse me, girls, I have a big day to prepare for and a baby dragon to put to sleep. Good night!”
With that, she walked out of the room and down the stairs. A few changelings released breaths they hadn't realized they had been holding.
“Do Ah have to eat it?” Number 2 whispered to Number 4, looking disgustedly at the cupcake she had just handed him.
Number 4 swallowed the remains of her own cupcake noisily. “I kind of like them, actually,” she replied. “They don't taste that bad, and they're all crumbly and mushy in your mouth. Besides,” she continued as Number 5 silently passed her his own untouched cupcake, “didn't we just agree we're all supposed to work on staying in character?”
“Food will still take some getting used to,” said Number 5. “But I guess it goes both ways. We can't taste their food, and ponies can't taste love, even though it's all around them. I almost feel sorry for the things. They don't know what they're missing.”
“Careful you don't feel too sorry for your prey,” warned Number 3. “Times are hard enough without sentiments like that floating around.”
She bit daintily into her own cupcake.
“We wouldn't want anyling to starve in the midst of such plenty, after all.”
“I just don't understand,” said Twilight, staring at the empty chest where the Elements should have been. Star Swirl frowned and closed his eyes, apparently in deep thought.
“Do you think, maybe Discord might have taken them again?” asked Fluttershy. She shivered at her own suggestion.
Twilight shook her head. “Princess Celestia assured me that he can't use any of his magic while he's trapped in stone, and nopony but the Princess and myself know the spell to open the vault normally.”
“What do we do, Twi?” Applejack asked.
“I wish I knew.”
Star Swirl stirred, seeming to have come to a decision. He nodded to himself before opening his eyes.
“Am I correct that Celestia is no longer connected to the Elements?”
“She did say something of the sort the last time we had to use them,” Twilight confirmed. “Is that important?”
“It does raise a possibility...”
“Yes?” Twilight said eagerly. “Tell us!”
Star Swirl chose his next words carefully. “It is said that the true Elements of Harmony come from within the hearts of their bearers. They can only truly be placed to rest where the bearers call home. So I must ask you: do you also call this place your home, or are your hearts someplace else?”
The ponies glanced at each other uncomfortably. As the rest looked toward Twilight expectantly, she was the first to say what they were all thinking.
“Ponyville. The Elements of Harmony are in Ponyville.”
Then a further realization struck. “And Discord never stole them in the first place, did he? They were back in the library all along!”
“What are we waiting for?” asked Rainbow Dash, taking to the air. “Let's grab the Elements and show those changelings who's boss.”
“Well,” said Star Swirl, rubbing his hooves together, “Your path seems to be clear.” He paused, as if remembering something. “Before you go, I have a gift for you, Twilight Sparkle.”
Twilight approached him, confused. The elder unicorn dipped his head, sending a wave of magic over her that glowed silver briefly as it touched her skin. She shivered slightly.
“What did you do this time?”
Star Swirl straightened up. “If you are to go to Ponyville, it may be wise to visit an old hideout of mine. This spell will guide your way there. There is an old journal there that might help you find the truth.”
“The truth about what?” Twilight questioned. “Won't you be able to show us yourself?”
“Alas, my time here grows short,” he said simply.
Before Twilight could request an explanation, the peal of a bell rang out around the room. The last grain of sand had reached the bottom of the hourglass. Whatever enchantment had been keeping the device afloat ended, and the hourglass fell to the floor with a clatter, rolling to a stop at Star Swirl's hooves.
“That can't be good,” said Rainbow Dash as the changelings in the room with them resumed movement, shaking their heads in confusion.
“And that's even worse!” said Pinkie Pie, pointing at the entrance. A large group of changelings stood in formation in the open doorway, far larger than the set of guards they had passed on their way in.
A changeling in a green helmet walked to the front of the group, smirking.
“I'll bet you were pleased with yourselves for how easily you bypassed the guards, weren't you? Her majesty had a thought you would return here, so we laid a trap.”
He stepped forward as his cohorts positioned themselves along the walls to flank the ponies should they try to escape. “This is the elite squadron, not like that rabble you fought in the catacombs. It's too bad your precious Elements are--”
Star Swirl, who had remained impassive as the changelings filed in, chose this moment to act. His spell sent the head changeling flying across the room, screaming like a foal. As the other changelings rushed in to avenge their leader, he whipped up a swirl of energy that trailed around him, knocking back any changeling it touched.
Twilight moved to join the fight, but Star Swirl shouted “Stay back! I'll take care of this myself.”
“I have to respectfully disagree,” Twilight said. “We brought you into this. It's our fight too.”
“Ain't no way we're going to let you have all the fun,” Applejack added.
Star Swirl smiled. “Fair enough.”
The changelings warily circled the group, looking for an opening. A few shot blobs of goo at the ponies, but these were stopped by Twilight and Star Swirl's magic. Changing tactics, the changelings all morphed as if on cue to the form of an orange pony with a straw-colored mane.
“Not this again,” said Rainbow Dash.
They're trying to fool us,” said Applejack, looking around at the dozens of copies of herself, “but it won't work this time, because they forgot an important detail that ya can't copy.” She reached on top of her head, only to make a startling discovery.
“MAH HAT! WHERE is mah HAT?”
“You haven't had it on you this whole time,” Rarity answered.
“Well that's just peachy,” Applejack said. “And when were you planning on telling me it was missing?”
“Why were you wearing that old thing to the wedding anyway?”
“Um, girls?” Twilight said as she blasted away an Applejack look-alike that had gotten too close. “Can we argue about this some other time?”
“Right,” said Applejack. “First we need to teach these changelings a thing or two about messing with ponies. Yeehah!”
She slammed her hooves into the nearest changeling, sending it flying. Rarity delivered a matching kick to the changeling next to it. “Take that, you ruffians!”
“Must be brave, must be brave,” Fluttershy whimpered as a group of four Applejacks bore down on her. Panicking, she did what she had done the last time she was in this situation: she protectively stuck out her leg in front of her and clamped her eyes shut. She could hear the changelings getting closer. Then, they were silenced by a noise like a party blower that was accompanied by a cool breeze that smelled of peppermint. Fluttershy opened her eyes to see the changelings lying unconscious in a heap of confetti and Pinkie Pie standing over them with her party cannon.
“Hey, Fluttershy! Aren't you having fun?”
“N-no, not really.”
“Aw, that's too bad,” said Pinkie Pie, frowning. “You should try to enjoy yourself, no matter what.”
“I'm supposed to enjoy beating up my friend?”
“No, silly, they're not really Applej—oof!”
One of the changelings caught her on the chin, sending her reeling back a few steps. Immediately, Fluttershy was in its face, her hoof pressing against its orange nose.
“You! It's bad enough that you stole Applejack's appearance, but you do not. Hit. My. Friends! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves, all of you. Now go home, and think about what you've done.”
The group of changelings on their side of the circle backed away from the yellow pony's piercing stare, then all turned tails and fled out of the room.
“Way to go, Fluttershy!” Pinkie shouted, clapping her friend on the back.
“Do you think I overdid it?” Fluttershy said, staring blankly at the empty space in front of her.
The other side of the room wasn't faring nearly so well. Star Swirl and Twilight, nearest the door and the largest herd of changelings, were doing all they could just to hold their own.
An exhausted Rainbow Dash landed next to Twilight. “There's just no end to them, is there?”
“I know,” said Twilight, sending another burst of magic into the sea of changelings. “At this rate...”
“Twilight, wait!” came a familiar voice from across the room. “That's not me!”
Twilight looked up to see Rainbow Dash speeding toward her. But, she was already talking to Rainbow Dash... Realization dawned as Twilight turned to see the cyan pegasus next to her grin from ear to ear.
“Took you long enough,” the changeling said, and it bucked her as hard as it could in the chest. Twilight sailed backward ten feet, right into Star Swirl's spell.
Time seemed to move slowly for Rainbow Dash. She put on another burst of speed as she watched her friend fall. The changeling was still standing in the same place; it only noticed Rainbow Dash as she slammed into it, knocking it out before the grin had time to fade from its face. But the damage had been done. Rainbow rushed over to Twilight's prone form as Star Swirl powered down his spell to do the same.
The stallion placed a hoof on the side of Twilight's neck. “She'll be alright,” he said in answer to Rainbow Dash's anguished expression. Twilight groaned.
“If only I'd been a little bit faster...” Rainbow Dash said.
“No,” said Star Swirl. “If you must blame someone, blame me. That spell is designed to protect a single pony, not to fight in a group. I've never been very good at teamwork, I'm afraid.”
“Are you alright, Twilight?” Applejack approached them, followed by the others. “I saw what happened.”
“I should be okay,” said Twilight, getting shakily to her hooves. She teetered for a moment, then collapsed again.
“Whoa!” said Rainbow, catching her head before it hit the floor.
“You shouldn't exert yourself,” Star Swirl admonished. “That spell is quite powerful.”
Something green and sticky landed on Star Swirl's horn.
“Blast,” cried the stallion as he swung back into action, charging his horn for another attack. However, the magic sparked and fizzled when it reached the changeling goo, and none reached the tip of the horn.
“No,” said Star Swirl, staring up at his useless horn.
More shots of goo came at the ponies; Rainbow managed to snatch Twilight out of the way of a particularly large glob, but Star Swirl was not so lucky: both his rear hooves were glued firmly to the floor.
“Uh oh,” said Rainbow Dash.
“Quick, get behind me!” shouted Star Swirl.
“What are you going to--” asked Applejack as she and the others dived into cover, but before she could finish the stallion grabbed the nearby hourglass with his mouth and flung it as hard as he could at the floor. A cloud of glass and sand collided with the changelings in front of them, freezing them in their tracks.
“As I thought,” Star Swirl said as Applejack, Rarity, and Rainbow Dash knocked out the few remaining changelings that had avoided the attack. “Just enough residual time energy for another few seconds.”
“Here,” said Twilight, gesturing at the goo on Star Swirl's hooves. “Let me get that off for you.” She charged her horn with magic, then winced. “Ow, my head.”
“There's no time,” Star Swirl said, glancing at the unicorn with concern. “Leave me. It's your job to go find the Elements of Harmony. I'll hold off the changelings as best I can. Now go!”
With one tortured glance back at the trapped unicorn, Twilight allowed Rainbow Dash to fly her outside along with the others. They disappeared down an alleyway just as the changelings began to stir again.
The green-helmeted changeling picked itself up off the floor, shaking its head. It glanced around, looking for any sign of the escaped ponies. Then it spotted Star Swirl. “Oho. Not a complete loss, then. Just an exchange.” It grinned.
“Well, well, if it isn't Star Swirl the Bearded. What an unexpected surprise.”
Queen Chrysalis smirked at the pony before her. Star Swirl's legs were bound with fresh layers of sticky green goo, ans his horn was covered in the stuff. The helpless stallion looked tired as he stared balefully up at the Changeling Queen.
“It has been a long time, Chrysalis.”
“Indeed, you look older than ever.”
“Odd. You look even younger than last we met, and it has been longer for you than for me.”
“Not just younger,” said Chrysalis, grinning broadly. “Stronger. Even the most powerful wizard in history couldn't hope to defeat me now.”
“You flatter me. But yes, your power must be impressive if you managed to defeat Celestia in combat.”
Star Swirl glanced up at the giant cocoon hanging above the throne. Chrysalis followed his gaze.
“Yes, sometimes I surprise even myself,” she crooned. “Celestia won't be challenging me again. And you will suffer the same fate, unless you answer some of my questions.”
Star Swirl turned away as Chrysalis pressed her face close to his. “Where did they go?”
The bearded stallion remained silent.
“Very well,” said Chrysalis, straightening up. “If you won't tell me that, then perhaps you could put my mind at ease another way. You see, there was a prophecy.”
“Oh, no you don't. No spoilers.”
“Oh, so you have been to the future,” Chrysalis said. “I was wondering. How terribly convenient.” Star Swirl looked horrified.
“Now, see here--”
“Silence,” Chrysalis hissed. “Now, as I was saying, a long time ago, a zebra made a prophecy--”
“Oh, those zebras and their gifts of speech,” said Star Swirl, managing to crack a smile. “Prophecy, tongues—my favorite are the rhyming ones, how about you?”
Chrysalis fumed. “It is unwise to try my patience, Star Swirl.”
“You realize I'm still not going to tell you anything, right?”
Chrysalis gestured wordlessly to her guards, and they pointed their spear-like weapons at the restrained unicorn. “Oh, I rather think you will, time traveler. Now shut up and LET ME FINISH.”
Star Swirl went silent, glancing nervously down the shaft of the nearest spear.
“That's better. The prophecy went like this: 'When the princess is wrapped in green, and the sun rises at midday, then the Elements will fail, and one of changeling blood, with the love of a unicorn taken, shall overthrow all who would oppose her.' Now, what I want to know is, am I that changeling? Will the Elements of Harmony fall at my hooves?”
“Many seek visions of the future,” said Star Swirl, “but few need what lies therein.”
“I didn't ask for your cliché moralizing. Answer the question.”
Star Swirl sighed. Then, the corners of his mouth twitched into a grin. “You were wise to be worried about this prophecy, Chrysalis. I can say with certainty that it concerns you.”
Chrysalis clapped a hoof against the marble floor slowly. “See, that wasn't so hard, was it? Thank you, Star Swirl, that will be all.” She turned to her guards. “Take him away and put him in the Hivemind with the others.”
“Ah,” said Star Swirl, “I see we have a misunderstanding here.”
“Whatever do you mean by that? Surely you don't mean to take on my entire guard in your state?”
“No, I mean you cannot possibly imprison me any longer. My time is up.”
Pinpricks of light burst out of Star Swirl's body, piercing the goo and causing the guards to recoil away.
“What is going on?” stammered Chrysalis.
“Goodbye, old 'friend',” said the unicorn, now obscured by blinding light, “but time makes fools of all of us. I'll make sure to give my regards to your past self for you.”
There was a brilliant flash, and Star Swirl was gone.
“C'mon, Rainbow Dash,” Applejack called from the back door of the caboose. “You can do it.”
“That's the last of us,” Rainbow Dash said as she landed. She and Applejack dragged a wobbly Twilight aboard the train.
“I think I'm going to lie down now,” the purple unicorn said as she staggered into the compartment.
“Over here, darling,” Rarity said, patting the seat next to her. “There's a lovely divan with your name all over it.”
“Thanks, Rarity,” Twilight said with a smile, and sank gratefully onto the cushion.
“Do you think any of 'em saw us?” Applejack muttered to Rainbow Dash.
“Nah,” the pegasus responded. “It's getting dark, and all the changelings at the station got on before we did.”
“I'm not sure those were changelings,” Fluttershy said. “They looked more possessed than impersonated...”
As the other ponies talked, Twilight gazed out the window. Night was indeed falling, painting the landscape in rich violet hues. Even a few stars had wormed their way past the nighttime glare of the receding city. It was all so beautiful, Twilight could almost forget about what they had left behind in Canterlot. And yet, something about the sight bothered her, though she couldn't put her hoof on what. After a few minutes of pondering, she decided that the pounding in her head was more important, and allowed herself to drift off to sleep.
END OF ACT I