Opposition, 5 PM – Discord

The crumbled remains of his own stoned body tasted like dust and ash when he wrapped his tongue around them, but the magic they contained was like an electric shock, thrumming through his body. Chaos. The pure, heady rush of unconstrained chaos magic. As he pulled them into his mouth, the energy he had available to him increased logarithmically. They would have been very, very difficult to swallow without choking, and his mixed omnivorous teeth couldn't handle rock of any solidity – only his fang was at all draconic, and dragons with fangs didn't use them to crack gems, they used the rest of their teeth for that. But it didn't matter. With the sudden rush of chaos magic, magic both his own and not his own, that he could use, it was easy enough to expand his throat to be wide enough that the chunks of rock slid down easy.

And then the real rush hit.

It wasn't more magic than he was used to in his lifetime – the actual quantity of chaos magic available in a small chunk of his alternate's body was far, far less than the magic stored in his own, but he couldn't get to that magic unless he was ordered to, and he had no restriction on using this. That made it far, far more magic than he was used to lately, and it overwhelmed him. For a moment, all of his senses but his ability to feel magic were blotted out, the world vanishing into the kaleidoscope of impossible colors that he used to see, a long time ago, when he was a mortal chaos mage and he'd pulled so much magic at one time that it threatened his biological integrity and sanity.

He was in a space inside his own head, some sort of spiritual plane that looked a lot like his chaos dimension, but the colors were lighter and mistier. In his perception, he was tumbling, drifting through that space, falling through a realm of no gravity with no attempt to control his trajectory. It was exhilarating, terrifying and free. And in that place within, he saw another entity, catching bits and pieces of glimpses of something that looked like him, until he came face to face with it and stopped himself short.

What he saw horrified him.

It was himself – broken, shattered into tiny pieces, pieces which didn't bleed like flesh but which looked fully alive, not like stone – where the pieces had been somehow stuck back together, but badly. None of the pieces lined up with the pieces it was supposed to fit to, and there were gaps of fuzzy void in the spaces where the fastening didn't quite hold and the pieces seemed to be slightly separated from each other.

That was not what horrified Discord. The visual presentation would have been disturbing, maybe even horrifying, to ponies, but the Lord of Chaos had no qualms with a little bit of body horror. He might even make his own appearance look like that, if it fit the point he was making or if he thought it was funny at the time. No. What filled him with horror, and an existential terror the likes of which he'd never known was that this presentation was real. How the entity appeared to him visually wasn't a prank or a joke or an attempt at intimidation. That was really what it looked like, insofar as a bodiless spirit could look like anything.

Once upon a time, Discord had seen the Godslayer Hammer in use. He'd been fighting Typhon, a creature made of the rage and grief and madness of the dragons he'd driven underground to die of drowning in lava. It was a spirit of pure malevolence and it had wanted to burn the world for having the audacity to live while the dragons whose dark emotions had combined to make it had died. None of his attacks had been working on the thing – it was already insane, so it took any further chaos in stride, and it was like Discord himself, neither fully corporeal nor fully an entity of magic, but could switch between as easily as he could. A pegasus whose name Discord couldn't remember had attacked the thing with a hammer she could barely hold... and Discord had seen the blows smashing the entity's incorporeal nature, shattering its very soul.

The soul had dissolved, vaporizing. It hadn't gone to the land of the dead; the gateway to the world of the dead hadn't even opened. It had just... fizzled, the pieces of malevolent spirit wisping away into nothing after the spirit had been smashed.

Then the pegasus had gone after him. Celestia and Luna, who'd been on the scene trying to fight Typhon themselves, had hovered there and watched as Discord dodged frantically. Memories from the previous Chaos Avatars had surfaced, of other creatures that were spiritual and magical in nature rather than purely flesh and blood being destroyed by that hammer, and he'd panicked completely. He'd already died two times by then, and come back – he wasn't overly afraid of death, per se, because he'd known it wasn't an end. But that? What that hammer brought? That was an end, and Discord had been terrified beyond reason. There had been a million things he could have done, among them teleporting, but he'd been so shaken by watching a soul's destruction that he couldn't muster up the wits to do anything but dodge out of the way.

Eventually, he'd managed to pull himself together enough to stop the pegasus, who after all had been a mere mortal pony with no special magic of her own, aside from the flight and weather control powers all pegasi had. He'd teleported her someplace – he'd had no idea where, except that it was in the air above a land mass somewhere so she'd probably be perfectly fine – had confiscated the hammer, and then had paralyzed Celestia and Luna for half an hour so he could scream at them about what they'd stood by and almost let happen to him, because killing him was all in fun but destroying a soul was beyond the pale. Without his particular affinities for magic, they hadn't sensed that Typhon's death had been soul destruction – they'd thought the pegasus had a weapon that could negate the victim's magic, or something, and since they'd tried to kill him themselves multiple times (and had even succeeded once, for all the good it had done them), they had allowed the pony to attack him and even strongly considered intervening to help her, and mostly hadn't done it because they'd been exhausted and badly injured from the battle with Typhon. Once they'd realized what the hammer actually did, they'd been as shaken as he was, had actually apologized, and had done nothing to stop him from chucking it into a parallel dimension so it could never be used on their world again.

From what Spike had told him about the hammer, when he'd first been taken captive and Spike had revealed his role in the other Discord's death by simultaneously apologizing to him and angrily justifying the murder attempt, Discord had figured out that the other Discord had never disposed of the Godslayer Hammer. This world's Celestia had apparently acquired it, and this Spike had found it and used it. The bonds of Harmony had always held him so tight that half a dozen attempts to destroy his statue had never resulted in him taking any damage whatsoever. For Spike to have actually destroyed the other Discord by smashing his statue... the bonds of Harmony wouldn't have held tight around a chaos avatar whose imprisoned spirit was already smashed to bits. By the time the actual statue had broken under Spike's onslaught, Discord's counterpart had already been worse than dead, his soul shattered to pieces and rendered nonexistent. Or so Discord had assumed, because he knew how the hammer worked. He'd only seen it in action once, but other chaos avatars had seen it used, in the past, and it was a highly magical device... his ability to detect patterns in objects and in magical fields would have told him what it could do if he hadn't already seen it.

He had never expected this. A damaged soul disintegrated. Souls were virtually indestructible, but if you did manage to shatter one, it wouldn't maintain cohesion. The stuff souls were made of wasn't quite exactly magic, though it was a similar force, and just like the magic bound in a spell would dissipate the moment the spell was broken, the substance of souls couldn't hold together if the soul wasn't bound to itself. Never in all of his own millennia of life and never in the collective memory of Chaos had there ever been a soul that was broken to pieces and yet still existing, still a soul, still aware of its own broken nature.

"What... why?" he stammered, staring at his other self, whose shattered face was twisted in a rictus of agony overlaid by a mocking, bitter smile. "How do you still exist?"

"qUeSTioN!" the other one laughed, a dozen of Discord's own voices speaking in not-quite sync. "NEed aNswEr? hERE!"

And then the other entity rushed at him, and Discord immediately understood what it was trying to do. It was trying to merge itself with his soul, take his whole and solid nature and his body and possess them for itself so it could live again.

Opposition, 5 PM – Rainbow Dash

The trick to combat flight was that you had to learn to control where you were pointing the impact energy.

A pegasus flight field protected against impact damage. Pegasi could still be injured or killed by impact damage if they weren't flying – foals, ponies like Fluttershy who panicked out of fear, ponies who had just taken wing damage while in air – but a flying pegasus was nearly impervious to the forces of impact, because her flight field would take the energy and dissipate it all around her, so the things they hit usually didn't take much impact damage either. There were limits; every stunt flyer knew that if they couldn't concentrate on keeping their field properly focused and dense on the impact point, a high speed crash could be damaging or fatal. Rainbow's parents, and later her flight instructors, had drilled her endlessly on how to focus her flight field so it would give her the maximum protection in the area she was just about to hit. It had been boring, and she'd complained constantly about the drills because she'd wanted to go do some stunt flying and not safety practice all the time, but by the time they'd been willing to let her learn stunts it had been second nature, as easy as flapping her wings.

After she'd been humiliated in her attempts to fight an ursa minor and a dragon, in the first few months after becoming the Bearer of Loyalty, Rainbow had sought out active combat training. It would help her to qualify for the Wonderbolts, who were all combat trained, she'd thought. Besides, if being the Bearer of Loyalty meant Princess Celestia was going to send her and her friends on missions, she might need it.

She'd discovered the hard way that combat training meant unlearning half of what she already knew about flight fields and stunt flying. A stunt flyer learned to diffuse her impact, to let her flight field take the energies and disperse them into the atmosphere. A combat flyer learned to concentrate it. In combat flying, all the force of your momentum was supposed to go into the point you channeled it into – usually your hooves, because you were going to punch or kick something, but sometimes you channeled it into the field itself, making the field somehow pointy in front, like you were the hilt of a knife and the flight field running ahead of you was the blade.

Flight fields were magic. Twilight had said that magic could be amplified by emotion. You weren't supposed to use bad emotions, like pure anger or fear, because those could turn into dark magic. But anger for your friends and how they had been treated? Fear for what might happen to them? As long as your emotions were protective toward your friends or family or nation or whoever, they could amplify your emotion and still keep you within the realm of Harmony.

There were so many Changelings crawling all over Spike, and Rainbow knew what happened to a flyer whose wings were being dragged down. It was awesome that Spike was a giant full-grown dragon now, with wings, and if they lived through this she was totally gonna race him, and teach him some tricks because even though he seemed to just know how to fly he was still obviously inexperienced with it, but if there wasn't an attack on Chrysalis to get the Changelings to back off Spike then he wasn't going to live through this. Innocent little Spike, who wasn't so innocent anymore and definitely wasn't little, but he was still the kid that hung out with them and helped them in their adventures and there was no way Rainbow was letting those Changelings bring him down. So she outflew the guards she'd been fighting, going up, up, faster than they could match, because trained Royal Guards and all but she was the first to do a Sonic Rainboom in like recorded history or something. Faster, faster. More passion poured into her magic, more magic poured into her flight. She reached the apex and headed down.

Twilight reappeared and knocked the Changelings off of Spike, but then Chrysalis went out from under Shining Armor's shield and was going after Spike, but Rainbow didn't have the attention to spare because she was locked into her trajectory, and anyway Shining Armor was still dangerous and still needed to be taken down. Faster, with all of her flight field's kinetic shielding focused in front of her, ready to take that impact and turn it into a pinpoint hammer strike.

The rainbow trailed behind her. She couldn't hear anything because she'd already outrun sound and anyway the rush of the wind would have deafened anypony. Shining Armor's shield was up ahead, with him under it, looking away from her, up at Chrysalis.

Impact.

Even with all her flight magic pushing the force into a point, she still felt the backwash, jolting through her, throwing her backward. Her overtaxed flight field gave out mostly, and she had to stumble to a landing, and fall on her side, to the roof beneath her. But the magical shield took almost all of it. Shining Armor went to his knees, all four of his legs folding out from under him as his horn and body took sympathetic impact, the resonance of the strike against Shining Armor's shield affecting his body as well.

And then his shield went down, and Pinkie was on him, pinning him, and then Rainbow didn't see much else because she was dizzy and the world was spinning and there were Royal Guards in her way, surrounding her. She struggled to get up and get back into the fight but they were pinning her down.

Orange hooves lashed out. Some of the Guards turned to meet the new threat, but there were still enough of them pinning Rainbow that she couldn't get up. Without being able to flap her wings, she couldn't activate her flight field, and with them holding her legs, she couldn't kick her way out of this. Up in the air, Twilight, Spike, and Rarity riding on Spike's back, were fighting what looked like every Changeling in existence. Rainbow didn't see Fluttershy anywhere, and she knew Pinkie was covering Shining Armor. There was no one here to help her but Applejack, and as tough as the earth pony was, these odds were overwhelming. As long as Rainbow couldn't fight her own way free, as long as she was some kind of damsel in distress for Applejack to have to rescue, Rainbow was pretty sure Applejack couldn't win.

She struggled, harder, but the Sonic Rainboom that had brought down Shining Armor's shield had taken a lot out of her. She wasn't getting out of this on her own.

"Come on, Pinkie!" she shouted, though she wasn't sure anypony could hear her over the sound of Applejack fighting the Guards. "Do something!"

Harmony, 5 PM – Celestia

Celestia paced nervously, unable to quite contain herself, outside the large and well-apportioned guest suite that her prisoner was sleeping in... and that her sister was meditating in, her mind walking in the other Celestia's dreams. Celestia knew that Luna could handle pretty much anything she encountered in a dream, and that Luna would not take it well if Celestia hovered over her like a big sister... but she couldn't help it. This broken Celestia had killed her own Luna, and had been willing to torture Discord and to try to kill Celestia herself, to say nothing of the hoofcuffs with Twilight's fur on them. Who knew what horrors she had lived through, that Luna would have to see in her mind? Who knew what she was capable of?

The door opened. Celestia rapidly composed herself and tried to pretend she hadn't been pacing. Luna came through, looking troubled. "I've learned what I can, though what good it will serve for, I cannot say."

"Good work, Luna. Shall we go have some tea and you can tell me about it? You look as if that was stressful."

"It was." She shuddered slightly. "I've seen far worse in ponies' dreams, but much of what I inspired her to dream of was darkest memory, not fantasy... and, too. She's you. Another you, perhaps, but close enough to make my heart keen, or to awaken the rage I once held against you when I believed in my madness that you were the villain."

"How... close to me is she?"

They trotted to the lounge for this set of guest suites, currently empty except for two guards and a serving-maid, who took Celestia's order of tea and cakes for both of them. Luna added, "And a shot of orange liqueur, if you please." If the serving-maid thought the request was strange – this would normally be Luna's breakfast hour, and she didn't customarily drink alcohol until her duties were done for the night – she didn't show it. "Close enough for discomfort," Luna said. "Let me partake of something to relax my nerves and something to energize my weary mind, and I'll tell you all I found."

Cakes, tea and orange liqueur were out in short order. The cakes were actually more like cupcakes than full size cakes, but flatter and wider than the average cupcake. Luna picked up a chocolate one with vanilla frosting and bit into it. She then took a sip of unsweetened black tea, and another of her orange liqueur. Celestia watched her, holding her own teacup with her magic but not sipping at it yet, too tense to eat or drink.

Finally Luna spoke. "I appeared to her as mine own self, filly-like, as I was when I returned from the moon, and claimed no memory of the events that had transpired. She was initially resistant to telling me – I believe, because she thought me too innocent to be corrupted by such knowledge – but I wheedled her into telling me the tale. And as she told me, I used the suggestibility of dreams to make the memories come to life, where we could both safely watch and not be caught within." Another sip of liqueur. "Sister... that world is a horror."

"I had guessed that," Celestia said. "Where does it diverge from ours? Could you tell?"

"For certain, no. There was a small change to our past, millennia ago. Do you remember that hammer that Discord claimed had shattered Typhon's soul?"

Celestia nodded. "I do, yes. From Discord's letter... I had guessed perhaps that was the one used to destroy the other Discord."

"That appears to be the case. Such never happened in that world... Typhon awakened, we fought it until we could fight no more, Discord appeared because 'twas his way to fight to defend his world of playthings only after we had exhausted ourselves—"

"—Luna—"

"That was truth and you know it fine well. But to my point. Silver Strike never appeared with the hammer. Discord ended up throwing Typhon into some other reality. It was after he had been defeated that you were given the hammer, by one of Silver Strike's descendants... and you didn't know its nature, only that it had the ability to destroy evils directly. We still fought Tirek together, and Sombra, but many of the foes that you and I matched horns with in our world, or fought with the Elements, you alone took on, with the Hammer... until we learned that it destroys souls. Then you gave it up. The same corruption overtook me as in our world, and this Celestia blamed herself for fighting alone, not at her Luna's side, thinking that the reason I fell was that she was overprotective and treated me more like a child to be protected, less like an equal partner." Luna sighed. "Perhaps we should tell her at some point that in this world, my role was to be Princess of War, and that you trusted me in that role completely... and it changed nothing. My jealousy still consumed me."

"And you think that was where this universe diverged?"

"I don't know. Everything else seemed completely the same until Discord's escape. I have never seen your memories of the first year after the Bearers took on the Elements, but you told me of the events, and they seem to be the same. You groomed Twilight to be the Element of Magic, and succeeded. She and the others freed me. All the events, even the Gala, seemed the same. And Discord's behavior was no different than in our world – up to a point."

"Presumably the point where they failed to put him back in stone."

"Yes. What they fired at proved to be a lifesize balloon, bespelled to look like Discord."

Celestia frowned. "Once the Elements are active, it's impossible to dodge... but I suppose that if the Bearers lock them onto the wrong target, they can misfire. If Discord realized sooner that they were no longer under his thrall..."

Luna nodded. "I suspect that was what happened."

She told Celestia the rest of it then – the year of chaos. The corruption of all the Bearers but Twilight. Pinkie Pie a serial killer, Fluttershy Discord's cruel concubine, the others untrustworthy and venal. The deaths of Cadance, of Sombra. The other Celestia's desperate struggle to free her sister from the corruption of Nightmare Moon, that Discord had forced her back into – and the horrifying moment when Luna had been Luna again just long enough to beg her sister to kill her, because Celestia had been focusing everything she had into the spell to push back Discord's control and Nightmare Moon had been on the verge of killing her and Luna had said the spell wasn't enough, she wasn't strong enough, she couldn't hold the darkness in her own mind back, and Celestia, recognizing that only one of them could survive this night and the world itself might not survive if that one was Nightmare Moon... had killed Luna. And regretted it, every moment of every day she had lived since then.

And then Twilight had found something called the Diadem of Order, and had used it to re-harmonize with her corrupted friends, creating a balance. The corrupted Elements were off-kilter, unable to harmonize because of the presence of their equal and opposite Disharmonies embedded in them. Order was the opposite of Magic, making Twilight's element a contradictory paradox just like the others, and the Order pulling at one side counterbalanced the Disharmony on the other, allowing them to balance precariously in the center, where what was left of Harmony dwelled. It had been just enough. Twilight had broken the spell that prevented her friends from gathering together in one location, at a pre-arranged time when Fluttershy was keeping Discord occupied with sex. The five of them had come into Fluttershy's home and joined with Fluttershy in turning Discord to stone, minutes after he and Fluttershy had finished their lovemaking, if it could even be called that. He'd had time to stand up and start laughing bitterly, and had been frozen forever in that position.

The chaos had vanished, but the corruption of the Bearers had not. Cadance was still dead. Luna was still dead. Celestia had given in to utter despair. Spike had taken the hammer and killed Discord, and that still hadn't fixed anything. Celestia was alone again, once more the only alicorn, once more the only support for the world.

And then this world's Discord had come through, reopening old wounds with his careless, selfish, thoughtless hunger for chaos. He'd hidden the Elements right away, as his letter had admitted. He somehow had never noticed that they were broken. It had taken their Twilight three days to come up with a plan to stop him. She'd paralyzed him with a spell that kept him locked in a perfect dreamworld, fueled by his own chaos, for another few days while she'd researched the spells she'd wanted to use to contain him. And then instead of turning him to stone, she'd bound him, and told the other world's Celestia that she intended to force him to fix all the damage he'd done and take the burden of the sun from Celestia, so she could finally stop being a princess, at least for a little while, and rest.

At this point, Luna paused. "Sister," she said. "I don't mean to pry, but... what I saw in her mind. Her feelings of despair... is it true you lost the ability to feel anything while I was gone? Is it true that you contemplated ending yourself?"

Celestia sighed. "I never wanted to burden you with this," she said softly. "What you suffered from the banishment I sentenced you to... I thought, how dare I feel lonely, when I'm surrounded by ponies and Luna has no one. How dare I feel there's no point to my existence, in a world where all my friends and confidants die and there's no other alicorn, or even entity, to share the burden of immortality with me, when I condemned you to a thousand years with no one by your side, not even ponies that die? But..." She looked away. "Considering how she broke, perhaps... perhaps I need to admit to myself that it was worse than I've let myself believe."

"I thought – the Nightmare thought—you were down here basking in their adoration. Soaking up their love for you, being praised and glorified. I thought you had banished me to the darkness and you were down here being happy."

"We all crave what we can't have, Luna," Celestia said. "I've never felt a hunger for adulation, respect, love... you've been correct all along. I've had those things all along. I was the heir, and I fit in with the palace culture because I was the unicorn, and I've always had a natural talent for being liked and making friends. I can't judge you for needing those things so badly the lack drove you mad – I don't feel like I need them, because I've always had them." She sighed. "What I wanted – what I couldn't have, what I could never have – was a normal, peaceful, average life as somepony that nopony would particularly notice, aside from the ponies in her town, and her friends, and her family. I wanted... what Twilight has. What she had, before she became an alicorn. Respect, and the feeling of satisfaction from doing good things for my fellow ponies, but otherwise to be mostly anonymous to the world. To have a circle of friends, good friends, friends I'd die for, who would die for me, but for all of us to be equals. I wanted a husband. Or a wife, after two thousand years I wouldn't be all that picky, but I still mostly prefer males as lovers. I wanted foals. And I knew I was never going to get any of that."

She took a deep breath. "I couldn't have lovers. Anyone I loved would have to suffer the burden of being my Prince, in the public eye as much as me, and... they wouldn't be my equal, and I never felt like that was a fair way to love. And they'd die. I tried to have friends, but... again, none my equal. Again, they'd all die. By the time nine centuries had passed I was numb. I'd raised up four alicorns, and had the great fortune of finding another who'd ascended herself, a child, a barely becutiemarked filly I could raise like a daughter... and three died, one left and I have never known where, and my adopted niece was taken from me. I went through the motions, Luna. I continued to try to be the best ruler I could be, because there was nothing else. I felt completely hollow. The only thing – the only thing I dared dream of, was the prophecy. The stars will aid in her escape. On the thousandth night of the Longest Day. You were coming home to me. If I could only find Bearers for the Elements in time, to purge you of the Nightmare's corruption, I could have you back. We could be happy together, as sisters again, and I vowed..." Her voice broke. "I vowed that if I had the fortune to get you back, I would never, ever lose sight of you and your needs again... I would never lose you again..."

Luna got up from her seat, her own eyes bright with unshed tears, and came over to Celestia, who gathered her in a hug. "All that time I hated you, and you were suffering, just as I was," Luna whispered. "I'm so sorry, sister, I'm so, so sorry..."

"It was my fault. I didn't see the signs, I didn't see you were suffering. I didn't realize how withdrawn you'd become, how lonely. You fell because of me."

"No, that's not true. You had a hoof in creating the conditions, yes, but I was the one who was weak. I was the one who broke. I could have been stronger, fought harder."

"If you could have, I'm sure you would have. In another world I was protective of you and the same thing happened. I don't think you had the strength to fight, after what I allowed to happen to you. You must have felt so lonely, Luna, so unloved, and I was so busy in those days, we were building alliances and making Equestria into a world power and there was so much to do and it was so exciting... and I lost sight of what mattered to me the most." Her forelegs tightened around her sister. "Even now – I have Cadance, I have Twilight. I might be able to regain even Discord as a friend, if we can save him and if he can forgive what we did to him. But you... you're the most important thing in the world to me, Luna. Please, I want you to know that."

"And you are to me as well," Luna said, choking slightly.

"I want to believe I'm stronger than she is," Celestia whispered. "That if Discord had caused me to kill you... I wouldn't have given in to complete despair. But... I remember when the only thing that kept me waking up and raising the sun in the morning was the certainty that you would be free, and either you would be cleansed and be my sister once more, or... or I'd be dead. I wouldn't have to live without you forever." A soft sob escaped her, and she buried her muzzle in her sister's insubstantial starry mane. "For her... she had you for a year, and then you were Nightmare Moon again, and then you were dead. And she killed you. For the greater good. I don't... I really don't know if I could have kept going at all. I don't know if I have any right to judge her."

"Well, she planned to perform necromancy and raise her Luna from the dead... in Twilight's body. Our Twilight. That, I am certain you would never have done."

"I presume that's why Spike sent her here?" Celestia drew back from the hug, forcing control on herself. The other Celestia had endured a horror beyond endurance... but she was still very, very dangerous. Right now she was sleeping, and bound with alicorn restraints to cut off every avenue of her magic... restraints Celestia had had commissioned for herself two centuries ago when she'd found herself thinking that if she just dropped the sun on the planet then the loneliness and emptiness would end and she'd have peace. She had managed to stay sane enough that she'd never actually needed to bind herself with them, but she'd tested them, and they'd worked on her. So the other Celestia was probably not going to be able to break free and cause havoc... but Celestia couldn't afford to underestimate her. If she'd been capable of turning a blind eye to brutal torture, if she'd been capable of contemplating killing Twilight – any Twilight – who knew what she was capable of?

"Yes. Which makes me think that we daren't return her until our own have returned."

"Mm. Yes. But it might be best if we scryed for the portal ourselves, and possibly we should even go there, with our prisoner. I can't be certain that she won't manage to trick some guard into releasing her by convincing him that she's me."

Luna tilted her head. "Are you thinking of going to that world, to assist with the rescue?"

"...Maybe." Celestia laughed nervously. "It just seems... I could replace her. I could go over there and order their Bearers to release Discord. If our Bearers have been captured I could order them freed. I wouldn't even need to fight."

"Sister." Luna met her eyes. "I am not strong enough to bear the sun day in and out as you bore the moon. This one is mad and I will never trust her. I will not let you go risk your life to save Discord when our world needs you so gravely. If we should learn from Spike that our own Bearers are in dire peril, and a word from what the others believe to be their Princess could save them, then perhaps. But we need more. The last this one remembers, Spike had..."

"Spike had what?"

"Just transformed," Luna said reluctantly. "Some type of draconic growth, perhaps greed growth, perhaps some other type. Triggered when she tried to have our Bearers taken away to be executed, because our Twilight had rebelled against her plot to raise the other me by killing her. He was a full-sized adult dragon, and still had the power of speech."

Celestia took that in for a moment. "No wonder he hasn't sent us a report." She looked at Luna. "Sister, don't you think that this information makes it even more vital that somepony should go to the rescue? If this Celestia is bound here, I can take her place and nopony would be the wiser."

Luna sighed. "No, sister. I can't let you risk yourself. The danger if you were to be lost is too great. What if there are assassins over there plotting to kill the other you for her incompetence and she knows who they are and can avoid them but you have no idea?"

"Don't you think that's a trifle ridiculous?"

"We need more information. We can't risk you on a supposition." Luna considered. "I suppose I could go. If they think me to be dead it's unlikely there are any plotting against me."

"Luna... you can't go because they think you're dead. They'd know right away you're an impostor."

"Neigh, I rose from the grave. With my moon powers." At the look Celestia gave her, Luna said, "Well, why not? Without that world's Celestia there's none to know how ridiculous that is, except perhaps that world's Twilight."

"Who is exactly the pony you'd need to fool." Celestia snorted in frustration. "I know why you don't want me to go over there, Luna, and you're right, but... can we risk sending a message to Spike, now? What if he's in combat? If he's a full-sized dragon they won't keep him back for being small and young... and if they tried he wouldn't let them, and if it's greed growth there's no reason to expect he could answer anyway."

"Then perhaps we should trust in Twilight and her friends." Luna held Celestia's gaze. "You told me to trust in them when Sombra returned. Now perhaps it's your turn."

Celestia smiled wryly. "I said that, but then you and I had a gateway open to the Crystal Empire, and we were scrying the whole thing. We would have stepped in the moment it looked as if Sombra would win; I needed to know that Twilight could defy my orders if she had to, if the need was great enough. That she would put saving lives above passing a test. And you know why I needed to know."

Luna nodded. "That business with driving the town mad for a doll because she feared not being able to make a report to you. She surely would not have been safe to ascend to alicornhood if she remained that fixed on the letter of your directives rather than the spirit. But still. You did trust in her."

"I did." Celestia sighed. "But she was never before up against me. Or herself."

"Well, she's not up against you any longer. We can expect they were in combat when she came to us. Battles can't last forever. Trust in her, and in Spike, and give them a bit longer to send you a report. Send a query in an hour. Did I mention this one has an alliance with Chrysalis? For all I know, they have codes to guard against impostors... and Chrysalis may be able to sense the difference between a broken pony in despair and that same pony in good mental health. We can't risk you."

"You didn't mention Chrysalis, no. If that's the case... you're right, it's too much of a risk." She sighed. "And here I was looking forward to possibly being able to take action for once."

"Ha!" Luna's laugh was more like a bark. "I knew it!"

Opposition, 5 PM – Discord

His other self needed to merge with him because in its condition that was the only way it could live again. It couldn't draw on the disharmony of the newly dead to fuel its magic and create a new body for itself and come back to life... it was too broken to wield any kind of magic, even that magic which unquiet ghosts were generally capable of. But if it could merge its broken pieces with the intact soul of another world's Discord... it could overwrite most of his identity with its own, and live again, at the expense of having a handful of memories that had never happened to it.

By the same token, though, Discord wasn't broken. Not in that way. There were a lot of other respects in which he considered himself broken now, but at least his soul wasn't shattered. And that meant he was stronger. A rush of memories that weren't his own dazed him, but even in the middle of that transfer, he still knew who he was, and that he didn't want to be the other one. He flung it back, away from him, with force of will.

His other self began laughing. The harsh, cacophonous sound quickly turned into sobs, as the broken soul crumpled like a chewing gum wrapper, folding up into itself.

"Did you really think that would work?" Discord asked sharply.

"cAn yoU BLamE? deSPerAtiOn. nO BeTTeR oPtiOns." The other one looked up. "CaN'T diE. cAn'T liVe. cAN't can'T cAn't..." It rocked back and forth, repeating the word "can't" in different tones.

Discord had little attention to spare for his other self, as his mind flooded with the memories that weren't his.

So much was the same. So much. Everything that stood out across the millennium or so that he'd actually been alive and experiencing the world, as opposed to a stone statue, was the same, indistinguishable from his own. If there had been minor differences, he wouldn't be able to tell – a thousand years of memory was far too much to go over with a fine toothed comb.

Everything was more or less the same up until the moment that Pinkie Pie insisted on drinking more chocolate milk before firing up the Rainbow Cannon of Doom.

When Discord had seen that, the brief thought had flickered through his head that that was odd – he'd corrupted her against laughter, against pleasure, against fun. She shouldn't have wanted a drink of chocolate milk. But he'd dismissed the thought, because it was Pinkie Pie. Her own internal chaos could fight back against what he'd imposed on her without restoring her to harmony, he'd thought. And because he'd thought he had an explanation that made sense – a betrayal of chaos, he'd thought after he was stoned, trying to figure out why he'd lost – he hadn't looked any further. Until the moment he'd felt harmonic energies charging the air all around him, zipping past him, and he'd opened his eyes to see, in horror, that in the moment he'd been posturing with his eyes closed, they'd locked on to him. You couldn't dodge the Elements of Harmony once they were targeted. He'd been paralyzed with terror, knowing he couldn't teleport, trying frantically to think of something he could do to stop this, and then it had been too late.

But the other one hadn't thought of the fact that Pinkie had her own affinity with Chaos. He'd known it, just as Discord had known it, but it hadn't occurred to him in that moment. He'd wondered why Pinkie seemed to be back to herself. So he hadn't closed his eyes to make a grandiloquent gesture of unconcern. He'd looked, with his magical senses, and he'd seen that they were rebalanced, no sign of his work left. Which meant the Elements would work.

Terror hadn't paralyzed him, because it hadn't already been too late. Discord was very, very good at thinking quickly under pressure when he wasn't out of options. He'd needed to buy himself time. He couldn't let them lock. So he'd created a decoy and teleported away, invisibly. He'd had the decoy behave like he would have, screaming and trying to shield itself, as the rainbow rays enveloped it... and then his magic was purged from it, and its true nature was revealed as a balloon. And he'd laughed, and laughed, at the consternation and fear in their faces.

Then he'd taken their wings and horns again and put a slow levitation spell on all of them but Twilight, letting them rise slowly into the air while he'd demanded that they toss down their Elements, or he'd let them float into space and suffocate. It was a bluff. Quite aside from the fact that killing them would just cause the Elements to reset and seek new bearers, Discord despised killing. It made the world more orderly and it was no fun whatsoever. The mares had tried to resist, so he'd teleported the Cutie Mark Crusaders and all of their pets there and told all of them the stakes, and the fillies had pleaded with the older mares to give in and save themselves, and Fluttershy, at least, could understand the pleadings of the pets as well. Even Twilight had joined in, insisting that they could find a way to defeat Discord without the Elements, but if they lost their lives there was nothing they could do. None of them had guessed he was bluffing because Celestia and Luna hadn't been there, and none of them knew him well enough to know he didn't kill.

So they'd tossed down their Elements. He'd gathered them in a bag, made of pipes, and retreated. The Element of Magic was useless on its own, and he was fairly sure there was nothing he could do to it. Twilight had summoned it out of nothing, once. The others were more bound to the physical world... but not bound enough for his tastes. He'd bought time but sooner or later they'd realize that the physical Elements were manifestations of the bond they had to the metaphysical concepts they represented. Whether he threw the Elements into an active volcano, or the ocean, or space, or another dimension... sooner or later, the Bearers would figure out how to summon them back, or how to use them without having the physical objects in their possession. He knew from the memories of the previous Chaos Avatars that the Elements of Harmony were metaphysical; that was the whole reason Celestia and Luna had defeated him. They'd brought pretty rocks against him and claimed those were the Elements of Harmony and he'd laughed hysterically because the Elements of Harmony weren't physical objects and how deluded could they possibly be? Except, it had turned out, sometimes they were. And now there was a whole generation of new Bearers who thought they were nothing but physical objects. He could play that for a while... but they'd learn. Eventually.

So. Couldn't hide the Elements forever, couldn't kill the Bearers. His plan to destroy Twilight Sparkle's faith in friendship and thus permanently prevent her from using the Element of Magic she was bonded to had failed. He could disharmonize them again, but it would be harder this time – he'd probably have to use brute force on all of them, like he had on Fluttershy – and it would still wear off, and the whole reason he hadn't done it to Twilight Sparkle herself was that powerful unicorns like she was were trained to be resistant to magical mind control, and if he did get her Celestia could reverse it, and anyway chaotic disharmonization spells lasted only a couple of months at most. What to do?

He thought then of an idea he'd toyed with in his prison but eventually dismissed as too much work – corrupting the physical Elements themselves, disharmonizing them to contain their opposites. The Tree had gone to all the trouble of creating physical Elements that could be given out to ponies so that Bearers didn't need to be high-order magic users in themselves, and the physical Elements would embody the metaphysical connection to the souls of the Bearers. So perhaps it could go both ways. Perhaps, if he corrupted the physical Elements, it would serve as an anchor to keep the spell from being dispersed or wearing off. The Elements of Harmony set up a feedback loop where they chose a Bearer for exemplifying a trait, and then they enhanced that Bearer's connection to that trait, making them embody that trait more as time went on. So it was very possible it could go in the other direction, too.

He took them back to his private chaos dimension and experimented on them for several days, until he was fairly sure he had it right. And then he returned, with a new game.

He chose to use the labyrinth again because it would lull them into a state of complacency. Ponies lived in a world where things were predictable. They'd expect predictability out of him. Celestia and Luna would know better, so he removed them from the equation. He turned Celestia into a frog and Luna into a reversed wolfequus, a growling, snarling monster trapped in a cage who needed to be released into the moonlight to transform back into Luna. He manipulated the heavens to increase Luna's power, and he set a series of traps.

The game was, find the Elements and the two alicorns before the time limit was up. He didn't take their body parts – he'd done that before – but he implemented other measures to keep them from using wings or horns to cheat, dumping objects on Twilight's head every time she cast a spell other than telekinesis until she stopped, making the air above the labyrinth a maelstrom of whirling scissors that would cut a flyer to pieces. (It really wouldn't have; that was another bluff. The scissors he sliced a hedge with, as a demonstration of what they could do to a pony, were metal and sharp, but the scissors in the maelstrom were actually rubber. But they didn't know him well enough to know when he was bluffing.) They tied themselves together so he couldn't separate them, but that was fine; his goal wasn't to separate them. He made the Elements challenging to find, but not impossible, because he wanted them to find them. That was the whole point. And he dropped hints to tell them how to free Celestia and Luna – Luna, a wolfequus inverted; Celestia, to be freed by true love's kiss. Celestia, at least, would know that Discord had no faith in romantic love, and that when he said true love, he literally meant a love that was true, not a romantic monogamous pact.

It could be either Luna or Twilight. If it was Twilight, she'd be transformed into an infant foal, far too little to use her Element, but still bonded to it, and a spell would fall on Luna to make her irrationally convinced that Twilight was her daughter and needed protection. Luna would resist any attempt from Celestia or Twilight's friends to try to reverse the spell, and the corruption of the Elements would remain dormant until they found a new Magic or Twilight got old enough to wield hers. If it was Luna, the spell that triggered would disharmonize her back into being Nightmare Moon, and suppress her memories from the past year. She'd think she had just returned from the moon. And then, if the Bearers tried to use the Elements to free her... then the corruption would enter them, and collapse the connections of Harmony. Twilight wouldn't be corrupted... and while one could achieve harmony with either a collection of minor keys or a collection of major ones, a major key played with a group of minor would cause dissonance. Not being corrupted meant she wouldn't be able to harmonize.

It had been the second pattern that had played out – the true love of sisters was determined to be greater than the true love of teacher and student, or something. Discord was glad. As funny as it would have been to turn Twilight into a newborn foal, corrupting the bearers and turning Luna back into Nightmare Moon looked like it had a lot more potential.

The Changelings hadn't been pleased. Since his original stoning, it seemed that one Changeling hive had achieved dominance over all Changelings in Equestria, subsuming all the other hives, gathering all control under one queen. This offered many opportunities for utter hilarity, and even while he'd been tinkering with the Elements, Discord had messed around a bit with the Changelings, because Chrysalis was so self-important, even moreso than Celestia. He found out the hard way why; Chrysalis sent emissaries to him to beg him to come to the hive to accept terms of surrender, shortly after he'd transformed Luna and the Element Bearers. He hadn't needed to accept terms of surrender – Chryssy and her bugs were just going to have to put up with whatever he felt like doing – but he was amused to hear what she might have to say, so he went. It was a mistake.

There were two hives. One in the truly unstable area of the Badlands, where most of her changelings lived. One in a slightly more stable area. She invited him to the first, and then teleported him to the second, using a rune circle hidden under sand, where he hadn't seen it. The second had some sort of device that suppressed all magic but changeling magic. He'd been in the middle of a changeling hive and he'd had no magic. The only thing that had saved him was that he'd tried to teleport away the instant he recognized he'd been teleported somewhere, and when it failed, he'd known immediately that this was a trap. Before Chrysalis even had time to gloat, he'd bitten her with his fang, pumping her full of hallucinogens; the venom in his fang might be created by his magic, but it was a physical substance and still there after he'd had his magic suppressed. Then he'd run.

He could still see patterns. The walls of this particular hive were magical, opening and closing random portals, but he could see the magic even if he couldn't control it, and he knew where the portals were going to be. He was bigger than all of the changelings, and Chryssy hadn't been breeding her sons and daughters for brains and ambition; without her guidance, even the Princes and Princesses had been confused, shouting contradictory orders. And he had no love in him, not the kind they could use. They couldn't shapeshift into the form of his loved ones to slow him down; he didn't love anyone. If enough of them piled on him they could drain his emotions anyway, but he was bigger, faster, stronger, and utterly panicked. He'd managed to smash his way out of the hive and had run, on all fours because there were no ponies there to see him do it and humiliate him. The effect had ended at a cliff. Climbing up the cliff, without magic, with Changelings divebombing him and trying to knock him off or glue him there, had been one of the most terrifying experiences of his life, because without his magic, if he fell, he'd die. And without his magic there was no guarantee he could come back.

Even as he'd been running, he'd planned his revenge. If he lived through this, he knew exactly what he was going to do. So as soon as he reached the top of the cliff, and his magic had come flooding back, he'd continued to pretend to be helpless. They'd swarmed him, trying to drain emotion from him, but because he knew they were trying it, he was free to cast an illusion on them that made them think they were succeeding. If he could create illusions of food that had taste and seemed filling, he could create illusions of emotions that would do the same.

And as soon as there were enough of them, he'd focused all his will on them and had deliberately warped them into gullibility, like the first time he'd done to Rainbow Dash, convincing her that Cloudsdale would fall. He'd placed on them the certainty that the thing that was blocking all but Changeling magic was going to explode, and let them fill in the details. It had worked better than he'd dreamed; with Chrysalis still out of it, under the influence of his venom, the belief he'd inflicted on fifty Changelings had spread like wildfire to the whole hive, because they shared their perceptions with each other, and they were wired to believe other Changelings.

Discord wasn't very good at math, but when Chrysalis had later claimed that he'd sent five hundred Changelings against what they called the Stone of Shielding, he could believe it. The changelings, as desperate to save their hive as Rainbow Dash had been to save Cloudsdale, had thrown themselves at the stone, battering it, breaking their fragile carapaces as they did their best to smash it, sometimes shattering their carapaces entirely and also every bone in their bodies by divebombing it. By the time Chrysalis had recovered – faster than he'd expected her to, he had to give her that – she couldn't get control over the chaos. Her frantic screams at her changelings to stop went completely unheeded – they'd been reinforcing each other's belief that the stone had to be destroyed for a good ten minutes by then.

The stone had shattered, and with it, any hope Chrysalis had of defeating Discord – who'd been infuriated by the fact that she'd tried to capture him and made him have to risk death to escape. He'd gone into the hive, Chaos Incarnate, and closed all the portals on each level but one... and then made the Changelings believe that the temperature of the hive was high enough to cook them all. It had been an illusion, but a deadly one. Changelings had trampled each other in their frantic desperation to get out of the hive through the tiny number of openings he'd allowed to remain.

Afterward, he'd gone to a broken, weeping Chrysalis and told her that she hadn't trained her Changelings very well; surely a swarming species should know better than to stampede and crush each other! She'd spat at him. "None of that, my dear," he'd said mockingly. "This is entirely your fault. I had no quarrel with you—"

"You're turning ponies against each other! You're drying up the supply of love, and making them paranoid! We couldn't survive under those conditions – we had to stop you!"

"Well, you failed. So I suggest you learn to adapt." He'd laughed at her. "All these poor Changelings, injured or dead, all because their queen thought she could challenge the Lord of Chaos. So sad for them. Maybe they should depose you, Chryssy, replace you with a competent queen, one who knows not to punch above her weight class."

So she'd promptly framed him for the murder of Celestia's adopted niece (whose location he couldn't even find – how the hell was she hiding an alicorn from him?), and went and pledged an alliance against him to Celestia.

He'd wanted an entertaining three-way combat between himself, Luna, and Celestia. Celestia getting a powerful ally was cheating. He'd dropped in on Nightmare Moon to tell her about the alliance between Celestia and Chrysalis, and Moony had retaliated against Chryssy by flooding her hive in the Badlands, bringing a ferocious storm that would normally never have occurred, so far out into the desert. It was funny – Luna's mom Imbrium, the one she'd taken after, had died fighting his father, Mayhem, when Mayhem had generated a hurricane inland and made it powerful enough that it would kill ninety percent of all pegasi who might try to control it. Now Nightmare Moon was herself generating an inland hurricane, dragging moisture from the ocean across hundreds of gallops, in order to kill Changelings. It hadn't taken Chryssy out, but it had done her troops damage. So she'd hooked up with Twilight's older brother, Shining Armor, a very powerful unicorn, and comforted him over the death of his fiancée, the Alicorn of Love, who wasn't even actually dead as nearly as Discord could tell. But it had worked – Shining Armor had power to spare, and plenty of love, and before long Chrysalis was at alicorn-level power herself, albeit young alicorn like the niece that where the hell was Chrysalis keeping her?

Meanwhile, the corruption Discord had put in play was taking over the Bearers. He'd laughed at Pinkie when she'd finally been caught enjoying the fun of murder – a strange side effect, he'd been going for something more directly opposite like when he'd disharmonized her in the maze, and he hadn't quite liked it at first because he wasn't a fan of gore or death... but the incongruity between her bright and cheery attitude and the horrific things she was doing was just so great, and so darkly hilarious, it won him over. He didn't really like watching her actually kill them, but the lead-in when she explained to them that she was going to kill them and why, when she was so absurdly cheerful and so apparently oblivious to how wrong her society considered what she was doing, and then the aftermath when her friends caught her and reacted with disgust... oh, those were comedy incarnate.

Applejack, Rainbow Dash and Rarity still bored him. It was fun sometimes to watch them interact with each other – the arguments, the sniping – but there was nothing really special there. They'd turned banal, self-centered like most ponies but nothing too extreme, nothing really funny. It was Fluttershy, though, that he felt strangely drawn to. It was odd. She wasn't nearly as funny as Pinkie – she was certainly entertainingly cruel to her friends on occasion, but the sheer sadism she was sometimes capable of toward her animals reminded him of... ponies he'd left behind him more than two thousand years ago, ponies he had no desire to remember. It wasn't pleasant. He didn't really know why he was drawn to her, except that he felt... something. Some kind of kinship.

Discord remembered, back in the old days before he was the chaos avatar, when he would play pranks, and they'd backfire and somepony was genuinely hurt, and the incredible guilt he'd felt, the desperate need to pretend he wasn't all that affected while inside something told him he was horrible and he didn't deserve the company of ponies and he should probably die. He'd never listened to that voice and he'd gotten good at shutting it out, but it hadn't actually gone away until he'd become the Lord of Chaos. Maybe not even quite then. Maybe it had taken a while after that.

Fluttershy was suffering, because she was resisting her new nature, hating herself for what she was becoming, and that wasn't really all that funny. He'd gone to her, to give her advice, to help her through this transition, because she reminded him of what he'd been through. Also because she was the only one of the Bearers who actively lusted after him. She didn't want to admit that to herself, but lust was generally disharmonious, especially when it was in conflict with the luster's beliefs. Discord could always tell.

And then he'd been harassing her, trying to teach her to embrace her cruel desires, to stop feeling guilty over what she needed to do, and she'd hit him. Punched him in the face, repeatedly. He'd been too startled to stop her. She'd screamed at him over and over that she hated him, that she wanted him to die, that he was the worst creature in the universe... but the conflict between what she said, true as she felt it to be, and the other truths churning in her heart had kept him mesmerized. Such a beautiful display of disharmony. He couldn't even get angry at her, even though he hadn't been incorporeal and her punches had actually hurt.

Instead, he'd waited until her anger was spent, and she was sobbing in his arms, slumped against him. He'd leaned down into her face to whisper, "Feel better now?"... and she'd grabbed his head with two hooves and kissed him.

What had happened after that had been intermittently sexy and hilarious by turns. She was still shy, still unwilling to say the words that described what she wanted, still barely able to admit to herself that this was something she even wanted... but she'd wanted it so badly, and Discord had been more than happy to oblige. He'd been too busy raining chaos on the world and getting into fights with Celestia, Nightmare Moon, Chrysalis or all three to pursue his sexual needs, and he'd been trying to convince himself he didn't need sex anyway, not when he could duplicate himself or any pony he wanted. Trouble was, as erotic and pleasurable as sex with his doppelgangers or his creations could be... it was still masturbation. There was nothing unexpected – part of him always knew what they would do before they did it. And there was no emotional component – no radiated lust and confusion, no glorious disharmony. (No tenderness, but that had been long, long gone anyway even before he'd been turned to stone, and he'd convinced himself he didn't miss it.) So there had been fits and starts, because Discord knew she wanted him to sweep her off her hooves and ravish her, so she could get what she wanted without ever having to admit to him or herself that she wanted it, and no. He wasn't going to play it that way. She was going to take the initiative every step of the way if she really, truly wanted some draconequus lovin'. He'd made her either ask for, or demand, everything she wanted from him, or directly take it for herself.

It hadn't been the last time. She could resist him – she was good at resisting him. But he'd rile her up and make her angry. Taunt her with what she was, how evil by her own lights she'd become. Mock her for the things she did to her animals (some of which came uncomfortably close to sexual molestation, and as much as he hated himself for the weakness, Discord still found himself bothered by the thought of rape far more than he thought a Chaos Avatar should; he'd redirected her energies toward him, taking the form of the animals she'd plainly lusted after but with his own recognizable yellow and red eyes, so she'd pay attention to him instead of them... and also so that she wouldn't rape them, because rape wasn't funny. But mostly, he told himself, it was because he wanted her sexual energies focused on him, not them.) It wasn't hard. As soon as she got angry, she'd lash out at him and try to hurt him, and he'd play along. And then, once she was spent, she'd want sex. Sometimes she'd demanded the sex while she was still angry, and had channeled the violence she'd obviously wanted into furious coupling, and it had been amazing.

Eventually he'd told her entire group what she was doing with him, and how mutual it was, and she couldn't bring herself to lie to them and say he was the one lying. They'd turned on her in disgust, just as he'd known they would. What he hadn't realized was that they were bound together by their Elements, corrupted as they were, too tightly for that to last. Almost all of them had, ostensibly, forgiven her and asked for her forgiveness. Rainbow Dash was the only one that wouldn't, with her black and white views on morality and loyalty. All the others acknowledged that if Fluttershy wanted to have sex with the enemy, that didn't directly harm any of them, or any other ponies.

Not that they could meet as a group. When they'd had one too many conversations about how they could work together to defeat him without the Elements, he'd dropped in on them and separated them, casting a spell that would randomly teleport one of them away, to a random location, any time all six tried to gather. Celestia tried to send five of them, at least, to "fight" him on numerous occasions... which he knew meant "distract him", but he enjoyed the distraction.

The lineup usually included at least Twilight and Fluttershy, because the fact that Twilight was still uncorrupted, still desperately struggling to make sense of the world he'd made, made her a delight to him. He flirted with her, forced her to dance and gave her flowers and suchlike, in front of Fluttershy because he knew Fluttershy would be enraged with jealousy and Twilight would be disgusted, and the disharmony was wonderful. Also, Fluttershy was so very hot when she was angry. Rainbow Dash was usually the one missing from the group, because she had joined the Wonderbolts and was generally off with them trying to minimize the damage Discord was causing, as if anything they did would help, as if he wasn't generously allowing them to do that when he could take their wings or turn them into pigeons any time he wanted to. Also, because she'd lost most of her loyalty to her friends and couldn't be bothered to spend time with them unless Celestia demanded it. Applejack was more fun now that she was willing to lie, and Rarity was still comedy gold if he dangled shiny things in front of her... she wasn't as irrational as she'd been when she'd fallen in love with "Tom", but she was perfectly happy to flirt with Discord or try to cut deals with him if she thought she'd benefit. And Pinkie was always entertaining.

Shortly afterward, his plunder vines finally came up, well-fed after nearly a year of chaos. Discord was delighted and irritated at the same time – originally, he had programmed them to find the most concentrated sources of magic, the alicorns, and devour them, because he'd known that Celestia and Luna were looking for the Tree of Harmony and if they found it, they could destroy him. But he'd only just planted the vines when they showed up and turned him to stone, so it hadn't done him any good, and now he neither wanted nor needed the alicorns dead. It had taken him enormous effort to turn them away, to reprogram them on the fly so that they'd stay in the general area of Ponyville and the Everfree and not let them go to Canterlot, or to wherever Nightmare Moon was making her base now.

Fluttershy had been enraged with him, because he'd done nothing to stop them from ravaging the Everfree, destroying thousands of animals' habitats. As amusing as it was when Fluttershy said she hated him... for some reason it bothered him that she was angry this time. He'd relocated many of the animals. Of course, many were already dead, trapped by the plunder vines. (He hadn't told Fluttershy about the zebra who'd died in there. By now there had been so much violence that he could barely bring himself to care about sapient collateral damage, but he knew Fluttershy had been friends with the zebra, once upon a time.) But he did what he could, because she wanted him to... and she'd repaid him.

In the meantime things were escalating. Shining Armor and Chrysalis tried to retrieve the Crystal Heart from the Crystal Empire. That was another fruit of a Harmony Tree, and possibly could turn Discord into stone itself, or do other harm to him, so he couldn't allow that. They'd run afoul of Sombra instead, who'd made the mistake of using the Heart to amplify his own dark power, against Discord, when Discord came to claim the Heart. Discord was tired of being hurt – so many battles against Celestia and Chrysalis together, where with their combined power and ruthlessness they'd actually managed to injure him. So many battles against Nightmare Moon, who tried to kill him every time she saw him. It was what he'd wanted, at first, but it was getting old and he didn't see how to get out of it. If that hadn't been the case maybe he'd have left Sombra alone, to be a fourth wildcard in this game of theirs... but Sombra caused him pain. So he caused Sombra pain. The Umbrum could do very little magic without his horn, and when the Crystal Ponies remembered everything Sombra had done to them, courtesy of Discord ripping the protective veils around their memories away... Sombra didn't last long at their hooves.

Chrysalis had a Changeling impersonate Fluttershy to try to lure him into a trap. It didn't work. To his magical senses, it was obvious that that was a Changeling. But he was enraged at the attempt. How dare she drag Fluttershy into this! Fluttershy was his enemy-lover and her battles with him were their own, no business of Chrysalis'. He retaliated, convincing a large number of Changelings that they were moving base again, and that an active volcano was the new base. Chrysalis came after him with Shining Armor and a few hundred Changelings, gunning for revenge, and they had secret weapons – some sort of magic-negating slime from the bodies of creatures out at the ends of Equestria. They didn't manage to hit him with enough of the slime to completely negate his powers, only to exhaust him and make the battle much harder than it needed to be.

When he finally got away, he learned that while he'd been occupied, Celestia had had a death battle with Nightmare Moon... and had won.

Luna was dead.

He tried to tell himself it was better this way, that she was dangerous, that if she'd ever figured out how to compensate for the spells he used to protect his dreams she could have been deadly to him. It didn't work. He was grief-stricken, because he'd never meant for it to go like this. He'd never meant for Luna to die. If it had to be Luna or Celestia then he'd rather it be Luna but it shouldn't have been either! He shouldn't have been off fighting Chrysalis during their death battle, he should have been able to show up and intervene and prevent either of them from killing the other!

It was Chrysalis' fault.

He cast a spell on the Changelings. Out of every five Changelings, one would be so repulsive to all, no matter what form it took, that nothing could ever love it. Other Changelings couldn't bear to share their supplies of love with it. Chrysalis herself couldn't bear to be in their presence.

She confined them with each other, hoping they would be able to share love with each other, and prolong all of their lives until Discord could be defeated. It didn't work. They starved to death.

That was what Chrysalis deserved for distracting him at the wrong moment and letting Luna die.

He considered resurrecting her. He even went so far as to heal the wounds on her body, in her sarcophagus, and to open the sarcophagus to the light of the moon. Every night, the light of the moon replenished some of the magic in Luna's corpse, so she didn't decay. No one else knew. The spell that made the lid of the sarcophagus transparent to moonlight was overlaid with an illusion that made it look as if it was still solid and opaque. Even Celestia wouldn't know that her sister's body wasn't rotting in there; alicorn bodies retained a lot of their magic for a long time after death, and took a long time to decay, but Discord's spells would ensure that Luna's body would remain pristine, as if she was sleeping and not dead, for a good few centuries. He put in all the effort to make the spells permanent.

But in the end, he didn't resurrect her. Necromancy could summon a spirit to a body, as long as the gate between life and death was opened with a sacrifice, but it was impossible to get the correct spirit. So many hungry spirits clustered around the gate, seeking a way to live again. The only way to safely do it was to die yourself, and go find the spirit you wanted, and lead them back to the land of the living. Discord had the power to do that without necessarily staying dead, because the emotions of the newly dead were so disharmonious, his magic would replenish itself, in his spirit, where he was the Avatar, not his body where he was merely a draconequus. It was a risk he'd taken for Celestia, once, aeons ago. But that was before Celestia and Luna had turned him to stone.

In the end, his grief and guilt over Luna's death were not enough to make him willing to risk his own life... not when anypony who found his body while he wasn't inhabiting it could destroy it. That wouldn't necessarily stop him either – the destruction of his body while he was dead would just mean he'd need to build a new one. But every time he did that, he lost memories. Not the most recent memories, not the moment of death or the days before it, but the past two months through a few years. He could end up losing most of the memories of his freedom. Or he could end up staying in the land of the dead, being unable to return. There were predators there who devoured magic, and metaphysical dangers. It was risky, and he wasn't going to take the risk for Luna, who hated him and had even advocated killing him with the Hammer of Celestia, a weapon that destroyed souls, before he'd turned her to Nightmare Moon.

Instead, he'd spent more time with Fluttershy, taking refuge in her arms, and taking his feelings out on ponykind the rest of the time. None of this was fun any more, but he was stuck. Celestia had given everything she'd ever felt for him to Chrysalis to feed on, and now when she interacted with him she was nothing but ice cold duty and cool righteous rage, and he couldn't rile her up anymore. Chrysalis would kill him in a moment if she had the chance; Discord hid the Hammer of Celestia in a gem vault rather than an armory so she'd never find it. He could have dropped it into the ocean or thrown it into another dimension, but he didn't really want to. Part of him, still, wanted to leave the ponies the opportunity to use it on foes who weren't him if they had to, now that he'd deprived them of the Elements of Harmony; he didn't want to take on extradimensional monsters and ancient arisen evils anymore. They thought they could handle it without him? Fine, let them handle it. Once upon a time he'd have been horrified beyond belief at the thought of a weapon that destroyed souls, but now... now he was just angry and afraid, all the time, and whatever morality or compassion he'd ever had was worn to bits.

He wanted it to all go back the way it had been, to reset things so that he could start the fight over again, before escalating it to the point where he had no choice but to be the blackest-hearted villain he could be, just to survive. He wanted to take over, unequivocally, to have all of ponykind bowing to him like he had the first time, but to do that he'd have to crush Celestia and Chrysalis and all of the Bearers, and while he could enjoy crushing Chrysalis, and often thought of maybe doing so, he didn't want to hurt any of the others as badly as he'd have to. He didn't want Celestia to die, and he didn't want her to feel nothing for him, like she did now; he wanted it to go back to the way it was before he'd been turned to stone, when she'd hated and loved him at the same time, like Fluttershy did now. He didn't want the Bearers to die, because they were fun, and because killing them would tip Fluttershy over the edge to cold hate as well, and she was all he had.

A day came, like any other day, a day where he was miserable and stressed and angry over so many things, and turning some ponies into mobile trees and chasing them with a swarm of parasprites had lost its charm pretty quickly, and the ponies that he demanded participate in his fashion extravaganza actually tried to say 'no' so he got angry and the clothes ate them and he hadn't meant to do that but it was their fault for rejecting him, and there was Fluttershy. Sweet, beautiful, kindness-and-hate-filled Fluttershy, who for once didn't taunt him and didn't tell him how much she hated him. She saw how upset he was, and took him to bed, rubbed his back and then made love to him, gently and then passionately, keeping him on the wonderfully agonizing edge for what seemed like hours with all the skills he'd taught her, and he'd let her. Surrendered to her, because he needed this, he needed for just a little while to not be in control, to not be trying to do things that would go spectacularly wrong, to not be screwing anything up that he'd regret later. Just letting her pleasure him, losing himself in her.

It had been the last mistake he'd ever made.

When Fluttershy had gotten up from where she'd snuggled against him in the afterglow, and he'd opened his eyes lazily to watch her, he'd seen her slip her Element onto her neck. Still a bit dazed from the amazing sex, it had taken him a critical few seconds to realize that that was abnormal, that she had no good reason to wear that thing around him.

He'd rolled over in time to see Twilight, her Element of Magic blazing half purple, half empty white, and all of the others behind her, their corrupted Elements glowing.. A twist of the head, and he saw Fluttershy's Element glowing as well. He knew what was about to happen, but it was too late, they'd locked on and there was nowhere to run to. Discord scrambled to his feet, partly because he was panicking and on autopilot and his body was trying to prepare to dodge something his mind knew was inescapable, partly because he didn't want to spend the next millennium or whatever sprawled out on a bed looking unprepared and foolish.

"Goodbye, Discord," Fluttershy had said clearly, and Discord had started to laugh, bitterly, brokenly. He'd needed an escape from his own chaos so much, a respite, a moment of peace, and now the peace of stone was all he'd have for at least their lifetimes, if not longer. He'd trusted Fluttershy even though he'd known how much she hated him, because he'd known she loved him as well, but she was just like Celestia. Love hadn't been enough. Love would never have been enough.

Later, in the numbness and the darkness-that-wasn't-even-darkness that came from no longer having eyes, he'd heard Celestia directing the ponies who carried him away. They'd put him in the Whitetail Woods, at the mouth of a cave, far, far away from ponies. There was the mild chaos of a forest, but frankly with the care that ponies had to put into all the stupid animals in everyplace but the Everfree, it might as well have been a curated garden. And unlike the garden, there were no foal field trips, no lovers sneaking away from polite society. No one who could or would talk, anywhere near him. Nothing to do but live with his regrets, to watch his own failures play out behind his stone eyes over and over.

It had been a relief when he'd heard the little dragon's voice, talking to him. Finally, something to break the monotony, something other than his memories of Fluttershy's betrayal and Luna's death and everything else he'd screwed up.

And then he'd heard what the dragon had been saying.

For most of the time when Spike was talking, he'd been screaming, pleading inside his head where no one could hear him, begging Spike not to do this, for someone, anyone to come stop this, please, he didn't deserve this, not the destruction of his soul, not everything he'd ever been, please, he could accept death, he could accept stoning, but not this, please not this...

The young dragon was very, very long-winded.

By the time the talking had stopped, Discord had succumbed to resignation. Maybe even acceptance. Maybe this was what he deserved, and when his soul was destroyed, it would all end. He wouldn't pass on to the Shadowlands with the pain of his memories trailing behind him; he wouldn't be tempted to try to return to a world where everything he touched was ruined and his beautiful plenipotential chaos had ended up in entropy time and time again. It would be over. He would have oblivion, which wasn't the peace he would have chosen if he'd been given a choice, but no one was giving him a choice and he supposed oblivion was better than eternal torment, or something.

He'd screamed when the first blow hit. It wasn't a physical pain, more of a concentrated existential horror as he felt his very sense of self fracturing, his mind falling apart. Another blow, and another, and at some point he was aware that there was a shattered statue at his feet and a purple dragon still battering it furiously with a hammer except that he wasn't aware of anything because there wasn't any him left. Only sensations, random knowledge, flares of momentary ego in a sea of memory without consciousness.

It had taken a long, long time for him to recognize that he was somehow still him, still thinking, still aware, except that now there were many of him and they were all incomplete and it was like when he'd personified aspects of himself to stand outside him and be his friend except that these were all his enemy because he hated himself and what he'd done and what he'd become and all of his pieces hated himself which meant they hated each other and there was nothing but the mind-destroying cacophony of the voices of all the pieces that he now was reliving every terrible thing they'd ever done and the guilt he couldn't deal with and all the pain he'd suffered in his entire life...

When he'd(they'd) realized what had happened to him(them), that his(their) soul was broken and shattered and yet still pinned together, that he(they) couldn't have the peace of death because he(they) was(were) too broken even to enter the Shadowlands and he couldn't have the joy of life because he(they) was(were) too shattered to collect magic and he(they) couldn't have the quiet of oblivion because the magic he'd(they'd) put into those Elements was still there, still active, pinning him(them) to reality, holding him(them) together as a shambling mass and not a unified soul at all... and all there would ever be, until the corruption was purged, was the inability to remember and the inability to do anything and a thousand iterations of his(their) own mind screaming all of his own self-hate at every other part of him, forever...

They didn't know how long they had been screaming, begging for fate to put an end to this. Let their soul heal and knit back together, or let the magic pinning their pieces together fade and let them cease to exist. Something, anything. End this, please.

With their mind broken in so many pieces it was impossible to tell time, impossible to sleep, impossible to think. Even for an unquiet spirit they had been unusually helpless, too shattered to gather any energy to even haunt with. They could do nothing but experience the agony of knowing their failures and rejections, of relieving every horrible memory, of their own self-hate being shouted at them by every piece they were, and nowhere to go to escape it. Until the other had come through.

Obliviously stupid, fixated on his own selfish desires, the other had never noticed the broken shade of this world's Discord while he still had control over his own powers... and then he'd been captured, and tortured. The spectacle had fascinated the shattered spirit. The torture the other had been made to suffer was a catharsis for the spirit's own self-hate. They didn't need to relieve every terrible memory at once, every moment of every endless day; they could watch another Discord suffer physical torment in their place.

At first they felt the other deserved it. Every one of their pieces delighted to see the whip come down, to watch Twilight's magic searing through the other's body, to hear the screams, because Discord deserved to suffer and this one was also a Discord and therefore deserved it. But over time, reluctantly, some of the pieces, and then many of the pieces, began to feel excitement, and then pride, as the other fought against the forces trying to break him, with no weapon other than his own mind. His cleverness in winning a helping of edible food, of earning a gentle rape rather than a brutal one, of gaining a drink of water or a few extra moments of sleep here or there, made them remember why they had once felt pride in themself. At the same time they hated him, because he hadn't destroyed his life, he hadn't ended up in stone, he had been happy and cheerful when he'd come here and then he'd thrown it all away so stupidly by underestimating Twilight, just as they had.

Their opinion changed every day, sometimes minute to minute. He deserved it because he was stupid and got caught. He didn't deserve it because, based on that letter he was writing, he hadn't done any of the terrible things they had that had ruined their lives and gotten them killed. He did deserve it because he was dragging out writing the letter, endlessly adding to it rather than just wrapping it up and sending it off to get help. He didn't deserve it because according to the letter he'd actually managed to win over his Fluttershy as a friend, without breaking her, without making her hate him. He did deserve it because they were furiously jealous of him for that accomplishment. He didn't deserve it because he was clever even in the face of pain and starvation and sleep deprivation and he was fighting so hard to retain an integrity of self that they could never have again. He did deserve it because if they couldn't have an integrity of self why should he?

But slowly pride turned into compassion, and many of their pieces began to hope for him to get away, even as others still longed to see him suffer to satisfy their jealousy or their self-hatred. For themself, however, there was no hope. If he got away, there would be nothing to watch and nothing to do but drown in horrible memories again, because if he hadn't noticed them the first time he certainly wouldn't once he got away, and there was no reason to believe anything would ever purge the corruption from the Elements and release them from this.

Then the other Discord's friends, the ones who had been their sworn enemies and defeated them, came over to try to save him... and they began, desperately, to hope again. If the other Bearers defeated these and reharmonized the Elements... they could finally have the oblivion that was all they dared hope for anymore.

"If you wanted oblivion so badly, why did you attack me?" Discord snarled at his broken alternate. He was reeling. Over a year of memories that weren't his, for a time period when all he'd been doing was being bored out of his mind in stone, hallucinating and occasionally succumbing to despair – nothing as vivid and compelling as the time this one had spent spreading chaos. He was good at handling a huge amount of information being dumped on him very quickly, but even for him, this was too much.

The other spread its(their?) paws in a shrug and laughed. "tRyINg!"

Yeah, all right. Discord would have taken the opportunity once it presented itself, too. The only reason he could see and interact with the entity at all was that he'd consumed its body... and now he was trapped inside his own mind, in a moment between moments, as his body processed the chaos magic it had just taken in. If he had been in the entity's situation, and known this was the only opportunity he'd get... didn't mean he didn't hate the other for doing it, though, because the memory dump was bringing a wholly unwanted realization.

There wasn't, after all, any significant difference between this particular cognate and himself.

He'd been clinging to their differences the whole time he was being tortured. He didn't deserve this because he wasn't the one who had done any of those things. The other one had done them, and they were horrible, so the other one deserved all this. The other Discord had caused Luna's death. The other Discord had permanently corrupted the Bearers with a spell that he had thought went beyond the pale. The other Discord had let the plunder vines destroy the Everfree, the chaotic ecosystem he'd been so proud of once. He was used to traveling to worlds with monstrous cognates, alternates of him that didn't seem to share his past, who were genocidal or homicidal or thought brutal physical torture was funny or enjoyed committing rape, and he despised them as much as they despised him. Sure, he was a bad guy, but that was because ponies couldn't handle Chaos so of course they hated him. He wasn't evil, he was chaotic. He was completely different from all those terrible cognates, so of course he was completely different from the one who'd ruined this world so badly, Spike of all creatures had murdered him.

But the memories fit. Everything up to that moment of realization, that the Bearers weren't disharmonized anymore, was the same as far as he could tell. Oh, probably the fight with Typhon had gone differently because the Hammer of Celestia was the Godslayer Hammer and it was still here, but honestly the fight with Typhon had been a footnote in his long life. All of the important differences had happened when he'd managed to not get turned to stone right after he'd broken out. And... in context, in the order they'd happened... Discord understood all of them, and knew he would in the same circumstances probably have done the same thing.

He wasn't any different from the Discord that had ruined this world, the Discord he'd been tortured in place of for two months, and as much begrudging sympathy as he might feel for the horror the other had been enduring since its death, he couldn't help but hate it for showing him that he was the same as it was. That, if he'd been smart enough (or, given what had happened, unlucky enough) to put more weight on Pinkie Pie's anomalous behavior, everything that this Discord had done and everything that had been done to him, would have been his burden instead. That this world would have been his world. Except he wouldn't have ended up dead like this, because Godslayer no longer existed in his world. He'd still be trapped in stone. But Luna would still be dead, and Celestia would still be cold and empty, and Fluttershy and Pinkie and Twilight would still be monsters.

"Fine. You tried, you failed. I'm stronger than you. Now I've got places to be." He started to gather his focus to leave his own mind and re-enter the world of reality, with the power to do something to shape it, at last.

"wAiT!"

Discord glanced at the broken entity. "Why? What's in it for me to keep you company? You were right, old pal, you screwed up big time and I didn't. Now you're dead and I'm alive and I've got things to do to keep it that way."

"inFoRmaTIon. YoU nEeD."

Discord narrowed his eyes. (Not that he was really narrowing his eyes, not here within his own mind. But if he'd really had eyes he would have been narrowing them.) "What kind of information?"

"wOuLD be TeLLinG! pRoMiSE fiRSt. i NeEd."

"Promise what?"

"fReE mE. FiX eLeMEntS. SaVe tHEm. LEt iT eNd."

Discord glared. "No. I have no desire to do anything to help them. I'm going home and I'm bringing my friends and I'm having nothing to do with this universe ever again. Forget it. You had this coming, and you know it."

"pItY FrIEndS wOn'T LeAVe wIthOuT, bUt yOU KnOw BesT!"

"Yes, they will. They won't stick around here any longer than they have to. Fluttershy told me, she told me she'd take me home and I'd be safe."

"tHeN wHy. pIeCE oF tREe. tHeY BrOughT. No rEaSoN i GUeSs!"

"What do you mean?" Surely they didn't want to stay here any longer than they had to, right? Surely they weren't going to go out of their way to do favors for the monsters their counterparts had become, right?

But they didn't deserve to become this. They were corrupted. By him. And he's me. I would have done it, in his place, I would have done it... doesn't that mean... I have to...?

No! They don't deserve anything from me! I don't have to help them! "It doesn't even matter! You think I can undo that spell? In my condition?"

"hArMOny cAn. NeEdS hELp. reHarMOniZatiON."

"In case you've forgotten, that's not what we do."

"cHaOs. tUrBiNes. tReE cAn rEhaRMoNizE iTsELf exCepT. tuRbinES in WaY. YOu kNoW WhY."

The chaos turbines. He remembered - close to two millennia ago, when Celestia and Luna had first started opposing him, when he'd remembered how they'd seen peace and love and beauty in the glittering crystal branches of the Tree, and he'd seen only stasis and death. He hadn't been able to articulate then how he'd known it could hurt him – he'd just known it could. He'd had to seal it away, surround it by a moat of chaos that its siren song couldn't cross. So he'd planted turbines in the magma layer of the earth, below the bedrock, far, far below the level of the forest itself. As the moon and the sun moved around the earth, their gravity, tugging on the planet, created tides, not just in the chaotic ocean, but deep underground in the magma layer. The turbines generated magic from the chaos of that constant back and forth and piped that magic upward, to saturate the land all around the Tree of Harmony. Harmonic magic dissolved in the noise of constant chaos. Without a relay station, the Tree couldn't spread its seductive evil, its siren song of ending all conflict, all individuality, all change, through his moat of chaos. And then he'd killed the Tree's relay stations, the other Trees all around the world, to make sure that Harmony was bound.

"Is the Tree even alive? The plunder vines came up!"

The shattered face twisted in an expression of scorn... Discord thought. It was hard to read when his face was in pieces. "sTuPiD qUeSTiOn. yOu KnOw."

Of course he did. If the Tree was dead, its Elements would have had no power, and the constraints Twilight bound him with wouldn't have worked. "Did you...?"

"nOt fUn, thEn. nO eLeMEntS, no CoRRupTiOn. pULLeD the ViNE's pUnCHes. WeAK bUt. STiLL aLiVE."

"Bet you're regretting that now."

"rEgREt." The broken spirit laughed again. "eVErYtHinG. HoPE yOu NeVEr kNow. hOpE YoU dO."

Discord ignored that. "The girls can't reharmonize this tree. They gave up their Elements to save theirs. And they don't know yet that the Elements are part of them."

"hAVe TrEe pIeCE."

"... of the Harmony Tree?" It could propagate through cuttings, he knew that, but... they had carried a piece here? He felt obscurely betrayed. Who had they come to rescue, him or their monstrous counterparts?

Both. You know Twilight would always pick both, if she can. That was the voice in his own head, not an aspect of the shambling soul in front of him. He ignored it too.

"CaN't rEHarMoNize. LOsT iT. wiLL wAsTE yOuR tIMe. LoOkiNg. I KnOW wHeRe. LoOK LiKe bIg HeRO cHamP!"

Discord scowled. "I don't need to look like a hero. They'll rescue me anyway."

"yOu sAiD sORrY. rEgrEt. nOt LyINg thEn So reMEmbEr. yOu WanT tHiS."

"No, I don't! I don't want to do anything to help them, or save them! I want them to suffer! I won't take revenge, I just want to go home, but I don't want to help them in any way, shape or form!"

His alternate laughed again, and laughed, and kept laughing, until Discord wished he could finish the job and shatter the soul in front of him the rest of the way with a punch. "hELpInG? rEmEmBEr rApISt, toRTurEr, sErIaL KiLLeR? CaNNibaL? whEn tRue SeLF aGaIn? HElpInG?"

He... had a point. If the ponies were restored to their true selves... the memories would still be there. They'd have to live with knowing what they'd done... Fluttercruel would have to live with knowing what she'd done. To her animals. To him.

Discord had given up hope for revenge, but now that his alternate had pointed it out... oh, yes. That would do nicely. And if his friends had come over here planning to do it anyway, they wouldn't even recognize that he'd done it for revenge, if he was the one.

But he still thought he'd be far too weak to undo that spell. "How do you expect me to do it?"

"tURbiNes. BrEaK. tHeY hAve cuTTinG. tReE pieCe. caN dO FoR iTsELf if No tUrBInEs iN wAy."

"I thought you said they lost it."

"i KnOW. YoU'D sEnSe if TrIed bUt oKAy, bE LaZy. teLL yOU. iF PrOMisE."

Discord sighed. "This goes against my better judgement, but... all right. I promise. I'll do whatever is within my power to reverse what you did to the Elements, and free you to... die." The shattered soul wouldn't die. It would evaporate. Discord couldn't imagine how horrible things would have to be for that to be the better alternative... but then, he didn't need to imagine it. He had the other one's memories. "Where is the piece of the Tree that you're talking about?"

The other one grinned, a horrible expression on the broken face. An image came to Discord's mind. And then he was lying on the floor in a body full of pain and the weight of a small dragon on the back of his neck, Fluttercruel trying futilely to cut her way through his chains, and there was no air in his lungs. He gasped, his body jerking as he felt himself inhabit it once again... but now, with chaos magic he could use thrumming inside him. Not very much. But enough.

All of that in the space of one breath. Chaos truly was a wonderful thing.

He lifted his head. "Mistress Fluttershy? Can I tell you something?"

"Of course, sweetie," Fluttercruel panted, and Discord grinned his biggest grin ever. If he never saw her again it would be too soon, but he was glad to have this one last moment with her, one last chance to tell her how he really felt. "What is it?"

"Go fuck yourself," he said, with great delight, watching the expression of shock bloom on her face. And then, before she had a chance to order him to do anything, he teleported.

Opposition, 5 PM – Pinkie Pie

The moment Shining Armor's shield collapsed, Pinkie Pie was on top of him, pinning him with her weight. He was pretty physically fit and strong for a unicorn, bigger and heavier than she was, so that wasn't going to last once he shook off the daze from having his shield broken. But unicorns paid a lot of attention to you when you grabbed their horns.

Shining tossed his head, trying to dislodge her hoof from his horn. Unicorn horns turned warm right before a magical discharge, and Pinkie, like most earth ponies, was strong enough to break a horn right off a head if she used all her strength... and a military pony would know this, so Shining plainly knew he didn't dare use magic. She'd feel it in his horn before it could take effect, and break it. (Or maybe she wouldn't. Maybe she was bluffing. Pinkie herself wasn't sure. Shining wasn't a bad pony who deserved the trauma of a broken horn just because Chrysalis had him wrapped around her hoof. But she couldn't let him go back into the fight.)

"Shining Armor! Stop wiggling! I've ridden a lot stronger ponies than you!" Pinkie snapped at him, and then giggled at the double entrendre. "I mean, I didn't mean it that way, though that's true too! But stop struggling, I don't wanna hurt you!"

"Captain!" one of the unicorn guards shouted, his own horn lighting up.

"Uh-uh!" Pinkie snapped. "Touch me and I break it! I might not be your Pinkie and I definitely do not eat ponies because that's just gross and not even funny, but if you know her, do you seriously think you can hit me with a spell or telekinesis before I can react? Because if you do you maybe wanna go down to the think store and buy yourself a whole bunch of new thinks!"

"She's right," Shining Armor said, panting. "Stand down, soldier. Let me handle this. Go help deal with Rainbow Dash and Applejack."

"Aye, sir."

"Listen, you need to know something," Pinkie said, "so stop trying to throw me off so I can tell you, because this is very important!"

"Why should I believe anything you say?"

"Because this is a thing you can check on! Do you guys even know about the Tree of Harmony?"

"The what?"

"I thought so," Pinkie said. "Now let your Aunt Pinkie tell you a story here." In the distance she heard Rainbow yelling at her to do something. "A short story. There's a tree, except it's made of crystal, in the Everfree Forest. It's at the bottom of a ravine but there are stone stairs, and it's right near the old castle of the Two Sisters, where Twilight and the rest of us got the Elements of Harmony. Any of our counterparts would know where that is if you don't."

"I know where it is," Shining said tightly.

"Good! So this tree, it's right near there. The ravine we had to cross to get to the castle? It's in there. All the way at the back, inside a cavey-thing. And this tree is the source of the Elements of Harmony, which you're gonna be able to tell like right away because there's a huge spot on the Tree that's shaped like Twilight's cutie mark, and on the branches there's spots in the colors in all the rest of our Elements and on the trunk there's Celestia and Luna's cutie marks! Okay? And the Tree's probably all sick and stuff because in our world the plunder vines nearly killed it and they wrecked the whole Everfree here, so it might not be all glowy and shiny like our Tree is, but Fluttershy says it's alive. She says Celestia's cutie mark is glowing, and Luna's is all dark. Got all that?"

"Get to the point," Shining snarled, trying to toss his head again.

"The point is! On the other side of the tree, facing into the cave that it's in, there's Cadance's cutie mark. And the light isn't out. Like Luna's. It's flickering, Fluttershy says."

Shining tilted his head back to look into Pinkie's eyes. "What – what do you mean by that?"

"I don't know! All the cutie marks are glowy in our universe, and I didn't see it, Fluttershy did! But I think – if the light's not out, and Luna's is, and she's dead, and Celestia's isn't, and she's alive, then... don't you think maybe that means Cadance might not be dead?"

Shining shook his head, hard and rapidly, until Pinkie yanked on his horn to keep him from pulling out of her grip. "She can't be alive. I... I wanted her to be alive, so much, I wanted to believe it wasn't really her, but... I know my fiancée. I know her... uh, I knew what she looked like. Really well. It was her."

"But what if it wasn't? What if she's in trouble, sick and injured and maybe starving? In our world when Twilight found her she hadn't eaten in weeks, and that was more than a year ago! Alicorns can't starve to death, I don't think, or how could Princess Luna have lived for a thousand years on the moon? I asked her if it was really made of green cheese and she said no, it's just rocks, and you can't eat rocks! I should know! Maud tried to feed me stone soup lots of times and it was always yucky! But I bet if you can't starve to death and you're stuck somewhere and you can't eat you probably get really really really really hungry!"

"She's not! She's dead, Pinkie! All the pretending in the world isn't going to fix it!" His eyes actually teared up. "Why do you do this to me? For months every time I saw our world's Pinkie she asked me if I'd found Cadance yet! I thought she was doing it because Discord had messed with her head but here you are saying the same thing!"

Pinkie took a deep breath. "I'm gonna tell you a little secret, Shiny," she whispered. "Sometimes... sometimes I just know things. And I don't know how I know but I just know the things. The other me isn't messed up like she thinks dead ponies are alive, she's messed up like she likes to cut up ponies and eat them. If she kept asking you if you'd found Cadance, it probably wasn't because Discord made her nutsy cuckoo, because there's different kinds of nutsy cuckoo and she isn't the right kind for that! But she might have just known Cadance was still out there!"

"Then why wouldn't she tell me that?" he shouted.

"Would you believe her? I don't tell ponies the things I know that I don't know how I know most of the time because then they ask me how I know and I don't know!"

Somewhere she heard Chrysalis' triumphant shout, a scream from Twilight and a bellow from Spike. She wished she hadn't sent Fluttershy on to get Discord. Discord needed getting, that was important, but Fluttershy could maybe had talked sense into Shining Armor faster. "What if Cadance is stuck somewhere and she's starving and she's weak and her light is flickering? What if someone did fake her death? Can you take that chance?"

"And let me guess, if I let you go you can all lead me to her?" he asked bitterly.

"Nope! I have no clue! Not even one! Twilight found her in the catacombs below Canterlot Palace but it would be really weird if she was there aaaalll this time because you and Princess Celestia would have been so close by!"

His breathing started to grow rapid. "In the catacombs?" he whispered.

"Yeah! I've never been there but they sound cool! There's like all these caves and tunnels going all the way into the mountain!"

"The catacombs that Chrysalis has never let me or any of my soldiers enter, because she's always said it's unstable and Changelings are natural burrowers and they can handle a cave-in better?"

Pinkie frowned. "It's not that unstable. If there were cave-ins under Canterlot Palace, that would make the palace all shaky! Like an earthquake! And I've never heard of an earthquake in Canterlot Palace, have you?"

A sound very like a sob escaped Shining Armor then.

Royal Guards, battered and much worse for wear, surrounded them. Eight of them were holding a struggling Applejack and Rainbow Dash, one guard per leg. "Sir! We've captured these two!" a pegasus guard said, though it came out more like "Thir" because somepony had knocked out his front teeth. "Should we flyers go assist Queen Chrysalis against the dragon and the other two?"

"No," Shining said. "No. Let them go. Pinkie, get off me."

"You believe me? You believe me now?" Pinkie asked, bouncing eagerly in place.

"No. But I can't take the chance. And stop bouncing on my back, that hurts."

Pinkie got off of him. Several of the guards started toward her. "No!" Shining Armor shouted. "Stand down, soldiers. Release them."

"Sir... with all due respect..."

"Soldier, due respect means you obey orders, because I'm your Captain. Now, are you going to obey me or not?"

Reluctantly the soldiers released Applejack, who stumbled but stayed standing, and Rainbow Dash, who dropped to the stone floor, went immediately up to a hover without even getting to her hooves, and started ostentatiously rubbing her legs. "Ow. You guys play rough."

"Are we letting them all go, sir?"

"But Princess Celestia—"

"Isn't here," Shining said. "In her absence my orders to the Guard are final. The next in line of succession is Prince Blueblood, and he's in the Crystal Empire. And also a good friend of mine. We have another priority, soldiers."

"Yes, sir!" they chorused, raggedly and with more than one "yeth, thir" in there.

"We're going down to assess the catacombs. You and you, go to Canterlot University and find me a structural engineer who understands mines." He pointed at two pegasi.

"All the best mining engineers are in the earth pony cities," Pinkie said. "You might need to go to Vanhoover!"

"That's much too far away. A decent structural engineer will do."

"Sir, yes, sir!" The two flew off.

"The rest of you. We're going to search the catacombs. We're not going to go in deep until we have our mining engineers, but if I have to I will shield every single tunnel from cave-in personally."

"Sir, Queen Chrysalis has set the catacombs off limits, and Princess Celestia backed her."

"Yes, and I did too. But I'm—" His voice cracked. "I have my reasons, soldiers. We're going to inspect the catacombs."

"You're going to what?"

The screech came from Chrysalis, who was hurriedly descending behind Shining Armor. Shining turned. "We're going to go search the catacombs, Chrysalis. Why? Do you have a problem with that?"

"I've been telling you and telling you that they aren't safe!"

"I can shield all of Canterlot at once... I think I can handle some caves."

"This isn't like you!" She strode forward. "What kind of lies have these mares been telling you?"

"The true kind! Like how you had Princess Cadance trapped in the catacombs for weeks before you tried to marry Shining Armor while you were pretending to be her, in our world!"

"What she said!" Rainbow Dash said.

"I know you never met the me that was, before Discord corrupted her," Applejack said. "And I ain't gonna tell you I can't tell a lie, but I can sure tell you I am plumb terrible at it." She met Shining Armor's eyes. "On my family I swear, Pinkie is telling you the Celestia-honest truth." Her head tilted forward as she leaned toward Shining Armor. "Also, I gotta say, I think it's darned interestin' that Queen Chrysalis broke off leading the attack on Twilight and Spike and came down here to talk to you just while you were talking about exploring those catacombs."

"This is insane! Shining, Cadance is dead! Surely you can't believe I'd be holding her prisoner somewhere? After all this time? All we've shared?" She put a hoof to his face. "Please, Shining. I love you. I never thought I was capable of love, not for ponies... for years I thought of all of you as food. But you were so kind to me, while we were fighting Discord together. I let you see me weep, when he killed a fifth of my children by starving them to death, and I remember how you held me, and comforted me, and promised me that your sister would find a way to stop him... It's true that I did plan to kidnap Cadance, originally, and take her place. But then Discord broke loose and killed her, and destroyed the only means we had of protecting ourselves from him, so I formed an alliance with Celestia, and you... and I changed. I learned. I discovered that I can feel love." Her eyes misted. "Please, Shining. Please tell me you aren't going to cast me aside on the word of these mares."

"I'm not going to cast you aside," Shining said. "I'm just going to search the catacombs. And if nothing is there to find, then nothing will change. I can promise you that. All I need you to do is step aside and let me do it. You don't even need to help. And if you're right, then nothing will change."

"Yes, it will!" she snarled. "I'll always know that deep inside, you don't trust me! You say you love me, and I can even feel it in you, but if you don't trust me then your love is poisoned! You're going to search the catacombs because you think there's some possibility that I am monstrous enough to have kept your fiancée imprisoned, even after all we've shared, even after I've seen how much her loss hurt you... all on the word of these sick, twisted mares!" She spat. "You know what they are! You know what they do! They're the monsters here, not me!"

"Actually, I've never met them," Shining said. "I never got to meet my Twilight's friends before Discord corrupted them. But I trust my sister's judgement, or I trusted it anyway, before she was corrupted too. I read her letters... I know what kind of mares her friends used to be. And these ones... they claim that Discord never corrupted them, and I believe them. I see how they work together, how they get along with each other, how they try to watch out for Spike, and I know... these mares are the ones my Twily's friends should have been, before Discord ruined them." He took a deep breath. "And if there is any, tiny, remotest possibility that maybe they might be telling the truth about what happened in their universe, and if there's any tiny remote possibility that the same thing might have happened here if not for Discord, and if that tiny remote possibility means there's an infinitely tiny possibility that Cadance is alive... I have to check. I'd be remiss in my duties as Captain of the Guard if I didn't, and I'd be failing the pony I've loved for over a decade."

Chrysalis drew back, her eyes going cold. "I told you it wasn't safe for you down there. I declared it off-limits under my authority as Celestia's ally. If you're going to disobey me... then this alliance is ended. As well as our relationship."

"You actually don't have any authority over Canterlot Palace unless Princess Celestia specifically backs you up, and I know that Princess Celestia would do anything to get one of her family back. She'd want me to follow up even the smallest chance. And I'm in authority over the Royal Guard in her absence... unless you want to take this up with Bluey." He sighed deeply. "I don't want our love to end, Chrysalis. And I don't want the alliance between Changelings and ponies to end; I think it's been good for both of our kinds. But if that's the way you're going to be, then I can't stop you." He turned back to the guards. "To the catacombs, ponies. Let's go."

Chrysalis screeched again, a sound of pure rage... and then the Changelings that had been fighting Twilight and Spike and Rarity left that fight behind, and descended toward the roof. "No! You won't! My Changelings, attack any pony who tries to enter the catacombs!"

Applejack shook Pinkie, who'd been watching the whole thing, riveted. "Pinkie... no one, pony or Changeling, 's trying to fight us anymore. It's a good time to go."

Battle broke out again, this time between the Royal Guards and the Changelings, and Pinkie desperately wanted to see how it all turned out and if Cadance was really alive down there, but she knew better. Rescuing Discord was more important.

Rainbow Dash had already flown up to join up with Twilight, Rarity and Spike and get them down here. Spike descended, hovering in the air by the parapet, with Rainbow coaching him. "That's it! Fast flaps, up and down, but you're using equal force both ways, so you stay in the same place!"

"This is a lot harder than normal flying," the deep draconic voice that was Spike, now, complained.

Twilight levitated Pinkie and Applejack. "Whee!" Pinkie cheered, as Twilight deposited her and Applejack on Spike's back. Pinkie put her forelegs around Rarity, who was sitting right at the place where Spike's neck met his back. "You're not even squishy, Rarity!" she complained. "You look so much like a marshmallow that I forget, and then I hug you and you're not squishy at all!"

"Please be careful of the mane, Pinkie," Rarity managed. "And perhaps you could squeeze not quite so tightly."

Applejack wrapped her own forelegs around Pinkie. "Ain't never rode a dragon before," she said. "I hope you know what you're doing, Spike."

"So do I," Spike said, as he pulled away from the wall. Pinkie squee'ed. She could feel the play of the great wing muscles, rippling under dragonskin.

"That don't fill me with confidence, I'm afraid," Applejack said.

"Well, you're doing a lot better than I was, that time I tried to fly from Canterlot with the plunder vines," Twilight said to Spike encouragingly.

"Don't remind me."

"Beat hard on the down stroke if you wanna get height! Take it slow, don't overexert those wings, they're pretty huge!"

"Do I even need height? We're going to Ponyville and we're in Canterlot. It's all down from here, isn't it?"

"Yeah, good point, but you wanna be out of the pegasus lanes!"

"And away from the Changelings, as quickly as possible," Rarity reminded him.

"You don't have to tell me twice."

Pinkie looked down from dragonback, in ecstasy at the thrill of actually flying, up so high. Her gyrocopter had never gotten her this high, and flying in a balloon was so much less immediate, so much less thrilling than feeling the wings moving under her. All of Equestria spread out beneath her, so tiny. It was a wonderful distraction from how much her entire body hurt.

"What's the plan, Twi?" Applejack said, sounding more than a little queasy.

"We know from Fluttershy that he's in the library, and that the other me is planning to sacrifice him at sunset. Which... probably isn't going to happen, with Princess Celestia gone, and sooner or later she'll figure that out, and she's probably using a clock for it anyway, but it's a couple of hours away anyway. Let's get in there, get into the library and retrieve him if Fluttershy hasn't, and then... we lost our piece of the Tree of Harmony, so I guess we have to just go home..."

"When Pinkie and I were taking some weird shortcut, I heard a creepy voice, and it said the piece is in the forest," Spike said.

"I am not even going to ask for more details about that, but of course it's in the forest. I'm sure I dropped it while we were fighting the Changelings, or my other self. That doesn't mean we'll be able to find it again..."

"Not to mention the question of how the heck we get it to grow," Applejack said. "It wasn't real helpful when I asked it, and it ain't like we've got our Elements."

"I am perfectly all right with going home and letting this terrible universe take care of itself," Rarity said. "I need a bath. Of approximately six hours. And a brushing. And a hooficure. And quite possibly a manecut." She took a deep breath. "And that's from having endured this world for one day. I am quite sure Discord is going to need considerably more than that. The sooner we can get him home, the better off we'll all be."

Pinkie shook her head. "We can't leave a me that eats ponies around to eat more ponies. We just can't."

"I gotta say... I don't like the idea of leaving me the way she is either," Rainbow said. "I talked to her when we were fighting. She thinks friendship is a lie. Some kind of scam ponies pull on each other. She's toughing it out, she's not going to let anypony see her get upset, but... I can't imagine living life without my friends. And Scoots still looks up to her, and Discord turned her into some kind of weird bat-pony-thing with giant wings, and the version of me that's here is gonna break that poor kid's heart because she just doesn't care about anypony, because she can't believe anypony could care about her. If there's any way we can find that tree piece and fix all this... I really think we should."

"We'll just have to play it by ear," Twilight said. "Let's go, Spike!" She sped up, headed for Ponyville.

Spike gulped. "Oh boy."

"It's so funny to hear you say things in that voice!" Pinkie giggled, as Spike did his best to put on speed without losing his passengers, and Rainbow shouted coaching instructions at him.