Sombra Is A Very Scary Pony And I'm Glad He's Dead
I don't normally do this, but this time I had to. You would not believe how much I had to get Discord to let me cut here. He went on for pages and pages about the entire history of the world, how centaur magic works, Tartarus being a gateway that connects to other places on our planet as well as to a prison for really evil creatures and a lot of pegasi having migrated here through that gate, the existence of alicorn cows, the complete ecology of the Far North, the history of ponies getting addicted to something called Harmony Violets and why that proves that harmony is bad, and the history of ponies pre-Equestria, all because he didn't actually want to write about what happened to him in the Crystal Empire.
Normally I don't cut anything he writes, mostly because he won't let me but also because I guess if he meanders a little and includes stuff that has nothing to do with his war with Anon... it's reasonable that chaos might mean he has to do that kind of thing. Ponies are trained to write succicently, with as few words as they can get away with, but even Twilight's been known to wander off topic a little. But there was no way I wanted to copy out something like twenty thousand words that had nothing to do with anything except in Discord's head.
I saved the pages of information I cut; they're still in Discord's original rough draft. Really fascinating stuff! It's funny; when you ask Discord questions or talk to him about things that really happened, he generally lies, makes jokes, refuses to answer, or gives non-answers. Like before I knew about the chaos avatar Ar, I asked if dragons had ever used chaos magic, and he did this whole dramatic thing about how I was trying to replace him, called me his Sith Apprentice, whatever that means, and managed to never answer the question at all. But when he writes... well, I can't prove that he's telling the truth, but there's nothing in anything he says that sounds like an obvious lie. And it's really interesting stuff. But completely irrelevant to his fight with Anon.
To be honest there's some stuff in here that isn't really relevant either, mostly stuff about King Sombra, but Discord wouldn't let me cut any of that. At least there isn't as much of it as there was of the other stuff, the stuff he did let me take out.
This is stupid.
I can't stop shaking. But nothing happened. Not really. It was all illusions. I mean, if you don't count the part where I could theoretically have been skewered by Twilight's Big Bumbling Brother Fool Forever, except that he was too dumb to kill me when I was helpless and all he managed to do was wake me up. But that didn't really happen either. I mean, the part about him killing me, since, as mentioned, he was too big of an idiot to actually do me any harm. And I don't generally spend my time ruminating on things that didn't happen, even if they could have been really really bad if they had. And especially I don't spend my time quivering in my boots (or outside of my boots, either) over illusions. None of it was real.
I will give it to Sombra – those were some seriously realistic illusions. Remember, I'm an expert on realistic illusions and realistic dream-states. Spend a thousand years in sensory deprivation, hallucinating, and you'll get good at telling when something isn't real too. It takes some serious power to fool me. At the end, when she was starting to slide into Nightmare Moon territory and she was turning vicious, Luna used to try to warp my dreams into nightmares and torture me for some kind of revenge... for being alive when she's convinced the "real me" is dead? (Did I mention this? Luna thinks the real me is dead. That is, when I died the first time, I stayed dead, and the "me" who I am, who came back from the dead, is the Spirit of Chaos – which is true – and is identical to the Spirit of Chaos who killed her mother – which is false, that was Mayhem – and is lying about being her foster brother Discord. I don't know where she gets this from. My name is Discord. How does she not get that I was always destined to be what I am? But I digress.) For some of the things I said to her when she'd come visit me in dreams? (I want to clarify, just so you all know, that Nightmare Moon was not my fault. Sure, I poked at Luna's insecurities... a lot... and yes, I'll admit that I went out of my way to push the narrative that everyone loved Celestia and no one loved Luna. But I wouldn't have had those insecurities to poke at if they weren't already there, and I didn't have the power to do anything to her mind magically. If I did contribute anything to her fall, I did it with nothing but words. Which would actually make me amazing, if I could make someone open up to the Nightmares and fall just by flapping my lips, or in this case my imaginary lips since my actual lips were in stone, and I am amazing, but I'm still pretty sure it was mostly her own fault.)
Anyway, I always knew it was a dream. Always. Luna's very, very good at her job, and some of the stuff she inflicted on me was pretty darned horrifying, but I didn't fall for any of it. The best she could manage was to lure me in with a pleasant dream I wanted to believe in and then start the horror show, except even that didn't quite work because while I was happy to let myself be soothed with pleasant dreams (I was stuck in stone. I'd take any form of entertainment), I did know in the back of my mind that it wasn't real. I just didn't care, until the bad stuff started, and then I'd use my own power over my own dreams to turn them back on her, or play up as if I was terrified and then laugh in her face.
If Sombra had been there in any of the illusions he cast on me... I would not have been laughing in his face.
I can't believe how off-guard he took me. I've seen the TV show, the reality we should have had if it hadn't been for Anon, where the archway that paralyzes ponies with their worst fears played a prominent part. (It should surprise no one that Twilight's greatest fear was disappointing Celestia and Spike's greatest fear was being kicked out by Twilight. Oh, the mommy issues those two have.) I knew Sombra's specialties. I fought him, back in the day. (He took himself so very, very seriously, I don't know how I was supposed to resist throwing lemon cream pies at him. Eventually he figured out that he could drive me off by completely misusing the Crystal Heart to broadcast harmonized fear and misery, because it turns out that if everyone feels the same negative emotions, it's still harmony, but for a while his own fear of the Heart prevented him from keeping me out of the Crystal Empire, and you'd better believe I made good use of my time. You haven't seen anything until you've seen the Dark Overlord of Fear with a clown nose and oversized inflatable horseshoes.) So I should have known what I was getting into. I should have known it was an illusion.
The first time made no sense, and when things don't make sense and I didn't cause them, that generally means my understanding of the situation is imperfect in some way. But it took me so long to question. And then when it happened again, I didn't question at all.
What you need to know is that our entire world is full of an ecosystem ponies hardly ever see, creatures animal, vegetable and mineral whose purpose is to purify and clean magic.
Raw magic, as I've said before, is chaotic. It's supposed to have no prior imprint, no history of intent marked on it, but the emotions generated by dark magic in particular, and by any truly powerful, emotion-driven casting, can remain engraved on the magical energies, altering them, generally for the worse. I like my chaos to have no preconceived notions of what it wants to do whatsoever, thank you. So, just as I exist in order to ensure that nothing interrupts the existence or flow of magic, there's an ecosystem of creatures that exist to keep magic that's not in use cleanly chaotic.
Here in Equestria, the West Coast – which you've probably never been to, because Celestia declared it off-limits to settlers for exactly this reason – is home to the Harmony Violets and the tatzlwurms. I mentioned Harmony Violets when I was talking about fighting Winnie. They are small flowers that draw in magic and purify it of dark and any other intentional elements. (Intentional elements being emotions imprinted on magic. Magic that wants to play a funny prank on you because I was just working with it is also an intentional element, as is magic that wants you to make friends and sing kumbaya while holding hooves in a circle. It's just that dark intentional elements are a lot more common.) They do this by harmonizing the magic, which is not the way I would have chosen to do it, but whatever. Any parts of it that cannot stay in harmony with the pure empty-headed intentionless will of the violets are excreted through the roots, where the tatzlwurms – creatures that look like animals, but are actually plants – live. Tatzlwurms are about the length of a snout (my snout, not yours; they're not that short) and are predators that feed on magic and magical creatures, but they're small enough that the only sapient magical creatures they could possibly be a threat to are Breezies. They eat the dark magic and other such intentional elements that the Harmony Violets pass down to them, as well as magical small creatures such as parasprites, twittermites and the like, and fully consume them. Usually by sucking them in with tentacles, but they can also spray goo that paralyzes magic.
Celestia declared the area off-limits to pony development because these creatures are an important part of Equestria's defense system against clouds of dark magic floating across the ocean and invading our borders, and ponies were harvesting Harmony Violets at one point, threatening to drive them extinct. Ponies can hardly be blamed; Harmony Violets can cure pretty much any magical illness, and disrupt chaotic or dark magic, and from what I hear they taste pretty good (I wouldn't risk eating one. See "disrupt chaotic magic", in the previous sentence.) Many ponies found that making their loved ones eat Harmony Violets after I'd messed with their personalities just a bit could clear them right up and restore them to boring, I mean normal, I mean I was right the first time. Meanwhile tatzlwurms might actually be a threat to ponies, and even to me, if someone nefarious were to gather enough of their magical paralysis goo. I wouldn't even be telling you this except that you're not going to be reading it unless I'm dead or in stone. So that's why you can go have a picnic on the west coast shoreline if you want, but you can't build a house, or a Hayfries Shack, there.
Well, the far north, where all of the world's magic is sucked in toward the pole, has a lot of these kinds of creatures. The World Serpents, crystalline snakes made by Loki in the days before he went off the deep end, are one example; they crawl through the frozen ground below Arctica eating dark magic that was pulled underground by the pole. Dragon eggs serve to absorb a lot of loose magic, and dragons lay them in Arctica and Antarctica (where the same thing happens to magic, only southward instead of northward.) And at the top of this food chain are a race of true crystal ponies, the Umbra.
Now that the Crystal Empire has come back, you're probably all familiar with the so-called "crystal ponies", who mostly look that way because of extensive exposure to the Crystal Heart. Umbra... are not like that. They're more like the lupequus of folklore, except that instead of being ponies that turn into wolves under the light of a full moon, they're ponies that turn into crystals when they are too low on magic to remain ponies, and when they're full-up on magic they can transform into pure magic. More like Nightmare Loon did than like I do; when I turn into magic I'm usually a specific shape, not an amorphous cloud of darkness. The way they were originally supposed to work was that Umbra would feed on dark magic, thus draining it out of an area; they themselves then become large pools of dark magic, but it doesn't corrupt them because they're born to do that, just like chaos magic drives ponies insane but not moi.
This didn't work out.
When Yggdrasil was still alive, beaming its pernicious harmony all over the Not-So-Frozen-Back-Then North, the Umbra were a thriving, well-balanced race, not seething overpowered pits of mobile dark magic. They were most active during the long winter night, in the Far North; they're not exactly harmed by sunlight, but it doesn't do them any favors either. When Mayhem corrupted Yggdrasil, split the reindeer civilization into normal reindeer and evil caribou, and unleashed the windigos on the ponies living in what is now the Crystal Empire – which is, in fact, the original homeland of all North Amareican ponies, the place you came from before the founding of Equestria; betcha your Hearth's Warming pageants in elementary school never told you that—the amount of dark magic being generated began to unbalance the Umbra. Too much of a good thing is rarely a good thing itself. They started overdosing on the dark magic, becoming entirely too prone to violence against each other, as well as against frost dragons, dragon eggs, caribou, and other entities that could either fight back or had angry moms who could fight back. So their numbers were getting kind of thin.
Now, the other thing you need to know is that even when Yggdrasil was alive, the latitudes of the ancient pony homelands – Unicornia, Crystallia, and, eventually, Stratopolis, after the pegasi got here – were always quite volatile. Magical ley lines flow through our entire atmosphere as well as underground, but just a short distance north of the borders of Equestria, those lines start to dip down in preparation for going underground at the North Pole. This makes the weather quite changeable and violent up there. Yggdrasil kept it calm and peaceful until the windigos killed it, at which point the weather in the old countries became literally intolerable. Churning, perpetual storm fronts that would need alicorn magic to contain them came in. The civil war that broke out between the three pony races wasn't only due to the direct actions of the windigos and the Element of Hatred; they were being forced into proximity to each other as well, the weather driving them into tiny enclaves where they could take shelter.
The founders of Equestria left around this time, thinking south would be better – which it was, somewhat, until they brought their feuding with them and made things utterly intolerable. In the North, the three pony nations had to give more and more ground to the storms, until finally in desperation they were all hiding in the caves in the crystal mountains, killing each other for territory. The pegasi got the worst of this; they're not at their best in caves.
So a small group of especially desperate pegasi fled even further north, trying to reach Yggdrasil. They got there, discovered it was dead, and discovered that there was one living fruit just lying on the ground, covered in snow, where Mayhem had never bothered to notice it. That was the Crystal Heart. The fact that this particular group was tight-knit enough to survive the Element of Hatred and windigos trying to corrupt them against each other meant that they were, ugh, harmonious enough to activate the Crystal Heart, which created a bubble of artificially decent weather around them. Also, their leader, Wind Singer, became an alicorn, renamed Aria di Vento because in those days, it was generally understood that princesses had to have fancy names. (Something got lost in translation; the new name actually meant Song of the Wind.) When they returned to their homeland, the king of the unicorns – King Palladium, father of Princess Platinum, who I'm pretty sure you all know from your school Hearth's Warming pageants – was near death (this wasn't surprising; most of the ponies were near death, and he wasn't young). So the new Princess Aria married his son, Prince Iridium, and became the new ruler of the Crystal Empire, uniting the tribes.
They were quickly able to use the Crystal Heart to control the weather, making it tolerable in the immediate area of the Heart – which is why the Crystal Empire, once an actual empire, was reduced down to a single city. But they had to re-activate it every year, in the springtime, since the winter would generally wear away at the defense the Heart produced. This was the Crystal Faire, a festival during which the entire city would have a huge party, and re-apply the Heart's protection through the big party invoking in them so much love and harmony and happiness and gag me with a spoon. Funny thing about ponies and parties. Pinkie Pie has a point – no matter how depressed and miserable ponies are, it's generally pretty easy to cheer them up with a party. Even I managed to get ponies to chin up and embrace chaos, at least for a night or two, by throwing parties. Of course mine were... rather different than Pinkie's. But I digress.
Once the caribou started generating magic that they locked to themselves, unusable to anyone else, the Umbra didn't do so well. There wasn't enough loose dark magic available in the Far North to help them overcome the damage they'd done to themselves by consuming the imbalance of dark magic generated during the pony civil war and general period of windigoes. And here's where the problem of having creatures magically evolved to naturally clean up the stuff you want to get rid of comes in. As long as there was plenty of free dark magic available in the North, the Umbra were fine, and they did their job. Dramatically increase the available amount because everyone was at war with everyone else, and they become addicts, hungry for more and more. And then the supply dropped, as ponies got themselves under control and the caribou locked up their own supply. Yaks and griffons were never magic users, the reindeer don't use dark magic at all... what's a creature that feeds on dark magic to do?
The problem here is that Umbra are sapient. Tatzlwurms are not smart enough to go out and try to find more dark magic. They eat what the Harmony Violets filter down to them, and they paralyze and eat magical creatures. They can't go stir up strife and cause pain and fear in order to increase the available dark magic. Sapient creatures can, and the Umbra did. They roamed through the frozen wasteland, finding pony or reindeer settlements and causing the inhabitants to turn on each other in fear, or riling up yaks (a very easy task) to attack them.
Then they made the mistake of going after the Crystal Empire.
At this point in time, I was roaming around, free as a bird, doing anything I liked anywhere I liked... except the Crystal Empire. The barrier that keeps out horrific storms caused by the churning chaos of magic coming down from the atmosphere to plunge toward the earth also keeps out my chaos. Celestia and Luna would occasionally run there to hide out from me, and I let them do it, as long as they didn't stay there too long, but I wouldn't let any other Equestrian ponies leave the country. Otherwise they'd have all voted with their hooves to flee the chaos and then who would I have had to play with?
The Umbra tried to get in, multiple times. Ponies would have been a lot more valuable to them than most of the prey they generally found; they can impersonate ponies pretty well, considering that they are a species of pony, albeit a really weird one, and ponies are more magical than most other races. So they were motivated. Plus, the same barrier I had up to keep ponies from escaping Equestria was keeping them from migrating into my country, so the Crystal Empire was the only game in town. (They could have broken through my barrier, more easily than they could the one generated by the Heart... but they wouldn't have liked what it would have done to them. My barrier had a bad habit of turning species into other species, and anything pony-like would have probably ended up as a mouse or a frog. Actual ponies could get through it without anything untoward happening to them, because I'd set it to let ponies in but not let anyone out – if ponies wanted to come experience my chaos, the more the merrier! But an Umbrum is not a real pony, exactly.) Finally, they thought they had it... the protective shield was fading and they thought they'd break through then. But the reason the shield was fading was that they were preparing the ritual to renew it. When the annual renewal of the Crystal Heart's protection happened, the Umbra were, for the most part, frozen into their crystalline forms... after trying to escape underground as magical constructs. So they weren't just crystallized. They were turned into veins of crystal within rock.
Never run away when a fruit of Harmony has locked onto you and is about to zap you. As terrible as the consequences will be when it hits you... there are worse fates than being a statue. Like being a smear of crystal buried within rock.
Their Queen, the most powerful of their race, was pregnant at the time. She managed to magically shield her baby from the Heart, weaving a protective shield around him and teleporting him out of her body with the last of her magic. Thus she was crystallized on the surface. Her son was teleported into the Crystal Empire, where somepony found a baby foal on their doorstep and took him to the then-Princess, Amore, to find his parents. Of course, she couldn't, so she sent him to a temporary home for foals while she tried to find him some foster parents to take him in.
No one wanted to. I wonder why not.
I believe Sombra found out what he really was (and murdered Amore, and took the throne) when he wasn't much past the standard age for a cutie mark. I haven't paid that much attention to his history, so I couldn't say for sure. I know that he reigned for around the last 30 years or so of my reign, and some time after that before Celestia and Luna felt themselves strong enough to deal with him... and he definitely did something to Luna that weakened her and let the Nightmare get a foothold within her, before the sisters launched their final attack and, sore loser that he was, he sent the entire Crystal Empire to the far future. Umbra don't age, as long as they have a healthy supply of dark magic to draw from, and Sombra had that. I don't actually know how long it was after I was turned to stone that Celestia and Luna defeated him, or rather, didn't.
Sombra wasn't as powerful as an alicorn, but he studied magic intensively, he practiced constantly, and the torment he kept his subjects in stirred up a lot of dark magic, which he was very, very good at channeling. His uses for that power were rather banal, although I suppose he had reasons – he enslaved the Crystal Ponies and forced them to work in the mines because he was trying to dig out his people, the rest of the Umbra. I suppose I can relate. I'd have made ponies work in mines too if I'd thought I could save my mother and older brothers and the rest of my draconequus tribe that way. Although I wouldn't have had to enslave them. Ponies were very, very eager to work for me when I offered them jobs. I never had to enslave a single pony; hardly any of them, aside from Celestia and Luna, would refuse a single request I made. And yet Celestia and Luna claimed they were living in torment under my rule! I ask you, would tormented ponies be so very eager to make mango cheese smoothies and grilled lemon sandwiches for their tormentor? Maybe they'd have been less enthusiastic about mining; I never asked them, since getting ponies to dig in a mine for something I could snap my fingers to summon would be a pointless waste of time. There's nothing fun about digging in a mine.
The replenishment of the Crystal Heart's protection made the child Sombra sick near death, every year. But he lived through it because he didn't have enough dark magic, as a child, for it to crystallize the magic within him and turn him to stone. It just hurt... the way the Tree hurt me, before I was the Avatar of Chaos, when I was just a mortal chaos mage. As an adult, he feared it... but eventually figured out that it was the only way to keep me out, and I'll say this for Sombra. He wasn't shy about facing his own fears. So he figured out how to harness it to the darkness he'd caused in the Crystal Empire, fueling it with the fear and pain and despair of his slaves. Like I said, if everyone feels the same thing, that's harmony... doesn't matter if what they're feeling is awful or wonderful. Sombra brought about order (that was one of the reasons I kept poking him), and order can enforce a harmony of suffering.
But you all want to know about the Element of Hatred. Sombra left the Empire as a colt of cutie mark age (although Umbra don't get them, so he would never get his.) He wandered about, discovering his affinity for dark magic without understanding what the forces he was playing with actually were. He found the stone his mother had been turned into, and she cryptically directed him to go to Yggdrasil... where the Element of Hatred still lay nestled at the roots of the dead Harmony Tree. When he brought it back, he discovered how easily he could use it to make caribou, yaks, griffins and even reindeer turn against each other and attack one another... which made him stronger.
Once he returned, he was able to re-awaken his mother enough to have a conversation with her, in which she showed him his true power and told him what had happened to her and the rest of his kind. So when he returned to the Empire, he used Hatred to turn the mostly earth pony population of the Empire against their unicorn rulers. They viewed him as their champion and savior when he killed Princess Amore, who he claimed had been hopelessly corrupted. Unicorns, who could potentially have challenged his rule, were either driven out, forced to enter Equestria or sent out into the northern storms to die. Some had their horns broken. Pegasi started making noise about seceding from the Crystal Empire and going to try to rebuild Stratopolis; Sombra's goons arrested a number of them and broke their wings, and Sombra himself, who was at that point using his own magic to hold off the storms rather than the Crystal Heart, wove them into a barrier no pegasus could safely cross.
By the time he showed his true colors and began enslaving the ponies who had cheered for his rule, it was too late. There were no ponies with both the strength and the will to fight him. I don't like tyrants, so I showed up to make his life more entertaining on multiple occasions and publicly humiliated him, as well as carrying off some of his slaves and bringing them to Equestria because they declared they'd rather pledge allegiance to me and my chaos than live under Sombra, but... I'm ashamed to admit, I had the power to defeat him completely and kick him out of there, free all the ponies and bring them back under my raining umbrella, but I didn't. He was even more fun to taunt and torment than Celestia and Luna; I didn't want to ruin my toy so quickly. And then he figured out how to harness the Heart, and I couldn't return.
I don't know all that much about what he did or didn't do after he figured out how to activate the Heart with dark magic instead of light, since from that point on I couldn't get back in to the Crystal Empire. (It's not that there's a barrier. It's that a mage who knows what they're doing, in control of a powerful artifact of Harmony, could seriously harm me, up to and including turning me to stone again. I didn't dare go within range of the Heart while the Empire was ruled by unicorn mages who knew what they were doing, and I didn't dare go within range once Sombra figured out how to harness it.) But I know that, while unicorns and pegasi repopulated during his reign, none had the will to fight or stand against him. He was ruthless, cruel, smart, and would engage in mind control spells if somepony did show some signs of resistance... if he didn't just torture them to make the population more fearful of him.
I know that in the cartoon, Cadance used the Heart to shatter him while he was in his magical form, drawing on harmony from her new subjects, after Spike jumped to her with the Heart in his hands. In that version of events, Twilight and Spike, while looking for the Heart, found a staircase hidden by dark magic, and when they went down it, they encountered a room guarded by a door that shows you your worst fears. They then figured out that the Heart was someplace else, and went and got it. Sombra was almost fully manifested and completely inside the perimeter, well within range for the Heart to attack him full force; he was annihilated, except for his horn.
In our reality, Anon knew where the Heart was all along, because he'd seen the cartoon. He had Twilight cast a spell to reveal its location, they brought the Heart and performed the ritual, and Sombra, who was still outside the city at this point, was able to protect himself, shielding himself from the energies of the Heart. Anon ended up having to go out in the storm and fight him with the Element of Protection, because the crystal ponies had gotten the barrier up but Sombra was flinging spears of black crystal through the barrier – it was intended to keep out evil magic, not projectiles. The end result was the same, of course, and Anon made sure to slice the horn to bits. Not sure why. Maybe he thought the horn would have eventually regenerated into a full Sombra in the cartoon. I'm not at all sure it works that way.
I, personally, knew Sombra well enough to know that he wouldn't simply leave a powerful spell on a door that goes nowhere interesting, just to be a decoy. He'd have known that there are too many ponies and other entities who can sense magic; Celestia and Luna, for instance, would have known the Heart wasn't behind that door if there was nothing there at all. To work as an effective decoy to lure ponies trying to find the Heart, he'd have had to make sure that something of similar power levels was hidden behind that door. After all, he wouldn't have known that it would be Celestia's protégé, not Celestia herself, who'd be searching. (Plus, while the cartoon didn't show it, and the Twilight of our world didn't do it, since Anon didn't expect her to – I strongly suspect that in the actual events that would have happened if Anon hadn't interfered, Twilight would have been casting a spell to find powerful magic items, and that was why she was so certain the Heart had to be behind that door in the first place.)
Sombra had quite a few magical artifacts. But the Crystal Heart is the fruit of a Harmony Tree, equal in power to an Element of Harmony. (More powerful, technically, since it can act on its own – it channels harmony from a large population, not from specially designated bearers.) Something that shows up magically as being of equivalent power? I wonder what that could be. Hmm.
So I decided that would be the first place I would check, and I was fairly sure I'd find it. A quick in and out, no alert raised, no one the wiser.
I took the train in. Teleportation into an area protected by an artifact of Harmony is kind of like cannonballing directly into freezing water. Once I was acclimated to the harmony field I'd be able to teleport, use my magic and do whatever I wanted, but I needed to let myself get used to it before using my magic.
Well, most of my magic. I was in the form of Twister on the train. Which set off some uncontrollable shivers and a lot of muscle tics as we crossed through the invisible shield of Harmony that the Heart generates, and a few concerned ponies asked me what was wrong. I told them I had a debilitating disease called bonitis, and it caused painful spasms that could only be relieved through massage. In fact the spasms weren't painful at all – more similar to the shivers that go up your spine when you're listening to a pony telling a moderately scary story, and I'm used to them, anyway, as most of the time they signal a magical imbalance or rapid shift. But ponies, being such a friendly and generous species, weren't willing to let me suffer a moment longer than necessary, and I had three ponies massaging me with their hooves from that point until the moment the train stopped. (One stallion, two mares. The stallion was an earth pony, and was using maybe a little bit more force than an actual unicorn suffering spasms would have wanted to take, but I like it rough sometimes. Especially when I'm in another body and can't feel as keenly as I would in my draconequus form.)
Once we reached the station, I wandered around a bit. Probably I could have jumped straight into using my magic, and in the past, I'm sure I would have. I'm not normally one for prudence, or patience. But the fights with Anon have changed something in me; I find myself holding back, calculating odds, making plans... wanting to be sure. As if surety and chaos could coexist. It's frustrating; I don't think I like what I've become, but I no longer have the nerve to jump into situations, cocksure and certain of being able to roll with the punches and come out on top. I suppose too many near-death experiences can sober even the most reckless draconequus. Before I started throwing around the kind of power that would make me detectable to the Heart, I wanted to be absolutely 100% certain that I was fully acclimated and would have no trouble with my magic unless the Heart specifically targeted me. If it did... well, there wasn't going to be much I could do about that.
In the square in front of the palace, I saw a giant statue of Anon. For several seconds I stared at the thing, unable to quite believe how incredibly dumb that was. A statue of Anon? Really? Of course, they didn't know that he'd warped the timeline and that he'd actually put them in more danger doing things the way he had – Sombra could have killed somepony, flinging dark crystal shards through the barrier. I believe he did, actually, injure a few before Anon went out to challenge him. In the original timeline, no Crystal Ponies were harmed at all before Sombra was destroyed. But the Crystal Ponies didn't know that an original timeline even existed. The only ones who knew about the cartoon were Anon, and me.
If it had been dark outside, I would have summoned up a need to urinate just so I could have peed on that statue. But in broad daylight, I couldn't take the risk without using my magic to turn invisible or something, and I was trying to avoid using magic yet.
You may wonder how I got into the palace without using my magic, or if perhaps I had to wait until I was fully acclimated? No, dear readers, I didn't have to use a single jot of my chaos to get into the palace. They had tours. Yes, the Crystal Palace actively lets its citizens and tourists in to wander around their seat of government. At least Celestia always confined the tours to the gardens. Cadance actually lets ordinary ponies go strolling through the halls of government. I don't think she feels nearly as secure about being a princess or even a ruler as she pretends she does. Wonder if I could talk her into establishing a democracy? Democracies are marvelous; they're the most chaotic form of government possible. Everypony spends all their time shouting at others, rulers are selected by a popularity contest, and nothing gets done. Albion has one with their Parliament, and earth ponies traditionally ruled with them, but Equestria hasn't had one on a scale larger than a city since, well, ever. Not even when I was in charge, since I didn't let any ruling body form over anything larger than a city. I tolerated city-sized democracies because democracies are inherently chaotic, but anything bigger than that and there needs to be a lot of order baked in for the government to work as a government – bureaucracy, procedures, protocols, oh, it's all so dull.
Of course, the tour didn't go anywhere juicy, but that wasn't a problem for me. I told one of the tour guides that I needed to use the bathroom and I'd catch up. As soon as I went around the corner, I dropped Twister and climbed the wall. Negating gravity to make myself lighter and making the crystal wall just soft enough that my claws could hook into it was a small change, no more taxing than being Twister had been. I then used the ceiling to stroll right into the throne room. Since Cady The Pinkness and her hubby were still holding court, I couldn't just drop down the spiral staircase hidden under the floor by one of Sombra's spells, and as much as I'd have loved to distract them out of there with some dancing, singing toads or flying toasters or something, I didn't dare do anything that might tip them off to my presence.
The Crystal Heart takes more of an active role in defense than the Elements of Harmony do; there are things it can just do without a user focusing through it to make it do that thing. The barrier of light-magic Harmony around the city is one of those things. The weather control it performs to keep the storms of the Not-Yet-Completely-Frozen North is another. But attacking me was outside the range of anything it could do without prompting. However, there were an alicorn and a highly trained military unicorn near it at the moment, and I knew from watching the TV show that Cadance has some scary battle reflexes. Just because in our timeline she's never had a chance to use them doesn't mean they're not there, and this far away from Anon I was fairly certain she and Shining Armor would be able to take me on directly, without having to wait for him. (Distance is weird, with Anon. I was able to tell the dragons all about his murder of Faith; I wasn't quite able to tell Spike what was going on with him, even though he was all the way in the Crystal Empire at the time; I wasn't able to tell Celestia anything when I confronted her in Canterlot and Anon was in Ponyville. I'm not 100% sure physical distance matters, except to the degree that when I'm actually in his presence he can directly influence me. It seems just as likely that it's psychological distance that matters. Celestia's very important to Anon; Spike a lot less so, and he didn't even know about the Dragon Lord's existence. I haven't seen any evidence that he cares all that much about Cadance and Shining Armor; he doesn't seem to despise them and put them down like he does Spike, but he doesn't seem to focus any of his attention on them except when the plot requires it, either.) I couldn't risk letting either of them know I was here, because either of them could theoretically cast a spell through the Crystal Heart to attack me... and I might be able to fend that off, because the Crystal Heart isn't necessarily as powerful as the Elements of Harmony. But... I might not. Not willing to test it, anyway.
I didn't know how long I was going to be stuck up here, waiting for court to end. The prospect of several hours of mind-numbing boredom stretched before me, rather painfully. And then I had a deliciously evil idea.
Love is chaotic, but I don't cast love spells because I don't believe in love. (I believe it exists. I just think it's basically worthless.) Lust, however... lust is well within my purview.
Within a few moments, I imagine the Pink Princess was probably starting to find her hubby's shapely muscles a bit distracting from her duties. In a few minutes, I saw her shifting uncomfortably on her throne. Half an hour after I cast the spell, Princess Cadance declared that she wasn't feeling well and was ending court early for the day, and with huge puppydog eyes she pleaded with her husband to attend her in their chambers. I smirked. Newlyweds. It had been a bit of a risk, casting a lust spell on the Princess of Love, but I figured that she'd been sheltered enough by her upbringing under Celestia's tutelage that she wouldn't recognize it for what it was, and would simply assume that Shining Armor's shining flanks were... overly inspirational at the moment. Or that estrus was coming on. Alicorns are erratic; I could always smell it on Celestia, in the first century or so before alicorn age-related infertility came upon her, and I knew she wasn't cycling so much as having it come on her at random.
Court was closed for the evening, the great doors closed, the magical lights snuffed, the curtains drawn over the windows. Perfect.
Ponies would need to cast a dark magic spell through the central crystal behind the throne to make the staircase appear. I just needed to float through the floor, and there it was.
I don't know what Sombra's fetish for stairs was. The spiral staircase was even more ridiculous than it appeared to be in the cartoon, and that was saying something. Fortunately for me I didn't need to actually walk down the steps. I could have flown down, but what fun would that have been? Instead I summoned a toboggan, gave the stairs the property of a snow-covered hill with that great icy crust that's perfect for skiing or sledding, and went tobogganing down the stairs with a very loud "WHEE!" Don't worry, the magical barrier that forms the floor of the throne room is quite soundproof.
The bottom was almost a full trot down, but on a toboggan, I covered the distance very, very quickly. It had been a long time since I'd gotten to do anything sheerly, physically fun; I had to talk myself out of teleporting back up to the top of the slide so I could do it again before going after my Element.
Well. The Element of Hatred wasn't going to collect itself. I surrounded myself with a protective shield against Sombra's fear spell; I hadn't carefully analyzed it, but I already knew what it did and I could see it, and its general structure told me that it was more or less exactly what the cartoon said it was. I sauntered through the door, the fear spell washing off of me like papier mache off the back of a duck. (Seriously, have you ever tried to wrap a duck in papier-mache?) The room wasn't large. At the back of it there was a chest, and I could clearly sense the Element of Hatred inside that chest.
I chuckled to myself. This was going to be a piece of cake.
WAKE UP, Sombra's voice echoed in my ears.
Startled, I looked around myself. Sombra was more than quite dead; why was I hearing him?
THE DELUSION HAS GONE ON LONG ENOUGH, CHAOS LORD. WAKE, AND REMEMBER WHERE YOU TRULY ARE.
And then I woke up. But I didn't open my eyes. I couldn't.
They were made of stone.
Of course my first reaction was to assume it was some kind of illusion, or that a petrification spell had been cast on me. In a total panic, I first tried to cast a spell to undo the petrification, and when that didn't work (and didn't even feel like there was magic flowing in the first place, which was exactly how it had felt when I tried to cast spells to free myself the first and second times I'd been turned to stone), I tried several different illusion dispellments, my sense of panic growing the entire time. Sombra couldn't possibly have the power to cut me off from my magic, I thought... which meant that the voice telling me to wake up had been telling the truth. My freedom, my battle with Anon, those had been hallucinations, a very lengthy and vivid dream. The reality was that I was still a stone statue.
I may have screamed hysterically for an extended period of time. It's hard to say. When I'm in stone and I perceive myself as screaming, but there's no sound because stone can't scream, am I actually screaming or not?
I threw everything I had at the stone – the same as I'd done the first two times, with the same results. Nothing. Nothing worked. I couldn't move or even feel that I had a body, I couldn't see or even perceive that my eyes existed. Normally I'd be able to hear things while I'm in stone, but I couldn't hear anything either – which might mean that while I'd been sleeping, Celestia had had my statue moved someplace quiet and secure, to make it even more unlikely that there would ever be enough chaos to free me. The thought made me despair, until the thought occurred to me that if Anon wasn't real, things should proceed as they had in the cartoon and I would eventually be released to Fluttershy's custody to be "reformed", and make a friend. That made the idea of being imprisoned again bearable... until I remembered that I'd seen the cartoon during the hallucination and there was no reason not to assume it was as big a figment of my imagination as the entire battle against Anon.
I don't know how long I was there. I alternated between screaming and sobbing for what seemed like a very, very long time, much longer than I'd have been able to keep up either one if I'd really been doing it with a physical body and not just doing it in my head. Eventually I calmed down – or rather, gave in to resignation – just long enough to think to myself that it could be worse. I could be in the Frozen North, where Loki had died. (I didn't question Loki's death. Unlike everything else that had happened, I didn't need to be free and mobile to learn that a former chaos avatar had died in stone; the fates of my predecessors is something I know, in some part of me, even if I haven't accessed those memories yet.) If I was still trapped after the last time I'd been turned to stone... the Bearers were still mortal. Unicorns can use spells to live a very long time, and earth ponies draw strength from the earth itself to extend their lifespans, but the moment the extremely reckless Rainbow Dash died or got herself killed, which was likely to happen long before the rest of her friends kicked it, the bonds of harmony would shift and I'd be able to free myself again. And if her death wasn't enough, it was unlikely any of them but Twilight would make it past 100-120 years, tops. I wouldn't have to wait a thousand years, this time.
Then I started to feel cold.
The last thing that had happened that I knew I'd been in stone for had been the wedding and the Changeling invasion. That had been in springtime. Only in the depth of the coldest parts of winter does it ever get cold enough in Canterlot for me to feel it. If I was feeling cold... I was someplace much colder than Canterlot in springtime. And unless I'd managed to lose three seasons while I was hallucinating... that meant I wasn't in Canterlot anymore. I was someplace so cold that even in spring it could seep through the stone and make me feel it.
Only the Frozen North seemed to fit that bill. Or Antarctica, but they'd be the same in effect; both poles pull magic in and force it underground. And if I was there... I remembered how Loki had died. I'd be sucked dry of my magic, slowly, painfully, while the cold continued to seep in and torment me. Draconequui die when it gets cold enough, but I wouldn't be able to die until enough of my magic had been siphoned away that my consciousness couldn't remain supported within stone. I'd just feel the cold the entire time until I was dead.
So I started screaming again.
It takes a very, very, very long time to exhaust yourself from screaming when you don't actually have a mouth or lungs.
Eventually I'd... well, I didn't get my emotions under control so much as I was too drained to keep feeling that peak of terror and rage, and I dipped down into self-pity and despair instead. And then I got tired of that, and started trying to think of ways to escape my prison – even though I knew from a thousand years of trying that it couldn't be done, the idea of slowly freezing as my magic was torn from me until I died was enough to make me try again anyway. And then I fell into despair again because nothing I could think of was working. Rinse, repeat.
Enough cycles of that, and I was exhausted, and it was beginning to sink in again how incredibly boring it is to be in stone. As long as I'd been panicking or despairing, I'd been too consumed with my own emotions to worry about a lack of entertainment, but as soon as I was too tired to feel anything other than resignation, the boredom set in. I wasn't going to die quickly, and I didn't want to spend whatever I had left being bored.
So I tried to do any of the things I was used to being able to do while I was trapped in stone. Look into alternate universes. Fall asleep and walk in dreams. Sense disharmony.
I couldn't get the first one to work. I assumed, because I was having trouble quieting my mind and being calm and focused enough. Working any kind of magic while in stone is like having to thread extremely slippery, squirming spaghetti strands through needles. I'm still working with chaos, but I need a much heavier hand with it, and much more concentration, to make it do what I want through stone, and there are strict limits on what I can do. So I decided to try to fall asleep instead. Maybe I could get back to the dream I'd been having before Sombra's voice told me to wake up. Or start a new, better dream, without Anon in it. That'd be even better.
But I couldn't fall asleep. I calmed myself, I meditated, I tried to consciously generate a lucid dream for me to drift off into, but sleep didn't come.
Sensing disharmony, as a source of entertainment, was my last resort. It's not all that much fun. I pick up on the most terrible things that ponies, or anyone, does to anyone. Species going extinct because pony magic is redirecting the resources they need to live into pony territories. Murder. Rape. Deliberate cruelties. It's not stuff I really enjoy exploring or knowing about, but it's better than endless emptiness.
Except that the moment I opened myself up to sense disharmony, I could feel the Element of Hatred blazing at me.
I blinked. (I didn't. My eyes were still stone.) The Element of Hatred had been in the Crystal Empire, locked away by Sombra. That was true before the first time I'd been turned to stone. If the Crystal Empire had really been restored – which it might have been, I could have sensed the magical shift of an entire city returning to our timeline even while dreaming – then it was possible the artifact had been retrieved. Unlikely, though. I'm not 100% sure Celestia even knows what it is. More importantly, alicorns of Celestia and Luna's strength would be more than capable of detecting the disharmony emanating from an Element of Disharmony if they bothered to scan the thing at all... which meant that if they had locked it in some vault with me, they were much, much bigger idiots than I thought. I needed disharmony to charge up my magic and free myself; why would they separate me from sources of chaos or disharmony but then leave me with one of my own Elements?
Or, I thought, it's possible that Sombra had a second illusion spell prepared if someone got through the first one... say, someone who was powerful enough to dispell his first spell, and had reasons to want an Element of Disharmony, which could potentially include the nigh-all-powerful Avatar of Chaos if he ever happened to get out of stone... a second spell that was perhaps designed to feed on the fear it itself generated so it would stay powerful and active as long as the victim was actively terrorized, which since the spell was designed to show you your worst fear, would probably be a very long time, unless maybe the thing they most feared was a long, slow, boring death that would include plenty of time within it for resigning oneself and achieving a level of calm and peacefulness that Sombra would have never imagined that specific individual to even be capable of because it had taken hundreds of years in stone in the first place for that person to learn how to calm themselves that way...
I opened my eyes. Actual eyes, this time, exposed to the dim actual light within the chamber.
Just in time, too, because there was Anon, with his sword.
He swung it at me. Yelping, I dodged backward just in time. I guessed that they must have summoned him to kill me while I was paralyzed by the spell.
"Discord!" Anon shouted. "You can't escape this time!"
"I'm fairly sure I can," I retorted, and teleported.
As I did I felt some sort of space warp around me, and when I reappeared... I was still in the chamber with the Element of Hatred, and Anon. He swung at me again, and I dodged again. The chamber wasn't tall enough for me to escape by floating to the ceiling, and if I couldn't teleport out, I didn't want to risk phasing through the floor either. Somehow I had to get past him and back out the door. I'd be able to escape up the stairs, since I can fly and Anon can't, and once I was out of here the space warp would no longer affect me. Of course I wouldn't get the Element of Hatred that way, but if I ended up dead I wouldn't get it either.
"Stand still!" Anon yelled.
"What a wonderful idea! I'll just stand around and let you skewer me! That sounds like oodles of fun!"
"You might as well give up! You're never getting out of here alive!"
That sounded... oddly villainous for someone as dedicated to imagining himself as the hero as Anon. I mean, I've watched a lot of stories with heroes and villains. Very few of said villains are ever as suave and entertaining as I am, and they tend to have certain repetitive tropes... such as telling the hero to give up and die. Not that heroes are immune to this, but they're generally on the order of "Wait!" or "Stop!" or the "Stand still!" that Anon had just used on me. Was Anon's "I am the hero" field finally breaking down in the face of his frustration at being unable to kill me? "Do all the other bad guys follow your advice?" I asked. "Because it seems to me that taking suggestions from the guy who's trying to kill me would be... oh, I don't know... stupid?"
I turned the floor to butter – apparently my powers weren't inhibited, only my ability to teleport out of the room – and Anon slipped and fell on his face. I laughed hysterically, but made sure not to close my eyes while I was laughing. Closing my eyes while I'm fighting someone never ends well for me.
He got up with an even more murderously furious expression, but I was having a hard time taking the danger seriously because he was covered in butter. "You'll pay for that, Discord!"
"Do you take PonyCard? I'm afraid I left my bit purse at home."
Anon snarled and lunged at me. Still giggling at the contrast between his enraged expression and the butter dripping down from his hair and nose, I skated out of the way, reaching one of the side walls. Anon spun to cut me off, keeping me from getting around him to get out the door. I coiled like a spring to go under the arc of his sword, and then before he could bring it back around again I released the spring and leapt over him, uncoiling in the air, hooking my claws into the ceiling as I passed over his head, and using them as leverage to twist my body and change my own arc. I landed on the door side of him while he was still slicing through the space I'd just been in against the wall, and flung myself toward the door.
And bounced against an invisible magical force field I hadn't detected until I hit it.
Sombra never did things without reasons. This was a trap set for me, specifically. He wanted to be able to hold me in the room with the Element of Hatred until he could come to destroy me, presumably with the repurposed, dark-channelling Crystal Heart, though I couldn't rule out that he'd had other artifacts or spells that could have done it. And Sombra thought in layers, and didn't generally make the mistake of underestimating an opponent (he'd underestimated Anon, but Anon's field had made him artificially stupid, most likely. In the original timeline he'd come within seconds of winning, and he hadn't made any mistakes so much as he'd been starting from the seriously underdog position of being mostly dead.) If Anon wasn't here trying to kill me, I might be able to identify and break the spells on the door or the anti-teleportation spell, but I wasn't going to be free to concentrate as long as he was attacking me.
Well. I was still nearly omnipotent even if I couldn't get out of this room, and Anon, for all his reality warping powers, is mortal. (I assume, anyway. He seems to need to eat and sleep and use the bathroom like any ordinary pony would, and the slight cut on his face he'd gotten in the battle against the caribou had still been a visible if mostly healed scar when he was arrested at the restaurant. He doesn't seem to have alicorn-like fast healing.) I am not. I don't get tired if there isn't something draining my magic or otherwise interfering with me, and while I can't use the Element of Hatred, the fact that there wasn't a bearer in the room using it meant that the disharmony magic it radiated was going solely to me. All I had to do was keep dodging Anon until he got tired. It would happen eventually.
So we danced for what felt like hours. I turned him into various entertainingly funny animals, but remained watchful, since the first time I'd done that had been the time he'd managed to cut off my tail. He broke the laws of physics in stupidly heroic ways, like flying at me with the sword in his beak while he was a chicken. (Without magical assistance, chickens cannot fly. They can jump pretty high with wing assistance and they can fall with style from a decent height and remain uninjured, but I wouldn't have expected a chicken to even pull that much off with a large, heavy crystal sword in his beak.) It turns out that how much wood a woodchuck can chuck is irrelevant if he has a sword he can chuck instead; I narrowly avoided getting the Element of Protection through my throat, that time. Making him a trout should have shut him down right away, since trout can neither swim nor breathe in air, but he was an implausibly strong trout with the positively ludicrous ability to hold the sword in his fins, and he just kept leaping at me until I turned him into a bonsai tree... an enchantment that broke almost instantly, because turning animate, moving creatures into inanimate, motionless ones is a betrayal of chaos and personally upsetting after a thousand years in stone, and my magic just twisted out from under me and wouldn't let me keep him that way.
Between turning him into animals, giving him clown shoes and a big red nose, trapping him in a bubble of bubble gum that covered him with sticky gum when it popped, and other such transformations, I also turned the floor to glue, made the ceiling rain rocks (that didn't work so well, since he smacked them away from himself with the sword and made them hit me, and after his performance with the baseballs the time that he cut off my tail, I should have remembered this), turned the room freezing cold and bakingly hot, made an entire conga line worth of female human teenagers dressed as attractive and sexually alluring members of a group of high social status in schools (they call them cheerleaders, and they wear minimalistic clothing and perform gymnastics and chants to raise the spirits of athletic performers, and for some reason most male humans in their teens want to date one) appear so they could point and laugh at him, made an elderly human woman appear and start smacking him with her purse because humans who think of themselves as heroic have inhibitions against attacking elderly human women (and, to be fair, he didn't kill her – he disarmed her by cutting the purse strap and then throwing the purse across the room, forcing her to go chase it, and I dispelled her then), summoned some of my nutcrackers and trouser snakes from the battle with the caribou, teleported his clothes away (and then put them back on him, because euw, I don't need to be seeing naked Anon's pathetic little exposed genitals... what's wrong with human beings anyway? Why don't they have a sheath for that stuff?), and mined the ground with marshmallow fluff land mines. None of it stopped him for very long. Even when I focused on keeping a particular enchantment in place, holding him back, it seemed that as long as he was holding the sword none of my spells on him could last very long.
You may ask yourself, why didn't I attack him with something more deadly? if I could create land mines that covered him in exploding marshmallow fluff, why not real land mines that would blow his body to bits? Why didn't I manifest a gun and shoot him? Why didn't I raise the temperature to the point where his human blood would boil in his veins? The answer is I didn't think of it. Firstly, I don't normally kill my opponents. I haven't killed a living, breathing matter-based being deliberately, with my magic, since I drove all the dragons in Neighropa to madness. (Or maybe the time I killed a bunch of noble pony assassins by turning them into styrofoam dodecahedrons and then stepping on several of them, but I think the dragon thing came after that.) I've killed a number of extradimensional entities since then, but they were bodiless energy beings. So I don't generally think in terms of killing. Secondly... well, it wasn't Anon's stupidity field, but something else was acting on my mind, preventing me from finding a way out of the situation, and that included killing Anon.
Though when I strung ribbons between the walls, at human ankle height, I didn't do anything to stop him when he tripped, and fell on his own sword.
I saw the puddle of blood. I saw it sticking up out of his back, for a moment, before it started shrinking. And I stared in disbelief. Had my dire enemy just accidentally killed himself? Given Anon's I-am-the-hero field, how was that even possible? Had Sombra left behind some sort of spell that interfered with Anon's reality warping, and the only reason he'd managed to kill Sombra was that Sombra had perhaps had to channel the spell through an artifact – like the Element of Hatred?
I collected the Element of Hatred anyway, because I couldn't believe Anon was dead so easily. I mean, it wasn't easy; I'd been fighting him and dodging him for what had felt like hours. But it had been possible, which was a lot more easily than I'd thought it would have been. I'd been in despair at my chances of defeating such a creature so many times, and the best plan I'd been able to come up with was to distract him with a seemingly long-range villainous plot to buy myself time and annoy him, and now he was dead?
I wanted to believe it. Oh, how I wanted to. But there was that nagging sense of disbelief. Even though he was face down on the ground in a puddle of blood and his sword was no longer visible and he wasn't moving and I couldn't see any evidence of breathing, I knew I wouldn't feel secure until I could see his face, until I could confirm that the light of life had gone out of his eyes.
I've seen enough horror movies that I should have known better, but I walked over to his body, leaned down, and flipped it over with my paw.
His sword was in his hands. His front was bloodstained but there was no evidence of damage to his armor. And his eyes were open and tracking me and the sword was moving and oh chaos no—
I tried to dodge, but it was too late. The sword swiped through my middle, disrupting my magic and spilling what was now non-magical draconequus intestines all over the floor, in ropes springing out of me like a jack from a jack-in-the-box. I fell backward, screaming. Anon got to his feet and swung down at me again. By instinct, I threw up an arm to protect myself, and then looked down at it stupidly as it fell to the floor, lopped off.
He took his time in cutting me to pieces, using his sword on my limbs and tail first, hacking them off in bits. Harmony burned me and dissolved me but not quickly enough to save me from the sword lopping off the burning part and making the next part start to boil away. He cut off my ears, and my antlers, and my snout, and sliced across one eye, half-blinding me. The other one he left intact so I could see his mad, savage grin as he started stabbing my chest and belly, over and over. At the end, he raised the sword over my head and brought it down, viciously hard, driving it directly into my skull, and I died.
And then I woke up.
A fear spell can kill a pony, if it's done right; cause sufficient mortal terror and a pony can drop dead of a heart attack. Perhaps even an alicorn can; certainly Luna behaves in dreams as if she knows the entities within could theoretically kill her. But I can't die that way because I don't actually need my physical heart to stay alive as long as I have my magic – even if I'm under the influence of a spell that makes me think I don't have my magic, as long as I actually do. Sombra couldn't have known that – he didn't come close enough to beating me, any of the times we fought, for him to learn how resistant I am to dying of bodily damage, and he wasn't old enough to have fought any of my predecessors.
I'd broken free of my first worst fear, only to fall into my second – the fear of dying at Anon's hands. I figured out later that the reason I hadn't thought to kill him had been that the spell had orchestrated things so that I couldn't. The whole thing was set up to make me think I'd won, but still be afraid, and have my fear and disbelief itself trigger the illusion of dying horribly. The scenario had nowhere to go after my death, though, particularly since Sombra couldn't have known that I can resurrect myself. A pony would probably have actually died of fear at that point, but I didn't.
I did, however, find myself wrapped in chains that were powered by the Crystal Heart, bound on the floor of the throne room and surrounded by Twilight, her friends, Cadance, Shining Armor, and Anon.
"He's waking up, Twilight!" Cadance shouted, nervously. "You need to hurry!"
That did not sound good at all. I started trying to squirm out of the chains, since the magic of the Crystal Heart was preventing me from simply teleporting out of them or unraveling them. The girls were all wearing their Elements, and Anon's Element of Protection was around his neck, not in full-size sword mode.
"You ought to let me take care of him," Anon groused. "What if this doesn't work? What if he fakes it and then it turns out it had no effect?"
"It'll work," Twilight said confidently. "If the Elements can turn him to stone, they can bind him to a reforming spell."
"NO!" I shouted. In the cartoon, Twilight talked about using a "reforming spell" on me, but never had the opportunity because I was smart enough to pull the spells that fell in that category out of her books and eat them before she had a chance to look them up. In reality... there are only some spells that can be considered "reforming spells" that could possibly work on me and achieve the goal Twilight would be aiming for, even with the help of the Elements. "Be Your Best Self", for instance, would just make me more chaotic, because it compels its targets to try to be the best self they can imagine being. "Please Like Me" makes targets crave love and friendship more strongly and thus promotes conformist, pro-social behavior, but it wouldn't work on me because I know perfectly well ponies won't love me or be my friend no matter what I do. It might make me depressed and angry but it wouldn't reform me.
But there are spells that could do it, if they were cast with the power of the Elements. Spells that would essentially scoop out my personality and replace me with a cheerful, pony-like cipher.
I was using all my power to try to break the chains, and all of my physical flexibility and strength to try to escape the chains. Shining Armor wrapped me in his shielding spell, preventing me from physically struggling, while the mares and Anon charged up the Elements. The seven of them floated into the air, eyes glowing.
I am kind of ashamed to admit that I begged. It didn't help.
When I alter a pony, when a Nightmare affects a pony, it doesn't create a different personality, a different ego in the mind to run around doing things while the former ego is trapped inside. It affects the pony's personality, the way they think. They may be horrified afterward, when they're restored to themselves, but while it's happening they have no consciousness that they've been affected in a way they don't like. The time I tried disharmonizing myself to see what it was like, I ended up weepy and clingy, begging Celestia to take me back and be my love again. That was deeply humiliating when it wore off and I remembered doing it, but I had no idea while it was happening that there was anything unusual about my emotions (even though I remembered casting the spell on myself. I think I thought it just didn't work and my sudden feelings of grief and loss over losing Celestia were just a coincidence.)
This wasn't like that. But it wasn't quite like being possessed by something that's making you a puppet, either. I had that happen to me once, in another dimension where my magic was weak; some sort of parasite got into my brain and started controlling my body. It had access to my memories, but I had no access to anything it was thinking or feeling. It had more or less completely locked me out of my body, and was trying to get me back to the portal I'd created, where its access to my memories must have convinced it that it would be omnipotent if it could get me back home where my magic was (I presume; it's not like it told me what it was doing, or why.) Unfortunately for it, it had no concept of what it means to be the Avatar of Chaos. As soon as my magic came flooding in, it lost control of me and I turned it into an ant and infected it with Cordyceps. (If you're not a botanist... look it up. It's not a reference to my name, and frankly I find the behavior of that particular fungus to be entirely too orderly to want to take credit for it.) (Oh, wait, technically I guess that means I did kill a living, matter-based being more recently than the dragons. Ants don't survive Cordyceps infections.)
After the Elements cast their spell... I was a passenger in my own brain, watching what the new entity that had been created by the Elements was doing, but I could feel everything he felt. I felt the desire to apologize to the ponies and Anon, groveling to them. I felt the guilt that consumed the other me for all the "terrible things" I've supposedly done to ponies over the centuries. I felt how much he hated himself and his, my, unique appearance. He took the form of a pony because the idea of looking like myself was horrifying. And worst of all, he worshipped Anon as much as any of the others did.
I was still me, but I couldn't do anything. I could feel everything he felt and hear everything he thought, but I couldn't affect any of it. It was worse than being in stone, because I couldn't lose myself in hallucinations and daydreams... I had to live every moment trapped in a body that now belonged to a being I hated almost as much as I hated Anon. I couldn't even scream or cry inside my head; apparently the only reason that works when I'm in stone is that I'm not getting any feedback from my body telling me that I'm not doing it. As long as my "reformed" alter ego was strolling around with a stupid smile on his face, all I could feel was my face smiling, as much as I wanted to do anything else.
And I might still be stuck there if Shining Armor hadn't decided to blast me with his magic.
Without warning, a searing pain slammed into me and threw me across a room that I hadn't even been aware of being in. I landed in a pile of burned feathers, fractured limbs and bruised muscles, all of which healed more or less instantly because there was nothing inhibiting my magic. The main problem I was suffering from was intense disorientation, because moments ago I had been mentally throwing up as the thing I had been turned into was in Ponyville learning from Anon how to fish, as if I hadn't been catching live fish to play with and then toss back since I was six years old. Now I was... back in the chamber with the Element of Hatred.
I looked up just in time to meet another near-stunning blast of magic and recognize that it was coming from Shining Armor, who was right outside the door to the chamber, not quite close enough to trigger the fear spell but close enough to see and attack me. There were several crystal pony guards behind him, but no Cadance. Now, Shining Armor is overprotective of his loved ones, as might be expected from a pony whose specialty is protective magic, but I didn't think he was stupid enough to take on the Lord of Chaos all by himself with a handful of guards, and not involve the alicorn he happens to be married to. No, it was far more likely that that he was trying to distract me while she headed for the Crystal Heart.
That was not a thing I wanted to stick around for.
I was still disoriented, but never let it be said that the Master of Chaos cannot roll with the punches. I teleported into midair, turned Shining's next blast into gummy worms, grabbed my Element and ran. For a moment I thought, wait, I can't teleport out of here, there's a force field, and then I remembered that that hadn't actually happened. So I teleported all the way back to the Grotto and promptly had a complete nervous breakdown.
While I'd been trapped by that fear spell, I'd been imprisoned in stone, murdered by Anon, and turned into a cariacature of myself, and I'd lived months in that particular prison, feeling every alien and disgusting emotion that the impostor created by the reforming spell had felt. I don't know how long I was actually trapped there – long enough for someone to figure out I was there, which was probably quite some time considering that I'd been inside a chamber protected by a fear spell at the bottom of a trot-long spiral staircase hidden by dark magic, so it wasn't exactly as if anypony was likely to accidentally trot by and notice me. It could have been days. Weeks. I hoped not, I'd have missed out on Anon's entire trial.
But I was going to miss out on a bit more of it, because I needed to curl up in a ball and hyperventilate for an hour or two.
I went looking for Gilda after I thought I could maybe mostly keep myself under control, but she wasn't in the Eyrie of Awesomeness and I didn't have any idea where she might be if she wasn't there. I had the most bizarre impulse to go to Trixie or Blueblood, since I knew where they were. I needed to be around ponies to ground me, to remind me that this one was real. After a thousand years of sensory deprivation and hallucinations, being subjected to a fear spell that dumped me into three different real-as-life illusions was... not doing my mental health any favors. In the old days I had my groupies and I had my entourage, ponies who lived in my encampments and did things for me like making food so I wouldn't have to conjure it, because I can't surprise myself and I get bored with always knowing what food I'm going to have for dinner tonight, and if I came back from some battle with eldritch horrors or some particularly unpleasant worldwalking episode shaking and unsteady, I could surround myself with ponies who knew me. They weren't my friends, most of them would probably have happily killed me if I'd been that vulnerable that they thought they could pull it off, but they knew me and they'd do what I said.
But Trixie and Blueblood aren't enough under my control that I can trust them with seeing me when I'm close to falling apart. Even Gilda would have been a risk, though Gilda's seen me when I've been beaten up by Anon, so I have a little bit more trust in her.
There's no one who knows me who I can be really safe with when I can't stop thinking about what it felt like to be slowly sliced to bits, or turned into a parody of what I am.
So I went with my usual remedy. I went to my club. But after the time I'd been with Tats, I couldn't bring myself to go through another encounter as Twister, lying about who I was, being a pony. I used to have nightmares about being forcibly turned into a pony, when I was a child, and in that last illusion of Sombra's, the me who'd been twisted into a horrible conformist shape had voluntarily become a pony and rejected being what I really am. I could fake being a pony in public, but I needed what I'd gotten last time. I needed to be with somepony who at the very least knew what I was.
I did the same thing I'd done before. I let it be known that I was matchmaking for a friend of mine who was a hyperchimera, looking for someone discreet who was into extreme xeno. This time I landed a pegasus stallion by the name of Flight Risk, a daredevil thrill-seeker who made Rainbow Dash seem positively sedate. Never did learn what he did for a living, because I didn't care. I introduced him to the fun of sex with chaos, made three duplicates of him where all four of them could feel what the others were feeling but they could operate as independent entities, made an extra one of me, and we had an orgy. With Tats, I'd wanted tenderness and to be just a little bit submissive because of what I'd seen while I was with the caribou. After such realistic visions of being in stone, and being murdered, and finally being mind-controlled into something I'm not, I needed the kind of sensation saturation that could wipe out my ability to remember the recent past, and I needed chaos. Flight Risk was more than up for it, literally as well as figuratively.
He was everything I needed for a little while. I even considered letting him remember the encounter so I could come back for a round 2 at a future date. But, sadly, common sense prevailed, as little as I like having to employ any sort of sense, let alone the common kind. After he fell asleep I pushed his memory into dreams, the same as I'd done with Tats. He'd consumed enough substances over the course of the evening that I thought it very unlikely he'd remember any of his dreams by morning.
Gilda was back at the Eyrie by the time I returned. "Yo, where have you been? Stuff's been going down in Ponyville. The purple nerd hasn't been seen in days, Dash and her weirdo friends think that they're stuck inside some kind of fake force field, and there's some blue bitch strutting around like she owns the place."
"That's Trixie. She's another one of my minions."
"Doesn't seem like she's all that."
I sighed. "Elements of Disharmony can't work together. You think she's not all that because both of you are bearing Disharmony Elements, but so far it sounds like everything's going great. How about you?"
Gilda shrugged. "I can't do much without interfering with the blue conehead, right now; Dash and all her friends are stuck in Ponyville. There really isn't a forcefield, you know; I checked. Is there supposed to be?"
"No, Trixie's main talent is for illusions." The word made me remember what I was trying to forget, and I shuddered. "Gah."
"Yeah, illusions are stupid," Gilda said, as if she was agreeing with some statement I'd made.
"Don't talk to me about illusions right now," I said. "I want to watch something. Do you want to watch something?"
"Watch something? Like what?"
And that was how I introduced Gilda to the pleasures of a movie marathon, as I set up a movie theater in the Grotto and pulled in three or four mindless B-movies for us to watch. I don't even remember what I picked, just that they were all terrible in hilarious ways. Gilda was annoyed at first, since she had for some reason been expecting quality flick picks out of me, but she soon got into the spirit of heckling the screen with me. We went through several buckets of popcorn and a bucket of fried chicken (it's like breaded, fried mushrooms, except it's chicken meat. You won't understand, it's an omnivore thing.)
I'm exhausted now but I don't want to go to sleep. I've been writing this for two days. Haven't slept since the illusion spell, and that was two days of writing, a movie marathon, and a wild orgy ago. Even with all that, i can't stop remembering the illusions. And I feel so humiliated, because I broke the first illusion by figuring out the inconsistencies; I should have guessed Sombra might dump me into a second one, or a third. I should have known. I should have tried dispelling them as illusions. But it wouldn't have worked; I only dispelled the first one because spending enough time in stone left me in a position to calm my mind, and then there was no more fear to feed the part of the spell that kept me paralyzed and unable to use my actual, real-world magic. The other two scenarios kept me at a high level of stress or terror or utter horrifying despair for the entire time.
But I still should have known.
And I'm not even sure now. If I try to sleep, will I wake up again to some new horror? Or will some implausible but awful fate befall me as soon as I let my guard down, like when I checked to make sure Anon was really dead and he killed me? Will it turn out I really have been in stone all this time and all of this has been just a series of dreams within dreams?
I can't go without sleep forever. Sooner or later I'll have to give in.
It's already night again. Gilda's turned in for the night; I won't be able to get her to watch more stupid movies with me.
I'm going to go sleep with her. (Not in the sexual sense; Gilda has very poor taste and is not into me. I mean, it doesn't help that she's a lesbian and I'm usually male, but I can take female form, and others have gotten past that anyway. The problem is that Gilda has a nice strong streak of xenophilia but she's specifically into ponies, as well as other griffins, and I'm not enough like either one for her taste. And right now, I wouldn't change myself for anyone.) I'm sure she'll squawk about it, but she's basically a cat, right? Ponies like to cuddle cats, cats like to be cuddled by ponies, I am too big for a normal-sized cuddly cat, but a griffin is just the right size. Maybe if I have a nice cuddly griffin to hold onto while I'm sleeping, I'll be able to remember that I'm not in any of those nightmares anymore.
Hey, but at least I got the thing, right? I've got the whole set now. Except for Selfishness. I keep forgetting about that one. Funny how it hasn't turned up yet, but then, it's not like I'm looking that hard.