The plunder vines were mostly cleaned up, the buildings in Ponyville had been repaired, and Twilight was looking forward to a nice, long, restful read. There was a new murder mystery out by the Aglish ewe who wrote the best mysteries Twilight had ever encountered, and a book had just come in about the principles of game theory and how they applied to friendship. Twilight hadn't even known there was such a thing as theories about games, and the sheer outlandishness of it made her curious.
At that point, a pigeon flew in her window.
"Gaah!" After her experience with the vines, sudden movements from dark objects in the air that she caught in the periphery of her vision were very startling to Twilight. She dropped the two books she'd been deciding between, and then realized that the thing that had startled her was a pigeon. "Oh. Sorry. Um, by any chance do you come from Fluttershy?"
The pigeon had a scroll held in its talon. Twilight took it and unwrapped it.
Twilight, Zecora says that Discord is with a construction crew at the Tree of Harmony. That doesn't make any sense to me, so I'm going over to ask him what's going on. I'm sure it's nothing, but Zecora insisted that I tell you, and that it might be a good idea if you investigate too.
It was, indeed, from Fluttershy. Who had to be very nervous if she was calling Twilight in on one of Discord's antics. Ever since they had nearly lost him to the machinations of his own, mysterious kind, Fluttershy's trust in the draconequus' possibly overstated good nature had been nearly absolute – to the point where she'd been the only one willing to consider the possibility that the vines that were blatantly, obviously, Discord's work might not be, just because he said so. Besides, Twilight couldn't think of a single good reason for a construction crew to be anywhere near the Tree of Harmony, and Discord being there as well was actively terrifying.
She dropped the scroll. "Spike, I'm going to check out the Tree of Harmony! Read the scroll Fluttershy sent, and if I'm not back in two hours, write Princess Celestia and ask for reinforcements!"
"Should I get the rest of the gang together and send them over?" Spike asked.
"Let me investigate the situation first." On the very, very slight chance that Discord wasn't doing something illegal, immoral, or generally awful, she didn't want to bring in the others. They tended to stampede to judgement, and the fact that all of them had been worried for Discord when the other Spirits had kidnapped him didn't change the fact that they all knew he was still bad news, and "reformed" only to the degree that he'd decided that unrestrained, wanton chaos wasn't as fun as having a friend was. He wasn't evil anymore, and he was even capable of being helpful – if he hadn't goaded her into returning to the forest to help her friends, who knows what might have happened? – but he definitely wasn't yet good.
"You, ride on my back," she said to the pigeon. "I'll take you back to Fluttershy. If we want to get the others involved, I'll have you fly back to Spike here, all right? Otherwise you go where Fluttershy says." While not all of Fluttershy's pets could understand pony speech fluently, the ones she used as messengers tended to be trained for that skill, so the pigeon understood Twilight as well as Owlowliscious would have. It nodded, and climbed onto Twilight's head, perching in her mane.
Twilight galloped out of the library. Taking to the air might be faster, but she wasn't going to be at her best if she crash-landed, and she needed to be at her best to deal with Discord, and the odds that she'd crash rather than landing smoothly were unfortunately pretty high. At full gallop, it wouldn't take her too long.
Once she got down into the cavern and saw the Tree, she stared.
Fluttershy was with Discord, talking to him, while he sat on a conveniently placed ornate dining room chair designed more for his anatomy than for a ponies, arms tightly folded and face scowling. Another draconequus was in the tree. A moment later, Twilight recognized him as Craft, Discord's "brother", who they'd all met during the time that Discord was on the starship full of humans. Physically, he was very similar to Discord, but lighter in color almost everywhere; where Discord's fur was brown, his was beige. Discord's mane was black, his was yellow. Discord's head and neck were gray, his were also gray, but a lighter shade. His wings weren't blue, they were red, and his tail wasn't red, it was pink. Also, where Discord's pupils were red and mismatched, Craft's pupils were catlike, and dark like a cat's or in fact nearly any creature that wasn't Discord's pupils were, and while they expanded and shrank like a cat's they were always the same size as each other.
He wasn't the only stranger there, though; in fact he was the only one that Twilight remotely recognized. There was a griffin, with spectacles on, standing in front of the Tree – which was open, the crystal that formed its "bark" pulled aside like a door and inside there was a shifting, swirling, multicolored aurora of magical energy. The griffin was poking at this aurora with something that looked a lot like a screwdriver. There was also an alicorn stallion the size of Princess Luna, but so aggressively ordinary-looking that the eye barely wanted to acknowledge his wings and size. He was light brown, his mane was dark brown, his eyes – now that Twilight had descended far enough to see them in the brilliant light thrown off by the Tree – were brown, and his cutie mark seemed to consist of tightly packed, incomprehensible words in an alphabet Twilight had never seen. Which was certainly unusual, for a cutie mark, but the lack of color contrast – the words were the same color as his mane, and packed tightly enough that from far away they'd seemed like an irregular blob – made it fail to stand out in any way.
There was another alicorn who drew much more attention. She looked like a crystal pony, except that while they created the impression of being crystalline, this one was both crystalline and sparkly. She almost hurt to look at. She was Twilight's size, but shaped like a small Celestia, like Cadance had been. From the size of her eyes and the gangliness of her limbs, she was obviously a filly, but her mane strongly resembled Luna's, being deep, dark purple with a clearly visible nebula within. She was prancing around, and as Twilight approached, she could hear the alicorn:
"...and so cute! They're so huggable, Discord, why didn't you tell me? And so shiny! Everything here is so shiny and sparkly and adorable! I could live here all aeon! Why didn't you tell me?"
"Because I thought you were mercifully over your glitter fixation?" Discord said sulkily.
"Oh, look! EEeeeeee! Another unicorn pegasus!"
"They're called alicorns. If you're going to wear the form of one, get the name right."
"She's so adorable!" The white, sparkling alicorn filly flew over to Twilight and, before Twilight could dodge or counter, had grabbed her, and was holding her in a not-quite-painful hug. "And she's so purple, and look, look at her cute little wings! And her cute little horn! EEeeee! And her cute little expression! Are you mad at me, little pony?" She was now holding Twilight in a telekinetic grip that Twilight couldn't break free of, and had her hooves on Twilight's face. "Don't be mad! Smile! You ponies are so cute when you smile! You're cute when you're mad too, but you're cuter when you smile!" Her hooves tried to push Twilight's expression of grim endurance into a smile, unsuccessfully.
The draconequus in the tree sighed. "Sparkle. Put Twilight Sparkle down. She's not a pet, she's a Lesser Power, and deserves a little more respect than you generally give to mortals."
"Her name is Twilight Sparkle? EEeeee! We have the same name! I'm Sparkle too! In your language, of course, which is to say, we're all named after mostly untranslatable concepts and on most planets we just all go by Questioner or something like it because mortals don't take us very seriously when we have names like Sparkle or Maker which are really translations you understand and you wouldn't be able to understand our real names if—"
"Sparkle, shut up," the other alicorn said harshly. "I thought you were here because you wanted to learn how to do modifications on expert systems."
"Yes, but the ponies are so cute!" She put Twilight down and flew over to Fluttershy, and grabbed her. "Look at this incredibly adorable pegasus! She has butterflies on her butt! Butterflies!"
Discord snapped his talon, and Fluttershy was suddenly held in his arms, not Sparkle's hooves. "My adorable pegasus," he growled. "Get your own. From a different planet, this one's mine."
"Don't encourage her," Craft said. "She will."
"I won't! The ones here are too cute! I'd never be able to make ponies so cute! Can't I have just one, Discord? Pretty please with novas on top?"
"Get over here and help me or go back to the Continuum," the other alicorn said.
"Spoilsport," Sparkle said, head lowered, as she scuffed her hooves the entire walk over to the Tree.
Twilight found her voice. "Discord. What is going on here?"
"Isn't it obvious? They're crippling me!" Discord put his lion paw to his forehead. "My own brothers and sisters, tying me down! Constraining me! I don't work well under these conditions! I'm a free spirit, I'll have you know!"
"You're free to leave anytime," Craft said.
"Yes, but I have friends here."
"Which would normally be against the rules, but we've all decided that your insufferable tail is very slightly less insufferable when you actually have friends, so since you have some for the first time in I don't remember how many eternities, we're making an exception. But we still need to protect the natives from you."
"I'm getting an output reading of mu hex paralodge sinusoid," the griffin said. "System, can you debug that?"
System was apparently the brown alicorn. "Get out of my way, that sounds odd enough that I need to take a look," System said.
"They're fixing the Tree, Twilight," Fluttershy said. "I think. None of them actually want to talk to me. Although Sparkle is... very friendly, at least."
"Sure. Friendly. That's... a description of it, I guess." Twilight marched up to the Tree – toward its side, avoiding the griffin, the two alicorns and the gaping hole in the Tree – and addressed the draconequus in the branches above. "You're Craft, right?"
"Um, yeah, I think that's what I said my name was when we met."
"You don't know your own name?" Twilight asked skeptically.
"Gimme a break, I'm trying to translate a concept that sums up the entirety of my being into a single word that makes sense in your language. Not my fault that butthead down there is a pretty simplistic concept."
"Hey!" Discord said, sounding offended.
"'I'm gonna stir up conflict with mortals to study them. I'm gonna stir up conflict with mortals to make them learn and evolve. I'm gonna stir up conflict with the Continuum to prevent stagnation. I'm gonna stir up conflict with anyone and everything for any reason whatsoever because I think it's fun.' That basically sums you up, have I missed anything?"
"My wit and imagination, but I can see why you'd miss things you've lost the ability to personally comprehend," Discord sniped.
If Twilight hadn't already known they were basically brothers, this exchange would have made it quite clear. "Craft, can you explain to me what is going on here? The Tree of Harmony is one of our most sacred and important resources, and unless you asked Princesses Celestia and Luna for permission to do... whatever you're doing, you really shouldn't be here."
"Oh, shit, that's right, we forgot to run this by the locals!" Craft said, slapping his forehead. "They're Lesser Powers, aren't they?"
"Yes, they are, so why don't you just bugger off to the Continuum and stop messing with the ponies' Tree," Discord said snidely.
"Sure, but then you'd have to come home tout suite. You can't be running around here messing with Lesser Powers without something to supervise you."
"I don't need a babysitter, Craft."
"I am pretty sure we all took a vote and decided you do."
The griffon looked up, a glare on his face. "Do you two mind? This is delicate work. I need to concentrate."
"I am so sorry for your sudden attack of mental inferiority," Discord said. "I would never have imagined a Q could be distracted by a bit of witty banter, but—"
"If any of it had been witty you might have had a point," the griffon said.
"Could somepony please explain to me what you are doing to our Tree? And if you need permission from Celestia and Luna, and you didn't get it, then shouldn't you stop?"
"Do we need to get permission?" Sparkle asked nervously. "I don't want to make the pony princesses mad! They might cry, and that would be awful!"
Discord started cracking up. "Oh, yes, by all means, you must get permission or Celestia will cry! I'm sure I hear her now, bawling her little heart out—"
"Wait a minute wait a minute. You have wings!" Craft said to Twilight over Discord's sob story. "You didn't have wings the last time I met you."
"Um, no, they're a new thing."
"Discord, one of the ones you were calling your friends ascended into a Lesser Power and you didn't tell me?"
"Somehow, ever since you snuck behind my back to arrange for my temporary expulsion from the Continuum, I haven't felt the need to overshare what I know with you," Discord said. "Fancy that."
"That's mean, Discord," Fluttershy said. "You know he did it to try to help you."
"With help like this, who needs enemies?"
"What is a Lesser Power and why do you keep calling the princesses that?" Twilight asked Craft, trying to ignore Discord. "Celestia and Luna control the sun and the moon; if they're a Lesser Power I don't think I want to meet a Higher Power."
"Too late!" Discord caroled.
"Lesser Power just means you still have bodies made of meat, and you'll probably die eventually if you don't fully transform into magic, but you're infused with so much magic you have the ability to transform yourself into it, you don't age, and you're really hard to kill," Craft said. "You're not up there with us, but you're beyond the mortals you live with."
Twilight blinked. "Wait. Wait a minute. Are you saying I'm immortal? Like Princesses Celestia and Luna?"
"Uh, yeah. You didn't know?"
Do not freak out in front of the strange Spirits. Do not freak out. Wait until you have a chance to talk to Princess Celestia, and then freak out. "Let's... not go into that right now. What are you doing to the Tree?"
"Yeah, so, these wings you have. Does that mean you're one of the rulers of this planet now, or what?"
Twilight winced. "I'm a Princess, but we haven't really established what, if anything, I'm supposed to be in charge of..."
"But you're also the Element of Connectivity."
"They call it the Element of Magic," Discord said in a sarcastic drone.
"Details. Point is, as the Element of Magic, with you being an alicorn, that means you are in charge of this Tree, so I can get your permission and then we don't have a paperwork issue anymore!" He rubbed his paws together gleefully.
"I don't have authority to give you permission to mess with the Tree!"
"Yes, you do. The Tree gave it to you when it gave you that thing." He pointed at the Element of Magic, set into the tree's trunk. "If I remember correctly, Celestia and Luna built the Tree and Celestia was Connectivity, I mean Magic – what kind of name is that? Seriously? You called it the Element of Magic? It's all magic."
"Calling it the Element of Friendship was considered and rejected on the grounds of how unbelievably stupid that sounds," Discord said.
Twilight shook her head. "But that's not right. They didn't build the Tree; I saw them find it, in the forest, during Discord's rule."
"You saw it?" Craft said skeptically. "You weren't alive then."
"It was a potion that let me see the past."
Discord started whistling. Craft looked at him with a glare. "You just have to complicate things, don't you?"
"It's one of my many charms," Discord said.
"Anyhow. My point is, Celestia used to be in charge of it but she's not anymore; it identified you as the new liaison to the external network. So if I explain what's going on to you, then we can get your permission and the Continuum will have no reason to complain."
"I'm not promising you permission," Twilight said, "but I am really eager to hear what it is you're doing here. So please, go ahead."
"Somewhere else," System said. "Maker and I are trying to concentrate here."
"And me!" Sparkle said.
"You are a walking distraction," System complained, "and I have no idea why we brought you along on this."
"Because you couldn't resist the giant puppydog eyes?" Discord said. "That's usually the reason why anyone lets Sparkle do anything."
"Let's let them get some work done and go chat privately, shall we?" Craft said, and before Twilight could say anything, she found herself in a library, seated by a fireplace, with a cup of tea and a plate of scones in front of her. "Hyacinth scone?"
Twilight made a face. "Hyacinths are poisonous to ponies."
"Ahh, you're missing out." Craft stuffed one in his mouth. With his mouth full, he said, "Here, this one is chocolate chip."
Warily Twilight took the scone. "So. What are you doing to our Tree?"
"Well, it's like this," Craft said, finishing his scone. "You may have noticed that Discord is a jerk. Correct?"
"I... wouldn't necessarily use such strong language—"
"Oh, you totally would. Come on, you can admit it. I grew up with the tailhole, I've got no illusions."
"All right, he can be... really inconsiderate at times." Twilight didn't know why she felt the need to defend Discord, but the fact that it was his own brother insulting him offended her. Brothers were supposed to protect their siblings, to honor them, to care for them. Craft had arranged for Discord to be stripped of his powers, which had resulted in Discord being sent somewhere else in the galaxy and ending up in the form of a human, on a starship. At the time Twilight hadn't been to the portal world, and being on the portal world had overwhelmed her to the point where she hadn't initially noticed the similarities between the humans there and the humans Discord had ended up with, but now she knew exactly how disconcerting it was to be a human. Probably less so for Discord, who was already used to being bipedal and using hands, but still.
"Right, glad we're clear on that. Well. Ordinarily we don't let Spirits live among mortals as if they were mortals, but freely using their powers. It leads to... well, frankly, it leads to what you went through a few years ago when he broke loose, and other things. Temper tantrums, ponies being sent to the cornfield for not playing games when the Spirit wants to..."
"I'm guessing 'sent to the cornfield' doesn't mean what it sounds like."
"If what it sounds like is frolicking through fields of growing corn, then you're right, it doesn't mean what it sounds like. Point is. Discord is a special case, because... well, we very nearly lost him."
"You mean you very nearly let him die," Twilight snapped. "You let him try to kill himself before you stepped in to help him!"
"That's what we did to save him. The nearly losing him part came before that. You know how your Princess Luna went crazy and tried to kill her sister?"
"Nightmare Moon. Yes, I'm kind of familiar with that," Twilight said dryly. "My friends and I were the ones who defeated Nightmare Moon and freed Luna of her corruption, you know."
"That's a thing that happens with Lesser Powers sometimes," Craft said. "They go crazy. Sometimes they go crazy right after their ascent, when they have all these powers and they're so much stronger than everypony around them, and it goes to their head. Sometimes it happens later. And sometimes... sometimes it happens to Greater Powers, as well." He sighed. "So you probably couldn't tell to look at him, but the Continuum runs on harmony."
"Really." That was exactly what she thought of when she saw siblings sniping at each other. Right. Harmony.
"Yeah, knew you couldn't see it. But it's true. We argue with each other a lot, but when push comes to shove, we have to work together the way you and your friends work together when you channel your Elements. Like you're almost one mind in six bodies, six souls with one heart? You know how that feels, right?"
Twilight had never talked to anypony about how using the Elements felt, the sense of her friends all around her like they were inside her and she was inside them, the feeling that their hearts were synchronized and purely matched with one another and that all together there was nothing they couldn't do... "How do you know about that?"
"A lot of reasons, but one of them is, that's what it's like in the Continuum, when we come together. We might fight with each other a lot more than you and your friends do, but deep down inside we have this connection. We're all part of the whole. That's why it's called the Continuum, actually."
"It seems a little weird to imagine Discord being part of something like that."
"That's because he almost stopped." Craft leaned forward, a serious, intent expression on his face. "He nearly became a discontinuity. He rejected us. He didn't want anything to do with us. He was always supposed to bring a little disharmony to stir the pot, because we want to be individuals, not a hive mind, so we gotta have some among us who have the ability to say 'hey, wait, do we really want to do this?' when the rest of us think there's something we ought to do. That's important. That's checks and balances; the really bad ideas don't get through because there's just enough disharmony to disagree with them. But he started taking it too far. He didn't want to spend any time at all with us, he didn't agree with anything, he... well. He made some enemies, and alienated his friends."
"He said he never had any friends before Fluttershy."
"Yeah, funny about that. When you're in a really dark place where you think that everypony you've ever called your friend was just using you or pretending because you can't even remember what it felt like to be harmonized with them anymore, it's easy to believe you never really did have friends. Those humans he's studying, the ones he spent his time out of the Continuum with – they started opening him up, letting him see that not every mortal life form is a sack of dog doo, that there are actually beings in this universe who have ideals and can stick to them. But he took it too far with them, too – he hurt them, badly, trying to show them a possible danger in their future, and he did it for the wrong reasons. He did it because they hurt his feelings, and that's exactly why we don't normally let the Spirits of the Continuum make friends with mortals and still use their powers."
"He hurt them?" Twilight had the feeling, from the emphasis in the spirit's words, that something worse than cotton candy clouds had occurred.
"Yeah. So we told him he wasn't allowed to bug them anymore either, and he ended up back here."
"Wait, how does that work?" Twilight furrowed her brow. "He was in stone for a thousand years, then he broke out for a day, then he was in stone for about a year and a half, then Fluttershy reformed him... when did all this happen?"
"You've gotta not sweat the timeline. We work in mysterious ways. Also, we time travel a lot. Trust me, it all fits." He leaned back and chugged the tea straight out of the teapot, pouring it into his mouth. "Wow, food tastes weird. But I guess you're used to it, you've been eating your entire life."
The thought that this creature didn't actually eat was fascinating, especially since Discord did eat, a lot. But Twilight didn't want to get sidetracked. "So normally you don't let your kind make friends with mortals, but...?"
"Right. So, Fluttershy. Amazing little critter, that one. I don't know how she did it, but she made him actually care. And admit that he cares. Not just to himself, not just to you, but to us. So when he petitioned us for permission to stay here, we—"
"Wait, you weren't going to let him stay here?"
Craft rolled his eyes. "His assignment's been over for a long, long time. There's no good reason he has to be here except that he likes it. That's not usually a good enough reason. But in this case... he's suffered a lot of damage in his existence. A lot of bad things have happened to him to damage his trust in, well, everything. Fluttershy is actually doing for him what no one else in the universe has been able to do, and he's healing. We don't want to jeopardize that. So yeah, we granted permission for him to stay. But there's a protocol to follow, for any Spirit who wants to do this kind of thing, and absolutely especially him because we know he abuses it. Once he's emotionally involved, he's full in, no detachment anymore."
"You said normally they're not allowed to use their powers, but Discord still has his powers, doesn't he?"
"Most of 'em. Yeah, your world has Lesser Powers in it, and your Fluttershy made friends with him with tea and cookies knowing he was the closest thing to a god your planet has. So it's doable, but he's still too powerful for you – especially since your active role as the Tree's agent has been shut down in order to get it back to full power."
"You mean that we gave up the Elements of Harmony."
"Exactamundo. So you wanna know what we're doing to your Tree? We're rigging it so that as long as Discord remains on this planet, his powers are greatly reduced. You won't see the difference, but he will."
"I know how his powers work. I've seen how he's pulling energy from nowhere I can see. Is that coming from your Continuum?"
Craft looked surprised. "Very nice. He said you were a smart one, but I had no idea you'd figured that out. Yeah, his draconequus body was built to hold boatloads of natural mana from this planet's ambient thaumosphere, but all he actually does with that is open a channel to the Continuum. Well, we're rationing his supply. From your perspective you probably won't see any difference, but he literally will not be able to rain chaos all over the planet anymore. One or two places at a time, sure, and we can't cut him down to a level below your top Princesses, or even equal to them – it'd be too dangerous."
"Why would making him less powerful than the Princesses be dangerous?"
"Aside from all the other reasons I don't have time to go into... bad for his mental health. He's agreed to accept restrictions so he can spend time with his friend here. If he started feeling like he wasn't the most powerful thing on the planet, he'd get all anxious and insecure and his survival instincts would start urging him to break the restrictions or leave the planet... but we want him here because that pegasus is the only creature that has done him any good in centuries. So yeah, he can still give your Princesses a run for their money, or will be able to when the work is done. But add you in with your shiny new wings and all, and the three of you could probably restrain him if he got out of line. He could leave the planet, but then he's left the planet. Thing is, we can't just restrict him from our end, then it would apply everywhere and that would cripple him for his job."
"Discord has a job?"
"Never mind that. He's on sabbatical right now. Medical leave. Point is, we need to have something on the planet generating the restriction and tying it into the planetary thaumosphere. And you've already got a very powerful Continuum expert system that's bonded with you natives and has demonstrated the ability to restrain him at full power, so, we're just taking advantage of that and modifying the Tree to do the job. Once we're done with the work, Discord will be reduced in power enough that we can safely leave him here more or less unsupervised, he can hang out with his friend, you don't have to worry about him taking over the world because he's annoyed... everyone wins."
"What is an expert system?"
Craft facepawed. "Planet saturated with mana, generates Lesser Powers like it was no thing, and they don't have information technology yet. Give me strength."
Twilight glared at him. "Look, I know you're more technologically and magically advanced than we are, I get it. But you're not getting my permission to do what you're doing if you can't explain it to me, and if you can't explain it to me I'm going to recommend to Princesses Celestia and Luna that they don't grant you permission either."
"You know what a golem is, right?"
Twilight searched her memory. "It's, um... an artificial life form created to serve a purpose. Usually a magical guardian. Created by magic, typically not with standard unicorn magic but with, um, rituals and runes, that sort of magic."
"Right. Golems are generally pretty stupid. An expert system is designed to help intelligent beings come to the right conclusion, or to analyze data and make decisions for them, so it's smarter. Some magic users on your world have been able to create familiars – not an actual animal, but something in the shape of an animal, or else a magical object like a mirror or a crystal – that are essentially expert systems they use as assistants. Creators of such artifacts usually imbue them with some degree of sapience by endowing them with a tiny portion of their own soul. Got me so far?"
"Okay, I think so."
"A really long time ago, for various reasons that I'm not gonna get into because if Celestia hasn't told you I'm betting she has her reasons and it's not my place... Discord took a, I don't know how you'd say it, a kit for building an expert system, from the Continuum. Basically, a supply of mana from the Continuum – which, being a higher plane than this one, has much more powerful and concentrated mana than your world does, and your world has some of the most powerful mana in your universe – plus the instructions for shaping it into an expert system. He gave it to Celestia and Luna, and they worked together with a bunch of other ponies to build that system... which is what the Tree of Harmony is. They needed the Elements of Harmony as weapons against, uh, again not my place to go into the details but let's just say you ponies were being oppressed by some seriously powerful enemies. The Elements are designed to cleanse or quarantine threats to the harmony of your world. They first try undoing magical corruption, including the self-induced variety where a Power goes insane, and if that doesn't work or it doesn't solve the problem, they imprison Powers in stone, or in Tartarus, or on the moon, or wherever. I think they stuck something down in the core of the planet, one time. But the Tree of Harmony is a lot more powerful than that. It doesn't just have the ability to grant ponies authority and power to act on its behalf; it can analyze information coming in from all over the world and identify threats, it can read pony DNA and, um, don't know how to put this... the shape of their mind? It can't read your thoughts but it can see your, um, soul. Spirit. Essence. Whatever. The thing that is behind your cutie marks, among other things."
"I thought that was destiny."
"Yeah, lots of ponies think that. Put it this way, let's think about Fluttershy. Now, there's a pony who's kind, who's shy, a crap flyer, and a magical talent for communicating with animals, plus the compassion to make a talent like that work. Why does she have butterflies on her butt?"
"They're on our flanks, not our rumps," Twilight said indignantly. "Which are not synonymous, even though many ponies use 'flank' as a euphemism for rump."
"Yeah yeah. Why butterflies?"
"Because when she fell from Cloudsdale she was buoyed up by a cloud of butterflies."
"You mean 'when she fell from Cloudsdale her pegasus magic kicked in and in desperation to save her treated a swarm of butterflies as if it were a cloud because Fluttershy's pegasus magic and animal-wrangling magic are tied into each other and inseparable,' but we'll let that go. What if she'd actually fallen on a cloud? What if she'd managed to flap her wings hard enough to save herself? What if she'd fallen in a lake?"
"Well, those things didn't happen."
"But they could have. She wasn't destined to get butterflies on her flank, fine. She was destined, if you can call it that, to get a cutie mark that symbolizes, to her, her connection to animals, her identity, and probably her gentle nature. So butterflies worked really well because they flutter, but there are birds that would have worked as well. Or she could have gotten a tree. Her destiny isn't some sort of force that affects what happens in life, like a guiding fate; you've all got free will, you do what you want. Her destiny is based on who she is. She's a certain pony when she's born, based on her DNA. Then her life experiences shape her. Once she's more or less solidified into the pony she's going to be, then she discovers her cutie mark. It's not a representation of her destiny, it's a representation of her identity. Who she is as a pony. But of course, that governs her destiny, because you ponies have decided that doing what you want in life, based on your cutie mark, is more important than doing what your parents want you to do or society wants you to do, and that's great. I mean, that's a profound step in the right direction. But all that means is that your identity shapes your fate in life, which, well duh."
"I think I understand." Twilight nodded. "So the Tree of Harmony can tell what our cutie marks are going to be before we get them?"
"Not exactly. It can tell who you are, and who you are affects your cutie mark, but your cutie mark often looks like something that affected your recognition of who you are and what you want to do. Like I said, butterflies doesn't mean 'good with animals'. It could mean lepidopterist. It could mean gardener, because butterflies are found in gardens. It could mean a really social pony who flits from friend to friend; ever hear the expression 'social butterfly'?"
"I guess so... but if that was the case... I cast a spell that wasn't finished, which swapped my friends' cutie marks around, and it also swapped their memories and what they thought their identities were. Fluttershy thought she was supposed to throw parties because she had Pinkie's cutie mark. If the cutie mark doesn't truly represent the talent, and is just a representation of what you were doing when you discovered your talent, then how did it do that?"
"Now that's the interesting thing, and worth some looking into. You got those wings for fixing the spell, right?"
"Uh... yes. Yes, I did."
"Well, then I know what you did. And when you know what you did, you're gonna be dangerous. So let's let that be for you to figure out on your own. Anyhow. The Tree was built from materials and blueprints my kind provided, although the actual magecraft to build it was done by Celestia and Luna and their pals."
"And that's another thing. When I saw the past, Princess Celestia said she and Luna had just discovered the Tree of Harmony. If they built it, then why would they have discovered it? Wouldn't they know where it was?"
"Well, if you don't count the fact that Discord hid it, sure. And I'm betting you don't know this, but your little flashbacks there were guided."
"I assumed they were guided; Zecora's magic—"
"—wouldn't have had the power to specifically show you the scenes you needed to see to understand what was going on. Also, you got the Reader's Digest version."
Suddenly Twilight realized something. The second time she'd seen the scene of Discord's defeat, with the seeds, it had been Discord showing it to her... but how could he have shown her the exact scene she'd already seen, from the same angle, if he hadn't seen the scenes she'd already seen? "Was he reading my mind?"
"Naah. I'll betcha bits to buns that he was projecting. There's no such thing as a potion that lets you see a past you didn't experience unless you're on the exact spot where it happened... which you weren't, any of those times. You'd have to be reading someone else's memories, or else it opened up your mind so someone could project to you. Maybe you wanna talk to Discord or Zecora about that."
"They were working together?"
"Magic 8-Ball says probably not. Probably Discord knew what Zecora was planning and piggybacked off of it. But honestly I don't really know because I don't care enough and he's been locking up his memories with a privacy shield so we can't get to them. Obnoxious, but that goes without saying when you're dealing with Discord, right?"
She needed to talk to Princess Celestia. Or Princess Luna. A lot of what she'd thought she knew about the past was... coming into question. She wasn't sure she trusted Craft, but she knew for a fact she didn't entirely trust Discord. "This is a lot to consider."
"Well, you can consider it as long as you like; me, I just need permission. Discord can't stay on this planet if we don't do these modifications, and if we don't let him stay on this planet he's liable to go kind of crazy again, and there is absolutely no one else in the universe who can get through to him like Fluttershy can. So, you know, if you don't care that your supposed new friend is gonna go crazy and probably blow up some other planet someplace one of these days, I guess you could say no."
Twilight sighed. "Don't try emotional blackmail, Craft. What's the effect to the Tree if you do this?"
"Probably nothing; it's more than powerful enough to do the job of restraining Discord, or any of us for that matter, if we come here. If it does do anything, it's likely to try to build a secondary nexus somewhere to bolster its reach. The need to generate a broadcast to limit Discord planet-wide might tax it enough that it's gonna have to have a secondary tower. It might be able to use the Crystal Empire as a resonator now that you've recovered it. It might also need to take a more active role in maintaining harmony, probably working through you guys somehow, to make sure it's got enough energy to do what it does. Just like Discord can feed off chaos and disharmony on your world, it can feed off harmony and friendship, which will strengthen it."
"Are there potential negative side effects?" This particular list of side effects was sounding to Twilight like the equivalent of a pony, asked during a job interview "what are your greatest weaknesses", answering with "I work too hard and I'm too much of a perfectionist." Admittedly, those actually were her greatest weaknesses, which was why her mother had advised her that if she ever needed to get a job, she should come up with something else, because those totally sounded like an excuse to make a request for the negative an advertisement for the positive.
"More work for you and your pals somewhere down the line, maybe."
"Anything else? Spreading friendship and harmony isn't exactly a negative."
"Uh. It'll weaken Discord – not exactly a side effect, since that's the whole point, but he might end up being physically vulnerable to things he wouldn't normally be vulnerable to, which might lead him to whine. A lot. You have no idea – actually, no, you were watching him on that starship, so you do know how he can whine. If he does leave the planet, the thing might end up being overpowered and you'll have to ride herd on it, rather than letting it suggest things to you, because too much harmony is a bad thing."
"Hive mind. Lack of individuality. Marchers in perfect synchronicity destroying the bridge they're trying to cross. Everyone deciding to come into work at the same time produces rush hour traffic."
"But rush hour traffic is chaotic, not harmonious."
"But it's caused by trying to achieve a harmonious goal. Or an ordered goal, if you listen to Discord go on about it. If everypony comes into work at a different time, they don't interfere with each other, so there's no chaos – except in the fact that managers have to deal with ponies having so many incompatible schedules. Trust me, there are problems with harmony. You ponies are pretty well suited to deal with them – Celestia and Luna know all about the dangers of too much order. Ask them sometime."
"I will." She rubbed her forehead, under her horn, where she was getting a tension headache. "That particular negative side effect happens if Discord leaves?"
"Yeah, the Tree is calibrated to be pushing against him, or another of the Spirits of the Continuum. Or it will be, once we're done. Remove the pressure it's pushing against and it's overpowered. You wouldn't notice the effects for decades, most likely, so you'd have time to get some experience. Plus, I don't see Discord staying away long enough to trigger the problem as long as Fluttershy's alive, and if she dies, the whole thing shifts because it'll have to connect to new Bearers."
After having just been told that she herself might be immortal, Twilight didn't want to think about the fact that her friends weren't. She pushed that particular scenario out of her head. "All right. It sounds like mostly a good thing. The Tree protecting us against beings like you and your kind – no offense, but I can't count on all of you being as law-abiding as you are or as, uh, reformable as Discord. So that would definitely be a good thing. Needing us to strengthen it by spreading friendship and harmony – that's not a bad thing either. Discord... maybe needs to learn to take a little more responsibility, so being more vulnerable might not even be bad for him. And I'm not worried about the Tree going overboard, not if it wouldn't happen for decades anyway. So... all right. You have my permission, but I'm still going to consult Princess Celestia and make sure it's ok."
"Can we still work on it while you're doing that? It's in a delicate state right now. If we stop work... well, we don't want there to be a mess."
Twilight didn't want there to be a "mess" either; in fact she didn't want to imagine what a "mess" involving the Tree of Harmony might look like. "Okay. Take me back to the Tree; I'll need Fluttershy's pigeon to send a message to Spike to send a message to Princess Celestia."
"Or I could just bring you Spike."
Before she could say yay or neigh to that, she found herself back in the cavern. A blinking Spike was there as well with a half-eaten apple in his paw. "Twilight? What's going on? Why am I here?"
"Spike, I need you to take a letter to Princess—"
But he was ignoring her. "Wow! Another draconequus? And... wait a minute, two alicorns? Twilight, what's going on here? What are they doing to the Tree of Harmony – that is the Tree of Harmony, right? It looks just like you described it..."
"Yes, that's the Tree of Harmony, and some of Discord's kind have come here to modify the Tree to reduce his powers so they can allow him to stay on our world, and that's what I need to write to Princess Celestia about."
"A baby dragon!" Sparkle squealed. "Maker, can I go pet him? Can I can I can I?"
Twilight surrounded Spike with a small force field. "Let's do this quick. That particular alicorn is... very huggy."
"Maybe after he's done taking a letter," Craft said. "We need to get permission for the modifications, first. Princess Twilight here's willing to give us the permission but she has to check with her higher-ups."
Sparkle's eyes went even wider. "She's a princess? EEeeeee!"
Quickly Twilight outlined the situation in her letter. Spike fired it off, and Twilight turned to Craft. "Craft, could you possibly send Spike back home? I know Sparkle thinks he's adorable, but..."
"Hey, if an alicorn filly wants to hug me, that is not a problem from my perspective," Spike said.
"Trust me, it actually is if you like breathing."
"Say no more," Craft said, and snapped his talon, the same way Discord generally did. Spike disappeared. Discord pouted.
"You could have asked me," he said petulantly.
"You'd have taken the opportunity to play a prank on Spike, admit it," Twilight said.
"Since these are your, uh, family, why don't you introduce us?"
"Oh, that sounds like a wonderful idea," Fluttershy said. "We know Craft, of course, but could you introduce us to the others?"
"Oh, sure. Over there is Craft's nerdy boyfriend, System. Maker is one of the Continuum's biggest shut-ins, and Sparkle's job is to annoy the rest of us so badly we remember why it is we all agreed there should be no new Spirits created for the next billion years or so."
"I resent that," the griffin said. "I am not even close to the Continuum's biggest shut-in."
"Yeah, actually I probably get out less often," System admitted.
"I'm thinking about changing the name I use with the mortals to Nebula! Because nebulas—"
"Are sparkly, yes, we know," Discord and Craft said at the same time.
Twilight did not facehoof, as badly as she wanted to. "That's... not a really nice way to introduce your family."
"They're not a very nice family."
"Admit it, if you had a brother like you, you'd want to dropkick him into the nearest black hole too," Craft said.
"Huh," System said. "You see what I see here?"
"Yes." Maker – the griffin – lifted his head. "There's been post-implementation changes made here."
"Changes like what?" Discord asked.
"We can't tell. Someone forgot to file the blueprints with the Continuum when they had observed that the locals finished the implementation." Discord grinned cheekily at that. Maker continued. "There are some artifacts where the temporal signature has been erased, but since the temporal signature is intact on most of the files and they all date to implementation... someone made changes and then erased their tracks, and the only evidence they left behind was that their erasure was too thorough."
"Is this going to be a problem?" Twilight asked nervously.
"I don't think so," System said. "I've just now finished parallel simulation processing and I haven't seen any negative outcomes or points of failure. I'm just wondering what a Q was doing tampering with the thing. It can't be that guy, he's hopeless with technology."
"Am not," Discord said. "I just prefer the personal touch."
"You have neither the patience nor the aptitude. Chaos doesn't lend itself to programming at all."
"I bet I could if I wanted to."
System sighed in exasperation. "Love, you think you could convince him to stop pretending he knows everything?"
"I'll get right on that," Craft said. "Should only take another, oh, six billion years or so."
"Wasn't Passion on this world?" Maker said. Twilight saw Discord go rigid.
"If these were her mods that could be a problem, considering what a nutjob she turned out to be," System said.
"Um," Fluttershy said. "Maybe if you could just not—"
"Guys. The first rule of Q Club is, we don't talk about the ones who got kicked out of Q Club," Craft said. "Ixnay on the chitchat, all right? If you can figure out who did it, great, but let's not randomly speculate."
"I'll run a few more tests," Maker said. "We're just about done here, assuming I don't find any showstoppers. Do we have permission to go live with the changes?"
"I don't know when I'm going to get a reply from Princess Celestia," Twilight said.
"Wouldn't it have helped to keep your dragon pal around for that?" Craft asked.
"Uh... Yes?" Twilight grinned sheepishly. "But I was trying to keep Sparkle from, uh, getting overly friendly."
"I've definitely decided to be Nebula," Sparkle said. "Or... maybe Galaxy?"
"Eh, it's all right, she's answered," Craft said, snapping his talon again. Spike appeared, holding a scroll in his paw as if he was just about to set it down on a desk.
"Oh, come on!" Spike said, scowling.
"It's all right, Spike," Twilight said.
"No, it's not! I left my hayburger on the counter!"
"Just give me the message from the Princess and I'll have Craft send you home."
"I'm not a taxi," Craft said.
"Ooh, ooh, pick me!" Discord said.
"I'll walk," said Spike.
"Let me just read over the letter first," Twilight said, levitating it to herself, "and then you can go. 'Dear Twilight, Discord had made me aware that something like this might happen, though I hadn't known it would involve the Tree of Harmony. The Spirits have my permission to complete their modifications, though they are correct in that you are actually the authority over the Tree, now. When the work is done and they have left, please come to Canterlot. There is information I should share with you.'" Okay. I guess that means you guys can go ahead."
"Throwing the switch," Maker said.
Abruptly Sparkle put her hooves to her head. "Owww! Is this pain? I think this is pain! Are the rest of you feeling pain? Because I think I am!"
"I think you're a pain," Discord said, but he was wincing.
"Yes," Maker said, seemingly unaffected. "There is pain. It'll pass as we adjust." He removed his glasses with a talon and rubbed the spot right above his beak, between his eyes. So he was affected after all. "A few minutes at most."
"But it hurts! Owww!" Sparkle sat on the ground, holding her head. "Can't we make it go away faster?"
"You could go back to the Continuum," Discord snapped. "It won't affect you there, and then you won't be hurting the rest of us with your whining."
"Quit being a shit, Discord," Craft said.
"Well, clearly it's working," System said. "I don't see any reason why the rest of us need to stick around here."
"I'd rather confirm that everything is still working as expected," Maker said.
"You do that. I'm going home. Craft, you coming, or are you still babysitting him?"
"It's a dirty job, but someone's gotta do it," Craft said. "You and Sparkle head on home—"
"But I wanted to see more ponies! There are princess ponies here! I wanted to see the pretty princess alicorns! This one is adorable but I want to see more of them!"
"Fine," System said. "Come back to the Continuum when you feel like it." He vanished.
"Uh, maybe that's not the best idea," Twilight said.
"Nonsense," Discord said. "Go to the Crystal Empire. There's a lovely pink alicorn princess there, and her handsome husband, and a shiny Crystal Heart. And all the ponies look crystalline like you do. In fact I'm fairly sure that's where you got it from."
"A pink princess? And ponies made of crystal? EEeeee!" Sparkle clapped her hooves together, lit her horn, and vanished.
"Discord... why did you just inflict your annoying little sister on my brother and Cadance?" Twilight asked through gritted teeth.
"Well, they're newlyweds, aren't they? Stands to reason they're considering starting a family. I thought a cautionary warning was advisable."
"Spike, can you send a message to Princess Celestia telling her to warn Princess Cadance?"
"Uh, Twilight, if she can teleport like Discord can teleport, then it's too late, isn't it? Probably she's at the Crystal Empire already. Besides, how bad can she be?"
"She wasn't that bad," Fluttershy said. "She just... needs a little more firmness from her older siblings."
Discord rolled his eyes. "She's not gonna get it. After a billion years, you kind of lose interest in trying to teach them to behave themselves."
"As if you ever did that," Craft said. "Last I saw you were trying to persuade her to misbehave with you."
Discord shrugged. "She likes playing with mortals. I like playing with mortals. What's wrong with a little older brother – little sister bonding over shared interests? Besides, I seem to recall that a certain Spirit I know used to consider such activities plenty of fun himself before he decided to put on his boring pants."
"So sorry I grew up and you didn't, but it's gonna happen to you eventually too. Mark my words."
"Never," Discord said. "Your definition of 'grown up' is my definition of 'terminally dull'."
Maker closed the Tree. It now looked exactly as it had before, perhaps even slightly brighter. "All right, proper operation is confirmed. Craft, we can go now."
"Wait! Don't you think you should take Sparkle out of the Crystal Empire and bring her with you first?" Twilight asked desperately.
Craft put his paw to his own beardless chin. "Hmm. Naah. Cadance and Shining Armor can handle her."
"No they can't! She's a Spirit, like Discord and you! You said it would take more than one alicorn to defeat Discord, so..."
"What's she the Spirit of, anyway?" Spike asked.
"Light," Craft said. "Or shining, bedazzling, glittering, take your pick. It's kinda hard to translate into just one word."
"The Spirit of girly children's cartoons," Discord said. "I'm sorry, did I just say that?"
"Cadance handled you just fine, and from what I've seen you were even more annoying than Sparkle," Craft said, "so I'm not worried."
"Hey! I was not nearly as annoying!"
"I've heard the stories from your parents," Spike said. "You kinda were."
"And I missed this?" Discord said. He was suddenly on his belly in front of Spike, looking up at the small dragon. "Spike, you must tell me these stories! I beg of you! My very existence will end if I don't get to hear about how annoying Twilight was as a filly!"
"I don't know," Spike said.
"Don't you dare."
"Every issue of Power Ponies, including the collectible limited editions, plus a bowl of sapphires drizzled in chocolate sauce and hot chili pepper," Discord said.
"Make it ghost peppers, two bowls, and add ice cream on top and a first edition copy of Mare of Iron and you're on."
"Is that how little it takes to get you to sell me out?" Twilight said. "Traitor."
"Hey, you don't pay me enough to get my own first edition copies of anything," Spike said.
"Now, Spike, if those stories are embarrassing to Twilight, you should think twice about telling them to anypony," Fluttershy admonished. "And Discord, it's mean to ask somepony to tell embarrassing stories about their friend."
"Yeah, but he can see the past, so he probably knows it all anyway," Spike said. "If he's gonna give me sapphires and comic books to get information he can already get for himself..."
"As hilarious as the sight of Discord ineptly trying to turn a dragon against his hatching-mother with comic books is, I think I gotta be going," Craft said.
"Hey! I most certainly am not trying to turn Spike against Twilight. I am absolutely sincere in that I just want to hear the embarrassing stories," Discord said. "I'm not allowed to spread chaos anymore, you just cut me down to half power and I still have that headache that you said would go away. I have to entertain myself somehow."
Twilight rolled her eyes. She knew perfectly well Discord could get the information any time he wanted to, and it would be honestly less embarrassing if he heard stories from Spike than if he went spelunking for information on his own; her parents wouldn't have told Spike the really bad stories, just the ones that were embarrassing but funny. "Get him to add in pulling his little sister out of the Crystal Empire and sending her home, and I give you permission to tell him whatever he wants," Twilight said.
Discord waved his paws. "Oh no. I don't babysit."
Craft laughed. "You do now. She's on your planet, big boy. Go show her what a grown-up you are. Or, throw a tantrum that makes hers look mature by comparison, that'd be funny too."
"I hate you," Discord said.
"You shouldn't say things like that to your family," Fluttershy said.
"What if they're true?"
"Then you especially shouldn't say them."
"It's all right, Fluttershy," Craft said. "We don't exactly have family relationships the way ponies do. He can say whatever he wants; it won't hurt my feelings." He manufactured a hat, and tipped it. "Well, ladies, drakes, and little bros, I'm off. Thank you for granting your permission, Twilight, and thank Celestia for me. I'm out." He vanished.
"Discord, take Spike back to the library, please? And if you play a prank on him he probably won't be nearly as willing to tell you embarrassing stories he's heard about me. Spike, once you get back to the library, tell Princess Celestia I'm on my way. Also, Discord, please get Sparkle off our planet."
"You just said get her out of the Crystal Empire. I can't vouch for getting her off the planet. She may have taken a smaller, younger-looking form, but all of us are actually equal in power."
"Now you tell me." She sighed.
"Discord, why don't you take me with you to the Crystal Empire, and we'll both talk Sparkle into coming back to the library with us? That way she won't bother Princess Cadance and Prince Shining Armor, and she can listen to Spike telling stories. I'm sure she would like that," Fluttershy said.
Discord grinned. "And I'm sure she'd love it if I shared a few embarrassing stories about her with you and Spike?"
"Oh, that would be terribly mean," Fluttershy said. "You should only do that if she does embarrassing things here on Equestria. Like grabbing ponies or dragons and squeezing them too hard, or squealing at everypony and treating us like toys."
"You are so very devious for such a sweet little pegasus," Discord said. "I suppose that's why I like you so much. Off to the Crystal Empire, then!" All three of them vanished. Twilight wondered if Discord was bringing Spike to the Crystal Empire, too. That wouldn't be bad; they held him in great honor, there. Spike would enjoy that.
Laboriously she flapped her wings, and rose. She needed the practice, and it was definitely faster to get to Canterlot on the wing than by train.
System is technically the only OC in this story (or the only one that's mine, anyway.) For all of you who have read my other Q fics: Craft (who has also, and will also, appear in King Who Would Be Man) is Q2 from the episode Deja Q; Maker, in an alternate universe, would have been Trelane's father, in the now-AU pro novel "Q Squared" by Peter David, and is "the inventor" in Judgement Day: The Partisan and The Descent of the War Goddess; Sparkle grows up to become q in Heather Jarman's "String Theory 3: Evolution", and appears in my own stuff (in her more adult, college-aged form) in West: Your Possible Pasts. For a description of Sparkle in both her childish avatar and her more adult form, by Q, there's "Every family meal is memorable chez Q!" at my Q livejournal.
Note that this is taking place, in the Star Trek timeline, before "Q-pid", so Q Jr has not been born yet and won't be for a while, and Amanda Rogers hasn't joined the Continuum yet.
Twilight, your cutie marks are totally on your rumps. All of the creative mismanagement of language you upper middle class unicorns have been taught to do cannot change this fact. But nice try.
For updates and notes about my work, visit my Livejournal at alara-r dot livejournal dot com, or my Tumblr at alarajrogers dot tumblr dot com. (Fanfiction dot net strips links, so I have to write it out like that.)
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